On Plato’s Republic, 6

Index to this series

Book V of Plato’s Republic features three of what Socrates calls waves or breakers:

  1. That women serve alongside men as guardians.
  2. That women be bred with men like animals and not know their children.
  3. That philosophers rule as kings, or kings become philosophers.

Such outlandish injunctions will have Socrates swept away, though he does not say by whom or what.

Our sixth scheduled reading covers the first two of the three waves, in Stephanus pages 449a–71e. Socrates is induced to spell out details adumbrated in the last reading, Book IV, concerning the sharing of women and children among the guardians.

Four dogs at the edge of the sea, or in it
Wisdom, courage, moderation, and justice
Profesörler Sitesi, Altınova, Balıkesir, Turkey
September 20, 2021


  • Midwifery. A wave in Greek is also a fetus, and Socrates uses related words in the Theaetetus to discuss his calling as a midwife.
  • Contradictions. Socrates says in the Theaetetus that only the infertile can be midwives, who in turn do the best matchmaking, although now in the Republic he will effectively assign matchmaking to Glaucon. This is one of several examples of Socratic weaselliness.
  • Etymology of ΚΥΜΑ. “Cyma,” “cyme,” “church,” “cave,” “accumulate,” and enceinte all happen to be cognate.
  • Where We Are. As we begin the current reading, Socrates gets sidetracked from discussing the kinds of badness in the city and the soul.
  • A New Start (449a–51b). Polemarchus et al. make Socrates talk about sex instead.
  • Freedom and Truth. An excursus on Socrates and Malcolm X, journalism and written words.
  • First Wave (451b–7c)
  • Second Wave (457c–66d)
  • Warfare (466d–71e)


A wave or breaker here is κῦμα, which also means a sprout or a fetus and is a verbal noun from κυέω, which means to become or be pregnant. As Bloom points out, Socrates uses such words in the Theaetetus. He says near the beginning (148e),

Yes, you are suffering the pangs of labour, Theaetetus, because you are not empty, but pregnant. // Ὠδίνεις γάρ, ὦ φίλε Θεαίτητε, διὰ τὸ μὴ κενὸς ἀλλ᾽ ἐγκύμων εἶναι.

Presently he says he is “the son of a noble and burly midwife, Phaenarete.” He practices the same art, though he wants Theaetetus to keep this a secret. By decree of Artemis, midwives are women who are not barren, but are just too old to bear children; moreover (149d),

they are the most skilful of matchmakers, since they are very wise in knowing what union of men and women will produce the best possible children.

That’s important for us now, since in the present reading of the Republic, the rulers of the city in speech are going to be matchmaking in this way. Socrates continues (150a–b),

women do not, like my patients, bring forth at one time real children and at another mere images which it is difficult to distinguish from the real … [my midwifery] differs from theirs in being practised upon men, not women, and in tending their souls in labor, not their bodies. But the greatest thing about my art is this, that it can test in every way whether the mind of the young man is bringing forth a mere image, an imposture, or a real and genuine offspring. For I have this in common with the midwives: I am sterile in point of wisdom.

Bloom mistakenly locates such assertions at the end of the dialogue, where however κυέω is indeed used again, and there is a denial that a successful birth has occurred this time. I have complained elsewhere that some of my fellow logicians ignore this denial while trying to extract a doctrine of knowledge from the dialogue. Here is the passage (210a–b):

