Plato's 'Republic': An Introduction

Plato's 'Republic': An Introduction Sean McAleer

This book is a lucid and accessible companion to Plato’s Republic, throwing light upon the text’s arguments and main themes, placing them in the wider context of the text’s structure. In its illumination of the philosophical ideas underpinning the work, it provides readers with an understanding and appreciation of the complexity and literary artistry of Plato’s Republic.  McAleer not only unpacks the key overarching questions of the text – What is justice? And Is a just life happier than an unjust life? – but also highlights some fascinating, overlooked passages which contribute to our understanding of Plato’s philosophical thought.

Plato’s 'Republic': An Introduction offers a rigorous and thought-provoking analysis of the text, helping readers navigate one of the world’s most influential works of philosophy and political theory. With its approachable tone and clear presentation, it constitutes a welcome contribution to the field, and will be an indispensable resource for philosophy students and teachers, as well as general readers new to, or returning to, the text.


Plato's 'Republic': An Introduction
Sean McAleer | Forthcoming 2020
ISBN Paperback: 9781800640535
ISBN Hardback: 9781800640542
ISBN Digital (PDF): 9781800640559
ISBN Digital ebook (epub): 9781800640566
ISBN Digital ebook (mobi): 9781800640573
ISBN XML: 9781800640580
DOI: 10.11647/OBP.0229
Categories: BIC: DB (Classical texts), HPCA (Western Philosphy: Ancient, to c. 500), H (Humanities), HP (Philosophy) ; BISAC: L PHI046000 (PHILOSOPHY / Individual Philosophers), PHI000000 (PHILOSOPHY / General), PHI002000  (PHILOSOPHY / History & Surveys / Ancient & Classical).
1. Fathers and Sons

Chapter One, ‘Fathers and Sons’, covers the first half of Book I of the Republic, where Socrates raises the Republic’s first question about the nature of justice at the home of Cephalus, a wealthy merchant who lives in a suburb of Athens. Cephalus suggests that justice is paying one’s debts and telling the truth, but Socrates thinks this cannot be the essence of justice, since there are times when one should not return what one has borrowed. This alerts us to an important fact about what Socrates is looking for in an account of justice: the account should be unconditionally correct, with no ifs, ands, or buts. Cephalus’ son Polemarchus jumps into the conversation and offers a revision of his father’s definition, suggesting that justice—right conduct, generally—is benefiting one’s friends and harming one’s enemies. Socrates finds this account has implications that Polemarchus himself cannot accept, so the chapter explores Socrates’ reasoning, especially the assumption that justice, a virtue of character, is a craft or skill. We then discuss Socrates’ more direct argument against Polemarchus’ account, that the just person would not harm anyone.

2. Taming the Beast: Socrates versus Thrasymachus

Chapter Two, ‘Taming the Beast: Socrates versus Thrasymachus’, is devoted to Socrates’ encounter with the sophist Thrasymachus in the second half of Book I. Thrasymachus’ answers to the Republic’s main questions are a provocative challenge to the reverential attitude Socrates has toward justice in particular and virtue in general. Thrasymachus defines justice as whatever benefits the politically powerful and argues that a conventionally just person lives less happily than their unjust counterpart. Socrates offers five different arguments against Thrasymachus’ views, which are spelled out clearly and evaluated carefully, with attention paid to the connections between them and to the crucial concepts around which they orbit (e.g., the notion of a virtue). Socrates’ arguments fall short of the mark, and we will examine why this is the case, exploring avenues of response that Thrasymachus could but does not take. By the close of Book I, Socrates realizes that he has not answered the Republic’s second question because he has not yet answered the first: we cannot know whether the just life is happier until we first know what justice is.

3. A Fresh Start

Chapter Three, ‘A Fresh Start’, explores the way in which Socrates tries to address the Republic’s two questions, ‘What is justice?’ and ‘Is the just life happier than the unjust life?’. Rather than offering a battery of arguments as he did in Book I, Socrates offers an analogy between the polis (the Greek city-state) and the psychê (individual soul) that will structure the rest of the Republic. The plan is to first discover the nature of justice as a political virtue—as a virtue of the polis—and then apply this to the individual soul in order to discover the nature of personal justice.

