Dr. Andrew Wood
Office: HGH 210; phone: (408) 924-5378
Plato envisioned a republic guided by eternal ideals, designed according to immutable forms, and led by philosopher-kings. Plato's work, a dramatic set of dialogues between Socrates and several interlocutors about the nature of justice, is both disarmingly humorous and dangerously direct. From a contemporary standpoint, some of its most radical notions may seem viable, even appropriate. After all, Plato's Socrates seeks: "a kind of good that we would choose to have not because we desire its consequences, but because we delight in it for its own sake" (357b). However, the Republic was more than a discourse of justice; it is a philosophical broadside against the petty tyranny that ruled Athens and an important blueprint of public life. The Republic matters today because of Plato's use of the city as the site where public life may be perfected. He may have known that his goal could never be realized, but his Republic was the first significant work to propose such a broad range of social improvements - sexual equality, genetic enhancement, philosophical leadership. While Plato repudiated many of his more radical claims in later works, we study his Republic because this 'city of speech' lays the foundation or provides a counterpoint to every other ideal of public life we will encounter.
Plato's Republic introduces a city state defined by communism (the elimination of property and 'selfish' constraints such as the family) and common education - instilling of proper values through careful censorship: "we must supervise the makers of tales; and if they make a fine tale, it must be approved, but if it's not, it must be rejected" (377c). The state is located in the city and not at the level of nation to better ensure that all citizens will declare and maintain allegiance to each other in a sort of fraternity. The Republic divides the citizenry into three classes: teachers, guardians, and laborers. These classes are directly parallel to three components of human nature according to Plato's philosophy: wisdom (manifested by teachers), bravery (practiced by guardians), and self-restraint (required of laborers). In the human body - as with the body politic - the proper balance of these three qualities is necessary to achieve justice: "Isn't it quite necessary for us to agree that the very same forms and dispositions as are in the city are in each of us" (435e)? There are relatively few teachers who rule the state; there are somewhat more guardians. The vast number of inhabitants are laborers and cannot truly be said to be citizens. These artisans, farmers, craftsmen, and manual laborers represent the bodily appetites - and the means through which those appetites of citizens may be fulfilled. We enter the Republic with Book V (of the Bloom translation) where Socrates is "arrested" by his colleagues for failing to address a central inconsistency of his ideal notion of public life: what shall be the roles of women and children in this fanciful state?
The dialogue may be organized in the following manner. Polemarchus, Adeimantus, Glaucon, and Thrasymachus demand that Socrates defend his claim that women and children shall be held in common in the Republic. Socrates responds: "You don't know how great a swarm of arguments you're stirring up with what you are now summoning to the bar" (450b). After being assured that his colleagues are willing to stir this argument to its conclusion, Socrates begins to argue that, in nature, females and males must share in the dangers of rearing young. His interlocutors tentatively agree that while females may be physically weaker than males, the natural order of things calls for equivalent duties, and that these similar duties call for similar modes of education.
At this point, Socrates sets up a problem to be solved through dialectic - a process of questions and answers that shall reveal truth. He notes that Athenian men commonly exercise and wrestle together in the palaestras - in the nude. This example helps him set up the metaphor that citizens of the Republic must be willing to strip away their material ornaments and consider more than their bodies when deciding what is good and just. Socrates continues that, if stripped of bodily differences, a woman (clothed in 'virtue') possesses the same quality of soul as a man. Thus she should possess the same role in the Republic: "there is no practice of a city's governors which belongs to woman because she's woman, or to man because he's man; but the natures are scattered alike along both animals" (455d).
Resolving this problem, Socrates anticipates a second one: the elimination of private, erotic relationships between women and men. Here, he imposes a communistic regime with its cessation of private property upon heretofore private lives. Marriage will be sanctified, but its ultimate purpose will be toward the procreation of genetically superior citizens. Thus, the right of procreation will be apparently given by lot - but actually planned by the state: "It's likely that our rulers will have to use a throng of lies and deceptions for the benefit of the ruled" (459d). Children wrought from these planned couplings will be raised in common, separated from their biological parents. Families in the traditional sense will be replaced by a common family of the state. Unauthorized children will not be allowed to live in Plato's Republic.
No too surprisingly, Socrates' discussion partners readily agree: if all people treat each other as brothers and sisters, their elders as mothers and fathers, they shall not struggle against one another. For a time, the men discuss further the training of children before agreeing that the young should witness and follow their elders even into battle so that they may learn the arts of citizenry. This discussion briefly leads to an examination of how citizens might fight wars against other Greeks (as kin) or barbarians (as foe). Glaucon follows this line of reasoning for a time before realizing that Socrates has failed to answer the central question of the scene, the third wave: "Is it possible for this regime to come into being, and how is it ever possible" (470c)?
Socrates takes up the challenge, but not before asking for assurance that his colleagues will tolerate an answer that is incomplete - perfect in word, but not necessarily in deed (473a). At this point, Socrates states one of his most famous goals - that philosophers shall rule as kings, and that kings shall rule as philosophers. At last, Socrates has stripped off his intellectual covering and revealed his true intent - to challenge the nature of Athenian rule and propose a radically new form of leadership. However, this challenge must almost inevitably fail. After all, the philosopher-king should be a lover of wisdom in its full bloom; but he must also understand opinions - those partial truths that guide so many people. Within the same person, one must find an appreciation of eternal forms and temporary manifestations of popular will. We therefore leave book five in a paradox that animates much of this class. The pure and perfect ideas of public life must intersect with artifacts, notions, appetites, and political realities of the real world. Perhaps philosopher-kings might enter public life, but their unique combinations of skills are coincidental at best.