Imagine a cave. Prisoners are chained facing its far wall. They’ve been kept there all their lives and their heads are held fixed so that they can’t see anything except the wall of the cave. Behind them there is a fire and between the fire and their backs a road. Along the road various people walk casting their shadows on the cave wall; some of them carry models of animals which also cast shadows. The prisoners inside the cave only ever see shadows. They believe the shadows are the real things because they don’t know any better. But in fact they never see real people.
Then one day one of the prisoners is released and allowed to look towards the fire. At first he is completely dazzled by the flames, but gradually he starts to discern the world around him. Then he is taken out of the cave into the full light of the sun, which again dazzles him. He slowly begins to realise the poverty of his former life: he had always been satisfied with the world of shadows when behind him lay the brightly lit real world in all its richness. Now as his eyes acclimatise to the daylight he sees what his fellow prisoners have missed and feels sorry for them. Eventually he becomes so used to the light that he can even look directly at the sun.
Then he is taken back to his seat in the cave. His eyes are no longer used to this shadowy existence. He can no longer make the fine discriminations between shadows that his fellow prisoners find easy. From their point of view his eyesight has been ruined by his journey out of the cave. He has seen the real world; they remain content with the world of superficial appearances and wouldn’t leave the cave even if they could.
This parable of the prisoners in the cave occurs halfway through Plato’s masterpiece, The Republic. It provides a memorable image of his theory of Forms, his account of the nature of reality. According to him the majority of humankind are, like the prisoners, content with a world of mere appearance. Only philosophers make the journey out of the cave and learn to experience things as they really are; only they can have genuine knowledge. The world of everyday perception is constantly changing and imperfect. But the world of the Forms to which philosophers have access is unchanging and perfect. It can’t be perceived with the five senses: it is only by means of thought that anyone can experience the Forms.
Plato and Socrates
The life and death of his mentor, Socrates, was the main influence on Plato’s philosophy. Socrates was a charismatic figure who attracted a crowd of wealthy young Athenians around him. He did not leave any writing but exerted his influence through his conversations in the marketplace. He claimed not to have any doctrine to teach, but rather, through a series of pointed questions, would demonstrate how little those he talked to really knew about such things as the nature of piety, justice, or morality. While Plato was still a young man, Socrates was sentenced to death for corrupting the youth of the city and failing to believe in its gods. Socrates drank hemlock, the conventional method of execution for Athenian citizens.
Plato gave Socrates a kind of afterlife in his dialogues. Yet the character called Socrates in Plato’s work probably differs considerably in his views from the real Socrates. Plato wrote as if he were recording conversations which had actually occurred; but by the time he came to write The Republic, Plato’s Socrates had become a mouthpiece for Plato’s own views.
The Republic provides a mixture of Plato’s two characteristic approaches to writing. In Book One, there is a conversation between Socrates and some friends which could have been the first scene in a play: we are told something of the setting and the reactions of the different characters. But in later sections, although Plato continues to write in dialogue form, the thrust of exposition is in Socrates’ voice, and the supporting cast simply agree with his pronouncements.
Thrasymachus and Glaucon
The main body of The Republic is a response to the challenges set by Thrasymachus and Glaucon. Thrasymachus maintains that what goes by the name of ‘justice’ is simply whatever happens to serve the interests of the strongest. Power is all that makes something right. Justice is simply a matter of obeying the self-serving rules set up by the strongest. At the level of individual behaviour, injustice pays much better than justice: those who help themselves to more than their fair share are happier than those who are just.
Glaucon takes this further, suggesting that those who behave justly only do so as a form of self-preservation. Anyone who, like the mythical character Gyges, found a ring that made them invisible would lose any incentive for behaving justly since they could guarantee getting away with any crime, seduction or deception. He imagines a situation in which a just man is thought by everyone else to be unjust. He is tortured and executed: his life seems to have nothing to be said in its favour. Compare this with the life of a cunning wicked man who manages to seem just while being completely unscrupulous whenever he can get away with it. He leads a happy life, it seems, and is considered a model of respectability even though beneath his disguise he is thoroughly evil. This suggests that justice doesn’t pay, or at least that it doesn’t always pay. It also suggests that if Socrates wants to defend the just life he will have to show that the situation described isn’t the full story. In fact in the rest of the book Socrates attempts to do precisely that; he seeks to demonstrate that justice does pay, and that, besides, it is intrinsically worthwhile. It is good both for its consequences and in itself.
Individual and State
Although The Republic is usually thought of as a work of political philosophy, and despite the fact that most of it is focused on the question of how Plato’s utopian state should be run, the discussion of the state is only introduced as a way of getting clearer about individual morality. Plato’s main concern is to answer the question ‘What is justice and is it worth pursuing?’ ‘Justice’ is a slightly strange word to use here, but it is the best translation of the Greek word dikaiosunē: it means, roughly, doing the right thing. Plato’s main concern is the question of what is the best way for a human being to live. His reason for looking at the organisation of the state at all is his belief that the state is equivalent to the individual writ large; that the best way of proceeding is to study justice in the state and then transfer our findings to the individual. Just as someone who is short-sighted finds it easier to read large letters so it is easier to look at justice in the state than on the smaller scale of an individual life.
