On the Possibility and Impossibility of the Best Regime in Plato’s Republic (Politea)

Draft in progress:

1986 Notes to prepare for an exam

The Question:

In what way is the regime described in Plato’s Republic impossible, and in what way or ways is it “not impossible that it come to pass” (499 d)?

Plato has sometimes been taken or mistaken as offering a blueprint for the construction in action of a regime such as that described when Socrates constructs the city in speech in the Republic. As described, the regime includes the abolition of private property and of the family. The attachment of men to what is their own would have to be overcome. And in order to bring the regime into being, philosophers would have to rule as kings, overcoming the tension between philosophy and the city. In his Interpretive Essay on The Republic, Allan Bloom states that in the dialogue itself, “The perfect regime is revealed to be a perfect impossibility” p. 409. Rather than a blueprint for an actual regime, The Republic is “The greatest critique of political idealism ever written” (p. 408).[Note 1]

I. Introduction

The question of the best regime is at the core of political philosophy not because it provides a literal plan according to which cities are to be directly ordered, but rather because the city in speech can reveal the true ordering or natural hierarchy of the soul. By showing the natural hierarchy of the soul, the articulation of the best regime as undertaken in the Republic guides the pursuit of the best life not primarily for a city but for a man. It is impossible to construct a city in deed using the city in speech in Republic as a plan, but the order of soul analogous to it is possible, more so as it is here revealed, as will be shown.

At the conclusion of Book IX of the Republic (592), Socrates and Glaucon agree regarding the man who is intelligent, that he will mind the political things of the city in speech whose foundations they have gone through, which has its existence in speeches, but will not mind the political things of his fatherland, unless some divine chance coincidentally comes to pass. Glaucon says that he doesn’t suppose that this city exists anywhere on earth. Socrates responds that “perhaps in heaven a pattern is laid up for the man who wants to see and found a city within himself on the basis of what he sees.” The founding of the regime within the soul is the primary purpose of the city in speech of the Republic.

Socrates suggested the founding of the city in order to come to the assistance of justice when it was being spoken of badly, undertaking to show that justice by itself is advantageous for an individual, and so preferable to injustice regardless of the benefits that can be acquired by injustice. Socrates there compared their situation to that of men who do not see sharply, ordered to read small letters from far off. To them it would appear as a godsend if they were able to consider the smaller letters after having first read the larger letters in a larger place, if these bigger letters were of the same form. It is in order to see justice in the soul that Socrates and the other participants in the dialogue undertake the founding in speech. It is an attempt to see the soul “writ large” in the polity, seeing the same form (eidos) as through two writings of a word that is the same.


The bigger and the smaller are again mentioned regarding poetry. Socrates says that speeches have a double form, one true and the other false. Those to be educated are to be given both, but first the false. Then in the discussion of the supervising of those who make tales, this opposition becomes that between the “greater” and the “smaller” tales. “In the greater tales, we’ll also see the smaller ones” (377c). Both the greater and the smaller are to be taken from the same model and have the same “power.” The tales told by Homer and Hesiod are examples of the greater tales, cosmic, mythic, epic. Objection is here raised to these because they are bad representations of what heroes and gods are like. In the discussion, they go on to purge the tales of the poets. Socrates replaces the poetry of Homer and Hesiod with the articulation of the best regime as the greater tale, the image, in which to see the littler, the soul. That the greater and smaller correspond to the false and true in the double form of speeches, would seem to suggest that the speech about the best regime is false, while the reality to which it refers, in the soul, would be the true form.

According to the principle of the founding, the city in argument is made to look like the soul of one man. That means that the city will be treated as though it were a natural being. By the end of the third book, all the legislation for the regime is nearly completed, the three classes of the city that correspond to the three parts of the soul are present. The three classes of the soul were introduced in progression, by the introduction of what can be called three progressive cities. The first called the healthy city, was a city of artisans, each practicing one art for which he was most fitted by nature, so that the whole city approached self sufficiency. But Glaucon, famously, objects to the lack of luxuries in this simple city, and with the addition of luxuries, the city became feverish. The size of the city is no longer sufficient to support these luxuries. From luxury war comes into being, or, the feverish human desires, exceeding the animal limits are the cause of war. There is a marked similarity to the Biblical fallen man, as well as to the ascent from the simplicity of childhood to the confusion of adolescence. From war, a warrior guardian class arises in the city, and must also have been repeated as human cities arise. Through the education in music and gymnastics of this class of the warriors the feverish city is purged. The souls of the guardians are harmonized, made moderate and courageous.

From these guardians the rulers are then chosen, not according to intelligence, but those who are the most skillful guardians of the conviction that one must do what is best for the city, believing that the same things are advantageous to both himself and the city. Strangely, this power of preserving is later called courage, a virtue attributed to the spirited rather than the reasoning part of the soul.


This first hierarchy of the regime is to be solidified by the myth of metals in the noble lie. According to this, the founders will attempt to persuade, at best even the rulers, but if not these, at least the rest of the city, that the education they were given was as a dream, while what was actually happening to them during this time was that they were under the earth being fashioned and reared until the earth, which is their mother, sent them up. And so they must defend and love the city as though it were their mother. This part of the lie tells the citizens that they are brothers, so that the city is not as a city, but a single family. The second part of the lie is that the god mixed gold into the souls of those able to rule, silver into the souls of the auxiliaries, and iron and bronze into the farmers and craftsmen. At this point in the dialogue the three classes of the regime, corresponding to the three parts of the soul, are established. The noble lie is thought fantastic. But soon the interlocutors come to believe the allegory of the cave- a story about philosopher kings born out of the earth.

