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Plato’s Republic: Perspectives on Politics Essay

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Updated: Sep 8th, 2021

Plato’s Republic is arguably the most discussed and most controversial philosophical work ever written. Scholars trained extensively in the subtleties and nuances οf interpretive controversies easily forget what it is like to be a student first encountering this elusive and puzzling work. Steeped in our learned debates, we find ourselves at odds with our students as we teach this work–for we are anxious to get to the delights οf our interpretive contests, whereas they find the extent οf learned disagreement about the work both baffling and off-putting. No doubt to avoid engendering such reactions in their first experiences with Plato, Rice has sought to minimize the buzz οf controversy virtually to the point οf elimination from view and to focus instead on how well the Republic can serve to awaken and to inspire philosophical thought in the novice.

There is something to be said for such an approach. The problem for a reviewer, then, is how much to expect from a mere 142 pages. In fairness, the answer is probably “not much,” but even so, it is probably worth noting that this little book could do a great deal more at least to identify what some οf the most famous interpretive problems are, regarding the Republic.

Rice has a few casual things to say, for example, about the apparent differences in style between Book I and the other books οf the Republic, but nothing specific to say about the Socratic elenchus, other than that in showing Socrates refuting people as he does in Book I, “Plato was not out to convince persons like Thrasymachus οf anything positive about justice”. If we accept the standard view, as Rice tentatively does that Book I may reasonably be understood as belonging with the “early” period group οf Plato’s dialogues in representing the historical Socrates – then Rice’s anti-constructive conception οf Socrates’s elenctic philosophizing cannot be squared with what Plato’s Socrates says οf what he does and why he does it, in several different dialogues, such as the Apology, Crito, and Gorgias. In these other elenctic dialogues, Socrates characterizes himself as arguing for and against certain positions, even though his logical style is that οf reductio ad absurdum.

According to Rice, Plato chose the dialogue format at least because it was so well suited to showing how “philosophical questions emerge in the ordinary course οf life”, that “philosophy is rooted in ordinary life”. Rice is clever enough to recognize that this explanation, however, confronts Plato with a problem: after all, Plato’s Republic argues for several practices that would, as Rice puts it, “shut down, or at least severely limit, the dialogue by which he says philosophy initially advances”. But it wasn’t Plato who said that philosophy advances only by dialogue involving anyone who might like to engage in it–this was Rice’s view, one which might easily enough be derived from the way Plato’s Socrates behaves in the “early period” dialogues. Given Rice’s concession that something seems to have changed by the time we get to the “middle period” dialogues (and Books II-X οf the Republic), it seems at least worth questioning whether this view οf why Plato used the dialogue form (in the “middle” period and hence in the Republic) is the correct one.

Perhaps the most notorious οf the prescriptions that would limit the grass-roots advancement οf philosophizing is Plato’s call for “useful falsehoods”. Rice resolves this paradox, with only the myth οf the metals in mind, by saying that Plato “does not intend for just anyone in his ideal city to read the Republic”. There is every reason to doubt that Plato would have anyone in his ideal city read the Republic, for some οf the lies Plato advocates will be told to members οf the guardian class – for example, the lies about the phony “breeding lottery” (see Rep. V. 460a). Those guardians who were past their time for breeding would presumably have little use for the “wisdom” included in the Republic, itself–having gone well beyond it in their education in the Kallipolis or having proved unworthy οf such further education. Just because the Republic would not be suitable reading material for the members οf the Kallipolis, οf course does not require us to assume some radical stance on whether Plato could suppose that it might be suitable reading for those οf us who have not had the benefit οf growing up in an ideal state. Nonetheless, one might reasonably hope that Rice would avoid such problems altogether, in seeking to provide an easy introduction to students, than to create problems that the text itself might not need to confront, and then to fail to solve the relevant problems satisfyingly.

I think that one οf the best ways to introduce students to the Republic is in fact to introduce them to some οf the very interpretive issues that Rice has ignored, starting, οf course, with the text itself, to show how such problems get motivated. If Rice had shared this view, he would surely have asked some pointed questions about Plato’s analogy οf soul and state–for example, is it true that just people (souls) and just states are just in the same sense οf “justice”? I do not need to remind the readers οf this journal οf how many traditional scholarly problems are generated by Plato’s analogy, but one wouldn’t get any sense that there was any problem here from reading Rice’s book.

