Summary and Analysis Book V: Section II



Socrates now turns his attention to the question as to whether such a class as the Guardians would bepossible. His answer is yes; we agree that the Guardians must defend the state, and we agree that the men and women and children of this class are to attain equality through nurture and education. Therefore, should violence between two given Greek city-states occur, the men and women Guardians of the ideal state would make war together, stirrup to stirrup, against any enemy of the state. And as part of their children's training as Guardians, they should be taken to war when possible and permitted to witness battles and battle tactics and to witness exhibition of courage and cowardice in the field. And, since they are all so dear to one another (since they are all members of one large family), they will fight valiantly for one another because theirs is a dear cause. But at the same time, after their victories, they must not defile the corpses of their adversaries, must not lay waste to what their adversaries have built up, must not spread rapine and woe throughout the land. If they are involved with another Greek city-state in violently trying to settle some internal discord, all participants are to remember that they are fellow-Greeks. After all, fellow-Greeks are not to be treated as barbarians.

At this point, Glaucon and the auditors for the debate again say that the ideas Socrates has presented are probably impracticable. Socrates replies that the intent of the conversation remains, still, to search for a definition of justice as an ideal; he argues that a real state, if it could be realized, might very well closely resemble the state he has been theorizing about, but it probably would not be identical to it. And when Socrates is asked what is "wrong" with the real state as we know it, as opposed to the realization of the ideal state, Socrates replies that states nowadays (at the time of the dialogue) have the wrong kinds of rulers.

Socrates then says that civic troubles in the state, in Greece generally, and indeed the world over, will probably never cease, and justice will never be fully realized until philosophers become the rulers or until present rulers and kings show themselves to be philosophers. In other words, philosophy and political power must be melded in order for the ideal state to be realized.

This remark, says Glaucon, is so revolutionary that it might cause more than one important citizen to seize the nearest weapon and attack Socrates. Glaucon demands an explanation of what Socrates has said, so Socrates defines what he means by philosopher.

Socrates then recapitulates and develops his analogy of the lover, showing that the lover is a lover, not of the part, but of the whole. So it is for the philosopher, the lover of wisdom and of all knowledge, one who is open-minded and always curious. Glaucon immediately objects; he argues that there exist plenty of people who know things and who display curiosity, but they are surely not philosophers. What about all the followers of Dionysus who flock to any festival site, no matter where; surely they seem to be curious about any new show or spectacle, but surely they are not philosophers. Socrates then defines the philosopher as one who loves the truth. At this point, Socrates must present Plato's theory about the nature of truth and knowledge.

Socrates, here, adopts Plato's theory of Forms, and introduces two faculties of the mind: (1) knowledge of the real and (2) belief in appearances. If, for example, a man can understand the nature of the ideal Forms, then he can be said to understand, through his reason, the true nature of a given Form, for example, Beauty. In this case, the philosopher has achieved knowledge of Beauty. But if another man sees that some things are beautiful, then, from his point of view, he is said to possess a belief in the appearance of Beauty in the thing he perceives to be beautiful. Another example of the distinction (an intellectual, logical distinction) that Socrates is making is Ugliness. A person who is a philosopher can come to the knowledge of ideal Ugliness; a person who sees some things as being ugly by definition believes in the appearance of Ugliness. The philosopher, the lover of truth, is a knower of the truth. The person who, for whatever cause, cannot be a philosopher is one who understands only a belief in the appearance of things. For Plato, a Form such as Beauty and a Form such as Ugliness are mutually exclusive; the Forms exist inherently in and of themselves. True Beauty can never be ugly; true Ugliness can never be beautiful. Forms (Beauty and/or Ugliness, for example) are never-changing; they are timeless. Of course some men may disagree about whether a thing is beautiful or ugly, but their disagreement is predicated upon their points of view; both men are believers in appearance. Again, we are reminded, the philosopher possesses knowledge of the real; the non-philosopher possesses only belief in appearance.

