Greek Philosophy – Plato’s Republic
In the late dialogues, believed to have been written about 360 BCE, Socrates was no longer sharing much of the conversation with other debaters, but dominates the texts with monologues that are now Plato’s own Pythagorean and Parmenidean views of the eternal and unchanging form that is the hidden source of the mortal and temporary. Plato believed that Heraclitus was right about the world below, but Pythagoras was right about the eternal world above, the unchanging model, form, order and cause of the ever-changing world below. Plato has Socrates argue that those who think they know the world below have mere opinions, but the one who knows the world above, the true eternal pattern of reality, has true knowledge.
In Plato’s Republic, we find Socrates again debating with his fellow Athenian aristocrats on the nature of virtue, justice and the Good itself. Socrates debunks several common views, then constructs an ideal model of the city. The well ordered city is compared to the well ordered soul, three faculties that must be kept in their places and assigned their proper roles. Thus, the Good is the proper order of the elements in accord with ancient cosmology. Just as the city is a microcosm of the cosmos, the individual is a microcosm of the city and the cosmos, with each level corresponding to each other. The elements must be separated and put in their places with the highest element on top and the lowest beneath. The cosmos is ordered in its unfolding, producing the ideal order of the soul and city. When the cosmos is in order, the forces of nature are in balance. When the city is in order, culture and society are in balance. When the individual is in order, the mind and body are in balance.
In the first book of the Republic, Socrates talks to several interlocutors and argues against their concepts of justice. The term interlocutor, meaning inter-speaker, is used not only for additional participants in a debate, but also today to describe other opinions brought into one’s argument to use as counter-positions to disprove, such as, “An opponent of mine may say…”, or, “While a critic here might reply to my argument that…”. Modern philosophers such as Nietzsche and Wittgenstein use this device often.
In the first book, Socrates is questioning others like the original pre-platonic Socrates, showing each opponent that they are unclear about their views while refraining from offering his own answers. Remember that, in the Meno, Meno accuses Socrates of being a stingray that stuns its opponents, and Socrates replies that he himself is stunned. The first interlocutor, Polemarchus, argues that justice is paying debts, helping friends and harming enemies. Recall that Meno argued the same position, which he learned from Gorgias. Socrates argues that in some situations, helping friends and harming enemies is wrong. Suppose one’s friend wants something unjust? In this case, it is wrong to help one’s friend. Suppose that by harming an enemy, you bring harm to yourself or your friends? In this case, it is wrong to harm one’s enemies. Socrates is particularly opposed to the view that one should seek to harm in the name of justice, as it would be much better to benefit everyone than harm enemies. This is similar to Socrates’ speech in the Symposium, where he says that the highest love is concerned with the benefit of all, not attachment to those one is attracted to.
The second interlocutor, Thrasymachus, is irritated with Socrates’ incessant questioning, and demands that Socrates give his own account of what justice is. Socrates asks Thrasymachus to give his own views, and Thrasymachus argues that justice is “the good of the stronger”. Recall that Athens had been conquered and reconquered, just like the city states of Ionia, and many rulers and forms of government had come and gone. Thrasymachus, like Socrates, does not claim to know what the good is in and of itself, but argues that the powerful get to impose their own views on the people as to what is good and what is bad, practicing their own form of justice as they see fit.
While this is similar to pre-platonic Socrates’ own position, not claiming to know the form in itself, it is quite pessimistic, skeptical of striving for the good itself. Socrates believes that there is such a thing as good, virtue and justice, even if we mortals do not ever understand it entirely. Thrasymachus does not explicitly argue that there is no good in itself to strive for, but his relativistic position is pessimistic rather than optimistic. Whichever ruler, just or unjust by our own position, gets to impose whatever form of justice they please on others, without any progress or direction in sight. In modern European thought, the french poststructuralist thinker Foucault says much the same about institutions, and that the imposition of systems of knowledge always involves power.
