Believing in the Republic
Plato’s Republic is rife with evidence of, and commentary on, the nature of the Greek religion. Some of the treatment is overt, as in the censorship of canonical works of poets and dramatists or in the references to the powers and functions of the gods. In other cases, one can read about religion between the lines, not in what Plato says, but in how and why he says it, and in the evidence he feels it necessary to give.Among the most interesting facets of Greek religion is the nature of the source material. There are no holy texts, no commandments from Zeus. The gods do speak to the people through oracles, but their prophecies are notoriously vague and difficult to interpret. The only available religious texts are the works of the poets and playwrights. These are forms which do not pretend to absolute historical accuracy, since their writers readily incorporate the fictional and hyperbolic; Plato calls them “allegorical” (378d). The entanglement of literature and theology gives Greek religion qualities which modern religions wholly lack. The texts on which the religion is based are known creations of human hands and minds. Every history of the gods’ involvement in the human sphere and every tale about their interactions with one another is therefore accessible to the religion’s believers as a product of their own society, open to both religious and secular (that is to say, aesthetic) interpretation.The concept of the sacred text, and the presence within a religious text of a rigid code of laws, objectifies a belief system in a way that fiction simply cannot. Although poets are occasionally considered to be the offspring of the Muses, or subject to other divine influence, they are nonetheless ordinary human beings in other respects. They are, for example, much more ordinary than the prophets and scribes who committed the Bible to paper, especially if one accepts the idea that biblical scribes were taking direct dictation from the mouth of God. Greek religion, then, is much more a human project; the collective output of a society to meet some inherent need.From this perspective, one can better understand Plato’s seemingly reckless and insensitive censorship of the religious content of poems and plays. That the texts he works on possess no “sacred” cachet is essential. By altering them, he changes not the nature of the gods themselves, but rather the nature of humanity’s representation of them. The Greek gods preserve some sort of autonomy from diverse and conflicting theologies, a power perhaps rooted in the strength of an entire society’s belief. Plato, as a philosopher, is no less qualified to report on the gods’ actions and natures than a poet, even if he does so from a radically different perspective.In the context of The Republic, his perspective is based upon the creation of a hypothetical polis. The theoretical nature of this enterprise allows Plato even greater freedom from traditional theology. The extent of this freedom can readily be seen in Plato’s treatment of other familiar cultural institutions. For instance, he turns the family upside-down, at least within the guardian class. He undermines life-long partnership and, by giving the guardians a communal barracks rather than private homes, eliminates the role of the family as an economic unit. Without households to manage, women have fewer demands on their time and are thus able to participate in guardianship equally with the men, another radical change. Through his assertion of the three kinds of humans (gold, silver and bronze), which is incidentally given a religious basis, Plato also isolates children from their biological family situation, rearranging them according to their merit. He simply decimates the family from all angles, reorganizing it, showing no more reserve than he showed in his treatment of religion.We have established that the conditions are such that Plato feels comfortable changing the nature of the gods, but his motivations for doing so are also of interest. His first assertion is that the gods must be wholly good. This seems to be an unusual assertion for the times; Plato finds a plethora of contradictions to this hypothesis in epic poetry and in drama. It is puzzling that such an apparently uncommon idea is given so very little logical support. The establishing exchange is as follows:”Whether in epic, lyric, or tragedy, a god must always be represented as he is.Indeed, he must. Now, a god is really good, isn’t he, and must be described as such?What else?” (379b)The brevity of this argument and its total dearth of logical support beg some sort of explanation. One could potentially be found in Plato’s firmly held notion of the forms, but that will be left for later. There is perhaps another explanation, one of sheer necessity within the context of the hypothetical polis.Education, which is many ways is the cornerstone of the polis, as it is assigned responsibility for the accomplishments and virtues (or lack thereof) of all of the residents, is considered by Plato to be one-half physical training and the other half music and poetry. Earlier we established theology’s basis in music and poetry, but the inversion of the argument can also be made: music and poetry concern themselves primarily with theology. Gods play both major and minor roles in various texts, but there are few, if any, in which they do not receive mention at all. Plato is then caught in a quandary: if his citizens are to be virtuous, they must be educated, but they must be educated with extant texts, and the content of these cannot always be depended upon to foster virtue. This is why he resorts to censorship; there is no other readily apparent option.Goodness alone is not enough to establish the gods as paragons of virtue. They must also be immutable. Given the specificity of this necessary quality* so much more concrete than “goodness”* and a basic familiarity with the workings of Plato’s general paradigm, it is much easier to explain this demand than the first. Plato associates the mutable with the tangible world of the senses, and immutability with the world of the forms. If one can align humankind with the tangible earth, then the gods must occupy the heaven of the forms. Indeed, much later in the text, Plato establishes the gods’ role as creators of the forms. “The god . . . didn’t make more