So neither perception, Theaetetus, nor true opinion, nor reason or explanation combined with true opinion could be knowledge. // οὔτε ἄρα αἴσθησις, ὦ Θεαίτητε, οὔτε δόξα ἀληθὴς οὔτε μετ᾽ ἀληθοῦς δόξης λόγος προσγιγνόμενος ἐπιστήμη ἂν εἴη.
Apparently not. // οὐκ ἔοικεν.
Are we then, my friend, still pregnant and in travail with knowledge, or have we brought forth everything? // ἦ οὖν ἔτι κυοῦμέν τι καὶ ὠδίνομεν, ὦ φίλε, περὶ ἐπιστήμης, ἢ πάντα ἐκτετόκαμεν;
Yes, we have, and, by Zeus, Socrates, with your help I have already said more than there was in me. // καὶ ναὶ μὰ Δί᾽ ἔγωγε πλείω ἢ ὅσα εἶχον ἐν ἐμαυτῷ διὰ σὲ εἴρηκα.
Then does our art of midwifery declare to us that all the offspring that have been born are mere wind-eggs and not worth rearing? // οὐκοῦν ταῦτα μὲν πάντα ἡ μαιευτικὴ ἡμῖν τέχνη ἀνεμιαῖά φησι γεγενῆσθαι καὶ οὐκ ἄξια τροφῆς;


Let all of this from the Theaetetus stand in juxtaposition with the Republic, especially Book V, as another example of how Socrates says conflicting things, as if in violation of the Law of Contradiction stated in Book IV.

We have already noted how, in Book III, Socrates says the same artist cannot write both comedy and tragedy well, and flutes are to be banned from the city, although in the Symposium he himself is called a flute-player and says the true artist in tragedy is that in comedy too.

Within the Republic itself, as discussed below, in contradiction to the findings of Book IV, that justice is minding your own business and is always to be preferred, comedians are told in Book V not to mind their own business.

I suspect Socrates of implying that Glaucon is not a true friend if he does not try to, or even cannot, find the errors in what Socrates says.

In “Politics” I mentioned Collingwood’s basic observation from An Autobiography: “No two propositions, I saw, can contradict one another unless they are answers to the same question.”

Etymology of ΚΥΜΑ

The following etymology of κῦμα may not be relevant, but I found it out, so here it is. The word is used in English as

  • “cyma” for a moulding with double curvature;
  • “cyme” (one syllable) for the main kind of determinate inflorescence – determinate in the sense of having a terminal flower, the main kind of indeterminate inflorescence being a raceme.

What is common to the several meanings of κῦμα is being a kind of swelling. The source verb κυέω is in turn cognate with κύριος, which means a lord, apparently because he is swollen with power; the Greek word comes into English via West Germanic as “church.” The same Indo-European root yields, via Latin, the English words “cave” and “accumulate,” as well as, perhaps, the French word enceinte, used in English for being with child. There is speculation that κυέω is cognate with the noun κύαρ, meaning the eye of a needle or the orifice of the ear; the common sense would be of being curved.

Where We Are

In the last reading, one of what I called highlights of the reading is that “the regime, once well started, will roll on like a circle in its growth” (424a). Socrates has just said (423c) that the guardians must enforce two principles:

  1. The city shall not be too little or big.
  2. Children born in the wrong class shall be moved to the right one.

Adeimantus calls the first “perhaps a slight task,” the second “a lesser task than the other.” He seems ironic, especially since he complained, at the beginning of Book IV, that the life of a guardian did not sound too happy. Nonetheless, Socrates takes Adeimantus’s words at face value (423d–4a):

“Yet, my good Adeimantus,” I said, “these are not, as one might think, many great commands we are imposing on them, but they are all slight if, as the saying goes, they guard the one great – or, rather than great, sufficient – thing.”

“What’s that?” he said.

“Their education and rearing,” I said. “If by being well educated they become sensible men, they’ll easily see to all this and everything else we are now leaving out – that the possession of women, marriage, and procreation of children must as far as possible be arranged according to the proverb that friends have all things in common.

“Yes,” he said, “that would be the most correct way.”

Going on to complete, with Adeimantus, the construction of the city in speech, Socrates then invites him to find justice and injustice in it, with the help of “your brother [Glaucon], Polemarchus, and the others” (427d). Glaucon insists that Socrates lead the way. He does, all the way back to the individual, who Glaucon agrees is better off being just, no matter what (445a).

This could have been where Book IV ended.

