Things That Drive Me Crazy about Plato’s Republic

In a few minutes I have to teach Plato’s Republic (Books 2 and 4) to a wonderful group of first-year students in a writing-based seminar. I dread this. Every time I teach this seminar, I struggle to find something valuable to justify its inclusion in the syllabus with so many great writers, from Homer and Thucydides to Achebe and Du Bois. Every year I investigate how other people teach it. Steven B. Smith’s discussion in Yale Open Courses is available as a free podcast. I find it infuriating, the special pleading, and assertion of the life-changing greatness of the work despite the turgid appearances. The star-studded cast assembled by Melvyn Bragg for BBC’s In Our Time plump for it during the entire program, then end up in the bonus material admitting that his psychology is bogus. I feel like there are not enough people out there just complaining about the Republic, and making this list was cathartic for me. I make absolutely no claim to philosophical insight or subtlety, quite the opposite. I just had to get this off my chest. With that defensive preamble, here is my list of

Things that drive me crazy about the Republic

  1. The narrowness of his political vision. No mention of the successful Persian model of a multi-ethnic empire next door.
  2. The assumption that most people should not and cannot exercise political leadership or know what is best for them.
  3. The exile of Homer. If you can’t see that Homer is humanizing, then something is wrong with you. His view of art as epistemically inferior seems absolutely outrageous.
  4. The assertion that justice involves above all everybody knowing their place and not meddling, staying in their classes or lanes.
  5. The idea that only the educated can have moderation (σωφροσύνη) required for leadership.

On the other hand (and here’s what I find valuable in the work) he does ask some fundamental questions:

  1. How can we create a concept of justice that is separate from what those in power happened to want to enforce?
  2. How do we get beyond a politics based simply on desire and force? I want this, you want that, let’s see who’s strong enough to enforce his will.
  3. What would it look like if reason-driven people, non-self-interested people, ruled and tried to bring about the maximum happiness for the whole?
  4. What are the psychological sources of political failure and corruption?
  5. What is the best kind of education for the elite?

Ok, that’s a non-philosopher’s two cents. If you love the work, please tell me why in the comments!

2 thoughts on “Things That Drive Me Crazy about Plato’s Republic

  1. The exile of Homer is a joke in the Platonic discussion points (dialogues). He knew that. He did it on purpose.

    The whole point of reading a Platonic dialogue, alas! without the author present, is to discuss, dialogue, debate the issues, ideas, subjects, topics, it brings up. Which you seem to be doing. Bravo! I have never treated Plato as “gospel truth”, to be taken literally and as a canonical dogma.

    Although Persian cloths, spices and furniture were very popular among the Athenian elite, few had forgotten that the ‘multi-(barbarian)- ethnic empire’ had burnt the city down several decades previously, and then more recently had financed Sparta’s war against Athens. So one is not surprised by the passage over in silence. Athenians were indeed proud that they had stopped the Persian invasion.

    • Thanks for this insightful comment, Lorenzo. I just finished re-reading Book 8 (about the cycle of constitutions) for next week’s discussion, and I have a feeling it’s going to be a hot one. You are so right that he begins the fundamental conversations that continue and are going strong today. And you are right that asking an Athenian to look kindly on the Persian empire is asking a lot.

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