than one bed in nature, but only one, the very one that is the being of a bed” (597d). In this way, he begins to integrate religion with his larger world-view.Plato never stops to question the workability or efficacy of his newly prescribed notions of god. The question of belief never overtly enters into the dialogue. This is a challenging point: he alters a religion’s fundamental texts without questioning the imapct of this action on the religion as a whole. From a contemporary standpoint, the absence of this analysis is puzzling. The existence of the Apocrypha, and the question of the legitimacy of these books, has long been a point of contention within the Christian world. In one light, Plato’s changes to the Greek religion are even more extreme than those that would be effected by the addition of the Apocrypha to the traditional canon: he actually discards previously held truths, rather than simply accepting new ones. One wonders about the nature of Plato’s faith, since while his actions place him in a critical, detached position* more comfortable for the non-believer* it is by no means certain that Plato is not personally attached to and involved with traditional Greek religious beliefs.The evidence for this belief can be found scattered throughout The Republic. Most impressively, Plato gives the gods something of a power of sanction over the polis he has created. He ascribes at least responsibility for the implementation of his laws to the gods when he says that men can be trusted to create appropriate legislation for themselves “provided that a god grants that the laws we have already described are preserved” (425e). This admission resurfaces later in the text, when Plato says that a true reign of philosopher kings could come only from “some chance event” or else from a god directly interceding to inspire “a true erotic love for true philosophy” in the present rulers (499c). Even Plato’s purely theoretical polis is subject to the rulings and desires of the gods, and this testifies to his own faith.Periodically through the text, Plato makes reference to very traditional actions of the gods. Occasionally, he gives them great power so as to vastly change a situation in service of one of his logical arguments. For instance, he comically gives them the ability to pick up a household from the city and deposit it in the countryside, so as to prove its vulnerability there. On the other hand, he sometimes mentions traditional roles more seriously. Gods were said to originate their own rituals and traditions, and Plato says that to determine a proper course of action he’ll “inquire from the god what kind of distinguished funeral we should give to daimonic and godlike people, and we’ll follow his instructions” (469a). It could perhaps be argued that these are just Greek figures of speech, but they nonetheless prove the cultural hegemony of Greek faith.If Plato is a believer, as he appears to be and as he appears to think the citizens of his republic to be, how can he remain so in this critical environment, so hostile to pure faith? The answer arises from his identification* even conflation* of the gods with the world of the forms. Plato’s faith in the utter perfection of the immaterial forms is so deep that it serves to fuel his faith in the gods, also perfect and immaterial in their perfection.This conclusion is not yet satisfactory, however. The problem remains that Plato, critic and believer, was willing to distort the closest thing to sacred texts that the Greek religion had. Poems and plays, if not absolute truth, constituted the core of source material from which some version of absolute truth* his own ideas about the perfection of gods* arose. Where does Plato get the critical distance and initiative it takes to disrupt the position of such texts? His answer is in allegory, a relationship much like the relationship he imagines between a bed and the form of a bed. Or else, when a thing fails to imitate what it intends to or “when a story gives a bad image of what the gods and heroes are like,” it is essentially what “a painter does whose picture is not at all like the things he intended to paint” (377e). In other words, although true knowledge about the gods resides directly in the canon, many of the stories err in their communication of this truth. In this way, Plato can hold at once knowledge of the perfection of divine inspiration and clear nature of human error, and from the knowledge his faith is secured.
Property in the Ideal State
Since the birth of society thousands of years ago, thinkers have pondered one of the most basic, important questions with which mankind must grapple: How should society be organized? Plato was one of the first to write his response to that question. His work, the Republic, clearly outlines his plan for an ideal society. Aristotle, a pupil of Plato’s, disagreed with much of what Plato offered in his work, and wrote a response, called Politics. At the beginning of book two, Aristotle states that the purpose of Politics was “to study which political community is best of all for people who are able to live as ideally as possible” (Politics, 1260.27-28). In order to accomplish this, it was necessary to analyze the foremost work in the field, Plato’s Republic. In his analysis, though, Aristotle’s logic is imperfect and his criticism of Plato’s structure for civilization is weak.A fundamental part of any society is the way in which citizens share things. Plato argues in the Republic that, among other possessions, “marriage, the having of wives, and the procreation of children must be governed as far as possible by the old proverb: Friends possess everything in common” (Republic, 423e-424a). Instead of presenting an argument against such a system, Aristotle dismisses it without discussion. Plato, however, had a valid reason for putting forth such an arrangementhe wanted to minimize the strife caused by differences in property ownership. Plato believed that by eliminating property entirely, one could also eliminate costly civil suits and other such property-based disagreements. Aristotle never illustrates a reason for disagreeing with such an organization of property distribution.Next Aristotle examines a basic premise of the ideal society and rejects Plato’s stance. Plato asserts in the Republic:Is there any greater evil we can mention for