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The Republic is an influential dialogue by Plato, written in the first half of the 4th century BC. This Socratic dialogue mainly is about political philosophy and ethics. The political ideas are clarified by picturing a utopia. The Republic also contains the famous allegory of the cave, with which Plato clarifies his theory of (ideal) forms.
"The Republic", which is the usual English translation of the title of this dialogue is, however, a misfit in modern political views: the utopian community pictured in The Republic is in no way what today would be described as a "republic"; on the contrary, it's a quite authoritarian oligarchy. Nonetheless, all modern thinking about forms of government and state organisation is somehow indebted to this philosophical work treating, as one of the first, these topics with some level of abstraction. The original title of the work is derived from the Greek word politeia.
Setting and dramatis personae
The Republic is one of Plato's longest dialogues, subdivided in 10 books afterwards.
The characters appearing in The Republic are:
- Minor roles for Cephalus , Polemarchus , Thrasymachus and his friend Cleitophon
- Silent roles for Lysias and Euthydemus (both sons of Cephalus), the brothers of Polemarchus and Charmantides.
Bertrand Russell sees three parts in Plato's Republic :
- Book I-V: the Utopia part, portraying the ideal community, starting from an attempt to define justice;
- Book VI-VII: since philosophers are seen as the ideal rulers of such community, this part of the text concentrates on defining what a philosopher is;
- Book VIII-X: discusses several practical forms of government, their pro's and con's.
The core of the second part is discussed in Plato's Allegory of the Cave, and articles related to Plato's theory of (ideal) forms. The third part, that also concentrates on aspects like education, is in that sense very related to Plato's dialogue The Laws, see Laws (Plato)
Definition of justice
The question with which The Republic sets out is to define justice. Given the difficulty of this task, Socrates and his interlocutors are led into a discussion of justice in the state, which they see as the same as justice in the person, but on a grander (and therefore easier to discuss) scale. Because of this, some critics (such as Julia Annas ) interpret Plato's ideal of a just state as an allegory for the ideal of the just person.
Justice is defined as a state where everyone is to do their own work while not interfering with the work of others. This conception of justice, striking to the modern reader, is closely linked to the Greek conception of fate or necessity, such as that embodied later in Aristotle's final cause. This definition of justice leads to a social structure radically different from most previous and subsequent states.
The ideal form of government
First, the flaws of a democratic form of government are criticised, amongst others the susceptibility of a democratic state to demagogues, it being ruled by unfit "barbarians", etc. Then, the ideal city is depicted as being governed by philosopher-kings; disinterested persons who are to rule not for their personal enjoyment but for the good of the City-State. Socrates/Plato points out the human tendency to corruption by power and thus tyranny: therefore ruling should be left to a certain class of people whose only purpose is to govern in what is deemed a just manner, and who are somehow immune to corruption.
The ideal society of The Republic is hierarchical, where the social classes are largely static with only a marginal permeability. In addition to the ruling class of philosopher-kings, there is also to be a military class, and a lower class of the common people. A number of provisions aim at avoiding to make the people weak: among those, censorship of certain kinds of music, poetry and theatre, a rigid education system, and the abolishment of riches. These apply to all three classes, and the restrictions placed on the philosopher-kings and the warriors are much more severe than those placed on the common workers, because the rulers must be kept away from any source of corruption.
Being as well an educator, a parent and a worker is seen as incompatible with the definition of justice. This leads to the abandonment of the typical family, and as such no child may know his or her parents and the parents may not know their own children. The rulers assemble couples for reproduction, based on breeding criteria. Education is thereafter relegated to specialized caregivers. Thus, stable population is achieved through eugenism and social cohesion is projected to be high because familiar links are extended towards everyone in the City.
Theory of universals
The idea of writing treatises on systems of government was followed some decades later by Plato's most prominent pupil Aristotle. He wrote a treatise for which he used the same Greek word "politeia" in the title as Plato had done for his dialogue on the ideal (city-)state. The title of Aristotle's work is however conventionally translated to "politics": see Politics (Aristotle).
Aristotle's treatise was not written in dialogue format: it systematises many of the concepts brought forward by Plato in his Republic, in some cases leading the author to a different conclusion as to what options are the most preferable.
The English translation of the title of Plato's dialogue is derived from Cicero's De re publica, a dialogue written some three centuries later. Cicero's dialogue imitates the style of the Platonic dialogues, and treats many of the topics touched upon in Plato's Republic. Scipio Africanus, the main character of Cicero's dialogue expresses his esteem for Plato and Socrates when they are talking about the "Res publica". "Res publica" is however not an exact translation of the Greek word "politeia" that Plato used in the title of his dialogue: "politeia" is a general term indicating the various forms of government that could be used and were used in a Polis or city-state.
While in Plato's Republic the character Socrates and his friends discuss the nature of an ideal city and are not so much engaged in analysing the state they are living in (which was Athenian democracy - Plato's Laws is more concrete on that point), in Cicero's De re publica all comments, directly or indirectly, are about (the improvement of) the organisation of the state the participants live in, which was the Roman Republic in its final stages.
