For the next few weeks I'll be using the Freedom's Philosopher blog to post supplemental reading for my philosophy courses. The first few entries will be on Plato's Republic.
Although there is very little agreement among contemporary philosophers...about anything! I suspect that most of us agree the Plato's Republic is the greatest and most important work in all of Western Philosophy. It has, without a doubt, exerted a profound influence on the subsequent development of both Western philosophy and political science. It's certainly one of those timelessly universal classics. At times, you'll get the sense that Plato is writing directly to those of us living in the twenty-first century. Although it was written in 375 B.C., I want you to read the Republic as if it were written in 2011. What kinds of questions does Plato ask? What are his answers? Are these questions and answers relevant today? Can we learn anything from this ancient Greek philosopher?
Well...who was Plato? Actually, we know a lot about him. There are many references to Plato made by ancient philosophers, historians, and other writers. Plato also left behind and astonishing body of philosophical work, about 35 dialogues that address a wide variety philosophical questions. In these dialogues, Socrates is the main character. We also know that Socrates was, in fact, the "teacher" of Plato and his brothers Adeimantus and Glaucon and that Socrates, apparently, never wrote anything. Therefore, most of what we know about him and his philosophy is from other sources. One might question whether Plato's dialogues accurately document Socrates' thought, or wheter Plato merely used Socrates as the main character in his own dialogues to articulate his own views. I'm not particularly interested in that question.
I assume that Plato was profoundly influenced by not only Socrates, but also by other historical forces. For example, we know that the dialogue depicts a fictional conversation that took place between 431 and 411. We know that Plato was deeply influenced by the Pelopponesian War (431-404) between the city-states (and empires) of Athens and Sparta. Therefore, we know that most of Plato's political thought responds to the political arrangements of those warring city states: Athens was a Democracy, Sparta was an Oligarchy. We know that Socrates served honorably in that war, and that although he was a stone mason by trade, he spent most of his time teaching philosophy to the "youth of Athens" (young men). Finally, we also know that Socrates was put to death in 399 by the Athenian government, for "corrupting the youth of Athens" and "worshipping false Gods" and that Plato wrote a series of dialogues that depict the trial and death of his teacher. (Apology, Crito, and Phaedo)
The over-riding theme of the Republic is established in the Book 1, where Socrates is invited to a party, where the conversation eventually converges on the question: "What is justice?" After Socrates effectively dismisses several incomplete theories, Thrasymachus (a local sophist) argued that justice is "nothing more than the interest of the stronger." Although, Socrates initially presented Thrasymachus with several semi-plausible counter-arguments, Thrasymachus left the discussion rather abruptly, and Plato's brothers took over the argument. Throughout the next nine books, Socrates attempts to convince Glaucon and Adeimantus that Thrasymachus' views is wrong. As you read the Republic be aware of the following elements: "Justice is in the interest of the stronger," Gyges Ring, The Divided Line and the Allegory of the Sun (Plato's theory of knowledge), the Noble Lie (gold, silver, bronze), three part division of the soul and the state, tyranny, democracy, oligarchy, timocracy, and aristocracy, and the Myth of Er. Our class discussions will focus on these elements. My next blog will outline Plato's theory of knowledge and how it relates to the refutation of Thrasymachus.