a city than that which tears it apart and makes it many instead of one? Or any greater good than that which binds it together and makes it one?There isn’t (Republic, 462a-b).It is this basic assertion that Aristotle attacks, claiming that “the more of a unity a city-state becomes, the less of a city-state it will be” (Politics, 1261a.15-16). Aristotle believes that if a city-state becomes too cohesive, it no longer remains a city-state, but eventually becomes a household, and then finally an individual human being. What he fails to notice, though, is that Plato, in fact, wanted a city-state to resemble a single person as closely as possible. Plato does not delimit this well enough, as Aristotle indicates earlier in his argument, but still makes a valid point: if a city acts more like a single person, and shares pain, pleasure, and property, it will be able to survive more traumatic incidents. If, for instance, the city was attacked, if the citizens’ reaction was uniform throughout the city, reaction would be easier to mobilize. Aristotle never acknowledges this good of unity.For the sake of argument, Aristotle assumes that Plato is correct in declaring that unity is best for a city-state. Instead, Aristotle attacks Plato’s reason for desiring unity in his ideal city-state. In talking about this unity, Plato asks “then, is the best-governed city the one in which most people say mine’ and not mine’ about the same things in the same way” (Republic, 462c-d)? Plato states that it is. Aristotle counters this by saying that “people give most attention to their own property, less to what is communal, or only as much as falls to them to give” (Politics, 1261b.30). There is a basic flaw in this logic, though. If each citizen truly felt that these communal objects or people was his own, he would treat each as his own property, not as communal property. Plato understands that this is a leap of faith of sorts, but relies on his citizens to understand the property sharing scheme. Aristotle assumes that the citizens will either not understand or not partake in this property distribution schedule.There is another argument that Aristotle puts forth against Plato’s ideal state. Murder, both voluntary and involuntary, is bad, even when committed against outsiders. Against family, though, it is especially impious. Aristotle claims that in a society where no one knows who their family is, murders and other crimes will be more prevalentno one will be treated as family. What Plato argues, however, is that everyone will be treated as family, so murder will not exist in any form against other citizens of the ideal state. With shared parents and siblings, everyone would be treated as family, not no one, as Aristotle contends.Aristotle continues to argue his point against Plato, but is relying on a flawed assumption: that the citizens of the ideal city-state will not truly share all property. If everyone in the state actually shared the way that Plato envisioned, none of the problems that Aristotle raises would ever occur. Although it is true that Plato disposes of many common conventions, such as temperance with women and generosity, he believes those to be unnecessary in his ideal state.Aristotle tries valiantly in Politics to dispose of Plato’s ideal state as delineated in the Republic. However, he never actually addresses problems with Plato’s logic, arguing instead with Plato’s assumptions about human nature. Even so, the question of organization of society remains a constant one in human existence, and the simple existence of this dialogue between great thinkers proves to be valuable in answering that question.
Criticisms of Poetry in Plato’s Republic
After much deliberation and many intense arguments, Socrates finally reaches a definition for justice and claims that leading a just life is worthwhile both for its consequences and for its own sake. Although these conclusions summarize the main dispute of the Republic, Socrates ventures on to clarify his reasoning for prohibiting poets in the ideal city. Socrates’ resolution to forbid poetry may be viewed as extremely harsh at first, especially considering the current concerns people have with censorship. With a close analysis and better understanding of the dialogues, Socrates’ rationale for his judgment becomes much clearer and assists in demonstrating the negative effects poetry would have on the ideal city. In Plato’s Republic, Socrates’ ability to maintain control of the ideal city is upheld by the banishment of poetry and is essential to the protection and survival of the city. One of the key motives for Socrates’ outlawing of poetry can be observed in his notion that the soul is depraved and distorted by poets. Socrates reveals that the best element of the soul is “the one that puts its trust in measurement and calculation” (Republic 603a). This statement refers to the discussion between Socrates and Glaucon about how things appear versus how they truly are based on measurements and calculations. For example, an object can appear big because it is in close range, but when seen from a distance it can appear very small (Republic 602c). The only way to tell the true size of the object is to measure it and make calculations; it is not possible to accurately determine size through imitation. Therefore, when Socrates claims “the one that opposes it would be one of the inferior parts in us” (Republic 603a) he is referring to the people who oppose the idea of using calculations to draw conclusions and dubs them “inferior.” By accepting imitations as actualities, people are moved further and further away from the truth and are consequently altered from rational souls to irrational souls. The impressionable, appetitive, irrational soul is easily swayed by the arts; this is imperative to understand for the complete comprehension of Socrates’ ideas. Poetry and the arts in general were not created for sheer entertainment purposes, although that is the popular belief. According to Socrates, the arts appeal to our deepest feelings and innermost passions, even though most of the time we do not even realize we are being influenced by them. Poetry deceives most people because we do not believe we are affected by it, and are not compelled to feel what the fictional characters are feeling. In actuality, poetry allows us to live vicariously through these