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Topic #C27

Plato, Republic 327a-347a


9 November 2001

Scribes: Elaine Barber and Mark Brown


These minutes were not spoken; for another version, go to the spoken minutes



The lecture began with Prof. Hutchinson explaining why we read the Republic in small parts.  The Republic is in fact the largest artifact in Greek history and philosophy as well as being the most significant work, so large Plato had to invent new structures to its content and ideas.  It also inspired other works such as Aristotle’s On Justice.  Also, Zeno, founder of the Stoic school, wrote a book called The Republic based on Plato’s original work.  This work was weird, odd and scandalous, but most bizarre about it, was the idea of the abolition of the traditional family form (a concept Aristotle strongly disapproved of).  The family was to be replaced by a new social form, which included an annual mating festival in which the children produced belonged to all women and men, the goal being to maintain a social unit of solidarity in which all gender differences were dissolved or ignored.  Women also participated in all activities with men, including gymnastic exercises performed naked.


Some may come to the conclusion after reading Plato’s work, that he was one of the first great feminists.  However, this is untrue because Plato didn’t recognize individual rights or worth but rather the use of human persons regardless of their sex and how they are best exploited for the good of the republic, emphasizing that the community comes before the private.


From such arguments as this, Plato can be viewed as being a ‘totalitarian’.  However, before jumping to the conclusion that this makes Plato’s ideas evil or wrong, we have to understand that Plato did not have the same experience of totalitarianism as we have in the last hundred years.  Therefore, Plato’s idea of totalitarianism is not purely malevolent in nature.


Plato’s work further illuminates the gaps, defects and inadequacies of what we now understand as “the social contract theory” of autonomous freedom.  For Plato this would be purely fictional because it is impossible to govern a society where individual rights take precedence over the community because humans are social beings, and must, therefore, function as a collective whole.


Going back to the discussion of Zeno’s work, The Republic, it is outrageous and absurd because of the fundamental rules which are set aside.  For example, in his republic, cannibalism and incest are seen as socially acceptable activities.  Zeno makes this argument, not because he necessarily believes that they are right, but rather to provoke discussion and highlight the assumptions about society and politics that need to be reexamined and rethought.  Although what Zeno suggests is obviously fantasy, his work does give serious thought to the assumptions we make in society.


Back to Plato’s Republic – it is a huge work from which it is easy to select certain key ideas of the whole text.  Because of its length, Plato makes the work easy to extract bits and pieces of ideas from it.  Prof. Hutchinson then went on next to show the transition between Books 1 and 2.  As a side comment, Prof. Hutchinson told students not to worry if on the first read they did not fully understand the text as it is a difficult and complex one.  He further added that one can read the Republic a number of times over and each time get new information and ideas from it that they had never noticed before.


Returning to his remarks in the transition between Books 1 and 2, Prof. Hutchinson noted that the main ideas in the Republic could be understood by comparing it to those in Gorgias.  In Book 1 of the Republic, Socrates is engaged in a debate of Socratic dialogue.  Books 2-9 are totally different dialogues from the first book.   In Books 2-9, Socrates takes a fresh start to approaching the subject of justice, which is to take a large-scale model and then apply it to a small scale phenomenon, enabling one to then understand what justice is in both the community and the individual soul.  Thus, the parts or order of the community must be the same as that of the individual soul.  By doing this, we are able to see what it takes to create an ideal society and person at the same time.


Despite this, it is difficult to produce a perfect person who contains the virtues of courage, temperance and intellect within a system of education and laws.  Therefore, the people who excel in all these virtues will be few and will become the rulers of the society.  Those who cannot fulfill these requirements become the majority and are placed into subordinate roles of common tasks.  Certain people are selected for the guardian class in order to run military forces for the republic; these have the best talent and training in military skills, however, lack the intellect with which to rule.


Prof. Hutchinson then remarked that the system which Plato puts forward is unlike the class system because it is not based on hereditary inheritance.  Also, the class system tends to be wasteful of talent that could have been beneficial to the common good, as it overestimates the talent of the privileged, while underestimating the talent of the lower classes.  In the republic, children are not born into certain conditions rather they are picked based on their exemplified abilities and, therefore, the talent is not wasted.


A question was asked by a student who was curious as to whether Plato was an extreme left wing communist or not.  Prof. Hutchinson replied that yes, Plato did have communistic principles that forbade individual property, but it is different from Russian communism which did not further the goals of the community.  Instead of releasing power to make decisions to the people, the rulers kept it for themselves.  The Professor further commented that communism is not an entirely bad system; compared to other systems it has been more productive.  However, communism is wasteful of talent and efficiency of the citizens by withholding certain rights.  If we are to pursue the public interest, we have to give freedom to people that will yield to the public good.


Comparing the Republic to Gorgias again, Prof. Hutchinson stated that Book 1 is like Gorgias, which has a three-part structure.  As it progresses, it gets deeper and more complex.  In the first discussion of the Republic, Socrates’ friends each give their definition of justice, which fail to satisfy Socrates.  Plato does this so that the reader will also be unsatisfied, leading to a deeper discussion of what justice is in the remainder of Books 2-9.  Prof. Hutchinson then read a passage from the end of Book 1 (354a) where the discussion between Socrates and Thrasymachus leads us into the discussion of what justice really is in Books 2-9.  Book 2 begins with Socrates sitting down to discuss with Plato’s brothers on what virtue is.  Books 2-9 demonstrate a philosophical approach, which is superior to that found in Gorgias because it is calm, leisurely, open and tolerant.


Next, Prof. Hutchinson spent some time describing the beginning conversation between Socrates and Cephalus.  He then read from a student’s position paper where the point was made that religion and wealth have never been and can never be related, as they are two of the most contradicting and complex systems in life, and yet they are joined here in this discussion.  Prof. Hutchinson then commented that Plato probably wants us to disagree and see the shallowness of Cephalus’ idea of justice (which is that it is to pay off debts, right your wrongs and buy your way to salvation by means of money) so that we will want to find the real meaning of justice.


The next definition of justice which Prof. Hutchinson discussed was that made of Thrasymachus, who believed that justice is helping your friends and harming your enemies.  Prof. Hutchinson made the remark that in his view, he himself would rather simply leave his enemies alone instead of harming them.  A student disagreed with him because she said we are, as individuals, a part of the state which punishes criminals collectively.  Prof. Hutchinson said that he could see the relevance of this point, but he believes we shouldn’t be punishing our enemies collectively and yet we do so.


The lecture ended with a look at Thrasymachus’ last definition of justice which was that of self-expression.  Socrates criticizes this view and it is at this point that Socrates puts forward his understanding of justice, which is the quality in the soul to rule and control others.  Prof. Hutchinson ended the lecture saying that this is an idea which Plato does not agree with.