Supplement to Hauptli's Lecture Introducing Plato's Republic

     Copyright © 2017 Bruce W. Hauptli

Plato’s Republic is intended to advance his view as to how we ought to liveboth as individuals and in society.  For him, the most important thing will be for us to be just, and, thus, he must tell us what justice is!  As I have noted in lectures already, for Plato values aren’t “separate from the world.”  As Christine Korsgaard notes, in her “Excellence and Obligation: A Very Concise History of Western Metaphysics 387 BC to 1887 AD:”

Plato and Aristotle came to believe that value was more real than experienced fact, indeed that the real world is, in a way, value itself.  They came to see the world we experience as being, in its very essence, a world of things that are trying to be much better than they are, and that really are much better than they seem....Plato believed that the essence of a thing is the form in which it participates.  A thing’s true nature and its perfect nature are one and the same.  Form, which is value, is more real than the things which appear to us to participate in but fall short of it.  Aristotle believed that the actuality of a thing is its form, which makes it possible for the thing to do what it does and therefore to be what it is....For Plato and Aristotle, being guided by value is a matter of being guided by the way things ultimately are. 
In ethics, this way of viewing the world leads to what we might call the idea of excellence.  Being guided by the way things really are is, in this case, being guided by the way you really are.  The form of a thing is its perfection, but it is also what enables the thing to be what it is.  So the endeavor to realize perfection is just the endeavor to be what you are—to be good at being what you are.  And so the ancients thought of human virtue as a kind of excelling, of excellence.[1] 

We are no longer at all puzzled about why the world, being good, is yet not good.  Because for us, the world is no longer first and foremost form.  It is matter.  This is what I mean when I say that there has been a revolution, and that the world has been turned inside out.  The real is no longer the good.  For us, reality is something hard, something which resists reason and value, something which is recalcitrant to form.[2] 

So Plato wants to show us how to actualize the true value which is our “form”—to be guided by “the way we really are.”  His pursuit of knowledge here is not to provide us with “power over the world,” but, rather, over ourselves—as Michael Williams notes in his Problems of Knowledge: A Critical Introduction to Epistemology:

for both ancients and moderns, knowledge is power.  But whereas for the moderns this means power over the world, for the ancients it means power over oneself.[3] 

     Of course, Plato does not believe that society as it was constituted promotes such excellence (or arÍte).  In her Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform In Liberal Education, Martha Nussbaum points out that:

...the reader knows what the characters do not know—that some years after the peaceful scene of philosophical discussion depicted here, they will be embroiled on opposing sides in a violent political conflict that will result in death for three of them and risk of life for them all.  A group of oligarchs known as the Thirty Tyrants will seize power in Athens, lead by members of Plato’s own family.  Using slogans appealing to the notion of justice (“we must cleanse the city of the unjust”), they will set about enriching themselves in any way they can, arranging political charges against wealthy citizens in order to seize their property.  Plato intends his reader to recall a famous speech by the orator Lysias—a silent character in the Republic, brother of the prominent character Polemarchus—in which he describes the brutal murder of his brother and his own narrow escape.  So great was the greed of the new antidemocratic rulers, he exclaims, that they dragged Polemarchus’ wife out into the courtyard and ripped the gold earrings out of her ears.  And all the while they said that their motive was justice.[4] 

But while Plato believes that individuals and states were almost wholly inappropriately organized for the production of arÍte, he believed we have no choice but to endeavor to change both together so as to instantiate the “ideal.”  His strategy was to provide an argument for, and characterization of, this ideal for us.  This is no small task.  Effectively Plato is going to try and tell you that his view of the ideal state and individual identify what is, in fact, intrinsically valuable.[5]  Since it is unlikely many did, have, or will value what he values, he clearly has an uphill battle!  This is what makes his effort so intellectually interesting! 

     Before we can talk about his argument, we need to have a clearer initial understanding of the outlines of his orientation.  Toward this end, I will offer a racing car metaphor—harmony and parts in the right order.  Parts of the soul [psyche—clarify ‘soul’] and parts of the state. 



-Health and disease—a "psychoanalytic" metaphor.  

In the background his view involves at least the following as central linchpins:

-an acceptance of a “Tyranny of Reason:”

-self-mastery vs. slavery. 

-types of men—think of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (Lenny and George).[6] 

-a moral, yet paternalistic, conception of the state.  Sailing ship metaphor and the choice of captain—once we have found such a captain, would we ever choose to over-ride his/her orders? 

-a commitment to censorshipshould he be in favor of it? 

