Introduction to Plato’s Republic

by Jonathan McIntosh

Plato’s Republic is arguably the foundational text in the history of western philosophy in general and in the areas of ethics and politics in particular. The influence this single book has wielded on subsequent thought would be impossible to calculate. For in this work, Plato attempts to provide nothing less than a comprehensive and integrated vision of the nature of reality (metaphysics), the nature of man and the soul (philosophical anthropology and psychology), theory of knowledge (epistemology), ethics, and politics. To understand and appreciate Plato is to understand and appreciate the unity or interconnectedness of all these different areas of thought in his mind.

The Republic is not just a work of philosophy, however, but is also something of a literary and rhetorical masterpiece in its own right. The dialogue genre as Plato uses it is not just a ham-handed way of communicating philosophical ideas or dogmas. It is a display of the inquiring and inquisitive nature of philosophy itself. Often times, the question of how Socrates goes about communicating an idea is nearly if not as or more important as the idea itself. The Socratic dialogue is thus an illustration of how to do philosophy, and of how different people react when they come into contact with philosophy as personified by Socrates. Thus the Republic, like Plato’s other dialogues, is a dramatic work. In keeping with this, the Republic also presents at places its own theory of literary and art criticism.

Plato’s Republic, although a deeply philosophical and speculative work, is also a product of and response to very real, very personal, and in many ways very tragic political circumstances. Consider the following: in the year 431, four years before Plato was born, the Peloponneisan War broke out between democratic Athens and oligarchic Sparta, a war that would draw into its orbit many other Greek city states and which would wreak untold havoc in what was otherwise a golden age in Athens’s cultural development. The following are some notable dates for understanding the historical and political context of Plato’s Republic:

507 The Pisistratid tyranny in Athens is overthrown and democracy in the west is born.

480 Small, democratic Athens leads Greece to defeat the expansionist, imperial, tyrannical, and militarily superior Persion army.

469 Pericles, Athens’s greatest political leader, ascends to power, commencing the “Periclean age,” a period in which Athens would build her own great military and economic empire. This was also a period of astonishing cultural development. The Parthenon was built; Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides write their tragedies; Aristophanes writes his comedies; Herodotus “invents” history and Thucydides “perfects” it; and there were also notable achievements in mathematics and the natural sciences.

431 The Peloponnesian War begins between democratic Athens and oligarchic Sparta begins and grinds on for nearly 30 years, ending with Sparta’s victory in 404.

427 Plato is born in Athens.

411 Democratic rule in Athens is interrupted by the Oligarchic revolution and victory of The Four-hundred.

431-411 At some point in this twenty-year period the fictional conversation of the Republic is staged (thus, although it is never mentioned, the Peloponnesian War is raging in the background of the dialogue, raising the interesting question: how should this influence how we read the book).

410 The oligarchic regime in Athens is overthrown and democracy is restored.

404 Sparta defeats Athens and establishes yet another oligarchic regime of The Thirty Tyrants in Athens. Its leader, Critias, is Plato’s second cousin, and the young Plato is invited to join. The democratic resistance movement is based in the Piraeus, the port-city of Athens, and where Plato would stage the entire dialogue of the Republic. Polemarchus, who plays a prominent role in book one of the Republic, is a leader in the democratic resistance movement, but is murdered by the Thirty for his money (cp. the discussion of money and of Polemarchus’s inheritance in particular in book one). The Thirty Tyrants also try to get Socrates involved in indicting and convicting a citizen designated by the Thirty as a public enemy, but he courageously refuses.

403 Democracy is restored once more in Athens. The tyrant Critias is killed in a battle at the Piraeus near the temple of the goddess Bendis, the place where Plato represents Socrates as having just visited prior to the action of the Republic.

399 Socrates, who was an associate of some of The Thirty Tyrants and the teacher of Plato, who is from an aristocratic family, is executed by the recently restored Athenian democratic government.

387 Plato founds his Academy around this time.

380 Around this time Plato, although an Athenian, writes The Republic, a work in which Socrates (who is later executed by democratic Athens) has a conversation with Polemarchus (the democratic freedom fighter who is later in real-life murdered by the oligarchic tyrants) and others, in which the ideal city is characterized as a quasi-Spartan oligarchy which is ruled by a military elite who hold all things in common, and democracy is identified as the second worst political constitution, just above  tyranny.

347 Plato dies.

Thus, while there is much in Plato’s Republic that will strike us as odd, as idle, even as morally grotesque, the question at the heart of the Republic ought to be recognizable to and appreciable by us as Christians, for it is a question of how justice in a manifestly unjust world might be possible. The Republic represents a profound expression of the human heart’s perennial desire for justice.

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