Plato’s Republic Explained

Plato’s Republic is a Socratic dialogue concerning justice in the context of examining the character of the just man and the order of a just polity.

Written in 380 BC, The Republic essentially consists of Socrates discussing the meaning and nature of justice with various men, speculating how different hypothetical cities, underpinned by different forms of justice, would fare. Confusingly, The Republic is not about a republic. The society described would be more accurately termed a polity.

Plato’s solution is a definition of justice that appeals to human psychology rather than supposed behaviour.

Plato

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Plato was the first Western philosopher to apply philosophy to politics. His ideas on, for example, the nature and value of justice, and the relationship between justice and politics, have been extraordinarily influential.

Written during the Peloponnesian War, The Republic reflected Plato’s perception of politics as a dirty business that sought mainly to manipulate the unthinking masses. It failed to nurture wisdom.

It starts out as a dialogue between Socrates several young men on the nature of justice. The claim is that justice is whatever is in the interest of the strong, an interpretation which Socrates explains would lead to disharmony and general unhappiness.

Types of People

According to Plato, the world contains 3 types of people:

  • Producers – Craftsmen, farmers
  • Auxiliaries – Soldiers
  • Guardians – Rulers, the political class

A just society depends on a harmonious relationship between these 3 types of people. These groups must stick to their specific roles – Auxiliaries must implement the will of the Guardians, and the Producers must confine themselves to their work. This discussion dominates Books II – IV.

Every person has a soul of three parts, mirroring the three classes in society.

  • Rational – Represents the truth-seeking, philosophical inclination
  • Spirited – Yearning for honour
  • Appetitive – Combines all human lusts, primarily financial

Whether an individual is just or not is dependent on the balance of these parts. A just individual is ruled by his rational component, the spirited component supports this rule and the appetitive submits to it.

These two tripartite systems are inextricably linked. A Producer is dominated by his appetites, the Auxiliaries by the spirited, and the Guardians by the rational. The Guardians are therefore the most just men.

plato's republic explained

A piece of Plato’s Republic on papyrus dating from the 3rd century AD

Theory of the Forms

Reducing it to its simplest form, Plato describes the world as composed of two realms – the visible (which we can sense) and the intelligible (which can only be grasped intellectually).

The intelligible world is comprised of Forms – immutable absolutes such as Goodness and Beauty that exist in permanent relation to the visible world.

Only the Guardians can comprehend the Forms in any sense.

Continuing with the ‘everything comes in threes’ theme, in Book IX Plato presents a 2-part argument that it is desirable to be just.

  • Using the example of the tyrant (who lets his Appetitive impulse govern his actions) Plato suggests that injustice tortures a man’s psyche.
  • Only the Guardian can claim to have experienced the 3 types of pleasure – loving money, truth and honour.

All these arguments fail to distance the desire for justice from its consequences. Justice is desirable because of its consequences. That is the central takeaway from The Republic, and one that resonates to this day.

Alex Browne studied History at Kings College London and is an Assistant Editor at Made From History. He specializes in post-war history in the USA and Central America.