Politeia, or Republic, is Plato's best-known and most influential dialogue. In fact, Republic is considered by many scholars to be the foundational text of the Western philosophical tradition. This enormous dialogue was probably completed in Plato's mature middle-period. Ancient copies of Republic filled ten papyrus scrolls, and even today – after twenty-three centuries – most editions of the dialogue retain this division into ten books. The whole work is comprised of a number of shorter conversations between Socrates and various interlocutors. These discourses – all related to the primary inquiry into the nature of justice or righteousness – investigate the social dimension of human existence, the characteristics of a good society, the expertise required of a leader, the nature of knowledge, the purpose of education, the extent to which human desires can be governed by rationality, the efficacy of various kinds of political constitutions and forms of citizenship (politeia), and the fundamental constitution of a human being, his inner politeia.

Throughout these inquiries, Socrates maintains that the health of the state is analogous to the health of the individual human being:

For example, in the body, when one of us hurts a finger, the whole organism that binds body and psyche together into a single kingdom under the ruling part within feels the hurt, and the whole feels pain together with the part, so that we say that the man has a pain in his finger. Might not the same be said about any part of the organism that suffers pain or feels relief from pain? (462c-d)

Just as any human being uses intelligence to care for his own body, so the social body must be governed by rationality. Like his Apology, Plato's Republic is a nuanced defence of the philosophical existence, and a careful reading of Republic reveals the fundamental tenets of Platonic ethical and political philosophy. For example, it is clear that Plato believed in a non-hypothetical standard of values, and moreover, that only a few human beings are capable of recognizing this supreme good. Therefore, only these individuals – philosophers – are capable of wielding political power. Furthermore, the ship of state must have one and only one pilot. Clearly Plato was no egalitarian: each person has a natural place in society, and the well-being and unity of the whole social “organism” entails that individuals be kept in their proper place even against their will.

When Plato wrote the Republic, the Athenian empire had already been defeated by Sparta in the Peloponnesian War, and the ideals that had once made Athens great – such as justice, truth, and duty – were held in contempt by many Athenian citizens. Republic is a critique of the cynical and relativistic ideology that accompanies the unbridled pursuit of self-interest and personal profit. The dialogue calls for a return to pre-democratic ideals and virtues, as well as a wholehearted reform of the principles of higher education.

Republic opens with Socrates and Glaucon (one of Plato's older brothers) down at the Piraeus – the harbor of Athens – to participate in a religious festival honouring the Thracian goddess Bendis. Socrates remarks that the Thracian religious procession was just as good as that of the Athenians; this indicates the uncanny, foreign character of Plato's figure of the ideal philosopher: Socrates is loyal to truth in its universality, not simply to Athens. Returning uphill to the city proper, Socrates and Glaucon meet the wealthy young Polemarchus and his retinue. In the ensuing exchange, Polemarchus forcefully insists – and will not be persuaded otherwise – that Socrates and Glaucon accompany his party to his father's stately home, to bide the time leisurely until the evening's festivities. However, the ensuing conversations with Socrates last all night and well into the following day.

Cephalus – the head of the house where the main conversation takes place – is a very old and wealthy man who increased his inheritance by manufacturing weapons for the military. In his brief conversation with Socrates, the old arms manufacturer reflects on the possibility of divine punishment after death. Cephalus remarks that sexual desire makes life itself a kind of war, for unruly passion and sexual desire make the human soul a battlefield. Perhaps life itself is a war from which old age and death deliver us. Confronting such questions in his old age, Cephalus finds consolation in his material wealth: at least he may use money to repay his debts to men and the gods before he dies. Socrates asks whether justice is not something more than telling the truth and returning what we have borrowed, and the dialogue is underway.

