The Republic | Study Guide


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The Republic | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Philosophers may argue about nearly everything, but most agree that one particular text serves as a foundation for all of Western philosophy: Plato's Republic. In the Republic classical Greek philosopher Plato documents the dialogues of his mentor, Socrates, setting up a reference point for moral thought, political theory, and metaphysics, the branch of philosophy that addresses abstract concepts. Written around 380 BCE, the Republic is able to be read in two ways: as a literal description of a utopian city-state or as an extended metaphor for the human soul exemplified as a "republic."

Plato's influence on Western philosophy cannot be overstated. While many of Plato's ideas set forth in the Republic may seem antiquated or unethical by contemporary standards, the text marked one of the clearest attempts to formulate what it means to be "good." Today the Republic is often considered essential reading for any student of the humanities. Cementing its importance even further, the Republic was voted the most important philosophical text ever written in a poll of professors and students in Philosophers' Magazine.

1. The Republic was heavily influenced by Plato's role in a devastating war.

Before Plato became a noted philosopher in ancient Greece, he was a soldier in the bloody Peloponnesian War. The war raged between the Greek city-states of Athens and Sparta, and Plato took part in the conflict from 409–404 BCE. When the Spartans were victorious, they replaced the enlightened Athenian government with a brutal, militaristic oligarchy Plato despised. Eventually Spartan rule was overthrown, but the brief interlude of Spartan tyranny prompted Plato to meditate on the most (and least) effective forms of governance. He even considered a career in politics himself but was distracted by the death of his dear mentor Socrates in 399 BCE.

2. Another ancient Greek philosopher wrote his own "Republic" in response to Plato.

Plato's Republic was so frequently read by the elite classes of ancient Greece that many statesmen, philosophers, and orators viewed it as a foundational work of political thought. Zeno of Citium was a famous Athenian philosopher in his own right, and the founder of the Stoic school of philosophy that posited logic and reason were the purposes of human existence. Influenced by Plato, Zeno wrote his own text, also titled the Republic, that described a utopian city-state governed by tenets of reason. Zeno's vision was incredibly progressive for the time, as he imagined a land where men and women had complete equal rights and there was no need for "law" in the traditional sense because all decisions stemmed from logical inquiry.

3. The famous Roman orator Cicero is responsible for the Republic's title.

Although Plato's Republic had been heavily circulated around the Mediterranean by the time of the Roman Empire, the Roman orator Cicero is responsible for giving the text its title. However, he gave Plato's text the title Politeia. The scholar John Sallis explained the different terms, noting that:

The word which is translated "Republic," following Cicero's Latin translation, is "politeia." This word does not mean "republic" in the sense of "state" or "nation"; for in fact, in Greek political life there was nothing corresponding to the modern state or nation; indeed, it would be exceedingly difficult to overstress the radical difference between the modern state and the Greek city. Thus, "politeia" is to be understood in reference to the meaning of "polis," from which it is derived.

4. Some monarchs have actually tried to rule as "philosopher kings" based on the Republic.

The Republic includes a long discussion advocating the reign of a hypothetical "philosopher king" who rules through wisdom, not military strength or economic advantage. Several monarchs throughout history have attempted to rule in this fashion, inspired by Plato—albeit with mixed results.

Marsilio Ficino was a politician in Florence, Italy, during the 15th century. His use of philosophical principles during his career is often credited as spurring the Renaissance's enlightenment, as well as synthesizing philosophical values from ancient Greek, Christian, and Islamic cultures. Other self-styled "philosopher kings" simply used their titles as an excuse to act as despots, such as Frederick II of Prussia (famous for consolidating Prussia through military force) and Catherine II of Russia (notable for reorganizing the military structure of the Russian Empire). Ayatollah Khomeini, the revolutionary leader of Iran, also took inspiration from Plato, seeing his position as a philosophical and theological interpreter of the law through the lens of Islam.

5. One modern philosopher blamed the Republic for the 20th century's worst problems.

Despite its universal status as a foundational text of philosophy, the Republic has also received a great deal of criticism, even in modern times. The philosopher Karl Popper posited that the Republic, if read as a political text, was to blame for many of the tyrannical states and abuses of power of the 20th century—particularly the rise of fascism. Popper explained that totalitarianism "belongs to a tradition which is just as old or just as young as our civilization itself." He cited Plato's Republic as an example of philosophy being used as a political enforcement mechanism, noting that the idea of governing through philosophy allows for harmful and oppressive values to be canonized as "just."

6. Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 may have been inspired by Plato's "Allegory of the Cave."

The Allegory of the Cave is one of Plato's most frequently cited ideas, and it makes an appearance in nearly every introductory philosophy class taught in the West. American author Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 uses this allegory to construct the image of a protagonist gradually enlightened by knowledge others simply cannot access. As Bradbury's character gradually begins to understand the dystopian illusion he inhabits, he gains access to knowledge denied to the rest of society. Bradbury shows a fictional example of someone who, like Plato's theoretical philosopher-citizens, sees the world differently through knowledge of the metaphysical "good."

7. On his deathbed Plato broke a musical law he laid forth in the Republic.

Plato included some strange, specific guidelines for living a "good" life in the Republic. He explained that a just society would shun the music produced by the flute and only embrace the Greek stringed instrument known as the lyre. He noted that the lyre only appeals to reason, while the flute appeals to the more barbaric appetitive and spirited dimensions of the human soul. However, on his death bed Plato allegedly asked a servant girl to play the flute as he died—thus violating his own philosophical commandment. When the girl forgot the melody of the song he requested, he softly hummed it for her before dying.

8. A myth claims that bees predicted Plato's future as an orator.

Legend claims that Plato's gift of language was predicted by an unusual omen—a swarm of bees. Allegedly bees laid honey on Plato's lips when his mother left him to rest on a sunny hillside as an infant. The ancient Greeks saw this as a prophecy of Plato's future eloquence and "honeyed words," although the myth itself was likely made up long after Plato's death.

9. Plato's name was actually a rather insulting nickname.

Although the world knows him as Plato, the philosopher was actually born with the name Aristocles. The name Plato was a nickname given to him for a rather offensive reason—his unusually broad forehead. The term Plato roughly translates to "broad" in ancient Greek. Evidently Plato eventually embraced the nickname, as his birth name rarely turns up in any ancient texts.

10. Scholars have grappled with determining Plato's actual opinions based on the Republic.

Since Plato's Republic is actually a transcription of dialogues led by Plato's mentor, Socrates, scholars have had a difficult time determining Plato's actual philosophical views. Part of what philosophers find so fascinating in the Republic is that any dialogue between two or more individuals has no clear message of what Plato truly thinks is right or wrong. Although many critics assume that Plato's ideas most often correlate with those of Socrates, this is never explicitly stated. Therefore, a great deal of study of the Republic revolves around speculation regarding which presented viewpoints Plato believes to be just or valid. The Republic lays out more concrete ideas than Plato's other works, but it still raises questions about whether Plato truly believed in the merits of his constructed society or whether he believed that attempting to craft a utopia was a "philosophical folly."

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