The characters in the Republic are one skeptical bunch. Constantly challenging what others claim, they won't rest until they've completely understood a problem from every angle. If you think reading the Republic is exhausting, imagine being one of the characters in it. They're totally invested in the discussion, and they're not taking anything on faith.
You'd need that kind of investment to keep up the high level of scrutiny every topic in this book receives, considering the whole thing is upwards of 300 pages long. When's the last time you had a philosophical discussion that could have filled 300 pages?
This is kind of a no-brainer, since the Republic is nothing if not... you know, philosophical literature. A super important quality of Plato's take on philosophical literature is the fact that it's formatted as a philosophical dialogue, which is really a fancy way of saying "conversation."
Instead of just laying out his philosophical principals in a nice, clear, organized textbook kind of way, he chooses to tell stories about people's conversations, so that sometimes, the philosophical principles can be difficult to find and remember. It also means that we always have to stay on our toes as readers, because there's no overarching narrator telling us "this is true" or "this guy is right." We have to make those calls on our own.
Socrates often seems to contradict himself, and he often makes weird jokes, which suggests that there's more at stake for Plato in the concept of "philosophy" than simply a bunch of doctrines. The dialogue form shows us not just what philosophy is all about; it also shows us how to go about doing it. In that sense, the most important thing in Plato's dialogues isn't necessarily the philosophical conclusions that are reached; it's the process of getting there that's most important.
That fits with Socrates's main concern: getting people to question themselves and their reality. Because searching for philosophical truth is a lifetime endeavor, it makes sense that Plato places a lot of focus on the process itself of questioning and searching.
Philosophy might be more about engaging in thoughtful conversation with your friends than about everyone agreeing in the best or right way to do something. A lot of people have agreed with Plato about this: the dialogue became a very popular philosophical format, especially during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance (hey there, Utopia).
Believe it or not, the English title The Republic may not actually be the most accurate translation of this dialogue's Greek title Politeia.
"Politeia" means something much closer to our word "regime," which actually makes a bit more sense. Considering that Plato's city is an aristocracy in which the state controls practically every part of life, calling it a "republic," with the democratic associations that word has, is definitely a stretch. Socrates is more interested in simply proposing and examining different types of governments— or regimes—to see which one best fits his philosophical ideals.
Why all this mix-up? Well, it's actually a testament to just how popular Plato's dialogue was, even way back in Ancient Rome. Cicero, a famous Roman philosopher and statesmen, was a big Plato fan—so much so that he wanted to write his own version of the Republic, which he called in Latin Res publica. See the connection? We've just inherited his version of the Greek title.
And in case you were wondering why a book mostly about justice doesn't mention justice anywhere in the title, it actually has a little-known subtitle: "on the just." So you can calm down.
After telling everyone the lengthy myth of Er (which you can find out more about in our "Symbols" section), Socrates abruptly wraps things up by hoping, for the good of everyone's soul, that he's been persuasive. Not so surprising, right?
But what is surprising is the fact that Socrates says it doesn't matter whether you choose to believe his complex philosophical proofs or whether you just choose to believe this good story about Er he's just told. Either way, you end up saved. But if this little story is just as meaningful as the incredibly intricate, confusing, and large-scale philosophical debate he's had for over 300 pages, what does that say about philosophy?
Well, it's impossible to know for sure, but it seems pretty hard to believe that Socrates would be suggesting that philosophy is a waste of time. Instead, Socrates is suggesting that the language of philosophy—you know, kind of dense, complicated, sometimes boring—isn't the only way to communicate the ideas of philosophy. The ideas are still important, but you can find simpler and more entertaining ways to make them clear.
Of course, there's maybe a bit of elitism going on here, too. Socrates still thinks the most important way to gain truth is through the rigors and challenges of philosophical speculation, so he thinks the best, smartest people should be capable of handling that. The myth of Er is a story for those who can't comprehend the complexities of philosophy. Those people get this myth instead.
But Socrates's pessimism about the capacity of people to understand philosophical language hasn't really come true. Thousands and thousands of people over many, many centuries have read and struggled through the Republic, facing its challenges head on.
