On Plato’s Republic, 1

Here begins another series on readings of a classic. Now the classic is the Republic of Plato. The sections (after this one) of the present post are

Though I did it for Pascal and am doing it for Chaucer, I shall not give the full texts of the Republic readings themselves. One reason is that I cannot understand the Greek well enough in isolation, but do not want to treat any translation as definitive. When I make quotations, I may cut and paste from Project Perseus, which seems to use Shorey’s translation; or I may type out Bloom’s translation. (Note added November 15, 2021: eventually I shall obtain an epub file of Bloom, so that I can cut and paste.)

Again I have selected a classic from among offerings of the Catherine Project. For now, the only website that I can give for the Project is the Twitter page of the founder and director, Zena Hitz. (By the time of the eighth Republic reading, the Project will have its own website.)

Participants in the reading groups seem to have found them through Twitter. Not all of the other participants are from or in North America.

Reasons to read the Republic include the following.

  • It shows how long we have recognized a certain problem, namely that persons with political power may not be the most fit for service. If Plato had actually solved that problem, it would no longer be with us. On the other hand, since it is still with us, nobody else must have solved it either.
  • I am nonetheless encouraged that other people are still interested in reading and talking about old books, particularly the Republic. (I shall presently review my own history with this book.)
  • Plato may have made progress, in the form of an idea that the character of Socrates expresses in the Republic and elsewhere. The most powerful persons are the most miserable, if they are not philosophical enough to know what they really want.

Hannah Arendt discusses that last idea in her essay, “Truth and Politics” (The New Yorker, February 25, 1967; the bold emphasis is mine, as it usually will be):

The Socratic proposition “It is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong” is not an opinion but claims to be truth, and though one may doubt that it ever had a direct political consequence, its impact upon practical conduct as an ethical precept is undeniable; only religious commandments, which are absolutely binding for the community of believers, can claim greater recognition. Does this fact not stand in clear contradiction to the generally accepted impotence of philosophical truth? And since we know from the Platonic dialogues how unpersuasive Socrates’ statement remained for friend and foe alike whenever he tried to prove it, we must ask ourselves how it could ever have obtained its high degree of validity. Obviously, this has been due to a rather unusual kind of persuasion; Socrates decided to stake his life on this truth – to set an example, not when he appeared before the Athenian tribunal but when he refused to escape the death sentence. And this teaching by example is, indeed, the only form of “persuasion” that philosophical truth is capable of without perversion or distortion; by the same token, philosophical truth can become “practical” and inspire action without violating the rules of the political realm only when it manages to become manifest in the guise of an example. This the only chance for an ethical principle to be verified.

Rebecca Panovka takes up Arendt’s essay in “Men in Dark Times: How Hannah Arendt’s fans misread the post-truth presidency” (Harper’s, August, 2021). My own post, “Doing and Suffering” (March, 2020), takes up the Socratic principle, as expressed in Plato’s Gorgias and by Christians, for whom it is Jesus who staked his life on it.

The Republic is on the list of the top five recommended philosophy books at the Five Books website. That site is where I learned of some essays on Thoreau that I took up in “Feminist Epistemology.” The Republic is on the site’s lists of

My Personal Journey

My own reading of Plato began in the course of ancient Greek history taught by George Constantinople at St Albans School in Washington, 1979–80. Mr Constantinople had us read selections from the Republic in the Cornford translation. Cornford adapts the text to the supposed needs of the modern student. Allan Bloom frowns on this, but our teacher even referred to our book as “Cornford” rather than “Plato” or “The Republic.” Apparently we read the parts that Cornford calls

  • Chapter XII, “The Virtues in the State”;
  • Chapter XIII, “The Three Parts of the Soul”;
  • Chapter XIV, “The Virtues in the Individual”;

  • Chapter XVIII, “The Paradox: Philosophers must be Kings”;
  • Chapter XIX, “Definition of the Philosopher. The Two Worlds”;

  • Chapter XXIII, “The Good as the Highest Object of Knowledge”;
  • Chapter XXIV, “Four Stages of Cognition. The Line”;
  • Chapter XXV, “The Allegory of the Cave.”

