Plato's Republic: A Study

Plato's Republic: A Study

by Stanley Rosen


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In this book a distinguished philosopher offers a comprehensive interpretation of Plato’s most controversial dialogue. Treating the Republic as a unity and focusing on the dramatic form as the presentation of the argument, Stanley Rosen challenges earlier analyses of the Republic (including the ironic reading of Leo Strauss and his disciples) and argues that the key to understanding the dialogue is to grasp the author’s intention in composing it, in particular whether Plato believed that the city constructed in the Republic is possible and desirable.

Rosen demonstrates that the fundamental principles underlying the just city are theoretically attractive but that the attempt to enact them in practice leads to conceptual incoherence and political disaster. The Republic, says Rosen, is a vivid illustration of the irreconcilability of philosophy and political practice.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300126921
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 02/05/2008
Pages: 432
Product dimensions: 6.12(w) x 9.25(h) x (d)

About the Author

Stanley Rosen is Borden Parker Bowne Professor of Philosophy and University Professor at Boston University. His previous books include The Elusiveness of the Ordinary and Hermeneutics as Politics, both published by Yale University Press.

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Plato's Republic


Yale University Press

Copyright © 2005 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-10962-7

Chapter One

Cephalus and Polemarchus


The theme of descent plays an important role in the dramatic structure of the Republic. To note only the obvious, Socrates and Glaucon descend from Athens to the Piraeus at the very beginning of the dialogue; Book Seven begins with a descent from the sunlight into the cave of shadows that represents the subpolitical nature of the human soul; the dialogue closes with an account of the descent of Er into Hades. Each of these descents is described in considerably greater detail than the outstanding example of ascent to the Idea of the Good, or more properly, to its surrogate, the image of the sun. Nevertheless, it makes sense to say that the dialogue as a whole is the story of the attempt by Socrates to rise from the Piraeus to the Idea of the Good, and then to descend via the account of the deterioration of cities and the final discussion of poetry, immortality, and the myth of Er. The first question to be answered is thus why this attempt is not made from Athens proper. Why, in other words, do we need to descend before we can ascend from our initial level?

The descent to the Piraeus takes place at night, as Socrates explains, "both in orderto pray to the goddess and at the same time because I wanted to see in what way they would conduct the festival, since this was the first time it was being celebrated" (327a1-3). The goddess in question is Bendis, a Thracian deity who has been accepted into the Athenian religious practice. The date, based upon the evidence of ancient inscriptions, is presumably somewhere between 431 and 411, in the early or middle stages of the Peloponnesian War, with Athens at the peak of its power. But the dialogue takes place in the harbor rather than in the main precincts of the city, and in the home of Cephalus, a resident foreigner rather than a legal citizen. The light is artificial (as it will be later in the allegory of the cave), and the dramatic occasion is more like a carnival than an exhibition of political might. We are detached from the city at its peak and are encouraged to a more spontaneous mode of conversation, one that is more appropriate to the shadows cast by firelight than to the splendor of political and military rhetoric.

Socrates is prepared to observe, but not to participate in, a ceremony dedicated to a foreign goddess. He says that the Thracian performance was no less fitting than that of the Athenians. He does not say that the Thracian god is the equal of the Olympians. We shall see in due course that Socrates sharply criticizes the poetical, and in particular the Homeric, presentation of the Greek gods in the early stages of the dialogue, when he is discussing the musical education of the young guardians (Book Two). He regularly praises only "the" god, who is marked by unchanging goodness and so by freedom from human attributes. Still later, however, in Book Five, when Socrates is legislating the manner in which guardians who have died in defense of the city must be buried and commemorated, the Greekness of the city is emphasized, and the god is identified as Apollo. Let us say for the moment that Socrates's attitude toward the gods is flexible.

The descent is not only from the city to the harbor and from daylight to firelight, it also brings philosophy into a zone of freedom, privacy, and openness to what is foreign. The indefinite temporal reference to "yesterday" reminds us that the Athens of which Plato writes has disappeared. "Once upon a time" there was a glorious city called Athens and a remarkable man called Socrates. The glory of Athens has dissolved, and we are left with our memories. The task of the philosopher is now to recollect not so much the actual history of Athens as the inner truth of that city, and what it implies with respect to political possibility. In other words, the reader of the Republic has two tasks: to bear witness to the revolutionary proposal that politics be placed in the charge of philosophers, and to understand the sense in which the proposal has succeeded as well as the sense in which it has failed.

