(4th century BC)
Plato came from an aristocratic family which had long played its part in the Athenian state. Though we don’t know much about his early life, it is said that he had an initial love for poetry before his teacher Socrates guided him towards philosophy. Unsurprisingly, the major event of his life was the death of Socrates (in 399BC), whose awkward questions had come to be seen as a threat to the Athenian establishment. Plato was there in the last days before his teacher’s demise, and would later write accounts of his trial, last days in a prison cell, and actual death, in the Apology, Crito and Phaedo.
After Socrates’ death Plato travelled widely across Greece, Italy and Egypt, spending time with the philosopher Eucleides and Pythagorean thinkers. In his 40s, he returned to Athens and founded his famous academy, which became the centre of intellectual life in the city, pushing the boundaries of philosophy, mathematics and science.
Before Socrates’ death he had made a couple of attempts to enter politics, firstly after Athens’ defeat in the Peloponnesian War, and a year later when democracy was restored. But the experience disillusioned him with political life, and he concluded that change could only come through a totally new approach to government. The Republic is his outline of an ideal state, but also carries his theory of justice, his explanation of the ‘three parts of the soul’, and his famous allegory of the cave.
Part of the reason for The Republic’s undying influence is that, despite being one of the great works of Western philosophy, it is still a relatively easy read, requiring no special knowledge, and is one of the best expressions of the Socratic method: that is, questions and answers designed to lead the reader to inescapable conclusions. Across ten Books, Socrates responds with powerful logic to the questions and counter-arguments posed by a cast of characters including Glaucon and Adeimantus, older brothers of Plato, Polemarchus, whose home in Piraeus (the port of Athens) is where the dialogue takes place, his father Cephalus, a city elder, and Thrasymachus, an orator.
Allegory of the cave
While much of The Republic is an expression of what Plato had learned from Socrates, his theory of Forms, or essential ideas, is his own. It is best expressed in his the allegory of the cave, the most striking passage in The Republic found deep into the text. We look at it first, because although ostensibly unconnected to his theory of justice and government, the allegory provides its metaphysical heart and carries a timeless message.
Socrates has his friends imagine a group of people living in a cave which has only a small opening to the light of the outside world. These individuals have spent their whole lives in the cave, chained in such a way that they can only see the walls, and cannot turn around to see the light. Behind them is a perpetual fire, and between the fire and walls walks a parade of people carrying various things, including models of animals, with the shadow of them cast onto the wall in front of the prisoners. The chained people can only ever see the shadows of this procession and their own shadows, ensuring that ‘reality’ is for them a simple two dimensional film of shadows, and never the original things that cast them.
Then, however, someone comes to release one of the prisoners from their bondage. One assumes that the prisoner will be delighted see that what they had perceived as real was in fact just a projection of true reality, but this shift in perception is too much. The prisoner is dazzled by the light of the fire. He is brought out of the cave and shown the sun, which again appears horribly bright and pains his eyes. However, in time the prisoner comes to appreciate that the sun, understanding it as the real light of the world and the source of all perception. He pities his fellow prisoners back in the cave, still believing that what they dimly see is ‘reality’.
When the prisoner returns to the cave and cannot see in the dark so well any more, his fellows contend that his journey into the light was a waste of time that only damaged his eyes. They can’t appreciate that his world has changed forever, and he himself cannot imagine going back to his former life in which mere appearances count for truth.
Socrates uses the sun as a metaphor for the Form of the Good, and the fact that appreciation of the Good is not arrived at easily. Elsewhere, he describes the journey out of the cave as a movement from ‘becoming’ to ‘being’, from conditioned to absolute reality; from the worldly experience of being human to the pure light of reality.
The rewards of being just
The book actually begins with Plato’s discussion of the meaning of justice. Cephalus argues that justice is simply telling the truth and making sure one’s debts are paid. He will die a comparatively rich man, and says that one of the benefits of wealth is that one can die in peace, knowing all accounts are settled. But Socrates asks, is there not something more to truth and a good life than this?
