Plato’s Republic: A Compendium of Bad Ideas?

“So she’s all ‘you expect me to believe you’re out ‘talking philosophy’ with the boys till all hours at some ‘symposium’ or other? ” “Tell me about it!”

First up on my Education (re)reading list is the Republic. Almost done. Before we get to all the bad ideas, a few general observations:

  1. I never know when Socrates is being serious. My guess is almost never. He is clearly laying it all on the line in the Gorgias, which is why that’s my favorite dialogue; he equally clearly messing with people in the Meno and the Ion – his interlocutors in both cases are so far out of their depth trying to go at it with Socrates that messing with them is about all he can do. Sure, sure, he has points to make about not falling for the conventional and thinking for one’s self and all that, but he’s messing with them all the same – the ideas expressed are not to be taken entirely seriously.
  2. So, in the Republic – what, if anything, that Socrates says should we take seriously? I reminded my kids, who read or are about to read the Republic for school, that Socrates was at the time talking outside the city walls of an Athens that had recently fallen under the heel of Sparta, and that his ideal city is pretty much an idealized Sparta. So, is the Republic a social commentary of some sort, a protest in the form of damning with overly-effusive praise the hick conquerors of the proud Athenians? I’ve never figured out what, exactly, the Republic is supposed to be.
  3. It is important, perhaps, to note that Plato, in his Academy, was explicitly trying to train up political leaders, in the sense of leaders of the polis. Since the kind of true education as understood by the Greeks was a form of friendship, the number of men Plato could educate at any one time was limited. Thus, filtering out the few gold-souled men was a priority. He achieved this partly by means of mathematics: he found that people who had both the talent and the drive to really get math (and, for the Greeks, math was almost entirely a branch of logic) were also suited to be leaders (I wish we could get Bernie to think about this…). Could it also be that the Dialogues could also serve this purpose? People who focused on the subject matter on the surface and missed any deeper implications – iron or silver souled? Not suitable for leadership? In other words, the layers and contradictions are there for a particular purpose? (a)
  4. On a more mundane and petty note:

Joseph: But, Socrates, clearly the shepherd does not raise the sheep for the good of the sheep, but rather for the good of those who would eat the sheep.

Socrates: But is not preparing the sheep for eating the art of the cook, and not of the shepherd?

J: Not at all, or, at least, not entirely, as I can illustrate if you’ll allow me.

S: Go on.

J: Thank you. Suppose there were an herb the eating of which was very healthful for the sheep, but that tended to make the meat of such sheep inedible. By your argument, the shepherd, with the interest of the sheep in mind, would nonetheless allow his sheep to eat this herb so that the sheep would lead long, healthy lives – especially since no one would be eager to kill them for the table. I say no shepherd would do this, because his real interest is in producing healthy sheep *for eating*, not healthy sheep in and for themselves.

S. Um…

J: And as to this whole ‘everybody is best when he sticks to one thing only’ that needs a whole lot more discussion before I’m buying it. You yourself, O Socrates, have been a stone mason, a soldier, a husband, a father, and a philosopher. All men, I would say, must serve many roles to be truly men. While I’m sure Xanthippe has an interesting opinion on you as a husband and father, I’m not sure her complaints could properly be excused as just a result of you being forced to do more than one thing. In fact, this whole ‘wives and children held in common’ bit you’ve bee on about seems like a marital spat disguised as philosophy.

S: Hey!

J: Throw in the ‘naked gymnastics for women’ bit, and we’ve got a hen-pecked husband fantasy Bingo! on our hands.

S: It would be better for the state…

J: Riiiight.

Ya know?


a. This means I’m accusing myself of being unfit for leadership, since I can’t figure it out. Like I needed a test to point that out?

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

11 thoughts on “Plato’s Republic: A Compendium of Bad Ideas?”

  1. Plato was only an aristocratic dude that wanted the justification of elitism. With philosopher king you kind of ensure exclusivity on the basis of something unr kings ymeasurable or testable.

  2. Plato was an aristocrat that wanted to justify the rule by an elite rather than the rabble of the public. The philosopher king ensures exclusivity and is justified by the fact that “its something about their very essence” and it is you “essence” which makes you unfit for a noble role in society. Plato and Socrates were full of crap imo. Socrates deconstructed everything and Plato used that to create arguments to justify a tyrannical, elitist worldview.

    1. Thanks for commenting.

      Let’s seek depth:

      1. Socrates (470/469 – 399 BC) and his younger contemporary Plato (424/423 – 348/347 BC) lived during the time of the Peloponnesian War (431–404 BC). Greece at this time consisted of a number of more or less independent city states that had a wide array of governments. Athens itself went through democracies, aristocracies, and tyrannies, and getting conquered by the Spartans during this time. So, Plato in the Republic is not *just* pitching for an aristocracy – strictly, as he uses it, rule by the best – but is weighing all the various forms of government he himself lived through against each other. Few if any of us have anything like that depth of experience.
      2. The idealized aristocrat described by Socrates and Plato bore little resemblance to the real live aristocrats alive at that (or any other) time. Most of them dismissed if not despised Socrates if they knew him at all – a good example would be Callicles, a prominent contemporary politician who takes Socrates on in the Gorgias – he is a champion of defining Virtue as: the ability to reward your friends, punish your enemies, and indulge your every whim – an ever popular definition alive and well today, and the basis of Realpolitik between states – as Thucydides recounts, the strong do what they will, and the weak suffer what they must. Socrates and Plato fought tooth and nail against these ideas, as any reading of the Dialogues reveals.
      3. Speaking of the dialogues, only a small fraction of the discussions are concerned with good government. Mostly, Socrates is interested in the Good, the True and the Beautiful, and what constitutes virtue and the good life. These discussions are the foundation of Western philosophy, the breeding grounds for Aristotle, and, ultimately, logic, science and the most free and equitable civilization the world has ever known. It’s not deep to dismiss such a massive and profound set of works as mere apologetic for rich guys.

