Ancient Greece Declassified is thrilled to announce a new 11-episode series on Plato’s Republic. This first installment in the series offers a broad introduction to the work by discussing its history, philosophical importance, and significance for our times. The next 10 episodes will cover the entire work, book by book, in conversation with some of the foremost scholars who work on Plato today, including Rachel Barney, Angie Hobbs, Jonathan Lear, Mary Townsend, Gabriel Richardson Lear, and Ben Morison.
A Note on English Translations
The Republic has been translated into English by dozens of scholars over the past couple of centuries. Most recent translations are pretty reliable, so if you happen to have one that you like, stick with it. If you are shopping for an edition, here four translators whom we recommend:
1. G.M.A. Grube (revised by C.D.C Reeve) – This is the edition most often used in university settings.
2. Allan Bloom – Some people prefer this version because it is an extremely literal translation from the Greek. As a result, however, it does not flow as smoothly as the other ones on this list.
3. Raymond Larson – Perhaps the most easy-to-read version, this one comes with a great introduction by the late scholar Eva Brann.
4. Paul Shorey – If you like copious explanatory notes and the original Greek included, you can’t go wrong with this classic edition. The only downside is that it comes in two volumes at about $25 each (although you can find free pdf files by clicking here: volume 1 and volume 2).
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Part 1: Introduction
We live in an age of great paradoxes.
Never before have so many people around the world wanted democracy. And yet, the major democratic powers in recent years seem to be possessed by increasingly anti-democratic forces.
The world is more connected than ever before. At the same time, we've never been so divided.
The social platforms that we hoped would bring us together have separated us into opposing factions.
Our information networks are used to spread fake news.
There have never been more experts on every conceivable topic than there are now, and yet our policy-makers seem to be listening to the wrong people, often with disastrous results.
If you look at all the progress we’ve made, we've never been closer to creating a peaceful, prosperous world. And yet we are angry and seem hell bent on tearing our societies apart.
What is happening to our world? A lot of people are asking that question right now. A lot of people are worried about the future. Are we headed towards a civil war? That question was unthinkable just a few years ago. Now, every major news outlet in America has explored it. The Atlantic dedicated an entire monthly issue last year to the question: How to Stop a Civil War. The New Yorker is currently running a series on the crisis of American democracy replete with gloomy predictions. There is also a wave of new books out bearing such ominous titles as How Democracy Ends and How Democracies Die.
When you read through these articles and books and you look at what evidence their predictions are based on, you start to see the same historical examples come up again and again. In fact, there seems now to be a standard repertoire of parallels that all these “democracy experts” make use of. There’s, of course, 1930’s Germany and Italy. There are a bunch of Cold War era coups that overthrew democratic governments in places like Chile, Argentina, and Greece. From the post-Cold-War era these writers talk about the erosion of democracy in Venezuela, Turkey, and Hungary. And specific to the American context there’s of course the American Civil War.
Now, these historical examples are undoubtedly interesting and may provide some useful insights. But there are important respects in which America today is unlike any of those states (including the America of the Civil War). America today is not just a democracy but the world’s most powerful democracy and the leader of an international military alliance of democracies. It is also the world’s oldest republic, with institutions that have been entrenched for over 200 years.
If we want to find parallels for the demise of such a superpower republic, none of the historical examples mentioned really fit. As we touched on in an earlier episode, there simply is no precedent in the modern world for how a powerful democracy with entrenched institutions falls apart because it hasn’t happened yet. Only one period of history offers such parallels, and it just so happens to be the period that we mainly talk about on this podcast: the ancient Mediterranean of about 500-40BC. That’s the only other time in history when a large ecosystem of democracies spanning a wide portion of the globe emerged.
Like our modern world, the ancient Mediterranean and Black Sea regions gave rise to hundreds of democracies and republics—more in fact than there are in the world today. We usually only hear about the two most famous of them—Athens and the Roman Republic—because those are the ones that we know by far the most about. But there were hundreds more, including powerful ones like Syracuse in Sicily, which was a prosperous democracy for part of the fifth century BC. But like elsewhere things fell apart through internal strife and factionalism.
So, if you want to talk about what can go wrong in a powerful democracy and, if things do go wrong, what happens next (and you want to be empirical about it) the ancient world is literally all you’ve got to go on. The analogies it provides may be far from perfect, but they are the only historical data points available. And given what’s happening in the world today, we need all the historical insights we can get.
So that’s what we’ve been looking for on this show. If you remember, in the last episode we talked with Steele Brand about the Roman Republic’s final century and it’s eerie parallels with modern America. In the episode before that we had Emily Greenwood come on to discuss Thucydides’ analysis of the widespread polarization that erupted across Greece in the late 400’s BC. Even earlier, we did an episode with Melissa Lane titled “How Democracies Fall Apart” on the ancient Greek concept of stasis, which, if you remember, ranges in meaning from factional strife to outright civil war. Again and again, we’ve heard scholars on this show point out that many of the problems modern societies face are similar or analogous to problems that brought down the great republics of antiquity.
With all that under our belt, I think we’re now ready to tackle something bigger and more challenging than anything we’ve done so far. I’m talking about one of the most famous books from antiquity, a foundational text in both ethics and political thought, and one of the most enigmatic works of philosophy ever written: Plato’s Republic.
Some of you may know the Republic as a utopian work that offers a vision of an ideal society. Some of you may know that the central question it seeks to answer is, What is justice? But here’s something you may not know about the Republic. And this is something that I totally missed the first time I read it, and the second time, and the third time. And that’s that the Greek word for civil strife that we just mentioned—stasis—appears in no less than eight of its ten books. In other words, the Republic is obsessed with this problem of factional division.
