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The Core Curriculum

Historical Context for Plato's Republic

Relates to: 

The second half of the 5th century BCE was a tumultuous period in Athens. It was both the golden age of Athenian democracy and power – under the rule of Pericles in the 440’s and 430’s democratic Athens was quickly transforming into a regional hegemon. Yet it was also a period in which the Athenian polis experienced a rapid decline. The Peloponnesian War (431-404) fought between Athens and a coalition of states led by its bitter enemy Sparta resulted in Athens’ defeat and the temporary overthrow of Athenian democracy which, for many, was ultimately responsible for the failure at war. Members of Plato’s family, though not Plato himself, were involved in the coup. While Plato’s writings are rooted in this dynamic political context, and the major themes we will encounter in the Republic such as his critique of democracy and of Athenian educators and poets cannot be fully appreciated outside it.

Death of Socrates by Jacque-Louis David, 1787 (Wikimedia Commons).  In his Republic, Plato describes an ideal City in which a wise philosopher such as Socrates (about to be executed by Athens, here) would rule.Death of Socrates by Jacque-Louis David, 1787 (Wikimedia Commons). In his Republic, Plato describes an ideal City in which a wise philosopher such as Socrates (about to be executed by Athens, here) would rule. Scholars concur that Plato authored 36 dialogues. The Republic is thought to have been written in what is called Plato’s middle period.  In Greek, the title of the work is understood as Politea, which can be rendered something closer to “forms of government” or perhaps “constitution.” This later choice, constitution, seems to capture the text’s focus on the deep relationship between the vibrancy of the polis and political community and the flourishing of the individual. The Republic is encyclopediac, addressing in great depth and with wide reach the domains and spheres of philosophy, from education, to ethics, to politics, and beyond. Among the fundamental questions to ask in reading the text is why Plato deemed all these topics essential to the question of the just.

Unlike many other philosophers, Plato’s ideas are rarely explicitly or systematically set forth. Instead, Plato’s thought is conveyed through dialogues, in the model of Socratic inquiry, elenchus. and the literary scenes Plato narrates in which two or more interlocutors, never Plato himself, discuss a specific theme, be it courage, love, virtue, or the just, the focus of the Republic. The multiplicity of voices poses a major interpretive challenge. If two or more figures speak in a dialogue, how do we ascertain which view is Plato’s? Moreover, many of the dialogues end without a definite conclusion, what the Greeks termed aporia, in which case how do we understand what the dialogue was at all intended to convey? These challenges are in turn complicated by the fact that the main protagonist and interlocutor in Plato’s dialogues is his mentor Socrates, the enigmatic Athenian philosopher whose life and thought we know of primarily through Plato’s writings. If Socrates is the main figure in Plato’s dialogues, is he there then to speak for Plato himself? Is there a difference between Plato’s and Socrates’ thought? Or in other words, how are we to properly conceptualize the relationship between Socrates the mentor and Plato the student? These challenges have preoccupied scholars of Greek philosophy for centuries, and while they have no definite answers they nonetheless help to account for the richness that makes Plato’s texts so engaging.

Plato’s Republic, which discusses the meaning of justice and the structure of an ideal society and soul, is considered by many as the cornerstone of Plato’s corpus. The dialogue seems to deviate from most of Plato’s other works in that it explicitly lays out philosophical ideas. Parts of the books present Plato’s “theory of forms” according to which the material world is an image or copy of a higher, abstract and unchanging world, while other parts closely detail Plato’s view of an ideal political society. The apparently systematic qualities of the Republic have only amplified the interpretive challenges inherent in Plato’s works. Some scholars claim Plato’s vision of an ideal society in the Republic is not one he genuinely hoped would come to life or rather merely a caricature, a philosophical demonstration of the futility of political utopianism. Most commentators take Plato’s Republic to be a prescription for a model society, and either embrace or balk at its totalitarian overtones.  Others see a nascent feminism in the text’s recommendation that women  should be political leaders and also, on a more negative note,  find in the text a forerunner of state sponsored eugenics.

About a third of the the Republic is dedicated to a fierce criticism of Athenian poets and their mythologies - why would a book about justice dedicate so much attention to art? For a book ostensibly about politics, why spend so much time talking about education?  The Republic, which heavily criticizes myth, ends with a myth of its own known as the “Myth of Er” – what are we to make of this and how does this shape our understanding of Plato’s critique of mythology and the success of Socrates and his interlocutors in responding to Thraysmachus’ challenge? These are just some of the interpretive challenges that appear in the Republic, challenges to which a close reading perpetually yields new answers.

 

Written by Gil Rubin, Department of History, Columbia University

 

Works Consulted:

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy at http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/plato/