Study Guide

The Republic Book VI

By Plato

Book VI

Philosophers as Kings, Continued

  • Phew. Everyone is exhausted from that long discussion about the difference between philosophy and non-philosophy. Onward, Shmoopers.
  • Unfortunately, this is really just the tip of the argument. These dudes want to definitively differentiate the just life from the unjust one... and show that philosophers make the best rulers.
  • Now, one pretty obvious reason why philosophers might make the best rulers is that their philosophical outlook—which is interested in single, eternal truths—makes them truly able to see, while everyone else is metaphorically blind. And they agree (not very fairly, we might add) that everyone would rather have a seeing ruler than a blind one.
  • Another quality of the philosopher that makes him particularly good for leadership is his complete honesty. Why? Because philosophers love wisdom, and you can't have wisdom without truth... so the philosopher is also, necessarily, a lover of truth.
  • Also, because he's just so obsessed with wisdom and truth, the philosopher won't have time for other things, like the pleasures of the body or money. This will make him moderate, and that's something we already know Socrates thinks is great.
  • Just in case you weren't convinced that Socrates thinks philosophers are the bee's knees, he describes them this way, too: "To an understanding [you know, the kind of philosopher has] endowed with magnificence and the contemplation of all time and all being, do you think it possible that human life seem anything great?" (486a).
  • So, because philosophers are so awesome and know all these big, eternal truths, it keeps them really humble (no comment on that...) and also courageous, because they don't fear death.
  • Furthermore, the philosopher's soul will be nice and orderly: he won't be unjust; he will be a dedicated and fast learner; and he will never be forgetful.
  • The philosopher will also be naturally inclined to understand how all things ought to be understood and measured. He'll have a natural understanding of charm and proportion.
  • So, Socrates concludes, doesn't this philosophical guy sound like someone you'd ideally want to run a city?

How Great Are Philosophers, Really?

  • Adeimantus says that Socrates has made a very persuasive argument. It's true that none of them can contradict the logical progression of it.
  • However, Adeimantus insists that this doesn't mean the world actually works like this. For example, the philosophers they all know are not at all like the man Socrates has been describing. The philosophers they know are... well, they're socially awkward, vicious weirdos who don't contribute to the city at all.
  • In order to answer this challenge, Socrates says he's going to tell a story as an analogy. Adeimantus makes fun of this.
  • So, here goes the analogy: a city is like a ship, and a philosopher is like the pilot. He's a good and skilled pilot, but he's a little deaf and shortsighted. Because he's a little deaf and shortsighted, the crew begins to complain. "Why does he get to be in charge?" they ask. Even though none of them are skilled at sailing, they all think they can do a better job. So the competition gets ruthless, some crewmen kill other crewmen just to make it to the top, and finally the crewmen capture the pilot, chain him up, and take over. Now, they are sailors, so they don't sink the ship or anything, but they don't run it well, and they soon find themselves in all kinds of difficulties since they don't appreciate the nuances of piloting. They don't understand how it requires knowledge of seasons and stars and all this other surprising stuff. The crew probably made fun of the pilot, saying he was kind of a weirdo, a stargazer who didn't do anything useful for the ship—but they were wrong.
  • The problem isn't that philosophers are useless to the city; the problem is that the city doesn't know enough to make use of them.
  • Socrates now wants to consider the possibility that the same qualities that make a philosopher so great—honesty, moderation, courage, obsession with the single truth, etc.—are also qualities that make the philosopher's life difficult and even prevent him from being philosophical.
  • The others are confused by this paradoxical idea and ask Socrates to elaborate.
  • First of all, since philosophical people are larger-than-life types, they really need to have the proper education to turn out well... it's kind of a higher-you-rise, harder-you-fall situation. Great people are capable of doing great evil if they aren't set on the right path.
  • Socrates now attacks a certain group of people he thinks are particularly to blame for the corruption of philosophy: the Sophists.
  • The what's-its? The Sophists, a famous enemy of Socrates in Plato, were a school of philosophers and teachers in Athens. Largely thanks to Plato, they've gotten such a bad rap that the word sophist now means someone who is interested only in persuading people and looking smart and who isn't actually interested in uncovering the truth. For a great, in-depth look check this out.
  • Socrates has a lot of problems with the Sophists: they use physical punishment against their students, they charge money for their teaching services, and worst of all, they have nothing but baseless opinions that they pass off as wisdom and knowledge.
  • Socrates suggests that a huge part of what's wrong with the Sophists' way of being is that they base their "wisdom" on what's popular and spend all their time around big crowds and lots and lots of people.
  • Socrates thinks this is a problem because the majority of people are incapable of being philosophers. In fact, he thinks that crowds are actually incapable of believing in philosophical principles.
  • The crowd will naturally judge the philosophers badly, since philosophy is a solo act.
  • A philosopher also has it rough for other reasons. Because he's so naturally talented, people will be naturally drawn to him and will probably start fawning over him and flattering him... if he's cute, it'll be even worse.
  • All this flattery will probably go to his head, and he'll become arrogant and think he can do whatever he wants. If someone then comes along and instead of flattering him tells him he doesn't know much yet, but can learn a lot if he devotes himself to the long and hard study of philosophy, do you think he'll be happy about that? Probably not.
  • And even if one of these charming young guys is convinced to follow philosophy, once he leaves off providing for his friends and family, they will start saying how bad and useless philosophy is and try to convince him not to follow that path.
  • See how few people will ever actually make it through the study of philosophy? In fact, the only men who do end up following philosophy are not necessarily suitable for it. Men who are already attracted to the arts seem especially likely to try out philosophy, thinking they are all similar (Socrates claims that philosophy and the arts are very different) and hearing that it's a way to get famous.
  • The very, very few people who are candidates for philosophy are people who have a noble character from birth; maybe a few who are clearly above their current craft; perhaps some to whom ill health has given a certain perspective; and, finally someone who has a "demonic sign," which is what he, Socrates, has (though he plays this way down).
  • Brain bite! A demonic sign? No need to worry, we're not talking about something from The Exorcist here—just a bit of Greek religion. Check out Socrates's "Character Analysis" for the full scoop.
  • These very few select philosophers are so aware of how honest and good their life is that they can't help but notice how nuts and dishonest other people are. They kind of feel like they're trapped in a den of wild animals.
  • So, you can't really blame philosophers for wanting to keep to themselves and remain distant from all the craziness.
  • Essentially, philosophers realize how crazy everything is, so they cut their losses and hope to at least do some good for themselves. But, if they lived in a community (maybe, ahem, like a certain one just invented) where philosophy was valued and encouraged, philosophers would do good not only for themselves but for others as well.
  • And so, because there isn't a single city or form of government in existence today that does encourage philosophy, there aren't very many good philosophers... and there are a lot of bad ones.
  • They all agree that the best kind of city to encourage philosophy would be the one they founded, where the rationale behind the laws always remains clear.