Evidently we read a lot more than the person referred to in The Onion, who stopped highlighting their Cornford at page 17. However, until I checked the highlighting in my own Cornford for this post, I thought I had read there only about the Line and the Cave.

For an exam in the high-school course, I recall memorizing a lot of dates in Athenian history, from the fifth century, when Socrates was alive. It would be useful to have retained all of that knowledge, but I have not done so. The most memorable feature of the course may have been the reading of the Iliad in its entirety, in the Lattimore translation. In English class that year, we read the Odyssey, in Fitzgerald’s translation. Would that everybody could have such an opportunity!

My readings of the Republic as a whole have been as follows.

  • In the freshman seminar at St John’s College, Annapolis, 1983–4, I read the Jowett translation, in a Modern Library edition that one of my parents must have used. I do not recall how many seminars we had around the table. However, in the first seminar, I didn’t speak, because I didn’t know how to question what everybody else seemed to take for granted, that there was something called justice in the first place.
  • In a preceptorial on the Republic led by Jack Lincoln at St John’s College, Santa Fe, 1985–6, I read the translation by Paul Shorey in the two-volume Loeb edition. Preceptorials lasted eight weeks, I believe, and were the College’s only “elective”; even then, the idea was not exactly to learn something new, but to take time with a book that you already knew something about. Late in the preceptorial, I spent a Saturday afternoon reading Plato in my room, then went out to the balcony and beheld the snowy mountains in the east, lit silver and gold as the setting sun came below the clouds. When the preceptorial and semester were over, and I was back home for Christmas in Alexandria, Virginia, I felt elevated for days, as if I had escaped from the Cave.
  • I worked through the Republic on my own in 2016, again in the Loeb edition, on the beach in the Ayvalık province of Turkey. I read from Friday, August 19, to Wednesday, August 24, according to the notes that I kept by hand in a blank book. This was a little over a month after the coup attempt of July 15. We had been at the beach then too, until everybody was ordered to go home, and so Ayşe and I went back to Istanbul.

In 1999, when I was a post-doc in mathematics in Ontario, I joined the Unoffical St John’s College Alumni Email List. Soon I joined a group on the List who undertook to read and discuss the Republic. To supplement the Loeb edition, I obtained the Oxford World’s Classics translation by Robin Waterfield, who rendered the key word δικαιοσύνη not as “justice,” in the traditional manner, but as “morality” or “doing right.” In another post, I have recalled how a flight attendant thought my copy of Waterfield was historical fiction. On the email list, I’m not sure our discussion got far into Book II, if at all. A major participant, some years my senior (and now deceased), seemed perversely proud of “still” not knowing what the Republic was about, though having read it for years.

When I saw the hardback on the table of new arrivals at Pandora Books in Istanbul, I bought Alain Badiou’s 2012 Republic translation, in Susan Spitzer’s translation from the French. I seem to have read more than half of it, to judge by the underlinings. I shall talk about about the work of Badiou and Spitzer when reporting on the third reading.

On Monday, August 15, 2022, at 6 p.m. in Istanbul, I shall join another Catherine Project reading group on the Republic. This one will have begun on June 6 and will be scheduled to continue till May, 2023. When I join (along with another member of the group reading the Gorgias and the Protagoras), the slow Republic group will be in Book III.


Here is the schedule of the current discussions, to be held on Google Meet, Saturdays in 2021 at 2 p.m. on the East Coast of the US, thus 21:00 in Istanbul, until the United States goes off daylight savings time on November 7: then 22:00 in Istanbul. I link to my posts on the corresponding readings and to ancillary posts.

