On Reading Plato’s Republic

Index to this series

In adolescence, when I started visiting art museums in Washington for my own pleasure, I would visit also the museum shops, hoping to be able to take home a souvenir. Eventually, my own memories were enough to take home.

That is what I remember observing about myself, perhaps around the time when my body stopped growing taller. That time may be used to demarcate adulthood, although in kindergarten, it had made no sense to me that our bodies could ever stop growing.

Cycad with seeds
Cycads outside Selenium Twins
in the valley above Ihlamur Kasırları
on the way to Beşiktaş
December 27, 2021

I have not been to a museum since the advent of Covid-19, but I often want a souvenir when I am reading now. The souvenir may be in the form of pencil marks in a book, or pen marks in a magazine, or various interventions in an electronic file. To be able to make such interventions, I save webpages, usually with a browser’s print function or with Print Friendly.

I may also respond to what I read by writing blog posts. This is why I now have eighteen of those on Plato’s Republic: one for each of the fourteen parts in which the dialogue was divided for an online discussion, and four more for when I had an abundance of ideas.

Where has all of that left me?

The question has some special forms. There is an historical formulation: where has Plato left us? For instance:

  • How, or to what extent, is Christianity based on Platonism as well as Judaism?
  • Among worldly rulers, such as Washington, Jefferson, Napoleon, Lenin, and Atatürk, have there been any been philosophers on the model established in the Republic?

I shall look at the former question in another post. I have little more to say about the latter question, except it assumes that the Republic does offer a model for a philosopher-king, even though the dialogue calls nobody by that term (as I discussed in the context of the latter part of Book VI).

There remains a personal question: what do I make of the dialogue form?

In mathematics, we can distinguish a theorem from this or that presentation of it. Some people can prove good theorems, without being able to communicate them well. There may be analogues of theorems in the Republic, such as:

  • Crime doesn’t pay.
  • The soul is immortal.

These are not simply theorems. They are supposed to guide our behavior, and to do this, being established in words is not enough. Plato reminds us of this allegorically, at the beginning of the Republic, by having Polemarchus detain Socrates, and Socrates try to argue his way out of it, and Polemarchus refuse to listen.

Thus the Republic has features that might be called literary, as opposed to discursive.

David Bolotin seems right to say,

Socrates’ primary intention, it seems, on many or even most occasions was to impart opinions that would be salutary for his particular interlocutors, rather than to teach them what he regarded as the truth.

That’s in “The Life of Philosophy and the Immortality of the Soul: An Introduction to Plato’s Phaedo” (Ancient Philosophy 7, pp. 39–56). Bolotin cites Republic 382a1–d4 for his idea; this is the passage near the end of Book II where Socrates distinguishes the true lie from the lie in words. Gods and humans hate the former, but humans may have good use for the latter, as for example when telling fairy tales to children.

Bolotin’s general question is,

how are we to discover what Socrates did seriously think? How are we to avoid the dangers of arbitrary interpretation, such as that of regarding as genuine only those among Socrates’ arguments that we happen to find congenial, while dismissing the others as Socratic irony?

My own answer would be that we discover what Socrates really thinks by getting to know him. It may be that we can do this properly, only if we find him congenial.

There is also the question of whom we mean by Socrates in the first place: the historical figure, or the fictional character created by Plato.

Collingwood makes the distinction in the 1925 Mind article that I mentioned in the context of Book X of the Republic. The article is called “Plato’s Philosophy of Art,” and by Collingwood’s account, Plato derives that philosophy from Socrates’s observation that art is not knowledge or even opinion. Plato’s philosophy has a positive side, that art prepares us for knowledge. We can infer that this doctrine is Plato’s discovery, since it is not expressed in earlier dialogues, notably the Ion, where the positive doctrine would have had a place, had Plato developed it yet. We can see development, even in the difference between Book III of the Republic, where only some art is mimetic, and Book X, where all art is treated as mimetic.

