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The Republic: Plato’s Unspoken Defense of Socrates

Plato’s Republic utilizes a political approach to answer what is essentially a moral question. In attempting to identify justice in the individual, Socrates takes an unmistakable turn toward the direction of political philosophy, describing the formation of his ideal city Kallipolis. It can hardly be disputed that the ideal state described by Socrates in Plato’s Republic is close to a totalitarian state, by its general definition. All political decisions are made by the guardian-class without any reference to the citizen body. The guardians, moreover, are neither elected nor removable from office by popular vote. Politically, their power is absolute; the only control over them is itself ideological, in that they are under an absolute moral obligation to “…cling to education and see that it isn’t corrupted” [1] and acceptance of the political system is passed on from one generation to the next. The system which Plato details through Socrates’ discussion is certainly close to totalitarian on the surface, but Plato’s true views of Kallipolis and his intent in allowing Socrates to create it are less clear.

As hinted by a number of subtle contradictions in the text, particularly in the Allegory of the Cave, it seems that Plato did not share in Socrates’ enthusiasm for Kallipolis. Although, through the manner in which Plato reports Socrates’ comments made to Glaucon early in the Republic, Plato strives to protect his dear mentor Socrates’ reputation by distancing him from the final totalitarian result of his idealized city. It is important to first establish that Plato’s Kallipolis is not a true totalitarian system by the standard definition, albeit close to this form of governance. It is clear that Plato is not an extreme totalitarian since the whole structure of his theory requires that the polis is an organization devised with the paramount aim of promoting individual eudaimonia, or happiness, through the collective happiness of the city. Socrates is careful to distinguish that “…in establishing our city, we aren’t aiming to make any one group outstandingly happy, but to make the whole city so, as far as possible” (420b). Of course, the subordination of individual priorities to that of the polis, or state, is reminiscent of some socialist or communist forms of government, which are often authoritarian by nature but Socrates’ focus on the wellbeing of the whole and not primarily of those individuals who occupy the highest positions of government makes clear that Socrates had, at the very least, ambivalent intentions.

Socrates’ utilitarian ambitions in creating Kallipolis are to ensure that all citizens cooperate to their mutual advantage and to ensure that the rulers work to the benefit of their citizens. Plato is careful to make this distinction, framing his Kallipolis in a more positive light than a purely authoritarian system of governance, where all citizens cooperate to the pure advantage of the ruler. Later in the Republic, in reference to the seemingly progressive integration of women into Kallipolis’ social structure, Socrates claims that these laws are in “…accord with nature” (456c). Socrates makes an even grander claim when he says “It’s rather the way things are at present that seems to be against nature” (456c). Socrates appears to truly believe in the system that he formed alongside Glaucon and Adeimantus as one that is true to his philosophical ideals and is superior to anything that exists in the physical world. This benevolently aimed system created by Plato through Socrates seems to attest to Plato’s desire not to hold up an abstract picture of idealism for detached scrutiny, but rather to create a system that he legitimately believed was good for citizens and rulers alike. It is unlikely that Plato would purposely include Socrates’ praise of a system that he intended to be scrutinized, unless Plato also intended for Socrates to be scrutinized.

The contemporary belief that Plato wished to establish an overly idealistic political system in order to warn against zealous utopianism cannot be supported solely by the verbal claims of intent and approval expressed by Socrates. This view can only be supported through an analysis of the implicit messages and contradictions contained within the Republic. Plato first embeds in his Kallipolis a seeming contradiction of Socrates’ legitimate intent to create an ideal city. Immediately after Glaucon remarks in Book II that the first basic city Socrates described was “…a city for pigs” (372d), Socrates and Glaucon resolve to create a luxurious city. Socrates is sure to warn Glaucon that “…the true city, in my opinion, is the one we’ve described” (372e) but he ultimately consents to Glaucon’s request: “But let’s study a city with a fever if you want” (372e). The use of the word “fever” is particularly interesting for the potentially negative connotation that it may hold. If Socrates truly meant that their city had a sickness, or a disease, then this would be cause for the conclusion that Socrates’ yielding to Glaucon’s request in Book II was the beginning of his desire to hold up an image of idealism for detached scrutiny, where the fault lay in the excessive luxuriousness of the city or perhaps in the unrealistic nature of such a city.

Additionally, Plato’s decision to include Socrates’ phrase “…if you want” may indicate Plato’s desire to distance Socrates from the final product that will result from his inquiry, as if the direction in which Kallipolis ultimately headed was the result of Glaucon’s initial suggestion. Perhaps Plato understood that the Kallipolis created in the Republic was worthy of untold criticism and intended to protect his dear mentor Socrates’ reputation by distancing him from the final result of their idealized Kallipolis. These comments from Socrates, which serve to question his true intent in the remaining eight books of the Republic, must also be carefully compared to Socrates’ self-contradictions of the viability of Kallipolis. Socrates seems to have conflicting views on the importance of considering Kallipolis’ viability. He establishes that it is “…not impossible…” for the city to come to fruition but “that it is difficult for it to happen…” (499d). Socrates’ mere consideration of viability gives credence to the seriousness of his inquiry into the ideal city. Had Socrates’ aim for the formation of Kallipolis merely been to hold up a negative example of zealous idealism for detached scrutiny, viability of the city would have been unworthy of his consideration. Although, at the end of Book IV, Socrates claims that “It makes no difference whether it is or ever will be somewhere,” (582b) in response to Glaucon’s objection at the unlikeliness of the philosopher participating in politics. This sudden change in tone by Socrates, which assigns an unprecedented level of unimportance to viability, leads readers to believe that the entire premise of the inquiry into Kallipolis lacks seriousness in nature.

