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The Republic | Book 6 | Summary



What is the nature of the true philosopher? Having introduced the idea of the philosopher-king's rule of the ideal state in Book 5, Socrates now turns to this topic in earnest. Socrates defines the true philosopher as a person who loves the knowledge that reveals the nature of eternal truths. The philosopher is absorbed in the pleasures of the soul, and he will have a gentle, sociable, and harmonious nature. Adeimantus objects, however, asserting according to common opinion philosophers are either rogues or idlers. Socrates responds with a parable—a brief, fictional story featuring a ship's captain whose senses are declining, a mutinous crew, and a true pilot. The pilot represents the authentic philosopher but is marginalized and maligned by the crew. Adeimantus, Socrates says, should not be surprised by the discredited, reviled condition into which philosophers have fallen.

Socrates continues by commenting on the ease with which philosophic natures are corrupted. The most gifted minds, he claims, become outstandingly bad when they are poorly educated. It is unfair for the public to condemn the Sophists, says Socrates, when the Sophists are merely following public opinion in their education of young people. Philosophers must inevitably fall under the censure of the world, so it is predictable they will acquire a bad reputation. Paradoxically, the very qualities that make a man a philosopher may, in addition to riches and the other so-called goods of life, deter him from philosophy.

After his impassioned story and defense of true philosophy, Socrates returns to the notion the philosopher-king in the ideal state must devote himself to discovery and contemplation of the highest good. Such activity is only achievable through the means of dialectic. The philosopher will engage with absolute truth, beauty, and temperance, and he has the ability to distinguish the Forms or absolute Ideas of these qualities from their human copies. In the analogy of the Sun, Socrates defines goodness by likening the way the Sun reveals the visible world to human powers of sight to the way goodness illuminates intelligible things. Just as the Sun allows one's sight to understand visible things, absolute goodness allows one's intelligence to distinguish truth. Ordinary senses cannot understand true reality; people need absolute goodness to understand things as they truly are.

Socrates soon follows up on this analogy with another elaborate comparison: the analogy of the Divided Line. Socrates asks Glaucon to imagine a straight line that is cut into two unequal parts; both divisions are then further cut into two parts, using the same proportion or ratio. The original two parts, says Socrates, represent the visible world (the smaller section) and the intelligible world (the greater section). The smaller subsection of the first part stands for imaginative conjecture or opinion; this part's longer subsection stands for belief concerning visible things. The smaller subsection of the second part stands for some ideas or knowledge; its longer subsection stands for pure Ideas or Forms. The Divided Line clearly presents a hierarchy ranging from lowest to highest in terms of truth as follows: conjecture, option, thought or knowledge, and finally understanding or reason.


Book 6 is especially notable for Socrates's eloquent defense of the true philosopher. His impassioned account of the obstacles, both external and internal, the philosopher faces in society is especially poignant when readers recall Socrates himself, according to Plato and to the contemporary historian Xenophon, was forced to confront extreme prejudice in Athens, a hostility that led, in fact, to his condemnation and death.

The analogies of the Sun and the Divided Line are among the most celebrated parts of the Republic, and they will be followed up on shortly, at the beginning of Book 7, by the famous Allegory of the Cave. Each of these images seems intended to clarify Plato's doctrine of the Forms or Ideas.

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