Plato, the City, and the Gospel

The Great Books of western civilization have stood the test of time. They aren’t regarded mainly because they’re old, but because they have endured on the basis of the wisdom they convey about ultimate reality, life, and the human experience. This is the origin of the term ‘Liberal Arts’: the study of things which make for a free person. Reading the Great Books expands our ability to understand the world around us, and to think and live free.

Plato was one of the most foundational thinkers in the western tradition, and his most important book was his text on political organization, the Republic (the original Greek name is Politeia, from which we derive the English term ‘politics’). Philosophers will fall over themselves explaining how the Republic supposedly fits into their political mold, and sadly, it is a fairly common opinion these days (even amongst libertarian thinkers) to think Plato was endorsing some kind of super-state.

Written sometime around 380 BC, the Republic is one of the Socratic dialogues: a fictional discussion involving Plato’s late mentor, Socrates, as the central character. The real Socrates had been executed by the Athenian Assembly some years after Athens’ devastating loss to Sparta in the Peloponnesian War. The charges were that Socrates denied the gods of Athens, and that he was corrupting younger men to think philosophically about the meaning of life rather than usefully serve the city-state. In light of the city’s fall from its former glory, Socrates was blamed as one of the principal causes of Athens’ woes. Plato often wrote his most controversial material in fictional dialogue form such as the Republic, probably to avoid being executed like his mentor. This historical context should make anyone instantly skeptical of the claim that Plato’s intent was somehow to glorify and empower the state.

There is also much to be gained as a Christian specifically in thinking about Socratic philosophy in light of the New Testament. Though Socrates had been executed and Plato subsequently lived in a precarious situation, the next generation of philosophers experienced an impeccable resurgence as Aristotle, himself mentored by Plato, rose to prominence and became tutor to Alexander of Macedon. Alexander’s conquests molded the ancient Mediterranean into the Hellenized world: the world into which Christ was born and in which the apostles lived and ministered. By the time of the New Testament, Socratic philosophy formed one of the principal cultural contexts of Greco-Roman civilization. With that, let’s take a look at the flow and structure of the Republic and see if we can get to the bottom of Plato’s main arguments, and what they say to us today both theologically and politically.

The Republic consists of ten books. In Book I, Socrates is out minding his own business when he is essentially held against his will and forced to participate in a debate on the nature of justice (don’t miss the irony). Within the first page, Plato gives us this gem which sets the tone for the conflict undergirding the entire book:

… “do you see how many of us there are?”
“Of course.”
“Well, then,” he said, “either prove stronger than these men or stay here.”
“Isn’t there still one other possibility …,” I said, “our persuading you that you must let us go?”
“Could you really persuade,” he said, “if we don’t listen?”
“There’s no way,” said Glaucon.
“Well, then, think it over, bearing in mind we won’t listen.” (lines 327a – 327c)

Socrates and his interlocutors then proceed to discuss justice. The Socratic method, in which an argument is deconstructed by asking questions that draw out the implications (and flaws) of a belief, is on magnificent display throughout the entire book; Socrates, through reason, triumphs over the physical superiority of his opposition. The various definitions of justice proposed by the other men include:

1. To give what is owed
2. To do good to friends and harm to enemies
3. The triumph of the stronger over the weaker

Socrates dismantles all three definitions, and asserts that doing justice is better than doing injustice. Book II continues the discussion about whether justice is really better than injustice, which leads Socrates to turn to the things of the city (polis) — the central political unit of ancient Greece — and explore what the ideal city would actually look like. The men conclude on the necessity of division of labor, the provision of security (by the Guardian class), and on providing education in philosophy, ethics, and stories of the greatness of the gods in order to restrain the violent excesses of the Guardians against their own people. In order to protect the Guardians from hearing any negative stories about the gods, they conclude that sometimes the tales of the old poets must be censored or reshaped.

In Book III, the theme of education continues, and Socrates elaborates that the Guardians must be taught to not fear death or judgment for wrongs in the afterlife. They must see great virtue in dying for the defense of the city. Any contrary information or teaching must be edited, and Guardians must have instilled in them obedience and respect towards leaders. Stories and acting must be censored so that only the good is portrayed. Music which explores emotions or values pertaining to intemperance or relaxation should be banned; only music promoting valor and political service should be retained. Guardians must also be physically disciplined. Socrates then posits that society be divided into three groups: ruling Guardians (politicians), auxiliary Guardians (soldiers), and craftsmen (everyday workers). If the arbitrary classification is ever questioned, it is to be defended by a mythical falsehood explaining its supposes basis (the Noble Lie).

