Plato's Dialogues: Republic

My friends, the eternal snows appear already past, and the first clouds and mountains seem the last. In the list of Plato’s dialogues, the Republic is at the centre of it all, being the halfway point of the reading order I’m using, as well as Plato’s most famous work and, arguably, most important (going by reputation and my observations so far, of course). This also means that it is, arguably, the most important work by the most important philosopher in the history of Western civilisation, so, hey - no pressure on us amateurs trying these towering Alps. Let’s trust in what we’ve learned so far, though, and soldier on.

So, Republic is by far the longest and most wide-ranging dialogue so far, with only Protagoras even in the same ballpark; the rest weren’t even in the same league, and hardly even playing the same sport. Now, though Socrates and friends cover many different topics, it is worth keeping in mind that the central question is “What is justice?” Many people get caught up in debating the utopian society Socrates and the others imagine and discussing the various aspects of that, and though that can be interesting it’s worth remembering that it’s meant as an aid for identifying justice in the individual. Since defining justice in the individual is difficult, they decide that it may be easier if they work at a larger scale, and so begin building this city. One occasionally sees arguments over whether Plato really intended this city to be ideal or what, because there are a few seemingly crazy ideas connected to it, but everything about it, I feel safe saying, is meant as an allegory for some aspect of the soul.

Speaking broadly, I determined a couple things about the dialogue format while reading this. One is that it becomes extremely tedious the longer it gets. It’s tolerable in, say, Lysis or Lesser Hippias, but once it stretches to the length of a book the largely extraneous matter, such as the descriptions of the participants, people saying variations of “I agree” and such, and the general lack of efficiency compared to, say, Aristotle or Xenophon’s treatises start to add up. Yes, Plato makes the best of the format, I’m sure he chose it carefully, and people who’ve studied them longer than I have can probably explain why none of this is actually extraneous. That doesn’t make the reading less tedious.

Also, Socrates is at his best when he has an opponent. The Sophists, or even [Euthyphro]/blog/platos-dialogues-euthyphro/), make for spicier dialogue, and the best part of Republic is the dialogue with Thrasymachus. Though Socrates’ friends will disagree here and there, a very large part of the Republic is hardly a dialogue at all; it’s a discourse by Socrates with Glaucon and the rest agreeing or asking for clarification at certain points. One interesting thing, though, is that this means _Republic _is another example of Socrates not merely tearing down other people’s ideas, aside from Thrasymachus’, but of putting forward his own - albeit in somewhat roundabout manner.

Possibly the most famous section of the dialogue is the allegory of the cave. This passage stands well on its own, and so it gets excerpted somewhat regularly. As an aside, this was actually the only work of Plato’s I read in college, and it was in a class on science fiction, of all things. I’ve mentioned this story elsewhere, but it was somehow related to a short story we’d read, and the professor, apparently aware of the sorry state of the Classics at the university, told us he wouldn’t let us go through college without reading at least something from Plato. He was, despite the relatively trivial subject he taught, one of my best instructors, and he deserves credit for not being parochial minded about his field. It’s been my experience that even low culture can be discussed in an intelligent, worthwhile manner as long as the speaker has a life outside of that particular hobby; two examples I like to point to are Bonald on Disney or Thomas Bertonneau on science fiction, and I’ll add the more recent example of Walter Devereux on Studio Gainax.

Getting back to the dialogue, though, if you’ve read any part of Republic besides the allegory of the cave, it’s probably the debate with Thrasymachus on justice, and specifically the argument that “might makes right.” In fact, like the allegory of the cave, it’s so well known that I’m going to skip right over both because they’re easy to find summarised and discussed elsewhere. Sorry, freshmen: someone else will have to do your homework for you. Try Quora.

Anyway, Thrasymachus may provide the most entertaining part of the dialogue, but Cephalus is the most likeable character. He’s an amiable old man, wealthy and living comfortably, but pious and not overly fond of money. He holds a simple definition of justice, essentially giving to each man his due; Socrates brings up a difficulty with this, of course, but I found Socrates’ tone rather interesting. We’ve seen him act argumentative at some times, amiably at others, and at several points in between, but Cephalus is the first man I recall him speaking to respectfully. That is, as one he recognises as a superior. Now, obviously, that’s the social expectation since Cephalus is older and tone will necessarily depend on the translation for those of use who don’t know Greek, but my sense is that Socrates’ respect here is genuine approval of his elder’s old-fashioned piety.