The noble lie is an attempt to cover over, among other things, the difficulty of the disharmony between the private interests of men and the common interest or common good. Just after the lie is presented, Socrates introduces the first mention of the communism of the city, saying that the guardians will have no private property or houses. Their dedication to the polis is to be complete. The guardian’s sacrifice, of their own wealth and privacy in dedication to the polis is to be complete.

Here Adeimantus objects that Socrates is not making the guardians happy. While the city belongs to them, they enjoy nothing good from the city as others do, things such as lands and houses, gold and silver, and all that is conventionally held to belong to men who are to be “blessed.”

Socrates does not yet respond, as he will later, that the guardians will be happier than Olympic victors because they preserve the virtue of the whole city. Socrates here rather explains that in founding the city, they were not looking to the happiness of any one group in it, but rather to the happiness of the whole city. The city is treated as an organism, as a natural being, according to the analogy of its founding, as Socrates here reminds Adeimantus. Socrates answers with an analogy, asking Adeimantus to suppose that they were painting statues and someone objected that they were not using the fairest color, purple, the royal color, to paint the fairest part of the animal, the eyes. Socrates explains that their apology to this man would be that they ought not paint the eyes so fair that they do not even look like eyes. Rather, by assigning what is suitable to this part, make the whole fair or beautiful. The sighted part of the regime does not establish nous as the ruling element, but, as the rulers are chosen being the best guardians of a civic opinion, the city is ruled by opinion. In books V-VII, the statue receives the royal color, as the philosopher replaces the guardians at the head of the city.

Aristotle, in his Politics, agrees with Adeimantus (Bloom, p. 370), saying that it is impossible for the whole city to be happy unless most or all, or at least some of its parts are happy. Aristotle presents himself as disagreeing with the communism regarding property simply because what is held in common gets less care (Politics, III. iii), and especially because to abolish private property would deprive men of the great pleasure of doing kindnesses to friends Aristotle chooses rather an arrangement in which property is private, while laws are made to dispose men to use property in common.

The objection of Adeimantus holds even if one does not regard wealth and all that is conventionally held to make men happy to be what truly makes them so. According to the analogy between the city and the soul, the craftsmen of the city must lead a life of the appetites while being restrained to moderation by accepting the rule of the guardians. If the city as it exists were an image of the just and happy soul, the craftsmen would not be just or happy. The warriors are cut off from both the goods of the body and the mind, being ignorant of the highest things and of their own ignorance (T. West). If the auxiliaries are to make up the spirited element of the city, they must themselves be spirited men, ruled not by their own reason, but by that of the rulers. And what of the rulers themselves? They are able to give good council about the affairs of the whole city, but does the activity of the calculative part of the soul suffice for the happiness of the rulers? These are, if possible, under the noble lie themselves and do not inquire into the truth about the most important things. While they might rule the city rationally, they are not yet themselves ruled by intelligence but by opinion regarding the highest things. It remains to be considered how this might effect their ability to give counsel. In comparison with the philosophic life described in Books V-VII, the life of these rulers would be a shadowy and dimly lit existence, and the philosopher does not yet have a place in this city. The happy soul thus cannot yet live in the regime constructed to be an image of then happy soul. The philosophic life is based on escaping from the cave, in which men believe the noble lies on which political life seems founded. There is thus some question as to the harmony or disjunction between the nature of man and the city.

Justice as complete dedication to the common good has not yet been shown to secure happiness for the individual. Allan Bloom suggests that Socrates may here be more interested in revealing the problem of what it is in men that makes complete dedication to the city impossible (p. ). The needs of the body are the sources of the attachment of men to what is their own, their own possessions, families and customs. Private homes and property are needed because men have bodies and attachments to their possessions. “But,” Bloom states, “the concentration on the public and the common, the forgetfulness of the demands of the body, prepares the way for the introduction of philosophy…the guardian who is totally devoted to the common good is the prototype of the philosopher who is devoted to knowing the good” (p. 371).

The three part city and the soul that corresponds to it are not yet complete. The three parts of the soul does not tell the full story. The most important sense in which the city cannot be analogous to the individual man is that the city “cannot reproduce, nor can it philosophize. All forms of eros are cut off from it” (Bloom, p. 376). The abstraction from the body necessary for complete dedication to the common good is accompanied by the abstraction from eros of any sort. Without questioning the order of rank by which the guardians are higher than the craftsmen or money-makers, Leo Strauss indicates the questionable-ness of ranking desire as such below spiritedness ( The City and Man, p. ). Eros ranges from the desire for immortality through beautiful offspring, through the desire for immortality through fame to the longing for immortality through the participation by knowledge in things that are unchangeable. The calculation of the rulers in the beautiful city is not the erotic striving for the first principles that characterizes the rational eros.

