Plato’s The Republic is often, and for good reason, considered the single most important philosophical text of the western world. You simply cannot call yourself a philosopher without having read it. It’s like calling yourself a poet without reading Robert Frost, considering yourself a musician without having ever listened to The Beatles, or referring to yourself as a hard-drinking writer without being fond of Ernest Hemingway. It just can’t be done.
Anyway, back to Plato. The magnum opus was penned by the philosopher between his fortieth and his sixtieth year and is believed to best represent the political, ethical, and to a point, metaphysical views of Plato.
The Republic is often oversimplified as a foray into political philosophy. While Plato does indeed make strides in the area of political theory, such an assumption detracts from the overall importance of The Republic.
It is not an examination of the State for the sake of understanding the ins and outs of societal structure. The Republic creates a hypothetical, perfect society for the purpose of critically examining the true nature of justice and attempts to ascertain the role justice plays in the lives and souls of human beings.
With this in mind, we see that The Republic is an examination of the morality of mankind as well as an examination of the political integrity of any given society. Taken as a whole, The Republic is an epic treatise that touches on the existence of objective morality, the purpose of life, and the function of the human soul.
It is in the opening of Book II of The Republic that Socrates is confronted by Glaucon, a man who makes the argument that justice only exists because men fear the consequences of being unjust. He continues by saying that, without the consequences of the law, any person would prefer activities that are unjust.
He gives the mythical example of a shepherd who happens upon a magical ring that bestows invisibility upon whoever wears it. While the shepherd had lived his life up until this point by abiding by the laws of justice, given this newfound ability he travels to the nearby kingdom, slays the ruler and steals his gold.
Glaucon’s argument is that justice is not something that we would seek out for its own sake. Justice is not choice-worthy in itself, but is merely something we partake in because we do not possess the capabilities or the fortitude to live unjustly.
To illustrate this point, Glaucon asks us to imagine a hypothetical man who exemplifies injustice. The truly unjust man would convince the society through speeches and rhetoric that he is actually just; for there is nothing more unjust than convincing people through devious means that you are actually just. This unjust man would rise to power and influence within the society under the guise of justice, all while concealing his truly unjust nature.
Is this starting to sound like politics?
“With a view to concealment we will establish secret brotherhoods and political clubs. and there are professors of rhetoric who teach the art of persuading courts and assemblies; and so partly by persuasion and partly by force, I shall make unlawful gains and not be punished.” -The Republic Book II
So, Glaucon tells us that justice is not something that we would pursue if we had the option of living unjustly. He leaves it to Socrates to tell him why any man should pursue justice for its own sake. What are the benefits of living justly? Why should we care at all about justice?
Not one to shy away from big questions, Socrates proposes that they not only examine justice for the individual, but that they examine justice within a society. For if we could examine justice within the state then we might better identify the benefits of justice for the individual.
At this point, perhaps it’s important to emphasize that the ancient ideas on political philosophy were rather different than the philosophies we hold now. They viewed the state as a larger extrapolation of the individual. The qualities of the state must be derived from the qualities of the individuals, for it is only through the existence of the individuals that the state exists. Socrates’ suggestion to examine justice within the state would not have seemed strange to the ancient Greeks. It would have seemed rather appropriate, the natural thing to do.
Socrates starts by asking us to imagine a handful of men who decide to coexist. Each man will become skilled in a trade and provide for a budding society. There will be shoemakers, carpenters and farmers. Each man shall only do what he is most suited for and in this way will contribute to the well being of his fellow man.
This idea of specialization is rather important. All the members listening to Socrates’ speech agree that it is wisest that each man do what is most appropriate for him. The carpenter ought to craft. The shoemaker ought to make shoes. The farmer ought to plow fields. In this way the society will grow great.
And so Socrates proceeds to construct a hypothetical city state, starting from a few individuals who decide to coexist and growing to a vast society with distinct societal classes. The party discusses several topics of interest.