A third interlocutor, Glaucon, joins Thrasymachus and similarly argues that without threat of punishment, no one would do good. Socrates argues against them that the strong will corrupt themselves if they only act for their own interests and not for the good of the whole. Thrasymachus leaves, angered and unconvinced by Socrates’ arguments. This is the end of Book 1. Nothing has been resolved, and everyone, including Socrates, is unsatisfied with the results of the debate so far.
Starting with Book 2 of the Republic, Socrates now begins to argue for ideas which many believe to be those of Plato himself. Glaucon and Adeimantus, who has joined him as Thrasymachus departed, wish to hear Socrates give his own views, which he does by questioning them and leading them to answers which satisfy everyone. This is much like Socrates leading the slave boy in the Meno through proofs of geometry, arriving at the correct answer through questioning. It is justifiable to say that Plato believes that there is a true form of justice and virtue, and we know it already even as we have concealed it from ourselves in ignorance.
Glaucon challenges Socrates to prove that justice is better than injustice. Because injustice seems so attractive to so many, why would people do what is just if they could do injustice without punishment? If a mighty warrior, as Thrasymachus has argued, could capture a city and do whatever he liked without fear, why would he not grab everything for himself rather than help others and improve the entire city? Socrates has committed himself to the position that such a tyrant, of which Athens had seen many, would corrupt and thus destroy himself, but he has not, to his own satisfaction or to anyone else’s, given reasons why this is so.
Socrates says to his remaining two interlocutors that he did not feel he had convincingly refuted Thrasymachus, and that perhaps they should continue to debate to figure out what justice actually is. This is the turn from Socratic questioning to Platonic ideal forms. Unfortunately, at this point the remaining interlocutors, while occasionally asking questions for clarification, become somewhat mindless ‘yes-men’ who agree enthusiastically to everything Socrates says and praises it as the most certain wisdom they have ever heard. As Plato interjects his own ideas into his dialogues, the opposition becomes weaker and weaker. In the dialogue that follows the Republic, the Timaeus, which concerns the order of the cosmos beyond and above the order of the good individual and the just city, the text becomes a virtual monologue, without much room for interlocutors and dissenting opinions.
Aristotle, Plato’s student, argued that skeptics such as Heraclitus are mere destroyers who are no better than plants. While Xenophanes, Heraclitus, and Socrates were optimistic about skepticism, pushing for greater truth even though truth can not be entirely obtained, Zeno was more pessimistic about human understanding, arguing like Parmenides that any attempt to separate and differentiate results in contradiction and misunderstanding. Plato, like his student Aristotle, seems to have become more pessimistic, like Thrasymachus himself, about a lack of substance in Socrates’ argument, though Plato does not share Thrasymachus’ pessimism about truth itself. Plato, unlike the original Socrates, has become pessimistic about skepticism, about endless questioning, and this is personified in the character of Thrasymachus, who is pessimistically skeptical about power and its ability to achieve genuine justice.
Skepticism and relativism are often attacked as pessimistic, just as Heraclitus was called “the weeping philosopher”. However, Democritus, who was also skeptical of human understandings, was called “the laughing philosopher”, and was an atomist even as he admitted that we cannot know the full truth of what remains beyond our sight. Skepticism and relativism are attacked as pessimistic, as telling us that truth is “merely subjective”, as lacking any cohesion in objective unity, just as Thrasymachus argues that justice is merely the power of the stronger without any common notion in sight. Plato has his character Socrates turn his questioning from skepticism to dogmatism, revealing what the true eternal form of the Good is. It seems that Plato had grown pessimistic of subjectivity, and optimistic about the objectivity. This is somewhat sad, given that Socrates might have considered this a betrayal of the Oracle and Apollo.
Plato, as his character Socrates, now argues for an eternal form of the Good over the world of many temporary beings and desires. Socrates argues that first they must construct the ideal or just city, and this will show how the ideal or just individual should be. Essentially, the just city is a threefold caste system, identical in many ways to the Hindu caste system of India. There are many similarities between metaphors and teachings of the Republic and Indian thought. While originally I believed that this was due to an Indian influence on ancient Greece, it is likelier that the cosmology and thought of Egypt and Persia, the interconnectedness of ancient cultures and the similarity of ancient cosmology are responsible.
