January Philosophy Book: Plato’s The Republic

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It’s time now to report my thoughts on January’s philosophy book, Plato’s The Republic! As I’ve mentioned before, it’s a book well worth reading, particularly in today’s turbulent political times.

The Republic is a Socratic dialogue written around 380 BCE by the Ancient Greek philosopher Plato. It begins with Socrates and his friend Glaucon, an older brother of Plato’s, bumping into Polemarchus as they are leaving the festival of Bendis, who is the Thracian equivalent of the goddess Artemis. Polemarchus invites them to a celebration at his house and they accept. At Polemarchus’s house, Socrates is drawn into a discussion of truth and justice with Cephalus, Polemarchus’s father. Cephalus eventually leaves to attend the sacrifice, but others gather round Socrates and continue the debate on justice. As the discussion widens and deepens in complexity, they move on from the definition of a just individual (and whether a just man is happier than an unjust one or vice versa) to the example of justice in a community.

From here, Socrates describe his idea of the perfect society, from the education and care of the children to the roles each individual would play within such a state and the ideal rulers (namely, philosopher-kings whose one goal is to strive for the utter truth). During this discussion, Socrates lays out his famous Allegory of the Cave and the correct education for a would-be philosopher-king. He finally concludes by returning to the subject that began it all, the just individual, and offers up his argument for the immortality of the soul.

As with my science reads of 2016, I began reading The Republic with a little apprehension, fearing that I might find it difficult to follow certain lines of discussion. However, I had nothing to worry about as Desmond Lee has provided a very clear translation of Plato’s dialogue. This translation came with plenty of additional notes providing necessary context to the dialogue and Socrates’s reasoning, explanations of certain definitions of translated words and terms from Ancient Greek, and yet more footnotes, mainly for cultural references.

The notes providing context, in particular, were probably the most illuminating, explaining, for example, the rivalry between philosophers like Socrates and Plato and the Sophists, a group of philosophers who make a living teaching rhetoric (that is, teaching young men how to debate and win arguments, regardless of whether their points are are based on sound reasoning), or how Socrates’s admiration of the Spartans heavily influenced the basis of his perfect society, whose rules might seem quite harsh to today’s readers – for example, Socrates advocated the Spartans’ austere, militaristic way of life and also promotes the infanticide of defective children – again, similar to the Spartans’ habit of leaving sickly children out in the wild to die.

Plato/Socrates – I wonder how much of Socrates’s teachings and beliefs influenced The Republic and how much of this was Plato putting his own words into Socrates’s mouth, so to speak – was clearly an advocate of socialism/communism. It’s a little unsettling to read of Socrates advocating a utopian state where artists and poets will play no role except as composers of propaganda for the ‘Guardians’ of the state, or to suggest that these same Guardians must be shielded from certain unsavoury truths and vices, the same way Buddha was initially shielded from the evils of the world. It may all sound lovely in the garden on paper to Socrates and his friends, but as history can tell us now, when put into practice with real people with all their idiosyncrasies and self-interests, communism simply doesn’t work. (In fact, even Socrates himself – or rather, Plato – admits in the book that his utopia could not work in real life.) Just like democracy, which Plato had a growing disillusion with, particularly after the execution of Socrates, and just like most other forms of government, communism in practice can easily lend itself to corruption and tyranny – as history would tell us, more so than other forms of government. In fact, I often wondered, while reading The Republic, what Plato and Socrates would have made of their ideal city-state if they had had a chance to observe, say, the history of Communist Russia or China.

To be fair, anyone reading The Republic today should remember that this book shouldn’t be taken as  a literal step-by-step fount of wisdom to be followed blindly. This was, after all, written centuries ago, and as mentioned earlier, needs to be read with an understanding of Ancient Greece and the sociopolitical background against which Plato lived and composed his dialogues. And, as any critic can tell you, there are plenty of imperfections in Plato’s reasoning here – for example, Socrates spends too much time arguing semantics rather than laying out sound argumentation ( I really feel he never satisfactorily explained why a just man was happier than an unjust man – I was hoping for a really good argument on this and came away a little disappointed). Also, there were plenty of strawman arguments in which the others, with the exception of the Sophist, Thrasymachus (who I felt was painted a little unfairly in the book), were too quick to agree with much of Socrates’s reasoning and in the end dissolved into nothing more than a Greek chorus. The work then is left to the reader to pick apart these arguments – and it’s ideal, really, that we should find ourselves questioning and critiquing Socrates’s assertions for that was after all what the philosopher was forever encouraging his followers to do – to constantly question and debate everything and anything under the sun.

Plato was ahead of his time when it came to feminism, advocating the role of women as Guardians too and also supporting equal education alongside the men (and also allowing the women to practice athletics naked alongside the men too – now that would be interesting!). Of course, he later goes on to comment on the weakness of the feminine sex and to imply that women are inherently better than men at certain tasks such as weaving (God help us). He also contradicts himself by stating that men are superior to women anyway, and while I wish I could say such thinking was a product of his time, sadly it seems this is a sub context of culture that continues even until today.

Plato’s discussion of philosopher-kings and their single-minded search for truth is another section I found intriguing and in some ways admirable, though one can imagine that in real life, a leader who speaks nothing but the truth could more or less also be committing political suicide at the same time. Once again, it’s another nice ideal that probably won’t work in reality and, if anything, might serve only to enhance the modern view of philosophers in ivory towers – truth, after all, is well and good, but it’s not necessarily going to create jobs or settle emotionally heated disputes. I’m also not quite sure how a truth-seeking philosopher could ascertain the true nature of something as subjective as beauty, unless one were to go about it by mathematically determining beauty according to the ratio of symmetrical features or some such. And, again, as we all know, that still doesn’t prevent us from judging appearances on a more subjective level.

I also liked Plato’s musings in conclusion on the immortal soul and the idea that we are all responsible for determining what our next life would be like – only, just like Brendan Fraser’s character in Bedazzled, these choices can come with unseen pitfalls. It bears resemblance to the Buddhist belief in karma and reincarnation, only here we bear an even greater and more direct responsibility as to how our next life will turn out.

The Republic isn’t meant to be the end-all-and-be-all of wisdom. In fact, if you’re reading the book looking for the answers to everything in life, you’d be sadly mistaken. However, it does provide plenty of food for thought, which is, again, the main intention of both Socrates and Plato. It is not to inform the reader, but to have the reader further question and ponder and aid them in forming their own views of the world – and if that was the purpose of Plato in The Republic, I would say that he has definitely succeeded.

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