Such were Collingwood’s thoughts in 1925. Here are some of his own words from then:

In the sixth and seventh books [of the Republic] Socrates elaborately expounds a conception according to which the universe is stratified, as it were, into various grades of reality … The study of this structure … is called dialectic.

This theory of grades of reality is indisputably the key to the Republic as a whole … each grade of experience involves the error of believing that one is enjoying the next above it … it is not really correct to speak of degrees of reality … the distinction is in point of fact only a distinction between degrees, or rather powers, of error. Hence the term μίμησις … expresses the relation between an appearance and the reality which it appears to be … Remove error, and the system of grades disappears.

… Art is not knowledge, for it cannot be praised for its truth … It is not opinion, for it cannot be praised for its utility … Its own right name is imagination, and that of its objects is phantasms or images (φαντάσματα, εἴδωλα), sheer appearances apprehended and indeed created … by an activity resembling, if not identical with, dreaming … the artist lacks, not only knowledge, but even (602) opinion; and his works contain … only a glamour which when stripped off leaves nothing behind (601) …

… the phantasm possesses glamour … because the phantasm indirectly symbolises truth … The struggle against art is the struggle to resist the emotional appeal of a symbol in order to penetrate that which it symbolises.

This sounds like Speculum Mentis, which Collingwood published in 1924. Did he read into Plato his own ideas? He himself had different ideas about Plato in 1937, when he wrote The Principles of Art. By then he had developed the doctrine that art as such is expressive. In particular, art is not craft, which is the exercise of a skill; but imitation or representation is craft. When Collingwood emphasizes in Principles that, for Plato and Aristotle, not all art is representational, he seems to be allowing for the possibility that these philosophers could have gone on to develop a theory like his own.

David Bolotin does not cite examples of arbitrary interpretation, but I suppose it is being engaged in by anybody who presumes to tell us what Socrates or Plato thinks. Expressed so generally, my supposition applies to Bolotin himself, who argues that Socrates does not actually believe in personal immortality. I do not want to say much more about the argument though. I am more interested in working out what I think, about immortality or anything else. One’s own thoughts may indeed be revealed in the process of trying to figure out somebody else’s.

Meanwhile, to avoid misinterpreting Plato, Bolotin says we need to

approach the dialogue by beginning from the very surface of the text … This first stage of our reading, however, points, beyond itself, for even in the case of those dialogues, like the Phaedo, whose arguments lead to an apparently satisfactory conclusion, difficulties will sooner or later make themselves felt.

After that first stage, the best thing to do is to keep reading, because “the dialogue can offer us guidance if we keep looking for it.” Bolotin seems to mean this quite literally, since according to him,

often, anomalous expressions or seemingly casual remarks, whose significance we would never have appreciated unless we were genuinely perplexed by the arguments, will point us along the path of Socrates’ deeper thinking.

One may imagine that those “anomalous expressions” and “casual remarks” have been inserted by Plato as if they were clues in a double-crostic. His teacher was put to death for the way he talked to people; maybe Plato wants to keep his true message hidden.

Tree trunks and branches with winter sun behind them
Yıldız Parkı
December 27, 2021

I’ll note an example from a novel of a casual remark that turns out to have deeper meaning. In The Razor’s Edge, Somerset Maugham has Isabel questioning Larry’s wish to pursue philosophy. Thanks to Distributed Proofreaders Canada and Faded Page, I can cut and paste some of the words of their exchange.

“I want to make up my mind whether God is or God is not,” says Larry; “I want to find out why evil exists. I want to know whether I have an immortal soul or whether when I die it is the end.”

If such questions could be answered, they would have been answered by now: that’s what Isabel says. Larry laughs, and the exchange continues:

“… it’s not true that no one has found the answers. There are more answers than questions, and lots of people have found answers that were perfectly satisfactory for them. Old Ruysbroek for instance.”

“Who was he?”

“Oh, just a guy I didn’t know at college,” Larry answered flippantly.