In Antiquity Plato's works were largely acclaimed, still, some commentators had another view. Tacitus, not mentioning Plato or The Republic nominally in this passage (so his critique extends, to a certain degree, to Cicero's Republic and Aristotle's Politeia as well, to name only a few), noted the following (Ann. IV, 33):
|Nam cunctas nationes et urbes populus aut primores aut singuli regunt: delecta ex iis (his) et consociata (constituta) rei publicae forma laudari facilius quam evenire, vel si evenit, haud diuturna esse potest.||Indeed, a nation or city is ruled by the people, or by an upper class, or by a monarch. A government system that is invented from a choice of these same components is sooner idealised than realised; and even if realised, there'll be no future for it.|
The point Tacitus develops in the paragraphs immediately preceding and following that quote is that the minute analysis and description of how a real state was goverened, like he does in his Annals, however boring the related facts might be (...if, for example, the regnants refuse to declench a spectacular war,...), has more practical lessons about good vs. bad governance, than philosophical treatises on the ideal form of government have.(2)
In the pivotal era of Rome's move from its ancient polytheist religion to christianity, Augustine wrote his magnum opus The City of God: again, the references to Plato, Aristotle and Cicero and their visions of the ideal state were legio: Augustinus equally described a model of the "ideal city", in his case the eternal Jerusalem, using a visionary language not unlike that of the preceding philosophers.
Thomas More, when writing his Utopia, used the same technique of using the portrayal of an "utopia" as the carrier of his thoughts about the ideal society - many more writers in this vein would follow.
Most 20th century commentators of Plato's Republic advise against reading it as a (would-be) manual for good governance: most forms of government discussed in The Republic bear little resemblance to more recent state organisations like (modern) republics, constitutional monarchies, etc. The concepts of democracy and of Utopia as depicted in The Republic are tied to the city-states of ancient Greece and their relevance to modern states is questionable.
Apart from this common ground the analyses heavily fork...
The city portrayed in The Republic struck many critics as unduly harsh, rigid, and unfree; indeed, as a kind of precursor to modern totalitarianism. Karl Popper gave a voice, founded on scholar analysis, to that view in his 1945 The Open Society and its Enemies. Not so surprising that the Orwellian dystopia depicted in the novel 1984 (appearing a few years later) had many characteristics in common with Plato's "ideal" state.
Not all opinions see Plato and his Republic in that same light, for example Hans-Georg Gadamer in his 1934 classic, Plato und die Dichter (and several other works), where the utopic city of the The Republic is seen as a heuristic utopia that should not be pursued or even be used as an orientation-point for political development. Rather, its purpose is said to be to show how things would have to be connected, and how one thing would lead to another — often with highly problematic results — if one would opt for certain principles and carry them through rigorously. This interpretation argues that large passages in Plato's writing are ironic (which, of course, an unusually high level of proficiency in ancient Greek is required to detect). In this interpretation Plato's entire oeuvre would be much less totalitarian: it however also modifies the interpretation of the imagined city of Plato's Republic from an exclusive optimist Utopia, to an (at least) partial Dystopia.
One of the most convincing arguments against this interpretation is that Plato's academy has produced a number of tyrants, despite being well-versed in Greek and having direct contact with Plato himself. Among his direct students were Klearchos , tyrant of Heraklia , Chairon , tyrant of Pellene , Eurostatos and Choriskos , tyrants of Skepsis , Hermias , tyrant of Atarneos and Assos , and Kallipos , tyrant of Syracuse. Against this, however, it can be argued, first, that the question is whether these men became "tyrants" through studying in the Academy (but rather that it was an elite student body, part of which would wind up in the seats of power, that was sent to study there), and, second, that it is by no means obvious that they were tyrants in the modern, or any totalitarian, sense.
Both views have something in common regarding their conclusion: whether it be by the near-to-impossibility to grasp the often inverted meanings of the ancient Greek for modern readers, or just plainly because Plato tries to steer towards a no-good system of government, the practical value of The Republic seems quasi nihil as guidelines for real-life good governance – unless as a set of examples of what should be avoided. Plato scholars, on the other hand, see it as their task to provide the background knowledge that is needed to enable a fair understanding of what was meant by the author of The Republic. Then the uniqueness of The Republic shows up in the way it clarifies genuine connections of political causes and effects in real life, precisely by providing them within a heuristically utopian context.
Nonetheless Bertrand Russell argues that at least in intent, and all in all not so far from what was possible in ancient Greek city-states, the form of government portrayed in The Republic was meant as a practical one by Plato.(3)
By the end of the 20th century, some authors started again to exploit Utopia/Dystopia ambiguities in their descriptions of imaginary societies, as Plato apparently had done in his Republic. A book in this vein is Nobel Prize winner JosÚ Saramago's Ensaio sobre a Lucidez ("Treatise on Lucidity", 2004): an election count turns out 83% blank votes in one city of the country, without discernable reason. Is this democracy at its best or just a nightmare? Although the book is clearly meant as a political statement, it's left to the reader's "lucidity" to decide on the interpretation.
NotesHistory of Western Philosophy , begin of Book I, part 2, ch. 14.
Note (2): This text by Tacitus also mirrors the first paragraphs of Polybius' Histories: Tacitus clearly sides with Polybius who also touts the importance of studying real history for improving knowledge on good governance - However Polybius can boast in these same opening paragraphs his story is about glorious facts and warfare; Tacitus argues the fact remains true, even if the story is less glorious. For this reason Tacitus' critique is only partially directed at Cicero, who learnt not less from Polybius and war heroes like Scipio, as from the more philosophical/utopian Greek writers.
Note (3): History of Western Philosophy , end of Book I, part 2, ch. 14.
- Text of The Republic:
- On The Republic:
- Text of The Republic:
- Ongoing discussion of Plato's text (and Popper's analysis):
- David Stansfield 's (Neo-Platonist?) Serving Council of Philosopher Kings
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