Why would Plato be so concerned with this phenomenon? Because, he witnessed first hand the downfall of Athenian democracy and the profound harm that factional strife caused, not just at Athens, but all over the Greek world. And so he spent a lot of time thinking about what it would take to build a society that was impervious to polarization and civil war.
I’ve been wanting to explore the Republic on this show for a long time, partly because when I was a student, I couldn’t find an accessible, thorough guide to the entire Republic. So I figured maybe I should make one. But as I said, the Republic is a tough nut to crack. It’s a controversial work, and people still disagree wildly on how to interpret it. I knew that we would have to do a whole series on it, if we wanted to do more than just scratch the surface. And I wasn’t sure if you all would be down for that. So I put out a poll on Twitter asking if you guys would be interested in a ten-episode series on the ten books of Plato's Republic. To my surprise, it wasn’t even close. 90% of you voted in favor of it. So here we are. It's happening. I hope you enjoy the ride.
This episode is a prologue to the series. Call it episode zero, if you will, cause we’re going to dive into book one in the next episode. In the remainder of this show, we’ll talk about the overall aim of the work, the historical events in Plato’s life that lead him to write the work, and why the Republic matters today. Starting next time, we’ll make our way through the work book by book with some fantastic guests coming on the show to help guide us through the important issues. One of the goals of this series is to bring together some of the foremost scholars who work on Plato today and to leave you with a plurality of perspectives on the work. That's something you simply can't get from a single course or a book by one author.
If you’re one of the 10% of listeners who voted against doing a long series, what I’d say to you is, don’t think of it as a series. Each episode is going to be on a topic that is hopefully worth listening to in and of itself. It might be ancient conceptions of the soul in one episode, and the infamous cave analogy in another. So, if series are not your thing, just tune in as you normally do based on whatever topics interest you.
Now, without further ado, let’s dive in.
Part 2: Historical Background (begins at the 8:45 mark)
The premise of the Republic is deceptively simple. A bunch of friends and acquaintances gather at one of their homes and get swept into a heated debate surrounding the question: What is justice? But the quest for justice takes them on an epic journey through numerous topics in ethics, politics, and psychology. Their discussion is so encyclopedic in scope that scholars can’t agree on what the whole book is primarily about.
Ostensibly, it’s a philosophical dialogue that seeks to answer a central question: What is justice? So, that would make it an ethical work. And in fact, it’s usually taught nowadays as a work of moral philosophy. However, the title of the work suggests that the content is of a political nature. The original Greek title is politeia, which not only means “republic” but can also mean “constitution.” Accordingly, some people see this primarily as a political document. Meanwhile, the Enlightenment philosopher Rousseau called it “the finest treatise on education ever written.” (Emile, book 1) So, which is it, ethical work, political manifesto, or a treatise on education?
They are all reasonable interpretations, because these three topics form three crucial threads that run along the course of the entire dialogue. But there are also other important threads. For example, you could safely categorize the Republic as a work of psychology—a study of human psychology at both the individual and the group level. And, as I pointed out earlier, another thread that runs through the work is the issue of stasis.
So, it is very difficult to give an introduction to the Republic that fully captures what it’s about. I have to confess here that I really struggled to craft this episode for months. I must have thrown away four different drafts because: How do you even begin to tackle this work? How do you distill what it is, when people can’t even agree on what it's about? You can approach this work from a million different angles and come up with a million different interpretations. I’m still not sure what the best way to encapsulate it is. But one approach that I find usually pays off is to start with the basic question: Why does this book even matter? That can serve as an initial orientation for us. How is it relevant?
I did mention that it’s all about stasis, and hey, we are going through some stasis right now. So that might make it relevant, right? Then again, maybe the polarization we are experiencing has nothing to do with the kind of civil strife that Plato witnessed. Maybe his world was so different from ours that there is no deeper similarity beyond the superficial coincidence that both our society and his experienced societal division, which could be caused by any number of factors. And that is a perfectly valid skeptical position to start from. We should not rush to assume that some period of history is emblematic of our own just because of one or two coincidences. But after how many points of similarity do you start to think maybe these aren’t all coincidences?
So far, we have democracy and polarization in common with the Plato’s society. Those are two similar data points. Are there any others? Well, remember those paradoxes of the modern world that we opened the show with? Well, those were not chosen at random. I mean, there are probably many more paradoxes of our age. And all ages probably have their paradoxes. But this particular combination of paradoxes we mentioned does seem characteristic of our present moment, and not of any other moment in recent history. However, every one of those paradoxes mentioned also applied to Athens in the 420’s BC, which is when the conversation described in the Republic is supposed to have taken place.
The first paradox was that while more people now around the world want democracy than ever before, a lot of democracies at the moment seem possessed by anti-democratic forces. That was equally true in the 420’s BC. At that time, there were more democracies than ever before—well over a hundred. The richest and most powerful of them was Athens, which coincidentally had just gone through a devastating pandemic. But despite that setback, it still looked to many Greeks of the day that Athens was going strong and that democracy might be the future of humanity. People in non-democratic states across the Mediterranean wanted in on democracy. But if you look at what happened over the next couple of decades, things didn't turn out too well for democracy.
The second apparent contradiction of our times was that while the world is more connected than ever before, we have never been so divided. That also applied back then. At the time, there were decently reliable trade and communication networks stretching all the way from Spain in the west to India in the East. That had never happened before—that you’d have such a wide area of the globe being interconnected. Travel was not particularly easy, of course. But people and ideas did flow back and forth throughout that whole area. And yet, at the local level, the city-states of the eastern Mediterranean were viciously divided by stasis. [People hated their neighbors—even their own family members sometimes—for being part of the wrong faction, while they felt solidarity with strangers hundreds of miles away who shared the same political ideology.]
