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The Republic | Book 10 | Summary

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Summary

At the beginning of Book 10, Socrates returns to his frontal assault on the status and role of poetry in the ideal state. Readers here should be sure to coordinate Plato's remarks on poetry with the commentary in Book 3, which constitutes the first phase of the discussion.

As the discussion unfolds in Book 10, it turns out Socrates's most forceful charge against poetry is it is divorced from reality. Poetic expression, Socrates claims, exists in fact at several removes from reality. Readers should understand in this discussion Plato's rejection of poetry is closely allied with the theory of Forms or Ideas. A poet, for example, may include a description of a table (or some other visible object) in his verse. Yet this description must be regarded as only an "imitation" (mimesis) of an actual table—for instance, one that is made by a carpenter or another sort of artisan. And this table, apparently so concrete and touchable and real, must be acknowledged as really only a copy, or visible manifestation, of the Form of a table. This Form is the invisible, yet undeniably real, model or eternal paradigm of a table that serves as its perfect ideal. Poetry, therefore, is "thrice removed from the truth." In this respect poets are like painters, who do not render reality in their creations but rather appearance. The imitative art is inferior, and it appeals to an inferior part of the soul, awakening and strengthening the feelings but impairing reason. As Socrates warns, "Poetry feeds and waters the passions, instead of drying them up." The only poetry that should be allowed in the ideal state is hymns to the gods and the praises of virtuous individuals.

The second part of Book 10 is devoted to Socrates's doctrine of the immortality of the soul. Socrates first concerns himself with this topic in the abstract. But soon he launches into a myth or parable that is intended to establish and extend his perspective on the soul. This is the famous Myth of Er, which concludes the dialogue as a whole.

As Socrates recounts the story, Er was a warrior from Pamphylia (in southern Asia Minor) who was killed in battle but who, 12 days after his death, returned to life and told what he had seen in the other world. When his soul had left his body, it embarked on a marvelous journey in the afterlife. Following judgment of the dead, the souls were required to choose a new life. After drinking from the river of forgetfulness (Lethe), the souls completed their journey by being reborn.

Analysis

Book 10 falls into two contrasting sections. The first part may be considered as a follow-up to the critical examination of poets and poetry in Book 3. In this analysis of poetry Socrates emphatically stresses the concept of mimesis, or imitation. Within the context of the theory of Forms or Ideas, imitation has negative overtones since it is associated with a removal (actually, two removals) from reality. It is worth recalling, however, that Aristotle, Plato's most famous student, developed a completely different outlook on mimesis, using the concept in his treatise on poetry, the Poetics, as a key element in the definition of drama.

The Myth of Er forms a striking conclusion to the Republic. Structurally, it echoes some of the motifs readers have seen in the dialogue as a whole, particularly the ideas of katabasis ("descent") and anabasis ("ascent"). Readers should recall, in particular, the upward and downward journeys of the prisoners who are liberated from the cave in Book 7. Er's narrative about the judgment of souls resonates with Socrates's comments throughout the dialogue on the enduring merit of justice and the irremediable evil of injustice. There is also a structurally elegant symmetry with Book 1 when readers recall the comments of Cephalus, who touches on the concerns of the elderly regarding rewards and punishments after death. But perhaps the most striking feature of the Myth of Er is Plato's decision to conclude his dialogue on the ideal state with a poetic narrative or parable that is rife with symbolic and metaphorical levels of meaning.

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