A Philosophical City—Possible or Impossible?

  • Socrates now wants to consider how a city might become like their Republic and embrace philosophy without endangering the city. Every change or major alteration, says Socrates, carries a certain amount of risk.
  • The first thing that needs to change in order for philosophy to become encouraged is how and when philosophy is first embraced. Usually, young men pursue philosophy as a kind of hobby between childhood and adulthood. They do it for a little while, maybe think they've figured it all out, and then leave it alone when it's time to raise a family. They only return to it as a hobby in old age.
  • Well, this is wrong wrong wrong. Instead, Socrates recommends having young people study things appropriate to their age, like athletics. This will prepare them for philosophy later in life. In fact, they should go and have a career and only really pursue philosophy full time in middle age, when they should essentially retire and devote all their time to the study of philosophy.
  • Socrates's friends respond that they don't think many other people would be convinced by this model. Socrates says this isn't surprising since nothing like it exists. Also, people have never listened to this kind of argument before—one that comes from the heart and seeks truth as its only goal.
  • Socrates reminds everyone that even though what they're saying seems idealistic, it's not impossible. They would be obligated to fight for any city where such a philosophical rule might occur.
  • Socrates then asks Adeimantus if he thinks it likely that the majority of people would agree with this plan. Adeimantus is skeptical. However, Socrates thinks that the reason for this is simply that most people have an incorrect understanding of what a true philosopher is; once they understand, many people would be open to their plan. They all agree that these bad, obnoxious, quarreling "philosophers" are to blame for giving philosophy overall a bad name.
  • It's obvious that anyone who is truly interested in philosophical issues wouldn't have time for any of this quarreling nonsense.
  • They all agree that the true philosopher would be an excellent ruler, and that if most people understood what a true philosopher was like, they would agree.
  • Socrates outlines how the philosopher-rulers will give the city a clean slate: they will try to produce the best kinds of people, almost like chefs trying to produce the best dish, by mixing all the good parts together and by being guided by moderation and truth.
  • They all imagine that at this point they've made a pretty sound argument against anyone who would disagree with them. How could anyone disagree with the idea that philosophers love truth and have the best natures, always trying to follow the good? Won't they be convinced that no regime is good until it totally changes and becomes philosophical?
  • Adeimantus isn't as 100% sure about this as Socrates is, but Socrates goes ahead anyway and says they'll just pretend like they've completely persuaded everyone.
  • Good, says Socrates: then they've also agreed that a single, good ruler could turn a city around. It's more than likely that the citizens would happily go along with this.
  • So, what they've discovered is that creating a city like this would be difficult but definitely not impossible.

