- The Republic by Plato


The distinction between pre-Socratic (7th - 5th centuries B.C.) and Socratic (5th - 4th century B.C.) eras is based on the interests of their protagonists. The former lived mainly in the Ionian islands which were highly influenced by eastern thought through the Persian empire. They became interested in cosmology and speculation about the physical world. The Socratics lived in Athens and were confronted with the practical problems of coexistence within the greater polis. They looked for answers to moral and social problems. This vision was inaugurated by the group of Miletus, Samos and Heraclitus who influenced Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.

An original Socratic contribution was the belief that the human being is political by nature. Thus they built their civilization on the 'polis', the city. This new rationalist vision was also the catalyst, in Athens, of a political evolution in civilization: democracy. For Greek philosophers the essential quality of civilized life was humanism: the human is the measure of all things and fulfilling the potential of the individual was the goal of the civilization. Freedom and destiny are the themes of all their art. They also understood that civilization is fragile and that maintaining an open society is difficult because irrational forces constantly threaten to break it down.

The way Plato proposed to hold his utopoc society together was the 'noble lie'. This was a myth of civic identity narrating that society was a brotherhood and that its class structure was a command of the gods since they put different metals in human souls.

Plato followed his teacher Socrates on the idea that moral experts did not have the understanding necessary to lead a good human life. Plato argued that these errors were due to their ignorance of the ‘Forms’: Justice, Beauty, Goodness... These were not accessible to the senses but only the mind. In his Metaphysics he imagined a rational treatment of 'Forms' and their interrelations. However, contrary to Socrates, he believes that for the good life you need both knowledge and also getting used to positive emotional reactions. 

It is in his work The Republic, that the character Socrates discusses justice applied to the polis and the individual. The idea of the philosopher king arises, he who has more knowledge than the others to govern (an oligarchic conception, not a democratic one).

The Plot

In The Republic, written in 375 B.C., Socrates engages in dialogues with others about how to live a moral life. Does living a moral existence benefit the individual? This leads to the exploration of the laws, arts and rulers of a utopian society and describes the demise of this organisation which is compared to the human mind.

Books 1 and 2 have Socrates rejecting two common views of morality : paying back debts and helping friends. In his dialogue with Thrasymachus, the sophist, Socrates faces the argument that moral norms are devices used by the powerful to maintain their authority. This leads to the larger question of whether obeying moral traditions makes the individual happy.

Books 3 and 4 scrutinise ethical behaviour in a utopian society where there is a division of labour between the workers, guardians and rulers. Guardians should be educated through stories of virtuous behaviour since the rulers will be chosen from among them.

Books 5 and 6 set out the responsibilities of the guardians who would be subdivided into rulers and auxiliaries and have no property rights. The society would be held together through a myth, 'the noble lie' ensuring people remained within their classes. This tripartite division of society is proposed by Socrates as being natural since is reflects the human mind. The rulers are the rational part, the auxiliaries represent passion and the workers are physical desires.

Books 7 and 8 establish the role of women and sexuality in this society. Women would be allowed to be guardians provided they had the suitable character. Sex would be closely regulated with only the best citizens being allowed to procreate and that at allotted times. The whole organisation would be set up by "philosopher kings" who are wise. 

Books 9 and 10 discuss the basic meaning of goodness and separating it from pleasure. In the allegory of the cave Socrates leads Glaucon to see that goodness only exists in the ideal world of abstract ideas not in sensory experience. There is an outline of how the philosopher kings would be educated to focus on ideal forms above the the material world.

Books 11 and 12 explore the fall of this ideal society. This would happen through timocracia (military rule), oligarchy (rule by the powerful), plutocracy (rule by the rich), democracy (rule by the people) and dictatorship (rule by one person). These degenerations correspond to individual's personality defects: timocracia (passion), plutocracy (greed), democracy (indiscipline), dictatorship (debauchery). They also represent a hierarchy of happiness: dictatorship is the unhappiest and also the most immoral.

