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These factors lead some scholars to argue that the dialogues cannot provide reliable guides to what Plato thought. According to this school of interpretation,
Republic
and its counterparts showcase the Socratic method of inquiry; they are intended to stimulate readers’ interest in asking their own questions, but do not aim to guide them toward specific points of view, or “theories,” on any given topic. Yet there is a definite set of concerns—about the unreliability of opinions held by “the many,” for example, and their heedless pursuit of pleasure and gratification—that is explored and substantiated in several dialogues. The recurrence of these concerns, and the consistent manner in which they are addressed from dialogue to dialogue, suggest that Plato’s written works are not only advertisements for the Socratic method of inquiry, but also vehicles for a complex agenda that is at once ethical and intellectual, cultural and political.
Succinct summary of this complex agenda is impossible. Readers interested in exploring what scholars have deduced about Plato’s interests and aims are encouraged to consult one or more of the excellent studies available today, including Andrea Wilson Nightingale’s
Genres in Dialogue: Plato and the Construct of Philosophy,
Angela Hobbs’s
Plato and the Hero: Courage, Manliness, and the Impersonal Good,
Charles H. Kahn’s
Plato and the Socratic Dialogue: The Philosophical Use of a Literary Form,
Terence Irwin’s
Plato’s Ethics,
Debra Nails’s
Agora, Academy, and the Conduct of Philosophy,
and Josiah Ober’s
Political Dissent in Democratic Athens: Intellectual Critics of Popular Rule.
This introduction to Republic merits discussion of just a few basic points.
First, the recurrent expose of the unreliability of “what most people think” functions as a weapon that permits a simultaneous attack on traditional ethical understandings (for example, the identification of “justice” with retribution and vengeance) and on the particular ideological assumptions of democracy. (The most important of these assumptions was that, regardless of social position or experience, free-born male citizens were qualified to participate to some extent in political processes.) The critique that
Republic
and other Platonic texts offer concerning the pervasive materialist tendencies in Greek culture, which are repeatedly said to prioritize appearances and “external” goods (such as wealth, looks, social status, and political power) over “internal” goods and actual conditions, thus complements their more narrowly focused challenge to the soundness of Athenian democracy’s presumptions and practices.
At the heart of this double-sided critique lies the concern that Hellenic culture encouraged a fundamentally childish attachment to pleasure-not just physical and sensual pleasures, but to the psychological pleasures gained through the exercise of power, or through the indulgence of ambition, pride, grief, anger, and other strong emotions. Athenian democracy is represented as exacerbating these childish tendencies, because it maximizes the number of individuals who are permitted to indulge themselves with little real restraint. The ultimate effect of democracy is to render political leaders helplessly incapable of true governance, since they are inevitably forced to gratify and flatter the common people, who can turn on them with impunity as soon as they fail to please (see, for example,
Gorgias
500a-519c;
Republic
6.492a-493d).
These criticisms run counter to the self-images that most Athenians—and most Greeks—would have nurtured, although the negative assessment of Athenian democracy echoes points made by other upper-class Athenians writing in the fifth and fourth centuries, such as Thucydides, Xenophon, and Isocrates. Plato distinguishes himself, however, by positioning his critique of Athens’ democratic culture within a far broader interrogation of time-honored values and practices that were not specific to Athens. In so doing, he takes aim at the traditional aristocratic ideology cherished by his own social group, which assumed that the well-born and elite few—purportedly endowed with superior intelligence, skill, resources, and “excellence” (
aretê
)—possessed a natural and god-given right to power. As Andrea Wilson Nightingale argues
(Genres
in
Dialogue,
pp. 55-59), the dialogues time and again expose the ignorance and powerlessness of well-born men who presume and are presumed to be “superior.” Even the gifted and privileged Alcibiades is made to concede the “slavishness” of his desire to “please the crowd” in
Symposium
215e-216b.