Next up is to analyze the negation of justice, or of virtue. Among the infinitely many forms of vice, four can be singled out. Since the types (τρόποι) of souls probably correspond to the types of regimes, there are now five of each to consider. We have considered the best regime, be it a monarchy or aristocracy, depending on whether the ruling class be one or several. That is how Book IV ends.

A New Start (449a–51b)

At the beginning of Book V, Socrates is just about to name four forms of badness, whether of cities or souls. It sounds interesting, but before he can do it, Polemarchus prompts Adeimantus to interrupt and tell Socrates to spell out how women and children are going to be shared in common. Thus Polemarchus takes charge of Socrates, as he did on the road to Athens, at the beginning of Book I. This time, Thrasymachus joins in, with his only speech outside of Book I, as I mentioned then.

The fellows don’t want to hear about the four ways of being bad. They don’t want to get to work on their own souls. They want to hear about an aspect of the imaginary city that has no obvious correlate in the individual soul: the distinction between the sexes.

One might think the boys were obsessed with the act of sex, or with seeing girls naked. However, Glaucon seems not to be, when he spells out the demand in detail. He is less concerned with acts of conception than with the children conceived (450b–c):

For intelligent men, Socrates, the proper measure of listening to such arguments is a whole life. Never mind about us. And as for you, don’t weary in going through your opinion about the things we ask: what the community of children and women will be among our guardians, and their rearing when they are still young, in the time between birth and education, which seems to be the most trying. Attempt to say what the manner of it must be.

Socrates’s concerns for the community of women and children are:

  1. Is it possible?
  2. If so, is it for the best?

He worries about getting things wrong and misleading his friends. It would be less bad to commit involuntary manslaughter. Glaucon reassures him that he shall be released of any guilt. Perhaps this is an allusion to paying weregild or blood money. The sacrifices that Cephalus has been making in Book I may perform a similar function, as do those that Adeimantus refers to in Book II, citing the words of Phoenix in the Iliad that Socrates bans in Book III.

In Book V now, Socrates has said it would also be better to mislead enemies than friends (451a). Could this be because his enemies would be motivated to point out his errors? From the discussion with Polemarchus in Book I, we may remember that we do not always know who our real friends are.

Socrates will presently (452c) admonish people not to mind their own business, when that business is comedy:

we must make our way to the rough part of the law, begging these men, not to mind their own business, but to be serious; and reminding them that it is not so long ago that it seemed shameful and ridiculous to the Greeks – as it does now to the many among the barbarians – to see men naked; and that when the Cretans originated the gymnasiums, and then the Lacedaemonians, it was possible for the urbane of the time to make a comedy of all that.

We may remember (and if we do not, Bloom’s note reminds us) that minding one’s own business is the very definition of justice found in Book IV.

Freedom and Truth

Is Socrates playing games with us? He does warn us in the Phaedrus (277e–8b),

the man who thinks that in the written word there is necessarily much that is playful, and that no written discourse, whether in meter or in prose, deserves to be treated very seriously … that man, Phaedrus, is likely to be such as you and I might pray that we ourselves may become.

On the other hand, the remark about comedians by Socrates is like the one about coffee by Malcolm X, who said it was “the only thing I like integrated.” Each man is making a startling exception to a general rule that, properly understood, is of great importance.

Alex Haley includes the quotation about coffee in the Epilogue to The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Haley goes on to describe getting permission to write the “as told to” autobiography from the subject himself. Malcolm insisted,

Nothing can be in this book’s manuscript that I didn’t say, and nothing can be left out that I want in it.

This was apparently in 1963; “months later,” says Haley,

in a time of strain between us, I asked for – and he gave – his permission that at the end of the book I could write comments of my own about him which would not be subject to his review.

Given Socrates’s own questioning of the value of the written word, I note that, in 1976, Haley published Roots: The Saga of an American Family, which was made into the television miniseries.

