Even though we can find all of this information on the internet, we might as well remind ourselves of some of the facts of Plato’s life. Of course none of this helps us understand his philosophy, but it does help us situate his thought, which will be useful when we come to look at its social and historical context. Plato was born in Athens in 427 BC into a very wealthy and aristocratic family. Apart from his intellectual life little is known about him. He was probably a student of Socrates, since he wrote so many dialogues about him, and after his death he set up his own philosophical school, the Academy, which is the precursor for the university system. One of the few incidents of his life that we do know about is his rather unfortunate adventure in Syracuse where he attempted to advise unsuccessfully both the tyrant Dionysios and later his son in political affairs. Returning to Athens, he died in 347 BC of natural causes.
Far more important, however, than these small details, for understanding the Republic, is the social and political context. The most important of these is the politics of Athens itself which was a radical democracy at the time. All important decisions of the city where made first of all by the Presidents (prutaneis) and then the Council of Five Hundred (boulē), both of whose members were chosen by lot. They then called the Assembly (ekklesia), which citizens were paid to attend, and who voted on the legislation. All males citizens of Athens were allowed (indeed were expected) to attend. Foreigners, slaves and women were excluded. Out of a population estimated to be 300,000 – 350,000, around 50,000 voted. It was this democracy that put Socrates to death for corrupting the youth in 399 BC, during the political upheaval following the rule of the Thirty Tyrants, of which Plato’s own relatives, Critias and Charmides, were associated. It should not surprise us, therefore, that in the Republic, Plato is not going to complimentary about democracy.
Although Plato did not date his dialogues, which is the form his published work takes, perhaps mimicking the style of his teacher Socrates, we can date the different dialogues through their style and content. Following this procedure, we can say that the Republic is a middle period dialogue. The first dialogues, such as the Apology (about Socrates’ trial) and the Crito, mostly followed the teaching of Socrates (and indeed it is from them that we have knowledge of Socrates’ philosophy since he did not write anything himself) and were concerned mainly with ethical and moral questions. Moreover, they tended to end inconclusively. Through questioning his interlocutors, Socrates would show that they did not understand their own answers to questions such as ‘what is justice?’, but he would not follow their puzzlement by giving his own answer. Thus the reader, perhaps purposely, was left equally baffled. The middle dialogues, where Socrates was still the main character, though they still concerned ethical questions, where no longer dialogical in form, though the Book 1 is still similar to the early dialogues. They also began to present more of Plato’s own philosophy, especially what has come to be known as the Theory of Forms (though there is little evidence that Plato actually called it that and there still much debate amongst commentators about what this so called theory might be).
The major theme of the Republic is Justice. The Greek word that Plato uses for justice is δικαιοσύνη (dikaiosyne) which can also mean ‘righteousness’. The aim of the Republic is simple. It is to convince you that justice is better than injustice. For Plato, there is an analogy between the just person and the just city. Each is a whole that is made of parts. If we first think of the city, then it is made up of three classes: the artisans, the warriors, and the guardians. The just city is one that is well ordered. It is ordered because it is unified and stable. What creates instability and disunity is movement and dissent. Everyone has their place and function, and everyone should stick to their place and function. It is possible through education you might change your status, but on the whole one is born either artisan or a warrior or a guardian; one cannot become so. Just as the city is divided so is the human soul and most importantly between reason and desire. A human soul, whose parts are governed by reason, will be like the just city. It will stable and unified. A human soul that is governed by desires will be running from one pleasure to the next and will have no integrity. The analogy between the city and the soul works because the guardians are those people whose souls are governed by reason rather than by desire. It is they who should therefore rule the city, because it is they will be guided by the idea of justice, rather than the artisans or the warriors.
Plato’s ethics, though it does not require it, is guided by his metaphysics, since the theory of Forms explains the possibility of the idea of justice which directs the souls of the guardians. What corresponds to the unity of reason, and the unity of the city, is the unity of the idea. There are many just things in the world, for example, but there is only one idea of Justice. There are many good things in the world, but there is only one idea of the Good. The guardians should be allowed to rule the city because only they are capable of thinking the Forms. Although, as White explains, Plato spends much time showing why they should rule the city and what might be their motivation to do so, he does not explain why everyone else, the artisans especially, should be happy that their democratic power should be taken away from them for the sake of a well-ordered city and why anyone, if they were not part of the guardians, would be perfectly happy to remain enclosed within their own strict place in life (White, 1979, p. 28).
White, N. (1979). A Companion to Plato’s Republic. Indianapolis: Hackett.