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The Republic by Plato - Barron's Booknotes
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PHILOSOPHERS AS KINGS (472a-476a)

The impatient Glaucon wants to proceed at once to the question of how the just state is possible. He has grown weary of philosophic speculation and wants to know if and how justice can be realized in an actual state.

Socrates reminds Glaucon that from the beginning the purpose of their investigation was to inquire into "the nature of ideal justice,... not to demonstrate the possibility of the realization of these ideals." To clarify his point Socrates draws a distinction between words and deeds. Words, he says, will usually be more precise than the deeds or objects that the words describe. In particular, he is referring to words that comprise a definition or a theory. No actual situation will conform exactly to a theoretical description. Take the geometrical idea of a point, for example. A point has no dimensions-no length, no width, no depth. Mathematicians, however, represent points with dots on paper or on a blackboard, and these dots have length, width, depth. These physical dots are merely representations of the idea of a point. A physical representation can only approximate an idea. Thus, the best anyone can expect in his attempt to represent justice in an observable way (empirically) is to arrive at an approximation of justice in the soul or state. Socrates says that all along the task has been "to create in words a pattern of a good state," that is, to produce an ideal model, a paradigm.

By distinguishing words and objects, speech and action, Socrates seems to intend, at least in part, to soften the disappointment that his audience may experience on learning that the good city can never be realized. Justice is an ideal, and cities, at best, are approximations of the ideal of justice. But, more significantly, here Socrates is preparing the way for a discussion that transcends the nature of any city, just or otherwise, a discussion on the distinction between the actual and the ideal.



With fear and trembling Socrates is finally ready to let the "great third wave" of paradox roll up against him. He states the paradox, in perhaps the most often quoted passage of The Republic, in this way:

Unless, said I, either philosophers become kings in our states or those whom we now call kings and rulers take to the pursuit of philosophy seriously and adequately, and there is a conjunction of these two things, political power and philosophical intelligence... there can be no cessation of troubles, dear Glaucon, for our states nor, I fancy, for the human race either. (473d)

For Socrates, the philosopher king is a necessary condition for turning the poorly managed cities, as he believes all are, into approximations of the theoretical model of the ideal city.

Meanwhile, back in Cephalus' home, the idea that philosopher's must rule shocks Glaucon. He warns Socrates that he should immediately defend his statement lest he be viciously attacked by the leading citizens (which, of course, he ultimately was).

Socrates is prepared to defend philosophy. He begins by defining philosopher. His definition rests on a comparison between true philosophers who are the best candidates for political leadership, and amateur or counterfeit philosophers who should leave philosophy alone and follow the leadership of true philosophers.

A philosopher, says Socrates, is a lover of wisdom. Like other kinds of lovers-of an attractive youth or of wine or of honor- lovers of wisdom desire not to possess merely a part of that which they love; they desire to possess the whole. Philosophers, then, desire all wisdom. (Socrates will soon explain what he means by this statement.)

Unlike true philosophers, amateurs are interested in only a small part of wisdom; mainly they are lovers of spectacles, that is, they are fascinated by particular sensations of color, shape, and sound. The spectacles of truth-of ideas, of all of knowledge-and not the spectacles of sensation, are the true philosophers' loves.

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