It is still possible, though, that even if the viability of Kallipolis is unimportant to Socrates, it could still be a serious inquiry into an ideal city. It is not of necessity that a city be viable in order to be truly ideal and to have benevolent intent, albeit Socrates’ lack of appreciation for viability at this point in the Republic is certainly concerning to readers. More so, Socrates’ conflicting attitude toward viability, which was certainly a purposeful inclusion by Plato, may indicate Plato’s lack of confidence in Socrates’ methodology. In the best case, Socrates intended for a serious inquiry into the ideal city and Plato merely recorded Socrates’ success in creating a Kallipolis with a slightly more benevolent nature than totalitarianism. In the worst case, Plato’s inclusions of Socrates’ contradictions could indicate Plato’s intention to critique Socrates’ utopian spirit through his creation of a Kallipolis that he did not consider to be ideal and through means that he believed to lack sufficient care.

The final indication of Plato’s sentiment toward Socrates’ political inquiry occurs in Socrates’ Allegory of the Cave, where he leaves readers with a final qualifier for the success of Kallipolis: the philosopher must go “down into the cave again” (539e). In the allegory, Plato likens people untutored in the Theory of Forms to prisoners chained in a cave, viewing shadows projected onto a wall in front of them, and provides readers with an epistemological interpretation of the extended metaphor that is the cave. In the allegory, the philosopher breaks free of the shadowy deception within the cave and through a painful process of discovery, eventually attains knowledge of the Forms. Given that Socrates aims for an ideal where “political power and philosophy entirely coincide” (473d), the process of philosophical discovery in the Allegory of the Cave can logically be interpreted as the process of the philosopher king gaining the necessary knowledge to lead Kallipolis. The first contradiction of the viability of the philosopher king is the fact that one who attains knowledge of the Forms through their ascendance from the cave would likely realize the deception of the “noble falsehood” (414c) on which their society is constructed and would have no desire to return to the cave. In fact, in reference to the misled citizens in the cave, Socrates admits that the philosopher would “…go through any sufferings, rather than share their opinions and live as they do” (516d). Therefore, it seems unlikely that the philosopher, once he has escaped the cave and attained knowledge of the Forms, would return to the cave to become philosopher king over the citizens, turning from “…divine study to the evils of human life” (517d).

Additionally, Socrates leaves a crucial step for the continual operation of Kallipolis completely unaccounted for. After the philosopher who has attained knowledge of the Forms returns to the cave and demonstrates his ability to be “…successful both in practical matters and in sciences…” (540a) and puts “…the city, its citizens, and themselves in order” (540b), he must train his successors “…to take his place as guardians of the city” (540b). Training a successor to the philosopher king would require the current king to bring another citizen out of the darkness of the cave in order to expose him to the light of the Forms. Unfortunately, this is an incredibly dangerous task. Early in the Allegory of the Cave and in reference to the prisoners (citizens) by which it is occupied, Socrates asks Glaucon, “And, as for anyone who tried to free them and lead them upward, if they could somehow get their hands on him, wouldn’t they kill him?” (517a), to which Glaucon responds, “They certainly would” (517a). This problem is never readdressed by Socrates in Plato’s Republic, suggesting that the proper function of Kallipolis, which is dependent on the philosopher king leading others out of the cave to replace him, is wholly unviable.

As previously mentioned, an ideal city does not have to be viable in order to be a legitimate inquiry. It is the fact that Socrates does not realize the impossibility of Kallipolis’ development that is a larger concern. More so, it appears that Plato was aware of this impossibility, as he composed his Republic without reconciling Socrates’ lack of consideration for the formation of his ideal city. It is evident that Socrates – or the character of Socrates that Plato presents in the Republic – truly believed in the goodness of his Kallipolis. Numerous times in the text, Socrates praises the city that he has described alongside Glaucon and Adeimantus and even gives some consideration to the possibility of its formation. The pseudo-totalitarian nature of Socrates’ Kallipolis was simply the result of his quest to foster not the most good for any individual group, but the most good for the state as a whole. It appears that Plato understood that the near totalitarian city that would eventually result from Socrates’ inquiry had the potential to invoke harsh criticism of his mentor and so he attempted to distance Socrates from the final product of Kallipolis. Likewise, Plato’s framing of the ideal city through the dialogue of Socrates distances Plato from the ultimate form of the ideal city, as well, and protects him from the same criticism from which he desired to protect Socrates. Thus, Plato strikes a delicate balance between protecting Socrates’ reputation and criticizing his final creation by distancing Socrates from the final result of Kallipolis by making clear that the secondary luxurious version of the city was not Socrates’ preferred version, while also implicitly proposing that Socrates’ inquiry was seriously lacking in adequate consideration of viability. This approach by Plato suggests that he likely disapproved of the idealist attitude employed by Socrates in the Republic, yet preferred to protect both his own and his mentor’s reputation, rather than to hold up Socrates’ Kallipolis as a picture of zealous idealism for detached scrutiny.

[1] Plato, Republic, trans. G.M.A. Grube, rev. C.D.C. Reeve, in Plato: Complete Works, ed. with intro. and notes by John M. Cooper, assoc. ed. D.S. Hutchinson (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 1997): 424b.

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