Socrates's attitude toward the myth of Er, by the way, also complicates his statements about poetry. If storytelling can achieve the same or similar ends as philosophical reasoning, what does that say about poetry? Is all poetry imitative? Can even imitative poetry achieve philosophical ends, provided it tells the right kind of story? There are certainly "imitative" aspects of the myth of Er, and yet Socrates is totally okay with this story.
We're not going to get any easy answers on this topic, but we think that Socrates wouldn't mind us questioning him.
How important can setting be for a book that's one long conversation? Hint: pretty important. Being the port of Athens, a major and powerful city-state in ancient Greece, Piraeus was a place to meet people from all over the world—and to hear about how things like government and justice went down outside of Greece. It's no accident that this debate about the best kind of life takes place somewhere that's filled with people who all live in completely different ways.
Piraeus was also important because in 404 BCE, about 10 years after this dialogue is set, some serious political drama went down. When some nasty dudes named The Thirty Tyrants tried to take over Athens, the resistance to that takeover was based in Piraeus. In fact, the historical Polemarchus, in whose home the Republic takes place, was killed by these tyrants.
So if you weren't convinced of the real-world stakes of all this abstract and theoretical philosophizing, you should be now. Socrates is debating about the value of democracy with people who were directly involved in fighting—and dying—to save it.
Plato's Republic is the real deal. It's going to be a challenge—it's a challenge for everybody.
Since the Republic is primarily a work of philosophy, there isn't much of a conventional plot to move you along. All you have is the abstract thought-processes of Socrates to keep you on track. And Socrates may be a total genius, but that doesn't mean that he's always clear or straightforward. Lots of abstract concepts get mentioned without being defined, and shifts between big universals and the little, itty-bitty details can happen suddenly to confuse us.
But keep in mind that even people who have been reading Plato for years find him difficult, so difficulty shouldn't be a reason not to give the Republic a go. Remember that what's important about the Republic isn't just all the complicated proofs of this and that, it's the process of self-discovery and self-knowledge that's most important, and that is totally something you can get from reading this, even if you don't understand every single thing.
And hey, you've got Shmoop here at your back when things get tough.
For awe-inspiring drama or tear-worthy poetry, you should look elsewhere than Plato's Republic. Although we see flashes of personality from Socrates and a few of the other characters, the emphasis really is on the philosophical dialogue.
In fact, the Republic is Plato's least "story-like" dialogue: it emphasizes the terms and ideas under scrutiny more clearly—and more exclusively—than most of Plato's other works do. The writing style is absolutely precise when it sets up terms like "the forms" or "the good," and it constantly returns to those terms over and over again. You really do get the sense that you can leave the Republic with a Platonic vocabulary of key words that get elaborated and redefined as the dialogue progresses.
This Platonic vocabulary, however, does get a little complicated by the fact that Plato wrote the Republic in Ancient Greek. What we work with today is a set of terms and principles, like "the forms," that have been translated from Greek. Luckily, since Plato is so important, and his ideas have been so influential, the terminology of Plato's philosophy has been more of less standardized in English.
But it's good to remember that even the best translation is still an approximation of the original, so the more you can learn about what exactly Plato means when he uses certain words, the better able you'll be to make sense of what he's saying.
The allegory of all allegories, Plato's Allegory of the Cave is not the rosiest take on the reality of human existence. You might even call it downright bleak: it envisions the world as a dark cave, human beings as trapped prisoners, and all of our experiences as nothing but shadows on a wall. "See human beings as though they were in an underground cave-like dwelling," instructs Socrates, "with its entrance, a long one, open to the light across the whole width of the cave" (514a).
Imagine a cave with a small tunnel of light leading out and hundreds of human beings tied up so that they can't move—they just stare straight ahead all day long (creepy, we know). But they do get a little entertainment: there's a rockin' shadow-puppet show projected on the wall in front of them with a fire burning in the back for light. Since this show is all these poor people can see, they think it's the best, most awesome reality ever. They chat about it, gossip, call people names... you know, the usual.
So that's how life goes down in the cave until one day, one of the prisoners manages to break free and begins to figure out what's going on. It takes a while for his eyes to adjust, but gradually, he sees that there is a much brighter speck of light at the end of another tunnel. So out he goes... and wow, you can imagine how amazing and beautiful the real world looks to him compared to that two-dimensional, dark cave he's spent all his life in.