characters and behave in ways that are considered shameful. We are too joyous and extremely envious; we mourn excessively and we rage with anger, yet we would not want to behave in such shameful ways in real life. Although we do not want to display these embellished behaviors, we live with them everyday whether we know it or not. Socrates states that “We suffer along with the hero and take his sufferings seriously. And we praise the one who affects us most in this way as a good poet” (Republic 605d). Here, Socrates admits that at times we give in to the arts because of our appreciation for them, although we do not think it is acceptable to behave in such ways in our daily lives. He asserts that everything we see and read in the arts will eventually become subconsciously embedded in our minds and will cause us to act in a certain way, almost as if we have switched places with the fictional characters and have become the performers ourselves. Socrates recognizes the strong negative influence poetry has on the irrational soul and human behavior; he prohibits the arts in order to maintain control of his city. Socrates demonstrates how the poet corrupts this “good” part of the soul by averting people from reality and moving their thoughts and actions towards idealism. Socrates compares a poet who destroys the rational soul by increasing the strength of the irrational soul to someone who can take over and ruin a city by making evil people strong (Republic 605b). He goes on to say that each individual has a tainted soul because imitative poets create images that are not realistic and are secluded from the truth (Republic, 605b). In summary, Socrates equates the soul and the city, stating that the destruction of the soul will be followed by the demise of the ideal city due to the arts. If the poets are successful in persuading people to embrace and observe their irrational, emotional, and impulsive side, the ideal city will surely collapse. The abovementioned irrational feelings that all of humanity will intrinsically feel at some point in time are brought to the surface by the arts, and jeopardize the survival of the ideal city. Socrates explains these desires as the “appetitive soul,” which prioritizes instant gratification. When Socrates addresses the appetite of the human race, he says, “It nurtures and waters them when they should be dried up, and establishes them as rulers in us when– if we are to become better and happier rather than worse and more wretched– they should be ruled” (Republic 606d). Here, Socrates is conveying the idea that the arts manipulate people into having sexual desire, anger, pain, and pleasure. Socrates claims that we are all ruled internally by these feelings due to the extreme influential power of poetic imitation. He suggests that instead of tending to these deep, internal desires, we should conquer them in order to live better lives. This passage is of paramount importance because it clearly expresses how deeply influential the arts are. Socrates must ban poetry from his ideal city because the human appetite is too weak to overcome the temptations of personal desires. If the arts are in control of the individual, bringing to the forefront the irrational soul that separates us from reason, Socrates’ city will indisputably fail. Socrates’ theory on educating the guardians is quite interesting considering the fact that he acknowledges the need for the study of the arts as well as physical training to compliment his city. Although earlier in Book III Socrates underscores the significance of music during the education of the guardians, he also conveys his deep concern for the powerful influence music will have. Socrates’ acknowledgement of the need for music can be observed when he says “it is in musical training that the guardhouse of our guardians must surely be built” (Republic 424d). Here, Socrates recognizes how necessary the arts are for the ideal city and seems to be going against his own proposal that poetry is dangerous. In contrast to his own declaration, Socrates claims, “there must be no innovation in musical or physical training that goes against the established order” (Republic 424b). In this assertion, Socrates attempts to describe the importance of forbidding musical training from exceeding the laws that he so skillfully enacted to create the ideal city. Adeimantus then discusses the concept of the infiltration of music into society through people’s routines and daily practices, which could eventually work its way up to the law, resulting in the total destruction of the city (Republic 424d). The severe censorship of the arts that Socrates suggests is necessary to defend the ideal city from a potential overthrow. Socrates’ banishment of poetry from the ideal city at the beginning of Book X may come as a shock to some readers. In 21st-century America, we live in a world where freedom is of the greatest value and censorship is frowned upon. However, a careful analysis of Socrates’ reasoning reveals that he wishes to ban poetry from the city because it is created and driven by images as opposed to rational ideas. Images are three times removed from the truth, leaving poetry at the lowest level of the self; the imitative part, which Socrates’ believes will corrupt the soul and the ideal city as well. Interestingly enough, Socrates does not ban all forms of poetry from the city; he allows eulogies to good people and hymns to the Gods to remain. In fact, Socrates claims to be well versed in and appreciative of the arts and invites any lover of poetry to argue on its behalf (Republic 607e). Despite Socrates’ apparent leniency in this regard, he stands firm in his belief that poetry must be prohibited. In order to understand Socrates’ criticisms of poetry it helps to consider today’s media: television and ads shape our lives, determining what we wear, how we feel about ourselves, what we eat, where we shop, and essentially our outlook on life. Whether we know it or not, for many people what they see on television are the most “real” things in their lives, which is exactly what Socrates was afraid of: people straying from the truth by trusting in images as opposed to rational ideas. Socrates’ decision to ban poetry may seem like a harsh and tyrannical act, but it is the only way to maintain control and support the survival of the ideal city.