The personality of Glaucon is an essential clue to the answers to these two questions. To state the main point at the outset, Glaucon's ambition is required to encourage Socrates to articulate the "ideology" of the revolution. As is appropriate to the nature of a soldier, Glaucon is described by Socrates as "always most manly" (II. 357a2), which Griffith translates rather weakly as "extremely determined ... in everything he does." In addition, much is made of his erotic nature (II. 368a2-3; III. 403a4-5; V. 468b9-12; V. 474c8ff. and esp. d4 and passim). Finally, Glaucon urges Socrates to take up dangerous questions when the latter is reluctant to do so (see III. 414c8, V. 451b2, and VI. 506d2 for examples). There is one other important point to make in this connection. When Socrates wishes to return home, despite the strong request by Polemarchus to remain in the Piraeus, it is Glaucon who officially overrules Socrates's reticence (I. 328b2-3). Erotic and brave guardians are required during the founding of the city and not merely as ingredients within it. Socrates is not delivering a lecture on political theory to a group of scholarly specialists. Regardless of whether he believes that the city is possible, it cannot be built without eros as well as thumos (spiritedness). To give only a single example, Glaucon will have to oversee the rustication of everyone over the age of ten, a step described in Book Eight as essential to the founding of the city. But more generally, he encourages the philosopher to engage in the process of preparing for the revolution, which could not be carried out by theoretical persons alone.

In sum, there are two different aspects to the contribution of Glaucon. He is the external stimulus that moves Socrates to engage in the founding of the beautiful city, and he represents some of the essential characteristics of the guardian class within the city itself. Philosophers cannot become kings without lieutenants like Glaucon. I do not believe that Adeimantus is a soldier so much as a potential high-ranking official, such as the state censor of poetry and the fine arts. As we shall see later in connection with judges and physicians, the division of the guardian class into rulers and soldiers is not complete.

2 Polemarchus sends his slave boy to grab Socrates's cloak from behind and to convey his order that Socrates and Glaucon wait; "Polemarchus" means "warlord" in Greek. At a pivotal point in the dialogue, Polemarchus will grab the cloak of Adeimantus from behind. The two will conspire to force Socrates to discuss at length the community of women and children, upon which the possibility of the just city depends (V. 449b1-c5). The importance of Polemarchus is twofold. First, he shows the connection between justice and compulsion. Second, as the heir of Cephalus, he resuscitates the argument that his father has bequeathed to him. This will become clear as we proceed. Meanwhile, we note that what is being offered here is pleasure; there is no question initially of so momentous a conversation as the one to come. When Socrates asks if Polemarchus and his companions may not be persuaded to release Glaucon and himself, Polemarchus replies: "How could you persuade us if we don't listen?" (327c12). Glaucon agrees that there is no way to persuade those who don't listen. He is already disposed to remain, and when he is told of the impending banquet and the novel torch race on horseback, as well as the prospect for conversation with many young men, Glaucon says, "It seems to be necessary that we stay" (328b2). Glaucon himself is about to be persuaded to converse with Socrates rather than with young men, as a result of which he gets neither a banquet nor the chance to see the new torch race.

The atmosphere in the Piraeus is a mixture of convention and novelty. Socrates and his companions withdraw from this atmosphere to the privacy of the house of Cephalus. It would be tempting to describe this transition as yet another descent into pure convention. And yet, the conversation cannot take place in the streets or public squares, which are crowded with revelers and sightseers. On the other hand, if Cephalus had remained present for the entire evening, the conversation as we have it could not have taken place. Cephalus provides shelter for a conversation in which he cannot participate, and which he bequeaths to his sons. They are, so to speak, sons of the bourgeoisie who can be persuaded to consider alternatives to the society that nurtured them. Their education, family connections, and leisure make them potential revolutionaries.

The scene has now been set for the first step in the revolution in speech: the examination of Cephalus. It is a striking feature of the dialogue that the investigation of justice begins with a consideration of old age and the approach of death, or in other words with the imminent departure of the individual soul from political existence. One of the crucial assumptions underlying the construction of the just city in the Republic is that justice is the same in the individual soul and the city. The city, we shall be told, is the soul writ large, and therefore justice is easier to see in its political than in its private manifestation. I have already mentioned the lack of an analogy between the epithumetic part of the soul and the class of workers, each of whom possesses a tripartite soul. We shall have further occasion to question the soundness of this analogy between the city and the soul. Even though the analogy does not hold good, it is easy to see that we could not recognize justice in the city unless we had first discerned it in the soul. It may be, of course, that justice is more fully visible in the city than in the soul. But that would not affect the priority of the soul. It is the soul's desire for justice that leads to the founding of the city. To desire justice, after all, is to possess a pretheoretical awareness of what it is, even if one cannot furnish a fully articulate definition. It makes no sense to say that the city desires justice and therefore produces the individual person. The dramatic setting of the Republic exhibits this simple priority. The pursuit of justice begins with an interrogation of a private person, one who is not even a citizen of Athens but a resident alien. And it focuses on the most personal aspects of human existence: sexuality and death.

