Review of Republic (ca. 375 BCE)


Plato (writer).

Read in 2022.

Read in Christopher Rowe’s English-language translation.

A dialogue centred on Socrates. It starts with a public discussion of justice, with different thought experiments and points of view that are open to laymen. The work then proceeds into a longer and more technical lecture concerning the ideal Greek city-state. This connects personal justice to civics, where Socrates’s opinion reigns supreme and other characters—chiefly Plato’s brothers—take turns nodding. A short vision of reincarnation and the afterlife concludes the dialogue.

Substance aside, the narrative framework is weird for such an important classic. The real Socrates didn’t write, and didn’t want to. Socrates as a fictional character, based on Plato’s teacher but arguing for Plato’s ideas, doesn’t necessarily write, but narrates this book in the first person as if he’d written it, including the occasional admission that he isn’t reporting it verbatim. Plato, on the other hand, does not appear in the book. There are no breaks in the conversation and characters are not described as entering or leaving, yet audiobook versions run to about 16 hours; too long for realistic dialogue or stage performance.

Especially in the first half, there are colourful incidents that bring out the individuality of the speakers and a little drama too, as when Socrates mocks Glaucon’s pedophilia. Specifically, Socrates calls out the hypocritical way that Greek pederasts had of praising any one attribute of a boy because it belonged to a boy, even if the attribute itself was mediocre. This expresses a useful philosophical observation, distinguishing between the boy as a whole, the properties of the boy, and the manipulative dishonesty of the pedophile who directs attention away from the property he cares about. The same snippet of the dialogue characterizes both Socrates and Glaucon, and it’s a social satire too. Pederasty was widely accepted in Plato’s time, whereas 2400 years later it’s one of the most socially stigmatizing crimes on the books. Plato mocks it, effectively allying with the reader against the moral fibre of the 4th century BCE. Such colourful features of the dialogue gradually fall away as it becomes more technical.

It feels as though Plato was on the verge of discarding the first-person narrative and the framework of the dialogue, inventing the monograph instead. However, removing the literary decorations and the relatable requests for Socrates to explain himself better would have shrunk Plato’s audience. Working around the awkwardness of the first-person dialogue as a format, Plato does manage to provide a comprehensive, surprisingly coherent treatment.

The main idea of the work, which gives it such cohesion, is not justice or the theory of forms. It is essentialism, a bad philosophy that underpins the whole of the Republic. Essentialism is, among other things, the basis for the division of labour that provides the social structure of the ideal city-state. In book 2, Socrates gets some pushback when he trivializes the needs and ambitions of gruel-eating farmers, and he admits that neither jobs nor social status should be inherited, but nevertheless, everyone agrees that each person has a nature that makes them suitable for one job: One lifetime appointment, just waiting to be discovered by some unspecified aptitude test in the HR department of the state. Book 4 identifies precisely this natural specialization, based on the essential character of the individual, as justice.

The essentialism is never formalized or, as modern philosophers might say, operationalized, which makes it even weaker. Plato knows it’s weak, so in order for his farmers etc. to remain in their assigned places, he proposes several mechanisms of social control. Personal and communal wealth is banned because potters, for example, don’t work hard enough when money lets them relax. Life, and musical instruments, are to be kept simple. The content of poetry is strictly regulated. Despite the colourful, life-imitating features of the dialogue, art that imitates life is banned in Plato’s ideal city-state, just like in chapter 5, verse 8 of Deuteronomy (ca. 630–400 BCE). Indeed, the argument about poetry in book 2 consumes and dictates theology! Plato’s characters openly discuss how the rulers should design the contents of state religion to maintain control, in much the same way as the authors of the Bible must have discussed this topic amongst themselves. Plato’s rulers are noble liars, as if their subjects were not naturally suited to being ruled at all.

According to a sequence of arguments that Socrates is embarrassed to take up, women are to be “shared” and should be seen exercising naked at the gymnasium, though it will feel ridiculous at first. Children are kept from their parents and raised by the ideal state. Education of the young, or what a post-totalitarian philosopher of the 20th century might call indoctrination, is of the utmost importance. In the case of philosophers, education continues until the age of 50. After coming of age, they can engage in philosophy, restricted only by the duty to rule. In return, they are worshipped after death.

It’s a narcissistic notion for a philosopher to put a philosopher on the throne, and categorically deny—even by an inane arithmetic argument—that kings and tyrants are closely related. It’s also not a good idea; pure philosophers stereotypically have poor executive function, and in Plato’s time, they still hadn’t invented scientific methods or chaos theory. He writes, for example, about the emission theory of optics: A theory that produced the right mathematical results, but was wrong in every other way. On the whole, Plato’s utopia is critically flawed from every angle, but I can still see why an intelligent person at the time thought it might work, and separately, why they had fun speculating. Plato writes of hypothetical legislators who did not get it exactly right in founding their city; they keep making new laws thinking it will solve their problems instead of starting from the perfect constitution. The pragmatism of these hypothetical legislators is likened to cutting off the head of a hydra, and also to a sick person trusting anew in every purported miracle cure. The latter is a good image, supporting the wrong conclusion.

It’s a fun read, partly because its lack of rigour does allow for many such concrete analogies. The giant among these is Plato’s allegory of the cave, easily worth the read for its influence on subsequent debate. It’s also gratifying to find that Plato’s Socrates is suspicious of his own idealism. For example, in book 7, Socrates and Glaucon talk about people who try to discover the unit of sound (music) by listening for a perceptible difference between two notes. Socrates objects that such a subjective measure can never settle the issue. He is now vindicated in this detail, though his idealism is not. Musicologists today know that notes are made up of vibrations which can indeed differ less in frequency than people can perceive, and that the number of frequencies is infinite. A difference in frequency is nonetheless a material difference. It doesn’t involve the ontological disparity of the allegory of the cave. Reading Plato, I get the sense that he would have been relieved to know this, despite the damage it does to the narcissism of pure philosophers.

References here: Som en ateist läser bibeln, True History (ca. 175 CE), The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), The Invisible Man (1897), Anthem (1938/1946), The Lord of the Rings (1954), The End of Eternity (1955), Always Coming Home (1985), Watchmen (1986), The Ordinaries (2022).

text fiction