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Better Understanding Plato’s Republic

Plato’s Republic is not, primarily, asking the question ‘what is justice?’ as much as it is asking what kind of city do we live in? Before we can address any political issue we must first know whether we are living under a regime of tyranny or liberty.”

Plato has suffered a terrible reputation as a progenitor of fascism and tyrannical politics, ever since Karl Popper’s Open Society and Its Enemies. While few professional philosophers regard Popper’s book as a strong read on the history of philosophy, especially for its one-sided and largely inaccurate depictions of Plato and Hegel, Popper’s provenance still holds much sway. Far from advocating blueprint utopianism, Plato’s Republic is an in-depth examination into the origins and manifestation of tyranny (as I’ve explained in my commentary on Plato’s Republic). 

Plato in Context

Part of the problem with interpreting Plato is that we often approach Plato through the received lenses of his successors. Plotinus and the Neoplatonists spiritualized Plato, turning Plato into a sort of mystic sage with esoteric knowledge about the spiritual origins and destination of humanity. (This too is carried forward by contemporary esoteric Traditionalists.) Plato’s Christian readers, like St. Justin Martyr and St. Augustine, also argued that the worthiness of Plato was in his commitment to metaphysical truth, the good life, and spiritual side. As such, the Christian “baptism” of Plato was divorced from his political situatedness.

Plato was a political philosopher first and foremost, in large part, because the birth of philosophy was contingent to morality—and morality to the political because the highest good of the Greek world was the polis. Reason served the end of the political and was not conceived of as an independent high good in-and-of-itself.

The problem with the spiritual reading of Plato is that it obscures the fact that all of Plato’s dialogues, including the Timaeus, his most exoterically spiritual and metaphysical work, were political in nature. As I’ve also written concerning Plato’s Symposium, “Plato was a moralist. An ethicist. He was concerned with the primacy of action, of engagement, in a world that was deeply iconoclastic, barbarous, and savage. Love of wisdom allows for the creation of that space where ethical and loving life is possible. This means that eros must remain to any understanding of the self, world, and politeia.” Plato’s commitment to metaphysical truth served not a spiritual end but a political end.

Plato was a political philosopher first and foremost, in large part, because the birth of philosophy was contingent to morality—and morality to the political because the highest good of the Greek world was the polis. Reason served the end of the political and was not conceived of as an independent high good in-and-of-itself. While Plato wrote in dialogue form—in large part because he had aspired to be a playwright in his earlier days—his dialogues investigate the nature of the political and, by reciprocating relationality: human nature. Plato saw the two as indelibly linked together. The question quid sit homo? is as much a question over the nature of the political as it is about human nature.

Fourth Century Athens was also a city in decline. It had been defeated in the Peloponnesian War by Sparta. It had descended into tyranny, both by its own hands, and then after the peace settlement. Plato was interested in understanding how the “city of daring, progress, and the arts,” the city of democracy and the public-private distinction as recounted by Pericles in Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, had devolved into the city of tyrants, Thrasymachus, and the Cave. It is this context of living under tyranny, sophistry, and scheming power politics that Plato wrote. The origins of philosophy, then, are rooted in the particular question of what caused Athens to fall so spectacularly into the den of thievery and tyranny.

Part of Plato’s awakening, so to speak, was also the shocking death of Socrates. After all, Socrates was condemned to death by the Athenian state, and Plato never presents the Athenian state in a positive light. In fact, in the Crito, Plato presents the Athenian state (the “Laws of Athens”) as a harbinger of death and war. In Greek, this is more apparent when Plato carefully uses the words ἀπολέσαι (apolésai) in 50b and ἀπολλύναι (apollýnai) in 50d and 51a twice, along with the choice use of Πόλεμον (pólemon) and πολέμῳ (polémo) in 51b. The “Laws of Athens” use hyper militaristic language, which embody the notion of an intense conflict with Socrates; apolésai and apollýnai mean “to destroy,” and pólemon and polémo entail the supremacy of the city over Socrates in the immediate context of warlike language where the city acts as the sort of commanding officer to which Socrates (the soldier) must obey. Such language, in the Greek, would have been sparingly used except in militaristic contexts.