I must have watched at least part of it. I remember that a black girl named Kizzy is friends with a white girl, who even gives her the forbidden knowledge of reading, until she is sold away by the white girl’s father (acted by the same man who played the father of The Brady Bunch). Decades later, a white woman in a carriage tells a black woman to bring her some water. The black woman is Kizzy, who recognizes the white woman as her former friend; but the white woman denies any memory of a black girl named Kizzy. She drinks the cup of water. Kizzy has spat in it.

Those are the scenes that I remember, and they are worthy of a poet like Homer. It seems Roots is as historically accurate as the Iliad. According to an article of January, 1981, that quotes Robert D. McFadden from the New York Times,

[Haley] has consistently “noted that his narrative had been fleshed out with dialogue and that some descriptions were obviously fictionalized,” but that to “the best of my knowledge and of my effort, every lineage statement within ‘Roots’ is from either my African or American families’ carefully preserved oral history, much of which I have been able conventionally to corroborate with documents.” Yet again, in a Reader’s Digest article bearing his byline, Haley stated: “I began following the story’s trail. In plantation records, wills, census records, I documented bits here, shreds there … By 1967, I felt I had the seven generations of the U.S. side documented.”

“[To] the best of my knowledge and of my effort … I felt I had … documented” – these words sound like an acknowledgment of scholarly or journalistic failure. My source (learned of from Wikipedia) is “Roots and the New ‘Faction’: A Legitimate Tool for Clio?” (The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 89, No. 1), in which Gary B. and Elizabeth Shown Mills go on to document Haley’s failure:

In truth, those same plantation records, wills, and censuses cited by Mr. Haley not only fail to document his story, but they contradict each and every pre-Civil War statement of Afro-American lineage in Roots!

This statement is not made lightly, nor is it meant as a personal indictment, only as a professional critique. Historical evidence indicates that Mr. Haley has been heir to the same frustrations faced by untold numbers of other amateur genealogists who seek to document family traditions and legends, and he has fallen victim to the same psychological hangup that has entrapped many others: a reluctance to accept any truths that deviate from the cherished family legend.

How profound are the truths being talked about here? In “Remembering it wrong, and how to get it right: A lesson from Jim Dwyer, one of the greats of journalism” (October 1, 2021), Lauren Wolfe recalls getting a good story about a man in the south tower of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, a few floors above where the airplane had struck. Before he died, Shimmy Biegeleisen recited a psalm over the phone with his wife – at least, that’s what the widow told Wolfe; but Dwyer asked Wolfe,

Are you sure this is what happened? … it’s just that people want to remember the most beautiful things about the people they loved. So, while this is a beautiful story, we need to be sure it’s true.

It wasn’t true. That’s as much as Wolfe remembered learning; but there was more.

Wolfe had been doing research for the book 102 Minutes, to be written by Dwyer and Kevin Flynn. According to the book itself, while Biegeleisen had not recited the psalm to his wife, he had recited it to a friend. Says Wolfe,

The fundamental lesson Jim taught me – that you can’t trust memory, even when well-intentioned – is still making me a better journalist … Even now, even – especially – muddled by memory, Jim’s lesson doubles down: We remember what we want to. It is our job as journalists to sort truth from memories, even well-intentioned ones. Sometimes even our own.

I am all for the sorting out of truth from memories; however, one may say it takes time and effort that could be better spent. The passage from the Phaedrus that I quoted elliptically could be given with different ellipsis and thus different meaning:

the man … who thinks that only in words about justice and beauty and goodness spoken by teachers for the sake of instruction and really written in a soul is clearness and perfection and serious value … that man, Phaedrus, is likely to be such as you and I might pray that we ourselves may become.

Near the end of their article in The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, the Millses give a good reason why Haley ought to have been clear about what he was making up in Roots: others are dismayed when they cannot document their family histories the way that Haley seems to have done.

