Study Guide

The Republic Book III

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Book III

  • Picking up from their previous discussion on poetry and what it should portray, Socrates and friends agree that in order to make sure the citizens of this city are brave, they'll need to make sure that death isn't described as scary.
  • This means eliminating any poetic moment (and there are lots in Homer) in which death is described negatively or in which the afterlife is described as bad.
  • They also agree that no poetry should be allowed which shows role models and heroes lamenting or grieving about the death of a loved one. If death is an honorable and necessary reality, intelligent people aren't going to be sad that someone else has died.
  • Socrates also objects to grieving because it is an immoderate and ostentatious show of emotion, something he doesn't think is very macho or philosophical. For this reason, he also thinks they shouldn't allow too much laughter, either.
  • Next, they return to the topic of lying and repeat the idea that lying should only be tolerated as a necessary tool for the benefit of the city. For this reason, only guardians should be allowed to lie, and only if they know it will help the city—just as only a doctor should prescribe medicines, since only a doctor can understand which medicines will help a sick person, and under what conditions.
  • They also want to educate the youth in how to be moderate and temperate, avoiding extremes and being obedient. Socrates thinks that the areas of sex, drinking, and eating are where people are most likely to be immoderate, so they agree that they should ban any poetry that depicts a god or hero indulging in any of these.
  • They also don't want their youngsters to be too fond of receiving money and gifts for doing good deeds, so they (unsurprisingly) remove any stories that describe something like that.
  • Socrates also makes sure to mention that poetry should never depict the gods raping women (which, if you've read Ovid, you'll know happens all the time).
  • The idea is that if people read these kinds of things, they'll think that their bad deeds aren't that big of a deal, because, after all, the gods are out there doing whatever they want, whenever they want.

They Discuss Poetic Form

  • The gang finally wraps up its discussion of what poetry should represent by saying that it should never depict happy people as unjust. Instead, poetry should be used as a tool to promote the idea of justice.
  • Before leaving the topic of poetry, however, Socrates up and decides that he needs to talk not only about what poetry describes but also how poetry describes what it describes. Socrates is just not letting this go.
  • In the course of this discussion, Socrates identifies three kinds of narration that you'll find defined below: 1) narration that is both simple and imitative (mixed), 2) narration that is simple and without imitation, and 3) narration that is the entirely imitative.
  • Socrates explains that many stories usually involve something called imitation, which is pretty much just what it sounds like: stories, even totally made up ones, involve objects, people, themes, and events that mimic, copy, or imitate real life. Imitation is what makes stories and poetry seem real.
  • Socrates explains this concept with a specific example from the beginning of Homer's Iliad, when a priest named Chryses begs the leader of the Greeks, Agamemnon, to return his daughter.
  • Socrates describes how in the Iliad, Homer is the narrator of everything (we'd call this a third-person omniscient narration). That means that Homer's narrator talks about all the events and gets inside the heads of all the characters. So this is what Socrates is calling mixed narration. When Homer is describing Chryses begging, he tries to really sound just like someone begging and pleading. Why? Because he wants us to forget about the narrator Homer and just focus on the character Chryses.
  • Socrates differentiates this kind of narration from another kind of narration that he calls simple narration. Simple narration just describes the events without dialogue, so the narrator never "pretends" to speak like one his characters; he always just speaks like the narrator. In simple narration, imitation is pretty minimal.
  • Narration in which there is only imitation and no narrator is what you find in tragedy and theater: just characters, no narrator.
  • What they need to decide for their city now is whether they will allow poets to imitate 1) anything, 2) only certain things, or 3) nothing.
  • By way of answering this question, Socrates wonders if the guardian of their city should be an imitator. They all decide against this because it would distract the guardian from his proper job of ruling the city.
  • Furthermore, they need to keep in mind that imitation is just like various professions: you're only going to excel if you stick to one. They all agree, for example, that one person isn't going to be good at writing both tragedy and comedy. (If you're mystified by this comment, don't worry: most scholars are, too. It doesn't help, either, that Socrates says exactly the opposite thing at the end of another dialogue by Plato called the Symposium. Socrates often contradicts himself, so don't be too concerned.)
  • So, if the guardians engage in any kind of imitation, it should only be the imitation of virtuous actions and not of degrading ones, because Socrates worries that the more you imitate something, the more you'll naturally incline toward doing it—kind of like a bad habit.
  • As a result, they all agree that a good man should never imitate: women, madmen, animals, workers, angry people, and Donald Trump.
  • Socrates images two men, an enlightened one and an unenlightened one, both involved in imitation. The good one will only imitate the actions and language of a good person, because he will feel debased doing anything else. The unenlightened one, on the other hand, will imitate as many diverse and different things as possible, regardless of their quality and virtue.
  • Beyond the obvious fear of debasement and habit, Socrates is also more simply worried about the multiplicity of imitation, even for the good man. He reminds his listeners about how they all agreed that their republic would be a place where each person devoted him- or herself to doing one thing really well, so he's suspicious of anything that asks someone to engage in many and various things.
  • So, they all agree that even though these kinds of performers who both narrate and imitate and who are able to pretend to be all kinds of different things may be very popular, they won't allow them in their city.


