Apr 9 2010 12:35pm

The next best thing to being there: Plato’s Republic

Have you ever been in a really good online discussion, where people disagree but listen to each other? Or have you ever been in one in a convention, where people are tossing ideas around and bouncing them off each other? Plato’s dialogues are like that, except without a followup key. The way they’re written is like hanging out with friends, and somebody will say something and before you know it Socrates will be bouncing off the ceiling again. Plato wrote them, but in first person from the point of view of Socrates, and Plato said he wrote them down just the way he remembered Socrates telling them. General opinion is that sometimes he did and sometimes he didn’t, and as Socrates was dead before they were published, there’s no telling. But they read as if you were there.

My very favourite has always been the Symposium, (it means “drinking party”) but the other day I picked up the Republic to check a quote and before I knew it I was hip deep in the argument. My link there is to the full online texts by Benjamin Jowett, of “if it is knowledge, then I know it” fame, but it’s a little Victorian, as you might expect. The translation I own and recommend is J.M. Dent’s Everyman translation, which is lively and fast moving. Also when I buy an Everyman book I feel I am supporting autodidacts everywhere. Avoid the Penguin Classics translation, which is stilted. It’s as if they think because it’s been two thousand five hundred years since these guys sat down and got into it that you have to be dry and respectful about it. The Everyman edition is supremely readable.

The Republic begins: “I went down to the Piraeus yesterday with Glaucon the son of Ariston.” They’re there to celebrate the festival of Bendis, a Thracian horse goddess, and they’re about to go when some friends who live in the Piraeus, the port of Athens, drag them off home with them for a discussion before the torchlit relay races in the evening. This is exactly the kind of thing that happens. They get into an argument about the nature of justice with Thrasymachus, who reminds me a bit of Carlos Has An Axe. Then they really get going and Socrates starts to talk about the way society works, and the way it could work, and then the way he’d set everything up in his ideal world. This is where it stops being a story of some men on a hot day in Athens in 360 BC and turns into science fiction.

I came to Plato via Mary Renault, which gave me the advantage of knowing some of the characters beforehand. I also came to Plato in my teens, and with a general impression from C.S. Lewis that it was all in Plato (“what do they teach them in these schools”) but no reverence. I read Plato the way I read science fiction, and at the same time. So the science fictional republic in The Republic was right up my street. In fact, the first novel I ever completed, at fifteen or sixteen, was about an attempt to set up Plato’s Republic where everything went wrong with it because people are human. Even at fifteen I couldn’t read a sentence like “the wives of our guardians are to be common, and their children are to be common, and no parent is to know his own child, nor any child his parent” without immediately starting to think of how this would all get snarled up because people will persist in falling in love.

Finding things wrong with Plato’s ideal Republic is like shooting fish in a barrel, and Plato (as Piper) was wrong about the cyclic nature of states and the harm it does. There’s a lot of wrongheaded nonsense there, and one sometimes longs to leap in and push the yes-men surrounding Socrates out of the way and come up with a proper objection. (There’s one point in Book V where even Thrasymachus just says yes, Socrates, meekly, to something I’d be prepared to type my fingers out arguing with.) But it’s interesting, it’s an interesting if bizarre utopia, with women equal and to do gymnastics naked with the men, and be educated with them. It starts with kidnapping ten year old children—well, Socrates doesn’t say kidnapping, but where else are you going to get a whole city’s worth of ten year olds? Also I don’t think Plato remembers being ten very well if he thinks they’re clean slates to write on what you will. Every time I read it I rip it to shreds in my head. That’s part of the joy of it.

If you like conversation and you haven’t been fortunate enough to read Plato’s dialogues, I thoroughly recommend them, they’re a ton of fun.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

James Goetsch
1. Jedikalos
Ah, the Republic! I teach a class which consists simply of reading the Republic (for fourteen weeks: a semester)and I never get tired of it.

One point on what you say: Socrates says, when they begin to construct the perfect city, that it is only meant as a heuristic device in order to get clear on what justice is in the individual human being. And at the end of Book 9 he clearly states that such a society could never really exist. I argue in my course that Plato's Republic is really about you and me and how we live in our various imperfect societies, and has nothing to do with a blueprint for a possible revolution.

Plato is one tricky fellow, also reported to have said: "I have never written down what I really think."

One of my favorite ancient reports tells how the night before Socrates met Plato, he had a dream in which a baby swan fly up into his lap. Then it turned into an adult and flew into the sky, singing an enchanting tune. Meeting Plato the next day, he recalled the dream and said that the swan was Plato. Now when Plato was dying, he had dream, in which he was a swan jumping from tree to tree, and no one could catch him. It is then said that Simmias, a follower of Socrates and then Plato, interpreted the dream as saying that everyone would try to fully grasp Plato's thought, but that none would every really fully capture it.