Division of Labour
Human beings cannot easily live alone. There are many advantages in co-operation and communal living. As soon as people group together it makes sense to divide work according to different people’s skills: it is better for a tool maker to make tools all the year round and a farmer to farm than that the farmer stop his work to make new tools when the old ones wear out. The tool maker will be more skilled at tool making than the farmer. The same is true of all other professions which involve skill: skill requires practice.
As the state grows and work becomes more specialised, the need for a full-time army to defend the state from attack becomes apparent. The Guardians of the state must, according to Plato, be strong and courageous, like good guard dogs. But they must also have a philosophical temperament. A significant part of The Republic is taken up with Plato’s training schedule for the Guardians.
Rulers, Auxiliaries and Workers
Plato divides his class of Guardians into two: Rulers and Auxiliaries. The Rulers are those who are to have the political power and who make all the important decisions; the Auxiliaries help the Rulers and provide defence against threats from outside. A third group, the Workers, will, as their name suggests, work, providing the necessities of life for all the citizens. Plato isn’t much interested in the lives of the Workers: most of The Republic concentrates on the Guardians.
The Rulers are chosen as those who are most likely to devote their lives to doing what they judge to be in the best interests of the society. To weed out unsuitable candidates, Plato suggests that in the course of their education potential Rulers should be given various tests to see if they are likely to be bewitched by the pursuit of their own pleasure: their reactions to temptation will be closely monitored and only those who demonstrate complete devotion to the well-being of the community will be chosen to rule. They will be very few in number.
None of the Guardians will be allowed to own personal property, and even their children will be treated in common. In fact Plato provides a radical solution to the family: he wants to abolish it and replace it with state nurseries in which children are looked after unaware of who their parents are. This is supposed to increase loyalty to the state since children brought up in this way won’t have confusing loyalties to family members.
Even sexual intercourse is regulated: citizens are only allowed to have sex at special festivals when they are paired off by lot – or at least, that’s what the participants are led to believe. In fact the Rulers fix the outcome of the mating lottery so that only those of good breeding stock will be allowed to procreate. Thus Plato’s republic has its own form of eugenics designed to produce strong and courageous children. At birth all children are taken away from their mothers to be reared by specially appointed officers. Children of inferior Guardians and any ‘defective’ offspring of the Workers are disposed of.
Role of Women
Not all of Plato’s proposals in The Republic are as offensive as these plans for selective breeding and infanticide. Unlike most of his contemporaries, he thought that women should be given the same education as men, should be allowed to fight alongside them, and become Guardians if they showed aptitude. It is true that he still believed that men would surpass women at every activity. Even so, his proposals were radical at a time when married middle-class women were virtual prisoners in their own homes.
The Myth of the Metals
The success of the state depends upon its citizens’ loyalty to the land and to each other. In order to assure this loyalty Plato suggests that all classes of society be encouraged to believe a myth about their origins. The ‘magnificent myth’ or ‘noble lie’, as it is sometimes translated, is as follows. Everyone sprang from the earth fully formed: memories of upbringing and education are just a dream. In fact all citizens are siblings since they are all the children of Mother Earth. This should make them loyal both to the land (their mother) and to each other (their brothers and sisters).
The myth has another aspect. God, when he created each individual, added metal to their composition. He added gold to the Rulers; silver to the Auxiliaries; and bronze and iron to the Workers. God instructed the Rulers to observe the mixture of metals in the characters of children. If a child with bronze in his or her composition is born of gold parents, then they must harden their hearts and consign him or her to the life of a Worker; if a Worker’s child has gold or silver in him or her, then the child must be brought up as a Ruler or Auxiliary as appropriate. This myth is intended to produce not only loyalty, but contentment with your station in life. The class that you belong to is determined by factors outside your control.
The Just State and the Just Individual
Because the ideal state he describes is perfect, Plato believes it must possess the qualities of wisdom, courage, self-discipline and justice. He takes it for granted that these are the four cardinal virtues of any perfect state. Wisdom is due to the Rulers’ knowledge, which allows them to make wise decisions for the benefit of the state; courage is demonstrated by the Auxiliaries, whose training has made them brave and fearless in defence of the state; self-discipline arises from the harmony between the three classes, with the unruly desires of the majority being held in check by the wise decisions of the Rulers; and lastly, justice is evident in the state as a result of each person taking care of his or her own business in the sense of doing what he or she is naturally fitted for. Anyone who attempts social mobility is a potential threat to the state’s stability.
The ideal state exhibits the four cardinal virtues because of its division into three classes and because of the harmonious balance between their assigned roles. Analogously, Plato insists, each individual consists of three parts, and the qualities of wisdom, courage, self-discipline and justice all depend on the harmonious interplay between these parts of the individual.
The Three Parts of the Soul
The word ‘soul’ suggests something more spiritual than is appropriate: although Plato believes in the immortality of the soul, what he writes about the three parts of the soul in The Republic doesn’t turn on the soul being separable from the body, or even on its being something distinct from the body. His interest here is really in the psychology of motivation. The three parts of the soul he identifies are Reason, Spirit and Desire.
Reason corresponds to the role of the Rulers in the ideal state. Like the Rulers, Reason can plan for the good of the whole entity: unlike the other parts of the soul, it is not self-interested. Reason has the capacity to make plans about how best to achieve certain ends; but it also involves the love of truth.
Spirit is that part of the personality which provides emotional motivation for action in the form of anger, indignation and the like. When subject to the proper training Spirit is the source of bravery and courage. Spirit corresponds to the rol...