Socrates first asks us to imagine a city ruled by desire, but devoid of courage or wisdom. Clearly, this would not be a just place, and everyone would grab for themselves and the city would fall to destruction. Socrates adds the police (also translated as ‘guardians’, but because the Greek word for city is polis, these guardians are quite literally the ‘police’). The police must keep their own desires in check, and be courageous. However, mere courage is not enough for the just ruling of a city. Lastly, Socrates adds the philosophers (also intellectuals and scientists), to provide the wisdom to lead the police, who keep the common people safe from outsiders as well as themselves.
This threefold division corresponds to the physical human being and the cosmic being. The head is fire as an element, reason, thought and consciousness in the individual, and the ruling philosopher kings in the city. The heart or chest is air as an element, spirit, breath and courage in the individual, and the police or guardians in the city. The hands and stomach is earth as an element, desire, craving and thirst in the individual, and workers, farmers and craftspeople in the city. The individual, city and cosmos form a continuum, a set of Russian dolls. Notice that authority and the good come from above, evil and chaos to be ordered from below. Socrates also frames this in terms of the individual person. If one was thirsty for water, but one would lose honor or be poisoned by drinking, one’s courage or wisdom would be right to keep the desire in check. Similarly, if one wanted to go to war to gain honor, but it was unwise, one’s wisdom would be right in keeping one’s courage in check. Just as the head tells the heart and lungs what to do, and these regulate the rest of the body, in the good individual wisdom and reason rule over courage and spirit, which regulates desire and hunger.
Plato and Aristotle were not fans of democracy. Not only were they aristocrats and connected to royal courts like the educated were in ancient Athens, Socrates was condemned to death by the Athenian assembly for thinking and questioning too much. The Athenian assembly was clearly not composed of philosophers, or they would not have executed Socrates for practicing philosophy. Plato and Aristotle thought much higher of the royal dynasties of Egypt and Persia than they did of the brief period of Athenian democracy. Just as Plato praised Sparta for elevating the great courageous warriors over the common people, much like his police of the republic, Plato praised the Egyptians for elevating the priests, who were equivalent to philosophers and scientists, and setting them safely over the common masses.
Socrates argues that, in the good and just city, all is sacrificed for the common good. There is to be no private property or partners or children, for the police or philosophers. While Plato does not explicitly say that the common people must similarly share all in common, this may be because he is largely unconcerned with the common people as he is with the courage of the police and the wisdom of the philosophers. Socrates argues that the ruler who grabs for themselves will not be happy, filled with “horrid pains and pangs”, and will physically and mentally fall apart. This tyrant will never “taste true freedom or friendship”. Because this is not the order of the cosmos, it will not stick and will fall apart just like many tyrants have recently in ancient Athens. Similarly, if everyone shares everything in common, there will be greater justice and less selfishness. This is Socrates’ ultimate and definite answer to Glaucon’s challenge. Glaucon and Adeimantus are both entirely convinced, and proclaim Socrates to have indeed given us the recipe for the just city as well as the good individual.
The Soviet Union and America funded scholarship during the cold war that argued each was more like Athens than the other. The Soviet Union pointed out that they were much more like Plato’s ideal republic Republic than America, fueled by individual consumption and private property much like Socrates’ first failed city of desire. American scholars pointed out that Aristotle was critical of Plato and argued there should be a balance of public and private property and Plato’s ideal city was impossible in the real world, while using the language of ‘West’ and ‘East’ to separate Russia from the ‘true’ Western tradition. I myself would like more of a balance today between the public and private, but to many this is very socialist like Soviet Russia and thus un-Western. All sides agree the situation is quite unbalanced.
Socrates argues that in the ideal republic each person is best suited to one thing, and should be assigned this one job. If people do more than one job, they will not be able to do this one job as best as they can. He argues that we will lie to the people, tell them the ‘noble lie’ of a Phoenician story, that people were born from the earth and there are three races of people because the metals of gold, silver and bronze flow in their veins. Note that these are the three metals of the Olympic games, gold as first place, silver as second, and bronze as third.
