I cannot say that this was a book I had been waiting to write. In fact, when I was approached with the prospect, my immediate instinct was to feel flattered, but to decline gracefully. As I explain further in the Introduction, I am neither a classicist nor a historian, even of the amateur variety. And worse than that, if in the present context there can be anything worse than that, I had never felt Plato to be a particularly congenial author. In some respects, as may be apparent from the book, I still do not. On the other hand, it is not really good enough for a philosopher to confess to a Plato-sized blindspot. He is too important, and too entrenched in the Western (and Islamic) tradition to ignore. The question has to be how we are to come to terms with him. Readers wanting to spoil the plot and skip to my own response to that, may read the last sentence of the book.
While I was dithering, I had the good luck to mention the invitation to a friend, the fine classical philosopher Julia Annas, whose own work on Plato infuses this book more than may be apparent. To my surprise, instead of laughing her head off, as she well might have, she immediately offered
guidelines and support, even copying various papers and pieces of secondary literature for me herself. This great generosity made me think that perhaps the project was possible after all. Further reading, although filling me with dread at the sheer quantity of classical scholarship that has accumulated over the ages, also suggested that Republic
has sustained, and still sustains, a wealth of philosophy, politics, and ethics about which one ought to have something to say. So I began to see how interesting the challenge might be, and of course once that idea has taken hold, the rest follows.
I suppose Julia did not singlehandedly conquer my diffidence at entering these unfamiliar waters, or I would have brashly knocked on more distinguished doors here in Cambridge, or in other centres where people who have devoted their lives to Plato are found. No doubt the book would have been better had I done so. But it would also have been longer, and I fear it would have tried the patience of my editor Toby Mundy even more than it has already done, as doubts and difficulties multiplied, turning into delays and rewrites, potentially without end. As it is, apart from gratefully receiving help from Paul Cartledge over Thucydides, I read what I could in Plato with mounting excitement, and before that could begin to cool, wrote the essay without any more ado.
It follows that my principal debts are to my agent, Catherine Clarke, who adroitly managed the initial flattery, and to Julia Annas for the confidence necessary to get started. Alice Hunt read the first draft with exemplary care, and
suggested many improvements that I have tried to incorporate. I owe thanks to the University of Cambridge and to Trinity College for a period of sabbatical leave during which the work was done, and to my wife and family for putting up with a great deal of silence, abstraction and sheer exasperation, while I fought, as generations before me have done, with the greatest and most fertile single book of the Western philosophical canon.
A NOTE ON TRANSLATIONS AND EDITIONS
Medieval writers knew Plato through translations into Latin, not directly from Greek texts, but from Arabic versions, themselves translated from Greek texts disseminated to Arabic scholars from the Byzantine world. The earliest authoritative translation of Plato to be disseminated in Western Europe was the three-volume Renaissance edition of the scholar Henri Estienne (in Latin, Stephanus), published in Geneva in 1578. It juxtaposed pages of the Greek text of Plato with a Latin translation. From it derives the initially off-putting notation for referring to passages in Plato’s works. The numbers, which are printed in the margins in all decent editions, are known as ‘Stephanus numbers’. They are page numbers from this edition, followed by letters from a – e referring to sections of the page. The system makes it easy to locate passages without being confined to one or another modern edition or translation. In the present volume I refer to passages in the Republic by prefacing the Stephanus number with the number of the Book in question, from I to X, since Republic is somewhat arbitrarily divided into ten chapters or ‘books’.
Translations of Plato into English were slower to arrive. The first well-known translation from the Greek was that of Thomas Taylor and Floyer Sydenham, published in London in 1804. This was the edition that would have been known to Coleridge and the Romantics. Unfortunately, James Mill (John Stuart’s father) said of Thomas Taylor that ‘he has not translated Plato; he has travestied him, in the most cruel and abominable manner. He has not elucidated, but covered him over with impenetrable darkness’.
The Victorian interest in Plato produced a translation by Davis and Vaughan, in 1858, and the classic edition by Benjamin Jowett, still one of the most widely disseminated English versions of the dialogues, first published by Oxford University Press in 1871. However, classical scholars are hard to please in these matters, and the exacting scholar A. E. Housman is reported to have described Jowett’s as ‘the best translation of a Greek philosopher which has ever been executed by a person who understood neither philosophy nor Greek’. Other scholars have not been daunted by the risk of such a reception, and Jowett was followed by Desmond Lee, Francis Cornford, Paul Shorey, I. A. Richards (into basic English), A. D. Lindsay, Allan Bloom, and many others down to the present day. The World’s Classics edition by Robin Waterfield that I have used is clear and straightforward, and has excellent notes.
The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato. I do not mean the systematic scheme of thought which scholars have doubtfully extracted from his writings. I allude to the wealth of general ideas scattered through them.
Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality (1929)
Before discussing how Republic
shook the world, we might ask whether any book shakes the world. Certainly the world changes, and many of its important changes can be plotted using the rise and fall of those ideas by which people live: ideas like freedom and democracy, or justice, citizenship or knowledge. Religions shake the world, and in practice a religion is just a fossilized philosophy – a philosophy with the questioning spirit suppressed. Still, there are people who would say that even if changes in the world can be charted through ideas, such as those of Republic
, Plato will not have been responsible for the changes themselves. The philosopher merely follows the parade: ‘When philosophy paints its grey in grey, then has a shape of life grown old. The owl of
Minerva spreads its wings only with the coming of the dusk.’1
Ideas are only the whistle on the engine. What shakes the world are time and circumstance, land, food, guns and money, the economic and social forces that determine the organization of peoples at different times and places.
The author of ideas, on such a view, does not make history but merely receives a larger part in its description. Fortunately we need not investigate what truth there is in this, although it seems unlikely that ideas are as inert as all that, so that nobody is ever changed by reading either Republic or any other work of religion, morals or politics, including those very works by Hegel (such as The Philosophy of History, 1826) and Marx (such as The German Ideology, 1846) in which the idea of the futility of ideas has been suggested. Ideas work on minds. That, after all, is what they are for: we could not be adapted for thought if it was useless. An idea is just a staging post to action. And, although people who pride themselves on their hard-headed ‘scientific’ approach to human life often find it hard to understand, when we say that ideas (and culture) change things, we are not denying that food and land, guns and money change things. We are not positing some airy-fairy, supernatural force, a ‘spirit of the age’ hovering somewhere above the more mundane world. We are talking only of the modes in which people think about themselves and their doings, and it is those ways of thinking that, among other things, help to determine who has the land and the food, who picks up the guns, and where the money gets spent.
If any books change the world, Republic
has a good claim
to first place. The philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead, quoted at the head of this Introduction, is far from alone in his estimate of Plato’s influence. A century earlier the wordy essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson outdid Whitehead in wonder at Plato’s genius, in one of the rare pararagraphs worth quoting in full:
Plato is philosophy, and philosophy, Plato, – at once the glory and the shame of mankind, since neither Saxon nor Roman have availed to add any idea to his categories. No wife, no children had he, and the thinkers of all civilized nations are his posterity, and are tinged with his mind. How many great men Nature is incessantly sendi...