IntroductionPlatonic philosophy begins to appear in the middle dialogues. What are the important elements of this philosophy? The middle dialogues are dominated by the theory of the Forms. This is a theory that Plato developed from certain seldom-stated assumptions that Socrates held. Socrates’ view was that the reason he and his interlocutors failed to find definitions for things was that they were stuck in case-based, specific examples. Does bravery mean fighting against a person stronger than yourself, or does it mean having the courage to back down from the fight and accept the insults of cowardice that come with that.
Does it mean having the determination to turn your father in for murder, or bravely facing him about it, because he’s your father? Such examples are bound to contradict themselves. Socrates felt that there was one bravery that was common to all these braveries, and is what makes them “brave. ” Plato sculpted this idea into his theory of Forms. The Forms are basically essences, they are that which truly defines a thing. By the time of the Republic, Plato had come around to the view that everything had Forms–not just virtues, but tangible things like beds, chairs, etc. We are surrounded by chairs, but there is a single Form of the “chair” that is common to all of them and makes them what they are.
The other thing we need to know about Platonic philosophy in the Republic (actually, this is true in all of his works) is that Plato believes wholeheartedly in an objective “human Good”, and he feels it is the goal of philosophy to find that “Good”. Plato’s work rests on morality in many places, and this provides it with both passionate credibility and intellectual weakness. Plato rejected human sensory observation in favor of seeking the higher good of the Forms, which were the key by which humans could come to an understanding of the truth of their universe and lead happier, fuller lives. Plato’s rejection of the senses, and adherence to a normative belief at the core of his work, is the subject of many other philosophical schools’ attacks on his works, most notably the skeptics, the naturalists, and Aristotle.Order now
The Republic is an expansive work that touches on many areas of Plato’s philosophy. And if we can understand it, we have moved a long way toward an understanding of Plato, who stands as one of the cornerstones of the Western philosophical tradition. The question at the center of the Republic is whether it is better to live justly or unjustly. To answer this question, Plato first constructs a perfectly Just City. This city has guardians, auxiliaries, and tradesman/craftsmen (the latter group comprising the majority of the populace).
The guardians lead the city, and are all fully educated philosophers–they represent wisdom in the city. The auxiliaries are less educated than the guardians, but still well-educated; they fight and represent courage. The rest of the population receives a general education. The balance of the city is guaranteed by a harsh and complicated system of eugenics that guarantees that the best people will be selected to become guardians, and everyone else assigned to roles as their worth makes appropriate.
The city is moderate because the guardians, the wise part of the population, rule over the spirited auxiliaries and the baser population at large. The city is Just because everyone is doing the job that best suits their nature. The guardians lead, the auxiliaries fight, the rest of the people work. Plato then projects this three part division onto the human soul. We all have a rational, wise part, a spirited, honor- loving part, and an appetitive, base part (desiring money, food, sex, etc. ) The soul is just when, just like the city, the rational part rules over the other two and each part of the soul does its own job.
Plato then argues that the just person is happier than the unjust person for this reason, that the just person’s soul is in order, whereas the unjust person’s soul is in decay and disorder. Secondly, the just person’s desires are satisfied, since their rational parts limits their desires, whereas the unjust person’s desires are rampant and out of control. Plato’s next two arguments depend on the just person not only being just but being a philosopher as well, and in touch with the theory of the Forms. The first of these arguments is that, because the philosopher is ruled by his rational part and understands truth, he understands the pleasure of a hedonist (a person ruled by appetite) and an honor-lover (a person ruled by spirit), whereas they both only know their own pleasures.
Then, the philosopher has credibility in judging what way of life is best, whereas no one else does. The last argument is rooted wholly in the theory of the Forms: the idea is that, speaking purely in terms of pleasure, the philosopher enjoys his pleasures, the pleasures of the Forms, more than unjust people enjoy their pleasures, pleasures of appetite or honor, because the pleasures of philosophy are greater than those of the sensible world. The Republic contains arguments on a great variety of subjects, at various levels of complexity. Plato’s prescriptions for the Just City, and even his division of the tripartite soul, is fairly straightforward to follow, and can be taken at very literally. With the arrival of the philosopher-kings, things start to get a little more complicated. Finally, we settle on the analogy of the Line and the Sun, and the Allegory of the Cave, and we are in very difficult philosophical territory, surrounded by complexity that submits itself to a variety of interpretations.
The primary argument behind the explicit conversation about justice that is the Republic is Plato belief in a Form of the Good, an objective human good, and that the key to understanding philosophy is understanding this Form. The only way to come to such an understanding is to immerse oneself in rigorous philosophical study, and to familiarize oneself with the dialectic on a very high level. The Form of the Good casts light over all of the other Forms, and these are key to understanding the world. The Forms are the essences of things, and they are superior to anything in the sensible world. Plato does not trust empiricism or observation as tools for coming to an understanding of things. Without the Forms, we are limited to opinion, because our senses are not reliable to give us true knowledge about anything.
Knowledge and understanding come from an examination of the Forms, and only from an examination of the Forms. Plato’s view of human learning is as metaphysical as his understanding of human knowledge. Plato’s belief in the immortal soul is the reason people are able to get in touch with the Forms. Souls themselves are as eternal and unchanging as the Forms, and they already “know” everything we learn during our lives, learning is simply a matter of helping them remember. And that is what Plato’s education does, brings people into the light of the Good, and they eventually remember all that they had forgotten about the Forms. ConclusionPlato’s philosophy in the Republic is based on two presumptions.
The first is that Forms exist. Plato deliberately places them beyond the realm of the sensible; they exist above such things, and Plato offers only common-sense arguments for their existence. Secondly, we have to believe his account that, presuming the existence of the Forms, the human mind is capable of understanding them. This is where Plato’s view of the soul becomes important, because it supports this view.
As in any positive philosophy that proposes to answer important questions, at a certain level we find belief resting beneath the arguments. Plato would of course argue that he knows about the Forms, because that is what they allow him to do, by definition. The circularity of this arrangement, Plato defines his Forms in such a way as to presuppose their existence and his knowledge of them, has been observed and criticized by centuries of skeptical thinkers. That criticism encapsulates one of the most fundamental arguments against Plato’s theory of Forms and general willingness to draw conclusions.
There is no “answer” to the question, as there are no answers to many of philosophy’s most fundamental questions. There is a certain beauty to the option Plato presents. Rather than turn your back on all judgement and conclusion because of the imperfections of human sensory perception, imperfections of which he is well aware, he chooses instead to service his philosophy to a greater Good that stands above the sensible world. The existence of this higher plane is supported by common sense. The greatness of Plato’s philosophy in the Republic is that it makes an extremely well-supported, well-reasoned argument on these virtuous assumptions, and thus does provide a comprehensive way of looking at human good, rather than hiding from any hope of drawing concrete conclusions about right and wrong.