Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Plato's Republic

I tend to write from within the Christian Platonist tradition. Plato himself, however, I have never studied as deeply as I would have liked. The Republic I have read mainly for its teachings on epistemology and education, but I still do not quite know how to take the whole political discussion, in which Socrates seems to advocate that wives and children should be held in common - in other words, he proposes the destruction of the family for the sake of good government. Christians sympathetic to Plato's other views tend to shy away from this rather central theme in The Republic, and focus more on the very different prescriptions and arguments in his later dialogue, The Laws. So was Plato a totalitarian or communist thinker, as Karl Popper and others have alleged? Or is there some
other way of reading these texts, as Leo Strauss, Hans-Georg Gadamer and Eric Voegelin have suggested? Simone Weil is an insightful writer who knew Greek well, and her comments in Intimations of Christianity Among the Ancient Greeks are worth noting here. She believes that Plato viewed society as an obstacle between man and God, an obstacle that "only God can overcome". The "great beast" of Republic 493a is the same as the beast of the Apocalypse. "This is what Plato understood and his construction of an ideal city in the Republic is purely symbolic. There is frequent misunderstanding upon this subject."

The clue comes in Book II (368c-369b). Socrates is proposing to construct a theoretical model of an ideal city in order to explore the notion of justice in the human soul, projected outwards as it were (see e.g. 443d-e). But Glaucon objects that the city Socrates describes first (see 372a-c) is lacking in luxury - such things as couches and desserts. To this Socrates replies that he now understands Glaucon to be interested not in a healthy city but in a luxurious city, a "city with a fever" (372e).

In the rest of the book he goes on to develop this second city in great detail, and this is the city we normally associate with The Republic. It is this city that needs to be defended from enemies outside and within, who are jealous of its possessions, which therefore needs Guardians who will be trained and prepared for their task, and which must be continually purified of its tendencies to corruption. But it may be that Plato intended these prescriptions to be taken seriously no more than the reincarnation myth he presents at the end of the dialogue (or the joke at the expense of Pythagorean numerology he throws in at 546b-c).

The moral seems to be that the desire to have more than we truly need is incompatible with true justice, and under those circumstances the attempt to impose it will only lead to lies, propaganda, eugenic breeding, and the destruction of the family. In Books VIII and IX he traces the way his "ideal" aristocracy will inevitably degenerate into a timocracy, an oligarchy, a democracy and finally the worst sort of tyranny.

Plato was writing, we must remember, without the benefit of Christian revelation and the doctrine of the human person. In projecting the divisions of the human soul on to the canvas of the state, he was applying a strict analogy between the two (IV, 434). The various classes each have their own work to do, and each corresponds to a part of the human soul - elements symbolized by gold, silver, bronze and iron. They must be kept in order in the same way, in order to serve the good of the whole. The best of the "cities with a fever" is the one in which the golden element is dominant and the classes unmixed. But as soon as the ruling class contains traces of the one below it, conflict will arise and eventually the military caste will become dominant. In this way the whole social order begins to unravel.

The mistake here, from a Christian point of view, is that each individual member of society and each member of every class is a person, therefore a whole and not merely a part, and should be treated as such. The harmony of society cannot be ensured by forcing each member of each of the four classes or races to conform to just one of the four elements that are found in everyone. Perhaps Plato would respond that my comment merely demonstrates that I am writing at a time when the worst has happened, and the classes have become completely mixed. But I suspect he intended his description of the Golden Age as a myth, pointing towards the ideal of the healthy city, the city without a fever, which is the city of the just soul.

Recommended on other themes in Plato's Republic are two books from the Catholic University of America Press: David C. Schindler, Plato's Critique of Impure Reason: On Goodness and Truth in the Republic and Giovanni Reale, Toward a New Interpretation of Plato.


  1. Leo Strauss gives a good account of how one is to read the "city of timos" as an ad hominem argument directed at Glaucon in this lecture: (go to 07.48).

  2. Even earlier in Book II, before he objects to the city lacking luxury (372a-c), Glaucon has suggested that most people think "pleonexia"--roughly, the desire to get more and more, definitely more than one's fair share--is part of our nature; only the sanctions of law restrain it (359b-c). So, at least in Glaucon's mind, Socrates' first city is "unnatural," because it ignores the acquisitive desire humans have. It is by no means clear that this is Plato's opinion; Glaucon is here articulating what he takes to be the opinion of most people. Is there something to this from a Christian standpoint: is one of the effects of original sin this acquisitive desire, if not for material goods, then for other things such as honors (even just notoriety?) or pleasures? In any case, if such acquisitive desire is an aspect of human--perhaps fallen nature--then perhaps one might see Socrates' first city, the one rejected by Glaucon for its lack of luxury, as even more utopian than the city sketched in the rest of the Republic.

  3. I was doing a review of the book and can say that rules are really strong and sometimes cruel. Now i understand the difference between centuries. I've recently wrote an essay on this topic, see it here Plato’s Republic