Almost as a miscellaneous item, in the fourth book, Socrates mentioned that “The possession of women, marriages and the procreation of children must as far as possible be arranged according to the proverb that friends have all things in common.” At the time, Adeimantuus agreed, and the discussion went on to search for justice in the city, then to separate out the parts of the soul and search for justice in the soul. At the conclusion of Book Four, Socrates and his companions had found justice in both the city and soul- defined as minding one’s own business, which keeps the parts of the city and soul harmonized and in order, and justice was shown to be profitable as the health of the soul. The task imposed on Socrates has been completed. Socrates was then about to describe the four other kinds of regime, those which are taken up after the digression following the center of the dialogue. But then, in a scene that re-enacts the arrest at the opening of the dialogue, Polemarchus whispers to Adeimantus, who stops Socrates and accuses him of robbing them of a whole section of the argument. He wants to know more about this statement that regarding women and children, the things of friends will be held in common.

Socrates restates the question of the particular manner of the communism, saying it could be doubted whether these things he will say are possible, and even if they could come into being, if they would be best. He hesitates to go into the argument fearing that it might seem to be a prayer. He says he fears slipping in the argument and dragging friends down with him. Socrates prostrates himself before Adistrea, the god who punishes the immoderate and arrogant, for what he is about to say.This is because, through the course of the argument in Book V, the proposals of Socrates will imply an attack on “all existing cities and their most sacred laws” (Bloom, note 6 to Book V).

Before discussing the communism regarding women and children, Socrates says he must go back and say what should have been said earlier in the argument, completing the female drama after the male. The same education or first wave is an implicit part of the guardian regime as already founded. [note. This was a question discussed in essays in the US in the 1830’s, without the benefit of the discussion of Socrates here, as in the famous essay of Emma Willard, and the whole inauguration speech of John Tyler. The discussion was a precursor to the general movement for the vote and general equal, based there on Genesis 1:26. Socrates here is the first in history known to seriously suggest such a thing, as Jesus is also the first to teach women.] It is interesting to find that after the three parts of the soul were separated out, painted with their virtues and harmonized, still the classic picture of the three part soul was incomplete, lacking what would be another part, were it not more an aspect. One might even wonder if justice would still be profitable with eros added.

So Socrates states, in what is known as the first of three waves, that the male and female guardians must have the same education. Socrates indicates: ” compared to what is customary, many of the things now said would look ridiculous if they were to be done as is said.” The proposals of Socrates in Book V are said to require the complete upheaval of custom The most ridiculous thing about the first, Socrates says is both the younger and older women exercising naked with the men. In a section which recalls another aspect of the story of Herodotus regarding Gyges and Candules, Socrates reminds them that once it seemed shameful to the Greeks, as now it does to the Barbarians, to see men naked. But then it became clear to the Greeks that to “uncover all such things is better than to hide them, and, “what was ridiculous to the eyes disappeared in light of what is best as revealed in speeches. This showed, he says, that “one is empty who believes anything to be ridiculous other than what is good, por who sets up any standard of beauty other than the good ( ).

Socrates next raises and defeats the counterargument that it is ” “not fitting to prescribe the same work to men and women because the two have different natures.” Facing this argument, Socrates answers that whether one falls into a little swimming pool or into the middle of the biggest sea” he swims all the same.He says they thus must swim and try to save themselves from the argument, while hoping that some dolphin will take them on his back or for some other unusual rescue.” The allusion is to the story of Arion brought to shore on the back of a dolphin, after escaping capture by Pirates, by the charm of his lyric poetry.

The unusual rescue apparently comes by separating what is said out into its terms, so to avoid unwillingly dealing in contradiction.Men and women are said not to differ regarding any practice connected with the government of cities- such as the raising of children from the time of birth to the time of education ( v, ) so that with respect to their practicing their art in the city they are said to have the same nature regarding their civic art. The unessential difference that the female bears and the male mounts is compared to the difference between bald and long haired men. The unusual rescue from the necessity implied by the argument that women have different natures is overcome by abstracting explicitly from the body and the difference between male and female souls due to the body.

In this way the institution of the same education for thew male and female guardians is show to be possible in the sense that it is not against nature. But if the body is a part of nature, the institution will be against nature and so neither possible or best. That it would be best is agreed quickly, simply by indicating that as the male guardians are best among the citizens due to their education, so the women will be the best among women. It is concluded that the female guardians must strip, and clothe themselves in virtue rather than robes.

In passing by what is customary, the nakedness of the female guardians is emphasized. In this section of the argument introducing the first two waves,into the discussion, the analogy between city and soul seems very important As in the story of Gyges in Herodotus, the stripping of clothing to reveal the beautiful form of the naked queen is an analogy of the stripping away of conventions in the philosophic or intellectual eros to know. There is some similarity between thew image of the first two waves and Shakespeare’s image in the Tempest, where after a hard swim, Ferdinand lands on the magic island., thinks the king his father to be dead, and himself king, and is shown thew beautiful Miranda. The argument of Book IV separating out the parts of the soul was also called a hard swim through. In the Tempest, the spirited prince is introduced to the beautiful Miranda, and through her reconciled to the philosophic rule of Prospero. In the Republic, the female guardians are added to their class even though spirited women may be rare. [Their virtue may have to exceed all males of the craftsmen and farmers. There are as yet no women in major league baseball, and nothing like a half a class even in the minor leagues- apparently due to differences in the body.]

