Plato begins The Republic
by addressing the major theme of his entire work: should man be just or unjust?
To discuss this issue, Plato (in the character of Socrates) uses a variety of
surrounding characters to give their opinions. Yet he proves each of them wrong
in turn. Later, he decides that an answer to the above question can be better
found if he first defines the word justice.
The opening scene begins in
the home of Cephalus, where his son, Polemarchus, lives as well. Socrates,
together with some of his friends, Glaucon and Adeimantus, enter into a
conversation regarding aging. Cephalus tells Socrates that he enjoys his old
age, citing his devotion to moderation and proper conduct. Soon the topic of
justice flows from this conversation. This inspires Polemarchus and Thrasymachus
to consider the nature of justice with Socrates. When Socrates criticizes
Polemarchus' idea that man should spite his enemies, Thrasymuchus asserts that
those with power have a monopoly over justice- they determine it as they see
fit, despite the protests of the powerless. It's the duty of the poor,
Thrasymuchas says, to rise up and take what they can from the rich. Yet Socrates
attacks this viewpoint as well, saying that the poor should accept the true
justice of the government, which is created to aid the governed. He goes on to
say that justice is a kind of virtue, or excellence, which yields happiness.
When all people accept justice, he maintains, all people can live happily in a
cohesive community. Yet Socrates still seems to be seeking a better grasp of
this notion of justice himself. Obviously this subject will be revisited
throughout The Republic.
Soon Glaucon presents his
views to Socrates, asserting that man should pretend to be just but live
unjustly in actuality. This way, he says, man can look virtuous before others
without undergoing the toil of living a virtuous life. Socrates seems intrigued
by this idea, and decides to use a model polis, or city, to better examine these
notions of justice. This city has people who are divides into two classes: those
who lead and those who serve. Here, Plato initiates his idea of philosopher
kings-- the method in which a perfect city will be organized. The leaders of the
city must be of a special breed, having incredible insight that protects the
lower classes. They must not look out for their own interests, but live
frugally, only considering the interests of the people. Limiting the freedom (or
animal instincts) of the populace is crucial to instilling proper virtues. Also,
the common laborers must be left in the dark on many issues, because any
allusions to unjust living might inspire the people to also be unjust. Plato
even says that the guardians can lie to the people if necessary. All forms of
information, including literature and music, must be strictly regulated. Even a
person's professional training must be carefully monitored by the state. In
other words, the government forces its people to be virtuous. Free will is left
out of the equation.
Most importantly, the
guardians must emulate the gods, since their special knowledge is divinely
inspired. Here, Plato's suggestion seems startling similar to the Hebrew concept
of monotheistic law, in which earthly kings maintain God's justice. This notion
foreshadows Plato's idea of the Forms, which is discussed later in The
Soon, Plato divides the class
of rulers (or guardians) further. He asserts that the most senior philosophers
should be the head guardians, while the others serve as assistants to these men.
The guardians should live in a commune, where individual possessions are
restricted. Plato believes that too much wealth will inspire greed and
selfishness in the guardians, rendering them unable to rule objectively. Only a
rigorous, state-run education system can wean off these animalistic qualities of
the rulers, and help them make just laws- laws which mean to enhance the
common good. True justice, Plato finally determines, is a result of each member
of society doing the work prescribed for his social class. The work should not
be done to grow rich, since riches corrupt men, leading them to greedy lives.
Plato believes that a moderate amount of money will best suit the people to
lives of virtue and justice.