100. The Republic by Plato (c.380-360 BC)

Plot : A Socratic dialogue which starts by attempting to define justice and whether it is better to be a just man or unjust, it uses the search for a definition of justice on the scale of a whole community or State to build an outline of a model society and government.

My edition is the Penguin Black Classic translated by Desmond Lee with a new introduction by Melissa Lane, published 2007 (ISBN 9780140455113). It confused at first as it is broken into 11 parts which do not correspond with the 10 ‘books’ traditionally cited, although these divisions are  recorded in small print in the margins

My thoughts : This is a very hard book to read with my liberal 21st century sensibilities, and many of my comments below are very subjective. It may be that The Republic can be read on a different level, and others may get more satisfaction from it than I did. Many ideas on the surface are repugnant or carry the odor of some of the worst social experiments of the 20th century.

After a preliminary discussion of the meaning and value of justice (which are as unsatisfactory as many of the earlier Socratic dialogues), we come to describing the basics of communal society – essentially people as individuals are not self-sufficient and will manage best by undertaking one occupation most suited to them (farmer, builder, merchant, sailor, … ) and relying on others to tend to the other occupations, and by means of exchange, meet their remaining needs. This eventually becomes the definition of “justice” : doing one’s own job and not interfering with another, essentially minding one’s own business, which also acts to protect revolution in the society Plato develops below.

A discussion on the education of ‘the Guardian’ – a sort of watchdog of the community to allow them to be gentle to their own community yet fearless when defending the society – is then used as a way of encouraging censorship over poetry and plays to prevent stories of the Gods showing any strife between themselves or any form of maliciousness or deception to mankind, or even any excessive laughter or lamentation, from being told to children  – a very different depiction of Socrates then we have seen before and not in keeping (at least in my mind) with the humble lover of knowledge. This censorship then quickly extends into the styles of literature appropriate to be taught, then to the types of music listened to and the musical instruments played, then to the arts and crafts in general, and even to dividing true love from sexual pleasure, creating a picture of a very unpleasant totalitarian society – it is easy to see where the accusations that The Republic sowed some of the seeds for Nazism and Communism arose.

By Book IV, these ‘Guardians’, having been tested since childhood to have proven themselves the individuals most concerned with the well being of the state, have evolved into ‘Rulers’ and ‘Auxiliaries’, and a caste system is being formed that segregates the society, justified by an artificially created ‘legend’ (read ‘colossal lie’) based on ‘divine selection’. Shades of Orwell’s 1984 in 4th century BC!  Yet the pretence of equality is defended by a dubious promise of (i) promotion and demotion between the classes for children recognised of being of the right temperment, and (ii) the Guardians, fed and housed by the State, are forbidden from owning private property or gold or silver, as they should have the well being of the community as their sole desire. ‘Minding one’s own business’ and not seeking to take a role not ‘natural’ to an individual acts to maintain this stratification and is labelled ‘justice’ to further cement its ‘rightness’.

The status of women in this new society is almost equal to men, with Socrates recognising that women can and should be allowed to perform any occupation that men do, including Guardians, but perhaps not as well. But marriage and the family unit is banned from Guardians, and the Rulers must encourage the most worthy men to mate only with the most worthy women, and their babies to be taken away and raised by nurses. Any babies born with any infirmity are quietly disposed of. This whole eugenic mess is balanced precariously on more lies.

The remainder of the book dwells on the idea of the “philosopher-king” who reluctantly rules the State, and is perhaps the most famous part of the work, and a description of four inferior models for society : the timocracy (based on the Greek idea of the Spartan state, where a military autocracy rules a serf population), the oligarchy (where the wealthy rule), the democracy and the tyranny. I must confess that I only skimmed these chapters, wearied by Plato’s idea of the utopia in the first half.

The Republic should perhaps deserve praise for Plato’s effort to imagine a perfect society even if its terms are repugnant to modern day readers. Prescribed reading for dystopian writers?

Favourite lines/passages:  I had to look for more light-hearted quotes and luckily there were a few.

“When a man no longer has to work for his living, he should practise excellence”  apparently quoted from Phocylides, a sixth century lyric poet                                                      (page 105)

In discussing the excellence of the medical profession, and in particular the sons of Asclepius,

Socrates : “The life of a man whose constitution was bad and undermined by loose living was, they thought, of no use to them or anyone else; it was not their business to use their skills on such cases or cure them, even if they were richer than Midas”

Glaucon : “Discerning men, these sons of Asclepius”                                                   (page 106)

“Sex is perhaps more effective than mathematics when it comes to persuading or driving the common man to do anything”                                                                                       (page 169)

Personal rating:  So many ideas I personally find repellent. 2.

Kimmy’s rating:  I explained to Kimmy that dogs are natural philosophers according to Socrates as they distinguish between the familiar and the unfamiliar based on knowledge and ignorance, and therefore must have a true love of knowledge.  She was more interested in a true love of dinner and the knowledge there was left over meat in the frying pan.

Next : Starting 2017 with Xenophon’s Cyropaedia

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