This was my first experience reading Plato, and it was an interesting one. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t relieved to have finished reading it, but I would also be lying if I said I didn’t like it because I do like it, sort of.
It’s an odd book to rate, written as it was more than two millennia ago (~375 BCE). The paradigms that governed Plato’s worldview are difficult to grasp. I kept reminding myself that back then people simply didn’t know some of the things I take for granted (like that germs cause disease and that slavery is neither necessary nor unavoidable), and even so I feel like I only have the barest edge of an understanding of where Plato was coming from.
In the Republic, a bunch of guys are hanging out talking while eating dinner and waiting to go to a torch race. It must be a very long dinner because they cover a lot of ground in their conversation and seem to have forgotten all about the torch race by the end.
They start out arguing about the nature of justice and just action, and that turns into an argument about whether the just man or unjust man is likelier to lead a happy life and gain material rewards. Having accepted that acting justly is better than acting unjustly, a couple of the guys say, “You know, the best way to do it is to act unjustly so you can get all of the wealth you can get through dirty dealings, but to have everyone think you’re a just man so you can have the good reputation along with the riches.”
And because there was no television back then, they end up creating a whole utopian society governed by philosopher kings (and queens, although Plato seems to keep forgetting that he included women in the mix of rulers) and in which marriage lasts only a week or two at most and there are no families and all children are raised by the community. Children consider their parents’ entire generation to be fathers and mothers, and their parents’ generation considers all children to be their sons and daughters. In order to maintain this utopian society, the rulers control the common folks in part by myths and deception and by only exposing them to stories and songs that promote the kinds of values they want in their society, and in part by rewarding bravery in battle with more chances to reproduce. It was all very Brave New World.
My notes are filled with comments like, “Is this a joke?”
And there are funny bits to it, like this exchange:
[Question] “Any story or poem narrates things past, present, or future, does it not?”
[Answer] “There is no alternative.” (86)
But I think Plato is pretty serious about all of this. He’s realistic in his expectation that a society like the one he’s imagined is unlikely to ever exist in reality, but he seems convinced that his utopia really is the ideal society.
The part I enjoyed the most was the Simile of the Cave. Plato uses this story to represent the way in which the life and understanding of the common man differs from that of the philosopher. In it, people are held prisoner within a cave, chained up so that they can see only right in front of them for their whole lives. Behind them is a fire and a road, but while they can see the shadows cast on the wall before them by those traveling the road, they can see neither the fire nor the road itself. Their entire existence is made up of shadows and reflections; they never get to see the true objects of the world. The prisoners believe this is all the world is until one day, one of them is set free and can look around.
“If he were made to look directly at the light of the fire, it would hurt his eyes and he would turn back and retreat to the things which he could see properly, which he would think really clearer than the things being shown him.” (242)
Even when he sees that what he’s thought was real is only a shadow, he continues to turn away from what’s real and back to the shadow because it’s what he knows and because the light of the fire is too bright for him to look at. You can imagine what happens when this fellow sees the world outside of the cave.
There’s a lot more to the simile than that, but I really found this idea of shadows and reflections intriguing. I think about the shadows to which we turn in our modern lives: television shows, movies, the Internet. These things aren’t real things but merely the shadows of real things. Plato argues that no good comes from these shadows (which in his day were lyric poetry and stage dramas rather than Breaking Bad and Duck Dynasty, but it’s the same basic concept), that they serve only to distract us with petty amusement. I wouldn’t go quite that far; I think that music, movies, books, and other amusements have the potential to lead us to deeper (or perhaps loftier) thinking and can help us to live better, more compassionate lives, but I agree with Plato that these things can also have the effect of causing us to see the world in such a way that we don’t act in the best—wisest, most compassionate, most just—way possible. For this reason, we have to be careful what we choose to consume, media-wise and not consume it passively, so that we can always be reaching for goodness and wisdom.
One of my favorite passages explains what happens when we don’t do this:
”Those, therefore, who have no experience of wisdom and goodness, and do nothing but have a good time, spend their life straying between the bottom and middle in our illustration, and never rise higher to see or reach the true top, nor achieve any real fulfillment or sure and unadulterated pleasure. They bend over their tables, like sheep with heads bent over their pasture and eyes on the ground, they stuff themselves and copulate, and in their greed for more they kick and butt each other because they are not satisfied, as they cannot be while they fill with unrealities a part of themselves which is itself unreal and insatiable.” (327)
To be our best selves and to have “real fulfillment,” we must always seek what’s real and true in this life and strive always towards wisdom goodness.
That is, if we want to be our best selves and achieve real fulfillment, which I suppose is also open for debate, but the guys in the Republic would have to order more dinner rolls and probably some wine, too.
This, to me, is the reason to read Plato. His Republic doesn’t contain ideas we can—or should—apply to our lives and our societies right out of the box, but we can turn around and contemplate the admittedly wacky ideas it presents. Plato’s ideal society is seriously impractical (and, to me at least, undesirable), but reading about it prompts me to consider what it is that I think is wrong with the idea. Why couldn’t it work? Why shouldn’t it work? And if not Plato’s utopia, what’s a better alternative?
And even more than this, I ask myself, am I basing my life on shadows and reflections rather than on things that are real and true? If I am, is this a bad thing or not? And if it’s a bad thing, what am I going to do about it?
Page references are from the 2003 Penguin Classics edition.