In Defense of Plato’s Republic


For Socrates, the city isn’t only an arbitrarily chosen device for illuminating the soul’s mysteries but an essential means for creating and sustaining justice and the other virtues in the soul.

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For Karl Popper, Plato is politically dangerous, an enemy of “the open society.” Of course, the Plato that Popper has in mind is the Plato of the Republic. Popper regards the city that Socrates and his friends imaginatively construct in the Republic as a totalitarian monstrosity. Whatever you go looking for in the Republic, Popper wants you to know that it shouldn’t be political theory.

Popper’s criticism of the Republic’s “city in speech” is well-known. But I have a hunch that most people living in the twenty-first century who read the Republic don’t need Popper’s help to feel unnerved by some of its proposals. If you have read the Republic, then you know that even people in fourth century B.C. Athens found some of its proposals troubling.

Last summer, I came across a blog post at The Huffington Post of which I believe Sir Karl would have approved. The post was entitled “Plato On The ‘Dead White Man’ Chopping Block” and is entirely a commentary on the Republic. As you might have guessed from the title, the author takes a rather dim view of Plato’s magnum opus. And his reasons for this are a lot like Popper’s.

What’s Wrong with the Republic

The author, Christopher Witte (a self-proclaimed “Writer and Millennial”), tells us that “Unlike most individuals,” he “picked up Plato’s famous work The Republic willingly.” It was the book’s “two-and-a-half millennia pedigree and a reputation as the ‘cornerstone of western philosophy’” that led him to do it. But things didn’t go too well after that. He writes:

advocates for the diversification of the philosophical canon need look no further than The Republic to make a case that not all Western philosophy lives up to its hype. In fact, this particular work falls very, very far from the hype – moreover it’s hiding some nasty little secrets.

Witte immediately follows this comment by observing that if you “Go in with any sort of contemporary sensibility,” then you’re going to be sorely disappointed. From this statement, I can only gather that if the Republic had confirmed Witte’s “contemporary sensibility” it would, in his judgment, have lived up to the hype. So, what “nasty little secrets” did Witte discover?

First, there is the matter of censorship. The poets must portray the heroes and gods as virtuous, not wicked. Only music expressing courage, triumph, and temperance will be permitted. Sorrowful music will be prohibited, as will certain types of musical instruments. And, as if this weren’t enough, Socrates won’t have people enjoying certain types of cuisine either: Italian food is out.

Then there is the so-called “communism of women and children.” The “guardians”—the city’s military class, which is made up of both men and women—will share mates, and the offspring will be raised by the state, not their biological parents (whose identity won’t be disclosed to them). As Witte notes, everyone will refer to one another by “a vague, cultish amalgam of ‘mother/father/brother/sister’ titles.” The guardians, as you may recall from your own reading of the Republic, have the purpose of supporting the ruler and fall in the middle of the city’s three-tiered hierarchy.

Third—and, for Witte, most dystopian of all—there is the Republic’s eugenics program. Among the guardians, the best will be made to procreate with the best, while infanticide will take care of the offspring of inferior parents. Plato writes about all this, Witte says, “without the least degree of apprehension.”

I can certainly sympathize with Witte. What sane person wouldn’t be disconcerted by these proposals?

We could easily add to Witte’s list. It’s surprising, for instance, that he has nothing to say about the “noble lie.” (To be fair, he does explain that he has “cut out half the nuttiness for brevity’s sake.”) Socrates suggests that the people all be taught that the differences between the city’s classes aren’t conventional but natural. There are certain “metals” in each person’s soul—gold for the ruler, silver for the guardians, and iron and bronze for everyone else—that determine to which class he or she belongs. Socrates believes that this mythology will have a stabilizing effect: people will think that it’s by nature that they belong to the class in which they find themselves and so won’t try to move up or down. To Karl Popper, the noble lie is not just brainwashing, it’s also an expression of Plato’s racism.

And what about kicking the poets out of the city in Book 10? Witte doesn’t mention it either. To be more precise, the poets who are banished are mimetic—imitative—poets. Socrates tells his friends that they are mere copiers of appearances and, therefore, are three removes from truth, which lies beyond appearances in the realm of the “forms.” Mimetic poetry is clearly apt to mislead people about reality and, thus, has no place in the city. Popper sees this as a part of Plato’s program of “strangling” all literary education.

Some Replies

The Republic’s “nasty little secrets” have been known to and discussed by friends and foes of Plato for centuries. What can be said about them, or at least about the ones listed above?

With regard to the censorship of stories, Socrates (or Plato) seems above all concerned with what we expose our children to. What intelligent parents don’t regulate what their children read, watch, listen to, etc.? But once this becomes a matter of public legislation, we stir up a hornet’s nest. And outlawing certain types of music, musical instruments, food, and so on, does appear extreme. Yet I have always suspected that Plato’s main purpose with all of this is to get us to see that aesthetic worlds aren’t morally or politically neutral.

Plato’s thinking about poetry in the Republic is far from settled. He believes that creating the right aesthetic world is essential for properly educating the soul and is therefore essential to a flourishing city. This is evident in Books 2, 3, 7, and 10. But what about the banishing of the mimetic poets? Books 2 and 3 present us with a Socrates who really appears to think that good stories are a basic part of a morally conducive aesthetic world. Where are we going to get those good stories without mimetic poets? Socrates is clearly conflicted here—and it’s worth remembering that the banishment was never meant to be permanent. The mimetic poets can return to the city if they can make a good case for themselves. W.K.C. Guthrie argues that what Plato is after are poets who are more philosophical and so don’t simply copy appearances but are able to convey the essence of things. He doesn’t reject mimetic poetry tout court but only a certain kind of mimetic poetry.

