The Republic

by Plato (tr. John Llewelyn Davies & David James Vaughan)

It's difficult to summarise my reaction to this work simply. I found many of the conclusions and much of the argument to be flawed. And yet, there is definitely an appeal here that I get. Plato was not just a thinker, but a writer, and the text he gives is entertaining and provocative. I kept notes as I read not because I was intent on studying and remembering the book, but because seeing the conversational progression of the argument stirred me to objections and commentary. More than anything else I've read, Plato here gave me a sense of what they call The Great Conversation. There are over 2,000 years between us, but when Plato talks about people, about the nature of man, it makes sense. There is lots to disagree with, but you are definitely talking about the same creature, and speaking with someone not very unlike yourself.

Book I An engaging start, with Socrates and his mate essentially pressured into hanging out with some dudes, and Socrates begins by chatting to an old guy about getting old, something that is pretty timelessly relatable. When Socrates starts in with "so what is 'justice'?" the old dude knows well enough to find something else to do.

The argument that follows is annoying. Partly that is because it is tempting to read it as a transcription of a real conversation rather than an argument by Plato, and what Plato's Socrates does is not the conversation of real inquiry, where you take someone's definition and examine it fairly, but a sort of rhetorical bullying, with Socrates baffling his conversational partners with sly shifts and misdirection. There's therefore a part of me that wants to interject to point out these failures to engage with the real meaning of another speaker, which somewhat misses the point of the rhetorical device of the conversation itself. I was however pleased to see Socrates dressed down for always criticising and never proposing anything.

The pursuit of the Ideal, the forms that Plato is known to truck in, leads to meaningless decisions. For example, Plato attempts to refute the idea that justice can be defined as doing good to the good (or just) and harm to the evil (or unjust). He does this by analogy, asking if doing harm to a dog improves its excellence in the elements of being a dog, building to an argument that harm is always unjust. The foil conversation partner simply says harm doesn't improve the dog, but this simply isn't true! You might harm a dog to chasten it for bad behaviour, therefore improving its behaviour, an analogy extremely relevant to the discussion of harm in justice. Of course, other sorts of harm are not useful to this aim, but the inability to distinguish between 'a type of harm for one purpose' and other harms as part of a general Harm seems to be key to Plato's tendency to fall into confusion.

Book II Glaucon comes off the bench with a staggering presentation of justice in what is recognisably a game-theoretical account. Being unjust is defecting in the dilemma, and suffering multiple defections is the worst outcome for all, so we chose the compact of justice as non-defection, even though each could benefit more by being unjust. I had no idea that this concept had such a robust pedigree, and it was pretty impressively stated. There's also an illustrative fable involving a ring of invisibility which made me think of an influence on both Tolkien and Wells.

Glaucon's brother also chips in to support another point made by Glaucon, that an unjust person would be capable of seeming just, and buying dispensation from the gods for his injustice, so if Socrates is going to prove that justice is good he needs to prove that it has inherent benefits, and not just ones that accrue from seeming just, as those will also, and perhaps mostly, go to the unjust.

Socrates is stumped and admits it. He suggests that they try looking for justice in a city, first, and then seeing how it might apply to a man. He then sets off on a bit of world-building, designing a city. Building on a general view of specialisation as a superior form of organising labour, he makes the case for a professional army, and then in considering what qualities we might want for these men (which he begins by comparing them to dogs, and then makes a dumb leap to requiring them to be philosophers, which incidentally suggests that philosophers are dogs) he starts laying out a programme of indoctrination. This is highly censorious, with Socrates calling for a ban on any negative or even complex representation of the gods, something not just for our dog-philosopher-soldiers, but to be imposed on the entire fictional city. The fact that he's arguing 'philosophers' should be kept from complex moral fiction doesn't seem to alarm Plato.

Book III Some pretty horrible stuff, continuing the line of exploration at the end of Book II. Plato sets out to legislate every last element of the guardian-dog-philosophers' lives, including specific types of permitted fiction, the sorts of music they should be able to listen to, and what they should be allowed to eat. At points this seems to cross over into restrictions on the whole fictional city, the distinction is not always clear.