As the dialogue moves toward the discussion of marriages, the drama of the invisible dialogue regarding the soul moves toward the birth of intelligence (nous).

The upheaval of custom in prescribing the same education and art for the female guardians as for the male is, “meant to bring about the order according to nature,” abstracting from procreation and rejecting the customary difference between men and women according to the demands of justice that each practice the art for which they are fitted by nature. In this discussion, “possible” is equated with “by nature.” The city of the Republic is treated as though it were a natural being, as is a man or the human soul. The city derives its dignity from the life of the mind or soul of man, and the natural foundation of rule within the city is based ultimately on the rule of intellect. But can a city exist by nature , rejecting convention, and translating the natural order of the soul directly into the political orders of the best regime? It may be because the city of the Republic is meant to be “by nature” that it is impossible rather than possible.

The second wave, called bigger than the first, is the communism regarding women and children. Because of great doubts regarding whether it is best or possible- but especially whether it is possible-Socrates tries to escape the question of its [possibility altogether, saying that they don’t suppose it would be doubted possible if it were best.When unable to escape, Socrates asks if it would be allowed to presuppose its possibility and consider how the rulers will arrange it,and whether it will be best for the city and the guardians.

[It is noted that these orders are for a small class of a single city, and for even a whole city, let alone a nation. Societies of priests might find such things possible, having set aside the body and family as a whole for the devotion of their service. It would remain only to effect such orders for about 1000 in a city of 100,000, for warriors and police, guarding the public trust as Eunuchs guarded the wives and harems of the Persian kings. The question is whether it is best for both the guardians and the city, or whether, the best regime too is not from top to bottom composed of happy families.]

Beneficial marriages will be made sacred. In explaining what this means, Socrates recalls to Glaucon his own practice of animal breeding, in which the breeder breeds from the best animals as much as possible. As was the argument in the education of the women guardians, that only what is useful is noble and only what is bad is laughable. So here Socrates subordinates the sacred to the beneficial, or equates the two, rejecting the sacred conventions. The rulers will use many lies in instituting a system of eugenics in which the citizens are bread like animals to produce the best offspring. [And here we must ask, is not nature’s eugenics in love harsh enough! Whatever else occurs in love, it both depends upon and inspires the cultivation of every excellence, aiming toward the prince and princess by nature.] The citizens, though, must believe that the particular marriages brought about are due to chance, and only the rulers themselves are to notice what is occurring, if the guardian’s herd is to be kept as free as possible from faction. In addition, more frequent intercourse is to be given as a prize to those guardians best in war, so that under this pretense, these men will have the most offspring.

When the offspring are born, they are to be taken to a milking pen, while any of those born deformed will be hidden away in an unspeakable and unseen place. In all this, great care must be taken so that none of the women recognize their own offspring. The claims of maternal love are simply silenced, with perfect and precise control of human unions by reason. Erotic necessities must be treated with the precision of geometric necessities. If such mastery is impossible then so is the city, and it is due to the on this issue that the regime is presented as beginning to deteriorate ( ).

There is to be no love or families among the guardians. The entire city is to become as a single family. Precautions are minimal against what is incest according to the usual human filial relations of parents and children, brothers and sisters, and each citizen is to address every other with family names, such as father and mother etc.,and act toward them accordingly. There is some similarity to the chivalric courtesy,. which treats all maidens as sisters, etc.

3. Best

In determining whether or not this is best, to abolish the family and breed human beings as animals, Socrates sets down the principle that the greatest good for a city is unity, while faction is the greatest evil. The best governed city is said to be most like a single human being. This unity is said to be brought about by the community of women and children, and consists in the circumstance that all say my own and not my own about the same things. They all rejoice and are pained by the same births and deaths, and it is this community of pain and pleasure, which binds the city together, while it is said that the privacy of such things dissolves the unity. This community of pain and pleasure is compared to the community tying body and soul together into a single being. “in a single arrangement under the ruler within it.”since the community of women and children brings about the unity of the city in which each of the citizens holds what is their own to be the same,binding it together into a community of pain and pleasure that is like that within a single human being, and this unity is held to be the greatest good for the city. the community of women and children is agreed to be the best.

4. More Blessed than Olympic Victors

Socrates points out that many evils of other cities which this one will be rid of due too its making public things which are private in the other cities. Socrates now claims that the guardians will live a life “more blessed than Olympic victors,” reminding of the punishment proposed by Socrates at his trial. Their victory is the preservation of the whole city, and they are crowned with support and everything else necessary for life. Socrates now claims that the private good of the guardians is achieved by their complete devotion to the common good, being entirely the artisans of the city’s freedom. Finally, Glaucon agrees that, regarding the entire arrangement of the city, “they’ll do what is best, and nothing contrary to the nature of the female in her relationship with the male, and nothing contrary to the natural community of the two with each other.

5. Aristotle’s critique on unity.

In the critique of the second wave by Aristotle (Politics, II. v), he writes that this institution is certainly possible, but questions whether it is best. In treating the proposal of Socrates as a blueprint for an actual city, Aristotle is said to take literally a great Socratic irony.

