The Republic: Novel Summary: Chapter 1
Plato begins The Republic by addressing the major theme of his entire work: should man be just or unjust? To discuss this issue, Plato (in the character of Socrates) uses a variety of surrounding characters to give their opinions. Yet he proves each of them wrong in turn. Later, he decides that an answer to the above question can be better found if he first defines the word justice.
The opening scene begins in the home of Cephalus, where his son, Polemarchus, lives as well. Socrates, together with some of his friends, Glaucon and Adeimantus, enter into a conversation regarding aging. Cephalus tells Socrates that he enjoys his old age, citing his devotion to moderation and proper conduct. Soon the topic of justice flows from this conversation. This inspires Polemarchus and Thrasymachus to consider the nature of justice with Socrates. When Socrates criticizes Polemarchus' idea that man should spite his enemies, Thrasymuchus asserts that those with power have a monopoly over justice- they determine it as they see fit, despite the protests of the powerless. It's the duty of the poor, Thrasymuchas says, to rise up and take what they can from the rich. Yet Socrates attacks this viewpoint as well, saying that the poor should accept the true justice of the government, which is created to aid the governed. He goes on to say that justice is a kind of virtue, or excellence, which yields happiness. When all people accept justice, he maintains, all people can live happily in a cohesive community. Yet Socrates still seems to be seeking a better grasp of this notion of justice himself. Obviously this subject will be revisited throughout The Republic.
Soon Glaucon presents his views to Socrates, asserting that man should pretend to be just but live unjustly in actuality. This way, he says, man can look virtuous before others without undergoing the toil of living a virtuous life. Socrates seems intrigued by this idea, and decides to use a model polis, or city, to better examine these notions of justice. This city has people who are divides into two classes: those who lead and those who serve. Here, Plato initiates his idea of philosopher kings-- the method in which a perfect city will be organized. The leaders of the city must be of a special breed, having incredible insight that protects the lower classes. They must not look out for their own interests, but live frugally, only considering the interests of the people. Limiting the freedom (or animal instincts) of the populace is crucial to instilling proper virtues. Also, the common laborers must be left in the dark on many issues, because any allusions to unjust living might inspire the people to also be unjust. Plato even says that the guardians can lie to the people if necessary. All forms of information, including literature and music, must be strictly regulated. Even a person's professional training must be carefully monitored by the state. In other words, the government forces its people to be virtuous. Free will is left out of the equation.
Most importantly, the guardians must emulate the gods, since their special knowledge is divinely inspired. Here, Plato's suggestion seems startling similar to the Hebrew concept of monotheistic law, in which earthly kings maintain God's justice. This notion foreshadows Plato's idea of the Forms, which is discussed later in The Republic.
Soon, Plato divides the class of rulers (or guardians) further. He asserts that the most senior philosophers should be the head guardians, while the others serve as assistants to these men. The guardians should live in a commune, where individual possessions are restricted. Plato believes that too much wealth will inspire greed and selfishness in the guardians, rendering them unable to rule objectively. Only a rigorous, state-run education system can wean off these animalistic qualities of the rulers, and help them make just laws- laws which mean to enhance the common good. True justice, Plato finally determines, is a result of each member of society doing the work prescribed for his social class. The work should not be done to grow rich, since riches corrupt men, leading them to greedy lives. Plato believes that a moderate amount of money will best suit the people to lives of virtue and justice.