At times this section reads like a reductio ad absurdum -- Plato is calling for culturally important texts like those of Homer and Hesiod to be stripped of basically all the best bits, he's arguing that specialisation means that warriors can't be oarsmen, and he's essentially banning actors. This isn't just nuts to modern ears, this would be nuts to Plato's contemporaries. Unfortunately, it goes on too long and diverts through too much else for me to be convinced it really is arguing the opposite of what it says.

Some of the diversions were interesting, including on the nature of temperance and the balance of the athletic and artistic in producing a well-rounded character. It's hard to use Plato as a moral authority given the rest of what he proposes in this book, but there are occasional details and insights that are surprising and worth reflection.

Book IV Adeimantus interjects to point out that it sounds like it would suck to be one of these Guardians, and Plato's Socrates agrees, but highlights that we're just looking for a perfect society overall, and components of it can suck if necessary.

Given a few last flourishes of world-building, Socrates moves on to locating justice in his city. He asserts (without challenge) that the four good qualities of a city are wisdom, bravery, temperance and justice, and decides to find justice by nailing down the other elements in a process of elimination. These locations are not particularly well-argued, but Socrates ends up with a definition of justice as a combination of something like the non-aggression principle (nobody meddling in anyone else's business) and a class system that prevents people moving across class boundaries. Around this point in the book I was reminded that Sparta must have been a big influence on Plato in designing his Guardians, with their long tradition of a distinct social class of ascetic warriors that were considered unbeatable in combat for a long time.

Anyway, having decided on what justice looks like in a city, Socrates applies it to a person's own faculties, where it becomes clear that what he has arrived at as a definition of justice is what we might term order -- people putting their reason, spirit and desires all in the proper place. More carefully, it is the natural order of things, so that, at a state level, people fit for carpentry become carpenters, and people fit for rule become rulers. He convinces his conversational aides that they have arrived at a fitting description of justice (the series of commonsense tests he throws at the idea is almost more interesting than the formal definition) and then turns to a discussion of the different forms of government, the first of which is an aristocracy (or kingdom), like the city he described, where the best rulers rule and everyone else is in their proper societal place.

Book V Socrates is about to explain why all the other forms of government suck when his audience interject to question him about something he skipped over in the worldbuilding -- women and children. Under protest, he turns to the topic and explains his vision: women should be treated the same as men, insofar as is practical, and given the same education and most of the same duties, though with some adjustment for their lesser strength. When it comes to children, Plato has an even more radical vision, a sort of state-overseen selective breeding lottery, with the best guardians given freest reign to reproduce, and childrearing mostly offloaded to state nurseries so even mothers don't know their children. When you get past your prime, you get to have as much sex as you want with whoever, so long as you promise to kill any babies.

There are a few other embellishments of the world-building here, too. Plato lays down some sensible restrictions for civilised warfare, and explains a few practical details like how children of the Guardian class might be exposed to battles for edification without putting them in too much danger (I guess he'd love action movies and video games).

Challenged on the practicality of achieving this society, Socrates offers the (seemingly quite last-ditch) hope that it might be possible if there were philosopher-kings to enact the vision. Glaucon points out how Socrates is inviting mockery (implicitly, I guess, for the ridiculous nature of the idea that philosophers are any use) and Socrates diverts into an explanation of what he means by philosophers, which was actually one of the more tedious bits of the book so far.

Book VI Continuing, Socrates lays out the case for why true philosophers would be ideal kings. As he wraps up, Adeimantus comes back at him with, firstly, a very valid critique of the Socratic style of operation, and secondly an epic diss on philosophers:

For at this moment a person will tell you, that though at each question he cannot oppose you with words, yet in practice he sees that all the students of philosophy, who have devoted themselves to it for any length of time, instead of taking it up for educational purposes and relinquishing it while still young, in most cases become exceedingly eccentric, not to say quite depraved, while even those who appear the most respectable are notwithstanding so far the worse for the pursuit which you commend, that they become useless to their country.