Yet the repeated exposes of how elite individuals like Alcibiades fail to be morally and intellectually “superior” do not overturn the basic presumption that, in a given community, only a few individuals are sufficiently gifted to wield political power. Critical as they are of the conduct and attitudes of contemporary elites, the dialogues ultimately validate the principle of elitism. Against the claims of democracy’s pluralist ideology, Plato’s works seek to reenergize traditional aristocratic views of political power as a special responsibility and privilege reserved for the very few. In the process, however, they completely redefine who the “best men”
(hoi aristoi)
are, and completely reconfigure the meaning of traditional terms for the qualities of those best men—that is, excellence
(aretê),
wisdom
(sophia),
courage
(andreia),
temperance
(sophrosynê),
and justice
(dikaiosynê).
At its most basic level, Republic is an effort to forge a consistent and meaningful redefinition of “justice” that goes against the grain of much traditional teaching. Readers will see for themselves how its reconfiguration of what is signified by the term goes hand in hand with its argument for an “aristocracy” of men called “philosophers,” whose apprehension of the metaphysical ideas leads them to disdain appearances of all sorts. Their
aretê
lies in nothing outward, but rests solely in their mature reason and regard for what is beneficial to the soul.
These thoughts could have been conveyed in any number of ways, and in themselves they do not tell us why Plato chose to write dialogues as opposed to treatises. His choice must have been motivated to some extent by the fact that other members of the Socratic circle were composing dialogues, but there might have been additional reasons for his gravitation toward this versatile form. Certainly the dialogue afforded him great flexibility of expression, and with it he was able to craft attractive alternatives to the very forms of discourse (including poetic genres such as tragedy and epic) that
Republic
and other works expose as the principal carriers of problematic cultural values.
Moreover, even though the dialogues are not philosophical discourses in their own right—since such can never take place in writing (compare
Phaedrus
274e-278b)—they are plainly models of the kinds of conversations that thoughtful men can have. They are, in some regards, advertisements for philosophy, and they might have been composed to engage the interest of young Athenian men in the philosophical studies of the Academy.
We should observe here that Isocrates, too, claimed to teach
philosophia,
using the term to express the dominant cultural values that Socrates and other Platonic interlocutors vigorously criticize. In a work titled
Antidosis
(354 or 353 B.C.E.), Isocrates explicitly casts doubt on the relevance of the kinds of studies pursued at the Academy—that is, mathematical sciences that aim at the discovery of absolute truths. Isocrates’ skepticism doubtless reflects the long-running competition between his school and the Academy, and it seems likely, as Nightingale maintains
(Genres in Dialogue,
pp. 21-59), that the dialogues had the additional function of advancing Plato’s far more exclusive definitions of philosophy and the philosopher. Not only do they counter Isocrates’ definition of philosophy, but they also repeatedly strive to demonstrate how Plato’s “brand” of philosophy is useful to both the individuals who practice it and their communities.
At times, as in books 5-10 of
Republic,
Plato has his interlocutors directly define
philosophia
and expound on its usefulness. Yet the dialogue form has the additional virtue of permitting Plato to define
philosophia
indirectly as well as directly, through the very drama of his “plays” in prose. In the dialogues he is able to show—and not merely describe—what philosophy is, and the benefits it brings as well as the challenges it imposes. On the latter score, the give-and-take of the conversations, especially those in which Socrates and his interlocutors reach neither satisfactory conclusion nor mutual understanding, highlight how emotional factors such as ambition, pride, anger, and fear affect the cognitive abilities and powers of reason in even the most intelligent people. These conversations seem designed to bear out what is claimed in book 7 of
Republic,
that the “whole soul” must be moved in order for the mind to “know,” just as the whole body must be turned from darkness toward light for the eyes to see (7.518c). The rewards, however, are made to seem worth the trouble of this arduous psychological reorientation. Readers have only to contemplate the ease and grace of Socrates, even as he faces death in Crito and Phaedo, to find compelling “advertisements” for the supreme value of Plato’s distinctive brand of philosophy.