“Come now, what charge have you to bring against the city and ourselves that you should try to destroy us…if we try to destroy you, believing it to be just, will you try to destroy us Laws and your fatherland, to the extent that you can,” the Laws tell Socrates in the imagined conversation in the jail cell. The Laws have not only taken a divinized status; the Laws wield absolute sovereignty over Socrates when they claim:

“Or are you so wise that it has escaped your notice that your fatherland is more worthy of honor than your mother and father and all your other ancestors; that it is more to be revered and more sacred and is held in greater esteem both among the gods and among those human beings who have any sense; that you must treat your fatherland with piety, submitting to it and placing it more than you would your own father when it is angry; that you must either persuade it or else do whatever it commands; that you must mind your behavior and undergo whatever treatment it prescribes for you, whether a beating or imprisonment; that if it leads you to war to be wounded or killed, that’s what you must do, and that’s what is just—not give way or retreat or leave where you were stationed, but on the contrary, in war and law courts, and everywhere else, to do whatever your city or fatherland commands.”

The Laws of Athens command Socrates to death. The totality of the state over the individual was so great that it overwhelmed Socrates and ordered his death in this wrestling match between the individual and the state. Fundamentally, Plato set out to investigate how the Laws of Athens (the state) had grown in such power to animalize Socrates back into a state of bare existence (lest we forget Socrates was a prisoner in a cold jail cell). 

The Crito is not about just and unjust laws but an investigation into the primacy of sovereignty: the sovereignty of the individual or the sovereignty of the state and the deadly struggle between the two (as the speech of the Laws of Athens reveals as it clearly presents itself in an existential conflict with Socrates). Entailed in this question of sovereignty is the question of tyranny since Plato clearly saw the absolute sovereignty of the state as commanding and embodying tyranny to the point that it could control life and decide the moment of its extirpation. Socrates had to die, otherwise the effective authority of the state would have been broken and shown to be toothless.

Satire and Irony

One of the core aspects of understanding Plato is to know how he uses satire and irony in his dialogues. Plato regularly engages in satirized and ironic depictions of the sophists, as well as the comics in his works. Everyone remembers the depiction of Aristophanes as an ecstatic mad man in Symposium, but Plato gives a nod to Aristophanes at the same time. Through comic equivalence, though Plato is equally satirizing Aristophanes, Plato agrees that part of the understanding of love is yearning, searching, or seeking—not necessarily because one has lost something, though certainly because someone doesn’t possess wholeness.

Names are indicative of destiny and intellect in Plato’s Republic (as in Plato’s many dialogues). Thrasymachus’ name, in Greek, means savage fighter. And Thrasymachus is depicted as a savage fighter in the few pages of the Republic where he is present. He is introduced like a lion, curled up on the side of the road waiting to roar and pounce over his prey. He does precisely that, or so Plato writes, “Polemarchus and I were frightened and flustered as he roared into our midst.” Thrasymachus lives up to his name not only in description but also in how he acts. Thrasymachus gives us the most savage definition of justice in the Republic: “I say that justice is nothing other than the advantage of the stronger.” Furthermore, Thrasymachus’ speeches, as Leo Strauss noted in his careful study of the Republic, are short and savage just like the man himself.

Glaucon, who succeeds Thrasymachus as the leading sophist propagating the philosophy that led to tyranny in the first place (according to Plato), is hardly the wise man that his name implies. Glaucon, in Greek, means grey eyed. The image of grey eyes evokes the goddess Athena who is described as the “grey eyed girl” in Homer’s Iliad. Athena, of course, is the goddess of wisdom. But Glaucon doesn’t say anything wise at all. In fact, Glaucon’s definition of justice is just the continued debasement of Thrasymachus’ savage thesis of justice. 

But Glaucon need not remain an unwise individual contrary to his name. If he labors with Socrates and comes to accept the wisdom of Socrates, Glaucon can become the wise man his name promises. Likewise, Thrasymachus doesn’t need to remain a savage brute. He can become a fierce fighter of truth, if he accepts the wisdom imparted by Socrates. Such metamorphoses, however, are left up to us. 