Plato pours oil on this sick burn by having Socrates agree that philosophers indeed quite decidedly suck, comparing them to uneducated sailors competing to be the pilot of a boat, none of them in the least able to even identify when someone else is making sense. He nonetheless argues that a true philosopher might be born, sometime, to a king, without being corrupted by the many issues that plague philosophically-inclined young men, and thenceforth steer things toward the vision being outlined. There's then a discussion of the proper educational context for such a lordling, which Socrates contends should be the contemplation of the ideal Good, which he outlines as having the same relation to reason as the sun has to our eyes.

Book VII Plato extends this previous into his famous cave analogy, to explain the difficulty of communicating this sort of 'true' knowledge to others. This is very reminiscent of a lot of Eastern discussions about enlightenment. There is then a long discussion of some of the elements involved in studying this highest discipline, which Plato contends should be primarily mathematical training, looking for abstractions and rules rather than studying reality in and of itself. I'm very much an empiricist rather than a theoretician, and Plato didn't sway me -- I actually found this book the most tiresome, as I couldn't be persuaded that anything important was being discussed.

Book VIII Socrates is now finally permitted to return to the subject he left off at the start of Book V -- the forms of government other than perfect rational aristocracy (or monarchy). He describes first of all the form which is most unfamiliar to us, what he calls timocracy -- a state somewhere between aristocracy and oligarchy, where a ruling class jealous of honours and distinctions subjects the other classes rather than ruling modestly in the interest of all. Thence he proceeds to oligarchy, explaining how accumulation of wealth may come to supplant the accumulation of honor, until there are distinct property requirements for participation in government, and society's elite focuses entirely on the extraction of wealth. The resentment this treatment breeds in the underclasses, particularly when rival oligarchs are cast down among them, eventually erupts in revolution, and the creation of a democratic rule. The liberty and equality of democracy may then lead to a loss of shame, balance and public order, and an eternal suspicion of any orderly minds that manage to accrue wealth as being an attempt to return to oligarchy. The poorly-treated rich, being stolen from by the mob, will naturally end up in truth supporting oligarchy, and eventually a people's champion will arise to confront these elites, who himself will soon become despotic, gathering bodyguards to protect him from elite assassins, and purging all opponents.

This was really fun reading. It is impossible to read Plato's full account of the relationship between oligarchy, democracy and despotism without finding some parallels in modern politics, some of them quite alarming.

And if he is banished, and afterwards restored in despite of his enemies, does he not return a finished tyrant?

Book IX Throughout the previous book, Socrates held forth on the character of a man described also by the style of government given (remember, justice in a city paired with justice in a man). Here he gives a far deeper treatment on the final element missing, the character of a man ruling himself as a tyrant. This is a deeply moral and psychological discussion about how the most insane passions are lifted to rule over all other components of the soul.

Following this, Plato turns the conversation to the nature of desires, arguing that in complement to his earlier threefold division of the major elements of man as reason, spirit, and manifold worldly desires, there are pleasures associated with each. He also rather predictably argues that the pleasures of reason should be held uppermost, on the (I think dubious) grounds that only those that plumb the depths of the mind can compare the pleasures.

Finally, Socrates returns to the initial challenges of Thracymachus, Glaucon and Adeimantus, demonstrating that he has found that not only is justice best, it is best in and of itself. It is an extremely well-delivered flourish, using the image of a man containing both an ideal man, a lion and a multi-headed beast, and I think communicates well the central intuition of virtue ethics and the forms of self-mastery argued for by traditional conservative morality.

Book X Seemingly done with the main investigation, Plato doubles-down on the topic of poetry and the arts, arguing that as art imitates reality, and reality itself only imitates the Ideal, art is necessarily removed from anything important and only good for amusement, and furthermore tends to provoke people to celebrate depictions of behaviour they should avoid. None of this finds any purchase in me, though I appreciate that Plato at least set out that he was open to argument on the value of art and did really quite like Homer, and was mastering this affection through reason in line with his concept of justice rather than out of spite.

Finally, in a section that must have been key to why Plato was so loved by Christians, Plato presents a rather dumb argument as to the immortality of the soul, and caps it off with a religious fable about a man who goes to the afterlife and sees how immortal souls are treated there, something no doubt of great inspiration to Dante. It's not the best ending, philosophically speaking, but it does allow him to do some victory laps about the importance of justice.