Excellent essay by Richard Kraut from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Philosophy Talk: Plato
Listen to this excellent radio program and take notes. The segment is about one hour. The free Real Player is required for streaming audio.

Plato and Platonism
A concise introductory essay from the Catholic Encyclopedia

The Philosophy of Plato
An well-organized overview from the Radical Academy

The Republic, Book I
One of Plato's greatest and most influential works. This is a marked-up version of the Jowett translation.

The Republic: Study Questions
To think about and look for when reading Book I.

The Apology
The mind altering depiction of the trial of Socrates. really, this work changed the world and if you read it well it will change you too.

Works by Plato
25 of his dialogues and letters from the 1871 translation by Benjamin Jowett

Plato's Allegory Of The Cave: A Springboard For The Matrix
A clever interpretation of Plato's allegory in relation to a philosophical movie The Matrix

Noble lies and perpetual war
Danny Postel and
Shadia Drury discusses Plato and other political philosophers in the service of contemporary theory and practice. This piece is particularly useful as an instance of how ancient philosophy remains relevant. Whether Drury's critique of Leo Strauss and current politics is accurate is open to discussion.


Justice in the Republic

Part One
The Encounter

Part Two
Justice as honesty
Part Three
Justice as loyalty
Part Four
Justice as the interest of the stronger

The Polis
Those of us who read Plato for pleasure and profit will be liable to hail many of his works as great. History, however, usually holds that his Republic is his magnum opus. In that book we gain such great allegories as the ring of Gyges and the cave. Plato’s reputed feminism is laid plain in this work, as he argues for the equal ability of women to rule. Plato’s conception (given by the character of Socrates) of the best possible State (a Republic) is perhaps the first fully developed theory of politics which still has great influence today.

Plato develops a concept of a polis (an organized society; note here the root of politics) on the analogy of the well-ordered human being. When each part of the human being works in harmony with the other parts (desire, action, and reason), then that individual is balanced and healthy. Similarly, Plato divides society into three classes of people - the workers (desire), the guardians (action), and the rulers (reason). The healthy polis consists of parts that work in harmony and stay within their proper roles. A significant portion of the book is given to the problem of how the rulers should properly rule (i.e. use their power). Plato proposes that the majority working class consists of citizens who are capable workers but poor decision makers, lacking the requisite knowledge. They are led by their desires and not by reason.

The Illusion
The rulers, therefore, must lead the masses to keep them in their proper place. Among the methods necessary to controlling the masses are deception and force. Education is considered as powerful tool for creating the illusions that keep people in their places. Think now of the story of the Cave (if you have not read it yet, make sure that you do) and the contemporary retelling of that story inThe Matrix as data the movie The Matrix. In the cave/matrix the mass of people live in a state of illusion, not knowing shadows from reality. By conforming to the illusion the masses stay in their place and perform their required tasks. That is the purpose of the illusion; the big political lie.

Some contemporary political theorists and politicians agree with Plato. On this view, mass deception is a necessary element of ruling the modern nation. Common people are not capable of understanding the complex realities that make up our dangerous world. Ordinary people are concerned with ordinary things in their everyday lives. They have not the time, education, or attention to make informed analyses and take proper action. Therefore, illusions must be created to lead them to support the correct actions. For example, the general population is seldom willing to go to war. Thus, their emotions must be stirred and fears stoked until they stand united in full support of the actions of those who govern them and send out the armies of guardians to do the will of the state.

Consider, for instance, a famous statement by Hermann Goering, Chief of the Nazi Air Force in World War II, as quoted by Gustave Gilbert in his Nuremberg Diary;

Hermann Goering portraitWe got around to the subject of war again and I said that, contrary to his attitude, I did not think that the common people are very thankful for leaders who bring them war and destruction.

"Why, of course, the people don't want war," Goering shrugged. "Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece. Naturally, the common people don't want war; neither in Russia nor in England nor in America, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship."

"There is one difference," I pointed out. "In a democracy the people have some say in the matter through their elected representatives, and in the United States only Congress can declare wars."

"Oh, that is all well and good, but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country."

Goering states here an idea extended from Plato’s noble lie. The people do not want war, thus the leaders are compelled to create illusions in order to build the support needed carry out wars as deemed necessary by them. This way of thinking remains alive in the world today.

Another candidate for a powerful illusion is in representing freedom as a matter of getting what you want (fulfilling desires). The consumer society is perfectly designed to promote this illusion. People who are able to fulfill some of their desires will give up other freedoms and function as effective workers. Freedom can also be traded off for an illusion of enhanced security. The Matrix has elements of both of these illusions at work.

A question that Plato must answer (no one could rightly accuse him of being intellectually negligent) is whether it is just or unjust for rulers to lie to the people in such total ways. In order to deal with such questions, he begins the work by asking what justice really is, anyway? People talk about justice and demand it, but are we really clear on what it is?

Book One of the Republic introduces the problem in the form of a discussion. Socrates keeps on bugging everyone to tell him what justice is, and when they tell him their idea, he points out weaknesses in the definitions. Socrates was so effective at this that he succeeded in angering the actual politicians of Athens, who could not demonstrate that they knew what justice was and so were not really fit to rule. Their solution was to kill him.

In Book One we get three distinct definitions of justice, with a number of variations:

Cephalus: Justice is repaying debts.

Polemarchus: Justice is doing good to your friends and harm to your enemies.

Thrasymachus: Justice is the interest of the stronger.

The last one is most important. Thrasymachus’ view can be paraphrased as might is right. Consider the following exchange;

Socrates: I suppose that you would call justice virtue and injustice vice?

Thrasymachus: What a charming notion! So likely too, seeing that I affirm injustice to be profitable and justice not.

Socrates: What else then would you say?

Thrasymachus: The opposite.

Socrates: And would you call justice vice?

Thrasymachus: No, I would rather say sublime simplicity.

Socrates: Then would you call injustice malignity?

Thrasymachus: No; I would rather say discretion.

Socrates: And do the unjust appear to you to be wise and good?

Thrasymachus: Yes, at any rate those of them who are able to be perfectly unjust, and who have the power of subduing states and nations; but perhaps you imagine me to be talking of cutpurses. Even this profession if undetected has advantages, though they are not to be compared with those of which I was just now speaking.

Thrasymachus is quite open and passionate about his views (at least in Plato’s characterization of him). If a person can be unjust and get away with it, then they are in better off than someone who holds themselves to a standard of abstract justice. This is because justice in his view is a matter of maximizing your own personal profit. Of course, the best players in the game will be the rich and powerful. For only they will be above and secure from the others. In this view, justice does not stand as a limit on action at all, for those with great power will use deception and force to further benefit themselves. If they can create the illusion that the masses are better off by allowing the powerful to further benefit themselves, then they will have pulled off the most clever use of power.

We can find many examples of such uses of political power, deception, and force at work in the world right now. One legacy that Plato gives us is the basis for questioning government and corporate power by reference to the concepts of justice. If we refuse to think about the meaning of justice, then we give Thrasymachus (and his contemporary followers) his way by default.

Of course, people differ over whether a government actually is using unjust methods. It may even be regarded in some nations unpatriotic to ask such questions. One must wonder in that case whether we really are subject to the wholesale illusion as depicted in The Republic.

However you see the uses of these ideas, I hope that you find it as remarkable as I do that a text written more than 2,300 years ago continues to have intense political relevance today. When Alfred Whitehead said; "All of philosophy is by a footnote to Plato" his hyperbole was not far off. It really does matter how we answer the questions that Plato raised. Even if we don't think about it, our leaders certainly do.

Next - Read section one of Book I of the Republic.


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