Plato book: The Republic
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The classic - what did you expect
There probably isn't much I can add in a scholarly vein to what people have already said about Plato. So I thought I would make a few personal observations from the standpoint of a somewhat philosophically literate, 21st century man who is reading such an august classic in middle age.
I came to this book with more of a background in modern epistemology and the philosophy of science than in classical philosophy. So political philosophy isn't exactly my strong suit, but nevertheless I found the book interesting reading in a way I hadn't really thought of before.
Actually, I had read portions of this book 20 years ago when I was a young student first studying philosophy, and I have to say, there is something to be said for having a more mature outlook in approaching such a venerable work. At the time I thought political philosophy pretty dull stuff, and besides, I felt there was no real way to answer any of the important political questions that get debated here, despite the easy way Socrates disposes of everybody else's half-baked opinions and theories.
The fact is, if you move ahead 2400 years and read something like Karl Popper's "The Open Society and Its Enemies," an advanced modern work, you can see how much, or how little, political philosophy has progressed in the last 24 centuries.
Well, that may be true, but at least with this book you know where it basically all started. The best way to decide this issue is to read the book and decide for yourself.
Although entitled "The Republic," this society isn't like any republic you've probably ever read about. Plato proposes an ant-like communism where there is no private ownership of property, philosophers are kings, kings are philosophers, people cultivate physical, moral, and ethical qualities, and the idea of the good takes the place of political and social virtues.
Another odd facet is that the bravest citizens are permitted more wives than those less brave in battle. And then there is the infamous proposition that all poets and artists are to be banished since they are harmful purveyors of false illusions.
I find the Socratic method as a way of moving along the dialogue between the participants sort of interesting, and it is certainly an effective device. However, none of these people, even the Sophist Thrasymachus, are really Socrates' intellectual equal, so he really doesn't have much competition here.
If ancient Athens disproportionately had so many towering intellects, relative to its small population (about 20,000 people, most of whom were slaves anyway), you'd think they would show up in Plato's dialogues more. But all we seem to get are second-raters who are really no match for the clever Socrates.
Yet I would say this is still a great book. Classical scholars say there are more perfect, less flawed dialogues than Plato's Republic, but none that are as profound, wide-ranging, and as influential and important for later philosophy. As someone once wrote, in a sense the entire history of western philosophy consists of nothing but "footnotes to Plato." After finally reading it, I can see why there is so much truth to that statement.