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The Republic | Main Ideas

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Forms and Ideas

According to Plato, everything people apprehend through their senses in the visible world is a copy of an ideal form or exemplar. This ideal form exists only in the intelligible world, or the world the intellect can understand but the senses cannot perceive. Thus a table—no matter what its material, design, or configuration may be, and no matter how solid and substantial it may seem—is not part of essential reality. It is only a copy of the ideal form of the table.

This philosophical doctrine is closely related to Plato's concept the true philosopher is concerned with the intelligible world, since it is only here true reality exists and knowledge—as opposed to opinion—may lead to enlightenment. The doctrine of Forms or Ideas is also intertwined with Plato's critique of mimesis (imitation), which plays a major role in his rejection of poetry in the ideal state.

Justice and Government

In Book 4 of the Republic Socrates, having tested and rejected a number of definitions of justice, finally arrives at what he seems to regard as a satisfactory definition. Justice, he declares, is essentially a social condition involving the balance and harmony among the three classes in the state (guardians, auxiliaries, and workers), and the balance and harmony within the individual of the three parts of the soul (rational, spirited, and appetitive). Justice holds sway when no conflict disturbs this balance.

Socrates is at pains to refute the claim of Thrasymachus in Book 1 that justice is always allied with weakness and loss. On the contrary, argues Socrates, justice is both virtuous and profitable, while injustice is always injurious and unprofitable. The climactic summation of this argument comes in Book 9.

Toward the end of Book 5 Socrates tells his friends a single reform might be sufficient to implement in real life the ideal state they have constructed. This reform would be giving civic leadership to philosopher-kings. Unlikely as this may sound, continues Socrates, it is only the leadership of the truly wise and virtuous that will make possible an orderly, harmonious society. Socrates's assertion leads to a lengthy effort to identify the temperament and training of the true philosopher, as opposed to the popular image of this figure. The enlightenment, struggle, and sacrifice of the genuine philosopher are vividly depicted in the Allegory of the Cave at the beginning of Book 7.

In Book 8 and at the beginning of Book 9, Socrates discusses in detail four forms of government he considers flawed. Each system of government is matched with a corresponding individual, whose temperament and character Socrates describes in detail. The four types of government are:

  • timocracy—government offices are held by people of property
  • oligarchy—government by the few
  • democracy—government by the people
  • tyranny—government by a single ruler with absolute power

City-states in ancient Greece, including Athens, were ruled under many or all of these forms during the period 700–300 BCE.

Poetry

In Book 3 and Book 10 Socrates launches two elaborate critiques in which he attempts to justify the banning of most traditional poetry from the Republic. In Book 3 Socrates stresses lies, claiming the portrayals of the gods and heroes in Greek epic and tragedy falsify the behavior of these figures, portraying them as guilty of all sorts of vices and violent actions. Thus much poetry provides morally objectionable models, especially to young people. In Book 10 Socrates follows up this argument with another objection: poetry, he says, is at three removes from reality. A poet may describe a table (or some other physical object), but this description is only an imitation of an actual table, which in turn is only an imitation of the ideal form of the table. Poetry, therefore, has a great potential to mislead its listeners and readers. The only poetry that should be allowed in the ideal state, asserts Socrates, is hymns to the gods and the praises of famous men.

Doctrines About the Soul

The human soul is immortal and consists of three parts. The highest part of the soul is reason. The other two parts exist in a "spirited" division. The higher of these two parts is the soul's desire for honor, while the lower of the two is concerned with a quest for sensual appetites: food, sex, and material comforts.

Plato portrays certain aspects of the soul's immortality in the dialogue's concluding section, the Myth of Er, in Book 10. In this story, after they die human beings are required to choose their next life. The moral of the tale is the choices we make in this life will have momentous consequences.

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