Larry hadn’t gone to college, but to war. As he tells Maugham, years later, his guardian in Illinois “helped me to get over to Canada and gave me a letter to someone he knew, and the result was that by the time I was seventeen I was flying in France.”

The conversation with Isabel is in Larry’s room in Paris, and Isabel is about to return his engagement ring. A few weeks after the breakup, Isabel is with Maugham in London, asking his advice. They are near Hampton Court, at

a small hotel where one ate tolerably … We had a cut off a leg of excellent lamb with green peas and new potatoes and a deep-dish apple pie with Devonshire cream to follow. With a tankard of pale ale, it made an excellent lunch.

Over coffee, Isabel asks,

“Who was Ruysdael?”

“Ruysdael? He was a Dutch landscape painter. Why?”

She told me that Larry had mentioned him. He had said that Ruysdael at least had found an answer to the questions he was asking, and she repeated to me his flippant reply when she had enquired who he was.

“What d’you suppose he meant?”

I had an inspiration.

“Are you sure he didn’t say Ruysbroek?”

“He might have. Who was he?”

“He was a Flemish mystic who lived in the fourteenth century.”

“Oh,” she said with disappointment.

It meant nothing to her. But it meant something to me. That was the first indication I had of the turn Larry’s reflection was taking, and while she went on with her story, though still listening attentively, part of my mind busied itself with the possibilities that reference of his had suggested. I did not want to make too much of it, for it might be that he had only mentioned the name of the Ecstatic Teacher to make an argumentative point; it might also have a significance that had escaped Isabel. When he answered her question by saying Ruysbroek was just a guy he hadn’t known in college he evidently meant to throw her off the scent.

Larry threw Isabel off the scent, only in the sense of not trying to teach her something she did not want to learn. Had she had been interested in sharing Larry’s life of enquiry, I think she would have pursued the question of who Ruysbroek was, and Larry would have told her.

Could Socrates have told us what he really meant, as Jesus did when he explained the Parable of the Sower? I talked about this in “Thinking and Feeling,” because I had read a suggestion that the parable explained itself, and I disagreed. If we find the meaning of the parable obvious, I think this is because we have been trained to recognize allegory.

I am still puzzled over what literature courses do and what they are supposed to do. In “Return to Narnia” in May, 2020, I quoted a Twitter exchange about our literary training:

Mike Sell

The single biggest failure of my life as an English Professor is being unable to shake my students’ belief that what we’re doing is finding “hidden meanings” in a text rather than improving the quality of attention we’re giving it.


If students are coming to you with the idea that English class is about finding hidden meanings, where did they get this idea: from a high-school teacher, who was once a student of you or your predecessors? or from somewhere else?


Have we learned from Freud to look for symbolism in story elements? I’ve heard from museum guards that visitors will ask of a painting they don’t get: “What is this worth?” All of this seems connected.

Mike Sell

If I can jump in, I’d look to what Paul Ricoeur called “the hermeneutics of suspicion” started by Nietzsche, Marx, and, yes, Freud. Though they all resisted the notion that the text was a riddle. When Freud analyzed dreams, his method was persistent, contextualized reading.

Mike Sell’s Twitter profile links to a nonexistent page at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania. The University website does have an article, posted only just this month (December, 2021), about “the Digital Story Game Project developed by Mike Sell, an English professor, and Rachel Schiera, a master’s and doctoral graduate.”

Three years before “Return to Narnia,” in “The Private, Unskilled One” (about Elif Batuman’s novel The Idiot), I quoted Louis Menand:

The English department is founded on the belief that people need to be taught how to read literature … Readers think that stories and poems are filled with symbols that “stand for” something, or that the beliefs expressed in them are the authors’ own, or that there is a hidden meaning they are supposed to find … People read literature too literally.