4. Blueprints for a Platonic Utopia: Education and Culture

Chapter Four, ‘Blueprints for a Platonic Utopia: Education and Culture’, examines Socrates’ account of education in the ideal polis, focusing especially on informal, cultural education in music and poetry. We will explore the fascinating connections Socrates draws between aesthetic and moral development, especially the role that poetic and musical style play over and above content. We then discuss Socrates’ rather disturbing attitude toward disabled citizens before focusing on the famous Noble Falsehood, which concludes Book III, discussing the role that myth, especially myths of origin, play in civic self-understanding.

5. Starting to Answer the First Question: The Political Virtues

Chapter Five, ‘Starting to Answer the First Question: The Political Virtues’, focuses on the first third of Book IV. The ideal polis complete, Socrates and company investigate the political virtues of wisdom, courage, moderation, and justice, defining each and discussing their location in the polis. We will explore these accounts and the issues they raise, for example how the kind of agreement that constitutes political moderation differs from the idea of consent in modern liberal political thought, and the question of whether there are other virtues in addition to the four cardinal virtues.

6. The Republic's First Question Answered at Last: Personal Justice

We continue discussing Book IV of the Republic in Chapter Six, ‘The Republic’s First Question Answered at Last: Personal Justice’. We first attend to Plato’s foray into psychology (literally, his account (logos) of the soul (psuchê)) in which he tries to justify the analogy between city and soul that has shaped the Republic. By appealing to the idea that the same thing cannot simultaneously undergo or perform opposite states or activities (dubbed the Opposition Principle), Socrates argues that the soul has a three-part structure, just as the city does: a rational part, which corresponds to the guardian-rulers in the polis; a spirited part (the seat of anger and pride), which corresponds to the soldierly auxiliaries of the polis; and an appetitive part, which corresponds to the craftspeople. Socrates then derives the personal virtues by applying the political virtues to the soul. The most important personal virtue, of course, is justice, which he conceives of as each part of the soul doing its own work: reason, not appetite or spirit, governs the just soul. We will pay attention to important features of this account, for example how it differs from Cephalus’ and Polemarchus’, for whom justice is a matter of interpersonal, external doing (of how one treats one’s fellows), while for Socrates and Plato is it a matter of intrapersonal, internal being, of what one’s soul is like.

7. Questions about the Ideal Polis: The Three Waves

In Chapter Seven, ‘Questions about the Ideal Polis: The Three Waves’, we see Polemarchus and Adeimantus begin Book V by putting the brakes on Socrates’ attempt to immediately begin answering the Republic’s second question, whether living a morally good life is good for the person living it. They raise questions about and objections to the ideal polis, known as ‘the Three Waves’, which is an apt metaphor for a sea-faring culture. The First Wave concerns the question of whether women can be guardian-rulers in the ideal city. Socrates’ affirmative answer—surprising to his companions and to many readers alike (though for different reasons)—raises the question of whether Plato is a feminist. The Second Wave concerns the ideal city’s communal living arrangements, especially child-rearing. Socrates argues that not only is the abolition of the traditional family possible, it is beneficial. The Third Wave is the subject of the next chapter.

8. Surfing the Third Wave: Plato's Metaphysical Elevator, the Powers Argument, and the Infallibility of Knowledge

Chapter Eight, ‘Surfing the Third Wave: Plato’s Metaphysical Elevator, the Powers Argument, and the Infallibility of Knowledge’, focuses on the Third Wave, which concerns the very possibility of the ideal city. Socrates famously claims that the ideal city can be made real only if philosophers rule. This leads him to explore how philosophers differ from non-philosophers, which will guide the last part of Book V as well as Books VI and VII. A crucial point of difference is that philosophers have knowledge while non-philosophers merely have belief, a distinction which is explored in some depth and detail. We devote special attention to one of the Republic’s most crucial arguments, the Powers Argument, in which Socrates argues for the existence of the Forms, the mind-independently real, timeless essences of the many particular things that populate the everyday world of our senses. The reality of the Forms is perhaps Plato’s most distinctive metaphysical view, so we devote quite a bit of attention to stating, explaining, and evaluating the Powers Argument

9. The Philosopher's Virtues

Chapter Nine, ‘The Philosopher’s Virtues’, continues to explore the distinction between philosophers and non-philosophers, focusing on their different characters. Central to the discussion is the distinction between virtues of character (for example, justice), intellectual virtues (for example, a good memory), and virtues of personal style (for example, grace and elegance), attending to the light this last category sheds on Plato’s moral vision. As a prelude to the key analogies of Book VI, the rest of this chapter is devoted to the interesting analogies Socrates appeals to in addressing features of the Third Wave.

