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Plato's Republic

Republic Book I

            It is possible that Book I was originally a dialogue standing by itself.  S goes down to the port near Athens to see the festival, and is pressed to stay by friends.  The early conversation raises the question about what justice is, and the answer of the gentle and unphilosophic patriarch, Cephalus, is easily refuted.  We often think we know something about a key concept, but when we try to spell it out, we find that objections can arise.  Cephalus’ universal definition of justice includes the stipulation that you should give back what you owe.  Socrates then raises a counterexample to point out that in some cases it is not wise and right (just) to give back what belongs to someone). 

Then Polemarchus takes up the discussion, and his proposal uses the conventional ancient Greek maxim about helping friends and harming enemies.  Socrates points out that the just person, as such, has no techne (skill, art, craft—know how) that is required in any practical situation. 

            These criticisms provoke Thrasymachus to launch an abusive attack on Socrates himself.  Thrasymachus is a cynical sophist who claims all the virtues for the unjust person, saying that the unjust person is happier, because to be just and fair puts one at a disadvantage.  We observe that people in power in fact arrange matters for their own interest.  It is only smart to do likewise if one can.

            Thrasymachus defines justice as “the interest of the stronger.”  Socrates shows the ambiguity of the definition, which could mean (1) whatever the person(s) in power want (are interested in) or call for (by making laws and issuing decrees) or (2) whatever is truly in the interest of that person.  The point is that it takes knowledge (to pursue which requires philosophic dedication and humility)—which Thrasymachus resists.            

To govern (rule) involves the exercise of a techne, and Socrates’ next line of argument presents an analogy between governing and other technai whose practice involves primary care for the other, not for the self.  The good shepherd, for example, cares for the sheep (the weaker), not for himself.

Plato, Republic V 474c - VII.  The portrait of the philosopher

            In the structure of the typical Platonic dialogue, there is a middle section that offers more profound teaching, more directly representing Plato’s own thoughts, than in the other portions of the dialogue, where Socrates (or the philosophic protagonist) speaks with more irony so as to engage the level of thinking of the interlocutors (conversation partners).  Here is a summary of the central portion of the Republic.

For the state to flourish in justice, those in power must be philosophers [and queens] (474c).

But who are the philosophers (474b)? 

·       Love the whole of wisdom (474c - 475c)

·       Love all learning (475c)

·       Can distinguish beauty (the beautiful itself) from things that have beauty (partake of beauty, participate in beauty) (475e – 476d)

·       Pursue the knowledge of what truly is, rather than opinion, which is the maximum cognitive achievement regarding that which partly is and partly is not (476d – 480a)

·       Have a pattern in their soul as a basis for legislation regarding the beautiful, just, and good which they draw like an artist imitating a model (484c-d)

·       Strive for truth in everything and remain loyal to truth their whole lives (485b-d)

·       Strive for what is whole and complete, both human and divine (486a)

·       Possess the virtues that flow from regarding bodily pleasures as of little import compared with the higher pleasures of the soul (485d – 487a)

·       Have a good memory (486c)

Those who criticize philosophy for cultivating uselessness (487b-e) are like a mob of sailors, ignorant of navigation, who want to take control of the ship (487e – 489d).

In a city where philosophy is not prized, those with the rare gifts for philosophy will be corrupted by the mass culture (489d – 496a).

There is a slight chance for men and women gifted with philosophic potentials to receive a proper education to develop those potentials and then gaining the power to order and administer the government (496a – 504a).

The most difficult knowledge to gain is knowledge of goodness (the idea of the good, the form of the good, the good itself, the good).  Glaucon and Adamantus are not prepared for this level of education, so Socrates will give some analogies instead (504a – 507a).

1.  The good is like the sun which illumines the eye, enabling it to see what is visible.  (The good illumines the mind, enabling it to grasp the knowledge of true forms.) (507a – 509b)

2.  Our mind has four gears for grasping the four levels of what is more or less real—which may be represented in terms of a divided line: opinion grasps perceivable images and things; knowledge grasps mathematical and other forms.  Mathematical thinking relies on images and makes assumptions about first principles.  Philosophic thinking does not rely on images or examples but only on forms, and it ascends to grasp true beginnings that depend on no assumptions. (509d – 511e)

3.  The process of education is like being dragged painfully out of a cave into the light, where we gradually learn to see what can be seen there, and ultimately to behold the source, the sun.  Philosophic education aims at the conversion of the soul, from being caught up in the things of the senses to being oriented to what is eternal, unchanging, and perfect. (514a – 519d)

            Here's a diagram of the analogy between the good and the sun.


