July 10, 2012

Basic Texts: Republic

Republic is a foundational text about how to live well, both as individuals and together. It was written by Plato in the 470's BCE when he was in his fifties. It offers a sustained reflection on the basic categories of justice, morality, and power. It was written as recollections from Socrates translated as a dialogue. The key question of Republic is Pindar's: "Is it by justice or crooked tricks that I will scale the higher wall" (365b). 

As the mature work of a mature man, it is very wide ranging and on its own would lend credibility to Alfred North Whitehead hyperbole that the Western philosophy tradition "consists of a series of footnotes to Plato".

For example, we know that Francis Bacon held that 'knowledge is power' but Republic already announces this truth (477e):

SOCRATES: [...] do you think knowledge is itself a power? Or to what type would you assign it?

GLAUCON: To that one. It is the most effective power of all.

The text is full of these now common notions. It also contains many influential bits that any cultured person should know, such as the tale of Gyges ring, the myth of the metals, the notion of the philosopher-king, the allegory of the cave, and a discussion of the just city.

This last discussion takes over most of Republic and is presented as a detour in order to better understand justice in the individual: "I think we should adopt the method of investigation that we would use if, lacking keen eyesight, we were told to identify small letters from a distance, and then noticed that the same letters existed elsewhere in a larger size and on a larger surface" (368d).

Over a number of posts, I will explore some of the more influential bits of Republic and offer my take on their relevance today.