In Book IV, Socrates answers objections regarding the happiness of the rigidly-disciplined Guardians at being deprived of luxury; he previously had said they wouldn’t hold private property, and that all their possessions (even wives and children) would be held in common. Happiness, he says, would be found in service to the city, where the collective supersedes the individual. The craftsmen, so as to be neither lazy nor extravagant, would have their property moderated. The city wouldn’t need many laws; its justice would be upheld chiefly by its social structures and education.

The perfect city, Socrates says, would be characterized by the Four Virtues: wisdom, courage, temperance and justice. Wisdom would be found in the experience of the ruling Guardians, courage in the auxiliary Guardians, and temperance in the harmonious structure of the city itself. Justice, he says, would consist in preserving each person’s rights, duties, and place in the service of the city. Reasoning from the collective to the individual, Socrates discusses how man himself consists of three parts: the mind/reason, the emotions/heart, and the passions/body. These correspond, respectively, to the ruling Guardians (wisdom), auxiliary Guardians (courage), and craftsmen (labor). Justice then flows from temperance, where reason rules over man’s emotions and passions and holds him in harmony. In like manner, the ruling Guardians rule over the auxiliary Guardians and craftsmen to preserve the justice of the city.

In Book V, Socrates is asked about what place the family would have in the ideal city, since the Guardian class would evidently own all in common. He says women would assume any role for which they are best suited (including rulers and soldiers), and would be trained alongside men. Amongst the Guardians, the individual family unit would be abolished. The Guardians would become one giant family; they would breed and raise children according to whatever serves the optimum benefit to the city (as determined by the rulers). Children would not know who their real parents are. The Guardians would act as one communal unit, and thus rivalries would be eliminated.

Based on what Socrates says up to this point, it’s not difficult to see where many people get their belief that Plato is arguing for communism or some other form of statism, but this is a very incomplete view of the book. Remember the real historical context from which Plato was writing, and that the Socrates of the Republic is a character that Plato is using to convey philosophical points; he is not necessarily, on the surface level, reciting views held by the real Socrates (or by Plato). It’s also essential to note that in modern literature we’re used to reading the main lesson at the end of a book; in ancient literature, the main lesson often occurred in the middle, and Books V and VI of the Republic constitute its middle.

At the end of Book V, discussing the feasibility of this whole plan for the ideal city, Socrates identifies the core problem with being able to achieve such a city: the current available rulers. Philosophers, he says, are the only ones with the wisdom to create and rule such a perfect city, and present rulers are not philosophers. What follows is Plato’s Theory of the Forms: the lower intellect perceives in appearances, but the philosopher understands the reality which the appearance imitates. Only the philosopher can understand reality, thus only a philosopher can know what wisdom, courage, temperance and justice actually are. Therefore, only a philosopher could rightfully be king.

In Book VI, Socrates expands on the claim. A philosopher loves the Four Virtues and hates untruth. Earlier it was asserted that the ideal city depended on editing and censoring truth in order to inspire unquestioned loyalty towards the collective, yet the philosopher eschews lying and loves the truth. How, then, can the philosopher rule in the ideal city? One of Socrates’ hearers questions him, saying the philosophers he personally knows are useless to the city; even worse, some are corrupting men. Socrates responds that the philosopher is rejected by the city because the city doesn’t value what the philosopher has: truth and wisdom. The rulers of the status quo, who thrive on demagoguery and rhetoric over truth and reason, are naturally opposed to the philosopher. This state of affairs even corrupts some philosophers which, essentially, is a repudiation of philosophy itself.

In the Analogy of the Sun, building on the Theory of Forms (the appearance and the reality), Socrates says that in order to see, one must have light. Light (an appearance) generates from the sun (the reality). Thus the appearance of truth and goodness in our world points to an ultimate Truth, an ultimate Good. In the Analogy of the Divided Line, Socrates further expands the theory by saying that there are two levels of belief and two levels of knowledge, in ascending order: first belief from imagination, then belief from sight, then knowledge from thinking, and at the highest level is knowledge of the Forms of reality itself. Thus, the things we comprehend in our world point to ultimate Forms of Truth, Goodness and Beauty which lie beyond as ultimate reality, and seeking out these Forms is what occupies the philosopher. The hearers respond that philosophers are of no actual use to the city because they spend all their time contemplating and not actually doing anything productive. Socrates asserts that the philosopher, captivated by ultimate reality and contemplation of the True, Good and Beautiful, is the only one who really understands the world and is thus the only one who has the wisdom to rule the ideal city.

