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The Republic | Book 3 | Summary

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Summary

In Book 3 Socrates continues directly on the discussion of education for the guardians in the ideal state. In particular he emphasizes two dangers: poetry that dramatizes lamentation or the fear of death, and poetry that prompts or inspires unseemly laughter or merriment. Socrates is especially critical of Homer's portrayal of Achilles, the epic hero of the Iliad. Also mentioned for censure are two prominent heroes of Greek myth: Theseus and Pirithous (both were the sons of gods). Many of the traditional tales about these figures are false and encourage moral laxity, according to Socrates.

Having discussed the content of poetic narratives, Socrates next proceeds to these narratives' styles. Here again Socrates begins his critique by focusing on Homer. Specifically he objects to the form in which Homer narrates the epic story of the Iliad, much of which is conveyed in the characters' speeches. Homer proceeds, according to Socrates, by way of mimesis, or imitation. Socrates concludes imitation holds substantial dangers for the guardians of the ideal state, since the guardians should be concerned only with virtue and the good.

By the same logic and with the same criteria, Socrates subjects both harmony and rhythm to rigorous scrutiny, insisting only the most wholesome and virtuous exemplars of these aspects of mousikē (music) can be allowed in the ideal state.

As for the domain of gymnastikē (the gymnastic), Socrates supplies extensive commentary on such related topics as diet and medical treatment.

Finally, Socrates urges his listeners to challenge and test the guardians regularly. They should be constantly monitored. Furthermore, they and the other citizens of the ideal state should be subjected to a "needful falsehood" or "royal lie"—a benevolent myth about their origins and parentage, a narrative intended to make them care profoundly for the welfare of their state.

Analysis

As Book 3 unfolds it becomes ever clearer Socrates's indictment of traditional Greek poetry, as well as the collection of narratives that are now classified as "mythology," is broad-based and multipronged. The frontal attack on poetry is launched, appropriately, with an indictment of Homer, the wellspring of Greek epic narrative and an encyclopedic cultural resource for all Greeks of Plato's time, whatever their city-state or political system.

To understand the energy of Plato's attack on poetry, readers need to visualize the seriousness and reverence with which the poets, beginning with Homer, were regarded in ancient Greece. Poetry codified an enormous range of normative social behavior, ranging from religious ritual to generational relationships to the technicalities of seafaring and sacrificial offerings to the gods. Homer, in particular, was regarded as the way those in the Judeo-Christian tradition regard the Bible. The Iliad and the Odyssey were professionally recited at public performances well through the fifth century BCE; vast stretches of the epics were memorized by children and young adults; episodes from the epics served as the source for countless Athenian dramas; the personalities and deeds of the principal Homeric characters were the subjects of vase painting and proverbs alike. In the analysis of such modern scholars as Eric Havelock (in his Preface to Plato), Homer was an encyclopedic figure whose cultural authority was immense. This profile goes a long way toward explaining how strenuous Plato felt he needed to be in the effort to displace certain aspects of Homer.

For modern readers and particularly for those used to the free-speech protections of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, an appreciation of Homer's outsized influence on ancient Greek life can do little to justify Plato's censorship of literature or mythology. It may be relevant here to add Athenian democracy of the fifth century BCE exhibited numerous important differences with modern American democracy:

  • Athens functioned as a direct democracy, rather than as a republic.
  • Many public offices were filled by lot, as opposed to election.
  • Women and slaves were excluded from public life.
  • A majority vote in the assembly could exile ("ostracize") controversial citizens for a period of 10 years.
  • The final years of the century were marked by several violent changes in government.

Under such circumstances a comparison of Platonic censorship with modern-day censorship might well be regarded as one of apples with oranges. Nevertheless, Plato's banishment of most poetry (or literature) from the ideal state is still regarded by political theorists, philosophers, and literary critics as a highly problematic strand in the remarkable fabric that is the Republic.

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