PLATO: Republic – Books 1 & 2


September 29, 2016 by fredrikcoulter

This work, indirectly, caused me to restart and (hopefully) complete my reading of the Great Books of the Western World.

I’m sure that I should explain that.  Plato’s Republic describes an ideal city, one that fosters “justice” for its residents.  Jo Walton used the description of the city when writing her book The Just City.  (You can buy the book from Amazon, both physically and for your Kindle.  You can read the Kindle version without buying a Kindle.)  In the book, the gods create the city, bringing people from across the spans of time to populate it.  It’s meant to be an experiment.  Needless to say, things don’t go quite a planned.

I can’t tell how well Jo followed the description of the city in the Republic.  This reading is only of Books 1 and 2, and the city description is much farther along.  I’m sure I’ll get to it, eventually.  But because of the novel, which is recommended, I restarted my Reading Plan.

The reading in the Ten Year Reading Plan only includes Books 1 & 2 in the first year.  Interesting, it also only includes Books 6, 7, & 8 in year four.  This means that I probably won’t be reading the entire work until after I’ve completed the Ten Year Plan.

Book 1

The work starts off with a short discussion about whether money makes an elderly man happy.  The conclusion is that it helps, but doesn’t guarantee anything.

It then moves on to a discussion of justice, and whether it’s an inherent good.  There was one thing that bothered me, especially while they were defining justice as doing good to their friends and evil to their enemies.  Basically, the problem I had was that it seemed that the definition assumed complete knowlege on the part of the individual.  First, you need to know if someone is your friend or your enemy.  Second, you also need to know what will do good and what will do evil to the other person.  This level of knowledge seems a bit difficult to achieve.

If the definition was that a just man would do perceived good to his perceived friends, and perceived evil to his perceived enemies.  It doesn’t flow off the tongue as easily, but it would be more accurate.

Book 2

In Book 2, the discussion goes on about justice.  The decision is made to look on a macro level, and see what justice means for groups of people before trying to bring it down on the individual level.  But to do that, they need to define The State:

A State, I said, arises, as I conceive, out of the needs of mankind; no one is self-sufficing, but all of us have many wants. Can any other origin of a State be imagined?

There can be no other.

Then, as we have many wants, and many persons are needed to supply them, one takes a helper for one purpose and another for another; and when these partners and helpers are gathered together in one habitation the body of inhabitants is termed a State.

True, he said.

And they exchange with one another, and one gives, and another receives, under the idea that the exchange will be for their good.

Very true.

Then, I said, let us begin and create in idea a State; and yet the true creator is necessity, who is the mother of our invention.

Of course, he replied.

Now the first and greatest of necessities is food, which is the condition of life and existence.


The second is a dwelling, and the third clothing and the like.


And now let us see how our city will be able to supply this great demand: We may suppose that one man is a husbandman, another a builder, some one else a weaver—shall we add to them a shoemaker, or perhaps some other purveyor to our bodily wants?

Quite right.

The barest notion of a State must include four or five men.


And how will they proceed? Will each bring the result of his labours into a common stock?—the individual husbandman, for example, producing for four, and labouring four times as long and as much as he need in the provision of food with which he supplies others as well as himself; or will he have nothing to do with others and not be at the trouble of producing for them, but provide for himself alone a fourth of the food in a fourth of the time, and in the remaining three fourths of his time be employed in making a house or a coat or a pair of shoes, having no partnership with others, but supplying himself all his own wants?

Adeimantus thought that he should aim at producing food only and not at producing everything.

Probably, I replied, that would be the better way; and when I hear you say this, I am myself reminded that we are not all alike; there are diversities of natures among us which are adapted to different occupations.

Very true.

And will you have a work better done when the workman has many occupations, or when he has only one?

When he has only one.

Further, there can be no doubt that a work is spoilt when not done at the right time?

No doubt.

For business is not disposed to wait until the doer of the business is at leisure; but the doer must follow up what he is doing, and make the business his first object.

He must.

And if so, we must infer that all things are produced more plentifully and easily and of a better quality when one man does one thing which is natural to him and does it at the right time, and leaves other things.


Then more than four citizens will be required; for the husbandman will not make his own plough or mattock, or other implements of agriculture, if they are to be good for anything. Neither will the builder make his tools—and he too needs many; and in like manner the weaver and shoemaker.


Then carpenters, and smiths, and many other artisans, will be sharers in our little State, which is already beginning to grow?


Yet even if we add neatherds, shepherds, and other herdsmen, in order that our husbandmen may have oxen to plough with, and builders as well as husbandmen may have draught cattle, and curriers and weavers fleeces and hides,—still our State will not be very large.

That is true; yet neither will it be a very small State which contains all these.

Then, again, there is the situation of the city—to find a place where nothing need be imported is wellnigh impossible.


Then there must be another class of citizens who will bring the required supply from another city?

There must.

But if the trader goes empty-handed, having nothing which they require who would supply his need, he will come back empty-handed.

That is certain.

And therefore what they produce at home must be not only enough for themselves, but such both in quantity and quality as to accommodate those from whom their wants are supplied.

Very true.

Then more husbandmen and more artisans will be required?

They will.

Not to mention the importers and exporters, who are called merchants?


Then we shall want merchants?

We shall.

And if merchandise is to be carried over the sea, skilful sailors will also be needed, and in considerable numbers?

Yes, in considerable numbers.

Then, again, within the city, how will they exchange their productions? To secure such an exchange was, as you will remember, one of our principal objects when we formed them into a society and constituted a State.

