Republic By Plato Summary and Analysis Book VI: Section I

Summary

Having now established the character of the true philosopher, Socrates sets himself to the task of showing why the philosopher would, in the ideal state, be the best ruler. It follows logically that, since he understands the Forms, the philosopher is best fitted to rule; after all, it is he who understands truly the nature of reality. Besides, having come to maturity in his study of the arts and gymnastic, the philosopher will possess the cardinal virtues: wisdom, courage, temperance (discipline), and justice.

Because he knows what Justice and Goodness are, the philosopher would be best qualified to administer justice for the good of the citizens he rules. And because he loves Truth, the philosopher will not lie (he would hate a lie); he will not countenance a lie for his benefit or give tacit agreement to lies. Because his bodily wants and physical necessities are provided for him, the philosopher will not be covetous of material things; he will possess temperance and will conduct himself temperately in the interest of his subjects. The philosopher's whole life's training having been spent in gymnastic and in the pursuit of temperance, the philosopher will possess courage. He will not fear death in the field of battle, nor will he fear death from his political adversaries. For all these reasons, the philosopher will make the best ruler.

Adeimantus objects, saying that Socrates has such a way of arguing (his "Socratic method") that any listener must answer in the affirmative to his rhetorical questions. But Adeimantus disagrees with Socrates' conclusions. The good philosophers he sees around him, Adeimantus says, are worthless to the society they live in, and the bad philosophers are rogues. But whether because of their general worthlessness or their villainy, the philosophers Adeimantus sees are not fit to rule.

To the surprise of the auditors, Socrates concedes to Adeimantus' statement. But, Socrates continues (at this point he argues a parable of a ship's pilot and his crew), it is the state's own fault that it fails to discern the value of philosophers. In its present condition, no one in the state respects what the philosopher alone possesses: knowledge and wisdom. The present and past politicians in the state as it exists are "successful" simply because they flatter the public as if the public were some "monster" or some "great beast" the politicians can feed to surfeit or cajole through flatteries of various sorts to contain it. We have all seen politicians in the political arena; these politicians have learned nothing except to shout with the loudest crowd; these politicians say one thing and do another. They are duplicitous because they have to be, given the caliber of the society in which they find themselves. So of course such a society, such a public, has no use for a good philosopher.

As for the bad philosophers, the rogues, they have become that way because their society has corrupted them. In a good state, intent on being good, a young developing philosopher might become good and wise. In a bad society, like the one in which this dialogue is taking place, the young philosopher, having become corrupt, becomes subject to the flatteries and ambitions of his fellow citizens, who flatter him in the hopes of realizing their ambitions. In fact, in a bad society, the more intelligent a young philosopher is, the more attractive he becomes to people who want to use him, and the more such people corrupt him. So things go from bad to worse: Because of his public popularity and the flatteries he has accepted, the young philosopher becomes arrogant. Thus the young philosopher will forego philosophy, or he will use some of its attributes for evil purposes. He will become self-seeking and self-congratulatory. Yes, some philosophers are bad men, rogues.

At the same time, although good philosophers are useless to a bad state (Plato's view of his society), there may come a day when a good philosopher might become a ruler, which Socrates has advocated in his argument and in its conclusions. Or the day may come when a ruler in political power might become a philosopher. This would be the only case in which we might realize the Ideal State.

Analysis

We might say at this juncture in the dialogue that Socrates' defense of the philosopher-king is simply too idealistic, too reflective of the philosopher, as the historical Socrates is said to have been characterized in the Greek poet Aristophanes' comedy, The Clouds. But, were Plato alive today, he might very well reply that our own society is itself corrupt and lacks idealism just as much as his own society did. And at any rate, Plato might continue, have we agreed or not agreed that the philosopher possesses the virtues we have ourselves instilled in him in developing him to be a ruler? A philosopher is more than an "intellectual," a "mere man of words" as Plato said of himself in a letter he wrote to a friend.

This part of the Republic is full of topical allusions (Plato is alluding to people with whom he was personally acquainted). At the time in which the Republic was written, Athens was a democratic state, a state which showed that it had no use for men like the man Socrates or his younger fellows (men including Plato). And we must not forget that this is the society that executed the man, Socrates, on what we might regard today as specious charges. (See the Life and Background section, earlier.)

In Socrates' qualification of Adeimantus' description of the "rogue" philosophers, Socrates describes the unfortunate career of a young man corrupted by his society and so flattered by his "supporters" that he behaves intemperately and becomes so arrogant that he tries to seduce others to aid him in overthrowing the state. Such a description closely parallels the life of Alcibiades (c. 450-404 b.c.), a vain, arrogant, and enormously wealthy young man who enjoyed the friendship and tutelage of Socrates in Athens. It was young men like Alcibiades who were engaged in anti-democratic activities during the Peloponnesian War. Socrates, as mentioned earlier, was executed for "corrupting the morals" of young men like Alcibiades, whose life of tragic waste and public outlawry drove him to live in exile as an expatriate in Phrygia, where he was murdered in 404 b.c. An example of the typical rogue philosopher, the philosopher "gone bad," may be seen in Thrasymachus' argumentative premises and conclusions (see Book I).

Socrates' concession to Adeimantus at this stage of the dialogue certainly ends on a pessimistic note. There may be, however, hope for the idea of the philosopher-king as the dialogue continues.

Glossary

the god of jealousy Momus, a son of Night; he is also a personification of censure and criticism.

contemn to scorn, to despise, to treat or think of with contempt.

Back to Top

Take the Quiz

A three-part deductive argument is called




Quiz