Reflections on Plato’s Republic

The soul has a hunch that the good is something, but it is puzzled and cannot adequately grasp just what it is…

Socrates in book 6

This summer I finally took the time to read Plato’s Republic in its entirety. Previously I had read only some passages from it, most notably the allegory of the cave, but I had yet to read the whole work. Now that I have, I am pleased to say that it is as good as it is said to be, and that it offers many valuable insights for modern man to consider. Admittedly there were some sections which I found particularly heady and hard to follow, such as his discussion of forms and discussion of the human geometrical number and its significance to name a few. The vast majority was not too hard to grasp though.

Before I begin my reflection, however, I would like to state that I am no professional philosopher and do not pretend to be one, nor am I any more than a college student. Nothing I say here has been thoroughly researched, and there are many people who have already written about the Republic far better than I could ever dream of. Nevertheless, I enjoy writing about these things and sharing what I learned and think about them. Therefore I write, and I hope that you might at the very least enjoy this little piece, perhaps even learning something from it or viewing an idea from a different angle than you did before.

There are three main considerations I wish to touch upon. First, the Constitutions, or what we would call forms of government or political organization. Then the idea of the philodoxer as compared to the philosopher. Finally, the necessity of God and some other thoughts to end the reflection.

The Constitutions

No doubt one of the most influential parts of the Republic is the discourse concerning the various Constitutions (or forms of government). They are Aristocracy, Timocracy, Oligarchy, Democracy, and Tyranny. Rather than dwell on how he defines each one or which is preferable, I would simply like to emphasize how these continue to be relevant to us today. I have heard it said by some people that the ancient Greek philosophers are outdated, overrated, and no longer pertinent to us in our Enlightened world. They clearly have not read the Greek philosophers.

It is beyond my scope and capabilities in this article to offer a substantial and lengthy analysis of the modern world and all its problems, so I simply wish to highlight some of Plato’s words in order to demonstrate that society now is not so radically different as it was then as some may assume. Perhaps the two most striking passages to me were, first, the discussion of class relations and how it plays out in the Constitutions, and then the discussion of tyranny and how a tyrant arises. For instance, take these quotes on class warfare:

  • “You cannot honor wealth in a city and maintain temperance in the citizens at the same time, but must inevitable neglect one or the other”
  • “The negligent encouragement of intemperance in oligarchies, then, sometimes reduces people who are not ill born to poverty.”
  • “And these people sit around the city…some of them in debt, some disenfranchised, some both…passionately longing for revolution.”
  • “These moneymakers…inject the poison of their money into any of the rest who do not resist…greatly increases the size of the drone and beggar class in the city.”
  • “The democracy comes about, I suppose, when the poor are victorious, kill or expel the others, and give the rest an equal share in the constitution and the ruling offices”

Is this not exactly what Marx and the rest spoke of in their Communist Manifesto, or what we often observe today? I would bet that if I took the quote on longing for revolution and related it to someone and asked them to guess who said it, they would not guess Plato unless they were an extremely well read scholar. Yet, this is the philosopher whom some say has no relevance to us today due to writing thousands of years ago. If you are not here convinced of the political relevance of the Republic, perhaps you will be after these following quotes on tyranny:

  • “In the end, as I am sure you are aware, they take no notice of the laws–written or unwritten–in order to avoid having any master at all.”
  • “And don’t the people always tend to set up one man as their special leader, nurturing him and making him great?”
  • “And it is clear that when a tyrant arises, the position of popular leader is the sole root from which he springs.”
  • “And everyone who has reached this stage soon discovers the famous tyrranical request–to ask the people to give him a bodyguard to keep the popular leader safe for them.”
  • “Once he has dealt with his exiled enemies by making peace with some and destroying others, all is calm on that front, his primary concern, I imagine, is to be constantly stirring up some war or other, so that the people will need a leader.”
  • “Impoverished by war taxes, they will be compelled to concentrate on their daily needs and be less likely to plot against him”
  • “If there are some free-thinking people he suspects of rejecting his rule, he can find pretexts for putting them at the mercy of the enemy and destroying them”
  • “All these actions tend to make him more hateful to the citizens”

Once again, in the words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem, “there is no new thing under the sun.” These words sound as if they have come from someone who had just experienced the 20th century rise of fascism, communism, and dictatorial regimes, and apply just as much to our modern regimes as they did to Plato’s own. I feel as if his words speak for themselves, so I will not attempt to offer additional commentary here.

The Philodoxer

At the end of Book 5, Plato distinguishes between the “philodoxer” (ϕιλόδοξος, which is to say loving belief or opinion as well as glory) and the “philosopher” (φιλόσοφος, which is to say loving wisdom or knowledge). Plato states that the philodoxer would be those who “have beliefs about [justice and beauty], but have no knowledge of what these beliefs are about.” Someone who believes there are beautiful things but “that there is no beautiful itself.” Because the philodoxer is a lover of opinion, belief, and glory, they are additionally willing to change their opinions in order to appear better to others. Meanwhile, the philosopher is willing to pursue truth for the sake of it, even when it is unpopular with the majority. The philosopher also seeks the entire truth and is “never willing to tolerate falsehood in any form.” The philodoxer, on the other hand, is willing to tolerate falsehood in order to gain favor among others, and may readily believe that which is false because they love belief, not truth.

