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Literature / The Republic

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Sure talks a lot for a guy who knows nothing.

Describe The Republic here.

Oh, no, no. If I do that, you'll just twist my words around and make me look silly.

Well, if you insist. The Republic (ΠολιτείαPoliteia) is perhaps the most well-known dialogue of the ancient Greek philosopher Plato, offering profound contemplation on the meaning of justice, and whether the just or the unjust man is happier in life. The work is split into ten separate books, making it one of Plato's longer pieces. Like most of Plato's dialogues, The Republic centers on Plato's teacher, the celebrated Socrates. The other characters in the dialogue are Glaucon, Polemarchus, Cephalus, Thrasymachus, Adeimantus, and Cleitophon. Of these, the chief characters are Glaucon and Adeimantus (incidentally, Plato's older brothers); the others speak little –if at all – beyond the first book. Others are present, but do not speak during the dialogue.

The dialogue begins as Socrates and Glaucon are invited to a gathering at the home of Polemarchus. Upon arrival, Socrates begins conversing with Polemarchus’s father Cephalus. During this talk, Cephalus comments upon the benefits of justice, prompting Socrates to pose the question for which he is probably best remembered: “What is justice?” Cephalus (perhaps wisely) excuses himself from the discussion at this point, and it is taken up by Polemarchus and later Thrasymachus, who each have their own definitions of justice. Socrates responds with his renowned Socratic Method: instead of openly contradicting their definitions, he asks a series of questions regarding their specifics until their inherent contradictions become apparent. Polemarchus soon abandons his definition, and though Thrasymachus is regarded as one of Socrates’s more formidable opponents, he eventually does likewise.

When Thrasymachus yields, Glaucon and his brother Adeimantus take his place, not convinced by Socrates’s reasoning. Socrates therefore suggests a bold thought experiment: the three of them will devise a hypothetical society which is perfectly just and analyze what makes it just, then deduce from there what justice means. The rest of the dialogue is dedicated to the conception of this hypothetical republic, as Socrates describes it in minute detail and goes to great lengths to explain his reasoning. Along the way, Socrates determines that a just society is one in which each individual concerns himself with his own business and no one else’s, that a just person is one whose emotions do not overwhelm his reason, and that acting justly leads to happiness while acting unjustly leads to unhappiness.

Socrates's idea of a perfect society may not sound so great to modern audiences, but it isn't his conclusions so much as his process that makes The Republic so interesting. Socrates is logical and methodical. He is concerned less with coming to an answer quickly than with coming to the correct answer in the end. He considers no detail obvious or unimportant, and examines everything. And most strikingly, he doesn't allow himself to get carried away, constantly pausing to make sure that his friends agree with his reasoning. This is Socrates in all his humble glory, providing a shining example for students of philosophy even today, and that is why The Republic has endured as a philosophical masterpiece for so many centuries.

The Republic by Plato offers examples of:

