I like Plato. I had to read his dialogues about the death of Socrates as part of my college course work. In his Socratic passion story, I found logic, reason, and even rising emotions over the injustice of it all. Too bad he couldn’t keep those same standards when addressing true justice.
This review contains spoilers. Here’s a quick summary: Socrates defines justice. Nobody drinks hemlock. The end.
In The Republic, Plato once again picks up his Socrates sock puppet to address a topic of import to all mankind: What is justice, both for the state and for the individual? In the opening chapters, Socrates lets some of his contemporaries make feeble attempts at defining justice, including an assertion that justice occurs when the weak obey the strong. His friends also insist that those who practice injustice are happier.
In response, Socrates sets up the scene that will consume the rest of the book’s several hundred pages. He defines a state, an imaginary country, in which justice will have its best chance. Here are some features of his just state.
- It will take a village to raise the kids. Each child, especially those of the leaders, are raised in a communal setting, ignorant of which adults are their true parents.
- Education is the key, with all children placed in state-run schools by age ten. Once there, all students will learn “gymnasium” (physical training) and “music” (soul training). Advanced students bound for societal leadership will also study the sciences.
- Among the leader-class, all wives are shared in common. No more scandals!
- Censorship of the arts is essential. Actors, writers, and poets may prepare no fictional content, especially defamatory stories about the gods. Thespians may narrate only; no imitation of humans or animals will be tolerated.
- Each citizen will have his or her occupation selected by the state. Don’t expect to change careers as part of a mid-life crisis.
- Forget about fancy foods. And doctors may only render the minimal amount of care, with no life-prolonging measures.
- The number of marriages allowed by the society is controlled, and those who are permitted to marry are selected by lot.
- Despite being made of lesser stuff (Socrates’ belief), women will be given equal rights in the society, including the right to exercise nude with the male soldiers.
Sounds like an ideal society, right? One of Socrates’ associates points out that some may be miserable in such a society. Socrates insists that they will be the happiest of all. But in any case, the goal is not individual happiness, but national happiness. He also believes this structure will permit the rise of the philosopher-kings, the “savior” class that will act as guardians for the state and its people.
With the state now defined, Socrates explains how justice is the natural outcome, and how it has numerous advantages over injustice. That’s fine and all, but I kind of stopped listening halfway through the communistic utopian dream sequence. When he first started discussing his imaginary state, I thought Plato was setting up a joke for a philosophical punch line. But he was dead serious. From my twenty-first century vantage point, it is so easy to see the failings of human nature and of centrally controlled societies. But for Plato, “the rule of a king is the happiest [for the people].” Plato sure knew his philosophy, but he really needed to get out and meet more kings.
Despite his governmental myopia, I did enjoy reading The Republic. Plato’s Socrates can be arrogant at times, but mostly he is a gentleman with a good sense of self-deprecating humor. He wins converts not only through reason and logic, but through his good nature, something he mistakenly believes is a dominant trait in every human heart.
The Well-Read Man Project
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