Saturday, September 10, 2011

Plato's Republic

Under the supervision of George Stade, the Consulting Editorial Director of Barnes & Noble Classics of New York, a 2004 edition of Plato’s Republic comes out.  Plato originally writes his Republic sometime between the 380s to the 350s B.C.E.  Benjamin Jowett translates this work from the original Greek into contemporary English and publishes it for the first time in 1871.  Elizabeth Watson Scharffenberger provides an introduction for the book and shares her notes with the reader.  This hefty book, in which the characters only talk and philosophize, may make you wonder if you can or should read this book at all.  I cannot answer that definitively in your case, but if you love philosophy or like learning about philosophy, then you must add this book to your list of must-reads.  You will find in this book some of the foundational building blocks of Western philosophy, politics, and culture that have continued up to this day. 

Republic is a lengthy conversation about the philosophical question of justice that spans ten books.  Plato does not appear in the conversation, but he places Socrates in the center of it.  The story starts simply enough.  Socrates and his disciple Glaucon attend a religious festival honoring the local goddess.  They see the processions and offer their prayers.  Before heading back home, Socrates and Glaucon are stopped by Polemarchus and Adeimantus, who invite them to stay and wait for the upcoming torch-race on horseback in the evening.  Socrates accepts the invitation and all of them go to Polemarchus’s house.  Cephalus, Polemarchus’s father, welcomes Socrates and kindly chastises him for not visiting the aging patriarch more often. 

The debate gets on its way when the speakers sit in a semicircle of chairs and discuss the topic of justice and its meaning and practicality.  Thrasymachus and Cleitophon contend that unjust rulers get the best of everything in life because of their power and status.  Socrates quickly subdues their arguments and discusses how justice can lead to a peaceful and perfect polis or city-state.  Socrates, Glaucon, Polemarchus, and Adeimantus continue the debate after Cephalus, Thrasymachus, and Cleitophon bow out.  After a great while, they formulate a perfect utopia in their imaginations and conclude that justice forms the better polity.  Socrates never mentions the torch-race on horseback again.  (Either it has not started yet or the debate engrosses the whole company, thereby missing the spectacle.)

Socrates and his friends discuss many things that I could comment on.  An interesting discussion involves censoring poets and artists from their ideal polis.  The allegory of the cave, the simile of the sun, and the analogy of the ship of state are all popular teaching tools that have their origins in Republic.  Maxims also dot the discussion.  My copy is filled with notes, thoughts, and ideas about where current ideas come from.   I have written references to just about anything on each page of the book.  I agree with about half of the conclusions and disagree with the other half.  Reading this book has been a great exercise in examining my own philosophical beliefs.

What is truly amazing is how this book has survived centuries and millennia of time.  Some conclusions stand the test of time and their universalism applies to just about every political circumstance in history.  Other beliefs seem downright ridiculous, like the mathematical difference between a philosopher-king and a tyrant.  These beliefs certainly are products of the local times.

I recommend this book to anyone who wants to venture into this philosophical classic.

Andrew

2 comments:

  1. That's on my "to-read list". Not because I'm interested in philosophy per se, but because I had history professors mention here and there all throughout my undergraduate studies. Oh who am I kidding, I never got to the graduate studies.

    ReplyDelete
  2. No, you've got a point. My professors ever since undergraduate studies have referred to Plato's Republic, so it has to be a "must-read." I'll let you borrow the book sometime.

    ReplyDelete

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