Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Republic

Socrates and Plato: a medieval portrait
The Republic, by Plato

One of Plato's most famous works shows Socrates in an incredibly long dialogue with friends, the main one being Glaucon.  Together they discuss the nature of justice and plan out the ideal city-state, one ruled by philosopher-kings.  They also cover some other topics such as different forms of government, the theory of Forms, and the immortality of the soul.  "The Cave" is also part of the dialogue, as Socrates illustrates how men see the world and then how a philosopher sees truth.

This work has had an immense effect on Western civilization.  I find this rather worrying, since there was almost nothing in the whole book that I agreed with, not even the definition of what justice is.  I kept feeling like Kermit the Frog in The Great Muppet Caper"You know, that's amazing.  You are 100% wrong.  I mean, nothing you've said has been right."

After much discussion, Socrates and co. decide that justice consists of everyone doing what they are best suited to do, and minding their own business.  They then imagine an ideal city-state, and the cardinal rule is (essentially) that no one is going to be allowed to do anything wrong.  Of course they're the ones who decide what is wrong and right.  Philosophers will rule the state, since naturally they're the only people who can see truth.  Everyone else will be taught "noble lies" that will ensure compliance to the perfectly-ordered state.

In addition, it is clear to Socrates that "women and children will be held in common."  This seems to mean that marriages will be eugenically arranged by the government, not that promiscuity will reign.  The strongest men will deserve more wives, while unfit men may not marry.  Parents and children will not know each other; children will be raised in nurseries, and the mothers will nurse all of them in turn.  Thus everyone will treat each other like family and there won't be much strife.

After that we have a lot about types of government and Forms.  Meh.  And at the end there's a rather psychedelic description of eternity, and (as far as I could tell) a theory of reincarnation.

So: Socrates and Plato, you're 100% wrong.  I mean, nothing you've said has been right!


Wiser than Plato.




3 comments:

Ao Bibliophile said...

hi Jean! i love your thoughts on The Republic. they made me so curious that i grabbed a copy from Gutenberg and see what it's all about. :)

Jean said...

Good luck Ao! Let me know what you think. I kept wondering how anyone could find it convincing.

severalfourmany said...

Most commentators don't find it convincing. In fact there is good evidence that Plato did not either. The Republic is a dialogue, not a straight-forward philosophical exposition. There is even great doubt that Socrates intended it as guide for government. There are many times where the results of this hypothetical city would denigrate or outright prohibit the actions of Socrates himself, and also many things that we know are important to Socrates. This suggests that there is some irony in his remarks, or that Socrates is using this exercise as a teaching device or heuristic for thinking about politics and government.

Rather than thinking of this as a political tract, I think it is more profitable to think of it like a philosophical kind of novel. There are characters with interests and points of view. They interact and argue. There is agreement, conflict and sometimes compromise. But the interesting questions are not is Socrates right or wrong, but rather what is happening here? How are these characters relating to each other? What can we learn from this interaction? Emma Woodhouse is generally wrong about most things but that does not prevent us from finding Jane Austin's novel enjoyable, interesting and even teaching us something.