Plato’s Democracy as the Fourth Best of Constitutions
In his Republic, Plato enlivens the character of Socrates with his own views of how a just and virtuous city would grow into existence. In describing his ideal city-state, a society ruled by an aristocratic Philosopher-king, Plato also makes note of the four other possible constitutions: timocracy, oligarchy, democracy and tyranny. In spite of living in a democracy, he theorizes that democracy is too faulty in its inherent development to be considered a perfect living environment. Rule by the people depends on its citizens’ collective greed to establish laws, which implies that the entire city is ruled by the third and most barbaric aspect of the soul, the appetite. While Plato dismisses a democracy as a breeding ground for mediocrity, there is no denying that the freedoms presented by such a constitution enable the creation of political forums that allow for philosophers to outline their views on the ideal state. Plato’s arguments labeling democratic citizens as lazy and luxurious gain strength through his explanation of the soul, but he severely understates the role of freedom in creating the virtuous and happy people of an aristocracy. Plato’s main critique of democracy lies within his definition of an ideal state as one wherein the ruler rules only by reason, the soul of the city is properly arranged and the people are happy as a result of them each performing their craft to the best of their ability. This is his aristocracy, the one constitution that completely allows for a Philosopher-king’s education. A democracy evolves from an aristocracy, but slowly, and only after a timocracy has divided the city and an oligarchy has started the transformation from rule by reason to rule by spirit and appetite. As the oligarchy is torn apart by corrupt factions and internal strife, the poor overthrow the rich money-lovers who have become too lazy to defend their power. They institute a political structure where leaders, elected by lot, abuse their power to become as rich as possible by taxing the poor. These new leaders therefore contribute to the degeneration of Plato’s ideal character in two ways: they are themselves being ruled by the appetitive third of the soul, while also increasing poverty. People who are too poor to contribute to society hold no value, which, according to Plato, is the worst of all possible evils. Once a democracy has been established, all of Plato’s recommendations about the foundation of ruling are abandoned. The philosopher’s education is forgotten, leaving positions of power open to the under- and over-educated- people who either “have no experience of the truth” or who would “refuse to act, thinking that they had settled while still alive in the faraway Isle of the Blessed,” respectively (191). Rulers without the proper education will rule by spirit and appetite, or anger and desire, not as a Philosopher-king would rule with reason. Spirit would lead to irrational decisions and a lack of restrictions on unnecessary appetites that are dangerous to a stable society. Without laws, people feel no need to restrain themselves and there is a lack of moderation in regards to wealth. People no longer distinguish between the necessary appetites such as hunger and unnecessary appetite that is the desire for wealth. Democratic lifestyles will be devoted to amassing wealth, resulting in people who shouldn’t be in poverty to be so at the hands of outrageous taxes. Finally, Plato sees a democracy as the ultimate creator of mediocrity, a city in which people have no discipline, no commitment and no follow-through. As a society that is tolerant of all actions, the individual is free to do as she wishes without restriction. This leads to a constant stream of changes, as people avoid development of skills and crafts by walking away from any situation where a problem occurs. Unlike Plato’s aristocracy, where a person is confined to their craft until death, in a democracy people have the freedom to move as they wish from craft to craft. When they become bored or frustrated with one task, they leave it uncompleted, resulting in a class of soft and idle money-lovers who cannot withstand the sometimes agonizing pains of creation. Without commitment to a goal, these people jump around, satisfying their desires without discerning between the good pleasures and the evil. In response to an aristocratic questioning of their pleasure seeking, they “declare that all pleasures are equal and must be valued equally” (231). This justification represents the nail in the coffin for Socrates as he evaluates the democratic constitution, leaving him little trouble in calling a democracy fourth best. While the democracy advocates that all people are equal, Plato’s definition of an aristocracy, or a perfect city, places a clear emphasis on the fact that all people are not born equal. The only way to obtain happiness for the entire city is for individuals to realize their place and perform their role to the best of their ability. Although Plato’s critique of a democratic constitution is properly constructed in relation to his perfect aristocracy, he routinely and conveniently forgets to praise the aspects of democracy that allow him to state his views in Republic. A democracy, a “city full of freedom,” that gives every citizen a “license to do what he wants”, may give rise to the appetitive part of the soul, money-loving and idleness, but freedoms such as the freedom of speech allow for individual expression that when left to grow, can result in a happier society for all (227). Plato sees a democracy as fourth best, but in aristocracies, timocracies, and oligarchies, the right to say as you wish is regulated by the limited allowance of social mobility. In effect, a citizen would never suggest a different way of government because they have no forum in which to do so. A more fitting justification of placing democracy as fourth best would be to admit that although the aristocracy is the most ideal of