In Books 13 and 14 there is a discussion on poetry. Socrates argues that poetry is not truth so that it undermines rationality and therefore should be prohibited. These books also lay out the recompense for being moral. In the afterlife morality will be rewarded and immorality punished. The end of the book describes this afterlife and reincarnation.


- The Structure of The Republic

To better understand the work it can be divided into a five act play following Freitag's pyramid of two rising sections, a climax and two falling sections.

- The Exposition presents the problem of the nature of Justice. (Books 1 & 2).

- The Rise is constructing the polis and discovering virtue. (Books 3 & 4).

- The Climax is the philosophical centre. (Books 5 - 7).  (The main themes of the Climax are > the birth of the philosopher ruler, how to distinguish the philosopher from the false philosopher, the search for the Good, the Cave Allegory and the education of the philosopher.)

- The Falling is the demise of the polis. (Books 9 & 9).

- The Denouement is in Book 10

- The Allegory of the Cave.

"Socrates: And now, I said, let me show in a figure how far our nature is enlightened or unenlightened:

Behold! human beings living in a underground den, which has a mouth open towards the light and reaching all along the den; here they have been from their childhood, and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move, and can only see before them, being prevented by the chains from turning round their heads. Above and behind them a fire is blazing at a distance, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way; and you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screen which marionette players have in front of them, over which they show the puppets.

Glaucon: I see.

Socrates: The low wall, and the moving figures of which the shadows are seen on the opposite wall of the den. And do you see, I said, men passing along the wall carrying all sorts of vessels, and statues and figures of animals made of wood and stone and various materials, which appear over the wall? Some of them are talking, others silent.

Glaucon: You have shown me a strange image, and they are strange prisoners.

Socrates: Like ourselves, I replied; and they see only their own shadows, or the shadows of one another, which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave?

Glaucon: True, how could they see anything but the shadows if they were never allowed to move their heads?

Socrates: And of the objects which are being carried in like manner they would only see the shadows?

Glaucon: Yes.

Socrates: And if they were able to converse with one another, would they not suppose that they were naming what was actually before them

Glaucon: Very true.

Socrates: The prisoners would mistake the shadows for realities.And suppose further that the prison had an echo which came from the other side, would they not be sure to fancy when one of the passers-by spoke that the voice which they heard came from the passing shadow?

Glaucon: No question.

Socrates: To them, I said, the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images.

Glaucon: That is certain.

Socrates: And now look again, and see what will naturally follow if the prisoners are released and disabused their error. At first, when any of them is liberated and compelled suddenly to stand up and turn his neck round and walk and look towards the light, he will suffer sharp pains; the glare will distress him, and he will be unable to see the realities of which in his former state he had seen the shadows; and then conceive some one saying to him, that what he saw before was an illusion, but that now, when he is approaching nearer to being and his eye is turned towards more real existence, he has a clearer vision,—what will be his reply? And when released, they would still persist in maintaining the superior truth of the shadows.And you may further imagine that his instructor is pointing to the objects as they pass and requiring him to name them,—will he not be perplexed? Will he not fancy that the shadows which he formerly saw are truer than the objects which are now shown to him?

Glaucon: Far truer.

Socrates: And if he is compelled to look straight at the light, will he not have a pain in his eyes which will make him turn away to take refuge in the objects of vision which he can see, and which he will conceive to be in reality clearer than the things which are now being shown to him?

Glaucon: True.

Socrates: When dragged upwards, they would be dazzled by excess of light.And suppose once more, that he is reluctantly dragged up a steep and rugged ascent, and held fast until he is forced into the presence of the sun himself, is he not likely to be pained and irritated? When he approaches the light his eyes will be dazzled, and he will not be able to see anything at all of what are now called realities.

Glaucon: Not all in a moment.

Socrates: He will require to grow accustomed to the sight of the upper world. And first he will see the shadows best, next the reflections of men and other objects in the water, and then the objects themselves; then he will gaze upon the light of the moon and the stars and the spangled heaven; and he will see the sky and the stars by night better than the sun or the light of the sun by day?