Another apparent contradiction of the modern world we mentioned was that the social platforms we hoped would bring us together have ended up separating us. Now you might be thinking, aha! That couldn’t have happened back then cause they didn’t have social networks. The truth is, they didn’t have digital networks, but they too innovated social platforms in the form of institutions like the popular assembly, and even architectural innovations, like the amphitheater, which could seat upwards of 10,000 people and have them all sync up their minds to the same story line. That also had never happened before, to have 10,000 people all essentially downloading the same information into their brains at the same time. And in the popular assembly of Athens, over 5000 citizens could participate in debates, listen to and/or boo each other, and directly vote on policy. It was kind of like an online forum today where anybody can post, and everybody upvotes or downvotes each proposal.
Just like our social platforms, these institutions opened up a world of new possibilities. But just like today, they also came with unintended consequences, such as creating echo chambers. Plato literally says about the crowd gathered in the assembly, “with loud uproar they condemn some things and praise others...with full-throated clamor and clapping of hands, such that the rocks and surrounding region re-echo and double the noise of the praise and condemnation.” (Republic VI, 492c) And he goes on to say that it becomes very difficult and even dangerous for people to voice unpopular opinions. And just as some people today argue that certain social media platforms encourage people to behave in nasty ways, Plato made a similar claim about the theater of his day, saying that it nourished the irrational part of the human psyche. Whether Plato was right in these assessments, or whether today’s critics of social media are correct or not, is up for debate. But the point is, the new platforms, both then and now, gave rise to similar concerns.
Next paradox: Our information networks are used to spread fake news. That one is not particularly striking. I mean, fake news probably happens throughout history. But just to give you an interesting example, the Sicilian Expedition that arguably was the biggest disaster that ancient Athens experienced, happened because of fake news. There was a town in Sicily that was being bullied by its neighbors and asked Athens for help. And they promised that they had tons of gold to pay the Athenians for their trouble. But when the Athenian navy arrived, guess what. There was no gold. And so the most powerful navy that had ever been assembled ended up stranded far away from home, strapped for cash, and with no friendly port in which to shelter their ships. And obviously there were a lot of other things that contributed to the expedition’s failure as well, but it all started with fake news.
Next paradox: There have never been more experts on every conceivable topic than there are now, and yet our policy-makers seem to be listening to the wrong people, often with disastrous results. Again, that perfectly describes ancient Greece in the 400’s BC and especially Athens, which attracted the best and brightest in every field from all over the Mediterranean, whether it was artists, builders, engineers, poets, sophists, you name it. So, when the assembly was deliberating on something, like how to build city walls or new ships, there were plenty of experts who could be consulted. And yet, as Plato and other contemporaries observed, it often happened that demagogues were able to convince the people to do things contrary to the recommendations of those individuals who had the relevant expertise.
And finally, we said at the beginning that if you look at all the progress we have made, we've never been closer to creating a peaceful, prosperous world. And yet we are angry and seem hell bent on tearing our societies apart. I hate to sound like a broken record, but that was totally the case in the 420’s BC.
Just like the democracies of today, the democratic poleis of the late 400’s BC had witnessed unprecedented progress in terms of science, medicine, technology, philosophical ideas, communication networks, and even entertainment technology. Also like today, the democracies of antiquity happened to be the richest states in the world in terms of per capita wealth. In terms of GDP, if we can use that modern standard, they were obviously small compared to, say, the Persian Empire. But for their size, they were remarkably wealthy. Perhaps more importantly, as Josiah Ober shows in his book The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece (pp. 78-100), which we talked about with him way back in episode 5, the ancient Greek poleis had relatively low levels of inequality. I mean, they had slaves, just like every other ancient society we know of. But unlike, say, the Persian empire or the later Roman Empire, the classical city-states had a large percentage of their population who were neither rich slave owners nor really poor. In Athens, for example, somewhere around half of the entire population (and I do mean the entire population, including slaves) lived significantly above subsistence level. That might not sound like a big deal to us, but that is extremely rare in history. For the sake of comparison, in the later Roman Empire, only about 10% of the population is estimated to have lived above subsistence level. In short, the democratic poleis of the classical period had a level of middle class prosperity that would not be seen again anywhere in the world until the early modern period. If there was ever a time when the Greek world could have just chilled out and enjoyed their prosperity, that was it.
But that's not how things went down. During the final decades of the 400’s BC, civil war spread like wildfire throughout the Greek world. Polarization became the rule, not the exception. City after city was torn apart by rival factions. Finally, democratic Athens lost a war and its hegemony to oligarchic Sparta. Athens' great democratic experiment came crashing down. Soon, the wildfire of civil war which had ravaged so many other poleis reached Athens as well. With help from Sparta, a group of oligarchs, later known as the Thirty Tyrants, took power and instituted a reign of terror in which they killed 1500 Athenian citizens without trial, most of them prominent democrats. But this reign of terror was as bloody as it was short-lived. After eight months, a democratic counter-revolt overthrew the Thirty, killed some of them, and reinstituted democracy. Even so, Athens never regained its former power, wealth, or prestige.
So, how does Plato fit into this history? Well, he was born and grew up in one Athens, but then lived most of his adult life in a very different Athens. He was born in 427 BC, under the promise of democracy and progress. But when he reached the age of 23, he saw his city defeated, humiliated, and permanently reduced to a second-rate power.
