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The Republic | Context



The driving force at every point in the Republic is Socrates (469–399 BCE), Plato's mentor. In several ways Socrates was a landmark figure in the history of Greek philosophy and, more generally, of Greek culture, especially as the latter developed in Athens in the fifth century BCE.

Prior to Socrates, during the period c. 625–450 BCE, such pre-Socratic philosophers as Thales of Miletus, Anaximander, Anaximenes, and Heraclitus devoted their energy to inquiry into what might today be classified as "natural science." Many of these figures were preoccupied with identifying the primal element(s) of the universe: for example, water, air, or fire. Other pre-Socratics, such as Xenophanes, strongly criticized Greek epic poetry for its portrayal of the gods. Still others, like Empedocles and Parmenides, produced complex speculations about opposing or conflicting forces in nature or about the clash between appearance and reality.

With Socrates, Greek philosophy began to center squarely on moral and ethical issues. "The unexamined life is not worth living" is one of Socrates's most famous expressions. Another states, "Virtue is knowledge." Socrates, in short, is the fountainhead for Greek philosophers of the next three centuries, stretching from Plato to Aristotle and then to the Stoics and Epicureans and Cynics of the Hellenistic Age (the period 323–31 BCE)—all of whom wrestled with the essential question, "How is life to be lived?"

Platonic Dialogues

A number of early Platonic dialogues serve as a useful introduction to the figure of Socrates and to the dialogue form. For example, Socrates is often portrayed in search of the correct definition of a particular, individual virtue: courage in the Laches, temperance in the Charmides, or piety in the Euthyphro. As the quest proceeds, Socrates shows popular notions of each particular virtue are incorrect or contradictory, and the dialogue ends with an aporia, or an impasse. Likewise, in the first book of the Republic Socrates asks his friends to define justice. But each definition that is offered is revealed as defective. It is only at the end of Book 4 a satisfactory understanding of the true nature of justice is achieved.

Along the way Socrates reveals himself as a supreme ironist as well as a philosopher, pretending to be ignorant in order to expose the ignorance of others. Socratic irony proceeds hand in hand with the "Socratic method," a series of questions and answers that probe the issue under discussion ever more deeply. This method is sometimes known by the term dialectic. The Socratic method is used today as the principal instruction in numerous law schools.

Socrates's adoption of question-and-answer discussion is linked, in turn, to another aspect of his pivotal position in the development of ancient Greek culture. The philosopher's lifetime overlapped with the shift from a predominantly oral culture to a society that became committed to the relatively new technology of writing. It is not accidental, therefore, Socrates himself never wrote a word; in fact several passages in Plato's dialogues (preeminently in the Phaedrus) portray Socrates as profoundly distrustful of the written word. Paradoxically, this prolific and supremely polished author had inherited the mantle of a mentor who profoundly distrusted the written word. Plato's brilliant solution to this dilemma was to invent a new literary form in ancient Greece: the dramatic dialogue. This form had the advantage of preserving the essence of the Socratic method of dialectic, or question-and-answer, reasoning, but it also offered numerous opportunities for including a broad spectrum of literary devices and techniques: for example, humor, repetition, figurative language, and suspense.

Scholars and readers alike commonly agree Plato's prose takes its place among the masterworks of ancient Greek literature. The Republic has been read not only for its philosophical content but also for its outstanding rhetoric and lyrically imaginative figurative language.

Authorship and Portrayal of Socrates

For all its skillful characterization and brilliant arguments, the Republic may well leave readers with many questions. Scholars believe Plato wrote the dialogue around 380 BCE, about 20 years after the death of Socrates. There is no consensus among experts as to which elements or doctrines in the Republic are likely to be authentically Socratic and which are Platonic. Did Socrates, or Plato, believe the ideal state as outlined in the Republic was achievable in real life? Or is it simply a blueprint, drawn up for educational or illustrative purposes? Scholars cannot answer these questions. Nor do they know his true beliefs about such controversial issues as the ascent to power of the philosopher-king; the ownership in common of women, children, and property; the forceful critique of democracy; and—perhaps most puzzling of all—the banishment of most poetry from the ideal state.