Date Stephanus Book
August 14th beginning – 336b I
August 28th 336b – 354c I
September 4th 357c – 383a II
September 11th 386a – 417b III
Badio [et al.]
September 25th 419a – 445e IV
October 2nd 449a – 471e V
October 9th 472a – 480a V
October 16th 484a – 502d VI
October 23rd 502d – 511e VI
The Divided Line
November 6th 514a – 521c VII
November 13th 521c – 541b VII
November 20th 543a – 569c VIII
December 4th 571a – 592b IX
December 11th 595a – end X
On Reading Plato’s Republic
Plato and Christianity

From Pandora Books, I have obtained the translation of Bloom for this reading, but shall probably continue to consult the Loeb for the Greek. Bloom tries to be literal, but he is perversely so in one example that I noticed, where he renders μία τις αἰτία ἐστίν (329d) as “there is one just cause,” rather than “there is just one cause” as Shorey does. The reader might wrongly infer that the word that Bloom translates as “just” is δίκαιος, when it is the indefinite pronoun τις. Probably Bloom just made a mistake, even according to his own standards.

In the second reading, Bloom will simplify the logic of a sentence comparing justice to gold; Shorey is more literal.

In the ninth reading, Bloom will make the curious choice to translate φρόνησις as prudence. The translations offered by the Pocket Oxford Classical Greek Dictionary (2002) are “mind, will; thought, insight; purpose; high spirit, pride, arrogance.” Perhaps Bloom’s use of “prudence” is no more strange than translating ἀρετή as virtue (here the POCGD offers “goodness, excellence, perfection, merit, fitness; bravery, valour; virtue”).

Summary of the Readings and Posts

1st reading (Book I, former part): The discussion with Polemarchus.

2nd reading (Book I, latter part): The discussion with Thrasymachus.

3rd reading (Book II)

  • The objections of Glaucon and Adeimantus.
  • The city of pigs and the feverish city.
  • The education of the guardians.

4th reading (Book III)

  • The banishing of imitative poets.
  • The Noble Lie.

Badio, Bloom, Ryle, Shorey” – something about each of them, particularly

  • Bloom’s Republic commentary;
  • Ryle’s foolish review or non-review.

Politics” – mainly as something to be avoided.

5th reading (Book IV)

  • With Adeimantus, the completion of the city.
  • With Glaucon, justice (along with the three other virtues, wisdom, courage, and moderation) found
    • in the city in terms of its three classes,
    • in the soul in terms of its three corresponding parts.
  • The forms of injustice are about to be discussed.

6th reading (Book V, former part): Digression, starting with the first two waves, that women will

  1. serve with men;
  2. be bred with men like animals.

Nature” – this can be

  • something a thing (such a human) has;
  • the object of natural science.

7th reading (Book V, latter part): The third wave, that philosophers must rule. What they are anyway.

8th reading (Book VI, former part): The third wave continues. The Ship of State.

9th reading (Book VI, latter part): The Sun and the Divided Line.

The Divided Line” – more on that.

10th reading (Book VII, former part): The Cave.

11th reading (Book VII, latter part):

  • The education of the rulers.
  • When in power, the philosophers drive out everybody older than ten.
  • End of digression begun in Book V.

12th reading (Book VIII): From aristocracy, in city or individual, the degeneration to timocracy, oligarchy, democracy, and tyranny.

13th reading (Book IX):

  • The tyrannical soul.
  • Three proofs that he’s the worst.
  • The chimerical soul as argument for justice.

14th reading:

  • The ban on imitative poetry.
  • The immortality of the soul.
  • The Myth of Er.

The Persons of the Dialogue

In form, the Republic is a monologue, in which Socrates recounts a dialogue of the previous day between himself and others, who met in the Piraeus and especially in the house of Cephalus.

Sign saying Πειραιάς and Piraeus

Piraeus train station, July 7, 2007

Concluding when Thrasymachus jumps into the discussion at the house, the first reading might be analyzed into four parts:

Before looking deeper into these, let me try to get straight the people involved in the dialogue. In the beginning, (1) Socrates has gone down to the Piraeus with (2) Glaucon, son of Ariston, because there is a festival. On the way back to Athens, Socrates and Glaucon are detained by (3) a boy, who is enslaved by (4) Polemarchus, who is the son of (5) Cephalus and who is now accompanied by (6) Glaucon’s brother Adeimantus, (7) Nicias’s son Niceratus, and several unnamed others. Polemarchus invites or compels Socrates to come home with him. At the house are (8) Lysias and (9) Euthydemus, brothers of Polemarchus; (10) Thrasymachus of Chalcedon (in what is now the Asian part of Istanbul); (11) Charmantides of the Attic deme of Paeania; (12) Aristonymus’s son Cleitophon; and Cephalus himself. I think I have thus named everybody that Socrates names in the recounting: twelve persons, eleven of whom are on the list of dramatis personae at the beginning of Bloom’s translation. Bloom leaves out the enslaved boy.