Glaucon: Certainly.

Socrates: Last of all he will be able to see the sun, and not mere reflections of him in the water, but he will see him in his own proper place, and not in another; and he will contemplate him as he is.

Glaucon: Certainly.

Socrates: He will then proceed to argue that this is he who gives the season and the years, and is the guardian of all that is in the visible world, and in a certain way the cause of all things which he and his fellows have been accustomed to behold?

Glaucon: Clearly, he would first see the sun and then reason about him.

Socrates: They would then pity their old companions of the den. And when he remembered his old habitation, and the wisdom of the den and his fellow-prisoners, do you not suppose that he would felicitate himself on the change, and pity them?

Glaucon: Certainly.

Socrates: And if they were in the habit of conferring honours among themselves on those who were quickest to observe the passing shadows and to remark which of them went before, and which followed after, and which were together; and who were therefore best able to draw conclusions as to the future, do you think that he would care for such honors and glories, or envy the possessors of them? Would he not say with Homer,

‘Better to be the poor servant of a poor master, and to endure anything, rather than think as they do and live after their manner?

Glaucon: Yes. I think that he would rather suffer anything than entertain these false notions and live in this miserable manner.

Socrates: Imagine once more, I said, such an one coming suddenly out of the sun to be replaced in his old situation; would he not be certain to have his eyes full of darkness?

Glaucon: To be sure.

Socrates: And if there were a contest, and he had to compete in measuring the shadows with the prisoners who had never moved out of the den, while his sight was still weak, and before his eyes had become steady (and the time which would be needed to acquire this new habit of sight might be very considerable), would he not be ridiculous? Men would say of him that up he went and down he came without his eyes; and that it was better not even to think of ascending; and if any one tried to loose another and lead him up to the light, let them only catch the offender, and they would put him to death.

Glaucon: No question.

Socrates: The prison is the world of sight, the light of the fire is the sun. This entire allegory, I said, you may now append, dear Glaucon, to the previous argument; the prison-house is the world of sight, the light of the fire is the sun, and you will not misapprehend me if you interpret the journey upwards to be the ascent of the soul into the intellectual world according to my poor belief, which, at your desire, I have expressed—whether rightly or wrongly God knows. But, whether true or false, my opinion is that in the world of knowledge the idea of good appears last of all, and is seen only with an effort; and, when seen, is also inferred to be the universal author of all things beautiful and right, parent of light and of the lord of light in this visible world, and the immediate source of reason and truth in the intellectual; and that this is the power upon which he who would act rationally either in public or private life must have his eye fixed.

Glaucon: I agree, as far as I am able to understand you."

- Commentary on The Allegory of the Cave

The text is so finely spun that the layout forms a unit with the content. Format and meaning make up a whole metaphor: Plato does not appear as a narrator, but invents two characters who reveal his message in a dialogue. We already have the first metaphor: two people communicating within a fiction theatrical. The meaning is in the hands of the author Plato, out of the picture. 

Within the play Socrates describes the second metaphor: the allegory of the cave. This even takes cartographic form when the teacher shows the cave drawing to his interlocutor, Glaucon. The metaphor is transformed into topographic art in this third movement. The dialogue format is an integral part of the message of the allegory because it deals with promotion from ignorance to knowledge. It is the education of Glaucon by Socrates through a Socratic dialogue imagined by Plato. In the same way that a prisoner of the cavern has to make a painful effort to reach the light of truth, Glaucon is brought to the new knowledge by his teacher through a series, not of information items, but of rhetorical questions closely linked to the metaphorical cave. 

If prisoners in the cavern only see shadows of external events, Glaucon too only glimpsed the shadowy reflection of the new knowledge. And the reader, immersed in the thread of Socratic questions as if in a thriller, is included in the plot. We readers are another level of this enveloping metaphor. The prisoners "... are like us." says Glaucon, and this includes us as readers.