What is missed when reading Plato by English-speakers is how names, along with the actions of the individuals and what they argue, indicate Plato’s satirization and ironic stripping of the sophists. Greek speakers would well pick up on the puns involved in the names of the sophists and the actions and attitudes they undertake in the dialogues. Indeed, this was Plato’s literary way of paying homage to the fact that he wanted to be a comic playwright (and another nod to his respect for Aristophanes whom he regarded as a top-rate thinker, though still wrong in his prognostications). Reading Plato is hilarious when one fully understands every small facet going on, and that is at work in his dialogues. Plato, in between the lines—or at least in the original Greek—shows himself very much in the debt of Aristophanes.

The Descent to the Cave

The arc of Plato’s Republic begins in a city above earth, a city equivalent to the city of pigs, but it devolves to a city beneath the earth, where the human inhabitants are enchained in slavery. Plato’s Republic is not, primarily, asking the question “what is justice?” as much as it is asking what kind of city do we live in? Before we can address any political issue we must first know whether we are living under a regime of tyranny or liberty.

The city in which we start off in is Thrasymachus’ savage city of dog-eat-dog survivalism and a proto-Nietzschean will to power. (Nietzsche was also partial to the pre-Socratic philosophers of Greece rather than Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, whom he regarded—alongside Christianity—as paving the way for the philosophy of the weak and compassionate to restrain the powerful.) This world is bleak. It is brutal. It is savage. But Plato’s subversive hand acknowledges that this is, in fact, the city we live in. We live in Thrasymachus’ savage city where the strong rule over the weak with a façade of law, order, and justice to mask their supremacy over the many.

By the time we reach Glaucon and Adeimantus (and their defense of Thrasymachus), we proceed further into the tyrannical polis. Glaucon’s city builds from Thrasymachus’ savage thesis. Glaucon goes a step further to say that justice is not merely the will of the stronger exercising itself over the weaker, but that justice is itself unnatural precisely because humans are not physically, or intellectually, equal. Glaucon goes on to argue that justice is pure, unadulterated, self-interest (much like Hobbes and Locke though Locke gave rational self-interested human robot a veil of human happiness and benignity). 

Glaucon’s city is nothing more than a nihilistic city of self-interest and self-advancement. This is what the story of the Ring of Gyges entails. It is a myth of the horror of self-interest. The weak shepherd, in seizing the ring, kills the king, rapes the queen, and usurps the throne for himself. Glaucon argues that this is what anyone would do if given the chance. But by arguing that justice is unnatural, or that justice is whatever is in one’s interest to gain power, we cannot object to Glaucon’s brutal city because the brutal city that Glaucon describes is natural. The city that began in the exercise of stronger wills over the weaker has now manifested itself in full-blown murder and bloodshed.

The descent doesn’t stop there. The devolution of the polis continues when we reach the tyrannical city that is the Cave. While many people are mesmerized by the epistemological aspect of Plato’s myth, this too, like reading Plato as a metaphysician or esoteric spiritualist, misses the mark. The Myth of the Cave is, primarily, a discussion of the political. It is the most political of the stories in the Republic. As I’ve previously written, “Just as there are three identifiable stages of a city’s growth to the ideal, there are three cities that are opposites of each stage. The opposite of the city of pigs is Thrasymachus’s savage city. The opposite of the healthy city of honest toiling labor is Glaucon’s city of deceit, lust, and theft. The opposite of the heavenly city of the philosophers is the dark and tyrannical city of the Cave.”

The tyrannical city of the Cave is the logical devolution that necessarily follows from the sophist’s philosophical worldview. A world without truth, a world without nature, and a world where justice is simply naked power exercised in self-interest, leads to the intellectually gifted and physically strong ruling over the rest. This is what the Myth of the Cave depicts in the strong having enchained the weak and casting shadows—the world of opinions—over the masses to hold them captive. The philosopher who escapes from the Cave to the world of truth, in fleeing the world of sacred opinion for the truth of nature (of reality), upon reentering the Cave is brutally killed by the Cave dwellers. The philosopher has disturbed the modus vivendi of society. The peace of tyranny must not be disrupted so the philosopher must die.