The dialogues present Socrates as a paragon of the philosopher’s
aretê.
They simultaneously permit Plato and his readers to look back at Socrates in a nuanced manner and mark his shortcomings as well as his fine and admirable traits. Socrates may have seen it as his duty to talk to “anyone, young or old” (so
Apology
33a), but Plato’s many representations of Socrates’ conversations subtly bring out how such an indiscriminate approach, however commendable in intention, is unrealistic and ultimately self-defeating. Plato himself, we should note, was considerably more selective than Socrates in his contacts; at the Academy he worked only with people eager to study with him, whom he could vet as a condition of their “admission.” In Plato’s hands, then, the Socratic dialogue becomes both homage to a beloved mentor and declaration of intellectual independence.
Republic
In the manuscripts and ancient citations, the title of
Republic
is given as
Politeia
(“Constitution”) or
Politeiai
(“Constitutions”);
Peri dikaiou
(literally, “concerning that which is just”) is sometimes listed as an alternative title. The book divisions, as those in Laws, are probably not Platonic, but rather the work of scholars in the third and second centuries B.C.E. The sectional numbers (for example,
Republic
327b) found in most modern editions refer to the page and section numbers used in one of the first printed texts of Plato’s dialogues, which was published in the late sixteenth century; like the book divisions, they are retained for the sake of convenience.
Again, the date of
Republic’s
composition is a matter of conjecture. Some scholars argue that it was actually composed in stages, on the grounds that the current text imperfectly marries two (or more) “dramatic” conceptions. Although the physical setting is certain (the house of the metic Polemarchus in Piraeus), there is much disagreement over the dramatic date. Debra Nails
(The People of Plato,
pp. 324—326) compellingly summarizes the evidence for viewing the current text of
Republic
as a combination of and expansion upon two earlier works: first, an inconclusive (“aporetic”)
Thrasymachus
or
On Justice,
similar to Gorgias and
Protagoras
and set in the 420s B.C.E., which would have supplied the basis for what is now called book 1, and second, an
Ideal State,
which would have been the foundation for what is currently in books 2-5. If the latter composition featured Plato’s older brothers Glaucon and Adeimantus as interlocutors, it would have been set in or after 411. This analysis comfortably accounts for the many anachronisms that arise if one attempts, as some critics do, to fix the dramatic date of
Republic
in a particular year such as 411 or 410, and it also permits some reconciliation with the apparent reference to the discussion of
Republic
as “yesterday‘s” conversation in
Timaeus
17a-19e, which seems to be set in the 420s.
The text that we now possess surely could have been composed in more than one stage. Yet, since anachronisms are present in dialogues that have readily identifiable dramatic dates, the obligation to explain away
Republic’s
anachronisms by means of theories concerning its composition is less than pressing. Awkward anachronisms and all,
Republic
is a unified work with a logical and elegant organization, to which we will now direct our attention.
Socrates himself is the narrator of
Republic,
in which he tells an unknown audience about a conversation that took place “yesterday.” His main interlocutors, from book 2 on, are Glaucon and Adeimantus. His host Polemarchus and Polemarchus’ aged father, Cephalus, are instrumental in getting the conversation going, and the aggressive challenge posed by the rhetorician Thrasymachus in the second part of book 1 is what determines the dialogue’s main interests.
Other men are present in the dialogue: Polemarchus’ half-brother Lysias, a professional speech writer who is discussed in
Phaedrus
and whose works still survive; another half-brother, Euthydemus; a man named Charmantides, who could be either an elderly man from the rural Attic deme of Paeania or his grandson; and Niceratus, the son of the well-respected political leader and
strategos
Nicias. These four men are silent witnesses to the conversation, as are the nameless “others” mentioned in 1.327c. Aside from the slave who calls upon Socrates and Glaucon in the first paragraph of book 1, the only other speaker is Cleitophon, an Athenian politician who briefly comes to Thrasymachus’ aid at 1.340b-c.
BOOK: Republic (Barnes & Noble Classics Series)
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