The speakers from whom we shall hear are only

  1. the unnamed enslaved boy,
  2. Glaucon,
  3. Polemarchus,
  4. Socrates himself,
  5. Adeimantus,
  6. Cephalus, and
  7. Thrasymachus,

in that order. Six of those persons compose the list of characters at the head of Shorey’s translation in the old Loeb edition. Again the enslaved boy is left out, even though Socrates quotes his words:

After we had said our prayers and seen the spectacle we were starting for town when Polemarchus, the son of Cephalus, caught sight of us from a distance as we were hastening homeward and ordered his boy run and bid us to wait for him, and the boy caught hold of my himation from behind and said, “Polemarchus wants you to wait.” And I turned around and asked where his master was. “There he is,” he said, “behind you, coming this way. Wait for him.” “So we will,” said Glaucon …

Since an enslaved boy is a key participant of the Meno dialogue, perhaps we should take note when such a person appears in the Republic too.

Notes on the First Reading

The Festival

To say more about that, let us look at the reading in more detail. I can just quote the first part, which is the paragraph before what I have just quoted:

I went down yesterday to the Peiraeus with Glaucon, the son of Ariston, to pay my devotions to the Goddess, and also because I wished to see how they would conduct the festival since this was its inauguration. I thought the procession of the citizens very fine, but it was no better than the show, made by the marching of the Thracian contingent.

The goddess would seem to be Bendis, a Thracian deity, if we can go by an exchange near the end of Book I (and thus in the second reading, at 354a):

“Never, then, most worshipful Thrasymachus, can injustice be more profitable than justice.” “Let this complete your entertainment, Socrates, at the festival of Bendis.” “A feast furnished by you, Thrasymachus,” I said, “now that you have become gentle with me and are no longer angry …”

Meanwhile, apparently Socrates is not an Athenian nationalist. We hear more about the festival at 328a:

“Do you mean to say,” interposed Adeimantus, “that you haven’t heard that there is to be a torchlight race this evening on horseback in honor of the Goddess?” “On horseback?” said I. “That is a new idea. Will they carry torches and pass them along to one another as they race with the horses, or how do you mean?” “That’s the way of it,” said Polemarchus, “and, besides, there is to be a night festival which will be worth seeing …”

The riders will pass along torches as Polemarchus’s enslaved boy passed along a message to Socrates. Perhaps the analogy is strained. And yet slaves are essential to the Athenian economy, and passing things along is essential to civilization. Presently Cephalus will talk of how wealth was passed from his grandfather to his father (who then lost a lot of it), and will be passed (the gods willing) from him to his sons. Meanwhile, Cephalus will pass the conversation to one of those sons.

Collingwood refers to the torchlight race in ¶ 36. 44, in the climax chapter of The New Leviathan (1942), where the essence of civilization is found in the willingness of some of us to teach what we know, and of others of us to learn it. Collingwood is a sailor, and his example is knots.

36. 39. There is nothing to be gained by inventing a new knot; there is almost incredibly much to be lost by failure to conserve the tradition of knot-tying that we have.
36. 4. The ‘arts’ or ‘practical sciences’ which are the basis of all man’s civilization relatively to the natural world are common property.
36. 41. I do not mean that no one man invented the bowline. Anyone accustomed to knots will agree that some one man did; a man in whose presence a fellow-inventor consisting of Archimedes and Gutenberg and George Stephenson and Edison, rolled into one, would hide his diminished head.
36. 42. I mean that to perpetuate an invention like this has been the joint work of nameless and numberless millions of men combined by doing so into a vast and mutually unknown society whose members owe, this his life (how many times over?), that his catch of fish, the other his protection from the weather, to the nameless genius whose knot they have learned to use.
36. 43. Think of the society assembled; imagine its resurrection in response to a Last Trump signalling: ‘This way, all who can tie a bowline.’
36. 44. ‘Will they hold torches, and pass them from hand to hand as they ride the race?’
36. 45. The gradual building-up and storing of all this knowledge of which the bowline is an infinitesimal fraction is the gradual building-up and garnering of human civilization relatively to the natural world.

