A reader’s guide to Plato’s Republic, Books II-IV: Introduction

Plato’s Republic is well known for its presentation of the divided line and the analogy of the cave, which appear in books V-VII.  Less well known or well explored are the books of the Republic (Books II-IV) that lead up to them.  To give a brief overview of the subject matter, the themes in Books II-IV can be set out as follows: 

  • Book I sets the stage for a exploration of Justice by asking whether it can be considered as good for its own sake,which is a position Socrates defends.  
  • Then, in books II-IV, Plato approaches the question, “What is justice” by a somewhat circuitous route, by first creating an ideal Republic.  His reason for the detour (R 368D) is explained by a visual analogy: since justice can be more easily seen and contemplated on the large scale of a city state, he creates this image first before turning to the  smaller version of justice that appears in an individual. 
  • The project of first creating an ideal Republic and then using it to find justice in an individual provides a broad initial scope and methodological framework for the rest of the Republic.  The content of books II-IV, should be understood within that framework.

Plato’s first steps in creating an ideal Republic in books II-IV, may appear somewhat paradoxical at first: he has just said that he wishes to create an image of justice on the large scale of an ideal Republic; but what he proceeds to do is to imagine truly just individuals within that ideal republic first of all, and does this by discussing the education of the rulers of his Republic, called the “guardians”.  This move back to individuals may be seen as Plato’s attempt to construct a Republic by starting with its essential elements.  Most essential of all elements for the creation of an ideal republic would seem to be the  guardians and their character, and so the education of the guardians falls into place as the first order of business in books II-IV, which is an extended treatment of that education.

This theme, the education of the guardians, will be main thematic motif of the following guide to books II-IV.  The guide will present what I believe to be the best way to structure the questions surrounding the discussion of the education of the guardians so as to bring out most clearly their ultimate significance.  Those guiding questions are as follows:

  1. In book II, Socrates creates an ideal city that Glaucon (R 372D) later calls a “city of pigs” because of the simple rusticity of its inhabitants.  Glaucon then proceeds to imagine a more urbane, sophisticated city, that Socrates objects to as a “luxurious city”, and a “feverish city”.  How does the rest of the dialogue in books II-IV respond to this dialectic?
  2. The earliest education the guardians receive involves what Plato refers to as musikeMusike is a very broad term that refers to all the arts (such as poetry, philosophy, and music itself) whose mastery might be said to betoken a cultivation of soul, whether in an individual or in a civilization.  The early stages of training in musike the young guardians undergo involve not only hearing stories of virtuous gods and heroes, but also an education of the senses through (actual) music.  That the young guardians should have their character shaped through listening to stories might have been expected; but Plato’s particular attention to the music the guardians listen to might be somewhat unexpected.  Therefore it seems that something perhaps characteristic of Plato’s overall philosophy might be making an intrusion here.  What, then, one might ask, is the ultimate significance of this education of the senses for the guardians and the republic, and what is its ultimate importance?
  3. The discussion of musike coheres nicely with an image of the guardian as a kind of tuner of his soul and of the city.  As “tuner” the guardian must be able to adjust its strings properly so as to bring about a harmony that corresponds to an ideal of musical sound. (See R 430a et seq.)  What then, does this image suggest about rulership, and how does it relate to the prior two questions?

Readers of Plato’s dialogues may already be able to anticipate the ways in which the themes that appear in the questions connect to more familiar themes in the Republic and elsewhere.  For example, Plato’s conception of virtue is very much allied to the traditional conception of the philosopher as someone who seeks knowledge and does not care for worldly possessions or honors.  Hence, the discussion of the education of the guardians may serve as a basis for thinking about Plato’s notion of virtue.  Moreover, the education of the senses, introduced as a theme in the second question, recalls the upward path of the divided line and cave that appear in books VI and VII of the Republic.  In each case, one must begin, with the everyday phenomenal reality of things at hand, with things present to our senses, as a preliminary to working with higher abstractions.  The education of the senses the Guardians undergo would seem to be a piece in the overall puzzle of understanding this sort of progression, and indeed I believe it will assist in bringing different aspects of this “upward path” into a basic unity.  Finally, the image of the fully educated guardian as a tuner of soul and state in turn suggests the notion of someone who has mastered musike more broadly; of someone who has become an artist of such subjects by taking an upward path through various specific kinds of musike in order to arrive at a more comprehensive vision of states and souls.  This type of process, as well as the very metaphor of tuning itself suggests the notion of final causality, which I believe is a guiding theme throughout the dialogues, especially where the notions of mastery, or knowledge, or the divine are invoked.  The arrival at a clearer vision of these connections will be one of the motivating factors in the following guide, so that its place in the overall mosaic of Plato’s texts can be more clearly perceived.

Recommended texts (images are links to Amazon):


From left to right:

(1) The latest edition of the Greek text of the Republic edited by S.R. Slings; (2) A classic commentary on the Greek text by James Adam; (3) The latest translation by C.D.C. Reeve, based upon Sling’s text; (4) Four texts on Socrates: a very literal translation and a good source book for those interested in Socrates; Paul Shorey’s excellent translation and commentary on the Republic (includes Greek text).

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