I learned classical Greek just to try to catch a sight of that swan, and I keep on trying.
2. SWS
The Republic gone science fiction (or galactic fantasy, according to the intro) is the foundation of Margaret Weis's Star of the Guardians series. I have read them so many times that I have had to replace all of my original paperbacks due to excessive wear.
3. C12VT
The Symposium is my favorite too!

This post/conversation reminds me of Paul Levinson's "The Plot to Save Socrates", which was a really fun and interesting read (especially for a classics geek).
4. L. Jagi Lamplighter
The Symposium is my favorite, too... I wonder why we all like it so much. I think it is that there is more "character devlopment", not just philosophy.

Thanks for reminding us of the glories and thoughtprovoking joy of Plato.
Josh Kidd
5. joshkidd
I've always been a big fan of "The Apology" which I've long felt should be required reading for everyone. Socrates's defense of himself reads like a defense of the thinking life in general. Perhaps no truer statement has ever been made than "the unexamined life is not worth living." I learned Greek, in large part, to read Plato in the original.
6. OtterB
Yet another "must re-read" and an "add it to the list." I took a one-quarter course in college 30+ years ago on "The Republic" - my first encounter with philosophy. In later philosophy classes I remember reading pieces of Aristotle and Marcus Aurelius and I think I read more Plato, but "The Symposium" doesn't ring a bell, and I may not have read it.
7. Greg L Johnson
Bernard Beckett's Genesis is another recent novel that transforms Plato into science fiction. And if you're interested in a different view on the whole subject, pick up I.F. Stone's The Trial of Socrates, which starts with the question of why a city that prided itself on democracy and open debate would bring charges against its most famous philosopher, and then works to re-create the case for the prosecution.
8. peachy
I recall a couple of classics profs from my college days who weren't real impressed with Stone (though some of that may have been professional pique - how many academics like it when a journalist makes a splash writing on their specialty?) But it always seemed to me that he had a point.

As I recall, his argument went something like so :
(a) The prosecution was essentially political in nature. After the restoration of a democratic system, Socrates was seen as the mentor and inspiration for the young Sparta-loving radicals who formed the Four Hundred and the Thirty. They had mostly come to bad ends already, but their prime mover was still at large, and there was still a lot of fear and resentment floating about. (Justification for a prosecution? Not by our standards; but definitely an explanation for one.)
(b) The capital verdict was due to a quirk of the Athenian legal system. After conviction, the prosecutor and the defendant would each propose a sentence, and the jury would choose between them. In this case, the prosecution asked for death. Socrates countered with a fine, which Stone contends was so small that the jury was insulted - given the recent history of Athens, and the fact that he had after all been convicted, his proposal was hardly a punishment at all. The kind of swingeing fine/exile that would presumably have satisfied most everyone, now and then, simply never made it to the table.
(c) After the sentence had been passed, Socrates had every chance to escape, but he chose to die. (One might argue that his behaviour in the sentencing phase showed the same disregard for his own life; I think Stone argues that his behaviour through the entire trial tended in that direction.)

Hmm... on the subject of "The Republic", it might be interesting to read "The Laws" as well. My impression (being better versed history than philosophy) is that the former is the work of his radical 'youth', while the latter was written after he'd grown up and become a square like the rest of us. (Also after a close-up and personal experience with "mentoring" a tyrant, which... well, let's say it highlighted certain differences between academic philosophy and practical politics, though the fate of Socrates should have made some of them clear rather earlier.)
9. CarlosSkullsplitter
I beg your pardon? I think I would like a fuller explanation.
11. skinnyiain
It's usual to divide Plato's dialogues into three groups: early, middle and late.
The early ones are taken to be the most faithful attempts to set out actual debates that took place between Socrates and others. In them, Socrates' interlocutors aren't mere 'yes-men' as they can be in, e.g. book 5 of the Republic. He doesn't always get things entirely his way, and the other guy gets a proper chance to give his arguments. They normally end in 'aporia' ('no way forward'): no one reaches any conclusion, and they may feel that they don't even understand the question they started with any more.
The middle and late dialogues appear to be Plato moving forward - having ideas and arguments of his own which actually reach conclusions. In them, Socrates (or in the late dialogues other central figures) are taken to be mouthpieces for Plato's views, and the role of the interlocutors is reduced.
The Republic is interesting because Book 1, the discussion with Thrasymachus about whether justice is merely what benefits the strong, seems to be early; but the rest of it seems to be middle. It's as if Plato wrote-up a discussion Socrates had, was dissatisfied with its characteristically uncertain conclusion, and went on to write what he thought.
It's the early dialogues that are most likely to have some of the characteristics that Jo prizes: 'people tossing ideas around and bouncing them off each other' etc. The middle and late ones are much more didactic and liable to induce the sort of I-want-to-type-my-fingers-off-saying-no-to-what-Glaucon-just-said 'it is as you say, Socrates' reaction which Jo had.
Kate Keith-Fitzgerald
12. ceitfianna
I remember translating The Symposium and sadly that made me not much of a Plato fan. I tend to prefer Artistotle since Plato's style of writing just goes around and around.