To put yourselves in his sandals, imagine if the US lost its position of leadership in the world, and that a hostile foreign power installed a puppet government in Washington, and that a civil war then broke out that left the US severely weakened and impoverished. Now imagine that you are just getting out of college as all of this happens. Just as you are about to begin your adult life and pursue all the dreams you’ve accumulated growing up, your world is turned upside down. Wouldn't you look back at the former days of American democracy and prestige and wonder, What went wrong? Plato spent much of the remainder of his life wondering what went wrong at Athens.
While the factional violence that attended Athens’ downfall was undoubtedly a shock to all Athenians, it must have been especially traumatic for Plato, because his friends and family were at the center of the action. Some of Plato's relatives were members of the Thirty Tyrants, and apparently they invited him to join. Plato declined. They also tried to get Plato’s teacher Socrates to cooperate and even to do some of their dirty work, since some of the Thirty had been his friends. He also refused.
While the overthrow of the Thirty was generally good news for Athens, the democratic faction that returned to power had a few scores to settle. Most notably, they went after Socrates because of his former relations with some of the Thirty, even though he had refused to participate in their crimes. As we talked about in episode 8, the trial and execution of Socrates was likely politically motivated and retaliatory. It wasn't that Socrates was an oligarch, far from it. It may have been his refusal to join either faction that did him in. The historian Thucydides, who wrote about similar instances of stasis, claimed that people who didn’t pick a side were killed in large numbers, because they were hated by both factions while having the protection of neither. (History of the Peloponnesian War 3.82).
Socrates’ death had a big impact on the young Plato. For the next 40 years, everything Plato would write would feature Socrates as the protagonist and main speaker. The execution of his teacher also seems to have made him lose faith in all political factions. You see, it wasn’t just that Plato saw faction after faction in polis after polis persecute and kill their political opponents. It was that these crimes were invariably committed in the name of justice. When the Thirty Tyrants were killing people, they claimed to be saving Athens and punishing those who had destroyed it. Likewise, the accusers of Socrates thought they were ridding the city of a cancer.
Plato concluded that there’s got to be something wrong with the common understanding of justice, if people can use it to justify shedding the blood of their fellow citizens. If people had true knowledge of what justice is, they wouldn’t kill each other in its name. So, Plato thought it would be a big breakthrough in human civilization, if we could rid ourselves of wrong opinions about justice, opinions that are conducive to political violence, and if we could establish a better definition. That, in a nutshell, is what Plato attempts to do in the Republic.
Part 3: The Contents of the Republic (begins at 25:20)
Now that we have a sense of the historical circumstances that motivated Plato to write the work, let’s open it up and see what’s actually inside.
If you were gonna write a book about justice—if you were fed up with the injustices of the world and wanted to offer a blueprint for a juster society, what would you write? Maybe you’d start by cataloguing some of the grave injustices of the past, and proposing measures we can take to make sure similar things don’t happen in the future. Perhaps you’d talk about the justice system and how it could be improved.
I have no way of knowing what you’d write. But I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t be similar at all to Plato’s approach in the Republic. Because he doesn’t discuss any of the obvious things one would expect to see discussed. He doesn’t talk about the laws or the legal system. He doesn’t talk about major crimes of the past. Instead he talks about things like education, the effect that music has on the soul, and the importance of gymnastics, among other things. And he throws in some fairy tales as well. There’s one about a magic ring that makes its wearer invisible, and there’s another story about reincarnation. And yet, as distinct as these various components appear, they all seem to fall into place in this intricately structured work.
So why does Plato do this? What was he trying to achieve? And why did he write about all these different topics? In order to explore these questions, let’s first do a super-quick rundown of the major things discussed in the work. A summary of the Republic in two minutes, starting now.
Book one lays down the central question that will be guiding the entire work: what is justice? Several definitions are proposed, but they are all shown to be inadequate. Book two asks an equally important question in the history of ethics. Which is, supposing we can agree on what justice is, why is it in anyone’s interest to practice it. Why be a just person, when we all know people who are totally unjust, who take advantage of other people, who don’t play fair, and yet they end up rich, famous, and widely admired? To answer both of these questions: what is justice? And why should anyone practice justice? Socrates, who is the main character and protagonist of the work, proposes a peculiar thought experiment. He and the other characters present are going to mentally construct, step by step, a perfectly just society. Doing so, he suggests, will help them gain a clearer picture of what justice is. And once they have that clearer picture in mind, they’ll be in a better position to consider the further question of whether it’s more advantageous to be just or to be unjust. Books three to five are taken up by this utopia-building exercise. True to Socrates’ prediction, in book 4, we finally get a new definition of justice that seems to hold up. But in book 5 we hear that a truly just society will have to be ruled by philosophers. If you think that is ridiculous, well, that’s exactly how Socrates’ companions react when they hear it. So then, books 6-7 seek to resolve this apparent ridiculousness by exploring what it means to be a true philosopher, i.e. one who is absolutely dedicated to the truth and to the good. The famous analogies of the cave and of the divided line belong to this section, where they help explain what truth means and what the good is. Books 8 and 9 form a kind of antithesis to books 3-5. While 3-5 constructed a utopia, books 8 and 9 explain how such a utopia would inevitably degenerate. While 3-5 considered an ideal society, 8 and 9 examine the imperfect societies that existed in Plato’s time. While 3-5 examined the soul of the just person, 8 and 9 examine the psyches of people who attain power in unjust systems. The implication is that these people, while they may appear to be happy on account of their wealth, power, and fame, are actually wretched and miserable on the inside. Book 10 wraps up the entire argument, concluding that it is better to be just than to be unjust, even if practicing justice results in suffering injustice. In other words, the just person who is unjustly treated is, paradoxically, happier than the rich tyrant.