Aristotle first indicates the questionable-ness of the assumption of Socrates that the greatest unity is the greatest good for the city. Making the city first into a household instead of a city, and then into one ,man instead of a family or household, would bring the destruction of the polis. Aristotle states that it is not unity, but self-sufficiency which is the good of the polis. It is in pure thought, and not in the city, that unity is possible. The tendency toward unity is characteristic of reason, and the nature of man is rational, and so tends toward unity. But the city has to do with bodies and, the argument goes, bodies cannot be made one. The Republic thus forces a distinction between the nature of man and the city, by treating the city as though it were natural and showing what would follow from this. In this way, the Republic shows the limits of politics with respect to the body and things by nature better left private. The radical experiment of making the whole of the life of man political shows the limits of the polis with respect to the household. It is the parallel between the soul and city which has led Socrates to make the city into what is like one man, bringing the “littler and bigger” together at this point. If the city is by nature, then this would be possible. But because the city is not by nature, it is impossible. If the city is not by nature, there is not a form of the city, apparently, as there is a form of man. So, the best regime as described in speech exists nowhere in nature.

The things of the body then would seem, according to Aristotle, to be left private. The temptation to establish communism in actual regimes would be a bodily expression of intellectual unity The Marxist end envisioned might betray itself as a perversion of the Christian heaven or Paradise, calling for something like the forced establishment of the heavenly communion of souls, or the communism of friends in sharing. Equity is only a small part of justice, and equity in goods a small part of that, but justice is said to be the whole of virtue in relation to others. As in the account of Cyrus regarding the two boys and two coats (Xenophon, Cyropaideia, ). the regime which seeks the things of the soul in bodily things is willing to use force on men who ought be free men for the sake of establishing equity regarding bodily goods. In appealing from conventional property rights to natural property right or what is fitting for each, Cyrus may advocate a greater injustice in service of a lesser justice, sanctioning tyranny, by his ability to achieve a lesser justice by force.

The beehive is a natural unity, in truth making a community into what is as a single organism- the Queen and drones being as the reproductive organ of the whole, while the workers lack such individual purpose. One would like to see the decision making process within the hive, as when a new site for the honey is chosen from among alternatives. One would also like to see how these organisms- whole hives and ant colonies, managed to emerge through intermediate phases, and whether such a development could occur regarding man. The hive and polis are distinct too in that the hive is made, it is made by nature without essential accidental variation in every case, as occurs regarding human laws, which are made by men, as is the hive, but not as is the hive, made by nature.

If the Athenians had come to Plato or Socrates and asked them to be the King of Athens, would they have abolished all things private including the family, and instituted eugenics as some perverse scientist suggest today? Or would these have agreed with us, thinking these things terrible and perverse? The only examples of attempts to abolish the family are examples of the extreme tyranny, such as that of Pol Pot in Cambodia. From these, it seems obvious enough that the city in speech is not intended to be a blueprint for an actual city.

[Other examples to be considered are Plato in Syracuse- where he lost favor with the tyrant Dionysus due his proposal to abolish private property. In his seventh Letter, we see the posture of Plato toward practical politics, and a restatement of the circumstance of Socrates regarding the thirty.Lycurgus in Sparta also instituted the first wave, and the Spartans have some rather strange habits regarding marriage and adultery. The Amazons achieved the same warrior work for women, and became quite formidable, even attacking Athens under Theseus and Ageus. Communism of property, too, is held among the first Christians in the Acts (4:2) though again this is easy- or easier- for those who plan to set aside the body, and need not feed and house families.]

Socrates avoids the question of the possibility of the institution of the common possession opf women and children as long as possible, by taking Glaucon through a discussion of war that seems a digression. When they return to the question of the possibility of this second wave, has somehow changed from that of whether it is according to nature, which determined the the possibility of wave 1 and has been agreed to regarding wave 2, into the question of how one might transform an actuality into the manner of regime as they have constructed in speech.

As distinct from their procedure in the first wave, in which possibility and best were considered separately. wave 3 is introduced in answer to the possibility of wave 2. For some reason, Socrates here regarding the second wave and not the first,establishes the distinction between perfect justice and what can come into being, and the says that it was “for the sake of a pattern” that they were seeking for what justice itself is and what the perfectly just man would be like if he should come into being, and for injustice and the most unjust man, and then to compare these to happiness, rather than seeking these for the sake of proving that it is possible for them to come into being. He compares their articulation of the city again to a painter who paints thew most beautiful human being, and says that he is no less good a painter if he cannot prove that it is possible for what he paints, or “such a man” to come into being. On the assumption that it is the nature of action or deeds to be less precise than speaking, Socrates persuades Glaucon not to compel him to present the city as coming into being in every way in deed as it is described in speech If they are thus able to find a city that could be governed in a way most closely approximating what is said, then, Socrates tells Glaucon, say that the possibility of these things coming into being has been found.” They look for the smallest change, one if not two, if not, then the fewest in number and the smallest in power by which a city would come to this manner of regime.

If the regime described in the city of the Republic can come into being primarily within one man, then for this man to be king- in a suitable regime- may bring about inwardly the impossible institutions of the first two waves, and this would be that “smallest” change. At any rate, it is not clear that the institution of the philosopher kings is not, as Strauss writes, not only the necessary but the sufficient cause to bring about this regime (p. 186). [The orders ascribed to the city would reign invisibly in the ruling soul, whatever appeared when the visible things are governed by prudence. An example might be if Shakespeare had been born king.]