The same general point is illustrated by Aristotle when he makes the Nicomachean Ethics prior to the work on Politics. It should also be noticed that Aristotle distinguishes between the virtue of the gentleman on the one hand and that of the citizen or statesman on the other. In the Republic, Plato makes no such distinction; instead, the "vulgar" virtue of the nonphilosopher is contrasted with the epistemic virtue of the philosopher (VI. 500d4-9, VII. 518d9-e3). This contrast is refined by Aristotle into the distinction between theoretical and practical virtue. But this difference between the two thinkers, important as it is in its own right, does not alter the fact that neither of them affirms the priority of the city to the individual person in the investigation of justice. It is true that we cannot live a fully human and so just life except in a city, or that the city completes private life just as art completes nature. But this is to say that the city is for the sake of the individual citizen, and, more precisely, for the sake of the citizen's capacity to live a happy life. The question we are about to study is whether the just or the unjust life is happier. Our main concern is thus with the condition of the individual soul, and the entire treatment of politics is introduced for the sake of making the inquiry easier to carry out. The unsatisfactoriness of this procedure will become evident in the difficulty faced by Socrates when he is asked whether the guardians of the just city are happy. To anticipate, his answer will be that we are concerned with the happiness of the city, not of some part of its citizenry. But this goes directly counter to the emphasis throughout upon individual happiness.

Our examination proper of the good life begins with the question of a good death. It should, however, be noted that Cephalus does not provide us with the most profound insight into the relation between justice and death. He is not a tragic hero but a kind of pagan Everyman. Justice is his narcotic; it serves to numb the transition from life to death. In slightly different terms, Cephalus is unsuited, by age and character, to play a role in political revolution. He has often been taken as a decent representative of conventional morality who is not up to the dangerous perturbations of philosophical investigation. Up to a point, I think that this is correct. But it should be added that Cephalus is not necessarily wrong to avoid philosophical reflection upon the comforts of tradition. The principle that motivates him will be found once more in the political rhetoric of the just city with respect to death and immortality. On this set of topics, the beliefs to be inculcated into the guardians are simply a development of those that govern Cephalus's last days. For this reason, the transition from the man of convention to the philosopher is not simply an ascent but also a circle.

So much by way of anticipation. Let us now turn to the details of the conversation with Cephalus. Neither he nor his sons are members of the Socratic circle. The presence of the philosopher in Cephalus's home is unusual, like the torch race by horseback (328b9, c6). Socrates is of course familiar with the sons of Cephalus, but tonight it will be necessary for him to negotiate their detachment from the father, who, as just noted, represents convention but also the preparation for death, not revolution. As a resident alien, Cephalus is an epiphenomenon of Athenian splendor. And as an old man, his interest lies fundamentally with himself and his family, which is an extension of himself. Cephalus is crowned with a wreath and has just performed a sacrifice. He looks quite old to Socrates, who has not seen him in some time. Cephalus alludes to his age almost immediately. He is too old to make the trip to Athens easily, and Socrates is rarely in the Piraeus. Cephalus then adds another note of compulsion to go with the restraint imposed upon Socrates by his son. Socrates must come more often. "I want you to know that as the other pleasures, those connected with the body, wither away, the desires and pleasures of speech are augmented" (328d2-4).

Cephalus is primarily interested in pleasure, and were he younger, he would prefer the pleasures of the body to those of the soul. Temperance has been forced upon him by the infirmities of age, but he is able to transform this disability into an occasion for pleasure rather than pain. Cephalus continues: "Don't do otherwise, but associate with these young men and come hither to us as to friends and your own family" (328d4-6). Friendship and family are the two main components of private life. Cephalus speaks as if he is attempting to assimilate Socrates into his own family and is using the young men as bait to tempt Socrates to visit him more frequently. On second thought, this congeniality can hardly be more than a pretended interest in the sort of conversation for which Socrates is famous. What is probably of greater importance to Cephalus is that if Socrates were to come more often to visit him, this would be an added incentive to his sons and their friends to spend time in their father's company. The young are interested in a conversation quite different from the kind that Cephalus would prefer. In his reply, however, Socrates ignores the young men and says, "I delight in talking to the very old" (328d7; cf. the reference to pleasure at e4). He means by this those who, because of their extreme age, are about to step over the threshold from life to death. They are a long way further ahead on a road that we too will probably have to travel. Socrates asks whether the journey to death is rough or smooth. "Is it a difficult time of life? How do you find it?" (328e6-7).


Excerpted from Plato's Republic by STANLEY ROSEN Copyright © 2005 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
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