I had recently read Plato’s The Republic and had made mention of it to my friend Eric.
“I, too, have read it, only in high school. I thought it well written, but I am curious what you thought of some of the ideas,” he said.
“I plan to write a review shortly; I’ll send it to you,” I replied.
“Ahh, but you always forget, so right now would be better”
“I couldn’t persuade you to wait?”
“Not possibly. I would hound you to death”
“Well,” said I, “I can undertake an ad hoc review. But let us look at it in the Socratic style, because you tend to disagree with my opinions and I would like to persuade you with short statements that you cannot possibly disagree with, leading to a larger and coherent whole which, having agreed with each piece, you cannot disagree with the whole.”
“By Zeus, a capital idea,” he replied, adopting the Platonic style immediately. “Where shall we begin?”
“It seems right that we begin with the structure,” I said. “There are ten parts, would you agree?” “My memory suggests as much”
“And each of these ten parts concerns a different idea, which while often appearing to digress, is in fact creating lemmas to support the argument?” “Any good Greek rhetorician would write thus.”
“So shall I summarize each part and discuss the analysis afterwards?” “I am eager to hear you begin”
“In that case, we should call upon our Muse to guide us in this endeavor and begin with the first section, which if my memory serves me right, is called the first book,” I said. “As I recall, the first book begins with some pleasantries between the characters, which quickly leads to a discussion on Justice. A first definition of Justice, giving each what he deserves, is elaborated to benefiting one’s friends and harming one’s enemies. But it turns out that the person who can best accomplish this is the person best at a particular task, whether it is healing disease, steering ships, or guarding money. But the one who guards money, is also the best at stealing it, and so the person in the best position to guard money and benefit the friend, is also the best at harming him, and thus we do not know where to turn.”
“This is hardly short,” Eric said, “but it sure sounds very Socratic and likely to be correct.”
“It is also just the beginning. Afterwards, a companion loudly complains that Socrates confuses people with innocent questions that end where you don’t want them to, and argues, unsuccessfully but with considerably more art than the first, that Justice is the advantage of the stronger.” “I do remember the complaint.”
“In book two, then, Glaucon and others feel that Socrates was not convincing is his refutation, because he did not explain why we should choose Justice over its opposite. But in order to do it properly, Socrates feels that he must examine Justice as it pertains to an entire city-state?” “Quite right”
“So they populate the city and discover that they need rulers, or guardians for it?” “As any city would.”
“These guardians would need to be educated from birth appropriately, namely that all material that tells lies about the gods should be censored from their education. Furthermore, since these guardians must also be martial and brave, things which cause them to be afraid, namely stories about ghosts in the underworld, should also be censored?” “He said exactly that, but you are bleeding into book three.”
“Ah, your memory of the boundary is sharper than mine,” I said. “Book three then continues by banning poetry as imitative and not useful to warriors and governors, much of Greek mythology as making gods seem like men, the less stoic of music modes, and instruments like the flute that can play them; in fact just about all the Arts, does he not?” “He does indeed, and I may ask you for your opinions of this later.”
“But before later comes, Socrates argues that the guardians, who also include women, should have rigorous training, austere food, no property, no wives in the traditional sense, and a positively Spartan life with all the guardians being equal?” “He does indeed”
“And then, in book four he notes that the child-guardians’ education is of paramount concern to the continued excellence of the city. He then argues that the soul has three parts: rational, the spirited, and the appetitive, corresponding to the three types of people in the city: the guardians are the rational, the merchants and farmers the spirited, and the wage-earners the appetitive. Later he finds Justice in the city as moderation, being content with your life and since the city has the same number of parts as a person, Justice in the person is the same. Am I right?” “You may be mixing bits from later, but it sounds good”
“Then in book five he argues that it is most beneficial for men and women to be treated equally, that both sexes should fight wars and train together (and even children observe from a safe distance), that marriages be sacred but arranged by rigged lottery to produce the best children, although this fact should be hidden from the masses? And that children not know their parents and that children and wives, etc. be held in common?” “A rather modern sounding notion, and one I find distasteful, but it is what he wrote”
“Glaucon felt as you feel, and argues thus, at which point Socrates introduces the Forms, which are the perfect abstractions, arguing that philosophers seek these, and that the guardians need to be philosphers as well, I think.” “I think you are summarizing admirably.”