Cephalus leaves early to attend to a sacrifice, which is for the best. He seems to represent tradition, or home-grown wisdom. His piety and good nature are sincere, his sense of justice simple but tried-and-true. In American terms, he’s your grandfather from a small town, who reads few books besides the Bible, believes in a day’s work for a day’s pay, goes to the local Baptist church every week, and so on. A good man, but unsophisticated, totally out-of-place amidst the sophists, or Sophists, who he may sense to be in the wrong but can’t explain why. In this analogy, Thrasymachus becomes the newly rich, or the boy who moved from his small hometown to a big city, the college graduate, who looks down on the intellectually unfashionable and sneers at the unsophisticated. In fact, most of the characters may well fill some role along these lines, which, I’ll admit, is a strength of the dialogue format.

It’s tempting to follow Cephalus’ lead in dealing with the Thrasymachuses of the world. Unfortunately, this won’t do. We ourselves may be able to resist sophistry with simple piety, but those around us may not, and can be swayed by clever rhetoric. Of course, we may also fall for clever rhetoric without realising it. Should we meet fire with fire, then, and take up a modern education ourselves? That’s one option, and having, in today’s world, a university education can help in meeting the challenge, assuming, again, that we don’t fall into the abyss ourselves. Even that, though, may or may not suffice. No one besides Socrates is really sure how to deal with Thrasymachus. Glaucon, for example, takes up Thrasymachus’ argument after he gives up, even though he himself does not agree with the Sophist. “Yet,” Glaucon says, “I am disconcerted when my ears are dinned by the arguments of Thrasymachus and innumerable others. But the case for justice, to prove that it is better than injustice, I have never yet heard stated by any as I desire to hear it.” A man as intelligent as Glaucon, but with poorer instincts, could well have gone over the same side as Thrasymachus. Similarly, I’m certain that many people are part of the Left, because the Left’s were the only arguments they heard put forward, and put forward well.

So, before we can build our perfectly just republic, we must first tear down the arguments of the unjust. How does Socrates do it? He certainly appears well-educated, which doesn’t hurt, and despite his protestations otherwise he’s also quick on his feet in a debate. The main thing he does, though, is ask for more clarity. Over and over, until he arrives at the bottom of an issue, never settling on a shallow understanding of a problem, or an explanation that’s “good enough.” This will separate the true scholar from the sophist. Many will react similarly to Thrasymachus after a while, with anger and frustration, even when approached charitably (and of course, we should almost always proceed charitably). The scholar will be willing to pursue the issue.

As another aside, we occasionally see this in action around Right-wing circles on Twitter. There are certain people who will engage almost anyone in an argument, even when, at a glance, the case seems hopeless. One will almost certainly never convert a committed Leftist, whether they be journalist, a Jesuit, or a fedora-tipper, to Right-wing positions. So why engage with them at all, except perhaps as flagrant trolls? “Because,” these people answer, “the argument isn’t for the interlocutor, but for the audience.” At no point does Thrasymachus indicate that he may change his mind on his understanding of justice, but Socrates’ debate with him wasn’t a waste of time because the other people in the room benefited from it. Thrasymachus looked like a rash fool, outgunned and outclassed.

Of course, those attempting to initiate Socratic dialogues will be disappointed more often than not, and will make mistakes. Socrates as we know him, of course, has Plato as writer and editor. Furthermore, Socrates himself describes in Symposium how he learned the art of dialectic. Those of us who want to enter into debate with our opponents will do well to prepare beforehand, and realise that we will trip occasionally, but be sure to learn from those mistakes.

Let’s move on to their imagined city. Again, I’m not sure how much attention we’re supposed to give to the details of this, since Socrates and his interlocutors are doing this primarily as an analogy for the soul, not simply as a mental exercise in writing a constitution. Much can be and has been said about this project, but naturally I was most interested in what Socrates has to say about the arts. It’s often noted that Plato spends a lot of time discussing music, for example, and almost none discussing economics. This is, I think, entirely appropriate, even if it’s counter-intuitive to moderns. In the individual, virtue should always be one’s first priority, so in a city meant to be analogous to the soul, surely the same should hold true. Even in the real world, though, the same should hold true. The state exists to point its citizens toward the good life, and the good life exists in practising virtue. The arts, of which Socrates mostly discusses literature and music, though we could add painting, architecture, and a number of others, has a didactic value. So, Socrates and the rest of the company spend a lot of time determining which types of music and literature to allow, and which to censor. The popular image of Socrates kicking the poets out of his city isn’t quite accurate, as he does allow for music and poetry that encourage virtue, such as hymns praising the gods or heroic men. What they do exclude, though, is essentially degenerate art.