Plato's enduring appeal thus has its share of difficulties and even enigmas. Despite, or maybe even because of, these challenges, the influence of the Republic has been immense. The work continues to be read and studied as one of the most systematic and eloquent attempts in world history to answer the question, "How should human life be lived?"

Modern scholars are fortunate to have an independent witness to confirm the authenticity of Plato's portrayal of Socrates. Plato's contemporary, Xenophon (c. 430–354 BCE), produced an Apology as well as the Memorabilia, a collection of reminiscences of Socrates. Xenophon's portrayal of Socrates is broadly consistent with that of Plato. This consistency, perhaps, assumes even more weight when readers take into account Xenophon was primarily a military man and a historian rather than a philosopher.

Pericles and the Golden Age of Athens

Plato was born about a year after the death of the Athenian statesman Pericles, whose expansionist policies and bountiful patronage of the arts took Athens to new heights of military power and cultural splendor in the mid-fifth century BCE. Although Athens was technically a city-state at this time, it is not inappropriate to speak of an Athenian empire, with the Athenian sphere of influence amounting to hegemony (regional political domination) in the neighboring Aegean Sea and on much of the Greek mainland. In large part Athenian preeminence was an economic and political legacy of the Persian Wars some half century before, when Athens and Sparta led the resistance against invasion by the Persian Empire.

The flowering of Athenian democracy coincided almost exactly with the flowering of the arts: the tragic playwrights Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides in drama; Aristophanes and his contemporaries in comedy; Herodotus and Thucydides in history; Phidias in sculpture; Ictinus and Callicrates in architecture; Zeuxis and Parrhasius in painting; Damon in music; and the list goes on.

All was not harmonious in the Age of Pericles, however. Educational activity was especially conspicuous with the rapid rise of the Sophists. They paid teachers in a broad range of subjects, notably rhetoric, which is a variety of tactics for persuading an audience to agree or disagree with certain propositions or arguments. This skill is crucially important to students with political ambitions. Although the term Sophist itself eventually acquired negative connotations, it was originally used simply to mean "wise man."

In Plato's Gorgias Sophistic doctrines take a darker turn. Callicles, an associate of Gorgias—the well-known Sophist and expert teacher of rhetoric—upholds the view that "might makes right." He is thus a philosophical ally of Thrasymachus in the Republic, whose definition of justice is "the interest of the stronger." In these dialogues as well as the Republic, Socrates leaves no doubt his approach and method pointedly diverge from those of the Sophists.

Various sources say the Sophists were controversial figures, not least because their teachings appeared tinged with agnosticism and relativism. One of their most famous sayings, for example, was attributed to Protagoras: "Man is the measure of all things, of the things that are how they are, and of the things that are not how they are not." Protagoras is also reputed to have remarked, "Concerning the gods, I have no means of knowing whether they exist or not, or of what sort they may be." Protagoras was also said to have announced he could train his students to make the weaker argument seem to be the stronger (and vice versa).

Philosophical and educational trends in Athens during this period necessarily took a back seat to the practical realities of armed conflict. In 431 war broke out between the two most powerful Greek city-states: Athens and Sparta. Early on Athenian fortunes spiraled down—first with the outbreak of the plague in 430 (which killed Pericles), and then with a crushing defeat at Sphacteria in 424. Most important was the disastrous expansion of hostilities overseas in Sicily (415–413), in which Athens suffered a calamitous defeat. In 404 after nearly three decades of conflict, Athens surrendered. These were the years of Socrates's maturity as a philosopher. Five years later, in 399, a ravaged Athenian democracy would condemn him to death on charges he was impious and had corrupted the youth.

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