“So, if I remember correctly, in the six book Socrates argues that most men do not have the temperament required for philosophy and they despise it (partly because many who are unworthy take up philosophy with the aim to acquire fame like the best philosophers), and that of the men suited for it, the attractiveness of wealth and the peer pressure pull them away from it, but for those who taste of it, they find contemplations of the Form of the Good far superior to anything else?” “Quite right”
“Book seven talks about how to teach people to see the Form of the Good, for we are like prisoners in a cave who can only see shadows; the philosophers have seen in the light above and can only describe the Forms in terms that we cannot understand. Because of this, education of the guardians must begin early if it is to be successful. And it must be taught during play, because no one learns under force. Furthermore, they must not be taught dialect until they are older, otherwise they will just use it for verbal bantering. But the guardians are to rotate rulership of the city each year, which being philosophers they will see as a duty rather than a pleasure. Or am I missing something?” “No, it seems as I remember it”
“I believe that book eight argues that this perfect city cannot remain perfect, for the guardians will begin to love war and victory, that is, honor (the spirited part of the soul overtakes reason), and they will begin to secretly love money. Then they will openly love money and become an oligarchy (appetites are still checked, but for the wrong purpose), instituting a wealth requirement for office instead of the previous character quality. Soon the appetites will be unchecked, leading to democracy, where all things are equal. But holding to a love of all freedoms will lead to a dictatorship when a person is elected a protector, and this dictatorship is the final and worst state. Socrates compares each state of the city to the state of the man, so an oligarchical man keeps his appetites checked but to make money, not to discover the Good. I think I have spoken correctly?” “Indeed, you are right”
“The nineth book describes the tyrannical man, showing him to indulge his appetites, but in order to remain in power he becomes a slave to them, as he must satisfy others to keep him in power. Thus, if I recall, he is 729 times more unhappy than the Just man, which answers the earlier question of why we should love Justice.” “Well said”
""Finally, I recall the tenth chapter as condemning poetry as mere imitation, being three steps removed from the true Form: the user of an article (e.g. a bridle) has a knowledge of its purpose, the maker of the article has a knowledge of the quality of a particular item but not its use, and the poet or painter merely copies the image. Furthermore, we are likely to emotionally identify with the imitation of the poet, leading us astray. Socrates then proves that the soul is immortal (immortal things cannot change, and injustice, or imbalance, cannot corrupt the soul once the body is dead so obviously it does not actually change the soul and the soul is immortal), finishing with a myth of Er. Er almost died and saw how the souls must suffer or be rewarded ten times the time on earth for their actions (1000 years, since Man’s life is about 100 years), spending this time in heaven or suffering in Hades. Afterwards, the Fates gives the group of souls a set of lives to choose, for which they will be rewarded or punished according to what happens in that life; if the soul is wise it will choose a life that does not anger the gods, describing what happens to an unwise soul who rashing chooses a tyrannical life only to find that he will murder his family, and describing Odysseus who had to choose last and spent a long time finding a quiet life. Then the souls are assigned the guardian spirit for that life and drink of the forgetful waters of Oblivion (but not too much if they are wise) where they forget everything. Thus if we seek Justice, we can choose lives that will be pleasant on earth and consistently give us a heavenly reward.” “An admirable summary, I must say. But, please, expound your view of his ideas.”
“It would seem that Plato is 66% excellent and 33% good.” “I am not sure I understand your meaning”
“It is simply this,” I said. “Are there not three parts to a book?” “Which ones?” he said.
“The quality of the writing, the style of the writing, and the content.” “Surely”
“As to quality, clearly Plato is a superb writer, as the arguments are masterly woven and quite logically arranged, even including some useful digressions that I am told Rhetoric demands, so well done that the reader is not aware of the digression until it returns to the main argument.” “Who could disagree?”
