Plato’s Republic is a complicated analysis on the nature of justice, both politically and personally. The work takes the form of a series of conversations between several of Plato’s friends and contemporaries, as they pull apart the nature of society, politics and humanity.
The key protagonist in the dialogues is Socrates, Plato’s mentor and contemporary in Athenian politics. It is unclear whether the Socrates of the Republic is meant to be representative of his own views, or merely a vehicle for Plato’s. Throughout the work the nature of the ‘just man’ and the different governing systems of city states, both real and hypothetical, are used to reach conclusions on an ideal model for society and politics.
Plato was born in 428 B.C. to an aristocratic family in Athens. His father was rumoured to have been a descendant of the last king of Athens, Codrus. His mother, Perictione, was a famed Athenian ‘law giver’ and the writer of the city’s first constitution. His two brothers, Glaucon and Adeimantus are some of the central characters in The Republic.
Plato, possibly as a consequence of the problems he saw in Greek politics, decided to eschew the political career that his upbringing suggested for him. Instead, he devoted himself to continuing Socrates’ work. He travelled the Mediterranean for several years, working as a teacher but also furthering his own education. By 387 B.C. he had resettled in Athens and founded the Academy, an institution that was in many ways the blueprint for the modern university. The academy lasted for over nine hundred years. It endeavoured to teach its students about subjects such as politics and medicine, without making the information abstract, to keep the theories grounded in real world applications.
This approach greatly influenced the writing of The Republic. Plato wanted to create a treatise that could actually be used in the real world. He believed his system of rule, of educated kings who devoted their time to the study of mathematics and philosophy, could be realised and would be a success. In 367 B.C. he left the Academy to put this theory into practice. Dionysius II, the heir to the throne in Scilly and former student of the academy, sent for Plato when his father died. Unfortunately Plato’s theories were never given a proper trial, as Dionysius ultimately lost confidence in the idea of a ‘philosopher king’.
During the time Plato lived, Athens, and Greek civilisation itself, was facing significant challenges and hurdles. The Republic was written during the time of the Peloponnesian War. The vicious conflict between Athens and Sparta tore Hellenic culture apart, and devastated Athens. The war saw democracy in Athens come to an end, and an oligarchy take control. Although Plato had some friends in the government, he viewed it as tyrannical and wanted change. The problem was that recently democracy had also proved itself a deeply flawed system. In 399 B.C. Socrates was found guilty of not recognising the gods of the state by a jury of five hundred Athenians, and was sentenced to death.
The context in which Plato wrote the Republic is important for truly appreciating the book. It is pointless trying to summarise the arguments and philosophies it advocates here, because the whole point of the Republic is that the process leading to the conclusions is as important as the conclusions themselves. The most crucial detail of the book is its approach – that of perceiving a problem, and then solving it through a rational process. Plato was ground breaking in thinking such a method could be applied to justice and politics.
The Greek Text
Vol. 3 of 3Vol. 3 of 3