This early effort to deal with the deepest problems of civilized man sets the agenda for all subsequent discussion.
Knowing this to be one of the most important literary works in Western civilization, I got myself a copy of the Penguin Classics paperback in 1979 or 1980. I remember reading it while on evening lunch-break while working as a janitor at Vancouver General Hospital. I was surprised at how easy it was to read, and also by how wide-ranging its discussion was. For I was expecting it to be a work purely about politics, but what I got was, in addition to a work on politics, a searching examination of the nature of the man, the question of what constitutes happiness, and even on the postmortem fate of the soul. Plato showed how all these questions are interconnected, like the cubelets of a Rubik’s Cube: you can’t sort out any of them without sorting out all of them.
Having read the book, I realized that I would have to read it again someday, and that day came this year, when I took it up as part of my project of reading all of the Britannica Great Books of the Western World. Having primed myself with the rudiments of a liberal education over the past three years, I got a lot more out of it this time. I saw greater depths beneath the beguiling simplicity of the dialogue.
Like all, or almost all, of Plato’s works, The Republic is composed as a dialogue between Plato’s teacher Socrates and several interlocutors, in this case mainly Glaucon and Adeimantus, while they join a party at the house of a certain Polemarchus. In the course of some friendly chat with Polemarchus’s aged father Cephalus, Socrates soon raises a question about the nature of justice: what is it? For Cephalus has been speaking of the changes that come over a man’s mind as he approaches death, how he becomes troubled by things that never used to worry him when he was young. His conscience bothers him. And here wealth is a great source of comfort.
For wealth contributes very greatly to one’s ability to avoid both unintentional cheating or lying and the fear that one has left some sacrifice to God unmade or some debt to man unpaid before one dies.
To this Socrates responds:
But are we really to say that doing right consists simply and solely in truthfulness and returning anything we have borrowed?
And we’re off: an inquiry begins on the nature of justice, and does not end until it has carried us through examinations of psychology, politics, and education, among other things. Socrates is quickly able to show that their everyday, common-sense ideas of what justice is cannot stand up to scrutiny. Its true nature is elusive. But Socrates is convinced that justice, as a personal quality, is an indispensable precondition of happiness: the just man is the happiest of men, and the unjust man is the most miserable.
His companions think that this contention is ridiculous. What everyone really wants, in order to be happy, is the appearance of justice, to provide cover for their secret enjoyment of injustice. A man who was able to do whatever he pleased, to take whatever and whomever he wanted for his own enjoyment, without having to face any consequences for his actions, would be the envy of everyone and the happiest of men. Socrates’ interlocutors demand that he show them how such a man, perhaps equipped with the ring of Gyges, which turns its wearer invisible at will, would be not happy but miserable.
Socrates accepts the challenge, and the dialogue properly begins. The discussion leads into an examination of the nature of the soulthat thing which is capable of justice and happinessand Socrates, getting his hearers to agree that states, being made up of people, exhibit the qualities of those people, but on a larger scale, suggests that they examine the different kinds of state in order to study their subject at a larger scale. Socrates then tries to imagine the ideal city-state, the one in which the people are happiest, and it is this part of the inquiry that gives the dialogue its title.
Interestingly, although that title is The Republic, Socrates argues that the highest type of constitution is a monarchyor anyway it would be, if the monarch were a truly good man. And since a truly good man is one who both knows and practices the virtues, or in other words is a true philosopher, the ideal monarch would be a kind of philosopher-king. The problem for the founder of the ideal state would be how to find and cultivate the people capable of assuming that role. Accordingly, Socrates sets about designing the institutions and procedures that would lead to an ongoing crop of potential philosopher-kings for the state.
The dialogue covers a tremendous amount of ground, and is controversial in just about every aspect. Socrates’ interlocutors concede points to Socrates that the modern reader never would, and so his argument cannot stand as is for a political or educational or personal program. Even at the time the proposals amounted only to a thought experiment, since the obstacles to implementing Socrates’ vision would surely be insurmountable”politically impossible,” as we would say today.
But that thought experiment has tremendous value, because Socrates, via Plato, puts his finger right on the decisive problems of human existence, which have changed not one whit since the dialogue was composed in the 4th century BC. The founders of the United States of America, crafting a new republic, did their utmost to establish institutions and laws that would make their state as just as it could be made. What would they say about the militaristic regime that it has spawned, about how the public treasury has been ransacked to keep whole the millionaires and billionaires running privileged financial companies? To name just a couple of ways in which the body politic is shot through with vice. Socrates saw clearly that laws and institutions avail nothing if the men wielding them are vicious. That’s the real problem. It was a problem in Athens in 400 BC, and it’s a bigger problem today.
Socrates offered up what he thought could be a solution. The state he proposes is one that we would call totalitarian, and for this reason alone we would reject it, even though Socrates stresses that he is concerned with the happiness not of individuals, but of the citizen body as a whole (an early enunciation of the doctrine of utilitarianism). We can assume that the ideal state, if there can be such a thing, has not yet been envisaged; that’s work for geniuses of the future.
But I’ve only touched on the political aspect of The Republic; there is so much more in it. The dialogue is probably most famous for the analogy of the cave, which concerns the nature of reality. I won’t go into that here, but it does lend further evidence that either Socrates or Plato was the greatest thinker in the West up to that time. And it’s astonishing to think that Plato would then be rivaled in this distinction by his own student Aristotle.
In sum, the ideas in this book all still matter. Here is a clear, penetrating, and passionate investigation of them by one of the greatest minds of history. It is a book that amply repays the effort of reading it.