“And for style, even to an audience about 2500 years later, the book is engaging and interesting, even if the material is a bit dry.” “I would agree wholeheartedly, for the flow is excellent and even the constant agreeing is varied and not even all that constant.”
“But as you have complained, some of the conclusions he reaches appear questionable.” “I quite agree, for I was the one who raised the issue.”
“So for expository content, there are three types, namely correct assumptions taken to correct conclusions, correct assumptions taken to improper conclusions, and improper assumptions.” “What you say sounds reasonable”
“Plato does not seem to make logical errors, which certainly is a strong point of the Greeks.” “Indeed”
“I was, in fact, impressed with his conclusions, which often struck me as quite reasonable, and a good deal more thorough than I have been accustomed to seeing.” “You raise a good point”
“So this leaves only correct assumptions taken to correct conclusions, which appear to be the majority, and incorrect assumptions, which is likely to be where your complaints lie.” “It is a distinct possibility”
“Does it seem to you that whenever there is a proposition that Plato feels is less than obvious, Socrates dialog-partner questions him on the point, but when the proposition is obvious he just agrees?” “This would be a natural method of exposition, but, by Zeus, you may be onto something.”
“Nowhere does he ever question his assumptions, which are likely to be from the values of the ancient Greek culture, which may be completely foreign to us, even though our culture is descended from theirs in many ways. Do I seem to be talking sense?” “I think you are likely right”
“Perhaps, too, Plato’s insistence on arriving at a conclusion without the logical messiness entailed with observation permits fallacies of assumption that our modern scientific view does not permit.” “A good point, for his description of the inevitable decline bears a remarkable similarity to actual events in Athens and the Roman empire, the former of which he was likely to have actually observed”
“I was struck by the similarity myself, even to the ‘decline’ of our own culture from a Jeffersonian democracy to a society that values all freedoms equality with no infringements to them anywhere, where the freedom of speech appears to trump everything.” “Quite right”
“Likewise, the part about women being equal to men, even training, presumably naked with them, and the part about marriage being of limited duration and for mere convenience, strikes me as quite amenable to certain more liberal factions of our own democracy.” “While I disagree with those conclusions, perhaps some of his assumptions are not so far off as our own, as I disagree with the factions you mention, too”
“So then, while Plato may sometimes fail in of the three areas of content, he succeeds in the other two, which is why I say that The Republic is 66% excellent and 33% good.” “Now that I understand your thinking I agree as well”
“Since the book is very readable to a modern audience, it has clearly stood the test of time and is thus worth reading.” “Clearly”
“But his conclusions are so well argued that they are worth reading for their own sake, the more so because some of them are eerily familiar in the ‘modern’ thinking today, and perhaps even a warning for us to following Platonic Justice, or moderation in reason, spirit, and appetite.” “I quite agree”
“Thus,” I said, “my opinion is that this is a superbly written book, even though some ideas appear quaint and antiquated, and well worth the time of any modern reader. Would you agree?”
He said, “to my surprise, I find myself agreeing with you, and would recommend it wholeheartedly.”
Review: 10
Clearly this book will be around in 100 years, so it meets my main criterion. It is quite readable, although I did find myself falling asleep after half a chapter because it is a lot of work to try to follow the Socratic style of argument. It is, in fact, a fun read. Plato clearly is a master of Socratic argument as well as an author who knows how to construct a cohesive structure. I was impressed with Plato’s writing from the first pages, and when I saw elements of modern thinking taking similar form, without realizing it, of some of Plato’s reasoning, I saw the book’s value not only in understanding historical thinking, but even in understand our modern thinking. Our culture no longer values Reason in quite the way Plato does, but The Republic is still eminently relevent to the modern reader. Even though they will likely disagree on many of his points, he very cogently argues his point and so we will have a better understanding of why we disagree with that view. In any case, Plato is likely to be read for another 2,000 years, and thus by definition merits a 10.