Is the attempt to determine the way of man’s life so small a matter in your eyes—to determine how life may be passed by each one of us to the greatest advantage? (1.344d)
I propose therefore that we inquire into the nature of justice and injustice, first as they appear in the State, and secondly in the individual, proceeding from the greater to the lesser and comparing them. (2.368e—369a)
The Republic: An Apology
“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”
The Famous Republic
‘The Republic’ is either reverenced, reviled or just plain ignored. Though it keeps resurfacing, it has been pushed back often, being accused of bigotry, racism, elitism, casteism, anti-democratic nature, the list is endless. But it is beyond doubt, one of the preeminent philosophical works and has been quoted, referenced or adapted by almost all of the major thinkers since.
The ideas of Socrates have had an afterlife that is as long and varied as the thousand year journey envisioned for souls in the famous Story of Er. It is impossible to catalogue the full list of impacts but Whitehead’s quote (introductory to this review) gives adequate flavor. The practical influence of Republic is more difficult to gauge than its impact on the theorizing of later thinkers – over the centuries, individuals have discovered in Plato’s works the inspiration for undertaking political or social or educational reform and have used it as the springboard for much revolutionary thought, and deeds.
Republic has inspired in addition to all the expository analysis, also countless creative interpretations, which have shaped our vision of future possibilities, limits and of extremities. Many depictions of both utopian societies and their dystopian counterparts, ranging from Thomas More’s Utopia to Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World to George Orwell’s 1984, have their roots in the ideal city brought to life by Socrates, Glaucon, and Adeimantus. Contemporary films such as Gattaca and The Matrix may not owe direct inspiration to Republic, but they participate in a long tradition of artistic works that ultimately trace their concerns back to the political, social, and metaphysical issues raised in Republic.
But in spite of all this, the original work retains a reputation for being difficult and hard to penetrate. This has meant that the scholars have more or less appropriated this brilliantly composed treatise, and that is a pity. There is great suspense in every page as you eagerly try to work your way through Socrates’ arguments… anticipating now, guessing now, failing now, but always on the edge of your seats at the sparkle of his wit and wisdom. The dialogues are constructed with an almost unbelievable care and subtlety. The drama is breathtaking and all-pervading, even in the stock responses to theoretical or rhetorical questions. One is never allowed to sit and absorb passively, but is forced to constantly interact with the dialogue. It is as much fun to read as a Shakespearean drama.
The Offensive Republic
Now, to examine some of the reasons why The Republic offends modern sensibilities:
Much of the contemporary discomfort with Plato’s state arises from his countenancing of censorship, a rigid caste system, etc. But these are in a way unfortunate misunderstandings. A close reading of the text would make clear that these catch-all descriptions of Plato’s state are not as representative as they are made out to be. For example, the caste system that is first to get blamed is hardly a rigid hereditary system, but a strict meritocratic system that is much more equal than anything that we have seen till date. It involves a strict battery of tests (similar to the aptitude tests of today) based on which every individual is to be judged (and opponents of IQ tests may relax – these are meant to be much more practical examinations).
Also, the popular rendering of the title as “The Republic” itself is unfortunate, giving it an obvious political and ideological overtone. In the manuscripts and ancient citations, the title of Republic is given as Politeia (“Constitution”) or Politeiai (“Constitutions”); Peri dikaiou (literally, “concerning that which is just”) is sometimes listed as an alternative title.
The Misunderstood Republic
I had planned on giving a blow by blow defense of the most reviled aspects of The Republic, but that is not the point I wish to make here. The primary mistake in criticizing The Republic is to assume that it was meant to be a political treatise in the first place. It is not. The whole argument begins from a question of identifying what ‘Justice’ is and whether it is beneficial to live a ‘Just Life’. This is the crux. ‘Why’ and ‘How’ to be Just and ‘What’ is this “Justice’ anyway? That is what Socrates wants to explore. He takes detours in this exploration. He uses metaphors – of State (as larger manifestation), of Caves, etc. But they all lead us back to the same basic question.
To identify this basic concern, we need only look at the complex structure of the dialogue itself. Republic’s “narrative” is structured in an almost circular pattern. This circular pattern is complex, evoking the narrative patterns of epic poems such as Iliad and Odyssey. Most basically, the dialogue’s two main concerns (defining justice and ascertaining its relationship to happiness) are treated in two corresponding sections (books 2-4 and books 8-9) that are interrupted by what is nominally a series of digressions in books 5-7, and 10. These nominal digressions, of course, create the dialogue’s most memorable metaphors, but they are meant to be digressions that add to the core. Not the other way around.