  • After poetry, Socrates suggests that they move on to the topic of music.
  • They agree that music has three components: speech (we would say lyrics), harmonic mode (harmony), and rhythm. They suggest that both harmonic mode and rhythm develop out of the song's content.
  • Since they've already decided to eliminate wailing, lamenting, and drunkenness as music, they agree to eliminate forms of music from their republic that inspire or sound like these unacceptable states.
  • Socrates then suggests that the kinds of music they should allow to remain should be the kinds of music that either inspire courage in soldiers or inspire acts of piety, obedience, and devotion to the gods. We'll let you imagine what kind of jams those would be.
  • Since the kind of music performed in the city will be limited, the instruments allowed will also be limited: no lutes, harps, flutes or other many-stringed and many-toned instruments. The lyre, a basic cither, and a basic pipe will be the only kind allowed.
  • They all take a moment to congratulate themselves on purging so much from their city. According to them, this is a good sign, and it demonstrates their moderation.
  • They agree that rhythm should also be regulated so that only courageous and orderly rhythms will be allowed. They name some examples and decide which ones fit this model.
  • They all agree that in general, good rhythm is a necessary part of being graceful. They also agree that good rhythm, harmony, speech, and grace are all aspects of a good disposition and a good soul.
  • For this reason, Socrates suggests that they need to regulate not only poets but all craftsmen and musicians to make sure that they produce objects of harmony and grace. This will allow children to grow up surrounded by things that will incline them toward goodness and obedience.
  • Moreover, Socrates thinks that because music leaves such a profound impact on the human soul, it is the most crucial part of a moral education. He again says that there is a deep connection between harmonious music and harmonious living. He suggests that a virtuous person is most able to appreciate and value harmonious things, while someone ignorant of virtue will not. He suggests that the virtuous would therefore not want to see something ugly and defective.
  • Here, Adeimantus quickly jumps in to say that it's okay if someone is physically "defective." The problem is if they are morally so.
  • Socrates agrees and then brings up the topic of sex. Since sex often involves excessive pleasure instead of moderation, he says they're going to need to carefully regulate that as well. He reminds the gang that real love is not about excessive physical pleasure, so men who are really in love should only kiss their lovers, and "his intercourse with the one for whom he cares will be such that their relationship will never be reputed to go further than this" (403b).
  • (It's unclear exactly what Socrates means here: should intercourse be only kissing or just appear to be only kissing?)
  • Brain bite interruption! It's clear in the preceding discussion of sex that Socrates is only referring to sex between men, a very common practice in Greek society known as pederasty, which involved a sexual relationship between an older man and a younger one. Heterosexual sex, for Socrates, often seems to be more a question of reproduction than a question of love or pleasure, so that's why it doesn't come up here.

