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Essay/Term paper: Plato's republic

Essay, term paper, research paper:  Essays

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Plato's Republic

Critics of The Republic, Plato's contribution to the history of
political theory, have formed two distinct opinions on the reasoning behind the
work. The first group believes that The Republic is truly a model for a
political society, while the other strongly objects to that, stating it as
being far too fantastic for any society to operate successfully by these
suggested methods. In an exchange between Crito and Dionysius, this argument is
first introduced, with Crito siding with those who agree that The Republic is a
realistic political model, and Dionysius arguing on behalf of those who doubt it
as being realistic, claiming it to be a criticism of politics in general.
Both sides have legitimate arguments, and there is evidence within the
text to support each opinion. When Plato wrote Gorgias, he made it clear where
exactly he stood on his personal involvement in politics (Cornford 1941, xix). "
Unlimited power without the knowledge of good and evil is at the best unenviable,
and the tyrant who uses it to exterminate his enemies and rivals is the most
miserable of men--a theme to be further developed in The Republic (Cornford xx)."
But here, Plato was referring to the politics of his time, and critics who
sided with Crito believed that The Republic was Plato's way of introducing a
political system in which he would feel comfortable supporting (Plato 204).
Conversely though, The Republic itself is summed up this way:
Well, one would be enough to effect all this reform that now seems so
incredible, if he had subjects disposed to obey; for it is surely
not impossible that they should consent to carry out our laws and
customs when laid down by a ruler. It would be no miracle if others
should think as we do; and we have, I believe, sufficiently shown that our
plan, if practicable, is the best. So, to conclude: our institutions
would be the best, if they could be realized, and to realize them, though hard,
is not impossible (Plato 210-211).
These institutions of which Plato speaks are described in the body of
The Republic, and not only does Plato explain how they are carried out in
current society, but he offers his own alterations, which is the primary cause
of the arguments over the content of the book (Plato 222).
In his fifth chapter, entitled "The Problem Stated," Plato introduces
what he believes to be wrong with the current system of politics (Plato 41).
He starts by describing the Social Contract theory (Plato 53), the method used
during his time, a method Plato rejected. It says:

all the customary rules of religion and moral conduct imposed on the
individual by social sanctions have their origin in human intelligence
and will and always rest on tacit consent. They are neither laws
of nature nor divine enactments, but conventions which man who made
them can alter, as laws are changed or repealed by legislative bodies.
It is assumed that, if all these artificial restraints were removed,
the natural man would be left only with purely egotistic instincts and
desires, which he would indulge in all that Thrasymachus commended as
injustice (Plato 41-42).

In response to this description, Plato wrote,

First, I will state what is commonly held about the nature of
justice and its origin; secondly, I shall maintain that it is always
practiced with reluctance, not as good in itself, but as a thing
one cannot do without; and thirdly, that this reluctance is
reasonable, because the life of injustice is much the better
life of the two--so people say. That is not what I think myself,
Socrates; only I am bewildered by all that Thrasymachus and ever
so many others have dinned into my ears; and I have never yet
heard the case for justice stated as I wish to hear it (Plato 43).