  • Ancient Tomb: According to the fable of the Ring of Gyges (as told to Socrates by Glaucon), Gyges started out as a shepherd of Lydia who, after an earthquake, discovered an entrance to a cavern where he found "among other marvels" the statue of a horse made of brass; the statue has a door and inside, there is a skeleton of more-than-human size with a gold ring on its finger. Gyges takes the ring, which turns out to be a magic ring with the power to make its wearer invisible. Obviously, the mysterious cave is a tomb.
  • Author Avatar: When you consider that no one is really sure whether it was actually Socrates or Plato who wrote the book... From a literary perspective, the two philosophers are actually considered the same person. This trope is in play with Socrates as the main character and Socrates/Plato as the author.
  • Author Tract: Whether Plato is putting his own ideas in Socrates's mouth or simply relaying Socrates's own views is something that will probably never be settled with any degree of certainty. However, the fact remains that either way, The Republic is primarily a tract about how society should be organized in an ideal world.
  • Ax-Crazy: Probably one of the first literal examples in the Western canon. Socrates uses the example of giving a woodcutting axe back to a violent lunatic as irresponsible, and that a responsible government must abrogate the rights to property if it might be a danger to the polis. Therefore, proper government is not just about guarding property.
  • Bowdlerise: Probably the Ur-Example of this. Plato advises that the classical literature at the time should be heavily edited when used in education. Jerkass Gods are not appropriate, and therefore big chunks of The Iliad, among other things, must be censored.
  • Capitalism Is Bad: Socrates warns against the sort of government he calls Oligarchy, by which he means what would be called Plutocracy in more modern terms—i.e., rule by the rich. As he explains it, this system is not viable in the long term, since the selfishness of the rich will make them neglect the interests of the nation and instead simply try to make themselves richer. Also, the common people will naturally greatly resent this, leading to crippling class conflicts at best, and even violent revolution if things don't improve.
  • Cultured Badass: According to Socrates, the ideal warrior gets plenty of both physical and intellectual exercise — the former to ensure they're strong enough to defend society, and the latter to ensure that they understand what they're fighting for and aren't simply thugs who are just as dangerous to their own people as their enemies.
  • Culture Police: The book advocates censorship and control of poetry and music, to eliminate unhealthy and undesirable beliefs and attitudes.
  • The Cynic: Thrasymachus. He even believes that justice is just a fraud defined by the stronger (the lawmakers) to exploit the weak.
  • Emperor Scientist: The Philosopher Kings, in an era where what we would call Science is but a subgenre of Philosophy.
  • Day Hurts Dark-Adjusted Eyes: Used in the Platonic Cave description as a metaphor for how human beings react when confronted with the truth of a reality they have hitherto only dimly understood.
  • Democracy Is Bad: Socrates believes it is an idiocracy that is one step away from tyranny. Of course, the democracy he knew (closer to what we might term "mob rule" nowadays) was quite different from modern republicanism with its institutional checks and balances.
  • Fan Fic/Real-Person Fic: Most of Plato's works amount to fanfics of Socrates's life, but that being said...
  • Fantastic Caste System: A big part of the Republic's definition of justice is that everyone should do what they are meant to do best ("a place for everyone and everyone in their place" kind of thing), so a big part of the city in his speech is classification of its citizens into classes, supported by the "myth of metals": a god mixed different metals in the souls of different classes, with iron and bronze in the souls of farmers, laborers, and merchants; silver in the souls of soldiers/auxiliaries; and gold in the souls of the philosopher-kings. Unlike most caste systems, your caste is not entirely dependent on the caste of your parents.
  • Forgot to Gag Him: It begins with an account of Polemarchus insisting that Socrates accept his hospitality — giving him the choice of remaining voluntarily or having Polemarchus and his friends detain him by force. When Socrates asks if he might persuade them to let him go, Polemarchus replies that they will simply refuse to listen to anything he has to say.
  • For Happiness: Unbuilt Trope, and a very different approach from the later version. Socrates argues that you should be just, because in being a just man, you will be happier with yourself.
  • Good Feels Good: A just man is happier than an unjust man.
  • Gnosticism: Despite its status as a text of political theory, Republic is also an Ur-Example for Gnosticism, albeit a discussed version; translations of pages 588a-589b were found in Nag Hammadi alongside other Gnostic texts, which specifically refer to the images of the human soul and how they correlate to virtue or chaos. Beyond that, there's also the Platonic Cave allegory that many Gnostic-inspired works use to illustrate a "false world" created by a Demiurge Archetype.
  • I Just Want to Be Normal: During the Myth of Er, when the departed souls are given the opportunity to select their next life, Odysseus searches for the most uneventful, simple life he can find.
  • Invisibility Cloak: The ring of Gyges (which Gyges discovered in an ancient tomb) is a golden finger ring which makes its wearers invisible when the collet of the ring is turned inwards (toward the palm). It is a normal ring when the collet is turned outwards.
  • Invisible Jerkass: Glaucon tells a tale about Gyges, a shepherd of Lydia who found a ring who made its wearer invisible, and who used this power to seduce the queen, murder the king, and make himself king. Glaucon follows with a point that it did not matter whether Gyges was a just or unjust person when he found the ring, because nobody would continue to act justly if he had the option to act unjustly without fear of retribution or social stigma. In fact (Glaucon claims), if someone had the power to become invisible and would not use it to do something forbidden, people, though they might not admit so, would think that person to be an idiot.
  • Perfect Pacifist People: The hypothetical republic embraces pacifism... for the most part.
  • Platonic Cave: The Trope Namer, used as an illustration of how most people only dimly perceive Truth and the struggle faced by those who seek to comprehend it more fully.
  • The Philosopher King: The Trope Namer, and the prototype for technocracy in general. Socrates puts forth the proposal that an ideal ruler would be a philosopher, drawn from the best of the ranks of the guardian class.
  • Ring of Power: To illustrate his point that people act justly only because of outward social forces, Glaucon relates the tale of Gyges: The shepherd Gyges, having taken a gold ring from an ancient tomb, finds out that the ring makes him invisible when he turns the collet of the ring inwards. Soon after, Gyges uses the invisibility provided by the ring to seduce the queen and murder the king.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here: Cephalus does what may be the wisest thing anyone has ever done in a debate with Socrates: he excuses himself before Socrates has an opportunity to make a fool of him.
  • Sleeping with the Boss's Wife: Of a sort. In the story "Ring of Gyges", an ancestor of King Gyges of Lydia was a humble shepherd who happened upon a magical ring that gave the wearer invisibility. Taking advantage of this new ability, the shepherd went on to sleep with the Queen, kill the King and take the kingdom as his own.
  • The Social Darwinist: The sophist Thrasymachus argues that justice is defined as "the interest of the stronger", only to be rebutted by Socrates. The "utopia" Socrates proposes in the same book however also has elements like this, with a caste system based on people's abilities. He even talks about having eugenic selective breeding for it.
  • Totalitarian Utilitarian: The way in which Karl Popper interprets Plato as the author of this dialogue.
  • The Treachery of Images: Discussed in book X. The "mimetic arts" are debated, and how one should handle them.
  • Utopia: The point of the dialogue is to define what a truly just society would look like — and, from there, further expand on what a truly just person looks like.
  • Translation Train Wreck: He Politeia does not mean "republic", but rather "policy" or "organizing a state". It was translated as Res Publica (literally "common thing"), which gave the name "The Republic" in English. The state which Plato imagines is definitely not a republic in any other sense than lacking a monarch.
  • Utopia Justifies the Means: Some of the utopia's laws are actually horrifying by today's standards (think Nineteen Eighty-Four with the hierarchical division between the philosopher-king Inner Party, the no-individuality "guardian" Outer Party, and the viewed-as-animals Proles). Also, when asked how this ideal state might be established, Plato's Socrates indicates that the best way to do it would be to find an existing city and exile everyone over the age of ten.
  • What You Are in the Dark: The Ring of Gyges myth is about examining how and why someone would act when he truly is in the dark. The reason to act justly in the dark is because a just man is happier than an unjust one, and this facet is independent of social sanction.
  • With Great Power Comes Great Insanity: Socrates claims that philosophers make the best rulers because they can avoid this.
  • Yes-Man: Plato often has Socrates spout off very extensive lists of premises that are simply immediately accepted by everyone present. Characters can go on for pages simply saying, "Yes," "Certainly," "Very true," and "No doubt," while Socrates talks for paragraph after paragraph. Thrasymachus is probably the only one who averts this, but Socrates shuts down his Might Makes Right argument halfway through Book 2.

Alternative Title(s): Republic