At its most basic level, Republic is an effort to forge a consistent and meaningful redefinition of “Justice”. The aretê that is explored lies in nothing outward, but rests solely in the mature reason and regard for what is beneficial to the soul. Not all the details in these allegories stand up to logical analysis, but they are not meant to.
This is made clear by the fact that The Republic’s interlocutors repeatedly draw attention to the incomplete, provisional, and at times unsatisfactory nature of their treatment of justice, happiness, the ideal political community, the theory of the ideas, the cognitive faculties of human beings, etc. The inadequacy of “the method we are employing” is acknowledged at 4.435c-d, at 6.504b-d and in many other places.
The Personal Constitution: A Constitution of the Perfect Life
The Perfect State sketched out (which is the stub of almost all criticism) is only an approximation devised to arrive at the Perfect Man, and that is why the so called bad aspects can be deemed acceptable. The mistake, as stated already, is to see it as a purely political treatise while it is in fact a treatise on justice and how to live the perfect life – the ‘Constitution’ of a perfect life.
“He will look at the city which is within him, and take heed that no disorder occur in it, such as might arise either from superfluity or from want; and upon this principle he will regulate his property and gain or spend according to his means.”
In the end, the state is not fleshed out enough to really form a complete constitution for any state that can exist in reality (and not just as an idea). But the psychological part (it is curious how this part has generated so much less criticism, in comparison) is – we return in the end (and all the way in between) to the original question of how an individual should order his life – what his virtues should be. It is a political critique piggy-backing on a personal enquiry and hence any commentary of it cannot treat them differently. Censorship, slaves, aristocracy are all wonderful aspects in an individual but not palatable in a state (to modern eyes). Hence, we can only criticize that the greater to smaller equality is not well realized (i.e. from state => individual). But then Socrates, as above, is always eager to make the point about the provisional nature of his metaphor which is only meant to incite thinking and not as an answer – that is just not the way to deal with true lovers of truth, with true philosophers.
[Cheeky counterproposal by the reviewer's alter-ego: “Or all the personal stuff is just a convenient cloak for the political criticism that is the real purpose! After all, we cannot forget the historical milieu in which Plato composed it. He had enough axes to grind!”]
Indeed, the more we approach certain aspects of the text from analytic and conceptual standpoints, the more we find that Socrates and his companions make innumerable assumptions and leaps of logic that is not satisfactory or fully justified. Each of these can be fairly scrutinized and contested, and have been. We may raise any number of questions about its relevance to our experiences and value systems. Much of Republic, especially its political philosophy, argument for Censorship and Social structuring, is at odds with modern ideals; some readers will doubtless be dissatisfied with, among other things, its unapologetic elitism and naive (almost laughable) confidence in the integrity of “philosopher-rulers.” Some, however, may find that its critique of ancient Athenian society opens the door to meaningful questions about contemporary cultural practices and priorities. And even more meaningful questions on how to organize our inner impulses and constitution.
Philosopher, Be Thyself
We need to understand that the Platonic Dialogues, in principle, are not meant to represent a simple doctrine that can be followed, they instead are meant to prepare the way for philosophizing. They are not easy guide books to follow. They require work from the reader, above and beyond the ideas presented. That is one of the reasons for the dialogue nature in which they are structured. Plato’s overarching purpose in writing the Republic was to effect a change in his readers similar to the change that Glaucon and Adeimantus undergo at Socrates’ hands in the fictional world of the dialogue. This purpose can be summed up in the word protreptic, from the Greek protrepein, which means “turn (someone) forward,” hence “propel,” “urge on,” “exhort.” Plato uses literary art, which in his case includes but is not limited to philosophical argument, to move his reader toward a greater readiness to adopt a just way of life.
The dialogues are thus intended to perform the function of a living teacher who makes his students think. One must philosophize to understand them. One must look at the microcosm of the dialogues as well as the macrocosm of the world that we inhabit simultaneously to understand them. It is in this process that the dialogues assist, insist and themselves provide a training in.
We can only conclude by asking questions, in the true spirit of the dialectic method:
Can we then say that we are convinced, that justice, as defined by Socrates, is something intrinsically valuable? Are we convinced that the just man can be “happy” even if he does not enjoy a reputation for justice, nor any other material benefit, in this life or after?
Have Socrates and his companions persuaded us that the ideal city-state they describe in Republic is truly the best political community possible? Do we believe that Socrates himself thinks so? Is that what we take away from such a deep examination of how to live our lives? Or do we let the Story of Er guide us back to the truer motives of the interlocutors?
“I really do not know as yet, but whither the argument may blow, thither we go.”