The Road to Athens

Polemarchus threatens to impose his hospitality on Socrates by brute force. I have said therefore that I did not understand the opening of the Republic until I had experienced Turkish hospitality. A would-be host in Turkey has not gone so far as to threaten me; however, I have learned here that people can be more keen to enjoy themselves in the role of host than to think of what their guests really want.

I have learned from our current seminar that Polemarchus may be detaining Socrates, not just for his own sake, but for the entertainment of his father, who will tell Socrates himself that he cannot get out much anymore.

Meanwhile, Socrates proposes the option of persuading Polemarchus to let him and Glaucon go back to Athens. Polemarchus asks if persuasion will work if he doesn’t listen.

It is now Glaucon who says that persuasion will not work. Socrates knows that it still can. Although Polemarchus says that he will not listen to Socrates, he does it anyway, when his father is talking with him.

The Conversation with Cephalus

Cephalus thinks you can buy your way into heaven. Money alone is not enough; you have to be among those who are κόσμιοι καὶ εὔκολοι: for Shorey, “temperate and cheerful”; for Bloom, “orderly and content with themselves.” Still, if you have such a character (τρόπος), then it is not hard to do what you need to do. In Bloom’s translation (331b):

The possession of money contributes a great deal to not cheating or lying to any man against one’s will, and, moreover, to not departing for that other place frightened because one owes some sacrifices to a god or money to a human being.

Now Socrates makes the move that brings in Polemarchus and induces his father to leave the conversation to the young people. Cephalus has referred to the myths of Hades, whereby “the one who has done unjust deeds here must pay the penalty there” (330d). Socrates now asks whether justice is simply the giving back of what one has taken.

If Socrates had really wanted to keep Cephalus in the conversation, might he have done things differently? Who wants to discuss the definition of an abstract concept? Socrates does go on to give an example of the concept. If you accept weapons from a friend, who later wants them back when he is mad, you should probably not give them back.

It is standard practice in mathematics to give a definition first, then examples: some that fit the definition, and others that do not. However, my wife has taught me to be suspicious of any book of group theory that starts with the abstract definition of a group; better to proceed as follows.

  1. Start with the concept of a symmetry of a figure (such as a frieze or a Platonic solid),
  2. Observe that the collection of all symmetries of a given figure is closed under composition and inversion.
  3. Only then define a group to be any structure with the abstract properties of the collection of symmetries of a figure.

A 2007 blog post of Timothy Gowers recommends not giving definitions until you have shown your listeners some examples, from among which the definition will distinguish certain cases.

That’s mathematics. In ordinary life, who wants to talk about definitions anyway? As a good rhetorician, Socrates must know that he could have proposed the example about weapons first, before stating the definition (ὅρος) that the example disproves; and he could even have left off the definition, inviting Cephalus only to comment on the example.

The particular example may be important, though neither Shorey nor Bloom has a note on it. Socrates may be alluding to events like those that occurred in Turkey on July 15, 2016, and in the United States on January 6, 2021. Why else would you ask your friend to hold on to some weapons, unless you were getting ready for a coup?

The Debate with Polemarchus

Polemarchus does turn out to be keen to discuss definitions. From Simonides he takes the saying (331e),

That it is just to give to each what is owed.

Ὅτι τὸ τὰ ὀφειλόμενα ἑκάστῳ ἀποδιδόναι δίκαιόν ἐστι.

