The Republic

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The Republic Summary

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Plato’s The Republic is a Socratic dialogue that deals with justice and how it relates to the makeup of the city-state and the righteous man. It was written circa 380 BC and has become the author’s most widely known work, as well as one of the most important documents of political theory and philosophy in general. Plato talks of the meaning of justice and muses on the question of whether or not a just man is in fact happier than the unjust man. In dialogues with Athenians, as well as outsiders, he has Socrates discuss the regimes that currently exist and others that could come into being. The potential of a city-state ruled by a philosopher king is talked of, as well as the roles of philosophers and poetry in society.

Socrates is with a group of friends discussing the meaning of justice. Cephalus says justice is nothing more than being truthful and giving as much as you receive. Polemarchus calls it giving all that which is due to someone. Thrasymachus defines justice as an advantage of the stronger. Socrates shows how each of them is wrong and begins a deeper discussion to find out what true justice is. They determine that justice is something to be practiced for its own good and for the good results it will bring. Also discussed is the possibility that people might act in a just way simply because they fear the consequences of unjust actions. Socrates suggests that they need to consider a city to be able to examine justice on a wide scale. People have basic needs, everything will be shared, there will be an education system, and the best people will be chosen to rule and protect the city. They add to this that there are four “excellences” in the city, which are wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice. These traits must exist in a person’s soul as well. The rational should rule the city and the rational part of the person should rule the soul.

Five different regimes are considered in the Republic. Along with these are five characters of men that correspond with them. The regimes are aristocracy, timocracy, oligarchy, democracy, and tyranny. An aristocracy has as its leaders highly educated people who have experience and exercise good judgment. They apply reason when chasing their ambitions. The aristocracy consists of three distinct castes. The ruling class is defined by wisdom. The soldiers or guardians are defined by their ongoing pursuit of honor. The majority class represents the base desires of mankind. To Plato, the aristocrat is one for whom desire, logic, and spirit work with one another well.

The timocracy exists when property becomes more highly valued than wisdom. Here, the soldier/guardian class is not made up of seekers of honor, but rather of things that the middle class values,such as sufficient wealth, basic education, health needs, and leisure time. The leaders are viewed as more simple-minded than in the aristocracy. Plato considered Crete and Sparta examples of timocracies. Man is largely good in this system, but desire has surpassed reason. In an oligarchy, meanwhile, the overriding force is a desire for wealth. It is not simply property that is sought after but money for its own sake. In earlier regimes, money was valued for what it could be used to acquire in order to achieve a good life, while here it is valued over honor and virtue. The rulers in the oligarchy have a spiritedness that controls the soul. They work hard, but their outward appearance of being good is actually a façade, as they are mostly materialistic and concerned with the self.

In Plato, a democracy is a regime with the most potential for differences. Virtue is not the ultimate goal but freedom is. Restraint is not acceptable, thus in the democracy, the freedom for individuals to achieve their individual desires is the highest value. There is a reversal of sorts in a democracy in which the ruled are essentially the rulers. The lower classes increase and society must cater to them. Equality is often given to all regardless of merit or actions.Upon the fall of a democracy, a state of tyranny is formed. Civic virtue vanishes, and power is used to maintain order. The tyrant is considered the worst type of man, as he is totally unjust and the leader of the worst type of regime.

Socrates tells the story of Er, a man who returns from the afterlife and tells what it is like. He explains that he and those who were with him have determined that there is an afterlife and that the soul is, in fact, immortal. Because of this, it is all the more important that people live just lives and seek true knowledge. This is what will bring happiness not just for one’s present life, but in the afterlife as well.