What you just heard is the skeletal structure, if you will, of the work. And that’s not even getting into the flesh and blood of the work, which is...you zoom into any one of these books, and it’s like it’s own microcosm of ideas. To give you a sense of just how rich in content each book is, consider the following. If we only had one of the ten books—it doesn’t even matter which one—pick any of them, if it were the sole surviving portion of the Republic, it would still be considered a seminal work today.
If only book 1 survived, it would be considered an important Platonic dialogue on its own—one that demonstrates the shortcomings of common conceptions of justice. It wouldn’t be in the top 5 of Plato’s works all by itself, but it would be close even though it's incomplete. Same thing with all the others. If we only had book 2, it would be regarded as one of the clearest expositions from antiquity of the amoralist challenge. In other words, the challenge, why should I be just? What’s in it for me? If we only had book 3, it would be one of the most important philosophical critiques from ancient times of the value of poetry and of fiction. If we only had book 4, it would be considered one of the most seminal psychological documents from antiquity. In fact, it lays out a theory of the psyche that would later inspire Freud’s conception of the id, the ego, and the superego. If we only had book 5, it would be heralded as the earliest and probably most important ancient defense of the equality of the sexes. If we only had book 6 or book 7, each of them would be seen as a foundational work in epistemology—the branch of philosophy that asks, what is knowledge? How do we know that we actually know something. If we only had book 8 or 9, either one of them would be considered a foundational text in political theory. And if we only had book 10, , book 10 might be the most influential of all. It contains a story about reincarnation, called the Myth of Er, that would go on to influence early Christianity, Judaism, Gnosticism and various other religions and theologies of the early Common Era.
In short, this work is a giant of world literature. Whatever you think about the Republic. Some people love it, some people don’t like it at all. But even the scholars who dislike it, acknowledge that it is, , a masterpiece. It explores the ethics of politics and the politics of ethics in such a creative way that it has never ceased to inspire and provoke readers since it was written 2400 years ago. There is no other book like it in terms of the topics it covers and blends together. Even today, there are philosophers who study the Republic, not just out of historical curiosity, but because they think there are still useful ideas we can extract from it.
Some people spend their whole lives studying this work. If you want to see an example of this, check out the essay called “The Music of the Republic” by the late scholar Eva Brann. When you read an analysis like Brann’s in this essay, you’re just awestruck by the amount of meaning she is able to mine, , to extract from almost every line. I mean this is someone who spent her life uncovering layer after layer of meaning in this text.
And the text proves that no matter how deep you dig, it keeps delivering. In fact, it is constructed in a way that invites repeated investigation. It’s constructed kind of like an onion—with layers and a symmetry to it. If you chop the work in half—or to be more precise, if you chop it at the golden ratio mark, which is about 62% of the way through, then both sides of that chop are like mirror images of each other. So the first topic that is discussed in the very beginning is also the topic that ends the entire work—that topic is human mortality btw. The second topic is resumed second from the end. The third from the beginning is mirrored third from the end etc. As we said earlier, books 3-5 have their antithesis in books 8 & 9. And when you get to the middle, or rather the golden ratio mark, you get this core section about knowledge and the nature of the good, illustrated through the powerful images of the cave and the divided line, which we will hear about later in the series. This structural complexity—some people call it ring composition—opens up many additional possibilities for how you can interpret the work.
The fact that this book is so complex, and intricately structured brings us back to the question of why? Why did Plato make this work so complicated? If, as we’ve been saying, he was motivated to write it because of the eruptions of stasis that had devastated much of the Greek world, why did he write this encyclopedic medley? Did he really think that such a wide-ranging book was going to make a difference in how people think about justice? What did he hope to achieve?
Unfortunately, there’s no simple answer to that question. Scholars have been spilling ink trying to answer it for millennia. Besides, it’s not the kind of question that can be satisfied with a simple answer. It’s the kind of question that is worth pondering and mulling over as you make your way through this book or through this series. I’m sure that, a few episodes in, you’ll start to come up with your own theories as to why Plato took such a multi-faceted approach to understanding justice. What I can offer right now are a few partial answers that we can use as starting points for understanding Plato’s vision.
One such partial answer, is that justice is a really complicated topic, and so it needs a complicated treatment. It’s got ethical, political, and psychological dimensions to it. And you can’t separate one from the others. At least not according to Plato or even Aristotle. You can’t talk about the moral dimension of justice without also taking into account the political reality within which people operate. Conversely, you can’t offer political solutions or visions without considering how those things are going to jive with individual members of society—their choices, behavior, and happiness. And that requires an understanding of human psychology as well. Cause if you offer some conception of justice that is out of touch with the reality of human nature, what good is that going to do? And besides human nature, there’s also nurture—the beliefs and behaviors that we acquire from our environment, our schools, and our culture. So you also need to consider how education and culture reinforce both healthy and unhealthy ideas that pertain to justice. So what you end up with is this web of issues that all depend on one another—ethics, politics, psychology, education, and culture. And Plato (as well as Aristotle later) thought that you have to tackle all these issues together, if you want to have a chance at offering a well-grounded account of justice.
The flip side of all this is that each one of these subtopics is a potential source of confusion in our final analysis about justice. If we make a bad judgment in any one of these categories—whether it’s in our assessment of human nature, or in our understanding of politics, or in the curricula we promote in our schools—one minor flaw here or there is all it takes to derail the whole project of understanding justice.