In his Etymological Dictionary of Greek (2009), Beekes traces the verb here for owing, ὀφείλω, to the Indo-European root *h₃bhel- “owe, be obliged.” I could not find a descendant of this root in English. Our own owe, of which ought is the past tense, is cognate with own, from the IE root *ēik- “to be master of, possess.” The only other cognates in English are fraught and freight.

To owe somebody is perhaps to have allowed them to be master of you. On the other hand, if you owe the bank enough money, then you become master, and the bank will want to serve you, as long as it thinks you will be able to earn enough to repay the loan.

It is not always clear who the servant is, and who the master. Is the dog the master, because the human walks behind, picking up its excrement? Jerry Seinfeld jokes about this. “The child is father of the Man,” as Wordsworth says.

In the Franklin’s Tale among The Canterbury Tales, when Dorigen agrees to wed Arveragus, either will be servant of the other:

Of his free wil he swoor hir as a knight,
That never in al his lyf he, day ne night,
Ne sholde up-on him take no maistrye
Agayn hir wil, ne kythe hir Ialousye,
But hir obeye, and folwe hir wil in al
As any lovere to his lady shal;
Save that the name of soveraynetee,
That wolde he have for shame of his degree.

Heer may men seen an humble wys accord;
Thus hath she take hir servant and hir lord,
Servant in love, and lord in mariage;
Than was he bothe in lordship and servage;
Servage? nay, but in lordshipe above,
Sith he hath bothe his lady and his love;
His lady, certes, and his wyf also,
The which that lawe of love acordeth to.

We have not got a simple empirical test for justice. Polemarchus acknowledges this by saying that what is owed is not something material, but “to do some good and nothing bad” (ἀγαθὸν μέν τι δρᾷν, κακὸν δὲ μηδέν, 332a).

The dialogue could stop here, except that Polemarchus has been a bit more precise. Doing good is what is owed to friends. To enemies what is owed is some harm or evil (κακόν τι, 332b); for this is what is proper or fitting (προσήκει).

As what was owed turned out not to be clear, so now what is fitting; for it is not always clear who our friends and enemies are.

Socrates does not observe this right away. First he allows Polemarchus to believe that justice is an art. To everything, there must then be a technique of giving it what is owed and fitting.

  • To bodies, the art of medicine gives “drugs, food and drinks.”
  • To foods, cookery gives seasoning.

To what then does justice give what? To friends and enemies it gives benefits and harms, says Polemarchus. The analogy is poor.

  • A doctor can give those things regarding sickness.
  • A pilot can give those things at sea.

When can the just person give those things? Again Polemarchus tries to follow the examples by proposing that the just person does their work at war.

He has to admit that justice is useful in peacetime too. But then so are such arts as farming and shoemaking. As far as Polemarchus can be led to treat justice as an art, so far will the scope of justice be narrowed, until justice concerns only the keeping of money when not in use.

Socrates’s initial example to Cephalus was about keeping arms out of use; now it’s money.

Polemarchus agrees that the best guardian is the one who knows best how to break a defense. This is so in boxing and medicine. Therefore whoever can keep money can steal it.

Polemarchus admits his ignorance, but still thinks justice is helping friends and harming enemies. Now Socrates makes the point about the uncertainty of who is really a friend.

The point conflicts with the one about guarding and stealing. An art always aims to make something better, with respect to its own virtue. The virtue of humans is justice. Therefore it is never just to harm anybody.

Whatever the merits of the argument that I have summarized, Polemarchus agrees with the conclusion. Socrates suggests that Polemarchus’s earlier belief

belongs to Periander, or Perdiccas, or Xerxes, or Ismenias the Theban, or some other rich man who has a high opinion of what he can do.

Polemarchus agrees again, although it would seem that Socrates’s description applies also to Cephalus, if not to Polemarchus himself.

Edited September 8, 2022

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  29. By The Ideal « Polytropy on November 12, 2022 at 9:15 am

    […] Index to this series […]

  30. […] to avoid tricks—and these skills are surely not unrelated, as Socrates might well point out. In Book I of the Republic (340a–b), he gets Polemarchus to agree that, here in Shorey’s […]

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