[In this light, the trans Athenian pan-Hellenic digression (470 c-e) appears anew. Are these not practical measures Socrates would institute if he were governing the Athenians? War and enslavement are moderated, but most especially he introduces an assumption of something like a Greek nation, naming war between cities faction. It does seem clear enough that the Greeks ought unite in defense against the other nations, rather than wasting one another. What if Alcibiades and Athens had listened to Socrates? When Alexander does what Alcibiades might have done, it appears what political philosophy faced at the turn of the fourth century B.C., what might have been, and the destruction of Greece that occurred instead. The age of the polis was giving way to the age of the nation, and Socrates could have combined Sparta and Athens into a national federation that would at least preserve the libraries.]

So it seems likely an intentional irony when, introducing the third wave, in response to the question, “What change?” Socrates says, “Well, here I am…”

The classic paragraph is worth repeating for its detail:

Unless, I said, philosophers rule as kings- or those now called kings and chiefs genuine and adequately philosophize, and political power and philosophy coincide in the same place, while the many natures now making their way to either apart from the other are by necessity excluded, there is no rest from ills for the cities, my dear Glaucon, nor, I think for human kind, nor will the regime we have now described in speech ever come forth from nature, insofar as possible, and see the light of the sun.

(Republic, 473 c-d)

The possibility of philosopher king also proves to be highly questionable. The example of the death of Socrates at the hands of Athens shows the problem and the tension between philosophy and the city. The city depends upon the strength of orthodoxy and custom, apparently for the virtue of citizens as citizens. But philosophy as an erotic striving for the first principles, the quest for truth and wisdom. As such, philosophy appeals from the customary beliefs about the cosmos and the best life for man, to the truth of nature, or, the natural articulation of things. The city does not understand the philosophers, and so will not consent to their rule. But would the philosophers ever use force to acquire rule. Even if they were able, this does not seem likely, since these do not desire power or rule. Those who seek wisdom do not desire power, and the city usually does not want the philosophers to rule, and so the best regime would seem to be impossible.

The drama of the dialogue continues to show philosophy governing. Socrates had feared that this, the biggest wave, would drown him in laughter and ill repute (473c). After the statement,Glaucon tells Socrates that he can believe that many men will on the spot strip for action and be ready to take up weapons and run at him to “do wonderful deeds,” Socrates answers that it is Glaucon who is responsible for this, and Glaucon tells Socrates that if they are going to defend themselves, they must distinguish for the attacking men who they mean by the philosophers, or who we mean when we dare assert that the philosophers must rule.” Socrates continues:

Thus, when they have come plainly to light one will be able to defend oneself, showing that it is by nature fitting for them both to engage in philosophy and to follow the leader.

Here as the dialogue turns to the discussion of the nature of the philosopher, which will occupy them through Book VII, we see most clearly what Eva Brann (Music of the Republic, 7a.) identifies as the way in which the best regime is “shown to come into being in the republic.” Socrates says to Glaucon, Come, follow me here, if we are somehow or other to set it forth adequately,” and Socrates reports Glaucon’s answer: “Lead, he said” (474c). We follow Socrates because he can follow the argument. So the third way that the regime is possible is as among the 10 in the dialogue.

After the discussion of the philosophers through Book VII, Socrates returns to insist that the regime is in a way possible. He asks Glaucon:

Do you agree that the things we have said about the city and regime are not in every way prayers; that they are hard but in a way possible; and that it is possible in no other way than the one stated, when the true philosophers, either one or more, come to power in a city, they will despise the current honors and believe them to be illiberal, and worth nothing. Putting what is right and the honors coming from it above all, while taking what is just as the greatest and the most necessary, and serving and fostering it, they will provide for their own city (540 d-e).

The way these will provide is then said to be to expel all those over 10 years old. This way is called the quickest and easiest, and Glaucon does not blink (541a). One wonders why, rather than colonize with third graders, they would expel the adults.

Averroes (On Plato’s Republic p. 72-73) notes the objection that the regime requires the education of the philosophers to come into being, so that these would consent, yet these cannot be educated until the philosophers rule, and so the regime is impossible. Averroes answers: It is possible for individuals to grow up with these natural qualities that we have attributed to them. This answer is related to the first sentence of the Meno, asking how one gains virtue.

The regime, then, is impossible as a blueprint, to be applied to any circumstance, yet possible in the soul of one man. It is also possible that this one should happen to rule, or even be followed by a nation or a people, as when the west adequately follows a Socrates or Shakespeare. It is also possible in the community of the dialogue, as we here see Socrates persuading the spirited Glaucon. It is also said that Socrates governs in the republic of letters, the semi-eternal community of thought and conversation, where it is possible for those in the past to converse even with those not yet born, in circumstances unforeseen. And the regime is accessible within each of our daily political circumstances, whenever these are improved even a little in light of what is best.

