Saturday, March 10, 2012

Plato’s Republic

Though Plato was of noble birth and intellectually superior to most of his contemporaries he opted out of politics due to the injustices of a tyrannical oligarchy and the unjust execution of his mentor Socrates by the Athenian jury. After the Peloponnesian wars two powerful groups, The Four Hundred and Thirty seized control of the government turning Athens into a brutal oligarchy. Plato’s eccentric teacher Socrates was seen as a threat to the status quo and was falsely accused by a 500 strong Athenian jury of inventing new deities and not recognizing the state gods. Plato decided not to be a part of this corrupt political system but to continue the good work of his mentor. He founded an Academy in 387 BC, the first modern university in the west. Here students learned all sorts of things ranging from politics and law to medicine and philosophy. It was not an ivory tower institution but prepared students to enter different professions by teaching subjects relevant to life and society. The Academy lasted for 912 years.

Plato’s Republic does not pontificate, preach or poeticize but philosophize. It pays special attention to reason, order and the association of thought. A philosopher has not only thought about different subjects deeply but also attempts to explain the connections and possibilities. All philosophy begins with being critical and often arrives at conclusions which are quite surprising, what we often call reasoned truth. Unlike the social sciences, philosophy does not have a fixed subject; it deals with all forms of human knowledge. It encompasses ideas connected to morality, truth and being and much more. Often there are no fixed terminologies to guide our understanding. We should therefore follow inquires of a philosopher before we can understand his logic. Often understanding the logic of philosophers might be difficult as they express complex ideas in a convoluted manner. But when philosophy is simple such as Plato’s or other Greek philosophers it seems hard to understand.

The Republic begins with moral philosophy by asking the fundamental question of Greek society: What is justice? Justice was one of the overarching Greek values and fundamentally connected to the cultivation of virtues. Plato was interrogation the question of how to live well which was central to human nature, to the human soul. Once we could answer this question the best form of human life is possible. How should we define justice? How should it administered? How should it be realized in a given state? Plato therefore moves from a definition of justice, to just action and then laying it down as an ideal state policy, a model for existing societies of his times and the ones yet to come. Plato realized that the best form of human life was only possible in some sort of an organized community. The civic community was closely connected to Plato’s idea of the best order of human society. In The Republic Plato provides an ideal picture of the human soul. To the Greeks there was no separation between ethical and political functions in society. Similarly for an individual the ethical and political spheres were knit together into a single entity. There was no difference between the laws, custom and religion of a given society. To understand one was to understand all.

Plato often criticizes the prevailing social institutions and practices. He challenges opinions and questions rhetoric which is false. The Republic is not just philosophy but also a book about social and political reform. Often this leads to prejudice and differs in approach from Aristotle’s works.

Plato’s speculations are dialogical in nature following the tradition of Socrates which had to do with the prevailing literary climate of the time. Greek literature was more concrete, objective and impersonal than modern literature. Greek drama was less subjective. Take the example of Thucydides whose history lacks personal details and reflection. Often fictitious speeches are given to real characters thereby compensating for general reflection. The Greeks had not yet separated the exposition of ideas from the representation of characters as we have done. Plato used known persons to present philosophical ideas and opinions, something they did posses in actual life. Though such characters possess propriety and vivacity, they lack historical truth a feature of our times. Aristophanes also does not conform to historical truth. When we come to modern philosophers such as Berkeley we find that they use characters as character in philosophy rather than as real characters. Bunyan is the best example of the Platonic presentation of ideas. The Protagoras can be seen as a great philosophical drama and Euthydemus a philosophical burlesque. Most of Plato’s works, except the Laws and the Timeaus, possess a dramatic quality which is eschewed in modern philosophical exposition. If we see the Republic we discover that the dramatic quality of the book diminishes as it progresses but Plato often revives it

In the ten books of The Republic Plato demonstrates the superiority of living a just life in a moral world where the just are rewarded and the unjust punished not only in this but also in the next. The myth of Er in the 10th book takes us beyond into an afterlife through the return of the warrior Er who details his adventures in an absolute world.

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