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NA419512 - PLATO: Republic (The) (Abridged)
Plato and Socrates
Plato was an Athenian aristocrat, born around 429BC, and in the normal course of events, he might have expected to play a prominent part in Athenian political life. However, he grew up as Athens was losing the long Peloponnesian War against the Spartans — a defeat, which provoked a civil war in which democrats were victorious, and aristocrats were largely discredited. Having also seen his friend and mentor Socrates put to death by the newly restored democracy, Plato for the most part avoided politics, and spent his time in philosophical inquiry. He founded one of the first schools of philosophy — the Academy — in Athens.
Socrates was born in 469BC, and put to death in 399BC. Sentencing him to death was, as he pointed out to the jury, a stupid thing to do. ‘For just a small gain in time you will now have the reputation and responsibility … of having put to death Socrates, that wise man. They will say I am wise, the people who want to blame you, even though I am not. If you had waited a little, you could have had what you wanted without lifting a finger.’
It is a problem to know exactly what Socrates believed. He wrote nothing himself, and our picture of him comes almost in its entirety from Plato, who makes Socrates the mouthpiece for his most important views. So when the Socrates of a Platonic dialogue says something, we have no cast-iron way of knowing whether this is what the real-life Socrates believed, or whether it is an opinion of Plato’s, attributed to Socrates as a mark of respect.
A commonly held view is that the short early dialogues give us an accurate picture of the historical Socrates, that the late dialogues are mostly Plato, and that the middle dialogues (of which The Republic is one) mark the point at which Plato’s ideas begin to diverge from those of Socrates, as he begins to see more and more of the problems and complexities inherent in the views held by Socrates.
We can be fairly sure, however, that the real-life Socrates was an innovator in at least two ways. He was one of the first, if not the first, to maintain that a good man will never do harm to anyone — not even to his enemies. And he more or less invented the technique of argument by agreed steps from agreed premises, most argument up to that time having consisted in the adversarial expression of conflicting views. Both these innovations are well exemplified in The Republic.
In The Republic, Socrates is asked the question ‘What is justice?’ And in order to answer it, he draws a long and detailed analogy between the
individual and the city. If we can see what makes a just city, he says, we may find it easier to see what makes a just individual. Such an answer immediately leads him into the realms of political theory and ethics, with extended digressions into artistic and literary criticism, and the theory and practice of education. But there is more to The Republic than this. Since a city can only be just when those who’s principal concern is wisdom and knowledge rule it, Plato is necessarily drawn also into questions about the nature of knowledge (epistemology) and the nature of reality (metaphysics).
So The Republic compels our attention because it lays the foundation for the whole division of Western European philosophy (by Aristotle, a generation after Plato) into the categories of metaphysics, epistemology, ethics,
aesthetics and political theory. It does this without technical jargon, in clear simple language, using everyday examples and metaphors drawn from farming and seafaring, or from the making of shoes, weapons, musical instruments and music.
That is one reason why The Republic is better suited to being read aloud than any other work of Western philosophy. Another reason is that the arguments are for the most part cumulative, and not sequential. Plato does not repeat himself, but arguments produced in one place both rely on and support arguments used in another place. So if there is something you don’t follow in Book 2, or if your attention wanders in Book 3, this won’t stop you understanding and enjoying Book 4. The same arguments won’t be used, but similar arguments will, and from those you can generally reconstruct whatever it was you missed the first time.
A third — and the most powerful — reason lies in the power of the images Plato brings before us: of human life as imprisonment in a cave, watching a sequence of shadow-pictures on the wall opposite; of democracy as an unending squabble aboard a ship at sea over who is to take the tiller; of souls after death, choosing the lives into which they will be reborn. Plato in his youth was a poet, and although in The Republic he declares war on poets, he can never rid himself of the poetry, which pervades his own perception, and portrayal of everything he sees.
Notes by Tom Griffith
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