Philosophers as Kings: The Nitty-Gritty Details

  • What they need to determine now is how exactly these rulers would take over ruling the city. They also need to figure out when the rulers would complete various parts of their studies.
  • Socrates admits that he was very nervous about sharing his ideas about women and children because he knows that radically true ideas are often met with anger. However, he now realizes how necessary it was to go through all that in detail, and he wants to describe the rulers with the same kind of detail.
  • Socrates reminds everyone that they agreed that the rulers would be very special people, completely devoted to the care of the city, no matter what occurs.
  • Socrates says that because these rulers are such special people, there will be very few acceptable candidates. Just how special, you ask? Super special, because these people will be the kind of people who combine larger-than-life awesomeness with intense moderation, balance, and self-control. They've got to be totally the coolest, but they can't be arrogant at all. That's not an easy combination to find.
  • In order to identify these uniquely awesome people, Socrates says they are going to need to rigorously educate and test them to see if they ever lose courage, or if they aren't up to the challenge of ruling.
  • The most important part of this rigorous education will be something Socrates hasn't directly discussed before, something greater than justice, moderation, wisdom, or courage: the idea of the good.

The Good

  • Socrates says there's a lot of confusion about what "good" actually means. Many people believe that it simply refers to what's pleasurable, while some wiser people understand that it's something more like prudence, though they can't really define it beyond saying just that.
  • Furthermore, the people who define good as pleasure are totally confused, because even they would agree that some pleasures are bad. So then the good is also bad?
  • Socrates also observes that even though they noted earlier in their discussion that people often want to have a reputation for justice and fairness (even though they're neither just nor fair), with the good it's different: people actually want good for themselves.
  • Socrates explains that all souls seek out an understanding of what goodness is: that's their primary goal, but it's a tough one.
  • They all agree that even though it's tough, the guardians of their city will have to be the kind of people who understand the good. Only if they understand the good can so they understand justice and fairness.
  • But now Adeimantus wants to hear Socrates's definition of the good. Socrates initially dodges the question by asking Adeimantus whether he thinks it's good to hear people's opinions if they don't know something. They briefly argue about this until Glaucon intervenes and insists that Socrates define the good.
  • Socrates agrees, though he's a little worried about misleading everyone. He says that defining the good right now is very challenging, but he'll start instead with what he calls "a child of the good and most similar to it" (506e).
  • In order to begin, Socrates wants to remind everyone that there are things that are, which we can see and feel, and then there is the good itself, which is something we can only think about (we can't actually touch or see it).
  • Next, Socrates points out that unlike hearing, seeing requires an intermediary thing (in addition to the eyes and to the object being seen) that allows the object to be seen. What thing? Light.
  • And where does light come from? The sun.
  • So the sun is not the faculty of sight itself, but it's something that enables sight and something that enables objects to be seen.
  • Socrates compares the relationship between sight and the sun to the relationship between the intellect and the good: the good is what gives truth and power to things that are known.
  • This means that justice and truth are things that are like the good but that are not the same as the good.
  • So the sun enables life and helps things grow. The good is just like that: it enables life and it helps knowledge grow.
  • Glaucon is quite taken with the beauty of Socrates's image and begs him to continue to describe the good in detail.

The Forms

  • Socrates says that there are two categories of things: 1) visible things and 2) intelligible things (things you can't see). In the visible world, there are two kinds of visible things: 1) images, like shadows, reflections, and pictures and 2) actual things.
  • Socrates then suggests that opinions (something he defined earlier) have the same relationship to knowledge as pictures have to real objects.
  • Next, Socrates says that there are two kinds of intellectual activities: 1) provisional thinking based merely on guesses and hypotheses—this goes on in mathematics all the time, for example—and 2) rigorous intellectual thinking that uses hypotheses as stepping stones to understand actual truths (what Socrates calls "forms").
  • This means that we can divide the intelligible world into two categories, just as we can divide the visible world into two categories: 1) mathematical suppositions and 2) forms.
  • So, in total, we have four subcategories: 1) shadows and pictures in the visible world, 2) actual objects in the visible world, 3) mathematical suppositions in the intelligible world, and 4) forms in the intelligible world. (Stick with us! We know this is confusing, but it's a key moment.)
  • Okay. Next, Socrates says that each of these subcategories has a corresponding activity: 1) imagination, meaning something like the understanding of images; 2) trust; 3) thought; and 4) intellection, which is just a fancy word for fancy, philosophical-argument based thinking.