Feeling sorry for all his fellow prisoners, the freed prisoner goes back down and explains to everyone that they're all trapped in this massive cave, and everything they think is real is an illusion. Guess what? They think he's nuts. He keeps trying to convince them, and he's finally able to persuade a few... but the rest choose to remain where they are.
All right, so what's the deal with this wacky story? Well, the prisoners in the cave, we're sad to say, are us: human beings. We think the real world around us is the cat's pajamas, but we are oh so wrong. That one prisoner who freed himself and realized this? That dude's a philosopher. Philosophers are brave enough to leave the familiarity of the cave and explore the real world of light.
So what's the real world of light? Well, that would be Plato's concept of "the forms," which you can learn more about in our "Forms" section. What you need to know here is that the forms are what Plato believes is true reality. By pursuing philosophical knowledge with courage and persistence, you can get to a place where you can actually see them. Once you do see them, you'll never be satisfied with the ho-hum world most of us see. You'll even try to get your friends to pursue them with you, but like the freed prisoner everyone laughed at, plenty of people just won't believe you.
Even though Plato's Allegory of the Cave can seem pretty darn bleak, remember that it's meant to be a wake-up call for everyone to stop settling for an imperfect, unexplored life. Since Plato believed that human beings could eventually free themselves and head upwards to the real world by leading a life of philosophical consideration, the Allegory's bleakness is really meant to be motivational, to make people understand how limiting and self-defeating an "unexamined life" can be.
It's also meant to remind people that they should be skeptical of everything. Yep, even of what's right in front of your eyes. The key to being a philosophical person is to take everything you encounter in life as an opportunity for scrutiny and self-improvement.
Plato was definitely going for shock value with this haunting image—and shock is what he got. The Allegory of Cave has become one of the most unforgettable, talked-about moments in the history of philosophy. In one way or another, almost every major philosophical viewpoint since Plato has responded to, attacked, or reimagined this foundational image of human existence.
Famously described as a "noble lie" by Socrates (414c), the myth of metals demonstrates how lying, if it's for the good of a city, can actually be a good thing for ruler to do. (So says Plato, anyway.)
The story goes that once upon time, Mother Nature invented all human beings and mixed different metals—gold, silver, bronze or iron—into their characters. Rulers have gold in their characters, workers have iron, and so on for all different classes and professions.
Obviously not true, right? Not important. Plato imagines that a nice, simple little story like this will make it easier to rule since 1) everyone will think of their social class as an extension of their inner character (so no complaining), and 2) everyone will know they have a common mother, so they will treat each other peacefully.
You probably know that the Greek world was filled with myths, so it's especially interesting to see here how Plato is acknowledging, and exploiting, the fact that myths are just stories people make up. Did we mention that Socrates was sentenced to death for impiety to the gods?
Yeah. This kind of stuff doesn't make everyone super happy.
The myth of Er is essentially the 411 on the afterlife. Just like the myth of metals, it's a "noble lie" meant to convince people who don't, or can't, make their way through the Republic that living a just and thoughtful life is the way to go. It tells the story of a man named Er who comes back from the dead and reports on everything he saw there: "And when [Er] himself came forward, [the judges of the dead] said that he had to become a messenger to human beings of the things there, and they told him to listen and look at everything in the place" (614d).
In the underworld, Er sees how greatly just living is rewarded and how badly unjust living is punished. He also sees how, since there's reincarnation, you can end up with a really bad next life if you don't have the proper judgment to choose a good one. In other words, Plato is concerned that not everyone will buy, or have the intelligence to understand, his fancy-pants philosophical explanations for the benefit of justice. So what does he do? He tells a scary story about the underworld to try the fear-as-motivation route.
We haven't forgotten how down on poetry Socrates constantly is, but seriously, one of the awesome things about the myth of Er is that it's a poetic—we might even say epic—way to end this dialogue. You know what epic heroes always do? Yep, go the underworld. (Check out the Odyssey and the Aeneid if you don't believe us).
We think Plato might be just a little bit jealous of all the attention the epic gets... and maybe, just maybe, he wants to channel some of that flash and fame toward philosophy. See, philosophy can involve cool stories about heroes, too. Right?
We're sorry to say that just because you might be a big Law & Order fan, it doesn't mean you're going to have an easy time with Plato's understanding of justice. We often think of justice from the perspective of our own legal system, but Plato is interested in thinking about it as a philosophical principle that determines how we should behave. It doesn't necessarily matter if it's part of the legal system or not.