He really loves his run on sentences and when he relies on pronouns too much, it can be very hard to keep track of what's being said.

I'm curious which translations you were reading since they sound like they did a good job of making sense of the originals.
13. Rush-That-Speaks
Plato's dialogues in Greek may be the best thing I have ever read.

Did not get to the Republic in the original. I should probably get on that.
Andrew Mason
14. AnotherAndrew
peachy: Well, I wouldn't recommend actually reading the Laws, certainly not from cover to cover - it is very long, and quite dull: as Aristotle said, it consists mainly of laws. Some bits are philosophically interesting, including what may be the root of our modern conception of a republic (in the Republic, of course, 'republic' doesn't mean 'republic', but in the Laws perhaps it is beginning to).

The Laws isn't exactly square. It is quite radical in a number of ways. It isn't as extreme as the Republic; but if the Republic wasn't meant as a practical proposal anyway, as Jedikalos says, and I broadly agree, this may not mean that Plato is growing more conservativce in his old age, but that he's beginning to give more thought to what we can actually do.

skinnyiain: I think even with the early group most people nowadays would say they aren't actually transcripts of real conversations by Socrates; what they may be is attempts to capture the real Socrates' style and approach, as opposed to the later works which express Plato's own ideas. (Some question this, of course, and some question whether they are really early, and some..... but certainly there are distinct groups with differences both of style and content.) While the Republic is fairly didactic, it hasn't gone all the way; at least Socrates begins by giving the other characters the chance to state their positions, which doesn't happen in all the later works.

On a quite different note, the Republic has had an important influence on the history of fantasy by introducing the legend of Gyges, who had a ring that could make him invisible.
The Knife
15. TheKnife
Socrates' famous last words:

"I drank what?"
16. peachy
@14 - Yeah, fair enough; I don't suppose Plato's ever really conservative in the usual sense, but gaining some practical experience with politics at Syracuse presumably affected his outlook.
Jo Walton
17. bluejo
Carlos: It's just been pointed out to me in email that it might be possible to read that as unkind -- which I didn't mean at all, and I'm very sorry if you read it that way.

What I meant was that reading Book I this time, Thrasymachus really did remind me a bit of you. He's got no deference to authority, he holds to his points knowing they're not going to be popular -- indeed, saying things that he's well aware are the opposite of popular wisdom -- but he always argues fairly. He doesn't suffer fools but he takes in reasonable points and modifies his argument around them. I like Thrasymachus -- and you. I think conversations are better for having people like you around. There's nothing more boring than "Assuredly, Socrates, that must be the case."
18. CarlosSkullsplitter
Jo, I think I was taken so aback because Thrasymachus's initial views in The Republic are exactly the type of opinions I am combative against.

I will employ a Thrasymachian rhetorical style against that sort of opinion, sure, and gleefully, to prod their proponents' mirror neurons. I find a lot of "popular wisdom" to be thinly disguised strategies to promote injustice and ignorance. Delany has written about this in depth, I know, but he's developed a much more sophisticated praxis to deal with it. Me, I'm just a guy from northern Wisconsin. My first instinct is to run it down with a car. And so is my second instinct.

(The "Skullsplitter" name and its spinoff, "hasanax," are from Lois McMaster Bujold's kind though phenotypically divergent Tuckerization of me. I haven't used an ax since my teens.)
Fragano Ledgister
19. Fledgist
I teach this stuff for a living, and thus have some skin in the game. As a political scientist, rather than a philosopher, I see Plato as engaging in class politics and advancing a point of view that advantages landowners like him over the greasy mechanicals who had just as much right as him to speak in the Boule. The Republic boils down to an idealised Sparta, indeed Sparta is presented as the degenerate form of the ideal state.

I've seen an interesting feminist argument about Plato's inclusion of women in the Guardian class, which is, perhaps, the most extraordinary element of the Republic. That emerges from the abolition of the family as part of the common ownership of goods by the Guardians. Once you've done that, you have the problem of what to do with wives, who can't be the property of elite men any more (as they were in Athens). Plato solves this by incorporating them in the Guardian class (after all, in Sparta, even though they didn't serve in the Spartan army, they exercised with the Spartan men, so it wasn't a gigantic stretch).
Peter D. Tillman
20. PeteTillman
Hi Jo,

Another stellar review, which I just added to Wikipedia at

--as the first 21st century commentary!

Keep up the good work!

Cheers -- Pete Tillman
"Better that one thousand innocents suffer unjustly than one guilty person be permitted to escape."
—Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth, The Space Merchants (1953)
Jo Walton
21. bluejo
Pete: You'd probably be surprised how happy this makes me. Thank you.

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