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SUMMARY OF PLATOS REPUBLIC

Like Platos other works, this one is in the form of a dialogue. The narrator is
Socrates himself, and the very first line that Plato puts into his mouth reveals something
important about him: I walked down to the Piraeus yesterday [emphasis added]... What
does the word yesterday tell us? That after what probably was an all-night
conversation, the very next day Socrates is back in Athens, presumably at his hangout in
the Agora, the large open-air market in that city.1 In other words, he talked all night,
walked back to Athens in the morning, and then with little or no sleep was back in his
usual place, repeating from memory the equivalent of 250 pages of a dialogue that he had
conducted the previous evening. Not only must he have been a prodigious talker, but his
physical powers must have been considerable as well. Plato doesnt hit the reader over
the head with this information, but lets the reader infer it from the clues he provides.

Book I
Socrates gets playfully kidnapped on his way back to Athens from the port city of
Piraeus, about five miles away, by some young men he is acquainted with and is
persuaded to attend an all-night festival there. He will stay at the house of Cephalus, a
retired manufacturer, and they will go out after dinner and watch the festival. What
follows is the events of the evening and night. When they arrive at Cephalus home, the
old man, seated comfortably, greets Socrates warmly, telling him how glad he is to see
him and that he should come down to Piraeus more often. Then he starts telling him how
much he is at peace in his old age and goes on for a little while in this self-satisfied
manner while Socrates starts to pick holes in his reasoning. He soon realizes that Socrates
is more than he bargained for and retires from the room, leaving the discussion to the
young men, who are more capable of responding to Socrates close questioning and find
it both enlightening and entertaining.
Cephalus left when, after he had raised the subject of justice, Socrates response
made his own comment seem foolish. Thereupon the young men induce Socrateshe
doesnt need much persuasionto discuss the nature of justice with them, and he gladly
responds.
Early in the discussion Socrates is interrupted by Thrasymachus (the name means
bold in combat or bold in battle), who believes might makes right and bursts into the
conversation, almost physically attacking Socrates out of anger at the drivel about justice
he thinks Socrates is spouting. Socrates manages to calm him down and then, by a clever
process of question and answer, makes him retreat step by step and calm down.
Thrasymachus, made to look foolish by Socrates, remains quiet the rest of the
evening. Meanwhile, Platos brothers, Glaucon and Adeimantus, although undoubtedly
entertained by Socrates defeat of Thrasymachus, are not satisfied that he truly has
defended the concept of justice. Socrates responds with further arguments with which
they still are not fully satisfied. At this point he suggests they try to see justice not simply
as it might exist in the individual human being, but writ large, by sketching an ideal
state, that is, an ideal Greek city-state or polis. The conversation that follows must have
1
Think of the word agoraphobia, fear of open spaces, which is taken from the Greek agor and phbos,
fear or terror. The agor was the place where the Assembly of the citizens of a city met. It also was used for
debates and trials, and as a marketplace. In modern terms, it was a combination of a public meetingplace
and a shopping mall.
Summary of Platos Republic 2

lasted till very late at night or even through the night, and it appears that the participants
in the dialogue never actually attended the festival, but that the nights entertainment was
provided by Socrates.

Book II
Socrates thinks that with the refutation of Thrasymachus, the discussion is over, but
the young men want him not just to rebut an immoralist, but truly to show that justice is
better than injustice in every way. So one of them, Glaucon, proposes to take up
Thrasymachus theory, glorifying the life of injustice, and see if Socrates really can rebut
that view. He tells the mythical story of Gyges, a shepherd who discovers a ring that
enables him to become invisible. Armed with this ring, Gyges seduces his Queen and
kills his Kingthe point being that if we all thought we could get away with evil deeds,
we would commit them. Glaucons brother, Adeimantus, also makes an eloquent speech
praising injustice.
In response, Socrates observes that since justice exists in a whole community as well
as in an individual, wouldnt it be better to examine it in a whole society? We could see it
then on a larger scale and thereby examine it more closely. Thus, they agree to construct
in imagination an ideal polis or city-state that would perfectly embody the idea or ideal of
justice.
They start small with just a few people. This is appropriate, because ancient Greece,
a mountainous country, was divided into many city-states, some consisting of only a few
thousand people and several much larger, the largest being Athens with approximately
half a million people and colonies scattered about the Mediterranean.
They first discuss the different laborers, tradesmen, and professionals who will make
up their state and the type of land they will need. Then who will protect it? The best idea
is to have a class of warriors, whom they call hoi phlakoi, the watchmen or guards,
sentinels, guardians, or protectors. Maybe one could even call them the police. It
develops that these guardians or policemen will be the ruling class of the society.
In our terms, this is decidedly a state resembling the government of Athens chief
rival, Sparta, which was run by a military class to which the lower class of peasants was
subordinate. The Spartans had a strong army, whereas the Athenians had a strong navy,
which they used to defend their overseas empire. In the 5th century B.C., the two city-
states formed rival leagues, confederations of city-states, and eventually went to war. The
Peloponnesian War, which lasted from 431-404 B.C., with periods of truce, ended with
the defeat of Athens. The conversation that comprises The Republic probably took place
during one of the truces.
In short, the ideal state that Socrates and his pals are sketching would have been
politically suspect to the mass of Athenians. While it would be a stretch to call it a fascist
state, it was definitely right-wing, if one looks at it in conventional terms. Maybe police
state, a modern term, also is too strong a description, but it does come to mind.
They then take up the education of the guardsmen. The literature the boys will be
exposed to will have to be censored because their young minds must be exposed only to
the best models to imitate so that they will grow up to be truly just rulers. This means
eliminating Homer, Hesiod, the Greek tragedians, et al., all of whom constituted much of
the normal curriculum for those Greek boys who were fortunate enough to be formally
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educatedsomething else to offend conventional opinion. They have a good time going
through the classics of Greek education at some length, just to drive home the point.

