Prose by Plato, 5th/4th century BC
The Republic is a philosophical treatise in the form of a dialogue between Socrates and a number of his questioners. The figure of Socrates, however, can be understood to be representing Plato's own views.
While The Republic has at its heart the question of definition of justice, the work covers other subjects: most notably Plato's account of the ideal city state, ruled by the ideal men—an aristocratic elite, trained and tempered by their education, who rule for the common good. The term "philosophy," in its modern academic sense, is too restricted to do justice to the scope of The Republic's debate. Its discussion covers areas we would now assign to disciplines as diverse as politics, mathematics, aesthetics, sociology, theology, and psychology.
At the core of The Republic are four key ideas: (1) human nature is composed of different elements—the sensual appetites, pride, and reason; (2) the world perceived by the senses is composed of imperfect imitations of a divine world of perfect forms; (3) this ideal or divine world may, by proper education, be perceived by the faculty of pure reason, which is a property of the immortal soul, and should, properly, govern all the parts of a man's nature; (4) the innate superiority over other arts of philosophy, whose function it is to apprehend this truth. Ideas are not abstractions "upwards" from mundane objects; rather they are reflections "downward" from a divine world of higher truth. The world of the mathematician is therefore more "real" than that of the furniture maker, for the former has to do with pure thought, which is more akin to eternal truth.
These ideas emerge slowly and are at each stage advanced by cautious, step-by-step logic. In order to approach the disposition of a just man, Plato projects these problems onto the wider canvas of a whole society. He does this by drawing up his plan for a perfect city. Plato's account of his ideal city-state (the "Republic" of the title) is a project wherein ideal virtue is instilled by pragmatic means: Plato relies on the proven effects of gymnastics and the arts to inculcate manliness and sensitivity, while he will foster his rulers' (the guardians) capacity for pure reason by a study of the sciences closest to the world of the perfect forms—mathematics, geometry, and astronomy. The play may be utopian, its means of implementation are not. Plato's thought is marked by an iron grip of psychology and political reality. His guardians' bravery in war will be encouraged by the renouncing of any soldier who is capture alive; those who display bravery will be crowned by the whole army, and will be free to embrace any woman they choose. The city's children will be taken to the battlefield to learn the arts of war, but will be mounted on swift horses so that they may escape a defeat. All those—chiefly the poets—who expound principles contrary to those of the Republic will be censored or expelled. Plato recognizes the power of a society's myths to shape the sense of identity of its people. He proposes the manipulation of that power by deliberately creating the myths that will inspire the best conduct in his "guardians." Perhaps the greatest proof of Plato's pragmatism is that no sooner has he established his theoretical Republic than he describes the stages by which it will slide from its ideal state into tyranny.
Plato's account of justice is likewise a pragmatic one, based not on a prescriptive moral code, but on subtle psychological analysis. Proceeding by a sort of biology of man's moral nature, he isolates its different elements and concludes that man is happiest and most blessed when acting according to reason.
The use of a dialogue form aids the communication of Plato's ideas in a number of ways. Firstly, by its very structure, it breaks up into manageable segments what would otherwise be a huge and intractable weight of philosophical writing in prose. Secondly, the interplay of the different personalities engaged in the debate serves as a source of interest and entertainment. Plato's speech is courteous, diplomatic, and unfailingly modest. Thrasymachus, who bursts angrily into the conversation, is swiftly assuaged, and with Glaucon as Socrates' chief interlocutor, the debate proceeds from a battle of wits into a patientPage 1483 | Top of Article and methodical search for truth. Thirdly, Plato exploits the flexibility of a conversation in order to ease his reader through the difficulties of presenting what is occasionally a highly complex and abstracted argument. At times Socrates will go back over a point, or explain in particular detail an issue in depth until Glaucon can follow him.
One of the most contentious issues in The Republic is that of the status of art. As the objects of this world are but imperfect imitations of the world of divine forms, Plato attacks art for producing only "imitations of imitations" twice removed from eternal truth. Plato also criticizes poetry on the grounds that the emotions it excites are harmful to the severe self-control to be practised by his guardians.
Yet the poetic qualities of The Republic might lead us to question the seriousness with which Plato intends his banishment of poets and artists from the city—an act he compares to the renunciation of a beautiful but politically unacceptable choice of bride. The dialogue seems convincingly to demonstrate the importance of poetry to Plato's own thought. His argument is constantly illustrated with references to the poets. He himself retells stories such as that of Gyges and the ring of invisibility. His argument is illustrated by vivid images drawn from myth, for example, the comparison of the soul to Glaucos who was transformed from a fisherman into a sea god.
The fable of the prisoners in the cave demonstrates both Plato's capacity for myth-making, and his skill in rhetorical persuasion. Having accepted his account of the prisoners who (like the mass of ignorant humanity) see only shadows, mistaking them for reality, we are introduced to a single one who escapes and, after a difficult struggle, reaches the sunlight (true enlightenment). It is only natural that we should identify with that prisoner, and, having become involved with Plato's fable at an imaginative level, it is the harder to reject it at an intellectual one.