You could think of Plato's Republic as his philosophical manifesto. This is where Plato explains most of his most famous and history-altering concepts about justice, truth, government, morality, and the nature of reality. On top of that, it's also a kind of 411 on his philosophical basics—you know, the who, what, where, and why of practicing philosophy.
Plato makes it pretty clear that he doesn't think of philosophy as something you do just in a classroom or in your spare time. For him, philosophy is a way of life that should permeate every aspect of existence. It should completely alter how you see the world. No joke.
Plato's idea of a philosophical life has had some serious staying power. Almost every version of philosophy since Plato has responded to it, and the questions Plato asks here remain the foundation of modern philosophy today.
A text as confusing and contradictory as Plato's Republic can't possibly offer a coherent explanation of what philosophy is; every few pages, Socrates says something different.
Plato's Republic is an incredibly persuasive defense of the philosophical life. How could any thinking person not be convinced?
If you're looking for a book that gets real on the topic of justice, look no further than Plato's Republic. You could almost say that this is the book to read on justice—period—since it spends hundreds of pages trying to examine justice from every possible angle.
The characters in the Republic are so committed to defining justice that they invent an entire city just to help them do this. When was the last time you were that serious about some abstract topic?
Even if the concept of justice specifically isn't your thing, don't worry. For Plato, justice is such a universal topic that it affects pretty much every aspect of human life, like poetry, music, math, government, the nature of the human soul, philosophy... you know, everything. Take your pick, and find out why justice is so important even in these far-flung disciplines.
There is no way that a person who thinks slavery is okay (ahem, Socrates) can have anything useful to say about justice.
It's impossible to come up with a definition of justice everyone will agree on. What justice means to individual people is always going to be different.
Plato's Republic is often considered the first work of political philosophy ever written. Plato was also the first guy to imagine a fictional city as a way to think about ideal forms of government and social structure (this model later was turned into the utopian genre by Thomas More).
But just because Plato's Republic is a classic of political philosophy, that doesn't mean it wasn't—or isn't—way controversial. Condemning democracy, championing aristocracy, and abolishing the family as a social unit, Plato's philosophy isn't everyone's cup of tea. Even if you don't agree with him, though, you've got to give it to him: he makes some interesting points, and he makes them well.
Plato's suspicion toward democracy is completely justified; he watched a democratic government execute his teacher Socrates.
Plato's conception of politics has a lot in common with issues we deal with today. He even condones lying in political situations if it "benefits" the public.
We don't know about you, but we weren't too surprised to find out that Plato's Republic is totally into the pursuit of wisdom and knowledge.
In the famous Allegory of the Cave (see our "Symbols" section for more), Socrates describes a vision of human life in which philosophical wisdom is the only way to escape the prison of existence. Wisdom isn't just a nice bonus—it's essential.
You might be surprised to hear, though, that the greatest piece of knowledge Socrates thought he'd ever received was that he didn't actually know anything. Neither Socrates nor Plato was interested in just knowing lots of stuff. Nope, they cared about the kind of knowledge that inspires you to strive always to learn more.
Socrates isn't actually interested in making people wise; he just gets a kick out of making them feel dumb.
Socrates's version of contemplative "wisdom" will achieve the opposite of making you wise; his wisdom takes you away from the realities of the world instead of preparing you for them.
We have to be honest: in the discipline of literature Plato's Republic has a bit of bad rap.
That's probably because when Socrates constructs this ideal city, he pretty much bans all poetry and all storytelling, period. We know: it's pretty extreme. Even though the Republic is about so much more than just literature, no one has ever really gotten over this act of banishment. For centuries, readers have puzzled over Socrates's anti-poetry stance and what it means for the relationship between literature and philosophy. Sometimes this issue overshadows even the mega-discussion of justice. Who knew a bunch of poets could cause so much controversy?
Socrates isn't actually against poetry; he quotes the poets constantly. He just wants it to be edited, not banned.
Socrates just wants the stories he tells, like the myth of Er, to be the only ones allowed. He thinks he's that good.
Plato, not unlike Jack Nicholson, isn't sure that you can handle the truth.
Well, maybe you can handle the truth, but (according to Plato) most people can't.
Even though Socrates spends a lot of time defining and defending the search for "truth" as the principal goal of philosophical exploration, he also isn't convinced that truth is something everyone can access. For Plato, pure truth was one of his famous "forms," but it takes some real persistence to comprehend them.
For everyone else, Plato actually believed in something called "the noble lie," which, just as it sounds, is pretty much a lie you can tell people in order to get them to behave properly, even if they can't—or won't—understand the truth. So, for a philosophical text that you might expect to be all "go truth," Plato's Republic can be mighty ambiguous.
Socrates isn't actually interested in truth; he's simply interested in showing that what he thinks is correct.
Socrates cares less about defining a single "truth" than about the process of discovering truth—that's why this dialogue takes so long.
Socrates and his pals were pretty obsessed with the benefits of education in the Republic. Since Socrates believed that education was closely linked to morality, he thought that if he could only create the perfect educational program, he'd be able to produce much better people. You know, no pressure.
Even though Socrates isn't necessarily the guy you'd want to hire as your SAT tutor, he does have some pretty modern ideas about learning: the importance of math and music for cognitive development, the importance of educating both men and women, and the need for both mental and physical activity. Pretty cool. In fact, education may be one of the most easily understandable things in Plato's otherwise kind of wonky imagined city.
It doesn't matter how "modern" aspects of Socrates's educational system sound; having children raised by the state instead of their parents is the worst method of education ever.
Even though Socrates isn't the biggest fan of democracy, his public education system based on merit—and not birth—is an incredibly egalitarian and forward-thinking ideal for his time (and even, unfortunately, sometimes for ours).
There's lots of talk about ethics and morality in Plato's Republic, but let's be real: we totally want to know if being ethical and moral actually makes you happy.
Instead of simply trying to define what ethical choices are, Socrates wants to also make sure to convince everyone that it pays off to be ethical. In other words, ethics can be rationally—and not just morally—defended. This approach to ethics is so important to Socrates that he even constructs the whole myth of Er in order to tell a story in which people can see exactly how acting ethically can pay off.
Morality? Socrates isn't actually interested in what's moral or good for everyone; he just cares about philosophers—that's why he makes them kings.
If Socrates thinks its "moral" for a government to lie to its citizens, he's clearly not really talking about morality; he's just talking about political control.