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Friday, January 07, 2011

Plato's Republic

Notes by Simran Purokayastha , 2nd PSEng.

‘The safest generalization that can be made about the history of Western Philosophy is that it is all a series of footnotes to Plato.’

-Alfred North Whitehead

Plato occupies a central place in European philosophical tradition, for various reasons. He is the first Western philosopher whose works have survived (the fire of Alexandria) intact. These works remain significant in their wide scope, impact, undeniable logic, incisive reasoning and undoubtedly, their power to engage readers.

Plato uses the dialogic form of writing to bring his views to light. Plato does not speak in his own voice, but has the characters of these dialogues speak for themselves, opening up numerous philosophical perspectives in the process. By doing this, he leaves his readers room to interpret his works in radically different ways, which is perhaps why there is little in Philosophy that isn’t covered in Plato’s works. Philosophy therefore, has so far only explained Plato, not challenged him.

In The Republic, one of his most celebrated works and the last book (X) of which is the object of our study, Plato sets out to answer numerous questions in his attempt to define the Ideal State. In the process, he deals with matters not only pertinent to the State and its smooth functioning but also those relevant to the individual and his/her well being.

In order to better understand Plato’s views, one must grasp the propositions he puts forward in his ‘Theory of Forms’, one of primary tenets of Plato’s philosophy. This theory proposes that the world that we perceive around us is a copy or reproduction of another realm, which is perfect (the world of the Ideal). It is a purely intelligible sphere of existence. These Forms of the ideal world are stable and unchanging and define all that exists fleetingly and imperfectly in the world of our senses. The Forms provide knowledge of objective truth. Plato used the term 'nature' to describe the physical world that we perceive through our senses. And, since nature is a copy of the Ideal, it is less perfect. Plato argues that art is only a mere representation or copy of the Physical World (which is already a copy of the Ideal) and is therefore twice removed from reality.

The theory may be reduced to six fundamental propositions. *

First, for every kind, there is a single nature common to things of the kind. For example, beautiful things all possess beauty. Or, humans all possess humanity.

Second, it is having these natures (or characters) that makes things be of the kinds that they are. Using the same example, and by extension, beauty makes beautiful things beautiful.

Third, these natures are necessarily as they are, and have necessary relations to one another. Beauty, for example, is always and necessarily the opposite of ugliness.

Fourth, philosophy is, at least primarily, the inquiry into these natures.

The fifth proposition is that it is by means of reason, and not our senses, that we discover the truth about these natures.

And the last general principle is that this discovery is possible only because the inquirer had prior knowledge of these natures.

Only those whose minds are trained to grasp the Forms—the philosophers—can know anything at all. In particular, what the philosophers must know in order to become able rulers is the Form of the Good—the source of all other Forms, and of knowledge, truth, and beauty. Plato cannot describe this Form directly, but he claims that it is to the intelligible realm what the sun is to the visible realm.

The metaphysical hierarchy proposed by Plato, to summarize, is as follows:

· Ideal

· Physical World (copy)

· Art (copy of the copy)

Based on these beliefs, Plato argues that art needs to be banned in an Ideal State since it gives a false picture of reality to the people. It appeals to the basest part of the soul and allows strong emotions to take control of a person and cloud their ability to reason making it difficult to reach the ultimate reality or Ideal. Furthermore, he has three reasons for regarding the poets as unwholesome and dangerous. First, they pretend to know a lot of things, but they really know nothing at all. It is widely considered that they have knowledge of all that they write about, but, in fact, they do not. The things they deal with cannot be known: they are images, far removed from what is most real. By presenting scenes so far removed from the truth poets, pervert souls, turning them away from the most real toward the least. Worse, the images the poets portray do not imitate the good part of the soul. The rational part of the soul is quiet, stable, and not easy to imitate or understand. Poets imitate the worst parts—the inclinations that make characters easily excitable and colorful. Poetry naturally appeals to the worst parts of souls and arouses, nourishes, and strengthens these base elements while diverting energy from the rational part.

Poetry corrupts even the best souls. It deceives us into sympathizing with those who grieve excessively, who lust inappropriately, who laugh at base things. It even goads us into feeling these base emotions vicariously. We think there is no shame in indulging these emotions because we are indulging them with respect to a fictional character and not with respect to our own lives. But the enjoyment we feel in indulging these emotions in other lives is transferred to our own life. Once these parts of ourselves have been nourished and strengthened in this way, they flourish in us when we are dealing with our own lives. Suddenly we have become the grotesque sorts of people we saw on stage or heard about in epic poetry.

He includes poets along with atheists and contact with foreigners in a list of corrupting influences that stand in the way of an Ideal State.

Despite the clear dangers of poetry, Socrates regrets having to banish the poets.

He feels the aesthetic sacrifice acutely, and says that he would be happy to allow them back into the city if anyone could present an argument in their defense.

All these ideas become clearer through Plato’s cave allegory.

(Please access the following link for an interesting representation and explanation of the same:

It is evident that each of the elements in the allegory stands for something greater. The chained prisoners represent the uneducated mass of humankind. The shadows on the wall are dim representations of imitations of real things. The reality for the prisoners is the people’s poor understanding of the nature of the things they see. The released prisoner’s forced, steep ascent out of the cave into the sunlight is akin to the difficulty of an education in Mathematics that, according to Plato, is essential in one’s preparation for philosophy. The reluctance of the prisoners to make the steep climb is like students’ inclination to think that hard work is not worth the effort. The bright sunlit world outside is actually the abstract realm that reason reveals to the soul. And the prisoner who is acclimatized to the outside world is a symbol for the philosopher who has mastered the dialectic. The parallels are numerous!

Plato, in the voice of Socrates then outlines a brief proof for the immortality of the soul. The proof is essentially this: X can only be destroyed by what is bad for X. What is bad for the soul is injustice and other vices. But injustice and other vices obviously do not destroy the soul or tyrants and other such people would not be able to survive for long. So nothing can destroy the soul, and the soul is immortal.

Plato’s arguments are extremely convincing and often deal with and outline inscrutable nuances of human life and eternal quest. It is not in the least surprising, therefore, that his works continue to be relevant in today’s times and definitely more engaging than most other philosophical treatises.


· Pinto, Anil. Plato. Christ University. Dec. 2010. Lecture.

· The Sparknotes piece on Plato’s ‘The Republic’

· The sources mentioned below.

* The books ‘Coffee with Plato’ by Donald R. Moor and ‘The Cambridge Companion to Plato’ edited by Richard Kraut (both available in the Christ University Library, UG Section (Philosophy)) were extremely helpful in understanding Plato’s works. Strongly recommended.


Anil Pinto said...

Extremely good work Simran

Kapitblom! said...

Thank you Mr. Pinto...

afreen shifa said...

thank u simran :)