Plato's 'Republic'

A thumbnail sketch

The Republic is thought by scholars to be one of Plato’s “middle period” dialogs, probably written in the 370s BCE when Plato was in his fifties. Although the main speaker is Socrates, the views he expresses are assumed to be Plato's.  It is his second longest dialog; but although the Laws is longer, the Republic is broader in scope, much richer philosophically, and more imaginative as literature.

  It is widely considered to be one of the greatest philosophical works ever written.

The Republic is a major source for Plato’s views on ethics, politics, the arts, education, metaphysics, theory of knowledge, and human nature.  Here are just a few of the questions it attempts to answer:

  • What is justice?
  • Why should we act morally at all times, even if we could get away with acting immorally?
  • What would be the political organization of an ideal society?
  • How should the rulers in such a society be educated?
  • What sort of art is morally beneficial?
  • What are the different kinds of knowledge?
  • What sort of knowledge or wisdom does philosophy lead to?
  • What are the main types of political constitution, and why do they all tend to be inherently unstable?
  • Why will good people  necessarily be happier than bad people?

The Republic is too long and complex to summarize briefly.  But it is possible to identify the main topics of each of the ten books that make up the dialog.

Book 1: Socrates refutes the idea that justice can be defined as “whatever benefits the stronger.”

Book 2: Socrates is challenged to explain why it is inherently better to be a just person, even if one could get away with acting unjustly.  He begins his answer by describing what justice is in a city, believing that this will make it easier to understand what justice is in an individual soul.

Book3: The education of the rulers (“guardians”) in the ideal city is laid out; so too is their way of life, and the caste structure of the city.

Book 4: Socrates explains what makes the ideal city just, and draws the analogy between justice in the city and justice in the individual soul.

Book 5: Because his interlocutors demand more details about the ideal city, Socrates goes into the relations between the sexes, breeding arrangements, and the communal raising of children. He argues that the ideal city can be made real only is if rulers become philosophers or philosophers rulers.

Book 6: Socrates describes the kind of person who can become a philosopher and the sort of education required.  He explains why philosophers cannot usually succeed in politics, classifies various kinds of knowledge, and elucidates the sortof insight into “the good” that philosophy aims at.

Book 7: This book begins with the famous allegory of the cave, which contrasts the way most people (cavedwellers) live and think with the sort of enlightenment philosophy brings.  Socrates then offers more details concerning the education of philosopher-rulers.

Book 8:  Socrates describes the main types of political constitution and explains why each of them is inherently unstable.

Book 9: We are given a portrait of the tyrant (who in most people’s view has the power to act immorally and get away with it), and several reasons for thinking that good people are happier than bad people.

Book 10: Socrates analyses the imitative nature of poetry, comparing it unfavorably with philosophy,  The dialog concludes with a short proof of the immortality of the soul and, like the Phaedo and the Gorgias, concerning the afterlife.

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Westacott, Emrys. "Plato's 'Republic'." ThoughtCo, May. 22, 2015, thoughtco.com/platos-republic-2670355. Westacott, Emrys. (2015, May 22). Plato's 'Republic'. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/platos-republic-2670355 Westacott, Emrys. "Plato's 'Republic'." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/platos-republic-2670355 (accessed November 18, 2017).