Cephalus leaves the argument to his son Polemarchus, who proposes that justice is helping one's friends and harming one's enemies. Socrates argues that to harm people is to make them worse, and in a community, if we make bad men to become worse, we indirectly harm ourselves. At this point (336c), a sophist named Thrasymachus claims that what is called “justice” is actually a system of domination intended to serve the interests of powerful and unscrupulous rulers. The powerful few, the rulers in any society, do not themselves abide by the rules they impose on the gullible majority. Instead, the rulers practice wholesale robbery and violence, and manipulate public opinion so successfully that they are believed to be acting in the public welfare:

But when someone, in addition to appropriating their possessions, kidnaps and enslaves the citizens as well, instead of shameful names he is called happy and blessed, not only by the citizens themselves, but by all who learn that he has done the whole of injustice. Those who reproach injustice do so because they are afraid not of doing it but of suffering it. So Socrates, injustice, if it is on a large enough scale, is stronger, freer, and more masterly than justice.

Socrates' remarks to Thrasymachus about the distinction between an art or science and the wage-earning skills associated with that discipline make it clear that for Plato, technical training as such is not true learning. Socrates offers the example of a healer: to be a good physician is not the same as simply being a wealthy or successful doctor. One is a good physician if the health of the patient is one's primary concern, rather than becoming rich. Similarly, governing well must be grounded in concern for the welfare of the community, the maximum of good for the whole nation. The ruler is simply not a ruler in the precise sense unless he strives to achieve the greatest good for the polis.

Thrasymachus is reduced to silence by such claims, but Glaucon and Adeimantus press Socrates to say more. At 359c, Glaucon relates the legend of the Ring of Gyges, a ring that confers invisibility and allows the wearer to commit injustice without being detected. He challenges Socrates to persuade him that a just man who possessed such a ring of power would not also become corrupt.

Socrates argues that a life of injustice makes everyone miserable, including the tyrant who practices it. Injustice is like a disease, and developing an unjust character is the worst thing that may happen to a person; a life according to righteousness and justice, however, leads to the health of both the individual and the polis. Socrates argues that the selfish desires for money, power, and enjoyment are contrary to the unselfish desire for the welfare of the community. The burden of governing responsibly is incompatible with a life of pleasure and luxury; therefore, anyone who lusts for political power is not competent to have it. But there are those who – through hard effort and study – are capable of sacrificing luxuries and enjoyments in order to make themselves wiser and better. These individuals – philosophers – should be burdened with political authority, because only such individuals will not abuse power. True education, then, involves the transformation of desire, and the reorientation of one's psuche toward a higher good.

Politically, Plato's philosophy is aristocratic, but in the Republic, Socrates criticizes the rule of the wealthy. Aristos in Greek means “best”, and the best people, according to Plato, are the morally excellent citizens, not the wealthiest. In Republic Socrates argues that the desire for luxuries causes war and leads finally to the corruption and degeneration of both polis and psuche; whenever the guardians of the polis are corrupted by greed, the culture is in decline, and on the road to tyranny, the worst form of government. Moreover, it is in a plutocracy, ruled by the wealthy, that one encounters the “ultimate evil” of utter poverty and homelessness; once a society is injected with the venomous desire for money, the community is filled with fat, lazy drones as well as starving beggars (555e). In short, the ungoverned pursuit of enjoyment paves the way for tyranny and constant war (567a).

The ship of state remains on an even keel when its pilot is guided by the idea of the good. In an ideal polis, the ruling philosopher guardians would be motivated by desire for knowledge and wisdom. They would have no money or luxuries, but would live communally. The auxiliary guardians – military and police – would be motivated by a love of honour. These guardians, like the philosopher kings, would also live communal, frugal lives, without the comforts of home or family. The producing class, those who desire luxuries and pleasures, would have no political power. Plato teaches that righteousness in the individual and justice at large in the polis arise when the desire for enjoyment is held in check by courage and concern for the nation as a whole, and when people live according to their own most characteristic desire (wisdom, honour, or enjoyment).

Socrates teaches that individuals should not pursue their self-interest in a way that ignores the good of the whole social body. His investigation into the nature of justice leads to inquiry into value itself, and this questioning opens up issues that are both ontological and anthropological. Socrates has already brought out the external, public aspect of justice (and of the meaning of ethical terms generally), when he sketched a social contract hypothesis of the origin of the state (369a ff.). He now says that he cannot speak of the good in reference to itself, for we have no knowledge of this (505a); but he will speak of its useful and true offspring (506e ff.). As in other Platonic works, irreducibly distinct and even opposed dimensions of human existence are metaphorically unified through reference to the good. Socrates uses analogy to indicate what he ambiguously evokes as the idea and the habit of the good (509a). Although his remarks indicate that the offspring of the good are what we desire, and that desirous striving occasions knowing, Socrates also says that the good is not a being, it is “beyond beings” (509b). Socrates insists that the question of justice is resolved only insofar as we remember this highest good which is otherwise than being (509b). It is by way of his pivotal analogies of the sun, the line, and the cave that Socrates reveals desire for the good to be the aition (occasion, cause) of the growth of knowledge.

