Plato VI--Review of Republic I-IV
Professor William R. Long
The purpose of this page is to list some perspectives on Plato, gleaned from Republic I-IV, that come either from my own notes or from some comments made in class about your reactions to him. Nine points seem worth making.
I. The Republic as resentment literature. Plato wanted to enter civic life in a leadership role but was offended by the mistreatment of Socrates among the Thirty and the execution of his teacher in the restored democracy. He left Athens after Socrates' death in 399 B.C. and returned several years later, to set up the Academy. He wrote the Republic in the mid-380s, when in his early 40s. I think that part of his reason for emphasizing the role of the philosopher king and the importance of education (the kind of education he provided in the Academy) was as an outlet for his anger and resentment at being excluded from power and at the treatment of his mentor.
2. The Excessive Formalism of the categories. The city is divided neatly into three groups: craftspeople, auxiliaries and guardians and these three correspond to three parts of the soul: the appetitive nature, the spirited nature, the rational nature. The kallipolis must instantiate the four cardinal virtues: wisdom is found in the guardians, courage in the auxiliaries, and moderation and justice are spread throughout. The categories are a little too neat and stiff, almost as if he is trying to press life into ready-made patterns.
3. The Ridigity of the Categories calls for comment. It appears that there is no "social mobility" as we would call it, in the kallipolis. You assume your place in society based on the kind of "metal" you are, and this judgment is made either by the guardians or a "committee of guardians" whose judgment, apparently, is unappealable. On the one hand, this seems nothing more than a new Thrasymachean definition of justice--the advantage of the stronger (this time the guardians are the stronger ones), but a contrary point can be made, which was made in class, that social mobility is the last of the citizen concerns because each citizen has found his/her place in the kallipolis and is perfectly happy doing the one thing that s/he is meant to do. Specialization, therefore, is Plato's watchword, and injustice will be defined in Book IV as a meddling between the categories.
4. Plato's mode of argument is often obscure to us. Sometimes it is difficult, to be sure, but other times he posits such seemingly-obscure questions that we only partially or vaguely understand them. And then, when seemingly certain conclusions "flow" from them, we are left feeling as if we are hearing only part of a static-filled conversation. For example, in 436b-c, where Plato begins to argue for the tri-partite soul, he states, "It is obvious that the same thing will not be willing to do or undergo opposites in the same part of itself, in relation to the same thing, at the same time. So, if we ever find this happening in the soul, we'll know that we aren't dealing with one thing but many." Answer. "All Right." Huh? I think I missed that one.
5. Plato's mode of argument is often unconvincing to us.. A case in point is when Plato is trying to argue that the future guardians, besides being spirited, must also be by nature philosophical (375e-376c). His interlocutor doesn't understand, so Socrates gives an example of a dog which is friendly to a friend but firmly set against someone he doesn't know. As such, the dog is a "lover of learning." I guess Plato is trying to pull our leg a bit, but the joke doesn't fully translate.
6. When the definition of justice in the city is finally given, it is anticlimatic. Justice has been right there all the time; they haven't looked for it properly, but it is only "the having and doing of one's own (434a)." Or, "then it turns out that this doing one's own work...is justice." I suppose no one can really quibble with the definition, but it is a bit lame. Of course there is apt to be harmony in a city when everyone does his/her job. The garbage gets cleaned up, shoes are made, auxiliaries are trained, guardians rule. But, this is seemingly very similar to Polemarchus' view of justice (to give each one his/her due) that was summarily discarded. I think that Plato is still a bit "young," still thinking his way through complex problems of political philosophy, and he realizes that although he may have some brilliant things to say about the soul and harmony within, and the doctrine of the Forms and epistemology (which we did not discuss), that he simply has not thought through issues of justice very significantly.
7. Plato's view of the role of law is even less developed. He has few things to say about law, other than that laws are probably unnecessary in the kallipolis because those whose souls are harmoniously tuned will not need laws and those who are the opposite will not be restrained by them. He has some useful points about judges in 408-409--that they should be mature and have had no experience of bad character when young--but he either doesn't develop the ideas or the ideas are open to discussion and contradiction. His last dialogue, the Laws, written in his 70s, is a more provocative attempt to develop a legal system for a (more realistic) city. It takes lots of living to build a society.
8. A few miscellaneous critiques. Though I understood that the root concept of the spirited part of nature is anger, I really didn't understand the full scope of this section of the soul. I suppose it might be equated with the emotions, while the appetitive part consists of our physical needs [later Plato will divide the appetitive part into necessary desires, lawful desires and unlawful desires]. Unclear to me also is what role rationality or courage plays with the craftspeople. Finally, with respect to his theory of education, I am not sure I buy the notion of a heavily-censored education. He wants to maintain the idea of "heroic" as "faultless," or nearly so. Do children need to be told that? Won't their disappointment be multipled when they find that is not the case--i.e., that their "heroes" are likewise plagued with weaknesses?
9. But, one thing about the Republic that I think is utterly profound is Plato's emphasis on justice as a certain kind of harmony within. That is, justice consists of an "attunement" (my word) of the mind, spirit, appetites in such a way that the "civil war" within no longer happens. He hopes that education in mathematics and astronomy and the proper kind of poetry, as well as physical training, can plant the seeds of harmony in the soul. After all, if ratio is the constitutive element of the universe (Plato learned this from the Pythagoreans), and if music and math are the two disciplines through which ratio is brought to the human mind and soul, then a study of each ought to be the chief instrument in bringing inner harmony. Whether or not you agree with Plato's formulation, I think he is onto something significant--so significant that Aristotle devotes one of his most significant works, the Nicomachean Ethics, to trying to understand the principle of harmony and moderation.
We mentioned other points, but this is certainly enough for now!
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long