While people will raise all children in common, they will be tested from early ages to see whether they can be athletic and educated. Those who cannot be athletic will be workers. Those who can be athletic but can’t study will be police. Those who are both athletic and educated are the philosophers, educators and rulers. Note that this fits the speech of Pericles, who told the Athenian assembly that the Athenians had learned scholarship, but in spite of this had not lost their manliness. Strangely, in our own culture we view intellectuals much as Pericles must have viewed the magi of Persia, as scientists who had failed to first become athletes.
Why tell the lie, that there are gold, silver, and bronze people, if we are striving for ideal good and justice? Because the common people will not understand and grab for themselves, very much Plato’s opinion of the brief period of Athenian democracy when the rich each grabbed for themselves in the absence of a powerful and just king. Plato’s cave, which we will discuss, reinforces this point. If you tell the truth to everyone, they will not believe you and try to destroy you as the assembly did Socrates when he asked them to put their desires in check with wisdom.
Socrates argues, and the interlocutors naively agree without much of a fight, that if they separate out the police and train them as best as can be, and then take the philosophers out of the police and educate them as best as can be, no injustice will be possible. There is the simple belief that the order itself will generate justice throughout the whole. The police and philosophers will thus never be greedy or unjust to the people below. Plato elsewhere argues that this is how the Egyptians in Thebes did it, by elevating priests as a class. He also says to imitate Sparta as well separating out the warriors.
In the same way, if you put your desires and appetites in check with your feelings, and your feelings in check with your reason, you will be a well ordered soul or individual. The appetites crave, the spirit is passionate, and the mind is reasonable. These are their jobs, the single thing they do the best, their purpose. Socrates argues that sometimes we are very thirsty, but if we know the drink is poisoned our reason puts our desire in check. Other times we may want honor but realize that it is not the smart thing to do, putting our spirit and emotions in check by our reason.
This is interesting, for in the Apology Socrates argues not only that he should not be condemned to death but given free food and drink for life because he is helping Athens out with his wisdom, but then when this angers the assembly (as one could have reasoned), Socrates argues with Crito that he must drink the poison and not escape by bribing the guards because it is the right thing to follow the law even when the law is unjust. Clearly, Socrates is presented as a philosopher who should be fed by others so that he can continue to reason, and an individual who can drink poison as the wisest and best course of action.
Socrates suggests banning all art (music, poetry and theater) that is counterproductive to the good of the city, everything that isn’t impressing the highest good and order. Plato seems to want to replace Homeric Greek culture with a solar monotheism similar to that of Akhenaten of Egypt and Zarathustra of Persia. The youth are to be taught that they must improve themselves for the good of the state, and that the gods are never drawn to injustice or desire. Remember that Heraclitus also thought it foolish to believe that the gods had the same problems and flaws as humans, and that Homer and Hesiod were fools for preaching this. Plato here agrees with Heraclitus, and wishes to make his view the law.
After being questioned about lying for the purpose of the good and justice, Socrates says that this is best explained with an analogy, the famous Allegory of the Cave. He describes the masses and the assent of the philosopher beyond opinion of the earthly realm to knowledge of the heavenly and eternal realm, showing why the philosopher alone should have authority. It also illustrates Plato’s placing of Pythagoras above Heraclitus, the eternal and heavenly forms above the mortal and earthly things of this world.
Imagine, Socrates asks, that everyone is chained in a dark cave, watching shadows of puppets carried before a fire at the mouth of the cave. The people think that the shadows are reality, the real things. The one who escapes, breaking the bondage of appetites and earthly things, first sees that the shadows are shadows of puppets, and sees the fire that casts the shadows. This draws the seeker to the mouth of the cave. Coming out of the cave and past the small fire, the seeker is at first blinded by the sunlight, but then sees real things outside of the cave and realizes that the puppets were just poor copies of the real things casting shadows that were shaped like real things. The seeker now has knowledge and the wisdom to see the difference between opinion (the shadows) and knowledge (the real things that the shadows imitate). While Heraclitus said there is no limit to wisdom, Plato has marked the limit as the mouth of the cave, the line between the mortal and eternal, between the assembly and Socrates himself.