A pig in a cage on antibiotics.
Plato’s Republic could be called the foundation of Western political thought, or it could be called totalitarian garbage. This is a bold statement, but I will show over the next few posts why The Republic is one of the most morally repugnant (strong much?), perhaps evil works of Western thought.
First, a note on translation. I am using the Penguin Classics text, translated by Sir Desmond Lee. The copyrights are 1955, 1974, 1987. The translator’s introduction, (which I highly recommend you read), appears to be dated 1974. You may find this translation here: For the Same Edition; as well as an updated version with a new introduction: Introduction by Melissa Lane. It can also be found for free at Project Gutenberg, here: Translation by Jowett, 19th C.
In my edition, The Republic is broadly divided into eleven parts, each further divided into sections. The first two parts broadly introduce the topics which Plato seeks to cover. Parts 3, 8, 10 and 11 cover education, while Parts 4 through 6 explain the divisions of his utopian society. Finally, Part 9 covers what Plato calls “Imperfect Societies”. It is the first two parts which I will discuss today, while next week I will compare and contrast Plato’s recommendations with his imperfect societies. The final post will be the longest, detailing Plato’s plans for educating his Guardians and how our own time has taken Plato’s ideal to heart.
For those unfamiliar with Platonic dialogue, the format of The Republic will seem unfamiliar. Since this was my first time examining the book, I was surprised to find that Plato’s formation of a perfect society did not flow from: “let’s create a utopia” to “here’s how we do it”. Instead, Plato (or Socrates, rather; as Plato uses Socrates as a mouthpiece throughout the work), begins with an examination of the nature of Justice. Before this, however, some amazing words of wisdom are spoken by the aged Cephalus, who when asked about common concerns (aging, sex, money) replies:
Of age: “For if men are sensible and good-tempered, old age is easy enough to bear: if not, youth as well as age is a burden”
On sex (and declining function): “…when your desires lose their intensity and relax, you get what Sophocles was talking about, a release from a lot of mad masters.”
On money: “A good man may not find old age easy to bear if he’s poor, but a bad man won’t be at peace with himself even if he is rich.”
After Cephalus has delivered his words of wisdom and takes his leave of absence, the dialogue continues with the argument developed out of Cephalus’s common sense analysis that the good is “giving each man his due”. With this, a back and forth dialogue develops on the nature of Justice, with Socrates calling Justice, “human excellence”, while Thrasymachus argues that “justice is the interest of the stronger party”. Secondly, while Thrasymachus points out that Justice on the broad scope is the rule of the strong over the weak (an argument found as well in Thucydides), in everyday life, injustice and crass self-interest tend to pay better. This argument is further fleshed out by Glaucon and Adeimantus, with the point made that a man doing injustice will seek to appear just, in order to reap the benefits of being perceived so.
This is where the dialogue takes a turn for the worse, (but finds its true purpose). Socrates proposes that just as larger letters are easier to read than smaller ones, so to the study of justice ought to look first to larger things. Therefore, Socrates seeks to examine how a community may find justice and then work backwards from there. And here is where my first major criticism of The Republic begins: Plato presupposes that human agency can be subsumed into the state, that is to say, that people matter less than social organization. Plato believes that if only a more perfect society can be arranged, then people will become better. From this, Socrates slowly builds up a society, first consisting of a few men, each with a unique talent (this is key), until a full-on civilized society is developed, with farmers, craftsmen, soldiers, and governors.
Socrates states: “Quantity and quality are therefore more easily produced when a man specializes appropriately on a single job for which he is naturally fitted, and neglects all others.”
Later, as his state expands to come into conflict with neighboring states, Socrates realizes that soldiers will need to be produced as well. When asked if “citizens can fight for themselves”, Socrates responds that soldiering is like other professions, and therefore, must be specialized; free from other affairs with a correspondingly high skill. It is the selection and development of these Guardians, with which The Republic is concerned.
In the next part: Plato’s Ruling Class and the Structure of Society.
In part three: The Education of the Rulers and Noble Lies.