I am still not sure what English professors such as Sell and Menand are getting at. The latter has a review this month in The New Yorker called “What’s So Great About Great-Books Courses?” He doesn’t think they are as great as their promoters do:

Art and literature have cognitive value. They are records of the ways human beings have made sense of experience. They tell us something about the world. But they are not privileged records. A class in social psychology can be as revelatory and inspiring as a class on the novel. The idea that students develop a greater capacity for empathy by reading books in literature classes about people who never existed than they can by taking classes in fields that study actual human behavior does not make a lot of sense.

Actually it does make sense, if the “fields that study actual human behavior” study it in the aggregate, through controlled studies and statistics. I’ve talked about these things in posts such as “How to Learn about People” (especially the people who ended up voting for Trump) and “Law and History” (about Peter Turchin’s fantasy of doing history as if it were physics).

Perhaps you can learn anything in a course of any name: it just depends on what you and your fellows are actually trying to do.

I’m not sure what David Bolotin is trying to do in his article, which again is called “The Life of Philosophy and the Immortality of the Soul: An Introduction to Plato’s Phaedo.” Bolotin opens by saying,

It is widely acknowledged that Plato’s dialogues are artistic wholes, in which the ‘content’, or the speeches of the various characters, is inseparable from the ‘form’, or the dramatic context within which these speeches occur. It is not so common, however, for readers to keep this feature of the dialogues consistently in view in their detailed interpretations.

For me personally, the most important feature of the Phaedo is Socrates’s report of having heard in youth “that it is the mind that arranges and causes all things.” This was supposed to be the teaching of Anaxagoras, who however did not make proper use of the teaching, because he did not understand “that in reality a cause is one thing, and the thing without which the cause could never be a cause is quite another thing.”

I quoted the scene at length (it is 96a–9b) in “War and Talk.” Bolotin does not seem to mention it, except perhaps allusively, as when he says,

the dialogue also suggests, if only quietly, that the truth about the beings might not be entirely distinct from knowledge concerning their embodiments in the sensible world (see especially 67b1; and compare Philebus 15b1-c3). And if this is so, then wisdom, or human wisdom, would mean instead the greatest possible knowledge of the beings as they are given to us through perception. And such wisdom, or progress in such wisdom, is indeed attainable during our lives. If, then, Socrates denied that there is individual immortality, this would not necessarily be a denial that philosophers can become wise.

Bolotin’s focus is on showing that Socrates does not believe in personal immortality, despite his assurances to his followers that he expects to go to a better place after death. As far as I can tell, Bolotin’s main piece of evidence for this is that Socrates has been spending his time in prison composing poetry (as I mentioned in the context of Book X of the Republic). However, Bolotin’s language is difficult. I don’t know if he is quite like Judith Butler, who

prefers a verbosity that causes the reader to expend so much effort in deciphering her prose that little energy is left for assessing the truth of the claims.

Thus Martha Nussbaum in “The Professor of Parody” (New Republic, February 22, 1999). In addition to the ones that I have already quoted, Bolotin does have sentences like the following:

Socrates’ readiness, then, to accept his death, a readiness he spoke of in order to assuage his friends’ unspoken doubts about the wisdom of the philosophic way of life, raises questions about how, and even whether, the philosopher acts justly towards gods and men; and at least on the assumption, which must be made on behalf of justice, that it is well-advised to be pious and just, Socrates’ posture in the face of death raises questions about his wisdom as well.

Perhaps I write such sentences too. I hope I manage to edit out most of them. Reading them is like juggling. It can be fun to keep three balls in the air with two hands, and it can be fun to solve puzzles. However, I do not want to read the Republic as a puzzle. I would rather read it as I do a novel such as Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance or The Razor’s Edge.

When I visited the Annapolis campus of St John’s College as a prospective student in the fall of 1982, and I sat in on a freshman seminar on the Gorgias, I thought the discussion treated the dialogue not as philosophy, but as a play. I no longer recognize the distinction I was making.

Edited January 11, 2022

3 Trackbacks

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