Review: The Republic, Plato

by Marc Geddes

Initially, I thought that The Republic was irrelevant to my studies. I had no interest in a book written before two-thousand years’ worth of political activity had passed. Then I remembered what my module leader on political theory had once claimed: each and every theoretical piece ought to be taken as an aim for truth, or in other words, each book had universal aims. Each thinker thought that they were right, and so one shouldn’t take the simplistic relativist view. If we did so, we legitimise their mistakes and brush errors under the carpet. Rather more keen, I picked up The Republic and read it over a period of two months. Unfortunately there are so many fundamental errors in his work and such colossal mishaps that it cannot be taken seriously today. Yes, it will have its uses for studies in philosophy and studies of ancient history. But no one should even consider applying his ideas to our political arena today.

The style of the read was interesting. It was formed around a conversation between numerous characters, in which Socrates was the main character. Throughout the course of the book, the conversation turned more into a monologue, and so lost its charm. But more than that, the way the book set out its ideas was based in logic, rather than inductive or deductive social scientific studies.

His entire piece is based on finding the truth in ‘justice’, and from this drew out the entire dry book. Essentially, he attempts to organise the state so that social production and justice will find their maximal limits. The lack of focus on the good life or happiness did upset me. Plato would completely re-organise society into three strands: i) producers; ii) soldiers; iii) guardians. Inherently, there are problems. Society today could never be reduced to something like that (we have the public sector, civil servants, merchants, primary producers, scientists, academics, the armed forces, politicians, journalists, etc.). Having said, I would argue that social categorisation per se is not problematic. Karl Marx’s categories do provide some value, for example.

For Plato, the key role is education. Finally, we had something to agree on. I believe that the most important element in any person’s life is their education and socialisation. Everything else follows. Nothing precedes it. However, Plato’s education is in many ways is a narrow tunnel, as opposed to a diverse and free river of knowledge and truth. He does hold that education will place you in society, which broadly puts the regime under a meritocratic umbrella. From then, it descends. Education is strictly censored. Only the ‘good’ will be taught; positive images of heavens, art must only ever be heroic or happy, music can only be upbeat, and prose must only encourage, and never satisfy, our desires. The centre-piece is philosophy, and by that every individual would be judged to their class. Philosopher kings, as Plato calls them, would be taught, if they are successful, for about fifty years, before attempting office. And yet all of this is so restricted. Who decides what to teach, other than the philosopher kings themselves? Who decides what is good and bad, other than philosopher kings themselves? Where is the sense of liberty and freedom we strive for? Is teaching about the ‘bad’ so wrong? Sad music, fearful prose, innovative art are all important forms of expression to fundamentally learn.

The only progressive thought I could find was Plato’s view on women. He would have given them complete equality, save for strength. This, I can understand. And this is most surprising and speaks to me about the universality of his thought. Whilst others in different times would have enslaved women, Plato would have given them his warped sense of freedom. Equality is what equality does, and this I commend.

Plato’s work is rather a blueprint for fascism than anything else. Anyone who is terminally ill should be left to die; the psychologically ill must be put to death. The above ‘review’ was more of a summary of his ideas, admittedly. Yet perhaps this is so because most of his errors are so glaring that they needed much argument.

Much is made about Plato’s philosophical sayings, and they were very interesting. The idea of the cave and the sun were instrumentally clever. The only problem for me is that Plato is in fact a member of the chained men in his cave, rather than the man who walk freely outside in the sun.

Please note that an edited version of this article appeared in Canvas, a student politics journal for which I was the Founder and Editor between 2010 and 2012. The article was published on 04 April 2011, and is available here.