Glaucon and Adeimantus make a case for injustice, saying that we can live to suit ourselves and get away with it, even prosper. Glaucon grants that justice is good in itself, but challenges Socrates to show how justice can be good at an individual level: what is the payoff? He mentions the story of Gyges and his magical ring, which gave him the power to make himself invisible at will, and who, naturally enough, uses it to do things that he could not get way with if he was visible. People only act justly when they fear they will be caught, Glaucon suggests, and have no interest in being good for its own sake.
Socrates replies that doing the right thing is its own reward, since it brings the three parts of our soul (reason, spirit and desire) into harmony. Acting justly is not an optional extra, but the axis around which human existence must turn; life is meaningless if it lacks well-intentioned action. And while justice is an absolute necessity for the individual, it is also the central plank of a good state.
The three parts of the soul
Plato divides the human soul into three parts: Reason, Spirit, and Desire. Reason is the overseer of the soul and seeks the best overall outcomes; it gives us the ability to make decisions, and provides our conscience. Spirit generates ambition and enterprise, but also gives rise to feelings like anger, pride and shame. Desire is simply the basic urges for food, sleep and sex. The individual becomes just when spirit and desire are not given free reign, but shaped and guided by reason, which is guided by knowledge of ‘the Good’, a basic universal form. Thus we achieve balance, and our actions are naturally just and in harmony with the world around us.
A person driven only by ambition or desire may well achieve their aims, but probably at great eventual cost to their integrity of self. A person whose psychic parts are in harmony is not only happier in themselves, because they will live in good conscience regarding their own actions, but their effect on the world is also more likely to be just.
Socrates retells the myth of Er, a man whom the gods allowed to see what happens to souls between lives. Er discovered that souls were often swayed by the chance of being a rich or famous person in their next life, while failing to choose on the basis of whether a life was just - or not. Those who made the most progress over many lifetimes naturally chose the just way. Always seeking to ‘do the right thing’ is thus the eternal route to the happy and fulfilled life. In having Socrates retell this myth, Plato presents his final nail in the coffin of the idea that justice is a noble but impractical notion. In fact, it is the only route to the good life.
Socrates opines that only a ‘philosopher’ can develop the right balance between the parts of the soul. The philosopher’s chief desire is for the world to be as good as it possibly can, and to help achieve this he is willing to forego what he might naturally desire. In short, those who have knowledge, and who are psychologically and spiritually in balance, have a duty to serve the rest in society who lack these things. This, then, is the link between Plato’s theory of justice, and the bulk of The Republic which draws up his vision for an ideal state. It cannot be left in the hands of just anyone, and certainly not left up to the messy and uncertain democratic process. The best people to run things are those who have knowledge of absolute truths, and who will not be corrupted by power.
The ideal state
Plato goes through the failings of types of government in his time: timarchy, oligarchy, and tyranny, but his real focus is Athenian democracy. This was a popular assembly of free male citizens who met regularly to vote on specific issues, and who devolved administration to a Council of Five Hundred. Plato’s problem with this kind of direct democracy is that complex issues relating to foreign policy, or economics, for instance, become subject to the irrational whim of the voting bloc on any given day. Moreover, since membership of the Council was limited to a year, and no citizen could be a member more than twice, there was little strategic or long-term thinking to guide the state. Athenian leaders gained power by telling voters what they wanted to hear when they should have been charting a plan for the health of the state. The result was “a pleasing, lawless, various sort of government, distributing equality to equals and unequals alike.” For Plato, such a system was inherently flawed because it assumed virtue on the part of every citizen, yet virtue could only arise from knowledge, and most of the populace were not educated to a proper extent.