Countless Afro-American family genealogists across America are struggling now, as generations of Caucasians have long done, to reconcile their family traditions with documentable fact. The trend began even before the publication of Roots, but archivists, professional genealogists, and genealogical societies everywhere have reported a surge of interest on the part of black genealogists. The authors of this article, who have been frequently called upon to assist these endeavors, have also noticed an increased sense of disillusionment and frustration by many when their research exposes those inevitable deviations from “The Gospel of Aunt Lizzie,” as well as an increased sense of injury when those family legends are subjected to the same tests of scholarship that all historical assumptions must pass. If the Haley legend proved correct, down to the last word, why should their legends not be unimpeachable also?

The foregoing has come up, because:

  1. I read Lauren Wolfe’s recent newsletter and was impressed by her concern for getting the details right.
  2. Socrates’s comment about comedians reminded me of Malcolm’s comment, “Coffee is the only thing I like integrated.”
  3. I recovered the latter from a copy of the autobiography, borrowed from the Web Archive, of the same edition that I once read (unfortunately I lost my own copy).
  4. I remembered being told that Alex Haley had been too credulous of the stories he heard of Kunta Kinte in Africa.
  5. The words of Socrates in the Phaedrus bring us back to considerations of how to read the Republic.

I found the quip about integrated coffee also in “Malcolm X Was Right About America” (Truthdig, February 2, 2015), where Chris Hedges traces Malcolm’s words (with “like” given as “liked”) to a meeting of Malcolm with reporters Peter Goldman and Helen Dudar in 1962 in St Louis. He told them also,

The average Negro doesn’t even let another Negro know what he thinks, he’s so mistrusting. He’s an acrobat. He had to be to survive in this civilization.

To survive in Athens, one also had to be mistrusting. Plato does not literally tell us what he thinks, and it is not clear whether the character of Socrates does either. According to Hedges, reporter Claude Lewis was told by Malcolm, “not long” before his assassination of February 21, 1965,

If you read, you’ll find that very few people who think like I think live long enough to get old. When I say by any means necessary, I mean it with all my heart, my mind and my soul. A black man should give his life to be free, and he should also be able, be willing to take the life of those who want to take his. When you really think like that, you don’t live long.

Socrates gives his life to be free – free to obey a divine command. Whether he has killed for it is not clear, though he has served Athens militarily in three campaigns, according to his testimony in the Apology (28d–9a):

For thus it is, men of Athens, in truth; wherever a man stations himself, thinking it is best to be there, or is stationed by his commander, there he must, as it seems to me, remain and run his risks, considering neither death nor any other thing more than disgrace.

So I should have done a terrible thing, if, when the commanders whom you chose to command me stationed me, both at Potidaea and at Amphipolis and at Delium, I remained where they stationed me, like anybody else, and ran the risk of death, but when the god gave me a station, as I believed and understood, with orders to spend my life in philosophy and in examining myself and others, then I were to desert my post through fear of death or anything else whatsoever. It would be a terrible thing, and truly one might then justly hale me into court, on the charge that I do not believe that there are gods, since I disobey the oracle and fear death and think I am wise when I am not. For to fear death, gentlemen, is nothing else than to think one is wise when one is not; for it is thinking one knows what one does not know. For no one knows whether death be not even the greatest of all blessings to man, but they fear it as if they knew that it is the greatest of evils.

Thus Socrates has an inner life. The god talks to him in a way that nobody else can hear. For such a person, absolution from error, though Glaucon was prepared to offer it, cannot just be handed over like so much gold or weaponry.

First Wave (451b–7c)

What the comedians should not make fun of is the idea of training women naked alongside men in the palaestras and gymnasiums. This is because:

  • The guardians are to be like dogs (451c–d).
  • Among dogs, the females do the same work as the males, though they are treated as the weaker sex (451d–e).
  • Those who do the same work must have the same training (451e).
  • Male guardians are trained in music and gymnastic (452a).
  • The Greeks used to think, as barbarians still do, that it was shameful even for men to work out naked (452c).
  • “He is empty who believes anything is ridiculous other than the bad” (μάταιος ὃς γελοῖον ἄλλο τι ἡγεῖται ἢ τὸ κακόν, 452d).