The whole problem of justice begins in the Republic when Socrates questions Cephalus's idea that justice means telling the truth and giving people back what belongs to them. Socrates imagines that if you borrowed a sword from one of your friends who then went bonkers, it would not be just to give the bonkers friend his sword back.
So, justice is a bit more complicated. So complicated, in fact, that Socrates decides they need to imagine a city just to make sense of it. Socrates compares a well-run city to a well-run person, thereby suggesting that his definition of justice will work for both big political structures and for regular old individuals.
It turns out that there are two big issues to solve: 1) what is justice, and 2) will acting justly make you happy? While there's no one definition of justice offered in the Republic—remember, it's a dialogue, not an essay—Socrates does conclude that justice is 1) doing what you're best suited to do and 2) minding your own business (433a-433b).
What Socrates means is that justice is about unity and order, since great harm comes from any kind of internal strife or external distraction. In this way, justice is related to his favorite Delphic saying, "know thyself," since self-knowledge is also a process of ordering yourself and knowing what you should do.
Because justice is about order and harmony, Socrates then goes on to claim that acting justly makes you happier. Using the example of a powerful and wealthy tyrant, Socrates explains that even if this guy has a lot of creature comforts, he's actually miserable, because without justice to order his life, he's always doubting himself, doubting other people, and fearing for his life.
Yeah, we'll stick to justice, thank you very much.
There's no Frodo here, folks: this ring of invisibility goes back way before Tolkien wrote his famous trilogy, or even before Tolkien's great-great-great-great-great grandparents were born.
This story belongs to Glaucon, who is trying to encourage Socrates to provide a better definition of justice. The story Glaucon tells is a thought experiment in which he attempts to demonstrate that people only act justly because they are worried about their reputations. They worry that if they act unjustly, other people will act unjustly to them.
Glaucon describes how, once upon a time, a man found a ring. When he turned it a certain direction, he suddenly became invisible. Now, what did this man do then? Save the world? Nope. He acted completely unjustly all the time. He knew that acting unfairly was actually a great way to get ahead, and now that no one would ever know what he was doing, he could do whatever he wanted.
Glaucon says that even if there were two of these rings, and they came into the possession of someone just and someone unjust, the just person would act in exactly the same way as the unjust person—meaning the just person would act unjustly, too. Bummer.
But remember: Socrates ultimately meets this challenge by showing that justice is actually something that can make you happier (check out our section on "Justice" for more). So this ring of invisibility story is only a temporary downer. Sweet.
Forget college applications—Plato's forms have nothing to do with paperwork. The forms are what Plato believes to be true reality. Suspicious of the imperfections in the world around us, Plato challenges the idea that what we see in front of us with our own eyes is truly real. Instead, he thinks this world is a collection of imperfect copies of perfect objects, concepts, and ideas called the forms.
Let's take a classic example: the chair. You know a chair, right? Right. So, our world is filled with all kinds of different chairs: big chairs, small chairs, uncomfortable chairs, plastic chairs, E.T. the Extraterrestrial chairs—but up in the world of the forms, there's just one completely perfect chair, and all the chairs in our world are poor imitations of that one perfect, true, chair.
While this may sound wacky, Plato's theory of the forms helps clear up the pesky philosophical problem of universals. Or, in plain English: considering how radically different so many versions of a chair can be, how is it that we are still able to recognize them all as chairs? For Plato, the answer is that up in the world of forms, this one perfect chair represents "chairness" itself, the mysterious quality that makes all chairs chairs, even if one is pink and squishy, another green and prickly. This is why the forms are Plato's representation of truth: they are the true essence of everything we see, know, and think.
For Plato, the forms are a big deal because understanding what they are is the true goal of all philosophy. And while contemplating the true nature of "chairness" may sound a little nuts, remember that what Plato is really concerned with are things like "justice" and "the good." You can imagine that knowing the true essence of these things—and not just the imperfect versions we have—might be pretty important.
In fact, the form of the good is especially important for Plato since it works a little bit differently from the way other forms work. The form of the good is kind of like a super form, since it is what enables all other forms to be understandable. In other words, you can't understand anything if you don't understand the good first, since the good is at the basis of everything.
