Plato's Republic, Book III

Summary

Book III of Plato's Republic continues the account of how the guardians of the ideal city will be educated.  As in Book II, Socrates is critical of much traditional poetry and drama.

The sort of poetry that will be allowed in the Republic

Stories told to the young must not instill any fear of death, so they must portray Hades in positive terms, not as a sad place.  Since uproarious laughter indicates emotional instability and a lack of self-control, gods and heroes should not be portrayed as laughing boisterously.

   Much of Homer, especially his descriptions of Achilles’ behavior in the Illiad, would have to be censored since it fails to encourage temperance and moderation.  Socrates’ most general complaint against the poets is that they often show the unjust to be happy and the just as miserable.  This should not be allowed; they should be required to tell only stories that teach sound morals.

What really matters to Socrates about all the arts is their moral effect on the audience.  So he repeats what he said in Book II, that although it is normally wrong for people tell lies, it is acceptable for the rulers to lie to the people, and to require the poets to tell lies also, if this is done for the general good.

Socrates’ distrust of the poets extends to the styles they use.  The more powerful the emotional effect on the audience, the more suspicious he is.  This is why he especially distrusts the kind of dramatic poetry where actors on a stage deliver their speeches: it is a closer imitation of reality, and therefore more powerful, than the kind of narrative where any speeches are reported by a narrator.

  For all that, it is still an imitation, as is all art.  This, it seems, is one of Socrates’ most fundamental objections to all the arts: they traffic in imitations, not in realities.

Socrates concludes the discussion of poetry by saying, remarkably, that is a poet of genius, like Homer, were to come to the ideal city, he would be sent away on the grounds that what the emotional and moral power of his work would be too dangerous.

The sort of music that will be allowed in the Republic

The discussion turns next to music.  Socrates takes musical education very seriously since he believes that the kind of music people hear when growing up can profoundly affect their moral and spiritual development.  Being able to appreciate musical harmony, for instance, will help one ot recognize harmony and disharmony in people and in other areas of life. 

Moving on to physical training, Socrates argue that while a fit body doesn’t guarantee a good soul, a fit soul will lead to a fit body.  He then advocates a Spartan regime, once again seeking to rid his ideal city of luxuries.   He disparages medical treatment for cosmetic reasons or for anything other than genuine sickness or injuries.  Physical education is important, he says, but without education in the arts a person becomes brutish.  On the other hand, an education in the arts without physical training leads to softness and oversophistication.

The selection of the guardians

Children should be exposed to various pleasures and fears at an early age to test them for ability and innate moral fibre.  Some will be selected to be “auxiliaries,” whose task is to assist the guardians; the best will be trained to be guardians.

  Those who pass through all the stages of the education necessary will eventually become the philosopher-rulers of the Republic.

The “noble lie”

Given the way that individuals are selected from early on for different roles in the model city,  Socrates anticipates a problem: people might be unhappy with their place, or the place of their offspring in the social order.  To forestall this problem, Socrates proposes that the people be told a myth, or “noble lie,” to reconcile them to the way things are ordered.  They will be told that every child is born with a certain type of metal in their soul, and this determines what they are best suited to.  Those with gold in their souls will be trained to be guardians; silver-souled children will become auxiliaries; and those with bronze souls will become ordinary workers.

In some ways Socrates’ idea here is meritocratic.  A child of “bronze” parents, if they show the right aptitude can be raised up; the offspring of “gold” parents, if they fail to show the right qualities, will be assigned a lesser role.  Nevertheless, the “noble lie”  proposed here has often been criticized as the model for bogus doctrines preached by rulers to legitimize the system they control.

Related links

Plato's Republic, Book II

Plato's Republic, Book I