Does Plato see his Republic as detailing a utopian society?
I intend this (rather briefer) post to be a companion to my discussion of book I of Plato’s Republic, part of an ongoing attempt to read the work with an eye to its dramatic structure and not just its explicit philosophical content. My answer to the title question is simple: no. My purpose here is primarily the negative purpose of establishing that negative conclusion. I will make some attempt at a positive account of what Plato is doing, if not setting out a utopia, but I confess in advance that it will be terribly partial and unsatisfying. My only defense is that I have not yet finished Republic—this post and the last are both reports of my interpretation of Republic as I read it, and they do not consider the whole work. I am using the Waterfield translation (published by Oxford in their World’s Classics series), and I will be focusing on what Waterfield designates as chapter 4 of the work.
My argument that Plato does not intend us to treat Republic as simply a vision of a utopian society has three prongs. First, we should consider how Socrates justifies his attempt to construct an ideal society. After Thrasymachus leaves, Socrates begins a discussion with Glaucon and Adeimantus, who explicitly play devil’s advocate by giving an extended defense of Thrasymachus’ position. They are (rightly) dissatisfied with Socrates’ rebuttal of Thrasymachus, and so try to goad him into a better response. Chapter 2 consists of this challenge. At the start of chapter 3, Socrates sets about responding, and his first move is to suggest, “morality can be a property of whole communities as well as of individuals” (368e). Socrates’ intent is to explore morality in a community as if it is a larger (and hence more easily discernable) example of morality than morality in an individual, on the assumption that both are by and large the same. So, throughout the discussion, we need to keep in mind that Socrates is describing the republic with an eye toward the moral individual. This by itself does not indicate that Plato does not intend Republic to be a portrait of a legitimate utopia, but it does imply that Plato is constructing this utopia for some other purpose—it is a means to an end. This allows us to see that even if we do not take it seriously as a utopia, it may still have some other purpose. The ultimate value of the book does not lie in the tenability of Socrates’ utopia as an actual way of organizing society. Thus I can turn to my second and third reasons confident that I will not be undermining the worth of Republic as a whole.
These other two reasons, which do the real work, take the form of a double dissociation: (a) Plato has Socrates dissociate himself from the community he is detailing, and (b) Plato dissociates himself from this community. In this way Plato twice places himself at a remove from the utopia he has Socrates describe, and, as readers, we should respect this distance.
The first dissociation is accomplished very simply. Plato, at multiple points, has Socrates attribute the argument that he is making to Adeimantus. In discussing how poets should portray the behavior of humans and the gods, Socrates says, “According to your argument, we should disallow this type of passage” (389a). Interestingly, Adeimantus responds with the following: “Yes, if you want to attribute the argument to me” (389a). Neither Socrates nor Adeimantus wants full credit for the argument, though both seem to agree at every point. Later, Socrates again attributes the argument to Adeimantus: “So what you’re saying, if I’m getting it right…” (396b). Socrates is in this way making it clear that the argument is not his own.
This could, perhaps, be put down simply to Socrates’ trademark false modesty, but I think there is more to it, and this may perhaps be seen by considering the second dissociation: Plato’s own. Of the many aspects of poetry and other art discussed in chapter 4, the most interesting is the condemnation of representational art in favor of narrative art. Representational art is that in which the author “represents” other people by speaking in their voice: instead of merely remarking (i.e. narrating) that so-and-so prayed, the author presents the actual words of the prayer. In narrative art, the author relates events solely in his own voice. Authors may, of course, combine the two.
The upshot of the discussion of these two artistic styles is the following: art should be primarily narrative, but representation of good men doing good things is allowable. It is interesting, then, that Plato’s art is purely representational. Apparently, Plato has no place in his own republic. Nor can this fact be glossed over by suggesting that Plato is at least representing Socrates’ voice, and Socrates is surely a good man. We need only look back to the first chapter, in which Socrates spars with Thrasymachus, to see Plato representing a sophist engaging in sophistry, and to show him being especially petty. Plato’s own art does not live up to the supposedly ideal community he describes.
This dissociation goes further. One presupposition of the discussion throughout Republic is that each person is best suited for a single job, and should not engage in multiple activities, for then he will do each less well. Indeed, this is part of the argument against representational art: it requires adopting multiple voices, a form of engaging in multiple activities. Leaving aside the absurdity of the premise (which obvious absurdity should make us question Plato’s genuine adherence to it, given that Plato wasn’t stupid), we can see Plato’s own work as embodying a rejection of it.
This rejection becomes explicit when Plato has Socrates say, “In fact, the same people can’t be competent comic actors and also competent tragic actors” (395a). This should be compared to the end of Symposium, in which Socrates argues that in fact the best comic playwright must also be a great tragic playwright. Waterfield, in his notes to Symposium, suggests that Plato may be drawing attention to the fact that Symposium combines both the burlesque of comedy and the seriousness of tragedy. Indeed, in the speeches on love, the tragic playwright gives a half-comedic speech, while the comic playwright tells a rather tragic tale. This strikes me as precisely right: Plato’s work is an embodiment of the meeting of tragedy and comedy—precisely what he rules out in Republic. So, again, Plato’s own work seems to be just the sort of art that his utopia would never allow. Waterfield, in his notes to Symposium, remarks on this incompatibility between Socrates’ arguments in Symposium and in Republic, but does not go further than noting it. I think it is quite significant, however: it is a method Plato uses to dissociate himself from the content of his utopia.
If Plato, in his Republic, is not in fact detailing his ideal society, just what is Plato doing? Beyond what is implied by my first argument (that Plato is hoping to elucidate individual morality in some fashion), I honestly do not know, at least not yet. But what has struck me most vividly about the discussion in chapter 4 is how much Socrates’ proposals designed to ensure that people are educated to act within reason look like mere indoctrination. It seems to me that, in the utopia Socrates describes, people never have any need to reason themselves, because they never confront anything contrary to reason. But what is reason if it is not something that people do? The eminently reasonable society of Plato’s Republic seems not to deserve the epithet at all. It is not unreasonable—reason simply plays little role at all. Plato’s Republic (the text), as opposed to his republic (the society), functions in precisely the opposite way: by presenting sometimes obviously, sometimes subtly flawed arguments in the course of a discussion, and by dissociating himself from these arguments in crucial ways, Plato forces the reader to come to an understanding of the issues on her own. Plato does not indoctrinate.
Hence, while I have not yet finished the text and cannot quite say what, exactly, it is good for, I can fairly confidently assert that Plato’s Republic is infinitely preferable to Plato’s republic.