The Republic ~ Introduction

“Socrates: I walked down to the Piraeus yesterday with Glaucon the son of Ariston to make my prayers to the goddess.”

Well, I’ve finished History of the Peloponnesian War (except for my final post), yet I’m afraid I’m going to continue on the same track with The Republic and put a number of my readers to sleep.  But I am enjoying this history project ….. as we’ve meandered through Herodotus, then Thucydides, and now Plato, you do see changes and developments within the Greek culture and worldview that can’t be ignored.  And since our civilization, to a certain extent, grew out of it, I believe it’s valuable to learn something about that development.  I anticipate that Plato will be more interesting, but possibly more frustrating.  It doesn’t seem like it was only the ancients who wanted to strangle Socrates …..

Introduction

Plato was born is the year 428/7 BC and his childhood and early youth were overshadowed with the Peloponnesian War, giving rise to a fundamental questioning of the best way to live.  As Thucydides observed in his history that “in peace and prosperity both states and individuals are actuated by higher motives, because they do not fall under the dominion of imperious necessities; but war, which takes away the comfortable provision of daily life, is a hard master, and tends to assimilate men’s characters to their conditions,” and thus Plato saw political life as a type of war for power, money or prestige.

Upon Pericles’s death at the beginning of the war, there ended the reign of a philosopher king, a man whom grew in wisdom through his conversations with the pre-Socratic philosopher, Anaxagoras, and therefore was able to employ both political intelligence and enlightened prudence to his governing of the state.  With his demise, a great chasm began to appear between politics and philosophy.  “To Plato, this drifting apart of the men of thought and the men of action was a disastrous calamity, indeed the root of the social evils of his time.”  (Cornford p. xxiv)  Instead of two separate avenues, each should be united in the other to allow man his full expression.

Plato (1560)
Paolo Veronese
source Wikiart

By mid-life Plato opened his Academy, basing his conversational instruction on his mentor, Socrates, whom he’d studied under since his early twenties.  Plato sought an answer to the problem that if knowledge was a means to power, and power to wealth, then society was doomed to a materialistic cycle that left men blind to not only the consequences of their actions, but led them to mistake the path to true happiness: “which every soul pursues as the end of all her actions, dimly divining its existence, but perplexed and unable to grasp its nature with the same clearness and assurance as in dealing with other things, and so missing whatever value those other things might have.” (5a95 E, p. 216).  With his astute insight, Plato presents a problem that is ubiquitous, a universal dilemma.

The translator, Conford, suggests that in reading Plato, ask yourself why you agree or disagree with Plato’s utopian design, and in response, suggest an alternative.  In this way, through time, you can experience an abstract participation in Plato’s Academy and perhaps determine, as Socrates implied, that it’s just as important to discover what you don’t know, as what you do.

Arcadian Ruins (c. 1720)
Giovanni Paolo Panini
source ArtUK

Book I ⇒


0 thoughts on “The Republic ~ Introduction

  1. You make it seems so easy.

    You know, I got rid of some of my books the other day – downsizing. I asked, "Will I ever read you again? NO! Goodbye!" and to the donation pile it went. But The Republic I kept.

    Maybe after reading your reviews it will give me clarity of mind to revisit. I will definitely need assistance and encouragement.

  2. You did such a good job with Peloponnesian War – I was very impressed!

    I think I'll join you for The Republic – are you doing a book a week? I don't think I'll do weekly posts, but I'll certainly try reading a book a week. Just reading Last Days of Socrates right now, so will probs start Republic in two weeks or so. I find Plato devilishly hard. And Aristotle for that matter! 🙂

  3. I think the fact that I'm interested in it makes it at least "easier". I'm going to be doing a number of posts as Socrates builds his argument (Republic) so hopefully I can tempt you into picking it up again!

  4. I agree. I even approached a Thomas Hardy novel once in this way and even though I didn't particularly enjoy it, I did at least feel that I got lots out of it.

  5. Thanks, O! The beginning was a slog but I finally did get into it and in the end, loved it!

    I am honestly so overloaded, I'm just trying to read whenever I can. I have another "free" week, so I'm going to try to read a bunch each day, then I'm busy until the end of August. I'm HOPING that in the fall, I'll have lots more time to read. So it will be rather sporadic until then.