Plato’s alternative is an elite governing body of philosophers whose sole purpose is to work for the good of the state. Brilliant, highly educated, and spiritually advanced, these individuals would probably rather spend their time in contemplation, considering the eternal ‘forms’ (such as Beauty or Truth) that underlie the world of appearances. Instead, they are asked to forego their all-knowing state of bliss and choose to return to the prosaic world to govern for the benefit of all.
Plato suggests that we should not expect a nation or a state to be run properly by merchants, or tradesman, or soldiers, but only by those who have the best general overview of what constitutes the good in society. A society run by soldiers would be always at war and limit freedom to its citizens; a state run by businessmen would be characterised by envy and materialism; and a state run by workers would lack the intellectual breadth and depth to know what good governance is, or properly manage relations with other states. Only the properly educated generalist, trained over many years in abstract subjects (Socrates suggests ten years study of mathematics before moving onto philosophy), can govern well. Yet practical knowledge of administration is the least of their requirements. The basic condition of superiority and fitness to govern is knowledge of the essential spiritual Forms of Justice, the Good, Beauty, Temperance, which manifest themselves in actual circumstances.
The link Plato makes between the quality of the state and the quality of the individual, also known as his analogy between the city and the soul, can seem a bit strange to the modern reader. Today, it is probably more natural to think that the nature or quality of a nation arises from the combined attributes of its citizens, but Plato took the opposite view. He sees the ethics of the state as being the driver of individual action, and so they are all-important.
A controversial part of The Republic is Plato’s discussion of the control of culture. He believed that the great poets and stories of his time did not inculcate the right moral values. He would like to censor the stories told to children so that their brains are not filled with negative images. Rather, education must focus on instilling the idea of the Good. The citizenry should be exposed only to literature that does not glorify lying, or inconstancy, lack of self-control, or violence, for these will naturally weaken and corrupt minds, leading to wreck of the ship of state. Even worse are the stories in which unjust characters are said to be happy, or to win at the cost of the just, or that suggest being good is a disadvantage.
Though he may seem overbearing on the cultural front, Plato was remarkably farsighted when it came to sexual equality. He shows how the estimation of women as weak is usually wrong, and provides a case that women who seem cut out for ruling should receive the same education and have similar opportunities as men. In this respect he talks of philosopher-rulers, not simply philosopher-kings. Yet Plato was hard-hearted when it came to family life, which he did not see as a private domain but rather existing for the benefit of the state. Socrates voices a proposal for the regulation of marriage and sex so that the ‘right’ people are brought together. The children of this elite are then looked after in state nurseries, leaving their parents free to devote themselves to state matters. Plato himself never married, which perhaps says something about his views in this area.
Does Plato’s template for the just and balanced individual still work for us today? In a culture which seems to offer easy routes to every kind of pleasure, and which encourages us to express emotions with abandon, his emphasis on allowing reason to be our ruler can seem austere. Yet the fruits of self-discipline and reason are the same for a person today as it was for the individual of ancient Greece. The book’s power lies not in its provision of a template for government (it is unlikely we will ever see states run by ‘philosopher kings’) but in showing how the qualities of wisdom, courage, self-discipline and justice make for well-balanced individuals. If the ‘three parts of the soul’ (reason, spirit and desire) are in harmony, it is good for us personally, for our community and for the state to which we belong.
Finally, Plato’s parable of the cave is a precious reminder that most of us go through life chasing shadows and believing in appearances, when behind the superficial world of the senses awaits a more permanent realm of truth. Plato has Socrates make the case for philosophers being the only ones who can ascertain this truth through their study of the Forms, but in truth every person is able to have a sense of what is changeless and perfect. Each of us lives in a cave of wrongful perception and illusion which, if we make the effort, we can leave behind.
Source: Philosophy Classics: Thinking, Being, Acting, Seeing, Profound Insights and Powerful Thinking from Fifty Key Books by Tom Butler-Bowdon (London & Boston: Nicholas Brealey).
© COPYRIGHT TOM BUTLER-BOWDON, 2023
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