The Republic is a political, philosophical and literary work by the ancient Greek Plato. Written in dialog form around 380 BCE, it reads more like a play than a dry treatise on philosophy, maths, political theory or the arts.
Plato writes a fictional discussion among Athenians and foreigners. The outcome of these contrived debates advances Plato’s ideas, as presented by the literary character of Socrates, Plato’s real-life teacher.
Questions like the nature of justice, virtue, truth and beauty are examined. Also, a contrast is set up between the world of becoming (our visible world) and the world of being (an eternal world that informs our visible world).
This dialectic permeates the entire discussion. Not unlike some of the ancient Chinese sages, Plato’s eye on eternity influences how he understands society, rulers, and the arts.
For Plato, the philosopher-king is the best kind of ruler. So the Republic does not advocate democracy (Greek: strength of the people), even though democracy is an ancient Greek invention, traceable to the 6th century BCE.
Today, many take the idea of democracy as a good in itself. We hardly stop to think if there might be a better way (except for tyrants, communists and non-democratic socialists). But it is conceivable that the majority isn’t always right or best.¹ And that’s how Plato saw it.
Just as a doctor is specially trained to heal citizens, for Plato an enlightened ruler is uniquely endowed to govern subjects. But not everyone is able to recognize the best ruler. And for Plato the vast majority of citizens are ill-suited to the task of selecting one.
The Republic groups society into four classes of gold, silver, bronze and iron. Individuals (ideally) fulfill the duties that nature has allotted to their social class.
This is reminiscent of the Indian caste system, although Hinduism traditionally legitimizes social inequality through myth and spirituality, not so much through nature.
Christianity too speaks of different members of one spiritual body, each having his or her own role: Hands, feet, head, heart, etc.²
On a deeper level, The Republic also presents Plato’s popular ‘cave analogy.’ This illustrates his views about a link between worldly change and eternity. The cave analogy goes as follows:
Prisoners in a cave have been there since birth. Bound to a chair, they face a wall with a fire some distance behind them. Their captors come and go, always walking between the fire and the prisoners’ backs. So the captors and the stuff they transport are always seen by the prisoners as shadows on the cave wall. The prisoners cannot see anything else so assume the shadows are reality.
If a prisoner were dragged up the slope leading to the cave entrance, his or her eyes would be temporarily blinded by the sunlight. Once their eyes adjusted, however, the free prisoner would see a far greater reality than the world of shadows.
Supposing the prisoner were to reenter the cave, they again would be temporarily blinded, this time by a lack of light. When their eyes readjusted to the darkness, the shadows would reappear. But the prisoner now knows these are mere shadows and not reality, as he or she had previously believed. And he or she would probably feel sorry for those who did not know the difference.³
In this analogy, the shadows represent the ever-changing world of daily life. The world above the cave entrance represents an eternal, unchanging reality that Plato calls the realm of the Forms. For Plato, only the Forms are real because our mundane world is subject to change and lacks permanence.
Many see The Republic as a landmark in literature, education, philosophy, politics and theology. Influential throughout Europe in the Middles Ages, it continues to inspire in the modern age.
For me, this was one of the first ‘mind-blowing’ books that I encountered in my youth. And even though I’ve moved beyond it in my own thinking, I will always respect Plato because he provided a model, however embryonic, to help make sense of my early spiritual experiences.4
¹ Consider how the vast majority of scientists – at least, those who have received funding – maintain that climate change is bad for the planet. But what if, say, an asteroid hits which causes a deep freeze, and that extra ½º of temperature saves humanity from extinction? Far-fetched, to be sure. But like Plato’s scenario, a hypothetical example where the majority would not be correct.
² Funny how this photo has a white hand on top. A little bit racist? The Christian notion of “one body” can also be used by sexists to suggest that women and men have definite, different roles.
³ This is my retelling, partly based on philosophy lectures given by Dr. Robert Carter at Trent University. See original text: http://www.historyguide.org/intellect/allegory.html
4 A sampling of some of the topics covered in this diverse work:
Related » Archetype, Archetypal Image, Aristotle, Atlantis, Sri Aurobindo, Blessed Isles, Boethius, Church Fathers, Dionysius the Areopagite, Gorgias, Meno, Neoplatonism, Plotinus, Proclus, Socrates, Skepticism, Solon, Sophists, Timeus, Universalism