Plato's Republic, Book VI


Book VI of Plato's Republic begins with a description of the kind of individual who has the qualities required to be a philosopher, and hence to become a philosopher king.  He or she must have a good memory, be quick to learn, high-minded, brave, graceful, temperate, love truth and love learning.  Socrates acknowledges, though, that this is not how most people view philosophers; on the contrary, they tend to view them as either crazy eccentrics or as utterly useless.


Why philosophers are usually useless

Interestingly, Socrates agrees that the majority have a point: philosophers do tend to be useless.  He explains why this is so using the metaphor of the ship of state, the first in a series of brilliant metaphors that illuminate these central sections of the dialog and culminate in the famous allegory of the cave.  On board a ship, if a dispute arises concerning the ships’s course, the sailors will listen to whoever can speak most persuasively.  They will ignore, and even ridicule, the person who spends his time looking at the stars.  Yet it is the stargazer, who they all consider useless and impractical, who actually has the knowledge they need.  Philosophers are in the position of the stargazer. They alone have the sort of insight and understanding that society needs if it is to be happy and just; but people don’t realize this and consider philosophy to be useless.

Why some who are drawn to philosophy turn out badly

Socrates also addresses a more troubling question: why is it that many of those drawn to philosophy eventually become wicked?  In the background to this question lurk the ghosts of Alcibiades, Charmides, and Critias,  close associates of Socrates who turned out badly.

  His explanation is interesting: he says that those with the best natures are also capable of becoming the very worst types, and this may happen when they receive a bad upbringing.  Other famous examples that illustrate the idea of the best being potentially the worst include Macbeth and Darth Vadar.

Exploring further the problem of how good natures become corrupted, Socrates identifies the sophists as an especially blameworthy party.  The sophists were travelling intellectuals and teachers who were especially in demand as teachers of rhetoric and oratory–the arts of persuasive speaking.  In many dialogs Plato insists on a sharp distinction between the sophists and genuine philosophers like Socrates (who in his day was was popularly viewed a sophist).  The essential difference, according to Plato, is that philosophers aim at truth while sophists are only interested in persuasion.  But persuading large numbers of uniformed people to vote for you or to do as you say usually involves pandering to the mob rather than telling them the inconvenient truths they don’t want to hear.  Sophists thus contribute to a toxic atmosphere in which individuals who might, in better circumstances, become philosophers, are pulled toward an unsavory kind of politics.

Taming the Beast 

Socrates illustrates this idea with another simile, that of the unruly beast that needs to be tamed.  The beast represents the people, society at large; the tamers are the politicians, orators and demagogues who curry favor with the masses, promising them whatever they want, regardless of whether it is truly valuable or beneficial.  The metaphor can easily be extended further, beyond politics to fields like film or literature, where the filmmakers and authors who are most admired are not those who do the best work but, rather, those who achieve the highest box office takings or sell the most books.  They too, in their own way, feed the beast what it wants.

Why philosophers are rare

Most people, Socrates argues, cannot become philosophers; they are too much “lovers of sights and sounds,” fascinated by everything in the world of the senses.

  Moreover, to be a philosopher one must have both a keen intellect and a stable character, but these are not often found together.  People who are very quick witted tend often to be disorderly and intemperate, while those who are very stable also tend to be intellectually a little dull.

Since philosophers find the political world an inhospitable environment, those who are not corrupted by it typically withdraw from it–as Socrates himself did.  But this is not an ideal situation.  The ideal life for a philosopher, Socrates says, is not that of the withdrawn intellectual but a life in which they are engaged in their community, able to benefit it with their wisdom.  Where this is possible, the philosopher’s own moral and intellectual growth is also greater.

The nature of philosophical wisdom

What do philosophers have to offer their society that is so valuable.  Socrates gives a surprising answer to this question.  He argues that the enlightened philosopher possesses something that is more important even than justice and all the other virtues: namely, knowledge of the Form of the Good.  This knowledge enables them to understand the real value of things, and without it even the most complete knowledge of specific fields will be of no benefit to anyone.

Talk about knowing the Form of the Good is rather abstract, but a simple example may illustrate both the meaning and the plausibility of Socrates’ claim.  Scientists can acquire an impressive level of technical knowledge about, say, nuclear energy.  But whether this knowledge will be benefit humanity rather than destroy it or cause massive environmental problems depends on how wisely it is used.  And whether it is used wisely depends on how well those in power understand what is best for the planet.

The Good

Socrates' discussion of the Form of the Goof obviously raises the question: What is the good?  That question itself is rather abstract, and can perhaps be broken into two more specific questions/  What is the source of value in the world?

  And what values should guide the way we live? 

Most people identify the good with pleasure, but Socrates rejects this idea since some pleasures are obviously bad.  Possibly the good is knowledge, but Socrates doesn’t commit himself to this view.  He notes that everything we do is done for the sake of something we consider good (e.g. happiness, or truth), and that everyone ultimately wants what is really good, not just what appears good.  But he isn’t able to say exactly what the good is, and implies that all he can offer on this question is a mere opinion, not genuine knowledge.

How the Good is like the sun

Rather than describing the good itself, Socrates proposes to describe what he calls an “offspring” of the good, which turns out to be another marvelous metaphor.  He draws an analogy between the Good and the sun.  In the visible realm, seeing an object requires three things: the object; the sense of sight; and light, which renders the object visible.  In the intellectual realm (where we try to understand things) the Form of the Good renders things intelligible.  For if we understand how they relate to the Good, we will understand why it is for the best that things are the way they are.  The sun and the Form of the Good are analogous in a further way.  Just as the sun nourishes everything, making life and growth possible, so the Form of the Good is ultimately responsible for the existence of things, since things exist for the sake of some ultimate (perhaps divine) plan.  Plato has Socrates express the same idea in the Phaedo. It seems to be one of his fundamental articles of faith.

The divided line

Book VI ends with a somewhat complicated account of the types of human knowledge.  Socrates imagines a line divided into sections.  The main division is between knowledge and opinion.  Mere “opinion” is likened to thinking in terms of images, and the objects one “images” are likened to shadows and reflections.  “Belief” is set higher than “opinion,” and it relates to the sort of ordinary objects in the material world that we can see with our eyes.  “Thought” is higher still, and relates to geometry and the other sciences.  This knowledge is more abstract, but it is not entirely so since it makes use of diagrams, and it is not ultimate since it rests on hypothetical assumptions.  The highest kind of knowledge is “understanding,” which is arrived at through reason (specifically, dialectical reasoning of the kind illustrated in some of Plato’s dialogs) and concerns first principles which are not just assumed but established as certain truths.