--In his “The Reason Why Not,” Stuart Hampshire maintains that:

in The Republic, Plato suggested that the need for justice arises from an individual’s experience of inner conflict and that morality enters as a negative force which prohibits unworthy desires.  With their domain extended to social conflicts, justice and morality retain their essential negative character; they act, according to Plato, as a shield against the disruption and chaos of uncontrolled conflicts in the city.  For the tyranny of Plato’s philosophic wisdom we should substitute the fairness in public argument which always hears both sides in adversary reasoning, before deciding between them.  In all concerns about what we owe to others it is just and reasonable to be open to both sides in a conflict and to balance conflicting moral claims against each other.[7] 

--In his Wheels in the Head: Educational Philosophies of Authority, Freedom, and Culture from Socrates to Human Rights, Joel Spring draws out what he takes to be the core authoritarian character of Plato’s educational process, and he critiques Plato’s rejection of democracy:

using education to train individuals to sacrifice for the common good is premised on the belief that the common good can be defined by some element of the state.  In Plato’s Republic, philosopher-kings define the common good, while in Makarenko’s Soviet state the role is given to the Communist party.[8]  Of course, people must be taught to believe that the ruling group has the ability and authority to know the common good.  This type of education is aided by the use of patriotic exercises and the development of martial spirit, both of which are designed to link personal emotions to a belief in the ability of the state to proclaim the common good.  In other words, people learn to love to sacrifice their self-interest for the common good as defined by the state. 

  Of course, the flaw in this argument is the belief that particular individuals or groups have the ability and authority to know what is good for the rest of the population.  In most cases, what is defined as the common good is really what is good for the group making the definition.[9]   

Two Interpretations of the Republic:

In discussing the Republic, I will present two divergent readings of the text, and you should decide whether one or the other is the more plausible:

The “Aristocratic” reading: paternalism, the authoritarian state, and the social correlate of “self-mastery.” 

The “Democratic” reading: the Republic as an owner’s manual for the psyche—everyone is “capable” of self-mastery. 

A specific view of the role of education:

Metaphor of the cave [cf., 514-520] and the question: “Why return to the cave?” 

A view of man as a social/rational animal. 

Notes: (click on note number to return to text for the note)

[1] Christine Korsgaard, “Excellence and Obligation: A Very Concise History of Western Metaphysics 387 BC to 1887 AD,” in The Sources of Normativity, ed. Onora O’Neill (Cambridge: Cambridge U.P., 1996), pp. 1-5, pp. 2-3.  Emphasis added to the passage (bold and highlight). 

[2] Ibid., pp. 4-5. 

[3] Problems of Knowledge: A Critical Introduction to Epistemology, Michael Williams (N.Y.: Oxford U.P., 2001), p. 9. 

[4] Martha Nussbaum, Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform In Liberal Education (Cambridge: Harvard U.P., 1997), pp 22-23. 

[5] An intrinsically valuable goal, or activity, is one that is pursued for its own sake.  Such values are contrasted with extrinsic values--here the goal or activity is valued for what it will allow one to achieve.  Health, for example, might be intrinsically valuable (good-in-itself), while wealth is usually conceived of as extrinsically valuable (good-for-what-it-can-get-us). 

[6] Cf., John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men (N.Y.: Covici-Friede, 1937). 

[7] Stuart Hampshire, “The Reason Why Not,” New York Review of Books v. 46 (April 22, 1999), pp. 21-23, p. 22. 

[8] Anton Makarenko was the leading Soviet theoretician of education under Joseph Stalin's rule, and was, perhaps, the most famous of Soviet educators.  He developed and advanced a pedagogy meant to promote a self-governing child employing educational collectives for street children and children who were orphans because of the Russian revolution.  He argued there should be integration between the activities of the many educational institutions (schools, families, productive collectives, and both public and private organizations.  In its article on him Wikipedia maintains that: “among his key ideas were “as much exigence towards the person as possible and as much respect for him as possible”, the use of positive peer pressure on the individual by the collective; and institutionalized self-government and self-management of that collective” ( accessed 01/28/15).  The article goes on to note that: “like most things Soviet, Makarenko's ideas came under heavy criticism after the fall of communism. His system has been accused of many of the same supposed faults as Soviet Communism in general, such as giving the child collective too much power over the individual child.” 

[9] Joel Spring, Wheels in the Head: Educational Philosophies of Authority, Freedom, and Culture from Socrates to Human Rights (second edition) (N.Y.: McGraw-Hill, 1999), p. 12.  Anton Makarenko was the leading Soviet theoretician of education under Joseph Stalin's rule. 

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File revised on 03/13/17