Turning to the communism of women and children and the eugenics program, it is important to point out that they are both part of the second “wave.” In the Republic, Socrates presents three radical proposals that he refers to as “waves,” because he assumes that they will engulf him in ridicule. These three waves are: erasing the distinction between men and women; the communism of women and children (which includes the eugenics program); and rule by philosopher-kings. Plato knows that his fellow Athenians will find these proposals shocking. And this has led commentators to question whether he meant them seriously. Allan Bloom, for example, claims that they are “preposterous” and that Socrates realizes as much. According to Bloom, Socrates is targeting his critic Aristophanes and especially his comedy Ecclesiazusae, which puts similar ideas on the stage. Socrates wants to show that philosophers are superior to the comic poets and can beat them even at their own game, or so Bloom argues. But even if we don’t go along with Bloom (whose suggestions certainly have merit), we need to be aware that there are reasons—indicated in the dialogue itself—not to take Socrates’s proposals too literally.

Finally, the noble lie. If this myth was invented to control citizens, how can we not see it as deplorable? Granted, origin myths were very common in antiquity. In fact, the noble lie seems to draw on the traditional origin myth of Athens. But is the noble lie motivated by racism, as Popper alleges? I can find no evidence of that. For Socrates, its purpose is to make sure that people do the work that they’re suited to. It is crucial to a well-ordered city that the citizens are employed according to their competence: people who aren’t skilled at farming shouldn’t farm; people who would make poor soldiers shouldn’t be guardians; and people who don’t have the good of the city at heart shouldn’t rule. But who decides who is suited to do what? That’s where we run into problems again. You get the impression that Socrates believes that a central planning committee can take care of it, at least at the beginning.

What’s Right with the Republic

As Alasdair MacIntyre has explained, human beings aren’t only rational animals but dependent rational animals. We can’t survive outside a community, and it’s difficult for us to flourish outside a well-ordered community: first the family, then the neighborhood, then the larger political community sustained by certain integral institutions.

But, as MacIntyre well knows, Aristotle beat him to this insight: only beasts and gods can live outside the polis; human beings cannot. Human beings are social animals. “Human individuals,” Aristotle writes in the Politics, “are not self-sufficing when they are isolated; and, therefore, they are like parts in relation to the whole.” Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan stories are entertaining fantasy, but they are fantasy. The chances of feral children surviving on their own are slim to none, and their chances of flourishing as human beings are exactly zero.

Yet before both MacIntyre and Aristotle there was Plato. Undoubtedly it was from his teacher Plato that Aristotle learned that it is natural and good for human beings to form political communities. We are taught this in Book 2 of the Republic. If we don’t form communities together with others, human life will be nasty, brutish, and short.

Beyond mere survival, for human beings to flourish, they need the virtues. Actually, this is a tautology: human flourishing just is living a virtuous life. As Socrates argues at the end of Book 1, a pruning knife needs its “virtue,” that is, sharpness, to be a good pruning knife. So too, he adds, human beings need the virtues to live the good life. But which virtues are the virtues? In Book 4, Socrates tells us that they are wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice—what St. Ambrose would later call the virtutes cardinales. We can discuss whether this is a complete list, but, rightly understood, I don’t see how anyone can deny that the cardinal virtues are essential for a good human life.

However, just as no one teaches himself his mother tongue, no one trains himself in virtue. We are trained in virtue by others. Not only, then, do we need a community to survive, we also need it, as I mentioned earlier, to flourish. Ideally, training in virtue occurs in the family. But families need environments that are friendly to this training in virtue, even reinforcing it where appropriate. In other words, virtue shouldn’t be merely a private matter but a public and political one. Socrates gets this. You might say that he gets it all too well. It’s the reason for the censorship, the closed social classes, and the banishment of the mimetic poets. These are among the measures Socrates proposes to make the city a well-ordered city.

Readers of the Republic know that Socrates and his friends build their city in speech because one of the things that they want to understand is what a just life is, what justice looks like in the human soul. It’s hard to “see” the soul, so they decide first to look for justice in a place that is easier to see, a city. They hope that this will give them a clue to the nature of justice in the soul. But as the dialogue progresses, we begin to understand that the city isn’t only an arbitrarily chosen device for illuminating the soul’s mysteries but an essential means for creating and sustaining justice and the other virtues in the soul.

We also learn that between the soul and the political order there is a circular causality. Virtuous citizens lead to a just political order, and a just political order helps to foster virtue in the citizens. But it also works the other way: private vice leads to an unjust political order and vice versa.

As I understand the political theory of the Republic, it takes human flourishing to be the principal aim of politics. For Socrates, only a well-ordered political community can achieve what politics is about. That sort of political community requires virtuous citizens and virtuous leaders. I can agree with all of this wholeheartedly and I think we can regard it as the substance of the political theory of the Republic.

The problems in the Republic arise with some of the outlandish and even repulsive means that Socrates proposes for achieving a well-ordered political community and human flourishing. Should we take these proposals literally? We have already seen that Bloom argues that there are some proposals that we should not. We might also consider the possibility that Plato intends them as a kind of rhetorical cold water: he wants to wake us up from our passive reading of the text and draw us into the dialogue as real interlocutors. How do we get the well-ordered political communities and the human flourishing that Socrates and Plato are after?

You may not be convinced that this is what Plato’s really up to with some of the crazy ideas he has Socrates introduce. Admittedly, it would be difficult to prove—although I believe it’s worth considering. On the other hand, there’s no obvious reason why we should think that what I’m urging as the substance of the Republic’s political theory stands or falls with Socrates’s objectionable proposals. So, in a sense it doesn’t matter how we interpret them. Evidently, there are other ways to bring about well-ordered political communities and human flourishing. Whatever these ways are, figuring them out is all-important. Our own fate and that of our political communities depends on it.

Joseph G. Trabbic is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Ave Maria University.

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