all constitutions, it cannot come into existence without the help of a democratic set of principals. In order for the Philosopher-king to develop as Plato wishes, he must receive a moderate and censored education in music and poetry, along with physical training and other scholarly subjects. Only in a democracy would this type of learning be able to occur, as in a timocracy or an oligarchy the people in power would never sanction a program that has as its primary goal the establishment of a new and more perfect leadership. Democracies have “no requirement to rule,” enabling any person to step up and onto the throne of power, from which he or she can debate their ideas and eventually put them into place (228). This process alone among Plato’s four other constitutions seems like the only viable way to create the education needed for a Philosopher-king (228). If Plato would have stated that the aristocracy comes about through the work of a democracy, or that there is a dependent relationship of some sort between the democratic ways and the development of an aristocracy, his critique of democracy would have left little room for doubt. Plato does give credit to the democratic constitution, but only as an environment where citizens are able to judge for themselves which way of living is the most beautiful and proper. In his conversation with Adeimantus, Socrates praises a democracy as “a convenient place to look for a constitution…on account of the license it gives its citizens” (228). Although this may seem like the exact statement of the aristocracy’s dependence on democracy that Plato was missing, it still leaves out the reasoning behind labeling a democracy as the fourth best of all constitutions. If a democracy is necessary for the creation of the ideal state, that alone should catapult it to second best on the list of possible constitutions. Even though the majority of people in a democracy are either money-lovers too lazy to contribute to their own well-being, or poor citizens too wretched to even work, the few who do exercise their right to freedom are the rightful parents to Plato’s aristocracy and Philosopher-king. In Plato’s discussion of democracy and the democratic ruler he emphasizes that the people of such a constitution will be soft, lazy and without the commitment necessary to become part of a complete and virtuous society. Although the people of a democracy may not be truly virtuous, and therefore will not achieve full happiness, they deserve better than to be cast off as the fourth best of constitutions. A democratic society may breed mediocrity and lead to the honoring of unnecessary appetites, but at the same time the freedoms at the heart of a democracy are the ultimate birthplace of the concepts that lead to Plato’s Philosopher-king and aristocracy. Note: All quotations Plato’s “Republic”, translated by G.M.A. Grube and revised by C.D.C. Reeve, copyright 1992 by Hackett Publishing Company Inc., Indianapolis.
A Defense of Plato’s Idea of the Good In His Republic
The main prompt or assertion provided in the lecture notes, being “Whatever might be its philosophical value, the idea of the Good has no political relevance,” goes completely against Plato’s philosophical tenets and contrasts sharply with his two major syllogisms concerning the idea of the Good and the relevancy of the Good in a political environment. Thus, it is the aim of this paper to defend Plato’s viewpoint as presented in the concluding comments in Book One and the opening arguments in Book Two of his Republic with the assistance of Plato’s supportive dialogues with Polemarchus and Thrasymachus and the refutations of Glaucon and Adeimantus.In Book One, the passage related to justice demonstrates Socrates’ powerful intellect and his unflinching skepticism. The conversation itself seems to end at several points with no clear-cut conclusions, such as when Socrates says “The just is happy, and the unjust miserable? So be it. But happiness and not misery is profitable. . . injustice can never be more profitable than justice.” What appears to be functioning here is a type of irony in which Socrates and his fellow conversationalist accept without hesitation certain opinions that otherwise leave the reader pondering their vapid conclusions. With Polemarchus’ definition of the conventional morality of justice (“It is just to do good to our friends and harm to our enemies. . . It is just to do good to our friends when they are good and harm to our enemies when they are evil,” the vulnerability of the speakers can be seen in their separate terminology. Yet not surprisingly, Socrates probes every single deviation and term, thus exposing all weaknesses and limitations in his search for the absolute Truth.In essence, it is Socrates’ prodding that leads Thrasymachus to accuse Socrates of only answering his questions with another question. Socrates’ response quickly clarifies the situation, for he expresses “And the result of the whole discussion has been that I know nothing at all. For I know not what justice is, and therefore I am not likely to know whether it is or is not a virtue, nor can I say whether the just man is happy or unhappy.”Plato, on the other hand, appears to acknowledge a great deal in contrast to Socrates’s admission that he “knows nothing.” The core argument in the Republic revolves around the first of Plato’s syllogisms-A: To be happy, one must participate in the Good; B: To participate in the Good, one must be just; C: Therefore, to be happy, one must be just.” This statement is diametrically opposed to that of Polemarchus, for if an individual is truly good and just as a result of being happy, then any slights or acts of retaliation against an enemy is an unjust act.The second definition of justice is obtained via the dialogue of Thrasymachus in his justification for tyranny, where he declares “that in all states there is the same principle of justice, which is the interest of the government. . . . (thus), the only reasonable conclusion is that