Athletics and Health

  • The next topic to be considered is the topic of fitness, food and health. Since they all agree that a healthy soul will naturally want to have a healthy body, fitness and healthy eating are crucial.
  • For fitness, you shouldn't be surprised to hear that they propose a moderate exercise routine, avoiding the excessive practices of some of the most intense athletes.
  • They agree that a diet free from rich, complex, and sweet foods is best. They compare these healthy practices to music and again praise simplicity and harmony in all things over too much variety and disorder.
  • They go on to say that a lack of simplicity can lead to licentiousness, which in turn leads to sickness. Too much sickness will overload both the city's hospitals and its law courts.
  • Socrates says that he doesn't really believe that good, educated people should ever need lawyers, and they should rarely need doctors. They shouldn't need lawyers because they should be completely comfortable with their own knowledge of justice, and they should only use doctors when they've been nobly injured in war. He thinks it's shameful to need a doctor's help just because you're lazy and have a poor diet (this seems to be a very common problem in Athens at the time).
  • Socrates also condemns a historic doctor named Herodicus who invented potions and strategies for keeping the sickly alive while allowing them to remain sickly. Socrates sees this as simply delaying death and says that you only see the wealthy doing this kind of thing (because they have the luxury of having nothing to do). A craftsman would simply be treated and get better because he would have to get back to work.
  • Socrates suggests that doctors should only treat the kinds of people who deserve to be treated. A hypochondriac, or someone so obsessed with his or her body that he or she doesn't have time for anything else, is useless to the city and shouldn't even reproduce. (Harsh, we know.)
  • Socrates does concede that they still will need some doctors, and he suggests that these doctors ought to be the very best. He offers a very odd idea for what kind of doctor is the best. He thinks a doctor who has been very sick himself, and one who has seen a lot of sick bodies on top of that, will have the best understanding of how to treat sickness. This is totally different from the requirements for lawyers or judges: as agents of justice, they must be completely unfamiliar with injustice.
  • Socrates goes on to say that a judge ought to be old and experienced—and he must be someone who has been virtuous from a young age, not someone who has done a lot of bad deeds in the past. He goes even suggests that just as the sickly should be allowed to die, a justice system should exist to kill those who aren't virtuous. That will also be a good deterrent for young people.
  • Socrates thinks that a virtuous person will pursue both music and athletics not for the sake of either but in a way that makes both of them good for his soul. Someone who is completely devoted to music becomes soft and unable to attend to other things, while someone completely devoted to athletics becomes hard and overly aggressive.
  • The guardians, therefore, must have both, but they must have them in moderation in order to avoid the excesses of either: they must be harmonious.
  • Socrates then goes on to describe in more detail the kinds of errors that certain excessive characters make. Someone obsessed with music, as he already mentioned, will become unable to fight and will lose his will to be courageous. Someone too spirited becomes aggressive and irritable. Someone who devotes himself fully to strength and bodybuilding, to the exclusion of philosophy, will become savage, not courageous.
  • Since it's clear that the best people are those who combine the best qualities of both musicality and athleticism in moderation, the gang moves on to determine who will rule both the city and the guardians (it looks like there needs to be a top guardian to keep all the other guardians in check).
  • They agree that this ruler must be old and of the best kind of virtue. He must always be inclined to do whatever will be to the best advantage of the city.
  • Socrates suggests that they'll be able to identify this kind of person by carefully watching good candidates as they grow and develop.
  • Because ruling the city is such an important job, and because even wise men can lose faith or be deceived, Socrates insists they go to extra special lengths to ensure that they choose not only the wisest person to govern, but also the one least likely to change his mind or be persuaded for the wrong reasons. Socrates recommends setting up tests for the young to see which ones falter and which ones stay true to what they know is best.
  • Once they identify someone with these superior qualities, he will be named the ruler and will be given various honors and memorials. They all decide that the title of this person will be "complete guardian" (not so creative, it's true).
  • Next, Socrates wants to see if they can imagine a lie, or a story, that such a guardian would need to tell, the kind of story they described earlier, which would be necessary for the well-being of the city.
  • Socrates tells a little story about how the guardians would tell the citizens of the city that they weren't actually the children of their parents, but the children of the earth, which would mean that all were brothers. The story would also go that each child was born of gold, silver, bronze, or a mixture. This would designate their future role in the city (you can guess which kind of kid would be the best).
  • Basically, Socrates thinks that the guardians need a kind of myth in order to make the citizens of the city care about each other and about the city instead of about private property and about themselves: this is the kind of lie he thinks a guardian can tell.
  • The gang goes on to discuss the organization and layout of the city. They suggest that there will be a specific, set place for a military camp.
  • They then agree that there will be no private property except for necessities, and all homes will be open and free for anyone to come in and out of. All citizens will be given the proper amount of food by the guardians. They will be told that silver and gold are already present within their souls. They shouldn't have anything to do with the actual precious materials, since these materials tend to make people greedy and base.

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