Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Republic by Plato (Book #87 of 2014)


After thinking through the collection of Plato's Dialogues and the overviews Socrates and Plato, I went after The Republic. I found it less entertaining and interesting than Dialogues but more thought-provoking.

Plato abhored democracy because people had wrong beliefs and would elect others with those wrong beliefs, leading the entire society astray. The Republic is the description of Plato's ideal city-state. Again, Socrates is the mouthpiece and scholars contend that Plato's later works reflect more of his ideas than his teacher's.

The first books deal with the concept of justice. What is justice? Is it simply the interest of the stronger party (ie: might makes right)? Are our ideas of justice simply put upon us by the laws our rulers create, or is there some universal definition? Thrasymachus contends that it does not pay to be just; the unjust get head in life. We may respect justice more, so perhaps it's best to seem just but actually be unjust (does Machiavelli echo this in The Prince?). While the argument ends in a stalemate, Socrates eventually circles around later in The Republic to make a case that it's better to be just.

Book III has interesting thoughts on God's character. Plato writes that God is unchangeable in nature, he cannot deceive or else that would mean he is not good. The Socratic/Platonic idea that the body is evil and troublesome (as seen in Plato's other dialogues) is elaborated on in this book. Socrates states that two lovers must not have sexual relations, because love is a pure feeling of truth whereas the body is base passions. While Socrates contends that the Greek cultural way of "love" between a man and a boy are vital to the boy's education, sexual intercourse must not enter into the relationship or it is not true love.

Socrates moves into discussing who the rulers should be in the ideal state. They should be made up of those containing "gold and silver," whose parents see them as born to rule. Bronze and iron children, on the other hand, will be the working class and these differences will be rigidly enforced. Rulers themselves must receive no wages or hold private property, lest they abuse power; they should depend on the working class for their food and edification.


Book IV elaborates on the lives of rulers. There can be physicians in the ideal state and these should work to kill off the weak and insane. Guardians should share wives and children in common.Socrates states that justice amounts to the health of the soul: a just soul is a soul with its parts arranged appropriately. Health is good, and it therefore pays to be just.

In Book V Plato writes that the interchanging of jobs among the classes is injustice, "the greatest of all evils." A free society of freely interacting agents with individual freedom is anathema to Plato.

In Book VI Plato writes that rulers/guardians' children should be separated and nursed away from the guardians from birth. Mothers should be brought in to nurse but never be allowed to know which child is theirs (sounds like Sparta?). This is because these children will engage in a life-long education and training to make them excellent rulers by their 50's.

Philosophers get corrupted by politics since there is much demand for their skills, and rulers are willing to pay a high price to have them. Philosophy is also useless where society disagrees with the "right" ideals as known only by phililosophers, therefore philosophers are useless.

Book VII is on education, the goal of which is to drag every man out of a "cave" of ignorance. The fact that a philosopher is reluctant to rule makes him the best ruler-- the best rulers rule out of duty and obligation instead of power and riches. Rulers should study mathematics from addition to geometry, not for commerce, but for making war and because learning about numbers upens up revelations to higher truth. Rulers will also study philosophical dialectic. Dialectic is powerful in the hands of those who misuse it, as many youths love to debate and stir up controversy rather than search out the truth.

Books VIII and IX deal with political economy. Socrates compares the various types of government: timocracy, oligarchy, democracy, and tyranny. Timocracy is a society driven by honor and eventually the birth rate of the less-educated people outstrips that of the wise, so that civil war breaks out and leads to class divisions. Eventually, oligarchy arises where the right of rule is determined solely by wealth.Oligarchs fear the people and cannot make war because they dare not arm the masses to fight lest they be overthrown. The oligarchs' desire for more wealth leads to speculation, high-interest loans, and eventually greater concentration of power in the hands of a few. Those who lose their fortunes work with the masses to plot revenge.

Democracy, then, springs from oligarchy- eventually a revolution overthros the oligarchs and people are made equal. Plato writes that from the outside, democracy appears to be the most attractive society but it's flawed because so many people are pursuing their endless passions. Eventually, this insatiable appetite causes people to neglect proper governing (including breeding at the right times, so eventually the progeny become weaker and weaker). "Drones," which are beggars and criminals deceive both the rich and poor into class warfare. The rich respond by limiting the freedom of the poor, and revolt ensues in which the chief "drone" becomes the populist tyrant. He kills all the good, enslaves the others, constantly makes war, and lives a lavish lifestyle. He panders to the other drones and they become his bodyguards.

(Depressed yet?)

The tyrranical man is the least-happy of all the rulers, he is also the most unjust. Therefore, it pays to be just. Only philosophers can determine who is right among the truth-loving, honor-loving, and profit-loving types of people. The philosopher, of course, says seeking truth and denying the body and its various passions is the best life and leads to the best afterlife.

In Book X, Socrates regretfully bans potes from the ideal society. Poets imitate the worst part of people, appeal to the worst parts of men's souls.

Book XI deals with the immortality of the soul. Socrates' earlier dialogue with Phaedo summed up much of his beliefs, but here it is reiterated that bodily damage cannot harm the soul unless it can be proved that it makes the soul meaner, kinder, etc. In the afterlife, the just and unjust will be rewarded accordingly. Where good works outweigh the bad, there is reward. Sins must be long-punished according to severity. It's from this chapter that one might see how the Roman Catholic church eventually developed a doctrine of Purgatory, by incorporating the (erroneous) ideas of Plato.

This was a difficult book to work through but I'm glad I did it. It is one which I should probably read repeatedly, and really only in Greek if I want to get it.

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