everywhere there is one principle of justice, which is the interest of the strong.” This declaration, like that of Polemarchus, is directly opposed to that of Plato and Socrates, who suggests that the stronger may not always be aware of his influence on his lesser subjects, thus making it necessary for the weaker to disobey him.The conversation then progresses to the point where tyranny (perfect injustice) and benevolent rule (perfect justice) are juxtaposed against one another. But Socrates, via a set of examples, prevails once again, for he states that justice is not in the best interest of the stronger, due to “the conclusion that the weaker are commanded to do” what, in the long-term, “is for the injury of the stronger.” This illustrates that the pride and ambition of the unjust man are symbols of his weakness; the just man, however, while being manipulated by the strong, remains humble, wise and objective.In the final stage of the conversations in Book One, Socrates strives to prove that the life of man must be based on justice and not injustice. For this, he utilizes the age-old analogy of the human soul as a symbol of perfection during his discourse with Thrasymachus: “And we have admitted that justice is the excellence of the soul, and injustice the defect of the soul. . . the just soul and the just man will live well, and the unjust man will live ill. . .And he who lives well is blessed, and he who lives ill the reverse of happy. . . (thus) injustice can never be more profitable than injustice.” All of this juxtaposition, however, still draws no conclusive answers as to the nature of justice, mainly due to the fact that such an extrapolation into justice is in itself a mere abstract concept which according to Plato deserves to be placed in some other spatial dimension beyond what can be objectively defined.In Book Two of Plato’s Republic, the conversation between the participants take on a more intellectual approach, due to Glaucon, one of Plato’s staunchest supporters, immersing himself in true argumentation in order to arrive at some type of consociation between the parties. Glaucon asserts that “man is just, not willingly or because he thinks that justice is any good to him. . . but of necessity, for whenever anyone thinks that he can safely be unjust, there he is unjust.” Yet this declaration can be viewed from another perspective as asserted by William S. Broadman: “The requirements of justice are not creatures of human decision. . . Thus, the trouble with Glaucon is that he does not even begin to understand what communal justice is all about” (Forms in Plato’s Republic, Internet). At this point, Adeimantus, the second of Plato’s unswayable supporters, interjects with some lines of poetry from the Greek masters in order to broaden Glaucon’s argument. He roundly asserts that parents are constantly telling their children to be just “not for the sake of justice, but for the sake of character and reputation,” for the noble Hesiod “says that the Gods make the oaks of the just.” Here, Glaucon is re-emphasizing his cultural roots and traditions which do not contain, at least in his mind, any relevant examples of true and selfless justice.Thus, after arriving at no definite conclusions on the just, the unjust, justice and unjustice, Socrates commences on his quest to construct his personal ideal of the Utopian state where justice will be balanced out against injustice and all individuals will be tried for their just or unjust ways. “A State,” according to Plato, “arises. . . .out of the needs of mankind; no one is self-sufficing. . . let us begin and create in idea a State; and yet the true creator is necessity. . . the mother of our invention.”This assertion then leads us to the second important syllogism devised by Plato, being A: Human happiness equals the good life; B: Knowledge of the Good is necessary for living the good life; C: Philosophers and only philosophers know the Good; D: Therefore, only if philosophers rule will the polis (the city) be led toward the good life and human happiness.” This syllogism was created via Plato’s premise that Good does exist and can be demonstrated as existing, and that only philosophers can truly have a knowledge of the Good. As part of this, Plato also maintains that “an evil soul must necessarily be an evil ruler. . . and the good soul a good ruler.” And here we can also move back to the main prompt or assertion at the beginning of this paper, namely “Whatever might be its philosophical value, the idea of the Good has no political relevance.” With this in mind, consider the viewpoint of W.H.D. Rouse: “Robbery and violence are normally called ‘injustice,’ but when they are practiced. . . by rulers, they are justice. . . When we consider ordinary citizens “the just man comes off worse than an unjust man”. . . Since the rulers do not obey the principles. . . they are. . . “unjust” (137).Therefore, Plato’s two syllogisms seem to be dependent upon one another and often converge into a single philosophical paradigm. In relation to the prime assertion, the question of whether knowledge of the Good is politically relevant can be answered in the affirmative, for if Plato had his way, society would be organized and operated by the so-called “philosopher kings” who understand the connections between being good, just and objective. Yet even with these enlightened persons “in charge,” the right and proper “opinion” would only work for a limited sphere of possibilities, especially those associated with the familiar, while true knowledge, even that held by the unjust and those without Good, will always work.BibliographyBoardman, William S. Forms in Plato’s Republic. Internet. Retrieved December 20, 2002. www.lawrence.edu/fac/boardman/FORMS_Republic.html.Jowett, Benjamin, trans., The Project Gutenberg Etext of the Republic by Plato. Internet. Retrieved January 26, 2003.ftp://sailor.gutenberg.org/pub/gutenberg/etext98/repub11.txt.Rouse, W.H.D. Great Dialogues of Plato. New York: New American Library,1956.
