Saturday, February 11, 2006

The Republic by Plato

Plato’s The Republic translation by Desmond Lee

Plato’s Republic is widely acknowledged as the cornerstone of Western philosophy. Presented in the form of a dialogue between Socrates and three different interlocutors, it is an enquiry into the notion of a perfect community and the ideal individual within it. During the conversation other questions are raised: what is goodness; what is reality; what is knowledge? The Republic also addresses the purpose of education and the role of both women and men as ‘guardians’ of the people. With remarkable lucidity and deft use of allegory, Plato arrives at a depiction of a state bound by harmony and ruled by ‘philosopher kings’.

The main discussion point is what makes the ideal society. According to Socrates (the main speaker) it would be totalitarian and undemocratic, Most people will disagree with this but it is a well argued point that shows that politicians in any age can never be anything but corrupt and challenges views that people may have about the correctness of democracy. This is more than just a book on politics. Society is also used as a metaphor for the individual and this book explores the nature of morality and living a just life as well as the nature of true goodness and true beauty. The concepts in this book are not easily grasped and it requires some re-reading but the effort pays off in the end. Some of the ideas may seem a bit obscure but this book still holds its own after two and a half thousand years

Book is done in a dialogue fashion, with the lead character Socrates (fashioned after Plato's teacher, the great philosopher Socrates, although the words Socrates utters in this and many other Platonic dialogues are undoubtedly Plato's own). There is a discussion on method (the Sophist Thrasymachus shows up early to make disparaging comments about the Socratic method) whilst trying to determine an adequate definition of justice, as well as a discussion on the virtues and/or utility of wealth and old age early in the text. Socrates moves the discussion of justice away from the individual toward the communal, and this is where the political philosophy gets played out in full.

Socrates, visiting Polemarchus’ house, enters into a conversation on the nature of justice. Several different definitions are presented by the various guests. After finding each of these lacking, Socrates attempts to define justice himself. This requires that he first describe justice on the scale of the state (or “The Republic”). Here, Socrates finds justice to be each person performing the task at which he1 excels. Since the modern “fevered” state necessitates soldiers, Socrates asserts that a method must be found to ensure that they do their job well. He then lays out a system.

Interesting parts of the Republic include the very early idea for equal rights and responsibilities for women, particularly in the guardian class. It is unclear whether Plato was aware of how self-serving his dialogue would seem, since his argument leads to the `natural' conclusion that the only ones who could really be in charge in such an ideal city would be the philosophers. Plato is not an advocate for democracy, and pokes fun quite a bit at democratic structures; he similarly disapproves of most of other types of government (oligarchy, plutocracy, timocracy, etc.) - one can discern the frustrated politician here.

However, the real power of the Republic lies in Plato's remarkable images and metaphoric stories in the second half of the dialogue. These include his expositions on theories of the Forms, and trying to explain what the Good is, and how humankind interprets such things. The images of the ship, the Sun, and the men in the cave are powerful images that have lasted in popular literature since the time of Plato.

List of Characters in the book
  • Socrates—narrator of the book.
  • Glaucon—son of Ariston (and brother of Plato, who does not appear). Presents the view that justice is something the weak attempt to force on the strong.
  • Adeimantus—brother of Glaucon. Describes justice as accomplished for its practical benefits. He and Glaucon are the only ones who respond to Socrates’ questions.
  • Polemarchus—host to the gathering at which Socrates speaks. He describes justice as giving others what they deserve.
  • Cephalus—elderly gentleman, Polemarchus’ father. He defines justice as honesty..
Call me crazy I find similarity with 'The Matrix'(movie) - Plato's analogy of the cave describes the mechanism by which our concept of truth can be usurped by our senses & social interactions. If you enjoyed The Matrix, you will probably be amazed at the insights of this book.

Anyone who is intersted in philosophy must read this book. From the natural ethic to the ideal state, this book has it all. I assure you that this book is not boring, but it is a masterpiece that should definately be read at least once in a life time.

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