Now, when we think of degenerate art, we mostly think of the worst of what we have today, and I’m sure Socrates would exclude anything pornographic, gratuitously violent, and anything that praises or romanticises vices in general. However, he also criticises things like tragedy as such, which causes us to feel sadness for no real reason, and even Homer gets the boot largely because of his overly human portrayal of the gods, which undermines piety. The topic comes up a few times throughout the dialogue, and for that matter has also come up in previous works, like Protagoras and Lesser Hippias, but the clearest discussion comes near the end, in Book X, so I’m going to focus on that.

One of the first things that Socrates discusses is how far removed poetry is from reality. First, the “reality” of something is its form. At the first step away from this is a particular instance of something. Socrates uses the example of a cabinetmaker, who “does not make the idea or form which we say is the real couch, the couch in itself, but only some particular couch.” Then, yet another step farther removed, is the painter, who only makes an imitation of the particular instance. At three steps, Socrates says that the practitioners of the mimetic arts, which would include literature, are quite removed from reality. He concludes:

If he [i.e., the artist] had genuine knowledge of the things he imitates he would far rather devote himself to real things than to the imitation of them, and would endeavor to leave after him many noble deeds and works as memorials of himself, and would be more eager to be the theme of praise than the praiser.

This seems to me a non sequitur. First, though this may have been less common in Socrates’ day, there have indeed been many poets who had a non-literary “day job,” with examples ranging from physician to soldier, government official to banker, among other things. So, many people who could do still chose to imitate.

The larger point, though, is that literature is a craft itself, and not merely imitation of something. Yes, art is representational, even when it takes an abstract turn, but to say that Homer is merely an imitator of war, or that Dante is merely an imitator of the afterlife, is to sell them extremely short. Imitation is the beginning of art, not its end. The end of art is to create a work of beauty and to uplift the audience in some way. Because art is a category to itself, it is at the same _level of removal from reality as the cabinetmaker, _not one further.

Speaking of uplifting the audience, though, does it do that? Socrates expresses his doubts in the next part of the passage. Of the greatest topics of which Homer writes, war and statesmanship, he asks whether any city has benefited from taking his counsel, as can be said of Lycurgus, Charondas, or Solon. Glaucon can’t name any, and neither can Socrates, so he asks if he was an educator, like Pythagoras. However, here Glaucon points out that he was largely neglected in his own lifetime. Socrates says:

[D]o you suppose, Glaucon, that, if Homer had really been able to educate men and make them better and had possessed not the art of imitation but real knowledge, he would not have acquired many companions and been honored and loved by them? But are we to believe that while Protagoras of Abdera and Prodicus of Ceos and many others are able by private teaching to impress upon their contemporaries the conviction that they will not be capable of governing their homes or the city unless they put them in charge of their education, and make themselves so beloved for this wisdom that their companions all but carry them about on their shoulders, yet, forsooth, that Homer’s contemporaries, if he had been able to help men to achieve excellence, would have suffered him or Hesiod to roam about rhapsodizing and would not have clung to them far rather than to their gold, and constrained them to dwell in their homes, or failing to persuade them, would themselves have escorted them to wheresover they went until they should have sufficiently imbibed their culture?

That certainly tells us what most people in Homer’s day thought, “But my dear [Socrates], why should we pay so much attention to what ‘most people’ think? The really reasonable people, who have more claim to be considered, will believe the facts exactly as they are.” Who said that, by the way?

Oh, yeah - Socrates did, to Crito. So, right back at you, Socrates. We may also ask of Socrates what polity ever benefited from his counsel, or why, if his teaching was so valuable, he was put to death by his own city. This pair of objections seem obvious enough that I assume Plato left it unaddressed as an exercise for the audience, but I do wish Protagoras or Gorgias were around to call it out within the dialogue.

In any case, if we’re going to appeal to someone, it won’t be the mass of Homer’s contemporaries, but Homer’s admirers since his time. Considering his status in the Classical world, I think it’s safe to say that he was admired by many people, including the doers of deeds and not just Homer’s fellow “imitators.”

As for the question of who has benefited from Homer, I’ll say most of the people who’ve read him have. As a creator of beautiful work, his audience has benefited from the opportunity to enjoy something beautiful. Any further inspirations to virtue are bonuses.

Besides, though Homer does deal with war and statesmanship and such, these elements are there to support the narrative and themes, not to provide a manual for kings and generals.

