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The Republic

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | BCE

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Summary and Study Guide


The Republic is a work written by ancient Greek philosopher Plato (427-347 BC) in 375 BC. In it, the central character Socrates talks with several other Greeks, including Plato’s brothers, about the nature of morality. The main question they ask is whether a moral life is its own reward. Does being moral intrinsically benefit people? In doing this, they also explore the nature of the ideal society. They look at the laws this society would have, the art that would be allowed, and who would rule it. Finally, they discuss how this ideal might degenerate and how this might serve as a metaphor for the degeneration of the human mind. This guide uses the Oxford University Press edition of the text (2008) translated by Robin Waterfield. This edition of The Republic is divided into fourteen chapters. Each analysis section will correspond to, and cover, two of these chapters.

In chapters one and two, Socrates, returning from a festival, gets involved in a discussion about morality. He rejects two conventional views: that morality is about paying one’s debts and that morality is about helping one’s friends. Socrates then confronts the claim that morality is a device to ensure that weak or oppressed people do not challenge authority. This leads into a broader discussion which will frame the rest of the text. Namely, does morality bring happiness irrespective of external rewards and punishments?

To address this challenge, Socrates, in chapters three and four, examines morality within a hypothetical ideal human community. To do this, he discusses this community’s origins. These are rooted in economic need and entail a division of labour where a separate warrior caste called “guardians” are needed. Next, Socrates outlines the ideal education for the guardians. They should not be told stories that promote immorality or disharmony, but only those that promote virtuous and socially useful behaviour. Chapters five and six discuss the lives and responsibilities of the guardians. Theses would be communal and austere with no property ownership. The guardians themselves would be divided into two castes: rulers and auxiliaries. A “noble lie” or myth would be told to ensure that individuals remained within their allocated castes. Socrates argues that the division of these groups in society corresponds to the tripartite structure of the human mind. The rulers represent rationality, the auxiliaries passion, and the workers and farmers physical desire.

In chapters seven and eight the role of women and sexual relations in this community is established. Women should be allowed to occupy the positions of guardians provided they have the required character traits. Sex should also be tightly regulated. Only the best men and women would be allowed to procreate, at specific prescribed times. Socrates asks how this ideal constitution would come about. He suggests it would take “philosopher kings” to install it. These are people who love wisdom and are interested in the essential nature of things rather than superficial appearances. In chapters nine and ten, the essence and meaning of goodness is explored. Rejecting the idea that goodness consists in pleasure, Socrates tries to explain his own view via the allegory of the cave. Goodness consists in the sun outside the cave, but most people remain trapped inside in darkness, seeing only shadows against the cave wall. This serves as a metaphor for the idea that goodness exists in the ideal intelligible world of abstract ideas rather the sensible world of material objects. The education of philosopher kings is also outlined, which focuses on directing their minds away from material things toward contemplation of ideal forms.

Chapters eleven and twelve look at how the ideal community might degenerate into lesser forms of government. These are timarchy, rule by status and martial values, oligarchy or plutocracy, rule by the rich, democracy, rule by the people, and dictatorship. These types of government also correspond to different personality types. The type corresponding to timarchy is passionate, to plutocracy avaricious, to democracy lacking in self-discipline, and to dictatorship debauched. Likewise, the hierarchy of how moral these systems and types are, is held to be identical to the extent of their happiness. Dictatorship is the least happy and the least moral. In chapters thirteen and fourteen, Socrates discusses the role of poetry in the ideal community. He argues that since poetry, as a form of representation, is removed from the truth, it undermines rationality and should be banned. Lastly, he examines the instrumental rewards gained for being moral. Arguing for the existence of an immortal soul, he claims that moral people will be rewarded in the afterlife and immoral ones punished. The book ends with an elaborate description of the afterlife and the process by which we are all reincarnated.