      Thanks for reading.

      1. Seeking depth has much more to do with analyzing the motivations behind the superficial language which sugar coats the true intentions of a man. Yes, having read the Dialogues many times over I know exactly what he says through Socrates in support of the Good; how it connects with Truth and Virtue. One must consider though that an aristocrat who’s status is compromised by a mob, which he expresses a disdain for, would justify his personal right to rule as an elite master by essentially describing himself when talking about a philosopher king. Tyranny is most often secured by one with idealistic promises that sooth the angst of an ignorant population; think Communism and the Nazi’s. A tyrannical spirit isn’t rooted in cruelty, but rather in a wish to be master and to have control. I know full well what the consequences of Plato and his Academy had on posterity, but to dismiss the claim that it is a massive and profound set of works as mere apologetic for rich guys is simply to take Plato at his word, which is antithetical to depth.

  3. OTOH, let’s not forget that the war with Sparta began when the Athenians voted to give themselves the treasury of the Delian League in order to adorn Athens rather than to defend against Persia. The Spartans may have been stolid, but they knew embezzlement when they saw it.

    1. Oh, yea. In Thucydides, the Athenians do not come off well. He was little bitter about the exile and all that, but even allowing for that, they don’t look good. And Socrates and Plato are very fond of Athens, but not so fond of how it was governed.

  4. I find that a great deal of the Republic starts making sense when one remembers that the city that we get is not, in fact, Socrates’s ideal city; he laid that one out early on and his Athenian interlocutors, horrified by it, called it ‘a city for pigs’, demanding he come up with an ideal city rich with fine luxuries. Socrates calls this kind of city ‘a city with a fever’, but he goes along with their request. Since fancy luxuries become important to a city through people desiring more than they need, and Plato thinks pleonexia, the desire for more and more, is the cause of injustice in a city, this sets up a very tangled problem — how do you guarantee justice in a city in which people are infected by the desire for getting more and more without restraint? And the weirdness of Socrates’ second attempt is, I think, very deliberate. You’d need to set things up so that nepotism is impossible, so that the people who are your leaders would refuse to use their position to enrich themselves, so that everybody ends up in the role in which they are most likely to benefit everyone else, so that it’s hard for people even to formulate the idea that anyone might be better off doing what’s unjust, etc. The first just city was astoundingly simple; adding luxurious life to it while keeping it ideally just results in a cascade of changes leaving it astoundingly complicated.

    1. Those are good points. Even within the idea that we’re building a city as a magnifying glass, so that we can see Justice in the larger and therefore more easily distinguish it in the smaller – the individual man – even within that context, it’s not easy to see exactly what Socrates is up to.

      He wants to stop with the city of the temperate, but, as you point out, he readily goes along with his buddies when they ask for a city of luxury. It would have seemed more appropriate to spend the effort arguing for the temperate city rather than ‘wasting time’ constructing the city of Lux – or, in his typical roundabout way, are the thousands of words spent trying to construct such a monstrosity his argument against such a dream?

      Not only is the city complicated, it requires a sense of justice where no man knows his own children, no child knows his own father, and the joys of marriage, which adolescents of all ages imagine to be chiefly sex, are denied to the very people upon whose happiness the justice of the city depends. That’s complicated right out of the realm of credibility.

      Thus, although his interlocutors wisely push him to explore the feasibility of such a city, I don’t think that’s the point, as the stated purpose is to see Justice writ large. All the people in the ideal city are to be understood as the faculties of a single man, at least according to the original conceit.

      And that’s a small part of what has motivated people to keep talking about this book for 2500 years. There’s no end to it!

      1. Well, I think we have to beware of assuming that a strictly literal reading of the city is right, particularly since it is explicitly allegorical in other ways. We may not literally make it so that people don’t know their children, but in matters of justice that concern society as a whole we do in fact often expect people voluntarily not to treat their children differently from anyone else’s. (Certainly the ancients would, as in the famous Roman story of Brutus condemning his sons to death with the other traitors when they were caught redhanded trying to destroy the republic; and governments in which nepotism is not a serious corrupting factor are relatively rare in history.) Likewise, in any just society those who become statesmen will be raised to regard bribery as to be avoided like poison; it’s just that in Socrates’s story he’s raised to think it is a poison that literally would kill him. And so forth. For quite a few of the major things that we expect people voluntarily to do in organizing their society we can find something in Socrates’ account where it’s guaranteed that they will do it, simply because things have been constrained to where they have no other choice. And this is because justice is being portrayed as the virtue of integrity — the just city acts perfectly as one, the just man acts perfectly as one, every part working for the good of other parts, with no room at all for civil war.

        But, of course, the first thing Socrates starts doing when he finishes it is to show how even such a city, come to earth, would inevitably degenerate by the accumulation of errors. In many ways that’s my favorite part of the book.

        It’s very definitely the case that there’s no end to it; I’ve never re-read it without discovering something new.

  5. The shepherd/sheep thing could get tedious if taken to its extreme conclusion. “The shepherd raises sheep not merely for eating, because the shepherd wants to achieve his natural end of happiness. Imagine if there were something about sheep that made eating them a sin. Therefore eating sheep is not the goal, but the happiness that comes from a life well lived, which may or may not include eating sheep,” etc.

    Activities are better defined by their proximate end rather than their final end. Would a shepherd who raised beautiful, healthy sheep on herbs which made their flesh inedible thereby be considered a *bad* shepherd? No, just the opposite.

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