Another way of perceiving the distinction between the philosopher and the non-philosopher is to say that the philosopher is wide awake; the non-philosopher lives in a kind of dream world. Only the philosopher can understand the Truth and love it as the Truth. This apprehension of Truth involves a knowledge of the Forms, which are singular and ideal, and which do exist; whether or not we are able to perceive them, the Forms are real. Men who do not see the reality of a form, such as Beauty, but who call things in the day-to-day world beautiful are reacting only to images or reflections of the Forms.

(Another way of trying to understand Plato's theory of Forms is to see Justice as a Form, Goodness as a Form, Happiness as a Form, even Size as a Form. If a man looks at something printed, it appears to be so small that he cannot read it. If he then applies a magnifying glass to it, it appears to be larger, and he can read it. But its Form [Size] has not changed.)

But the whole point of this aspect of the dialogue is to define the philosopher and to defend his credentials as a potential ruler. It is the philosopher who possesses the knowledge of the real; it is he who possesses the knowledge of the Forms as absolutes. (Plato is convinced that they are absolutes.) Justice, Goodness, Happiness, the Moral Life — all are absolutes; they may be perceived in their Forms; they are not relative to the times or the changing tides of political favoritism or animosities or "taste" or any sort of the "appearance or belief in appearances." Thus it is that philosophers should be kings. They are best qualified to rule.

As for the Dionysiacs to whom Glaucon referred earlier, and as to current politicians (in Plato's own times), they seem to be passionately involved in their belief in appearances. And their beliefs are always evanescent (fleeting and simply reflective of any given time in the life of mankind). These people are in fact simply amateurs in aesthetics and in statecraft, always followers, never leaders.


Plato's word for a given Form may be translated as "ideal" or "pattern"; his word in the Greek is idea. But because modern translators and critics conceive of an "idea" as a kind of "thought" which is generated in a given person's "mind," they prefer the term "Form." We must remember that Plato does not consider the Forms to be relative; no individual "makes them up" or "conceives" of them. The Forms are absolute and unchanging truths. Justice is a truth.

The Dionysiacs to whom Glaucon refers in the dialogue are in fact theater-goers and devotees of the Dionysian festivals (dramas) presented, for example, in the Temple of Dionysus in Athens. These dramas frequently enact — and adopt actors who suffer from — a passionate hamartia (a fatal flaw), a flaw which is frequently hybris (overweening pride, arrogance). The themes of many of the dramas result in conflict and eventuate in adikia (injustice), and Plato, as we have seen, distrusted the poets who create these dramas and some aspects of the mythologies that inform them. Plato thought that such dramas appealed to the baser instincts in men and that they presented bad examples to the citizenry because their effect tended to unbalance the Greek concept of the Golden Mean.

As the Republic continues in its development, Socrates will ban the poets, including Homer, from his ideal state, an act that Socrates has hinted at accomplishing more than once in this dialogue.

One further comment: In discussing the world of perception and alternating misperception of their intellectual attempts to separate knowledge from belief in appearance, Glaucon says that such feeble attempts at reasoning remind him of a children's puzzle, or riddle. Here is the riddle: A man who was not a man thought he saw a bird that was not a bird perched on a bough that was not a bough; the man who was not a man pelted and did not pelt what he thought he saw with a stone that was not a stone. (The man is a eunuch who imperfectly saw a bat perched upon a reed; the eunuch threw a pumice stone [which the Greeks saw as not being a real stone] at the bat, but he missed it.)


Ajax one of the bravest of Greek warriors in the Iliad; see Iliad VII, 321, for the incident Socrates refers to here.

the long chines spines or backbones, or (as here) cuts of meat containing the backbone; what are now called "tenderloins."

"seats of precedent . . . ." Iliad VIII, 162.

"They are holy angels . . . ." probably from Hesiod's Works and Days, 121 and following lines.

Hellas in ancient times, Greece, including the islands and colonies; the lands populated and ruled by Hellenes.

Dionysiac festivals here, specifically, festivals including dramatic performances. (Dionysus was, among other things, the ancient god of wine and fertility, and his worship often involved orgiastic rites. The evolution of tragedy is linked to Dionysiac worship, and the performance of tragedies was part of yearly festivals in honor of the god.)