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Plato’s Republic: A Utopia For The Individual

Alfred Geier says it’s not about the state of the state.

The Republic is Plato’s most famous dialogue, contains many of his best-known arguments and is one of the great classics of world literature. It is also the victim of a serious and widespread misconception, in that it is held to present a political utopia, a polis [city state] to be imitated. This assumption has led to a criticism of the Republic as recommending a totalitarian regime or an extremely communistic society. Nothing could be further from the truth.

How did such an error arise? As most errors in interpretation do, by a careless reading – in this case, by not considering the Republic as a whole, from beginning to end. If we do that, we can see a striking parallel between the dialogue’s structure and one of the arguments it contains, namely the Allegory of the Cave. In this allegory, which appears in Book VII, Socrates describes some people held prisoner in a cave, tied with their backs to a fire, watching on the wall of the cave a procession of shadows cast by people and objects passing behind them. This is our situation in the world, says Socrates, and he discusses the likely experience of a prisoner who escapes from the cave up to the sunlight and later returns to try to free his fellow prisoners, only to be rebuffed and called a madman.

Now consider the dramatic structure of the Republic. It is a dialogue whose main characters are Socrates and Glaucon (Plato’s brother in real life). Let us begin at the very beginning, with the famous opening of Book I: “I went down to the Piraeus [the harbor of Athens] yesterday with Glaucon…” Having experienced colorful parades in the port, the duo are heading home when they are stopped by the servant of a friend, Polemarchus, who detains them until his master and others can catch up. Polemarchus jokingly says that they cannot leave: “Are you stronger than all of us? If not, you will have to stay.” He then uses other arguments to induce Socrates and Glaucon to stay in the Piraeus. There will be a festival, dinner, conversation. Glaucon is persuaded and Socrates goes along with the opinion of the majority. Home is abandoned, for now. Thus, the whole Republic represents the sojourn of Glaucon in the Piraeus, accompanied by Socrates.

We can easily see the intended parallel: as the Piraeus (the harbor of Athens) is to the citadel of Athens, so the Cave (ie the world we experience) is to what is outside the Cave (ie the hidden real world). Henceforth, the drama of the Republic will consist of whether Socrates can persuade Glaucon to return home.

As the friends talk on, the conversation turns to the nature of virtue and justice. At the beginning of Book II, Glaucon says he is not persuaded that being just is better and a cause of greater happiness than being unjust, and wants to see a purely just and purely unjust soul. Socrates says we are not keen-sighted enough to see into the soul, and suggests that they look at something larger, namely a polis. Note that the only purpose of introducing the polis is to gain insight into the individual soul. The city they will describe does not have a political function; it has only a cognitive function. By the end of Book IV they have finished surveying the ideal polis, and can thus describe the soul of the just individual, which they do. The ideal city has served its purpose, and is no longer needed or heeded. But just as they are about to go on to consider bad cities and unjust individuals, Polemarchus and Adeimantus want to hear more about the institutions of the just city, such as about gender equality in education, and the community of wives and children. Glaucon shares their interest, which Socrates gratifies. This climaxes when Glaucon with much impatience asks Socrates to drop everything else and explain how this city is possible. Glaucon seems here to be beyond any possible interest in returning home. This could be called the low point of the Republic.

Socrates says that the ideal polis would be possible only if philosophers become the rulers. The interest of Glaucon then shifts to the nature and education of the philosopher-rulers. By the end of Book VII Socrates says “enough of such things.” It’s now clear what the good city is like, and how a just man is like the city. Glaucon agrees, and they drop any further talk about the just polis. A philosopher may be infinitely interesting. Apparently, a philosopher-king is not.

In Books VIII and IX they examine bad cities and the bad individuals represented by those cities, ending in the tyrant’s soul and a comparison between the perfectly just man and the perfectly unjust man – thus reaching their original goal. There is an important passage at the end of Book IX – the high-point of the dialogue: “In heaven perhaps there lies a paradigm for one who wishes to see, and seeing, establish himself. It makes no difference whether it exists somewhere or will exist [my italics]. He would do the work of this [paradigm] alone and of no other.” The fate of the city, whose existence is in speech only, is thus as a utopia or ideal for inspiring the excellence of the individual – for a soul like Glaucon’s – and has no other purpose.

At the end of Book X Socrates tries one last time to persuade Glaucon to return home by telling him a myth. In this myth Homeric heroes choose their lives. Odysseus draws the last lot, and he chooses a life neglected by all the others; that of a private individual completely uninvolved in practical affairs.

At the end of this myth Glaucon is silent. Does this mean he is not persuaded to forsake the (Cave) world of appearance and its affairs? Perhaps. We are invited by Plato to wonder about the answer to this question. What we can say is that the ultimate core of the political problem is to be found in the soul of Glaucon, and concerns whether he will continue to remain here in the Cave or be persuaded to return home. But the republic inside him is of greater importance than any city, past or future. We can also say that the Republic provides a model for future Glaucons. Perhaps they will be persuaded to return home.

© Dr Alfred Geier 2008

Alfred Geier is in the Department of Classics at Rochester University.

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