Now we have to make sure that a common training for male and female guardians really is possible. Whoever wishes to should be allowed to question whether female human nature shares anything with the male (452e–3a).

Socrates invites Glaucon to do this questioning with him. The questioner may argue as follows.

  • One must do one’s natural business (453b).
  • Men and women differ in nature.
  • Therefore (453c) men and women should have different work.

Glaucon does not see the flaw. How many people today would see it?

Socrates explains at some length. The argument is eristic, not dialectic (454a). As I understand it, differing in one thing, such as the conception of children, does not entail differing in all things (454d–e), any more than whether one has hair determines whether one can be a cobbler (454c).

Glaucon allows that “many women are better than many men in many things” (455d).

“Therefore, my friend,” Socrates concludes,

there is no practice of a city’s governors which belongs to woman because she’s woman, or to man because he’s man; but the natures are scattered alike among both animals; and woman participates according to nature in all practices, and man in all, but in all of them woman is weaker than man.

That’s all fine, except for the putative weakness of woman in all practices. Socrates then takes another logical leap by saying (456a),

Men and women, therefore, also have the same nature with respect to guarding a city, except insofar as the one is weaker and the other stronger.

More precisely, I should think, having the nature of a man or woman tells us nothing about whether a person has the nature of a guardian – nor whether that person is weak or strong.

Before we conclude that Socrates is moving in a direction that we like, let us note where he continues to go.

  • That which is natural is possible (456c).
  • With the prescribed education, male guardians being better than shoemakers, the same will be true for female guardians (456d–e).
  • Having the best possible men and women is best for the city (456e).
  • Thus our law is possible and best (457a).

Second Wave (457c–66d)

Lest we think that now women are liberated to be the best they can be by their own lights, Socrates informs us (457c–d),

All these women are to belong to all these men in common, and no woman is to live privately with any man. And the children, in their turn, will be in common, and neither will a parent know his own offspring, nor a child his parent.

Socrates says it is obvious that this will be good, if only it is possible. Glaucon disagrees (457e). Therefore Socrates, like an idler, will consider whether it is good, before whether it is possible. This means looking at how the proposed law will be implemented (458a–b).

We have already determined that men and women shall be mixed in the camp of the guardians. Therefore, by a necessity that Glaucon calls erotic, rather than geometric (458d), they are going to mix, sexually.

Promiscuous sex being unholy, marriages shall be made sacred – and they shall be arranged, just as Glaucon presumably arranges the “marriages” of the hunting dogs and pedigree cocks that he keeps at home – the hens are not mentioned (459a).

The rulers will therefore need to use the drug of lies and deceptions to get the best men and women to mate, but not the others (459c–e). These others should believe that mates are selected by chance (460a). Abundant intercourse with women will be a prize for being good at war and elsewhere; a corresponding prize for women is not mentioned (460b). The offspring of good pairings will be raised separately by nurses; those of others will be somehow “hidden away” – “Opinions differ on whether this is euphemism for exposure,” says Shorey.

Glaucon accepts it all without qualm, “If the guardians’ species is going to remain pure” (460c). Then he hears that the nursing woman will be prevented from

  • knowing which child is her own,
  • nursing any child too long.

“It’s an easy-going kind of child-bearing for the women guardians, as you tell it,” says Glaucon (460d).

Women will bear for the state from twenty to 40; men will sire from 30 to 55. Procreation outside of these limits, or when the state has not approved, is not permitted. Overage intercourse is permitted, except between parents and children (460e–1c).

Glaucon recalls that parents do not know their own children. What is forbidden then is intercourse with somebody who is of the right age to be one’s child. However, the approved pairings may be between siblings (461c–e).

