“Republic” by Plato

One of the best books I’ve ever read. I wish I had read it twenty years ago, but perhaps I would not have appreciated it then as much as I do now. Although this is one of the most influential books in history, I put off reading it due to a lack of interest in political science. Ironically, another influential book on the subject, “The Prince” by Niccolo Machiavelli, drove me to this, to seek refuge from the cynical argument that injustice is more powerful and profitable than justice.

In the beginning of this book, Socrates’ associates challenge him to prove that justice is indeed superior to injustice. In response, Socrates discourses on the nature of justice and the attributes of a just state and a just person. He also examines the presence or absence of justice in four types of states –namely, timocracy (rule-by-honor), oligarchy (rule-by-wealth), democracy and tyranny, and  four types of people corresponding to the types of states, i.e., lovers of honor, lovers of wealth, the democratic man, and the tyrant.

Because Plato adroitly employs a variety of analogies, parables and stories from Homer and Greek mythology in his dialogue, his arguments are not only coherent and compelling but also easy and enjoyable to follow from beginning to finish.

What is Justice

Justice is “the having and doing what is a man’s own”.

Plato’s definition of justice is, to me, the most profound statement in the book, and it’s the foundation that all the other arguments are built on. I always thought that justice was something administered externally. Plato defines it instead as an inherent state of being that is inseparable from order and harmony. In other words, justice is not a means to an end, but it is both the means and the end.

Justice in a Man

There are three principles working in man, namely, reason, passion and desire. A just man is one in whom the three principles are given their proper precedence, with reason ruling over passion and desire.

Justice is  concerned “not with the outward man, but with the inward, which is the true self and concernment of man: for the just man does not permit the several elements within him to interfere with one another, or any of them to do the work of others,–he sets in order his own inner life, and is his own master and his own law, and at peace with himself; and when he has bound together the three principles within him, which may be compared to the higher, lower, and middle notes of the scale, and the intermediate intervals–when he has bound all these together, and is no longer many, but has become one entirely temperate and perfectly adjusted nature, then he proceeds to act, if he has to act, whether in a matter of property, or in the treatment of the body, or in some affair of politics or private business; always thinking and calling that which preserves and co-operates with this harmonious condition, just and good action, and the knowledge which presides over it, wisdom, and that which at any time impairs this condition, he will call unjust action, and the opinion which presides over it ignorance.”

Justice in a State

The principles that apply to a person also apply to a state. People differ by nature, therefore there should be a division of labor. There should be a natural order in the governing of a state, i.e., the wise and courageous men who are the minority should be the rulers, and the artisans and merchants the subjects. Injustice arises when the lower class usurp power from the upper class.

Democracy vs. Justice

Plato argues that democracy is not a just state, in that it allows passion and desire to overrun reason and order. Authority should not be given to the classes of people who are not fit to exercise it, even though they may be the majority.

Art and Justice

Plato is not against art per se — his dialogues being works of art themselves, but the abuse of art, i.e. using art to sugar-coat ideas that would not have passed muster if examined in a rational manner. Deceitful art uses art form as a cloak and vehicle for lies, like the Trojan Horse. It looks magnificent on the outside, but if you don’t examine it closely with sound judgment, and receives it into your soul, the lies inside will destroy you.

Plato is aware of the limitations of art, but also its immense power on the soul. On the one hand, he bans lying poets from the Republic, on the other hand, he prescribes music education for the people in the Republic. He states that art should be censored based on their influence on the soul of man. Only those works of art that are in accord with justice (i.e., give proper precedence to reason over passion and desire) should be allowed.


“Virtue is the health and beauty and well-being of the soul, and vice the disease and weakness and deformity of the same.”

[— UPDATE IN 2011 —]
Q & A:

What are the premises of the Republic?

1. There is an art or science of governing the state, just as there is the science of medicine for the health of the body and an art for the pilot to control his ship.
2. Only a few people can excel in any particular branch of science, so only a few can excel in the science of statesmanship.
3. These few people who have knowledge of statesmanship are selected as guardians of the city.

Is there freedom in the Republic?

Critics of the Republic have argued that it’s totalitarian and the citizens don’t have enough freedom. I’d like to ask those critics: What is their definition of freedom? Is degeneracy and sickness freedom from health? Is ignorance freedom from knowledge? If we have knowledge of the good and just, is it freedom to act against it?

Socrates was a free thinker, yet he was quite restrictive in his dialectics to identify the inconsistencies in people’s ideas and attain freedom of thought; Elite athletes are very restrictive in their diet and training regime to compete in the games, they’re after the freedom to perform at peak level. In fact, life form itself would not exist without law and order.

True freedom can not exist without knowledge. If a person is devoid of knowledge, he can’t be in control of anything, instead he will be a slave of ignorance and his own appetite. This is the founding principle of the Republic: Just as an individual should follow reason and knowledge and exercise self-control over his passions and desires, so the State should act according to the Laws, and not the whims and desires of the crowd.

Why does Socrates stipulate communal life for the guardians, but not all the people?

Voluntary communal sharing is only possible among friends, people who trust each other and have common pursuits in life, and true friendship can only exist between people of virtue, a rare species. Other people are also capable of friendship, but their friendship is fickle and fragile because it’s based on pleasure or utility. This is perhaps why various attempts at communal living have been short-lived.

Why doesn’t Socrates educate the other groups the same way as he trains the guardians?

Is it because he wants to keep them ignorant? No. He believes ignorance is the cause of evil. He would like nothing more than to educate and train all the people to be virtuous. But that’s not possible. The other classes, by nature, gravitate towards pleasure or material goods. Accordingly, Socrates assigns them their due and allows them to have their private property.

Socrates understands human nature and doesn’t force a lifestyle on people if it is not compatible with their nature. His attitude towards the other classes is not so much contempt as pity. One is reminded of Job: “Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? No one!” “Leave me alone, that I may take a little comfort”

Are the Guardians happy?

The Latin word for happiness is felicitas, and felix means “happy, fortunate”, from the root fe-, “to suck, suckle, produce, yield”. How do we make sense of the etymology? What does “to suckle, produce” have to do with happiness?

I think it means that happiness is derived from being fruitful or productive. In this sense, the Guardians are the happiest because they are the most productive in the Republic. The fruit of their travail is a well-governed state where order and harmony are established. Just as an artist stands back from his painting and derives satisfaction from a masterpiece, so the Guardians can also derive happiness from their statesmanship.



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