Clearly they will buy and sell.

Then they will need a market-place, and a money-token for purposes of exchange.


Suppose now that a husbandman, or an artisan, brings some production to market, and he comes at a time when there is no one to exchange with him,—is he to leave his calling and sit idle in the market-place?

Not at all; he will find people there who, seeing the want, undertake the office of salesmen. In well-ordered states they are commonly those who are the weakest in bodily strength, and therefore of little use for any other purpose; their duty is to be in the market, and to give money in exchange for goods to those who desire to sell and to take money from those who desire to buy.

This want, then, creates a class of retail-traders in our State. Is not ‘retailer’ the term which is applied to those who sit in the market-place engaged in buying and selling, while those who wander from one city to another are called merchants?

Yes, he said.

And there is another class of servants, who are intellectually hardly on the level of companionship; still they have plenty of bodily strength for labour, which accordingly they sell, and are called, if I do not mistake, hirelings, hire being the name which is given to the price of their labour.


Then hirelings will help to make up our population?


And now, Adeimantus, is our State matured and perfected?

I think so.

It’s interesting to note how the definition of The State has changed in the last couple of millennia.  What’s missing in the above quote is the government.  There is no mention of anything related to the government, while in today’s parlance, when The State is mentioned, it’s usually referring directly to the government.

This also goes against the primary technique of the doomsday preppers.  They work very hard to become completely independent, not reliant on any other individual.  I think that this is a fool’s errand.  Mankind is a social animal.  Most, if not all, of the progress we’ve made since the beginning of time came about because of interactions with each other.  Specialization of labor and the ability to become really good at something, has resulted in a society that far better meets the needs of its members.  Doomsday preppers should be trying to make sure that they can produce goods that will be useful to their neighbors during bad times.  A system of preppers are much more likely to thrive than someone living completely isolated from all other human contact.

Socrates also talked about the need to censor the stories that they tell their children. Basically, all stories were to uphold the dignity and infalibility of God.  According to Socrates, censorship of stories was essential to bring up right thinking citizens. But isn’t the power of censorship itself a dangerous thing? There’s also the old saying that power corrupts.  And the ability to shape the next generation is incredibly powerful.  How would the wielders of that power avoid its corrupting influence.

Finally, a little about theology.  According to Socrates, God can only craft things which are good.  Bad (“evil”) cannot be created by God.  While he doesn’t say this, that definitely doesn’t support the monothesitic theology that dominates in the Western World.  The translation consistenly refers to God, but I wonder if that’s more translator bias than the original meaning.

God cannot change his form, but has a pure form.  (Otherwise, by changing his shape he is effectively lying to the people.)  Since God can only be good, and because lying is bad, all the stories of God tricking people and changing shapes are false.  Unfortunately for fans of Greek and Roman mythology, this means that stories about coming to Earth and mating with human women while in the shape of a swan cannot be true.


The entire work is available at Project Gutenburg, which is where I copied the quote from.


3 thoughts on “PLATO: Republic – Books 1 & 2

  1. Dr. J says:

    I discussed these same books with freshmen honors students this week. It proved very difficult for them to entertain the notion of justice as a fixed, objective idea to be apprehended through reason. They were mostly mired in subjectivity.


    • fredrikcoulter says:

      The easy answer is to point to relativism as the problem. There are societies with more justice and societies with less justice. But no absolute justice.

      While relativism started off more as an objection to “my country/society is correct”, I think it’s turned into an “everything is relative” analysis. Yes, mindless patriotism, and there’s a lot of that in any country, is not at all a useful tool for analysis, we may very well have swung way too far in the opposite direction.

      As for freshman…

      That’s probably more of a comment for my wife, who is busy mostly teaching freshmen mathematics this semester. (Mathematics is a service department, which means that the vast majority of courses taught are aimed at non-mathematicians. For every “real” course my wife teaches, she may be teaching ten freshmen level courses.) When I taught (as an adjunct), it was accounting. Accounting has rules, which can be explained by pointing out that comparing financial statements is essential. We don’t talk about the grey areas — and there are a lot of grey areas — until the student’s had at least a year of following the rules.

      If freshman aren’t exposed to the questions raised by The Republic earlier in life, then it’s going to be a big shock to their system to be tossed directly into The Republic. On the other hand, I’m not at all convinced that having colleges address the earlier issues with education is the optimal solution, either. It would be nice if these questions were at least raised earlier in their academic careers. But with the current focus of K-12 education, I think you may be stuck with it.

      Have you considered adding more readings to the curriculum? You might want to look at The Just City, since it does raise some questions that are discussed in The Republic. Yes, it’s fiction, but questions can be raised, and perhaps raised better, in fiction than in non-fiction. If nothing else, it raises questions which are then addressed in a more rigorous manner in The Republic.

      (I just noticed that you teach in Montgomery, Alabama. When my wife was job hunting, one of the places she interviewed was at the University of Alabama. It was her first interview, and she didn’t know who Bear Bryant was. Needless to say, she did not get an offer. Otherwise I might be living there instead of Central Florida.)


      • Dr. J says:

        I don’t set the readings for the undergraduate Great Books courses; those courses are chronologically arranged, and all the readings come from the period. The Republic is the first philosophical work the students have read. It is a major departure from the epic poetry and tragedies they’d read up to this point, so it threw many of them for a loop.

        I hear you on the UA thing. For years after we moved to Montgomery, one of the first questions we were asked upon making new acquaintances was “Auburn or Alabama?” People were always surprised when we professed to have no preference.


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