Now one job is finished, and another begins (461e):

So, Glaucon, the community of women and children for the guardians of your city is of this kind. That it is both consistent with the rest of the regime and by far best, must next be assured by the argument.

The process seems to be as follows.

  • “The greatest good in the organization of a city” is “what binds it together and makes it one” (462a), so that it is like a single human being (462c).
  • Our city has this, because unlike the ruling class in other cities, our guardians, by law, not only call one another kin, but act as if they are (462e–3e). Evidently Glaucon takes the people to be malleable in this way.
  • The unity is caused by the community of women and children (464a).
  • What was said before about having no private property also conduces to unity (464b–c).
  • There being nothing private but the body, lawsuits and factions will virtually vanish (464d–e).
  • In case of insult or assault, individuals will take care of their own defense (464e–5a).
  • What will prevent the younger man from striking the older is
    • shame of doing such a thing to a parent,
    • fear of the many nominal relations who will come to the man’s defense (465a–b).

    It seems to be assumed that the strength of individual family ties will not be diluted when their number is multiplied.

  • There won’t be unseemly concerns about money (465b–c).

Socrates claims to have forgotten who thought the guardians would not be happy (465e); it was Adeimantus, at the beginning of Book IV. Now Socrates has shown that the life of a guardian will be better than that of an Olympic victor (464d):

  • what the guardians win is the preservation of the whole city,
  • the prize is everything needed for life.

It remains to determine whether the community of women and children that effects all of these good things is possible for humans, as it is for animals (466d).

Warfare (466d–71e)

Socrates again postpones the question, now with a trick. He says, “I suppose it’s plain how they’ll make war.” Presumably he knows that Glaucon will not think it is plain, but ask how war is to be waged. In any case, that is what Glaucon does. Socrates explains.

Children will be taken to observe war, as already potters’ sons observe potting (466e–7a). Evidently it is assumed that, thanks at least to the state breeding program, most children of guardians will be suited to carry on the trade.

When Glaucon expresses concern about the danger, Socrates points out that not all risks must be avoided, and some are even beneficial, if they are survived (467b).

Fathers will know which campaigns are likely to be more dangerous (467c). In an offhand acknowledgement of the possibility of error, Socrates recognizes that things can turn out contrary to opinion; therefore the children will be on horseback and able to fly to safety (467d–e).

Cowards in the ranks will be “demoted to craftsman or farmer.” There will be no attempt to recover prisoners of war (468a). Guardians who fight best will get to kiss whomever they want, male or female, and will get bred more often. Even Homer approves of honoring good young warriors (468b–d). Those who die well will get a good funeral (468e–9b).

Now we start comparing Greeks and barbarians. Greeks should neither enslave Greeks nor let barbarians do it (469b–c).

In what may be a dig at Achilles, Socrates says the bodies of dead enemy soldiers should not be

  • stripped of more than arms;
  • treated as enemies, since they are only bodies (469c–e).

Greeks should not ravage Greek countryside (470a), since they are by nature friends; they are enemies by nature only with barbarians (470b–c).

Socrates goes on in this vein. His purpose may be

  • to distract Glaucon from the question of possibility;
  • to encourage Greek nationalism.

Such nationalism, like other nationalisms in the nineteenth century, might be seen as a progressive force. A German colleague once pointed out to me that the words of the Deutschlandlied,

Deutschland, Deutschland über alles,

were revolutionary in their opposition to the German nobility or at least its pettiness. Socrates makes the following humanitarian remark at 471a–b:

They will not, being Greeks, ravage Greek territory nor burn habitations, and they will not admit that in any city all the population are their enemies, men, women and children, but will say that only a few at any time are their foes, those, namely, who are to blame for the quarrel.

The translation is now that of Shorey, who notes (writing in 1930),

The same language was frequently used in the recent World War, but the practice was sometimes less civilized than that which Plato recommends. Hobhouse (Mind in Evolution, p. 384), writing earlier, said, “Plato’s conclusions (Rep. 469–471) show how narrow was the conception of humanitarian duties in the fourth century.” It is, I think, only modern fancy that sees irony in the conclusion: “treating barbarians as Greeks now treat Greeks.”