What if our city went to war? How should we educate the youth? Who shall be the leaders? What type of man should we seek as a soldier? These and more are discussed at some length.
Eventually Socrates concludes that within this state there are three classes of citizen. There are the protectors who go to war whenever it is necessary to protect the society. There are the merchants who contribute to the general wellbeing and thrive on commerce within the state. Finally, there are the rulers.
These men, who are referred to as “The Guardians,” would exemplify the virtue of wisdom and reason. The rulers would not be paid lavishly. They would receive meager remuneration for their services. Instead, the rulers would lead for the sake of duty and the need to exert virtue within the polis. Essentially, the rulers are philosophers.
Socrates continues his examination by declaring that within this perfect society there must exist essential virtues like wisdom, bravery, temperance, and of course justice. But where to find them? More importantly, how does any of this relate back to our examination of justice?
Socrates declares that we ought to find the first three virtues within the polis, whatever remains must logically be justice. Onward then.
Wisdom appears to be obvious enough. Wisdom is exemplified by the rulers, the calm and collected individuals who lead their country to greatness through the application of reason and brilliance.
What of bravery?
Bravery can be seen within the warrior class of the society. They are the individuals who are willing to fight and die nobly for the cause of protecting their home. That seems reasonable.
What of temperance?
This is a bit tricky. However, Socrates points out that temperance is very similar to a sense of harmony. It is a sense of “being one’s own master.” Just as their is a better and worse part of the soul, there is a better and worse part of the state. By keeping in check the worse part of the society and allowing the better and more virtuous part to rule, we can see that temperance can be found within the state.
Very well then. Finally, we must arrive at justice within the state. What is justice?
Socrates reminds the listener that early within the discussion they had all decided that the society would thrive if each man did what was most appropriate for him. That is to say that the warrior who is spirited will go to war, the wise ruler will lead, and so on.
The philosopher concludes that justice is the act of doing that which is best suited to you and not to be involved in actions that are contrary to your nature. An application of justice would mean that an individual within the state would adhere to his or her role and thrive within that role.
To explain this, Socrates continues by saying that suits of law often focus on a man not taking that which is anothers or being deprived of that which is his own. When this is done adequately, we say that justice has been realized.
So it would appear that justice within the state is the proper placement and application of every individual and their abilities. Justice is doing your own business and not concerning yourself with things you are unsuited to do.
So how does this apply to the individual?
Socrate tells us that just as the state is divided into separate classes, the soul is similarly divided into three distinct portions. He says that these three are reason, spiritedness, and desire.
“The just man does not permit the several elements within him to interfere with one another, or any of them to do the work of others,—he sets in order his own inner life, and is his own master and his own law, and at peace with himself…”
So it would seem that justice for the individual is the proper harmony of the soul. When wisdom is properly applied, spiritedness is directed toward admirable goals, and when desire is kept in check there can be said to be justice within a human being.
If we are to accept this claim, then it would seem that justice is indeed choice-worthy upon its own merits. Living justly means living well, it means having a soul that is proper and good. Injustice is a disease, one that plagues the soul and causes the deformation of your true inner self.
That is perhaps unsurprising. It is likely that Plato would have viewed democracy unfavorably. After all, it was only through the application of strict democracy that Athens was able to execute Socrates in the first place. So perhaps it is only natural that Plato would conclude democracy to be a system where the ignorant, innumerable masses overwhelmed the few truly wise individuals.
Whatever your take on Plato’s political ideas, his philosophical implications are quite staggering. He attempts to pore through a series of intricate arguments the existence of the human soul. Moreover, he attempts to categorize the soul and explain its true purpose within our lives.
It is perhaps for these reasons more than any other that The Republic remains one of the few essential philosophical treaties of the ancient world. It is a testament to the potentiality of human virtue and the rewards that might be gained from an application of true wisdom.
Well… How was that for an introduction to philosophy?