Structure of Plato’s Republic

Structure of Plato’s Republic


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Book 1: Socrates’s discussion with Cephalus and Polemarchus: from old age to ordinary conceptions of ‘justice’: truth, debt – and harm; Thrasymachus’s intervention: justice as the advantage of the strong; justice as disadvantageous for the just.


Books 2-3: Glaucon and Adeimantus restate the challenge, citing the ring of Gyges: why be Just?  Socrates’s response: let’s first define justice, by seeking where it’s easier see – on the scale of a city.  What emerges is a narrative, as we move from a simple “city of pigs,” devoted to the body, to a “luxurious city,” with more complex needs, which requires some people to act as “Guardians.”  The best Guardians will be created by an education, which focuses equally on the mind (which needs to be protected from bad stories about the gods, and from “imitation”) and on the body; and eventually, in order to complete our reform of the luxurious city, rendering it “beautiful,” we need to divide the Guardians themselves into two ranks, “Rulers,” capable of maintaining the best interests of the city against forgetfulness, pain, and fear, and “Auxiliaries,” who specialize in warfare. Two more things: the rest of the city’s inhabitants must be taught a “noble lie,” teaching that they are all brothers, yet all born different – gold, silver, and bronze or iron; and the Guardians themselves will live without private property and fixed families.


Book 4: But won’t your Guardians be unhappy?  No, Socrates answers – but the point is the happiness of the city as a whole, which can only be ensured by making it one, and by banishing all innovation.  The description of his “city in speech” completed, Socrates turns to finding justice within it – which he does by locating, first, Wisdom, the virtue of the Rulers, then Bravery, that of the Auxiliaries, and then Moderation, that of all the rest, the “money makers.”  So what then is Justice?  Why, that is everyone performing the task to which he or she is naturally suited.  And when we turn our attention back to the just man, we find something like exactly the same “division of labor.”  Each individual person is also divided into three parts, the “rational,” the “spirited,” and the “appetitive.”  Here, too, justice is each agency performing the task to which it is suited – reason, using its wisdom, with the aid of spirit’s bravery, to rule over the passions, thereby rendered moderate.


Book 5: Socrates proposes to move on to the question the advantages of being just, by considering unjust cities and men as well – but he is thwarted by objections from Glaucon and Adeimantus, questioning whether his “beautiful city” is both possible and the best of cities.  First, is it really possible for women to rule alongside men?  Yes, Socrates argues: not all differences make a difference.  Secondly, is it really a good idea for rulers to live without individual families?  Yes, indeed – it would be best for all if reproduction were the result of of some kind of rational design.  But, thirdly, is all this really possible?


Books 6-7: Yes, Socrates answers, on one condition – that the Rulers are simultaneously educated to be Philosophers: people who devote their lives to the study of of intelligible “forms,” and one in particular, the form of the Good.  What’s that?  I can’t tell you what it is, Socrates, responds, but I can tell you what it is like.  The Good is like the Sun – making it possible to know, as the Sun makes it possible to see; bringing “being” into existence, as the sun causes things to grow; and knowable, as the sun is visible.  For you must think of the cosmos in terms of a “divided line” – divided it into “sensible” and “intelligible,” each subdivided in similar ways, yet still somehow a single whole.  Finally, as for the place of people, in all this, you might think of most people as passing their lives not only in a cave underground, but also unaware that all that are seeing, in their chains, are images of sensible things – philosophers, alone, have grasped not just fact, but that there, outside the sensible cave, an intelligible world of forms, illuminated by the sun of the Good.  * In any case, if the Good itself can’t be defined, Socrates is happy to supply a lot of detail about the course of study needed to produce “philosopher-rulers: – from military matters, on to arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and finally to dialectic, together with competitive examinations along the way, at 20, 30, and 50.  And that’s what will make our beautiful city possible, Socrates concludes.


Books 8-9: But we can’t tell how happy the just city, or just man, is, Socrates goes on, until we’ve returned to the four kinds of bad or defective cities and men.  These can be seen as arising out of the corruption or decay of the preceding form – dissension among the Rulers of what he now specifies as “Kingship” or “Aristocracy leading to the appearance of the Timocratic city and individual type, devoted to the differences that money and honor make.  The corruption of timocracy leads, in turn, to the Oligarchic city and men – the city divided in two, rich and poor, the man devoted wholly to money-making.  Out its decay emerges the Democratic city and man – both incoherent anarchies, given over entirely to appetite.  And democracy, finally, flips over into Tyranny, with much of Book 9 devoted to a harrowing description of the tyrannical city and man.  It ends with Socrates’s final arguments for the superiority of the just life – exactly 729 times happier, he calculates than that of the tyrant.  He concludes with a vivid image of the human being, who combines a many-headed beast, a lion, and man – no prizes for guessing who should rule whom, and how!


Book 8: Socrates is not quite done, however.  Before dismissing class, he finds it necessary to return to the question of “imitation,” which leads him to an excoriating attack on the “tragic poets,” who have it in them to corrupt even good men.  Contrary to what they suggest, the gods do know the difference between justice and injustice.  And if you don’t believe, or doubt the immortality of the soul, then all you need to do is consult the “myth of Er” – the utterly baffling tale about the afterlife with which the Republic concludes.



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