Book III
The censorship of the classics continues into Book III.
The education will be rich in poetry and music in order to instill a sense of rhythm
and harmony deep into the minds and souls of the young policemen. They wont be
taught menial occupations. Those are unfit for the ruling class. Moreover, those in charge
of the guardsmens education will see that only the right kind of poetry and music is
taught themtheyve got to protect them for whatever the ancient Greek equivalent was
of hard rock and rap and so on.
There also will be intense physical training, on the principle of a healthy mind in a
healthy body. The guardsmens diet will be regulated to be like that of athletes in training.
In other words, they will be athletes as well as scholars.

Book IV
What will be the manner of life of the guardsmen? No private property beyond the
bare necessities. They wont live in private homes, but in a common barracks with a
common mess, like soldiers. They will be fed, clothed, and housed, but they wont
receive any pay.
The different classes of the state will be characterized by the cardinal virtues of
wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice. The rulers will have wisdom; the guardsmen,
courage; the farmers and workers, temperance; and the society, well-organized in this
way, will be just. This arrangement corresponds to the three parts of the individual soul.
Society is the soul writ large.

Book V
Carrying the previous arrangements to their logical conclusion, all property will be
held in common, including women and children. Furthermore, women will be treated as
equals of men. They will perform the same tasks; they will exercise naked as Greek
males were accustomed to do, and they will do this along with the men. They will even
fight together with them in battle. Men and women will compete equally in every
occupation.
The institution of the family will be abolished. Children will be brought up in
common. Nor can a well-ordered state permit unregulated unions between the sexes.
During the childbearing period of adulthood, at regular intervals marriage festivals will
occur, and couples will be paired by lot. However, the lots will be rigged by the rulers so
that the best people of both sexes will be united in marriage. The couples will live
together for the period of the festival for the sake of breeding.

Book VI
Discussion of the qualities that characterize the philosophers, together with all the
temptations that may corrupt him (or by implication, her). The process of selecting the
philosophers will be rigorous because not many can meet the high standards that are
required for a guardsman to become one of the rulers. There cannot be any justice in
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states until philosophers become kings and kings become philosophers. The philosopher
will have to be very well-rounded, excellent both in mind and in body. He must strive for
the highest object of knowledge, the knowledge of the Good. On the urging of the others,
Socrates agrees to try to sketch the nature of the Good. The Good in the realm of ideas is
analogous to the Sun in the physical world. Then comes the allegory of the divided line,
in which the various levels of reality and the corresponding states of mind are outlined.

Book VII
The allegory of the divided line is abstract, so Socrates gives a concrete version of it
in the famous myth of the cave, which corresponds exactly to its divisions.
Then he goes on to the higher education of the policemen. They study various
sciences such as mathematics in order to train the mind and soul both to be rulers and to
transcend the physical world, in other words, to escape from the cave.

Books VIII and IX


Difficult as it might be to realize, they have sketched the ideal state. Now Socrates
observes that even if it could be constructed, it would be on too high a level for human
beings to maintain and would inevitably decline. He then traces the stages in its decline,
and the corresponding stages of decline in the character of the ruling class. Eventually he
comes to the lowest level, tyranny or despotism, and the tyrant or unjust man, whose
character he describes at some length. The unjust man will be the unhappiest of all men.
At the end of Book IX, Glaucon says that the republic they have been founding
exists only in the realm of discourse, but nowhere on earth.
To this, Socrates replies, Perhaps there is a pattern set up in the heavens for one who
desires to see and to found a republic like this in himself.

Book X
In the first part of Book X Socrates continues his criticism of the Greek poets and
tragedians, saying that he will either ban them from his ideal state or only let them back
in a very restricted way. He objects to their appeal to the emotions, rather than to the
mind.
He concludes with an argument or proof for the immortality of the soul, and the
dialogue concludes with another myth or parable of the reincarnation of the soul, the
myth of Er, a warrior who dies and miraculously comes back from the dead and relates
what he has seen in the other world.
Socrates talkathon on the ideal state probably lasted all night. By this reckoning, the
allegory of the line and the myth of the cave occurred sometime after midnight and the
proof of the immortality of the soul and the myth of Er occurred as the gray dawn was
breaking. Thereafter Socrates went about his business and later in the day was back at his
familiar place in the Agora relating the events of the preceding night.

Robert Greene 2006