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The Republic | Book 5 | Summary

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Summary

Near the end of Book 4 Socrates suggests the discussants should revert to the question of the comparative advantages of justice and the disadvantages of injustice. He also suggests the group pay attention to the different, less admirable forms of the state and of the soul. But now, as Book 5 opens, Glaucon and Adeimantus join forces with Polemarchus and Thrasymachus to press Socrates into more fully explaining family life in the ideal state. Most particularly, they want him to expand on the idea that, for the guardians and their auxiliaries at least, property, women, and children will be held in common.

Socrates begins with a surprising assertion, considering the typical assumptions and behavior of ancient Greek culture in general and Athenian society in particular. He says in the ideal state women and men will be reared and trained on an equal basis. Despite all the differences between the sexes, according to Socrates, the souls of both males and females are constituted in three parts: rational, spirited, and appetitive. Therefore, both sexes should be regarded on an equal plane in the ideal city. Both men and women potentially have the talents and temperament suitable for the class of guardians, and they should enjoy access to education in mousikē and gymnastikē.

Socrates next passes to an extended discussion of his proposal guardians in the ideal state should hold their wives and children in common. The detailed recommendations for implementing this plan are all directed toward ensuring the unity of the state. These include procreation "festivals," age spans for childbearing, pairings of males and females by lot, and rules to avoid incest, among others. Socrates's objective is to eliminate any possibility of conflict within citizens—for example, a division of loyalty to the state versus loyalty to a citizen's own family. Therefore, parents should not be able to identify their own biological children, and children should not know the identities of their biological parents. As Socrates says: "Both the community of property and the community of families ... tend to make them more truly guardians; they will not tear the city in pieces by differing about 'mine' and 'not mine' ... but all will be affected as far as may be by the same pleasures and pains because they are all of one opinion about what is near and dear to them, and therefore they all tend towards a common end."

After some comments by Socrates on warfare and slavery in the ideal state, Glaucon lodges a fundamental question: Is the establishment of such a city remotely possible? Socrates responds by upholding the ideal of models and the goal of perfection. Using the analogy of a painter, he points out artists are entitled to envision and delineate perfection, whether or not a perfect specimen of anything or anyone can actually exist. Similarly, Socrates and his interlocutors have been conducting what might, in more modern times, be called a thought experiment on how to constitute the framework of an ideal state.

However, continues Socrates, it is possible to specify the conditions that would most likely favor the ideal state's actual coming into existence. The reform of which he speaks would not be easy, but it might be possible. This reform is the assignment of power in the state to philosopher-kings. Genuine philosophers are lovers of the vision of truth. It is only when such persons guide the reins of the state that the state may be pronounced truly perfect.

Analysis

The discussion in Book 5 of communal property, wives, and children is one of the most vexing, problematic parts of the Republic. In this book Socrates makes a number of extremely controversial claims, as judged by the standards of both his time and today. To evaluate these assertions, readers must carefully appraise both the logic and the consistency of Socrates's arguments, and—equally importantly—they must be cautious in applying modern criteria to the discussion.

For example, it would be a mistake to conclude Socrates's comments on the "equal potential" of men and women as guardians imply an objective approach to the sexes. However unusual by Athenian social standards of the fifth century BCE, Socrates's approach is still tinged with the thoroughgoing sexism of his time and place.

Along with several other major themes in the Republic—notably the censorship of poetry advocated in Books 3 and 10—the communal holding of wives and children upheld in Book 5 has rankled generations of readers. This arrangement figures prominently in critiques of the Republic that accuse Plato of composing a manifesto for an authoritarian state. Even more ominous is the suggestion of eugenics in Socrates's proposal "the best of either sex should be united with the best as often, and the inferior with the inferior, as seldom as possible." Furthermore, certain details in Book 5 appear to support both deceit and infanticide.

However, readers should also keep in mind Socrates's continuing quest to visualize and describe an ideal state whose utopian character will make its citizens as "blessed as the life of Olympic victors and yet more blessed." In the fifth century BCE, as in much of the history of ancient Greece, victory at the athletic games, especially those held every four years at Olympia, was considered a crowning height of achievement, and successful competitors were accorded heroic status.

Toward the end of Book 5, in the discussion of knowledge and opinion, Plato hints at another crucial idea in the dialogue as a whole. This is the theory of Forms or Ideas. The theory is involved in the analogies of the divided line and the cave from Books 6 and 7. It is also involved in the discussion of art as a form of imitation in Book 10.

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