Justice for Plato is like the proper functioning of a complex machine. That machine is us—humans—and, at a macro level, human society. Maintaining and upholding justice requires constant effort, maintenance, and vigilance, just like maintaining a complex machine does. And just as a car mechanic whose is trying to figure out why a vehicle keeps breaking down again and again, has to inspect and test every little piece of the engine, so too Plato, in trying to understand why the societies of his day kept breaking down into stasis, left no stone unturned in his search for the sources of error in our ethical and political thinking. That’s why in the Republic, he takes a lot of the cherished beliefs of his day, and tears them apart. Subjects them to scrutiny. Exposes fallacies and inconsistencies. And suggests radical new values to replace the old ones.
I once heard someone say that civilizations produce their best political philosophy as they are dying. That seems to be true at least in the case of Classical Athens, where Plato and Aristotle are both operating after the collapse of Athenian hegemony. And it also seems true of the Roman Republic, where Cicero is writing Rome’s best political philosophy as the Republic is literally imploding. And if it’s true more generally, I think it’s because seeing your civilization crumbling around you is one of the few things that can compel you to question the very ideas your society is founded upon.
No one just wakes up one morning thinking, Today I’m going to question everything I’ve been taught and think I know and try to prove that it’s all wrong. No, dissecting your own belief system like that is painful, and you need a compelling reason to do it. Something has to shock you, wake you up, shake your faith in everything you’ve been taught.
The traumatic events of Plato’s youth seem to have led him to question the foundational values of his society, and in the Republic, he challenges his readers to do the same. In the words of poet and literary critic Adam Kirsch, to read the Republic is “to question everything we think we know about government, politics, the best human life, and the nature of truth.” (Introduction to Bloom’s translation, xix)
So, the Republic is not just a book or a philosophical dialogue. It is a bootcamp, meant to destroy your beliefs and assumptions, one after another, and clear the way for new ideas to form. And as I think we’ll see over the next episodes, a lot of the common values that Plato targeted are still common today. So, a word of warning for those of you who may decide to read the Republic as you follow the series. There’s a good chance you’re going to find it challenging—even frustrating—the first time you read it. I know I did. But most people I know who pulled through, said it was worth it.
Part 4: How to Read the Republic (begins at 39:45)
Up to this point, I’ve been describing the Republic as if I’m talking to an audience that has no familiarity with it, because I want to make this series accessible to everyone. But, , I’m pretty sure that many of you, especially since you’re listening to this podcast, are coming to this with some background knowledge of the work, whether you encountered it in a college course at some point, or maybe you read up on it on your own.
When I talk to people who have some familiarity with this work, they often tell me something like, “Yea, the Republic is a classic, but I just can’t get over the fact that Plato makes this or that particular claim—and there’s a lot of controversial claims in this book, as we just said.
Recently I was talking to a friend who falls in that category. His brief encounter with the Republic in college left him with the impression that it’s full of ridiculous claims. He was saying things like, How can Plato say that we should ban the theater? Or, how could he think that the nuclear family should be abolished? Those are not serious positions. But we talked about them, and he agreed that for each of these controversial positions that he didn’t like, the issue that was being discussed, the problem that was being addressed in the book, is actually really important.
So I said, “I think you’re focusing too much on the conclusions of the arguments rather than on how you get there. The point isn’t to convince you of every conclusion in the book, but rather to… demolish your own preconceptions and prejudices about each topic. The solutions are often deliberately provocative because that’s the best way to dislodge you completely from your initial position. But you’re not supposed to just stop there. You’ve had your initial position challenged, you’ve been pushed towards an often extreme position, and then you’re let go. And you have the freedom and the rational tools now that you’ve been shown to then come up with your own solution. So, don’t think of the conclusions as the endpoints, but rather as your starting points for your own analysis.”
When my friend heard that he was like, “That’s amazing. You just removed all these mental blocks I had towards this book, and now I’m actually curious to go back and reread it.” I wanted to share that anecdote with you, in case it inspires you to revisit the book with this approach in mind, as we make our way through the series.
You might be thinking, this stuff about Plato wanting us to think for ourselves sounds great in theory, but how do we actually know that that’s what Plato intended? How do we know he wasn’t just a dogmatic thinker who had a bunch of crazy ideas he wanted to push on people?
Well, one of the things that makes Plato quite unique among philosophers is that he tells you over and over again not to accept the conclusions in his dialogues! The Republic is saturated with signals—both subtle and overt—telling the reader to question what is being said, and even inviting the reader at some points to debunk the arguments offered.
For instance, after Socrates (who, again, is Plato’s protagonist here) concludes the argument that the theater is bad for society (one of those controversial claims) he ends by saying, “If anyone can debunk my argument, I’d be grateful because I actually love the theater.” (Republic X 607d) In other words, he’s literally begging to be proved wrong. And in fact, some people think that Plato’s student Aristotle read this and answered that challenge by writing his work called the Poetics, which offers a more positive account of the theater. Hopefully we’ll get to talk about that in a later episode.
Another such signal to the reader comes during the famous cave analogy. Socrates is building up to his grand conclusion about what the cave tells us about knowledge and the good, when he suddenly makes this surprising, off-hand remark and says, “God knows if this is true or not.” (Republic VII 517b) And it’s like, “What?!” This is one of the most crucial parts of the whole book, and Socrates is straight-up saying, “Eh, it might be wrong. Who knows?”
Perhaps the biggest such signal that Plato leaves for us comes right after his famous claim about philosopher kings—the idea that the most just city would have to be ruled by philosophers. Right after that argument is made by Socrates, his companions respond with a potentially devastating criticism of his method. They say, “Look Socrates, you got us to agree to this conclusion through your questioning. But how do we know you didn’t deceive us just a little bit at every step of the way in order to get us here?”(Republic VI 487b) In other words, Plato chooses this crucial moment in the book to deliver a very profound blow to his own method!! And the best part is that Socrates doesn’t even have a good comeback!