Plato compares the form of the good to sunlight, which makes things visible and keeps them alive. For this reason, the form of the good, more than any other form, it the most important goal of philosophy. Unfortunately for us, it's also one of the most confusing and complex of the forms, so don't be frustrated if you're not entirely getting it: even Plato scholars struggle with it.
What we know for sure is that Plato thought knowledge and goodness were totally connected, and it's his theory of the forms that helps him illustrate this crucial link.
Also known as the republic itself, Plato's imaginary city has been a source of fascination for both philosophers and authors since the book was written. Part of the reason it has such wide appeal is that Plato fuses both intensely complex and radical philosophical ideals with some seriously imaginative and creative world making. So, in order to do justice (pun totally intended) to Plato's invented city, let's review some of its major attributes:
Since Socrates and his pals come up with this imaginary city as a way to understand the concept of justice in individuals, Socrates draws some crucial parallels between the organization of this city and the organization of the human soul. Socrates sees the city as having three main classes of people: philosophical types (the kings), energetic and courageous types (the soldiers), and your basic, everyday worker types (everyone else).
Socrates then says that the soul is organized in the same way. There's a rational and philosophical part, an energetic part, and what he calls an "appetitive" part (which just means that it's concerned with your day-to-day biological needs and desires). Just as the city is ruled by kings, whom soldiers and citizens follow, so too should your soul be guided by reason and not by anything else. So there you go.
Plato has a long and infamous beef with poetry and poets. Since so much about Plato seems kind of creative, and even literary, readers have puzzled over why Plato is so down on poetry. It's a mystery—and not one we can necessarily solve. But what we can explain are the two reasons Plato gives in the Republic for censoring and banning the poets.
For Plato, the big problem with poetry is this little thing called imitation (or, in Greek, mimesis). Imitation is just a word Plato uses to describe the way in which art imitates life: a poem describing a hero is imitating heroism, for example. Plato is not a fan of imitation in poetry for two reasons: 1) it can lead to bad habits, and 2) it takes us further, instead of closer, to the forms (check out "The Forms").
According to Plato, poetic imitation can lead to bad habits because it requires the poet (or, in the theater, an actor) to pretend to be something he isn't: an animal, a woman, a tyrant, and so on. The reader (or listener) does the same when experiencing his poetry. Plato worries that the more you pretend you're one of these things, the more you're actually going to become like them. So if you've just been cast as Voldemort in your school play... well, you might want to re-think that.
Plato's second objection is that poetry takes us further away from the truth of the forms. As we discuss in our section on "The Forms," Plato believes that these forms, and not the world around us, are the true reality. This means that the world around us is already an imitation of the forms: the particular chair I'm sitting in is an imitation of the perfect form of The Chair.
So that means that a nice poem about a chair is, you guessed it... an imitation of an imitation. No good. Since Plato believes that understanding the forms is the highest goal of philosophy, you can start to see why this is such an issue. Poetry leads us in the wrong direction, away from the truth and closer to mere shadows.
Now, one thing Plato doesn't talk about is what happens when poetry isn't imitative. Like, what if a poem isn't trying to imitate anything? What if it's actually trying to get us closer to the true form of a chair, for example? Wouldn't that complicate things, like, a lot? Plato doesn't talk about this, but it's important to keep it in mind before you go shredding your volume of Emily Dickinson.
Even though the Republic is technically a "dialogue," we hear all about this dialogue from Plato himself. Now, Plato must have had a killer memory to keep track of this 300-page discussion—assuming this is even an accurate transcription of a real dialogue that actually happened, which is unlikely.
While Socrates doesn't spend a lot of time sharing his feelings, we do get a sneak peak at his anxiety during his argument with an angry Thrasymachus: "I was astounded when I heard [Thrasymachus], and, looking at him, I was frightened" (336d).
Socrates's (and Plato's) potential unreliability as a narrator also comes out a few times when he reveals that he's been making some edits in how things happened: "Now, Thrasymachus did not agree to all of this so easily as I tell it now..." (350d). It's possible that Plato is reminding us that we're reading Socrates's version of events and is inviting us to not necessarily trust every detail he describes.
