Plato’s aim in the Republic

Ashley asked:

What is Plato’s aim in the Republic?

Answer by Caterina Pangallo

To understand this, you have to know something about the political background of Plato.

Greece was composed of a number of small city-states, which had autonomous governments. Some were democratic, others were tyrannies or kingdoms. These states were in constant warfare with each other. In fact, not long before Plato, the Peloponnesian War had ended, leaving Athens destitute. So, due to this constant warring, social conditions in the Greek states deteriorated, because many of them were involved either on the Spartan or Athenian side. Athens suffered catastrophically from bad government, corruption, famines, plagues and so on.

As a result of Plato recognising these ills in society, he set himself the task of analysing the question of ‘what is a state?’ When he considered that the fundamental drive of all people is to live happily and be content and in peace, he realised that all the problems in society come down to one problem. Which is that states exist for the sake of social justice.

So Plato asked himself: How can we form a society in which justice prevails?

This is a big issue. Having been the pupil of Socrates, he makes Socrates speak in the Republic on all these issues with Plato’s two brothers. The idea was to test if it is possible to construct an ideal (just) society. So they start at the bottom with just a few people and figure out what these people need to live and survive in mutual agreement.

Obviously as the numbers increase, the community becomes more complicated. So the next question is, who is going to govern this community? Here the dominant concept of justice comes in.

Then they look look at the various kinds of state in the Greek world. None of them are especially good. And the main reason for this is that their constitutions are full of errors and defects, leading inevitably to injustices.

Now Socrates argues, that in order to have justice for everyone, a state must have one idea of justice that everyone is happy with. Now the problem comes up that most of the people in the state are not well enough educated to be legislators. But someone has to make the laws to ensure that no-one is disadvantaged or preferred, and that self-interest does not interfere with justice for all. Such a person must be educated, of course. But more than this, he or she (Plato admitted women as legislators) must have a special education in justice, which comes from philosophy.

So Plato gave careful directions for choosing rulers and to make sure that once chosen, they would not work for their own advantage. Once they have this knowledge their action must be good and they will pass laws for the people and in their best interest, with justice the most important criterion.

They will in fact be ‘philosopher-kings’. But unlike kings everywhere else, they have no royal privileges! They are in fact slaves to philosophy. They live like monks and have no other interest in life except the happiness of everyone else in the state.

Of course you can see that this state is not a democracy. But Plato and Socrates both believed that democratic governments are too individualistic, too much under the influence of vested interests, and often badly governed because the people at the top are not well educated.

Plato’s philosophy leads to an anti-democratic authoritarian philosophy. It is government for the people, but not by the people. But Plato really believed that this was the only guarantee of justice in a state.

Eventually Plato/ Socrates must address the issue: ‘Can the ideal state be realised? Or is it just a Utopia?’ He says it’s a paradigm, a model for all legislators to consider. It may not be possible to construct this ‘ideal state’ anywhere in the real world. But any existing state would be improved even if they took just one of the principles of this book into their laws.

So that was his final aim. People everywhere live under the umbrella of politics. His worry was that most states are badly governed. He wanted to show a way to do better.

Answer by David Robjant

Controversial, with a blooming variety of view — one of the largest areas of secondary literature in philosophy in any language, with particularly intense contributions in english and german down the centuries, also in french and italian. I have an opinion which went one way on first reading and another way after reading a certain lady, but hopefully you were wanting to form your own view. Here’s a sample culled from some current literature on the subject, available in English.

For various presentations of the ‘ethical’ reading:

J. Annas ‘The Inner City: Ethics without Politics in the Republic’ in Platonic Ethics, Old and New, Ithaca, Cornell University Press 1999

Blossner ‘The City-Soul Analogy’, trans. G.R.F. Ferrari in G.R.F. Ferrari (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Plato’s Republic, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2007

Plato, Republic, trans. Robin Waterfield, World’s Classics Series, Oxford: Oxford University Press 1993. *Waterfield’s introduction*

For three strikingly incompatible versions of the political reading:

K. Popper The Open Society And Its Enemies, Volume 1, The Spell of Plato London, Routledge 1945 & this fifth edition 1966

L. Strauss ‘On Plato’s Republic’ in The City and Man, University of Chicago Press 1978

D.R. Morrison ‘The Utopian Character of Plato’s Ideal City’ in G.R.F. Ferrari (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Plato’s Republic, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2007

For the classic paper saying that Plato had both political and ethical intentions and that as a result he contradicts himself:

B. Williams ‘The Analogy of City and Soul’ in R. Kraut ed. Plato’s Republic, Critical Essays Rowman & Littlefield 1997

Commentary on this paper constitutes a self-propelled sub-genre to itself, but try to bear in mind that there are those listed here for whom William’s idea of Plato’s intentions is entirely misconceived.

For attempts along various lines to integrate political and ethical objectives:

J. Lear ‘Inside and Outside in the Republic’ in R. Kraut ed. Plato’s Republic, Critical Essays Rowman & Littlefield 1997

M. Lane Plato’s Progeny; How Plato and Socrates Still Captivate the Modern Mind. London: Duckworth 2001

Plato The Republic, trans. D. Lee, London: Penguin 2007 *Lane’s Introduction* xxxvii

C. Rowe ‘The Republic in Plato’s Political Thought’ in G.R.F. Ferrari (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Plato’s Republic, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2007

If you are lazy and uninterested in the question, Plato’s Progeny may help cover some of the ground on Strauss and Popper — and Lane is certainly one of the more accessible undergraduate-aimed writers on this list — although there’s a certain degree of fun to be had out of Popper’s bile if you are in the mood (which I’m not). But the thing is that Lane, like Popper and Strauss, is starting from an interest in Politics and then turning to Plato in that spirit which may, some on this list will argue, be an entirely mistaken approach.

Your predicament as an undergraduate may be related to where you encounter the Republic physically (US or UK), and where on the curriculum (ancient phil or politics). If you encounter it in the course of an introduction to political philosophy in the UK, the di are cast a little early. If you get the chance however, enjoy the blooming confusion above — something of value in all.

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