It’s almost as if Plato is attaching to each of the major claims in the work a warning sign that says, “Warning! Do not accept this argument uncritically! Think for yourself.”
This provocative design of the book is completely missed in most modern discussions you’ll hear of it. Whether you encounter the Republic in, say, a western civ lecture in college or in one of those youtube videos that purports to tell you everything you need to know about Plato’s Republic in under 7 minutes. What you usually get is a laundry list of the major claims together with an assessment of which of them Plato got right and which he got wrong. So, for instance, the argument for gender equality—Plato got that one right. The idea that music should be censored by the state—Plato got that wrong, etc.
In other words, they give you the topic and they give you the final judgment. But they totally bypass the analysis, which is the most valuable part. This is one of those cases where the journey really is more important than the destination. The point of the book is not to tell you what to think, it’s to show you how to think about deep ethical questions.
At this point, you might be wondering, Why doesn’t Plato just tell us what he thinks, like most other philosophers in history do? Why does he adopt this on the one hand provocative on the other hand self-questioning stance?
That is a huge topic. Scholars have been spilling ink trying to answer that question for more than two millennia. But for my money, I think it boils down to the fact that Plato was very suspicious of the book as an educational medium. He actually thought that books are dangerous in a sense, because they give people the false illusion that they have acquired knowledge because they read a bunch of books. But Plato doesn’t think that knowledge can be transmitted through a book (that’s another huge topic by the way). But let me say that again: You can’t acquire knowledge from reading a book… or from listening to a podcast from that matter. A book can give you, at best, correct information and some decent arguments. But that’s still not knowledge, according to Plato. Knowledge can only be achieved through a lot of additional mental work and effort on our part.
Suppose, for instance, that you read in a science textbook that the Big Bang happened 14 billion years ago. Is that knowledge? Plato would say no. He would ask you, how do we know that number? What’s the evidence? What are the alternative hypotheses? Why have scientists ruled those out in favor of the 14 billion figure? Unless you can give rational answers to those questions, you don’t know anything about the big bang. You just trust what the experts say. And that’s fine. None of us can know everything, and so we rely on the information provided by experts all the time. That’s how society functions. But Plato doesn’t want us to just rely on what he says about justice, or what anyone says about justice. He wants us to think for ourselves and build our own well-grounded understanding of justice.
Maybe a more intuitive way to think of it is: Imagine if the wisest and most just person who ever lived wrote down everything they believed about justice in a book. Would simply reading that book be enough for us to suddenly understand the nature of justice and be able to apply that standard in our lives? Probably not.
So, Plato’s suspicions about the limitations of the book as a medium are reasonable. But then, if Plato doesn’t think a book can transmit knowledge, what does he think the point of a book is?
That’s another million dollar question. My take on it is that, for Plato, the best a book can do is to simulate the kind of learning environment in which one has the best chance of arriving at the truth. And the best such learning environment is when you are surrounded by other enthusiastic learners and you all have a gifted teacher who can guide and challenge you. That is presumably the kind of environment that Plato experienced as a young student and follower of Socrates. And it’s exactly the environment that the Republic simulates for its readers.
Like many of Plato’s works, the Republic is a dialogue between Socrates and a bunch of promising Athenian youths who are eager to learn and debate big ideas. Now keep in mind, this is not a transcript of an actual conversation that took place. As we’ve talked about in previous episodes, Plato’s dialogues that feature Socrates are creative works. But they are designed to simulate the kind of learning environment that Socrates cultivated with his students and which Plato found to be so effective at getting people to make progress towards the truth.
Conclusion: Irony and Foreboding (begins at 49:00)
We’ve talked about the signals in the book that tell readers to question what’s being said. And we’ve talked about why Plato chose the dialogue as his preferred format for writing down his ideas.
I’d like to conclude this episode with something that ties these two threads together. This is something that, when I first learned about it, it blew my mind, cause it was somehow never mentioned in any of my philosophy courses. In class, we only ever talked about what Socrates said, his arguments. But what about the other characters and what about the setting of the dialogue? Those things matter too.
Although this is a work of fiction in the sense that this exact conversation never actually took place, the characters that Plato uses are real historical figures, well known figures from an earlier generation. So, he’s choosing which historical figures to bring together in this dialogue, and where to set this conversation. And these choices have big implications for how we are to interpret the text.
Now the Republic is being published in the 370’s (probably) BC, more than two decades after Athens’ downfall. But the conversation it claims to report, is set some 40 years earlier, when Athens was still the cultural, economic, and political center of the Greek world. So, most of the characters depicted were already dead by the time Plato wrote this. Now here’s the kicker. Three of them were victims of the bloody stasis that attended the downfall of Athens at the end of the Peloponnesian War!
One of them, Polemarchus, was killed by the Thirty Tyrants during their brief reign of terror. Another character, Glaucon, portrayed here as a friend of Polemarchus, ended up joining forces with the Thirty and he was killed when they were overthrown. Finally, Socrates himself was tried and put to death by the democratic faction that returned to power afterwards!!!! And by the way, this whole conversation is happening in the house of Polemarchus—a house that would be famously ransacked by the Thirty.
Do you feel the irony that Plato is setting up for his readers here? Remember, Plato is writing this decades later, so his readers would have recognized the setting and the characters, and would have been like, wow that’s a pretty spooky place to set this conversation about justice, considering all the injustices that are going to happen in that house and to those people.