Hobhouse here is Leonard Trelawny Hobhouse, Shorey’s quotation is found in the footnote on page 384 of the second, 1915, edition of Mind in Evolution. Hobhouse says on that page,

A moral revolution is introduced as soon as the conception of common humanity becomes recognised as the fundamental moral truth … The first and most striking effect of the humanitarian principle is its levelling tendency. In the ancient world, the Stoic doctrine of the fatherhood of God, and the consequent brotherhood of man, was instrumental in breaking down the barriers raised by differences of race, nationality, and even caste against the universal application of moral truth. The older morality of Greece and Rome was civic. It was concerned with the reciprocal obligations and rights of free men in a city state, and but faintly concerned itself with duties to slaves or foreigners.1

1 Nevertheless the utter cynicism of Athens in the fifth century B.C. shocked the Greek world, just as France at the beginning of the nineteenth century, England at the end of it, and, above all, Germany in 1914, have shocked the modern world. The Melian dialogue followed by the dramatic retribution of the Sicilian catastrophe is Thucydides’ testimony to this feeling of his contemporaries. But Plato’s conclusions (Rep. 469–571) show how narrow was the conception of humanitarian duties in the fourth century.

I note that Hobhouse has a chapter headed “Learning among the higher animals. The method of trial and error.” This concerns experiments by Edward Lee Thorndike that Collingwood cites in An Essay on Metaphysics – in the chapter called “A Pseudo-Science Refutes Itself” – as an “Example of Red Herrings.” By Hobhouse’s account (page 178 of the cited edition),

Mr. Thorndike’s principal experiments consisted in placing cats, dogs, and chickens in a variety of cages so contrived that they could be opened by means well within the animal’s physical powers, yet quite outside the range of its ordinary experience. Thus clawing at a string, depressing a lever, pushing aside a swing door and so forth enabled the prisoner to escape. It was found that the cat or dog – we may confine our attention to them – at first clawed and scratched more or less indiscriminately; in so doing it would in course of time give, by accident, the required push or pull, and so obtain its freedom. After a certain number of repetitions, the animal would acquire the power of doing what was needed more and more quickly, until at last the trick was properly learnt. The right action was “stamped in” by success, while the indiscriminate pawing was stamped out. As a measure of the perfection of the habit, the time required to achieve freedom is taken practically as the sole test.

Collingwood’s criticism is that the way the animal comes to be able to free itself is not the methodical application of trial and error that we may use to learn which key fits a lock. Having discussed the account of Thorndike’s experiment in William McDougall’s Outline of Psychology, Collingwood remarks,

The famous experiments thus throw no light whatever on the method of trial and error, and Professor McDougall knows that they throw no light on it. But that phrase has been used as a section heading, because it is the name of a process of thought, and psychology has got to keep up the pretence of telling us how we think.

I have not (yet?) taken the time to understand Hobhouse’s view of the experiments.

Meanwhile, back in the Rebublic, Glaucon finally asks (471c–e),

Is it possible for this regime to come into being, and how is it ever possible? I see that, if it should come into being, everything would be good for the city in which it came into being. And I can tell things that you leave out.

What Glaucon thinks Socrates has left out are the following.

  • Warriors who think of one another as family will least desert one another.
  • Having women in the campaign will help, whether they be in the line or the rear.
  • “All the good things that they would have at home and are left out in your account.”

I originally thought the last point was that home was worth fighting for; but perhaps Glaucon means just that life in the imaginary city would be good, if only it were possible.

Copy-edited April 13, 2022. Edited again October 2, when I added the discussion of weregild and Phoenix and of Socrates’s inner life. On October 24, I distinguished the discussion of warfare as a separate section (of the Republic and of this post) and expanded my comments.

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