Plato’s Republic is not a difficult book to read

The good news is that Plato’s Republic is not a difficult book to read. 

Plato's Academy
Platonic Academy. Mosaic from Pompeii, 1st century BC. Found in the collection of Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli. Artist : Classical Antiquities. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

In 2500 years it has never gone out of date. It is still very much worth reading today. It still raises some of the most fundamental questions about the meaning of individual lives, and about the ways in which individuals have to live with others in societies. 

In the mid 20th century Karl Popper wrote about his dislike of Plato with a passion. He argued that Plato wanted a society so that he and his like—other philosophers—could become ‘totalitarian demi-god[s]’ (Popper, 132). Popper says, ‘Plato’s best state is based on the most rigid class distinctions. It is a caste state … The workers, tradesmen etc, do not interest him at all, they are only human cattle whose sole function is to provide for the material needs of the ruling class. (Popper, pp.46-47)1

On the other hand, someone like Robin Barrow has argued that ‘There is absolutely no evidence to support the contention that the Republic is a class society in which advantages or anything else are distributed by reference to the criteria of birth or family connection; nor wealth anywhere referred to as a criterion of distribution. The fundamental criterion is aptitude, which involves capability and interest, and such things as material possessions are distributed to the largest group rather than the rulers precisely on the assumption that they will need and want them’ (Barrow, p. 150).2

The only way to judge who is right here is to read the book oneself.

We have to accept that the book is not organised in the way that a modern editor would require. Plato skips from one subject to another and then back again. But the ideas that he writes about are understandable to all of us. And these ideas test us even today. They encourage us to reflect on our opinions about inequality, power, and politics, as much as they do about the meanings and values that we hold to in our own individual lives. He challenges us to think about gender, class, and how we treat others who are seen as different from us. He challenges us to reflect on war, conflict and armies. He challenges us to think about our own characters, about whether we would consider ourselves to be good and kind and virtuous people, or whether we are selfish, greedy and manipulative.  He asks if we should think of others before ourselves. He asks if and why we should respect and work for the social good. He reflects on the need to make sacrifices so that others might benefit. And he challenges anyone thinking of going into politics to think deeply about whether they are doing it for the right reasons.

As if that wasn’t enough, the book also gives us perhaps the most famous and the most influential model of education over the last 2500 years.

life is not what it seems

He is prepared to see education as a path to truth, and perhaps unusually, he also says that truth is what makes people return to society to serve the common good.  If you haven’t read Plato’s cave from the Republic yet, then it might well be an experience that you will not forget. Most people are able to find themselves and their own history somewhere in the cave, and it can be very enlightening, even empowering, to do so. 

It is not unusual to feel daunted at the thought of reading a book like Plato’s Republic, especially if you try to do so on your own and without people to talk it through with. If you would like to try to read it, with help and support and from an experienced tutor, in the company of others who also want to read it, then join us as we all have a go at Understanding Plato’s Republic

And if you want to read a modern version of The Republic written by the tutor of this Think Learning course (Nigel Tubbs) then try Socrates on Trial (Bloomsbury 2021).

Nigel Tubbs

  1. Popper, K, (1962) The Open Society and its Enemies, Vol I (London: Routledge) ↩︎
  2. Barrow , R (1975) Plato, Utilitarianism and Education (London: RKP) ↩︎