It isn’t coincidental that Glaucon tells Socrates, as this story begins, that the Cave dwellers “[are] like us.” Because the Cave dwellers are us. Plato is asserting that Athens is the Cave. It is a city completely enchained and ensnared by the shackles of tyranny ruled by the materialistic outlook of the sophists. After all, the Cave is situated in a purely materialistic environment.

Philosopher Kings and the Democratization of Philosophia

Plato was something of a democrat. Insofar that Plato wanted the rule of philosopher kings, he was advocating the democracy of philosopher kings can include all of us. Plato’s question of justice, which masks the underlying question of what kind of city do we live in, is also an epistemological question because the political and epistemological are tied together because epistemology is contingent to there being fundamental nature in Plato’s worldview. Without a definitive nature there can be no definitive knowledge. Without definitive nature and definitive knowledge all we have is the world of illusory opinions, the world of the Cave, the world of doxa promoted by the sophists in the marketplace of doxa.

The philosopher rises above the world of bickering that characterizes the marketplace of doxa. The world of doxa is also the world of democracy, at least as Plato presents “democracy.” Plato wants all people to be philosophers, to know the truth and abide by the truth. But Plato was not naïve enough to think that all people were intellectually gifted enough, or virtuous enough, to be philosophers. Only some would be philosophers. Only some, among the great many who are striving to know the truth, will come to know the truth. Those who know the truth should rule because we all benefit from the rule of the truth because our natures are bound to truth whether we know it or not.

When Plato argues that all humanity suffers without philosopher kings, this is because our human nature—which we are all tied to—suffers when we are ruled by the world of false opinions as advocated by the sophists. The fact that Plato believes we live in the City of the Cave ought to be evidence enough that we should shun the world of opinion and seek truth, as the philosopher does. 

Throughout the Republic, the ideal philosopher is always detached from conflict (the conflict of doxa). In the famous allegory of the ship, the ship captain (the philosopher in situ), is far away from the conflict between the owner and the crew. Yet Socrates, the in situ philosopher in the Republic, is engaged in rational dialogue—diálogos—throughout the text. Socrates is trying to democratize philosophia, by being in the thick of dialogue, Socrates is the democratizing philosopher bringing truth to the people—but especially to the people who need it most, the elite of Athens who are the teachers of the next generation of Athenians.

Plato, then, is advocating for the democratization of philosophia over the course of the Republic. The coming to know, and sharing of, truth is the moving energy of the dialogue. Moreover, that the sophists are coming to know truth and will—since they are the teachers of Athens—teach truth to their pupils (the next generation of Athenian leaders), truth is ever growing and ever expansive. We see, then, what is meant from the movement of the city of pigs to the city of light. The movement from the city of pigs to the city of light is wrapped up in the labor of democratizing philosophia. In this movement all benefit. When Adeimantus insults Thrasymachus, the work of democratizing philosophia leads Socrates to defend his former ambushing predator, “Don’t slander Thrasymachus and me just as we’ve become friends.”

The Republic ends not in the darkness of the Cave but in the light of a resurrection. Er is resurrected and instructed by the gods to tell the people, the masses, of the truth he has witnessed. What is that truth? Plato doesn’t inform us. Plato doesn’t inform us because he wants us to journey with him to that world of light. We must labor, as Plato labored, to go from the city of pigs to the city of light. If we do not, we run the risk of accepting the doxa of the sophists and will descend into the Cave of Tyranny.

Plato’s Republic is not a roadmap to utopia but a hopeful work that we might labor together to leave the shackles of tyranny for a better city. What that better city is remains incomplete in the pages of the Republic, just as that better city remains incomplete today. But the vision of a laboring city to the good remains indispensable for all and remains the essential spirit of politics ever since Plato wrote his most famous work of political philosophy.

Paul Krause is a graduate student in philosophy writing a thesis on the political aesthetics of Edmund Burke and holds an M.A. in theology from Yale and a B.A. in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University. He is an Associate Editor at VoegelinView and contributed to the book The College Lecture Today: An Interdisciplinary Defense for the Contemporary University (Lexington Books, 2019).

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