Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Book Review: The Republic by Plato

The Republic by Plato, translated, with notes, an interpretive essay, and a new introduction by Allan Bloom

Plato's Republic is one of the greatest philosophical and literary works of western civilization. Socrates and some friends start a dialogue concerning what justice truly is, leading into a myriad of other topics. To describe the just man, Socrates proposes that a city is much like a person, but larger and easier to observe. The group considers what a just city would be like and makes the comparison to what a just man would be like. The just city has a lot more going on in it, leading them to describe an idealized government and society where people would be given the jobs that naturally fit their nature. With everyone where they are supposed to be, the city and people would thrive even if it would not be wealthy, because the citizens pursue excellence above all. Thus Socrates and his companions see how an individual can pursue excellence to achieve fulfillment. 

The book has lots of side discussions and famous images. Socrates separates the idealized populous into three categories: the rulers, the warriors, and the craftsmen. These are paralleled with the individual's intelligence (that should rule), the desire to overcome hardships (that is useful in surmounting obstacles and maintaining order), and the desire for basic goods (that is useful in getting the necessities of life--food, clothing, shelter, and offspring). The classes need to be separate and need to work in harmony under the rulers, who should really be the most intelligent people in society--the philosophers should be kings (a bit self-serving, perhaps?). Such rulers would govern for the sake of the city as a whole, not for their own benefit.

Later, they discuss the different forms of government, from the ideal king to oligarchy to democracy to tyranny. He shows both how societies can fall apart and how individuals can move down from the pinnacle of virtue into a more disordered and dangerous life. The shifting of government away from the ideal is very contemporary and provides an interesting political commentary that can be applied today and in many ages in the past.

The most famous part of the book is the allegory of the Cave, where Socrates describes a fantastical situation where most people are stuck in a cave looking at a wall where shadows of puppets and objects go by. One person escapes this prison and discovers what is really going on. Eventually, he leaves the cave and discovers the world of real things and the ultimate source of light, the sun. Socrates describes the difficulty in making this ascent and the importance of returning to free the others from ignorance, though they would be less receptive because of their ignorance. The allegory describes both Plato's metaphysics and his epistemology in a vivid way. )The book is also the shifting point away from Plato presenting Socrates's thoughts and theories to using Socrates as a mouthpiece for his own theories.) 

The translation is deliberately literal with many notes to explain cryptic references (Plato cites pop culture from his time) and concepts less familiar today, along with the occasional play on words in Greek that don't come over in English. Plato's writing style is much easier to read than technical philosophers like Aristotle or Kant. The conversations flow naturally from topic to topic and the different people give a lot of different points of view.

I did not read the interpretive essay (another 130 pages) and have no comment on it.

Highly recommended--this is a great translation of a great work.

No comments:

Post a Comment