The Sun: an offspring of the good

The Good

Cause of sight

Cause of knowing

Dispenses a flood of power

“Illumines” the soul (psyche); gives the knower the power to know; gives truth to the things known (hence the “cause” of understanding)

Whatever is fully illumined is clearly seen

All that is fully “illumined” is clearly known; when darkness is mixed with light, we have only opinions, which may happen to be right, like a blind man walking down a road that happens to be the right one 

Sight is most sunlike

Knowing and truth are like the good

The sun is beyond the visible things it illumines

Beyond being; provides the being and essence of what is known; more beautiful than knowledge or truth

Promotes the generation, growth, and nurture of visible things

Promotes the acquisition of knowledge


The importance of growing to participate increasingly in goodness.  A hostage held for six years in a Lebanese basement distinguished three groups of terrorists: thugs, fanatics, and people with, in part, some legitimate grievances.  When these three tendencies unite in the same individuals, it is easy to dismiss the third dimension.  Many Muslims are critical of American society, e.g., for its low moral standards and I’m-going-to-do-what-I-damn-well-please attitude.  Plato makes a similar criticism of a certain type of society.  Additional assigned reading: Rouse pp. 214-15; 353-60 (to be discussed Wednesday, week 6 if not before).

1.  More on the first analogy—the good and the sun

This text may be interpreted as reflecting a spiritual discovery of Socrates and Plato (cf. the common distinction between spirituality and religion)

P: People in positions of responsibility in the political community should truly be well qualified . . . and this includes knowing goodness

P: Philosophic work is the best preparation to take you to the penultimate stage from which this realization of the good may dawn.


2.  The divided line

Epistemologically, there are levels of the human mind in correlation with metaphysical levels of reality.

Plato’s goal in education is to promote a “conversion”—a turning of the soul from being engaged mainly in pursuing the pleasures of the senses and other goods such as money, honor, reputation, appearance, power, victory.  The soul rather thrives by identifying itself with things of enduring reality and value.

Think how we would make these points today.  Think of the media images of bodily things: so glamorous, or shocking, or emotionally gripping in some commercially useful way.  Think of the scientific understanding of these things, grasping the broad, underlying features of things (we have a much more complex idea today of the objects of knowledge that Plato called “forms”).  Remember the limited state of ancient Greek mathematics (except geometry), that limited Plato’s ability to develop his project of mathematical physics (without the zero from India arithmetic was greatly hampered, and without algebra from the Arabs analytic geometry, invented by Descartes, was not available).  Mathematics as a mental discipline preparing the mind for dialectic.  Think of the central reasoning in the Crito as an example of moving downward from first principles (until Crito fails to follow Socrates’ indication of the next step, and Socrates shifts gears into a discourse using images, the image of the laws catching Socrates and engaging him in critical conversation).

3.  The cave: The long and difficult path . . . into the light

            philosophic work, dealing with intellectual challenges

            decades of devoted living

the labor of concept formation--presupposed by reasoning which begins with statements (of propositions) that use terms that symbolize concepts.  If the concepts are shallow, the reasoning loses its interest.


An exercise on the middle section of Plato’s Republic

             The point of this exercise is to get you active, to express in writing what you have gleaned from your reading.  Write two paragraphs for each question.

Beware.  If you are reading Rouse’s translation, beware of his error at 505a (p. 303 in Rouse) when he writes “the perfect model of the good”; he even has a footnote explaining that literally the text says “the idea of the good.”  “Idea” here is an approximate synonym for eidos, form.  Rouse also mistranslates “idea” by “ideal,” though it may be argued that the forms do in fact function as ideals.  Nor does the word for “perfect” appear in the Greek.  See the web document on Plato’s teaching on the forms.


1.  What does “the idea of the good” do for the knower and realities known by the intellect (nous, reason) analogous to what the sun does for the eye and the things that are visible? (Rouse pp. 306-09, 507b-509b)


2.  What is the message of the allegory of the cave?  (Rouse 312-17, 514a – 519c)



Arguments about censorship and ideals

Please study the following two arguments and their summary analysis in order to grasp something about the critique of certain kinds of poetry in the Republic and in order to grasp something about the critique of a certain kind of ideal.

Argument #1, a simplified reconstruction of Plato’s argument in the Republic in favor of censorship of the arts.

Premise 1.  The state should prohibit the publication of any poetry that grossly violates the truth of divinity or tends to weaken human character.

Premise 2.  Poetry that portrays divinities as committing murder, adultery, or other morally repulsive acts, or portrays heroes as flooded by cowardly emotion, is poetry that grossly violates the truth of divinity or tends to weaken human character.

Conclusion.  Therefore, the state should prohibit the publication of any poetry that portrays divinities as committing murder, adultery, or other morally repulsive acts, or portrays heroes as flooded by cowardly emotion.

Summary analysis of argument #1.  Although, according to the standards of logic, the conclusion does follow from the premises, premise 1 is false, a fatal flaw in the argument.



Argument #2, a simplified reconstruction of an argument against proposing divine standards of truth, beauty, and goodness.

Premise 1.  Plato held that there are eternal standards of excellence and that poetry should be in harmony with those standards.

Premise 2.  Plato advocated censorship of the arts, a totalitarian betrayal of human liberty.

Conclusion: Therefore, claims to eternal standards of excellence are to be suspected of being totalitarian.

Summary analysis of argument #2.  Both premises are correct, but the conclusion does not follow.  Therefore, the argument is invalid.  (Note: in logic, validity and invalidity are properties of arguments, not of individual propositions, which may be true or false.)