Next, Socrates and Glaucon address the expression of grief, and what Aristotle will call catharsis. He says, in part:

“I think you [i.e., Glaucon] know that the very best of us, when we hear Homer or some other of the makers of tragedy imitating one of the heroes who is in grief, and is delivering a long tirade in his lamentations or chanting and beating his breast, feel pleasure, and abandon ourselves and accompany the representation with sympathy and eagerness, and we praise as an excellent poet the one who most strongly affects us in this way.”
“I do know it, of course.”
“But when in our own lives some affliction comes to us, you are also aware that we plume ourselves upon the opposite, on our ability to remain calm and endure, in the belief that this is the conduct of a man, and what we were praising in the theater that of a woman.”

Now, I agree that we should avoid melodrama, which I would distinguish from other displays of emotion in literature by whether the reaction is appropriate to the occasion. In epics and Greek tragedies especially, great things are happening to great people, and great displays of emotion are entirely appropriate. We shouldn’t carry on overmuch, and what “overmuch” means will vary depending on the culture, but dramatic expressions of grief are, at times, appropriate. For examples of appropriate, exemplary behaviour, I would first look to Scripture, and we might begin with David, after the death of Absalom:

And with that, the king went up to the room over the gate in bitter sorrow, and wept there. O, my son Absalom, he said as he went, my son, my son Absalom! Would to God I had died instead of thee, Absalom, my son, my son!

Of course, even in Scripture, not everyone is a perfect exemplar, with of course one exception. From the story of the raising of Lazarus:

So Mary reached the place where Jesus was; and when she saw him, she fell at his feet; Lord, she said, if thou hadst been here, my brother would not have died. And Jesus, when he saw her in tears, and the tears of the Jews who accompanied her, sighed deeply, and distressed himself over it; Where have you buried him? he asked. Lord, they said to him, come and see. Then Jesus wept. See, said the Jews, how he loved him.

That should be sufficient, but as a bonus and to illustrate the universality of this take, let’s take a look at the Analects 11.9:

When his disciple Yen Yuan died the Master bewailed him exceedingly, and the disciples said, “Master, your grief is excessive.” “Is it excessive?” said he. “If I am not to mourn bitterly for this man, for whom should I mourn?”

As for the Greeks themselves, we can find examples in just the works that Socrates criticises.

Returning to fiction specifically, we may also point out that many things must be represented symbolically, as it were, if they are to be represented at all. For instance, if Homer is to convey the rage of Achilles, it’s not enough to say “He was mad,” or even “He was spittin’ mad.” No, Homer needs him to make a long speech against Agamemnon, and given the circumstances it is fitting. Even more fitting is his reaction to the death of his closest friend near the end of the epic. Socrates’ interpretation of Homer and the tragedians is, I believe, too literal minded, as everything in a work of literature takes on a symbolic or archetypal resonance.

Socrates ends this discussion with a point I will agree with, albeit only in general and not in this particular instance. If something is not good for us, then no matter how much we love it or how difficult it may be, we should avoid it. That is certainly true, and it is even true of some poems - but it is not true of Homer or the tragedians.

I will address one other point, which was brought up earlier in Republic, and which is the most serious charge against Homer: impiety. For modern readers, this isn’t a major issue in Homer’s case, since the gods are just a set of characters. For the ancient Greeks, though, Homer’s portrayal of them raises difficulties. One could argue that the gods in the Iliad and other such works is analogical. For example, when the Bible refers to God’s “anger” or when He “repents” of some punishment He was about to give, this does not refer to the passions as we experience them, but are referred to as such because, from our human perspective, God’s actions resemble those things.

The conflicts among the gods, then, could be taken in a similar way. However, as characters they’re portrayed as so human that it’s difficult to salvage by saying that it’s simply symbolism. That the gods have conflict at all would, after all, imply that they are imperfect, not all able to recognise the just or the good. If that is the case, they may still be a higher order of beings than us, and perhaps owed what a theologian may call dulia, the sort of honour we give to saints and angels, but not latria, the sort of worship owed to God alone. So, though I disagree with Socrates’ general approach to the arts, if one is to salvage Greek paganism, placing Homer and others on an equivalent to the Index of Forbidden Books seems wise.

Finally, after this discussion of the poets, they move on to another topic, and the Republic eventually ends with an unexpected discussion of the afterlife, which I didn’t expect but did enjoy. I enjoyed it enough, in fact, that I’ll leave it for you as a dessert for when you read the Republic for yourself.

With that, we’re finally done with Republic, and are officially past the halfway point of the dialogues. I expect things only to get more difficult, though, as the rest of the dialogues like Alps on Alps arise, Phaedo the first among them.