Throughout this chapter, Plato makes a point to say how difficult it is to
do what is right, since it seems so much easier to take the easy way out, to do
the wrong (Plato 49). And in summing up this chapter, Plato had one final
contribution, "You must not be content with proving that justice is superior to
injustice; you must make clear what good or what harm each of them does to its
possessor, taking it simply in itself and leaving out of account the reputation
it bears (Plato 52)." At this point, Plato has revealed his mental viewpoint on
the problems in current government, and the remainder of the book deals with the
ways he intends to do away with that which cripples those in politics, including
corruption, various conflicts, and many traditional practices.
Plato continues on to describe how luxuries are not necessities, as many
prominent figures of his time had believed (Plato 61). Soonafter came his
suggestions on how society should be educated (Plato 231). Not only did he
intend to totally alter the curriculum, but he also wanted to change people who
were educated. To him, education was not to be limited to the wealthy, it was
to be focused primarily on those who showed the greatest potential, the greatest
talents. His most radical idea was to reform society based on his method of
education. He rejected the idea of having a person's place in society based on
family name or wealth (Plato 111). His ideal society would have rank based on
merit, ability and talent, and should a woman possess these skills, then she
would have a high rank in society (Plato 153). Not only did he want women to be
included, but he also made his system of education almost rigorous, hoping to
weed out those who did not belong, or who showed more talent as say a soldier
rather than a mathematician (Plato 102-103). To finalize his suggested society,
Plato wrote,
But in reality justice, though evidently analogous to this principle, is
not a matter of external behavior, but of the inward self and of
attending to all that is, in the fullest sense, a man's proper concern.
The just man does not allow the several elements in his soul to usurp one
another's functions; he is indeed one who sets his house in order, by self-
mastery and discipline coming to be at peace with himself, and bringing
into tune those three parts, like the terms in the proportion of a musical
scale, the highest and lowest notes and the mean between them, with all the
intermediate intervals. Only when he has linked these parts together in well-
tempered harmony and has made himself one man instead of many, will he be ready
to go about whatever he may have to do, whether it be making money or
satisfying bodily wants, or business transactions, or affairs of state. In all
these fields when he speaks of just and honorable conduct, he will mean
the behavior that helps to produce and to preserve this habit of mind; and
by wisdom he will mean the knowledge which presides over such conduct. Any
action which tends to break down this habit will be for him unjust; and the
notions governing it he will call ignorance and folly....we...have discovered
the just man and the just state, and wherein their justice consists (Plato
The final installment in Plato's ideal society is the ruler (Plato 122).
He devotes and entire chapter describing the duties of a philosopher king (Plato
205). His main arguments in favor of such a ruler include "when strength fails
and they are past civil and military duties, let them range at will, free from
all serious business but philosophy; for theirs is to be a life of happiness,
crowned after death with a fitting destiny in the other world (Plato 207)."
With that said, there is now an overview of what Plato feels to be the
ideal society. Elements discussed include how society is educated, categorized,
as well as ruled. And some people accepted this model, and argued on Plato's
behalf, including Crito. But as in all arguments, there must be a second party,
and that group viewed this as impossible to accomplish as well as destined for
failure. Even though the arguments against The Republic are not in plain text,
those who do not see eye to eye with Plato do have a valid argument, and there
is enough evidence hidden between the lines of The Republic to support their
When Plato discussed virtues within a state (Plato 119), he mentioned
wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice as the virtues that make up a state.
Those arguing against The Republic can refer to a statement made by Plato
reading, "Strangest of all, every one of those qualities which we approved--
courage, temperance, and all the rest--tends to ruin its possessor and to wrest
his mind away from philosophy (Plato 198)." Here is probably the
most obvious statement Plato
makes that is anti-political, saying that the ideal political state cannot
successfully contain elements of philosophy (Plato 29).
Mentioned in the exchange is the Allegory of the Cave (Plato 227-235).
Here, Plato tries to explain why he should be taken seriously, for he is one of
the few who has seen this light, and he is trying to adjust society in such a
way that it would resemble the world he was exposed to when he left the cave.
But he does not think that ordinary people would accept these proposals, and may
even fear Plato to be insane (Plato 231). Many other of his simplified stories
can be mistaken for deliberate attacks on politics in general, rather than
methods by which politics could be improved. Among these are the ideas that
women could be equal to men in Plato's ideal society (Plato 144), as well as
Plato's suggestions that such traditions as Olympian religion and poetry were
not important in his educational scheme (Plato 67, 321).
Although the evidence in favor of The Republic is far greater than that
which opposes it, the argument itself cannot really be won. Plato consistently
expresses doubt throughout his work, which favors the opposition. But, his
ideas themselves are in no way impossible to accomplish. Plato had this to say
to sum up all his beliefs, there will never be a perfect state or constitution,
nor yet a perfect man, until some happy circumstance compels these few
philosophers who have escaped corruption but are now called useless, to take
charge, whether they like it or not, of a state which will submit to their
authority; or else until kings and rulers or their sons are divinely inspired
with a genuine passion for true philosophy. If either alternative or both
were impossible, we might justly be laughed at as idle dreamers; but, as I
maintain, there is no ground for saying so. Accordingly, if ever in the
infinity of time, past or future, or even today in some foreign region far
beyond our horizon, men of the highest gifts for philosophy are constrained to
take charge of a commonwealth, we are ready to maintain that, then and there,
the constitution we have described has been realized, or will be realized
when once the philosophic muse becomes mistress of a state. For that might
happen. Our plan is difficult--we have admitted as much--but not
impossible (Plato 208).


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