This duality struck me because it seems especially pertinent to our current social climate, whether it be among the general population, the media, the government, or academia. Do people today earnestly seek truth, or do they adopt opinions because it makes them appear virtuous, correct, or popular? The subjectivist outlook on morals, justice, aesthetics, and religion which dominates Western society is testament to this. People claim such and such thing to be right, true, beautiful, just, or moral, yet they do not believe that any of these things have a concrete and inherent existence apart from their belief or popular opinion. The philodoxer might say “you still believe that in [current year]?” or might readily buy into the latest ideological fad without devoting any research into the subject themselves. They have opinions, but no knowledge. This is not really a left vs right issue, either. Many conservatives happily buy into an election conspiracy because their dear leader propagates it, oppose any social reform simply because it originates from the other side, and hold opinions without any substantial basis for them.

This problem is worryingly prevalent in academia, an area supposedly dedicated to learning and wisdom. The university today is a hotbed of ideologues who oppose any speech or opinion which runs contrary to the accepted norm. This is not to say the accepted norm is always wrong, but rather that if we are to learn, we must be open to questioning and criticism. The true philosopher asks questions and explores even when it is unpopular, as long as it leads to the uncovering of truth.

The Necessity of God

The idea of there being truth requires that ideas like what is good and right must have some basis; there must be goodness in and of itself. Plato states that even above the love of knowledge is the form of the good, and that if we do not know the good, then not even the fullest possible knowledge of everything else is of any benefit. Then, in what amounts to a scathing rebuke of modern society, he says, “the masses believe pleasure to be the good.” Our culture today worships pleasure. Whatever makes you feel good is the modern mantra. Yet, Plato says, those same people must admit there is such a thing as bad pleasures. Pedophilia, rape, murder, and the like may bring pleasure to some twisted minds, so clearly pleasure cannot be the good, otherwise these things would be good and they are clearly not. Plato also states that people want to know what is good, not what is believed to be good, and thus every soul is constantly pursuing that which is good. I believe this is generally true of people, that they are earnestly seeking the good, though they often are led astray or end up following a perversion of the good.

My favorite line from all of the Republic is this: “The soul has a hunch that the good is something, but it is puzzled and cannot adequately grasp just what it is or acquire some sort of stable belief about it that it has about the other things, and so it misses the benefit, if any, that even those other things may give.” Plato’s conception of the Form of the Good in the Republic, an eternal and changeless Form which is the source of all good things, led to Aristotle and Plotinus’s concept of the One, the cause of all things which is itself uncaused. The Form of the Good can be said to be a glimpse of the Christian God, as we believe God to be the eternal and changeless source of all goodness and truth. In fact, these very ideas led to some of the mainstream theological ideas of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam (see Aquinas’ argument from causation for instance).

When I read Plato’s dialogue, the search for and necessity of God was clear to me. The good exists, but it is eternal and universal, and man cannot fully grasp what the good is. We may have an idea of the good (our conscience) but we do not have full understanding. The only way for us to truly know what is good is through divine revelation.

This question is one which philosophers continue to debate today and is far too complicated to get into now, but suffice it to say my faith was strengthened after reading the Republic.

Some Other Thoughts

The allegory of the cave, the constitutions, the forms, and the philosopher-king are all fairly well known concepts and highlights of Plato’s Republic, yet they are only small pieces of the work. The Guardians, the criticism of some defenses of justice, the importance of education, the condemnation of many kinds of poetry, sex by lottery and a state-sponsored eugenics program, and a complete lack of any private sphere are discussed and known far less. Indeed, many of the topics in the Republic are outdated to some extent when viewed through a modern lens. However, they still have benefit to us when we apply the principles today. We may not arrive at the same conclusions at Plato, but we can at least go through his lines of reasoning. For instance, his critique of poetry and myths of the gods could be applied in a modern context to, say, film. We could imagine how Plato would treat film and other media in Kallipolis or the modern city of our own making.

Another issue is that when our liberal view of freedom is held in mind, Plato and his city seem rather repressive and totalitarian. However, criticizing him from this angle ignores the goal of his ideal society. Plato’s conception of freedom and autonomy is not so much about maximizing choices and ability to do whatever one wants, but instead maximizing real freedom, which to him means freedom from vices and outside forces which an individual might choose if he has freedom under the liberal conception. Kallipolis, then, is designed by Plato to provide as much real happiness and real freedom as possible, even if this means denying people absolute freedom and autonomy, since such absolute freedom can lead to unhappiness, injustice, and even a loss of freedom. Of course, this repression would seem extremely damaging if the citizens did not understand what is just, what is true, and what is good. Therefore, Plato emphasizes the necessity of education and training in order to form citizens into rational thinkers who have freedom because they control themselves and order themselves and their desires correctly, so that they are not controlled or enslaved by others. Plato is attempting to create a society which facilitates the good life for its members, and in doing so fashions a city which he believes accomplishes this to the greatest extent possible. One need not agree with him, but they at least ought to recognize that he is not merely an outdated and irrelevant champion of tyranny, totalitarianism, and oppression, but is working in good faith to create the best possible society.

Conclusion

Overall I really enjoyed the Republic and understand perfectly why it is one of the great works of Western Thought. I would recommend reading it if you have not already. All the quotes in this article are from the Hackett Publishing Company edition, Translated from the New Standard Greek Text, with Introduction, by C. D. C. Reeve. It is easy to read, uses fairly modern language, and is laid out in dialogue form. Sometimes the dialogue can be a bit funny because it usually just amounts to someone agreeing with Plato, but there are some really good passages from characters besides Plato, such as Thrasymachus in Book 1.

Next I will be reading Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville. Already I am enjoying it and I will certainly be writing a reflection on it as well.

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