Book by Book: Plato’s ‘The Republic’

A walk through your favourite classics, one book at a time.

Michael A. Arnold

Did Plato want an authoritarian regime, ruled by philosopher kings? Let’s look again.  

The Republic is one of those books people want to have read but are less keen on actually reading. Historically a deep knowledge of Plato’s thought has been restricted to the elite and the educated, and so there is a kind of aura around his work. Like every book that has become a classic, one viewpoint is often considered the ‘correct’ interpretation even though many interpretations could be true. Machiavelli’s The Prince has long been seen as a sort of guidebook to the powerful, while recently, people have started to think it is a satire. Additionally, while there has been many interpretations of T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land,’ critics often argue that the poem is about the cultural aftershock of World War I – and it does not necessarily need to be read as a response to that.

While this might limit our appreciation of poetry and fiction, it could be a big problem with a philosopher like Plato. Plato’s and his student Aristotle’s ideas are still influential today, but they were the basis of many medieval ideas about how society should be run. If their work has only been read in one way then our understanding of it, however sophisticated, is always going to be shallow.

Aristotle’s long, dense essays are more direct and clearer in their arguments. Plato’s work, in contrast, is not written as essays but as a series of conversations between two or more people. They can read like a series of short plays rather than a dense work of considered philosophical thought. It is also noticeable that Plato is the only classical philosopher who wrote dialogues instead of essays or aphorisms, which is strange when you think about it.                                

The main character of these dialogues is Plato’s teacher Socrates, and he talks with other philosophers during parties (called Symposiums) where people would get together, get drunk and argue about things. These debates could have been about anything, but philosophy is Plato’s and Socrates’ interest. What usually happens during a dialogue is that someone will put forward an idea to the group and Socrates will pick apart the idea by asking questions: eventually either Socrates wins the discussion or he has proved that no one understands the initial idea as much as they thought they did. It can actually be a lot of fun seeing ideas deconstructed and arguments unravelled with some intelligent questioning.

The traditional way of approaching these dialogues is to take what Socrates says as essentially Plato’s actual thoughts. A combination of these different conclusions from all the dialogues, it was assumed, would give us a full understanding of Plato’s ideas. However, the problem with this is that it is not Plato speaking but Socrates. It has not really been questioned why Plato’s main character is Socrates and not himself if he was trying to write about his own philosophy. Is there room for other interpretations?

Perhaps it is better to think of Plato’s Socrates as a character in a series of short plays that the reader was encouraged to think through. Plays in Ancient Greece like Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex often did this, and they could be quite philosophically complex. Socrates was Plato’s teacher, one who was always encouraging people to think about and doubt what they know. Plato might be borrowing his teacher’s style and persona to do the same thing, first by learning the Socratic Method of thought and debate, and then seeing if they agree or disagree with Socrates’ conclusions and, more importantly, why.

With this in mind, the apparent rigidity of Plato’s thought opens up a lot more. Perhaps Plato’s real thought was not unlike what his Socrates was arguing, but we can never know what he really thought. It is certainly possible that he really did believe in things like the Theory of Forms, the idea that everything in creation has an abstract, perfect exemplar in another reality, but it could just a metaphor for the idealised way a craftsman imagines something before he creates it. It could just be a thought experiment.

There are precedents to this reinterpretation of Plato’s writing. Peter Adamson argued this interpretation in his A History of Philosophy without any gaps series, and there are details in Plato’s work that might support it.

If we take The Republic literally, Plato thinks some forms of poetry should be outlawed. First, we must understand what ‘poetry’ means here. Plato’s understanding of poetry includes drama and playwrights such as Sophocles and Aeschylus. His Socrates says that drama is the lowest form of poetry because it is trying to be an imitation of real life, with the use of sound effects to simulate animals or crashing thunder and quarrels between characters, and yet what are the dialogues if not plays in which people quarrel and have debates, and so in a sense a form of drama? The major difference between Plato’s dialogues and the plays of Aeschylus is that Plato’s dialogues are played out in the reader’s head instead of on a stage, and the characters are philosophers and not kings.

The argument elaborates, saying that poetry is not good for society because it distracts the person from reason and toward emotion, but Plato knew well that philosophy could stir emotions. The real-life Socrates was condemned to die after being accused of ‘corrupting the youth’ through philosophy. Some of Plato’s dialogues are very ambiguous and a lot like poetry could be interpreted a number of ways, to intentionally use the word ‘poetry’ quite loosely.

It is a cliché of writing, especially of poetry, that it is open to interpretation. Since it is, why must we fix a single interpretation to Plato? Richard Kraut wrote in his article for the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy on Plato that you did have to interpret what Plato is trying to say, and that The Parmenides (another collection of Plato’s writing) ‘is perhaps the clearest example of such a work, because here Plato relentlessly rubs his readers’ faces in a baffling series of unresolved puzzles and apparent contradictions. But several of his other works also have this character, though to a smaller degree.’

If Plato’s goal was to have a clear, objective philosophical conclusion based on reason then this is very strange. But these ‘unresolved puzzles’ might be a key to unlocking Plato’s real purpose. Instead of being ‘the father of Western philosophy’, perhaps he is ‘a father to philosophy’, encouraging independent philosophizing, just like his teacher the real Socrates tried to do in his life. Poetry is open to interpretation, like Plato’s philosophy, while his student Aristotle’s thought is far more prescriptive and solid. Instead of an unchangeable, coherent philosophical work, The Republic should be seen as a collection of closely related short plays.

There are different interpretations of the structure of The Republic, and how the dialogues fit together. One well known interpretation by Leo Strauss suggests that the first book is a series of conversations on justice and what it is, but by the end there is no clear idea of what justice is. The following couple of books talk about justice by contrasting the actions of a just man who is commonly seen as unjust with an unjust man who is commonly seen as just. How can we can say that the just man is just despite the perception of him (and the reverse for the unjust man) if we do not know what justice is? Even though it seems like an obvious question, it is not explored by Plato.

That question is for the reader, who is encouraged to imagine themselves as another philosopher in the room with Socrates, just like the audience is encouraged to imagine themselves with the king in a play by Sophocles. It is easy to imagine Plato enjoying the debates and arguments a lot more than the conclusions – The Republic is a lot of fun to read. He might even have been horrified by the way his work has been interpreted by the generations since him – sadly, we will never know.

About the Contributor

Michael A. Arnold is a graduate of the University of Sunderland and Northumbria University. He is based in North East England, and has previously published essays and short fiction. His influences include George Orwell and Robert Frost.

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