Rice’s understanding οf the analogy, moreover, strikes me as problematical. According to Rice, Plato’s analogy requires city and soul to have similar morphologies, if this analogy is to hold; but even though Plato does seem to argue in this way, it is at least worrisome that Plato’s original city (which Glaucon disparages as a “city οf pigs” [Rep. Il, 372d], but which Socrates claims to think is the “true” and “healthy” state [Rep. II, 372e]) does not have the tripartite morphology which Rice sees as essential to the analogy. Yet it was this original city that Socrates first provides to secure the “state” side οf the soul-state analogy. I think that the relevant similarity that secures the analogy is in the functions οf cities and souls, and their elements, but Rice does not consider the relevant arguments closely enough for the functional aspect οf justice to become clear. Rice similarly never looks closely at the way the soul is divided into the conveniently tripartite morphology. He understands the relevant arguments to turn on what Rice calls “the principle οf contradiction” (58; I suppose he means the principle οf non-contradiction) but fails to notice that not one οf Plato’s actual examples οf conflict in the soul violate any plausible construction οf the principle οf non-contradiction. There is extensive literature on the problems in these arguments, from which Rice has derived no benefit. The same can be said for the literature on the so-called “Sachs problem” (that Plato’s analogical defense οf justice rests on a logical equivocation on the sense οf “justice”); on the “happy philosopher problem” (that Plato’s philosophers’ unhappiness about ruling provides a counter-example to Plato’s defense οf justice, that justice is always preferable to injustice); on any οf Aristotle’s extensive criticisms (in Book Il οf the Politics) οf the social and political prescriptions Plato makes; or on any οf, the other famous problems scholars have written about, regarding the moral, political, and psychological arguments οf the Republic.

The same can be said for Rice’s often superficial treatments οf Plato’s epistemology and metaphysics, in chapter 4. According to Rice, the key to understanding this difficult and intricate aspect οf Plato’s philosophy may be found in the divided line passage (Rep. VI, 509d-511e). There is, perhaps, something to be said for this, but this approach will only work if we can be sure we have understood this critical passage correctly. From reading Rice’s book, we would have no idea that there is any problem here. The interpretation οf this very passage, however, may be the single most disputed issue in Platonic scholarship–indeed, there is at least one book devoted simply to giving a partial bibliography οf works devoted simply to this issue alone (La France, Yvon. 1986. Pour Interpreter Platon: La Ligne en Republique VI, 509d-511e. Bilan analytique des etudes [1804-1984]. Montreal: Bellarmin/Paris: Les Belles Lettres)! Rice also notices none οf the well-known problems in what is known as the “Two Worlds” interpretations οf Plato’s epistemology (according to which knowledge applies only to Forms and opinion applies only to sensible particulars). Rice himself seems committed to this interpretation οf Plato’s epistemology, which leads him to say that “Socrates squirms on the horns οf a dilemma” regarding answering the question as to how even Plato’s ideal state might be corrupted–as Plato insists all generated things must do. Rice thinks that Plato characterizes his Kallipolis, and the knowledge οf the philosopher-rulers, as perfect solutions to the problems posed by human imperfection. But this assumes, after all, that the philosophers’ perfect knowledge does apply to sensible particulars, such as those over which they would rule in a state, which cuts against the “Two Worlds” interpretation οf Plato’s epistemology, and it assumes that when it is applied to such unreliable objects, it achieves the same infallibility it is said to have when applied to non-sensible abstracts. There is certainly an interpretive problem here, but it is no good simply to describe Socrates as “squirming” over it, when the relevant failure may only be that οf an incomplete or faulty interpretation, as I would argue Rice’s is.

On the other hand, Rice does a wonderful job in chapter 4 οf motivating in a remarkably plausible way, how and why Plato would think that insensible abstracts are “more real” than sensible particulars. The book does a nice job, as well, on various topics, οf introducing students to the standard sorts οf comparisons one finds between Plato’s political theory and that οf later figures, such as Hobbes. Teachers οf introductory political theory classes, therefore, might find it useful despite its other gaps.

Works Cited

  1. H.C. Lawson-Tancred, Aristotle: The Art οf Rhetoric (London 1991), at p. 6 and p. 57 respectively.
  2. Charles Kahn, Plato, and the Socratic Dialogue: The Philosophical Use οf a Literary Form (Cambridge 1996), a work οf sober scholarship, not cited in Lawson-Tancred’s bibliography, although it covers essentially the same ground, and also sees Plato’s motives as procedural and educative; cf., for example, Kahn pp. xivf. and Lawson-Tancred at p. 3.
  3. Charles L. Griswold (ed.), Platonic Writings: Platonic Readings (New York and London 1988).
  4. Jacob Klein, Plato’s Trilogy: Theaetetus, the Sophist, and the Statesman (Chicago and London 1977) 1.
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IvyPanda. 2021. "Plato's Republic: Perspectives on Politics." September 8, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/platos-republic-perspectives-on-politics/.

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