    Plato doesn't intimidate me nearly as much as Aristotle. I'll have to make him a task as soon as I read some more of his mentor. 🙂

  6. I love this book. I have read it couple of times since being introduced to it by a Professor back in college! Can I skip Peloponnesian War and go to this one? Actually I want to do it in an organized manner so I will not. Unfortunately all my reading of The Histories is on hold on account of a certification program. But atleast I know once I finish the non finishable Peloponnesian War, I have this as a reward! 🙂

  7. I wouldn't skip Thucydides as you'll understand Plato better by reading him. Poor you? When will your work-life slow down? Never? I hope your vacation is enjoyable! After reading Shadow of the Moon, all I can think of is: HOT! Take care! 😉

  8. I will be interested to see what you think! The translation I read – by Allan Bloom – has a few criticisms of Comford's version. This is what he says about the term "noble lie":

    "In addition to unawareness of the need for precision, unwillingness to accept certain unpalatable or shocking statements or teachings is another cause of deviation from literalness. This unwillingness is due either to a refusal to believe Plato says what he means or to a desire to make him respectable. Comford provides again a spectacular example of a not too uncommon tendency. At Book III 414 Socrates tells of the need for a 'noble lie' to be believed in the city he and his companions are founding (in speech). Comford calls it a 'bold flight of invention' and adds the following note: 'This phrase is commonly rendered 'noble lie,' a self-contradictory expression no more applicable to Plato's harmless allegory than to a New Testament parable or the Pilgrim's Progress, and liable to suggest that he would countenance the lies, for the most part ignoble, now called propaganda . . .' {ibid., p. 106).

    But Socrates calls it a lie. The difference between a parable and this tale is that the man who hears a parable is conscious that it is an invention the truth of which is not in its literal expression, whereas the inhabitants of Socrates' city are to believe the untrue story to be true. His interlocutors are shocked by the notion, but—according to Comford—we are to believe it is harmless because it might conjure up unpleasant associations…

    This whole question of lying has been carefully prepared by Plato from the very outset, starting with the discussion with old Cephalus (331 b-c). It recurs again with respect to the lies of the poets (377 d) and in the assertions that gods cannot lie (381 e-382 e) and that rulers may lie (380 b-c). Now, finally, it is baldly stated that the only truly just civil society must be founded on a lie. Socrates prefers to face up to the issue with clarity. A good regime cannot be based on enlightenment; if there is no lie, a number of compromises—among them private property– must be made and hence merely conventional inequalities must be accepted. This is a radical statement about the relationship between truth and justice."

  9. I'm just getting to the "noble lie" part so I'll have to get back to you.

    What I don't like about Conford is that he chops quite a bit out of the original ….. nothing too terrible, just poetry examples, etc. so far but I'd still like to read them!

  10. I'm currently reading Robin Waterfield's translation for Oxford World's Classics. One of the biggest differences between hers another others is that instead of "justice" she uses "morality". Part of her reasoning is Aristotle's definition in Nicomachean Ethics of the Greek word involve.

    The other part of Waterfield's reasoning is Plato's own disregard of Greek political life in general. I thought she presented a good case that Plato was using a perfect polis as an analogy/metaphor the modeling of the best version an individual can make of themselves. The best evidence is that there was no individualism in Greek political life, the reason for the trial & death of Socrates, an individual was a integral part of the polis and so Plato uses terms in his society to explain his approach for a better individual (spoiler: it's a philosopher).

    Look forward to your future entries on Republic.

  11. Your comment was so thought-provoking that I had to muse on it for awhile. I had a couple of immediate reactions though. When I hear "morality" used, it makes me uncomfortable and doesn't seem to fit well with Greek thought. Not that they didn't have it, but morality as we understand it, doesn't seem like it was something they focussed on. Loyalty, hospitality, fame, honour, etc. …. all those words resonate within their culture but morality ….??? It just doesn't seem right, at least in this period of time. I haven't read Aristotle yet …. most of my Greek reading is pre-Aristotle … so it will be intriguing to read what he has to say about it.

    While Plato may have disregarded the political life, I believe he was intimately familiar with it and had definite views about it. No one could have experienced the Peloponnesian War, see what went on in government and not be deeply affected. I do think Waterfield's right though that Plato was trying to expand the "polis" mentality and encourage people to think on an individual basis at how their individual actions would affect that "polis". It's very interesting.

    I've got to pick the book up again! I've become bogged down in City of God and The Iliad and poor Plato has been left by the wayside. Time to rectify that!

Thanks for visiting. I'd love to hear from you and have you join in the discussion!