Review: The Republic, Plato

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Initially, I thought that The Republic was irrelevant to contemporary political thought. I had no interest in a book written before two-thousand years’ worth of political activity had passed. Then I remembered what my module leader on political theory had once claimed: each and every theoretical piece ought to be taken as an aim for truth, each book had universal aims. Each thinker thought that they were right, and so one shouldn’t take the simplistic relativist view. If we did so, we legitimise their mistakes and brush errors under the carpet. Rather more keen, I picked up The Republic a couple of years ago and read it over a period of two months. Unfortunately there are so many fundamental errors in his work and such colossal mishaps that it cannot be taken seriously today. Yes, it will have its uses for studies in philosophy and studies of ancient history. But no one should even consider applying his ideas to our political arena today.

The style of the read was interesting. It was formed around a conversation between numerous characters, in which Socrates was the main character. Throughout the course of the book, the conversation turned more into a monologue, and so lost its charm. But more than that, the way the book set out its ideas was based in logic, rather than inductive or deductive social scientific studies.

His entire piece is based on finding the truth in ‘justice’, and from this drew out the entire dry book. Essentially, he attempts to organise the state so that social production and justice will find their maximal limits. The lack of focus on the good life or happiness did upset me. Plato would completely re-organise society into three strands: i) producers; ii) soldiers; iii) guardians. Inherently, there are problems. Society today could never be reduced to something like that (we have the public sector, civil servants, merchants, primary producers, scientists, academics, the armed forces, politicians, journalists, etc.). Having said, I would argue that social categorisation per se is not problematic. Karl Marx’s categories do provide some value, for example.

For Plato, the key role is education. Finally, we had something to agree on. Everything else follows. Nothing precedes it. However, Plato’s education is in many ways a narrow tunnel, as opposed to a diverse and free river of knowledge and truth. He does hold that education will place you in society, which broadly puts the regime under a meritocratic umbrella. From then, it descends. Education is strictly censored. Only the ‘good’ will be taught; positive images of heavens, art must only ever be heroic or happy, music can only be upbeat, and prose must only encourage, and never satisfy, our desires. The centre-piece is philosophy, and by that every individual would be judged to their class. Philosopher kings, as Plato calls them, would be taught, if they are successful, for about fifty years, before attempting office. And yet all of this is so restricted. Who decides what to teach, other than the philosopher kings themselves? Who decides what is good and bad, other than philosopher kings themselves? Where is the sense of liberty and freedom we strive for? Is teaching about the ‘bad’ so wrong? Sad music, fearful prose, innovative art are all important forms of expression to fundamentally learn.

The only progressive thought I could find was Plato’s view on women. He would have given them complete equality, save for strength. And this is most surprising and speaks to me about the universality of his thought. Whilst others in different times would have enslaved women, Plato would have given them his warped sense of freedom. Equality is what equality does, and this I commend.

Plato’s work is rather a blueprint for fascism than anything else. Anyone who is terminally ill should be left to die; the psychologically ill must be put to death. Much is made about Plato’s philosophical sayings, and they were very interesting. The idea of the cave and the sun were instrumentally clever. The only problem for me is that Plato is in fact a member of the chained men in his cave, rather than the man who walks freely outside in the sun.

Article by Marc Geddes.
Edited by Matthew Byatt.

  • Tom Randall

    I would say that I agree with the majority of this article; however I have two things to say from my interpretation of The Republic, which I hope will help further discussion. The first regards a theory that Plato is actually not serious in writing this book. The second is that I believe it is wrong that Plato should be regarded as an early feminist, advocating equality of women in society.

    Of course if the first point holds true, then it raises questions about whether we can consider Plato advocated the equality of women. Alongside this theory, if we are to take the book literally, as you have, I still disagree Plato advocated women’s rights.

    The first point considers a possibility that Plato does not believe what he is writing is correct; rather The Republic is a fictional (which it obviously is) society, offering a different perspective of justice to the other people in the conversation Socrates is talking with. Contemporary society does this all the time; we can imagine a make believe world we don’t agree with personally, but use it to demonstrate some other effect. In the case of The Republic it may be to remove the Stoics of their hard headed view on what it means to be just and what consists of a just society. Or, perhaps the inclusion of women equality within The Republic is simply used for comic effect, making the book humourous; we do know that women did not have equal rights in Ancient Greece, and Plato’s student, Aristotle, writes that women are not as rational, capable e.t.c. as men are. Perhaps this entire society Plato supposedly envisions is meant to be a book of comedy. I don’t say I am standing in favour of this theory. It’s just something more interesting to bare in mind if you decide to re-read the book again. Though I don’t blame you if you don’t – it is rather tedious, and I’d recommend Sparknotes any day.

    My second point concerns that women are still not considered equal within Plato’s conception of the just society, if we are to take the book literally. I apologise if this is a lengthly comment thus far, as I feel using some direct quotes for this part of the comment will prove useful.

    Now, it is true Plato advocates that men and women should have access to the same level of education, within the class they fall into, despite biological differences. Both genders are merited on skill here. Plato goes even as far as to remove women from motherhood.

    However, consider this statement:
    ‘Women share by nature in every way of life just as men do, but in all of them women are weaker than men.’
    This can be interpreted differently, admittedly. I interpret this as saying women may be allowed to function the same as men within the same class, women still are considered inferior to men. Does weaker mean physically weaker? Mentally weaker? Given the time this book was written I would opt for both those forms of weakness Plato is referring to.

    Perhaps less ambiguous is Plato’s reference to women in the Guardian class: ‘all these women are to belong in common to all the men, that none are to live privately with any man.’ Women are not viewed as individual, having the right of choosing a man, but here reduced to their biological functions, a sex object.

    Worse is this statement: ‘Among other prizes and rewards the young men who are good in war or other things must be given permission to have sex with the women more often.’ Not only are women shared around by the male Guardians, but they are also to be seen as prizes for men exhibiting virtuous behaviour.

    Of course, the large irony is that if Plato was advocating women equality, he created it within an extremely unequal society.

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