When it came to picking a Greek classic for my month of Greece, I was inundated with choice, except I’ve already read most of the big ones: The Iliad, The Odyssey, Euripides, Sophocles…check, check, check check. And I didn’t want to read Herodotus’ Histories. So Plato’s Republic it was. I’m not gonna lie, it wasn’t easy to get through.
Speaking as Socrates, Plato discourses on the nature of justice. The basic question: Is it better to be just or unjust? Plato then discusses, and refutes, all previous definitions of justice until he builds his own definition of a just man using the complex metaphor of a just city-state. He ends by proving through logic that justice is better because those who are unjust enslave themselves through unchecked passion that deprives them of freedom and happiness.
I like that Plato came to the correct conclusion considering the immorality that pervaded ancient Greece while he was alive. Maybe that’s how he was right; he saw the effects of immoderation and lust. But in something I don’t agree, and that’s that he seems to imply that democracy is not a preferable form of government while proclaiming that injustice takes away personal freedom, making it bad. It’s a contradiction, especially considering that Athens—his city-state—was one of the great strongholds of freedom. You’d think he’d appreciate this freedom that gave him the power to write this discourse…but instead he advocates censorship. In fact, toward the end of his life he grew even more disillusioned with democracy, but I hardly think that’s democracy’s fault so much as the fault of a crumbling society.
The Characters. I found it interesting that although Plato wrote this book, he wrote it from the point of view of Socrates, his mentor. Not only does this give his discourse authenticity, but he’s partially paying homage to his teacher by arguing via the Socratic method. Other than that, this book doesn’t have characters as much as it has multiple psyches to present the argument (if that makes sense.
The Storyline. Likewise, there’s not so much a storyline as an argumentative arc. Plato starts by asking if justice or injustice is preferable, refutes the proposed definitions of justice, creates an elaborate definition via the city-state metaphor, and ends with an answer to the question (which is, FYI, yes: justice is better). There was a time when I wondered if he had forgotten the original question.
The Writing. I wouldn’t call Plato’s writing beautiful as much as compelling. He has some very interesting insights that are well ahead of his time. Like this nugget about women:
“If women are expected to do the same work as men, we must teach them the same things.”
I’m not a feminist (because I believe in equality for everyone and hardly think that women should be more important than anyone else), but I do appreciate this nugget of wisdom. Also, there are his thoughts on freedom:
“The price of apathy towards public affairs is to be ruled by evil men.”
If you can manage to follow his maze of a train of thought, then this book can be very interesting. Plato definitely has some interesting ideas about freedom and liberty and tyranny. My issue is that he assumes the worst from people, which I can actually kind of understand. Man, government, and life tend toward entropy unless there’s a force for good trending the other way. Which I believe.