The Rational, the Just, the Virtuous, the Happy
Plato’s most precise ethical argument in his Socratic dialogues is that of justice’s dual effect; he holds that while a “good” may be pleasant in effect, it must also be good in itself in order to qualify as justice. Justice fills the whole of Plato’s definition of the virtuous life, because only by living justly can a person find true happiness. Similarly, if a person’s supposed happiness is based only on an action’s good and pleasing end, then the result is not truly happiness, but merely the wanton outcome of what happiness has come to represent. Whether the end be wealth, goods, food, or reputation, that sort of end appears as happiness only to the individual who does not realize the falseness of his ideology and who is controlled by his drives for physical satisfaction and honorable recognition. In Plato’s mind, only one who has a genuine understanding of the good itself can begin to understand the principle of virtue, and thus, the spiritual, intellectual, and political elevation in living a just life and in living the best life2EIn Plato’s eyes, through proper education, one reaches not merely knowledge, but truth. Following the allegory of the Cave in Book VII of the Republic, Socrates refutes the notion of education as “sight for the blind,” and expands its intention to include the redirection of one’s soul: “This instrument cannot be turned around from that which is coming into being without turning the whole soul until it is able to study that which is and the brightest thing that is, namely, the one we call good” (Republic, 518d). What inevitably comes of this is Plato’s call for properly focused desires. Through education one’s soul becomes controlled by rational thought, the producer of justice. Interestingly, Plato’s relation of the Socratic ideal society includes, also, those who can never fully achieve this state of wisdom, namely producers, those who focus on appetitive desires, and guardians, who are concerned chiefly with honor and reputation. An absence of the work of these people would drastically stunt city life. However, Plato knows education to be the center of improvement; as long as each human sees the good, sees the truth, and works toward it, the most virtuous lives attainable to each individual will be fulfilled and the most just society will result.In contrast, the beginning of the Republic includes the cry of those who feast on appetitive and spirited desires only, and who live only in the benefits of injustice. Thrasymachus seems to present a fair argument for injustice, holding that it brings the doer satisfaction in pleasure, wealth, or recognition. Socrates does not agree, however, that the majority of Athenians living comfortably doing injustice are, in fact, truly happy. Here, Plato begins to touch upon the revolutionary difference between presupposed notions of virtue and happiness and what is actually virtuous and good. Socrates most strongly defends this argument in his final attempt to sway Thrasymachus; while holding that everything having a function must, in turn, have a virtue, he asks Thrasymachus to consider the function of a person’s soul, which is to live. The two conclude that justice is indeed a soul’s virtue, and injustice its vice, upon which Socrates lays down the moral law: “Therefore, a just person is happy, and an unjust one wretched” ( Republic, 354a). Through this particular piece of Socratic dialogue, Thrasymachus’ convoluted spirituality is explained by his inadequate sense of virtue. The reader is left to assume, then, that Thrasymachus will never be happy until he practices virtue in justice.Plato’s most stirring message to his readers is that one has a distinct choice as to how to live, psychologically and spiritually. The conclusion of the Republic is most noteworthy for Plato’s definitive description of the best and worst lives. Through Socrates’ telling of the Myth of Er in Book X, Plato spells out for the reader how to distinguish the best life, declaring, simply, that a life is inherently better if it leads the soul to become more just. Moreover, while the tale involves a human being’s choice of a life, the soul is not visible for inspection, for it is supposedly “inevitably altered by the different lives it chooses” (Republic, 618b). The best life results from actions that benefit the self and society, and so, results in a soul that is the most just, rational, and virtuous. Complementing this illustration of human choice, Plato finalizes Socrates’ philosophy of a just life in “Crito.” As Socrates chooses death over escape, he tries to show Crito that “the most important thing is not life, but the good life” (“Crito,” 48b). We may not always have a choice of life or death as Socrates did, but we always have the choice to live well.While most modern readers certainly identify with Plato’s poignant call to live only the life that is worthwhile, it is important to consider that the philosopher himself might call our present lives a flagrant waste of breath. Although massive worldwide injustice solicits many to the scene of solidarity and peace-making, the American culture of capitalism would likely leave Socrates’ protests against instant gratification stuck in the country’s pocket of bohemian, hemp-wearing, social organizers. As blunt as this may sound, Americans in particular have a hard time turning away corporate job promotions in order to deal with homelessness; somehow, if the price of true happiness means not having a sport utility vehicle and not buying clothes manufactured in sweat shops, the prospect of virtue hardly seems worth the sacrifice. This is the culture in which we live, and turning away from it gets more difficult every century since Plato’s day. Yet, as Plato seemed to acknowledge, even accept, the existence of those producers and guardians lower on the spiritual spectrum, though paradoxically claiming that the virtuous life was the only option, we wonder if perhaps there is a chance for us, too. What if I give up the clothes but not the car? What if I live in this capitalistic world but I still really, really care about those less fortunate? As it has always been, all there is to fix in the world is too heavy for one person’s hands. With Plato’s written words ringing in our ears, we must, at least, work towards the most virtuous life possible.Although, for some, nature will only allow the virtuousness of one’s soul to improve so much, the orientation of one’s desires has the capacity to change and move closer to a domination of rationality. With regard to Plato, the best way to live is founded on ethical truth so precise it is nearly mathematical. Furthermore, only from ethical truth in rational thought can a being live a truly virtuous, just life that is in everyone’s best interest. Through a considerably political argument, Plato nonetheless creates a spiritual ideal from which Athenians and readers today are asked to disregard their misdirected trust in instantly gratifying happiness and focus on the greater reality of the state of the soul. Here, Plato argues, lies the virtue that fosters good for good’s sake. Only this enlightened life is the best life; should one make an effort to live otherwise, death would be a more sensible choice.