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Classics Review: The Republic by Plato

As I gather my philosophy notes, I am re-publishing this review, written in August of 2104. The Republic is the granddaddy of the political philosophy tradition.

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republic platoBefore I get into the details of The Republic by Plato I need to stop and marvel at a couple of things. First, it is stunning to think that this work has been kicking around in the minds of the humans for thousands of years. Plato wrote it around 380 BC so it would have been classic literature for Paul of Tarsus. I am pretty sure I detected foreshadowings of the words Paul wrote in his New Testament letters. Perhaps someone has done a comparative analysis between Plato and Paul.

I am also amazed that it has taken me until middle age to finally get around to reading it. As I was finishing up the book, I saw my 18-year-old son in the kitchen and urged him to read the book as soon as possible. I’m sure that between his organic food activism and rock group photography he can fit in a little Plato. As with many classics, this is better read when one is young. Still, as with all classics, better late than never.

The translation I read was by Benjamin Jowett and published by Coyote Canyon Press. I would love to read it in the original Greek but unfortunately my ancient Greek studies are in the rudimentary stage – one more reason I really need to have an eternal life. But I found the translation to be clear, cogent, and pleasant to read. C.S. Lewis says, “The simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism.” (From his essay “On the Reading of Old Books”.) How true. I am the simplest of students and I found this dialogue to be perfectly comprehensible.

In this dialogue Plato, in the persona of the philosopher Socrates, conducts an inquiry into the nature of justice, asking questions about whether justice or injustice makes a person happier and why, and the nature and development of the ideal state, defined as the kind of state that would facilitate the happiness of the greatest number of its citizens.This is some high-quality reasoning with step-by-step arguments that are easy to follow. However, I do not like some of Plato’s conclusions – for example the idea that children should be raised and educated by the state rather than by their individual parents. Although I am not Plato’s equal in intelligence, I do have the advantage of looking back on 2394 more years of civilization, religious and political upheavals, and social experimentation than Plato had the opportunity to observe.*

The things that man was able to work out with only the power of his highly educated power of reason are astounding! You can easily recognize the foundations of various schools of thinking and theory throughout the ages. I will summarize just a few of the compelling ideas discussed in The Republic:

– The soul is an entity separate from the body. As disease is to the body, evil is to the soul. However, while disease eventually kills the body, evil, while it affects the character of the soul, does not kill it. This is because the soul is eternal. You can chop up the body but the soul will not be affected in the least because the soul is a different thing.

– Not all minds/souls are equal. A few are capable of apprehending pure truth while most are only capable of attaining the middle or grey level – the level at which all variations, derivative expressions of the ideal truth exist. Plato calls those persons bestowed with the character and mind to know pure truth philosophers.

– There are different levels of relationship a human mind might have to the truth. there is practical knowledge (it is true because it works), there is understanding (the ability to reason enough to see why an idea might be true), and then there is pure knowledge (the ability to encounter truth directly). This could be the basis of our ideas about occupational training vs. classical education, although our modern universities currently mix these concepts to the point of absurdity.

– Although Plato refers to the “gods” he reasons that there must be a God behind the gods, an origin of all things including the diverse nature gods. He also reasons that the Homeric stories of the gods scheming, forming factions, and warring with each other are mythological because a real God must be both unchangeable and good. Monotheism was already long-established among the Hebrews (Exodus is thought to have been written in the 6th century BC) but Plato reached this conclusion by reasoning while the Hebrews reached it by revelation.

– The arts including theater, painting, and especially poetry, are corrosive to young minds and do not contribute to the wellbeing of the State. The reason is that not only is art not truth, it is a copy of a copy. The things it portrays, whether beds or bodies, are only copies of their ideal form which exists in heaven or perhaps in the mind of God. And if that isn’t bad enough, the arts tend to cater to the changing sensual tastes of the masses and not to reason. This is one of Plato’s conclusions that doesn’t sit well with me. Toward the end of the dialogue, however, he partially relents and allows poetry back into the State, but with conditions. She must present a poem defending her value.

– Plato describes the good and bad characteristics of five types of states: aristocracy, timocracy (only property owners can participate in government), oligarchy, democracy, and tyranny. He does not include socialism in his types but interestingly, his conception of democracy seems very like our modern concept of socialism – equality for all – and his democracy leads to tyranny very like Friedrich Hayek (The Road to Serfdom) says our socialism leads to totalitarianism. I think Plato’s analysis of the types of government is quite brilliant. Since all of these forms carry within themselves the seeds of their own destruction, Plato’s ideal state would emphasize the need to identify and raise pure and wise leaders from early childhood and instill safeguard to ensure that its leaders come only from this class.

– The ideal leader is pure in character and has that rare ability to see pure truth. He is a true philosopher and not one of those false imitative pretending Sophists. Nor is he the popular wise guru whose wisdom consists in his observations in what works – what actions or methods are most likely to result in wealth and happiness for his particular class. This type may know what works but he neither knows nor cares why it works. He has observed the variables but has not seen the truth behind the variables, and is therefore subject to the winds of change and not worthy to lead the ideal Republic.

I found that the dialogue style presentation of this material made these and all the other ideas enjoyable to read and absorb. The tone is one of pleasant, friendly conversation with the implied freedom to agree or disagree, a tone that in our current politically hyper-charged climate of colliding ideologies I found to be delightfully refreshing. If you, like me, are an “idea” person you will find the The Republic to be a mental feast. And the best thing is, there are plenty of other dialogues by Plato that I can now look forward to feasting on.

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*I have recently read an article somewhere suggesting that perhaps Plato’s Socrates is simply being facetious: He is not prescribing a way to achieve a perfect city, but suggesting that if you are so foolish as to think you can create a perfect human society, here is how you need to go about it. I will look for that article so I can properly cite it.
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