I know this is a lot of information to take in at once, so let’s recap briefly. In the Republic, Plato presents well-known characters, who are long dead at the time of writing, all sitting around having a friendly discussion, at the end of which they conclude that they have found the true definition of justice! That would appear to be a happy ending, and we’d expect them to go on and lead good lives. However, the very house they are in, as Plato expects his readers to know, will soon be ransacked by an unjust regime. Moreover, two of the characters, who are now friends, will find themselves on opposite sides of a bloody civil war. Despite the sublime, inspiring, transcendent lesson on the true nature of justice that Socrates here gives them, one of them will go on to join an unjust regime that will kill his former friend and fellow participant in this conversation. He will then pay for his mistake with his own life. And in the political aftershocks that follow, their teacher Socrates will be killed as well.
Isn’t this just absolutely hair-raisingly brilliant? The only modern analogy I could even imagine would be like if someone wrote a dialogue set in 1960 between JFK, Martin Luther King, Lee Harvey Oswald, and James Earl Ray all somehow having a conversation together about justice. I mean there’s a lot of problems with that analogy, but you get the idea of the heavy sense of foreboding that looms over this work.
The million dollar question is, Why does Plato set up the dialogue in this way? Once again, there’s no easy answer to that question.
One theory is that Plato is saying, “Look, these guys didn’t end up following the advice Socrates gave them and so they all paid the penalty. Don’t be like them. Listen to Socrates.”
But I think a much more interesting conjecture is to say that Plato is aware of the limitations of any lesson that can be given by any teacher, even one as gifted as Socrates. This goes back to the earlier point about Plato not wanting you to blindly accept what is being proposed. If he did want to simply convince you of his claims, he could have chosen very different characters for this dialogue. He could have picked the most famously just and upright citizens of Athens, and portrayed them here learning their good morals from Socrates. The message would be, “Look. Socrates is a great teacher. And the people lucky enough to be taught by him went on to be stalwart, virtuous citizens.”
But he doesn’t do that. Instead, he chooses characters who, despite their eagerness to learn from a brilliant teacher, met their demise through injustice. It’s as if he’s saying, “Even if you get an enlightening lesson from a brilliant teacher, that should not be the end point.” You have to do a lot more work to process the lesson. Moreover, two people who receive the exact same lesson from the same teacher in the same conversation (like Glaucon and Polemarchus do here), can go on to build very different conceptions of justice that support opposite sides of the political spectrum. Polemarchus went on to become an ideologically committed democrat, and Glaucon an ideologically committed oligarch.
Finally, through this choice of characters, Plato also seems to be reminding us that, when society breaks down and rival factions are formed, they pull us apart with such tremendous force, that friends often end up as enemies. And only a superhuman character like Socrates can resist joining one side or the other. And even he will not escape the destruction that civil war unleashes.
In sum, this brilliant dramatic setup of the dialogue, simultaneously underscores the limitation of the lesson on justice that the book offers while at the same time vividly illustrating that the question of justice is perhaps the most important ethical and political question of all.
Plato is warning the reader: Even if this book that you’re about to read contains a true account of justice, and even if you study it carefully, that alone does not guarantee that you will understand justice or that you will lead a just life. What it hopefully will accomplish is, to activate your mind to start thinking about these questions, to give you the tools to use in your ethical reasoning, and to leave you with a lasting conviction that the question of justice is worth thinking about throughout your life. The pursuit of justice is a life-long labor.
To wrap up this episode, I’d like to offer you a small challenge. Before you move on to the next episode (and if you’re going to read the Republic, before you start reading it), try to come up with your own definition of justice. Think about some of the common opinions people have about it, and see if you agree with them or not. See if you can pinpoint some problems with them. And then, try to formulate your own definition. If you do that, I think you’ll find the next episode and the rest of this series a lot more rewarding.
Lastly, if you want to get a copy of the Republic and are not sure which translation to get, we’ve put up some recommended editions on the website at greecepodcast.com/republic. You’ll also find there a transcript of this episode with scholarly references.
I hope you’re as excited as I am about the philosophical journey that we’ll be undertaking in this series. Not only is the Republic a seminal text in the history of philosophy, but it also deals with a lot of the pressing concerns of our current moment. Every time I’ve read the Republic I’ve discovered many new things. And this time I get to explore the work in conversation with some of the foremost scholars who work on Plato. I’m excited about what I might discover this time around and I’m very grateful to have you all along for the journey.
Finally, a very quick personal update from me. It’s been a while since I’ve published a new episode. I want to apologize for that and explain why. One reason is that I got a book deal and I wrote my first book. I’ll of course tell you more about it when it comes out in a few months. And the other reason is that I’m about to become a dad. I’m really excited about that. But it is becoming increasingly hard to find time to spend on this show. Nevertheless, I promise I will redouble my efforts to keep this going. I actually have over half the interviews for this series recorded already and I’m going to try to get those out to you as fast as possible.
Meanwhile, if you want to help me out so that I can afford to spend more time on this show, please consider becoming a Patreon supporter for as little as one dollar per new episode. Given the insane amount of research and work that goes into this program, if you do the math, I’m currently making about 2-3 bucks an hour from donations, which is quite a bit below minimum wage. And that’s fine. I didn’t start this project to make money. And no matter how little I make, I will always make sure it’s free. Still, it certainly would help a lot if more people pitched in. If you’re in the habit of giving your barista a tip for a nice cup of coffee, maybe consider pitching in to this show, if you’re enjoying it. You do get plenty of bonus content when you do. Go to patreon.com/greecepodcast to see the various perks of becoming a supporter. To all of you who have already become patrons or who have made one-time donations through paypal.me/greecepodcast, thank you so much. I really couldn’t do this without you.