In Socrates' image of the divided line (509c-511e), modes of disclosure are related both up and down with contrasting modes which serve to contextualize. The icon of the line itself complements the likeness of the good to the sun because orientation toward the good is the occasion for truth. This convergence of axiology and ontology holds throughout the Platonic corpus. In the conversion toward the light of objective truth depicted in the allegory of the cave (514a-521b), the prisoner is freed by an anonymous rescuer and subsequently dragged up the slope to the light and left there blind and lost. After the effort to know the good in itself, the philosopher descends again into the dialogically mixed cosmos of human social praxis. The excellence of the philosopher is this movement between the good in itself – that is not a being and may not be known conceptually – and the twilight realm of cave society. Only those capable of this movement, of turning the eyes of the psuche both upward and downward in this way, should be guardians (501a-c).

For Plato, the freedom of thought is limited by the fact that human beings do not entirely create their own nature and decide what is healthy and unhealthy for their bodies and characters. Analogies of the good in Republic indicate the goal of the highest stages in the education of guardians. Socrates teaches that one becomes a philosophical ruler or citizen only to the extent that the desire for personal benefits is transformed into desire for the good of the whole polis. In what follows, this account is complemented by poetic images of the just soul that indicate the harmony that is possible if reason moderates the unlimited, monstrous passions of psuche.

Socrates' evocation of the limits of scientific government leads to the insight that in the psuche of the philosopher-statesman the desire for truth lies deeper than selfish pride, or desire for recognition or power. The limits of reason as the calculation of personal profit are apprehended only insofar as egotism is overcome. This identification of individual good with the good of the whole is the goal of the education of civic-spirited guardians; in such training, desire itself is purified.

The ideal state that Socrates describes is not intended as an actual design for an improved society; its function as a paradigm is to facilitate the self-examination and social critique that develops the philosophical psuche. Socrates' comically impractical proposals in Republic indicate the role of eros (desire) as a source of irreducible social antagonism. In effect, Plato shows the impossibility of reducing the art of government to a neutral set of technical skills that might be memorized and practiced by anyone. Socrates' image of the polis governed according to techne (art, skill) – sketched in books 2-5 of Republic – culminates in erotic comedy. Socrates ironically undermines his own technical production of ideal social ordering by reference to desires such as the urge to procreate. Desire marks one limit of the extent to which human interactions may be governed according to techne. But for Plato, eros is never purely personal; rather, desire is a mode of interrelatedness: desire indicates the disunity and lack inherent to the human psuche.

Justice is defined in only a negative way, by showing what it is not. The central analogies of the sun, the divided line, and the cave articulate the meaning of justice in terms of the analogy between the nation and an organic corporate body. But is Plato's organic conception of the “social body” proto-fascist? The “good beyond being” is Plato's name for the void (or central antagonism) around which the sociopolitical hierarchy is structured. In Republic, dialogue with the other takes the form of a shared process of self-discovery, of recollecting the divine logos that steers the cosmos from within. Platonic philosophy involves a journey of remembrance, a process of recollecting one's true spiritual essence. The question is whether this political philosophy can accommodate true heterogeneity: to put it succinctly, doesn't Plato's emphasis on inner recollection prevent the shock of encountering that which is radically other and external?

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Citation: Wood, Kelsey. "Politeia". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 26 September 2007 [https://www.litencyc.com/php/sworks.php?rec=true&UID=13446, accessed 11 December 2023.]

13446 Politeia 3 Historical context notes are intended to give basic and preliminary information on a topic. In some cases they will be expanded into longer entries as the Literary Encyclopedia evolves.

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