It is remarkable that there are constant references to the visuals in the teacher's speech: sun, fire, light, shapes, sight, the map, see ... The prisoners see shadows, Glaucon sees the prisoners seeing shadows and we see Glaucon seeing prisoners seeing shadows. Socrates sees the rest and Plato sees them all. So it is with the development of the whole story, for example, when a chained prisoner escapes and creeps into the light or when he returns to recount his discovery. The reader sees both the viewpoint of the disciple, Glaucon, and that of the prisoner. Both are learning. The reader too. We are caught and then released into a narrative, a socratic vision led by Plato.

The highest revelation is that of the Forms. It is the sunlight that clarifies everything. These ideas are the explanation and the liberation from the darkness where we only saw reflex forms: the empirical. The sense is in ideas. We may or may not agree with this Platonic epistemology. However, what draws attention powerfully is how the story of the road from ignorance to knowledge moves through allegorical visions and overlapping metaphors.


- The Philosopher Ruler

Plato defines democracy as the rule by the demos meaning the 'unfit'. He believes that the actual demos (people) do not possess the skill or judgement to rule and Socrates explains this in the parable of the ship :

"Imagine then a fleet or a ship in which there is a captain who is taller and stronger than any of the crew, but he is a little deaf and has a similar infirmity in sight, and his knowledge of navigation is not much better. The sailors are quarrelling with one another about the steering—every one is of opinion that he has a right to steer, though he has never learned the art of navigation and cannot tell who taught him or when he learned, and will further assert that it cannot be taught, and they are ready to cut in pieces any one who says the contrary. They throng about the captain, begging and praying him to commit the helm to them; and if at any time they do not prevail, but others are preferred to them, they kill the others or throw them overboard, and having first chained up the noble captain's senses with drink or some narcotic drug, they mutiny and take possession of the ship and make free with the stores; thus, eating and drinking, they proceed on their voyage in such manner as might be expected of them. He who is their partisan and cleverly aids them in their plot for getting the ship out of the captain's hands into their own whether by force or persuasion, they compliment with the name of sailor, pilot, able seaman, and abuse the other sort of man, whom they call a good-for-nothing; but that the true pilot must pay attention to the year and seasons and sky and stars and winds, and whatever else belongs to his art, if he intends to be really qualified for the command of a ship, and that he must and will be the steerer, whether other people like it or not—the possibility of this union of authority with the steerer's art has never seriously entered into their thoughts or been made part of their calling. Now in vessels which are in a state of mutiny and by sailors who are mutineers, how will the true pilot be regarded? Will he not be called by them a babbler, a star-gazer, a good-for-nothing?"

Democracy then is presented as unnatural and indeed dangerous for the polis since ruling requires specialisation. Philosopher rulers have the required virtue of goodness because they possess knowledge and this includes goodness. (Voltaire would later describe this organisation of government as 'benevolent dictatorship'.)

- Justice as manipulation

In Book 1 Plato tackles the problem of subjectivity and the sophist belief that no objective truth was possible and so morality must be based on what is to your advantage. Norms are to be considered conventions and many do not help those who follow them and indeed benefit transgressors. This leads to unjust people gaining power by tricking others into following laws which only benefit the strong. For the Sophists the norms of justice are in place to promote the rulers' interests not for the citizens as a whole. The rest of The Republic is an attempt to show that justice is for the good of all.

- The Analogy of the Sun

In Book 6 Socrates replies to Glaucon's question of how to define 'Goodness' by giving an example in parabolic form of 'the child of Goodness'. This is the sun which shines and so enables vision because of its light. In the same way the idea of Goodness enlightens the intelligent mind with truth. Here the sun is a metaphor for reality and how we know it. The sun offers light so that we can see and is thus a source of Goodness:

“As Goodness stands in the intelligible realm to intelligence and the things we know, so in the visible realm the sun stands to sight and the things we see.”

Like the sun giving light it is Goodness that enlightens our minds so that we can gain knowledge. Similarly the nature of reality cannot be captured by the senses so we should try to understand the truths of the Cosmos through the mind. 

- The Myth of the Metals

In order to maintain a stable society in his utopia Plato invents the myth of metals. This is a "noble lie" since it is a falsehood put about for a good purpose : that of keeping citizens stratified in their classes.