In Aristotelian terms, the conjunction of theoretical and practical wisdom must be possible. After the famous paragraph at the center of the Republic stating that philosophers must rule as kings, Socrates states: “For it is hard to see that in no other city would there be private or public happiness.” With his private concerns he cares for the public- which may turn out to be a very mysterious matter. In Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Prospero cares for Italy, though, by setting his household rule in order. That Shakespeare shows a philosophic Duke, though, and not a king, may be related to the impossibility or undesirability of kingship even for the highest human being. The philosopher king is the principle, the example that shows happiness and the conjunction of theoretical and practical wisdom in the best man.

The parable of the ship assumes that political science is possible.

It is said that an idea is different from an “ideal,” in that its realization is in principle possible, because it is by nature. A perfect baseball diamond will be impossible to chalk, but the fulfillment of the natures in particulars ought be in principle possible. But the man and not the city is the natural being. Does a city ruled by wisdom become a natural being? That there is an idea of man may mean that the conjunction is possible, but then it may be that the best regime too must be in principle possible- if, unlike a blueprint, for almost all practical purposes impossible.

Another reason the city is impossible is that we do not have a wise man, or, the pursuit of wisdom is necessarily incomplete (Bloom). The parable of the ship, though assumes that knowledge of political things- symbolized in the astronomy and meteorology of the pilot’s art- is possible.

The argument that the expulsion of everyone over 10 would be required, or that the people to be made citizens must be wiped clean of all except childhood- with language assumed, seems to seal the impossibility, but one wonders about colonization. What if one were given an island and charged with the care of a shipwrecked school of third graders? One might have 4-6 years to prepare marriages.

Another is that philosophy and kingship do not coincide in time. Kingship belongs to the dawn of civilization, philosophy to its dusk (Strauss, The City and Man, p. )- though two civilizations could coincide, as in Shakespeare, had he happened to be born king.

Socrates next distinguishes the philosopher from the specialist as a lover of the whole of learning, rather than this or that particular.

While in the city. human beings are bred like animals in a picture of extreme ugliness, in the soul the sacred wedding refers to Zeus and Hera images of the union of male or paternal with female or maternal, in an image of great beauty Socrates may allude to this when he compares the community of pleasure and pain to “that community tying the body together with the soul in a single arrangement under the ruler within it.” The divine wedding is an archetype that appears in numerous ways in images and symbols, but in the Bible it is the wedding of the Bride and Lamb, fulfilling the “plan set forth for the fullness of time, to unite all things in Him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians, 1:10). Carl Jung cites Paul as well as Iliad XIV (24?) among examples (Aion, p. 39-40; 204, 206).

The Strauss-Bloom thesis would seem to mean that this is not even a decent city, while Socrates insists that it and no other is the best regime.

Note 1: As stated by Hall, Strauss (The City and Man, p. 138) and others have recently revived an ancient reading of the Republic which asserts, as stated by Cicero: Plato in the Republic sought and made a city more to be prayed for than hoped for…/not such that it can possibly be, but one in which it is possible to see the meaning of political things. (Republic II.52) As cited by Allan Bloom, “Response to Hall,”). Against the modern interpretation which held that Plato thought it possible for the best regime to come into being in deed as it is described in speech, Strauss writes: The just city is impossible. By showing the impossibility of the best city, the Republic conveys the broadest and deepest analysis of political idealism ever made” (The City and Man, p. 127).

Aristophanes may be the first to treat theory of communism in writing, in his comedy the Assembly of Women. At the conclusion of his chapter on the Assembly of Women in his book on Aristophanes, Strauss writes enigmatically:

…Certain it is that Socrates’ correction or Prexagoras’ theme, which we find in the Republic, is not properly understood if one does not consider- against the letter of the republic, the difference of sex between Socrates and even the wisest woman: the scheme presented in the Republic is of altogether male origin.

Does Strauss attribute the turning the city into a household to a female motivation? Or is it the common possession of women that is especially the suggestion of a woman?

Socrates and Aristophanes, p. 282

Strauss treats the reason for the communism as egalitarianism, the principle of equality S&A, p. 280), while Bloom presents the cause as the overcoming of the love of ones own in the attachment rather to the city ( p. ).

Bloom: Is justice in the individual man the same as justice in the city?and does justice in the individual lead to good citizenship? First we look at the perfected city and then at the perfected man. Can a perfect man become and remain perfect in a perfect city? Is justice good for him? This is identical with the question: Is the city natural? For man and hence the good man is surely natural.

Socrates treats the city as though it were an organism, as though there could be a happy city without happy men (p. 370; Aristotle, Politics). The happiness of the individual is the end of the city, but the to attain this for many is better than to attain it for one, and so politics is of higher dignity than the private life ( ).

Interpretive Essay, p. 371…But the concentration on the public and the common, the forgetfulness of the demands of the body, prepares the way for the introduction of philosophy, which is the most universal concern. It is the concern with the private or particular as such that must be overcome if individuals are to philosophize and cities are to be ruled by philosophy. The guardian who is totally devoted to the common good is the prototype of the philosopher who is devoted to knowing the good.