10. Metaphors to Think By: The Sun and Divided Line Analogies

Chapter Ten, ‘Metaphors to Think By: The Sun and Divided Line Analogies’, is devoted to the marquee analogies of Book VI, both of which address the Third Wave by developing the distinction between the sensible world of concrete particular things and the intelligible world of the Forms. Having suggested that the Form of the good is even more important than justice, Socrates cannot or will not say what the good is, but he does say what he thinks it is like: the good plays the same role in the intelligible world as the sun plays in the visible world. In the Analogy of the Divided Line, Socrates further develops the distinction between belief, which is appropriate to the sensible, visible world, and knowledge, which is appropriate to the intelligible world of the Forms. By exploring the role that hypotheses play in reasoning, he distinguishes philosophical knowledge from mathematical knowledge, somewhat surprisingly taking the former to be more rigorous.

11. Shedding Light on the Allegory of the Cave

True to its name, Chapter Eleven, ‘Shedding Light on the Allegory of the Cave’, devotes itself to exploring the famous Allegory of the Cave from Book VII of the Republic, carefully considering its various stages and themes before examining the issue posed by the enlightened philosopher’s return to the Cave. As Socrates describes it, the enlightened philosopher descends back into the Cave not because they want to, but because they recognize that justice requires them to do so. This raises an issue for discussion that Socrates does not seem to notice: the enlightened philosopher would be happier if they ignored the demands of justice and remained in the intelligible world of the Forms, which suggests that, contrary to Socrates’ view, the just life is not happier than the unjust life.

12. The Decline and Fall of the Ideal City-Soul

In Chapter Twelve, ‘The Decline and Fall of the Ideal City-Soul’, we begin exploring Socrates’ answer to the Republic’s second question. In Books VIII and IX, Socrates sketches five kinds of cities and souls, noting what each takes as its primary end or goal and which part or class governs the soul and city, respectively. We trace the decay from the best city-soul to the worst, attending to the role that changes to education play and to interesting features of each stage, and discuss at some length Plato’s distinction between necessary and unnecessary desires.

13. The Republic’s Second Question Answered: Three and a Half Arguments that the Just Life is Happier

Chapter Thirteen, ‘The Republic’s Second Question Answered: Three and a Half Arguments that the Just Life is Happier’, explores the arguments Socrates gives in Book IX that the just life is happier—indeed, 729 times happier—than the unjust life. There are fascinating features of the first two arguments, for example that the tyrannical person is incapable of friendship and that each part of the soul has a distinctive kind of pleasure. The third argument, the Metaphysics of Pleasure Argument, argues that since what is more filling is more pleasant and what is more real is more filling, the Forms, being the most real things, ground the most pleasant pleasures. We discuss this argument at some length, noting its dependence on the Powers Argument but also exploring ways in which Socrates seems to anticipate and preemptively respond to objections. In the last argument, which Socrates does not identify as such (hence the ‘half’), is a metaphorical argument which, despite its being less philosophically rigorous than the Metaphysics of Pleasure Argument, is more intuitively persuasive and in no way relies on the problematic Powers Argument. This chapter concludes with a discussion of Plato’s paternalism: his view that most of us, being incapable of the philosophical wisdom that consists of knowledge of the good, are incapable of good self-governance, so we are all better off being governed by someone else’s (i.e., a philosopher-king’s or -queen’s) reason.

14. Are We There Yet? Tying up Loose Ends in Book X

Chapter Fourteen, ‘Are We There Yet? Tying up Loose Ends in Book X’, explores the three topics of the Republic’s final book, Book X. The first is the status of poetry, which Socrates wants to revisit since he now has a psychology (the three-part soul) that he lacked when poetry was first discussed. He concludes, quite reluctantly, that very little poetry will be allowed in the ideal city, mainly because of its power to corrupt us: we give ourselves over to emotion and thus dethrone reason from its rightful place. After exploring his arguments for this view, we turn to his argument for the immortality of the soul, which Socrates offers in the context of showing the external advantages of living a just life (namely, having a reputation for justice), which were set aside to answer Glaucon’s and Adeimantus’ challenge of showing that justice was intrinsically good—that all by itself it made its possessor better off. Lastly, we attend to the Myth of Er, with which the Republic ends. Er’s story is an allegory about the importance of careful choice in living justly and thus happily. It is a fascinating way to end the Republic, in terms of both content and style; we briefly explore what philosophical points Plato might be making by ending a work of philosophy this way.