Socrates explains that rulers should be chosen from amongst the guardians. Then they would receive a special education. All citizens would be taught the useful lie that they are all born from the earth of the State (autochthones) and are siblings. However the gods have mixed different metals into their souls : gold for the rulers; silver for the auxiliaries; brass or iron for the workers. (This sounds like a precursor of Brave New World by Huxley)

Guardians would not have private property and they would live together in places provided by the State receiving food from other citizens. Guardians should very happy since both wealth and poverty bring degeneration.

- The Myth of Er

This is the story of Er, a soldier, who died in battle and descended into the underworld. However nine days later he revives and returns to tell humans about the afterlife where the just receive recompense and the unjust are punished. 

"And according to the report of the messenger from the other world this was what the prophet said at the time: ‘Even for the last comer, if he chooses wisely and will live diligently, there is appointed a happy and not undesirable existence. Let not him who chooses first be careless, and let not the last despair.’ And when he had spoken, he who had the first choice came forward and in a moment chose the greatest tyranny; his mind having been darkened by folly and sensuality, he had not thought out the whole matter before he chose, and did not at first sight perceive that he was fated, among other evils, to devour his own children. But when he had time to reflect, and saw what was in the lot, he began to beat his breast and lament over his choice, forgetting the proclamation of the prophet; for, instead of throwing the blame of his misfortune on himself, he accused chance and the gods, and everything rather than himself. Now he was one of those who came from heaven, and in a former life had dwelt in a well-ordered State, but his virtue was a matter of habit only, and he had no philosophy. And it was true of others who were similarly overtaken, that the greater number of them came from heaven and therefore they had never been schooled by trial, whereas the pilgrims who came from earth, having themselves suffered and seen others suffer, were not in a hurry to choose. And owing to this inexperience of theirs, and also because the lot was a chance, many of the souls exchanged a good destiny for an evil or an evil for a good. For if a man had always on his arrival in this world dedicated himself from the first to sound philosophy, and had been moderately fortunate in the number of the lot, he might, as the messenger reported, be happy here, and also his journey to another life and return to this, instead of being rough and underground, would be smooth and heavenly."

This myth is recounted at the end of The Republic and it returns to a theme elicited in The Cave Allegory and the Myth of Metals : the nature of an individual can be the product of their education. This implies that Plato drew a nuanced distinction between the philosopher and the non-philosopher since the outcome depended not on their birth but their education. So the difference was not clear cut but remained an open question.

Plato's Conceptual Metaphors

Plato's metaphysics relies on the metaphorical conceptualisation of essence expressed as Essences Are Ideas. This means that the essences of things in the world are ideas which the mind can perceive. This makes knowledge of the world certain and is Plato's epistemological explanation : since essences are ideas they are not material in nature and must be Forms. (The essence of a chair is its form.) These essence/forms can be grasped by ideas in the mind and thus be known.

Cognitive science considers that we generalise through conceptual categories which in turn have prototypes: a typical, husband, an ideal husband and an essential husband. For Plato Essences are Ideals: the idea of a chair characterises it's essence, what it is, and also how it should be, its ideal. The philosopher builds his ethical theory using this metaphor. Virtue is both a positive essence and an ideal: a pious person performs good actions and is the ideal human. On the contrary, lack of virtue makes you less than fully human.

In the conceptual category of essences the essence itself has an Essence. Essences are ideas so this Essence is an idea. As an idea it is real, in fact the most real thing possible. It is also an Ideal and, through the conceptual virtue logic, it is the Good. As the essential Essence it is the root cause of all other essences. In the Allegory of the Cave the Good is conceptualised metaphorically as the sun, the ultimate causal source of knowledge.

Plato's Idea of the Good has created a long theological tradition from Plotinus and other Neoplatonists to Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas. The 'Good' in medieval theology became God, the Prime Mover, the final cause of all creation, the source of all knowledge and the Perfect Being. The metaphor is still with us today.

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