Although no one seems obviously oppressed or unhappy in the opening of the Republic, as the dialogue goes on, a clear sense of discontentment with the present emerges. Some characters seem simply intellectually frustrated—they know that they're capable of more—but others, most especially Socrates, seem deeply discouraged with the state of things in general: politics, morality, religion, education, etc. Even though he doesn't describe it in this Platonic dialogue (it's in the Phaedrus), Socrates believed he was called to devote his life to spreading the truth of philosophy when confronted with the inscription "know thyself" at the Delphic oracle. How could he waste his time with anything else?
Now obviously, Plato's Republic isn't literally a quest—it's metaphorically one—so things change and develop intellectually or mentally, rather than physically. In this sense, Plato's entire definition of philosophy is a journey, one that lasts your entire life. But, to bring things back to the immediate, the micro-journey that occurs in the book would be their elaborate and difficult debate on the nature of justice before Socrates invents the republic. And you have to admit, between Thrasymachus's threats and Socrates's doubts, it's definitely a road full of dangers and obstacles.
After so much debating, they finally come to an agreement on the easiest and clearest way to solve their philosophical dilemma: found an imaginary city (obviously). However, even though this will ultimately prove a crucial turning point, founding the city opens up problems and consequences they never imagined. A simple resolution to their quest for the truth looks less and less possible.
Even after they've described their city with a huge amount of detail, some big things still remain unclear. And the biggest—what is the good and what is philosophy—can best be communicated by a story called the allegory of the cave. You can get the full scoop in "Symbols, Imagery, and Allegory," but for now the important bit is that this little story is about... a quest! Yep, when Socrates gets to the big moment and has to describe what philosophy means, he tells a story about hardship, obstacles, and perseverance. Just like he and his friends will undergo all those things in order to get to the truth in this debate, so must everyone who wants to follow a philosophical life.
It's hard to believe, but this inquisitive bunch is ultimately able to come to an agreement about the nature of the good, of justice, and of an ideal city. But while there does seem to be some kind of intellectual resolution achieved by the characters, perhaps the more important resolution is that they've all witnessed, first-hand, the importance of philosophy and of critical thinking. So, unlike most quest narratives you'll read, you can actually reach this goal along with the characters.
If you want to hang out with Socrates, you need to be prepared for what that really means. When he and Glaucon arrive at his friend's house, your average "hey, how's it going?" small talk quickly turns way serious, as Socrates has some doubts about the concept of justice. As the discussion becomes more and more complex, it's amazing to think how just one little idea started the whole thing off.
It turns out that Socrates isn't the only one with some strong opinions about justice. One of the guests, Thrasymachus, even gets kind of aggressive and accuses Socrates of being an unfair debater. Although Thrasymachus' challenge if never directly answered, we're left wondering as the conversation goes on whether Thrasymachus was just rude or maybe on to something.
For a book entitled the Republic, it sure takes everyone a long time to actually invent one. But they finally do, and as they all work through the moral and practical challenges of this mental exercise, a whole lot of radical ideas come to the surface. Our gang reaches some pretty surprising conclusions about human nature and the best forms of government.
After a lot of debating and imaginary-city-building, the book ends when it seems to confirm that Socrates is right about justice. But maybe more importantly, it seems to confirm that philosophy as a discipline is a crucial and fundamental necessity of human life. So, while no one has actually founded a city, Socrates (or Plato?) definitely founded a school of thought.
Mysterious to the end, Socrates concludes this exhausting and complex dialogue by telling everyone a myth about a hero named Er, who goes to the underworld and comes back to tell people about it. Although it clearly carries through the themes of morality of justice and philosophy that Socrates has been talking about throughout the Republic, it's still an unexpected way to end a book about rational thinking and the dangers of poetry.
Although a lively and thought-provoking debate is clearly underway, it's hard to see how, with so many differing opinions and personalities, this group will actually get anywhere in its attempt to understand the meaning of justice.
Finally, Socrates has the inspired idea of inventing an imaginary city as a way to organize and focus their abstract and confusing debate. And, success: their production of an imaginary city proves to be both clearer and more thought provoking than what they were up to before. Details and topics related to the city keep them occupied for the majority of the conversation.
They've imagined a city, unpacked incredibly complicated concepts, overturned their most cherished ideals, and now they finally find some peace. Maybe even more amazingly, they seem to have found some answers. Can you imagine how satisfied you'd feel knowing you'd understood the very concept of justice and goodness? Not a bad way to end a book.