About Plato's Republic


The Republic is arguably the most popular and most widely taught of Plato's writings. Although it contains its dramatic moments and it employs certain literary devices, it is not a play, a novel, a story; it is not, in a strict sense, an essay. It is a kind of extended conversation that embraces a central argument, an argument that is advanced by the proponent of the argument, Socrates. The Republic may be seen as a kind of debate, a fitting description for most of the Dialogues.

It is Plato's intent in this dialogue to establish, philosophically, the ideal state, a state that would stand as a model for all emerging or existing societies currently functioning during Plato's time and extending into our own times. And we are to infer that any proposed changes in the policy of effecting justice in any state would have to meet the criteria of the ideal state: the Republic.

Since its first appearance, the Republic has traditionally been published in ten books, probably from its having been so divided into ten "books" in its manuscript form. In order to clarify its argument, this Note further subdivides those ten books in its discussion.

The Socratic Method

Socrates' method of engaging conversations with his fellow citizens has come to be known in history as the Socratic Dialectic or the Socratic Method, and its method of pursuing a given truth is still adopted by many university and public school teachers to the present day. It is the method that Plato adopted for the Republic and for all of his Dialogues (conversations).

Socrates' (and Plato's) method of opening a dialogue is in almost every instance to pose a question of meaning (to ask for a definition of a term or terms for the sake of forming up a logical argument). For example, Socrates might ask at the outset of a dialogue: "If you claim to be an honest man, how would you define honesty?" Or he might ask a person who claimed to be virtuous for a definition of virtue, or a person who claimed to be courageous for a definition of courage. And then Socrates might ask for examples of courageous, or virtuous, or honest behavior; or he might ask for analogues (things similar) to those things. Thus Socrates conversed with the young men of Athens, young men who were apparently disenchanted with their teachers whom their parents had hired and who apparently did not know as much as Socrates knew.

But Socrates, who some claimed to be the wisest man, claimed to know nothing except that every person should carefully determine what he thinks he knows. He said that the unexamined life is not worth living. He taught that men claimed to come to wisdom through poetry and argument and music, when it was plain that they did not even know what they were doing. And he also taught that politicians claimed to serve justice and to sit in judgment on their fellow citizens when at the same time those same politicians and "leaders" of the state could not even define justice and might, in fact, be said to be culpable (guilty) of certain injustices perpetrated against their fellow citizens. How, Socrates asked, can any man claim to serve justice when that same man cannot even define justice? The question is still relevant in the twenty-first century.

The Setting for and the Speakers in the Dialogue

As in all of the Platonic dialogues, the participants in the debate are friends or acquaintances of the central speaker, Socrates, and they conduct their conversations in the house of one of the participants. The dialogue in the Republic takes place in Cephalus' house; Cephalus is an older man, a wealthy and retired merchant. He has assembled several friends and acquaintances in his house on a feast-day in honor of the Thracian goddess, Bendis (the Greek mythological goddess Artemis, goddess of the moon). Some of the guests simply audit the debate and remain silent; some are very minor participants in the dialogue. The main speakers are Socrates (the persona for Plato, as in all the dialogues); Cephalus; Polemarchus, Cephalus' son; Thrasymachus, a teacher of argument, a Sophist; and Glaucon and Adeimantus, Plato's elder brothers. (Mr. Scott Buchanan, whose suggested etymologies of the names I have adopted, says that Cephalus, Polemarchus, and Thrasymachus show themselves to be caricatures of the three classes in the state developed in Book IV, and that they are more fully developed in Book VIII.)

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