Lycurgus…instituted an equal division of property, called in all coins, and instituted common meals, joining equality of goods with the aristocratic Spartan regime, and making the polis like a single household or family ( ), or even as a single man (p. 72). Lycurgus is said to be the first to separate out the soldiers as a class, imitating what he had seen during his travels in Egypt. But from Crete he brought a lyric poet Thales p. 51, and instituted a martial music:

The very songs which he composed were exhortations to obedience and concord, and the very measure and cadence of the verse, conveying impressions of order and tranquility, had so great an influence on the minds of the listeners, that they were insensibly softened and civilized, insomuch that they renounced their private feuds and animosities, and were united in a common admiration of virtue. Hence it may truly be said that Thales prepared the way for the discipline introduced by Lycurgus.

…When the army was drawn up for battle the king himself would begin the paeon of advance… It was at once a magnificent and a terrible sight to see them march on to the tune of their flutes, without any disorder in their ranks, any discomposure in their minds or change in their countenances, calmly and cheerfully moving with the music to the deadly fight. Men, in this temper, were not likely to be possessed with fear or any transport of fury, but with the deliberate valor of hope and assurance, as if some divinity were attending and conducting them.

(Lives, pp. 51-52)

This would be the Spartan or Doric music …Our martial music…

There is some question whether the defects of the Spartan regime are due to a degeneration or to the laws of Lycurgus himself. The slavery of the Helots was established, but he seems to have neglected the care of the question of the slaves. In Sparta as in the American South, the Aristocratic liberty from trades and farming seems to depend not only on the craftsman class, on slavery. In the United States, the freeing of the slaves occurs on the road toward the same education for men and women and political enfranchisement and equality. Following the institution of the Ephores, the Spartan treatment of the Helots includes “murder,” and involves a cruelty that reminds us of the degeneration of Aristocracy into timocracy, and the cruelty of which the character topped by the love of “honor” can be capable. Infanticide, too, is practiced, disposing of ill suited offspring, and this too seems to indicate a disregard for the law against murder.

The criticism too that the Spartan women were left to themselves, and ended up running the households while the men were at war, may refer to a later degeneration of the Spartan regime. Plutarch answers Aristotle:

The truth is, he took in their case also all the care that was possible,he ordered the maidens to exercise themselves with wrestling, running, throwing the quoit and casting the dart, to the end that the fruit they conceived might, in strong and healthy bodies take firmer root…

Plutarch seems to comment on Plato’s Republic when he writes in his Lycurgus:

…these public processions of the maidens, and their appearing naked in their exercises and dancings, were incitements to marriage, operating upon the young with rigor and certainty, as Plato says, of love if not of of mathematics…(p. )

The seriousness of Eugenics and the nuptial number must also be addressed, as in modernity we seem to have jettisoned the distinction in kind between men and animals, and the prominence of biology unknown in ancient Greece has led one fuehrer to institute laws in this direction, if for a brief time. Marriages were once arranged by families, with consent arriving later with the root of political liberty, as appears too in the Bible, in the marriages of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob. Consent in marriages begins in sight and appearance, with wealth and worldly mastery the usual leading factor for the male. From the description in the Phaedrus, where each chooses a beloved after then god most according the character, one can see how it would be possible to turn the 3 part soul over to nature in the “love matters that concern the fair” which complete the formation of character ( ). Harry Jaffa, commenting on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, reminds that the arrangement of marriages is somehow central to the mystery of philosophic rule (Shakes. Universe, p. ). In the soul that is like the city, the community of goods and the stripping and the swim through the sacrifice of the root of the love of ones own at thew navel of our mortal origin seems to be what is alluded to, and one would compare the Elysian mysteries regarding the soul. Laws in Sparta and the Republic awarding great deeds with conjugal unions moves in the direction of complete control of love and marriages, but the nuptial number claims a mathematics over unions that are best. The failure of this number is even said to result in the degeneration of the regime, as though this were what held the whole together ( ). Once it is noted how animal breeders select the best, it is difficult to say why this should not be done, and the reason is apparently that the eugenics of nature in love is harsh enough. The mind does not govern the body in this way, but by the mediation of the soul.

Plato in the Seventh Letter tells the friends of Dion how at Athens he would have entered politics, though seeing that little could be done, he stayed out of the way, as the philosopher in the Parable of the Ship.

Plato Bibliography

  1. Aristotle Politics . Translated by Ernst Barker. New York:Oxford University Press, 1973.

2. _________. ________. Translated by Carnes Lord. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984

3. Averroes. Averroes on Plato’s Republic. Translated by Ralph Lerner. Cornell University Press, 1974.

4. Bloom, Allan. Interpretive Essay, in The Republic of Plato. New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1968

5. Bloom, Allan. “Response to Hall.” Political Theory, Vol. 5 no. 3, August, 1977.

6. Brann, Eva. The Music of the Republic. Annapolis, MD. :The Collegian Press, St. John’s College, n.d.

7. Burnyeat, M.F. “Sphinx Without a Secret.” New York Review of Books. May 30, 198530-36.

8. Cropsey, Joseph, et. al “The Studies of Leo Strauss: An Exchange.” New York Review of Books October 10, 1985. 41-45.

9. Hall, Dale. “The Republic and the Limits of Politics.” Political Theory, Vol. 5 no. 3. August, 1977.

10. Plato, Apology of Socrates. In “Four Texts on Socrates, Edited and translated by Thomas G. West and Grace Starry West.

11. Strauss, Leo. The City and Man. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.

12. ________. Socrates and Aristophanes. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1966.

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