In Book VII, Socrates, building on his previous two Analogies, explains the famous Allegory of the Cave. Imagine a cave where prisoners have lived their entire lives in chains, such that all they can see is a wall. There is a fire nearby, and people walking around them, but those in chains cannot see them; they only see the shadows cast on the wall. They believe these shadows are reality; it’s all they know, and all they’ve ever known. If such a person is freed from his chains, he will be horrified, scared to even turn his head. Gazing upon the fire and other people for the first time, he will see a whole new concept of reality and, in fear, seek to return to his old chains. If he is then forced out of the cave and into the light of the sun itself, his eyes will burn with immense pain, yet in time his concept of the world will again radically shift as he will see things in full illumination. Beyond that, the philosopher will transcend and ask, what is beyond the sun? What is the Form to which the sun points? What is the True, the Good, and the Beautiful?

Real education, then, is the process of breaking chains and bringing people into the light, even though it will be painful and they will fight you along the way (a profound lesson for us to remember). Socrates suggests that those brought out of the cave must then descend back into the darkness to free others: an idea which raises great objection from his hearers. If the philosopher is made to descend back into the cave, he is made to be unhappy. If a philosopher is the only one fit to be king, and yet a philosopher is so preoccupied with ultimate reality that he has no interest in actually ruling the city, then the only kind of person actually fit to rule is one who has no desire to do so!

What’s more, if a philosopher is forced to be king against his will, then his rights are violated, and injustice is done against him. The only way to have perfect city is to have a perfect ruler, but the only way to have a perfect ruler is to commit injustice against him by making him rule when he doesn’t want to. Therefore, you cannot actually have a perfect city. Here we see the core political lesson of the Republic: humans are incapable of creating a perfect and just city. The city of man inherently consists of injustice. Something is broken in the world, and man cannot achieve utopia.

The rest of Book VII contains additional discussion on the education of future philosophers. In Book VIII, Socrates discusses the forms of government which actually exist in practice. First is the timocracy, where honor is paramount (the contemporary example was Sparta). As the timocratic man ages. for one reason or another he loses the honor he held as a younger man. His descendants don’t care much for honor themselves, but seeing how their ancestor lost the honor he dearly prized, they become greedy and are thus driven by love of money and luxury, turning the city to its second phase: oligarchy. The oligarchs will fear losing their wealth, and their greed will cause resentment from the poor amongst them, leading to the overthrow of the oligarchy and the installation of a democracy. Politics in a democracy becomes superficial and mob-based, and the democratic man is so preoccupied with his unrestricted freedom in all things that he has little regard for order. From such a state of chaos, the fourth phase of government arises: tyranny. While he is dreaded and powerful, the tyrant is constantly in fear of losing his power and trusts no one. Cut off from real community and with all potentially against him, the tyrant is thus the least free of all men. Book VIII explains how every form of government has sown within itself the seeds of its own failure and destruction.

In Book IX, Socrates returns to his much earlier point: the just man is the happier man. Tyrants are actually the most unhappy people. Book IX ends with a description of a just man, a true philosopher. Challenged with the claim that such a man would not care for the things of his actual city at all, Socrates responds that a philosopher would indeed be consumed with the affairs of the perfect city, even if it exists only inside himself, or only in the heavens:

“You mean he will [mind the things of] the city whose foundation we have now gone through, the one that has its place in speeches, since I don’t suppose it exists anywhere on earth.”
“But in heaven,” I said, “perhaps, 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. It doesn’t make any difference whether it is or will be somewhere. For he would mind the things of this city alone, and of no other.” (Lines 592a – 592b)

Such a man isn’t driven by power, wealth, honor, or even external/bodily freedom; he is controlled by reason and is content to spend his life contemplating the True, the Good, and the Beautiful which comprise ultimate reality. He is therefore the only type of person who is really free.

Book X consists in Socrates revisiting the quarrel between poets and philosophers: a backdrop to the actual struggle which the real Socrates and Plato faced in their time. The dialogue then turns to the afterlife, in which Socrates claims that the just man will find his greatest reward not in this world, but the next, and so also the unjust man his punishment; this is illustrated through a story known as the Myth of Er. The Republic closes out with an exhortation by Socrates to live a just life.

Some of the church fathers repudiated Greek philosophy; “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” asked Tertullian. Others, such as Justin Martyr and Augustine, embraced it as one of the very things that led them to Christ. Pre-Socratic philosophy centered on seeking the Arche: the foundational principles of existence. Socratic philosophy centered on the Logos (Word), the Forms which comprise ultimate reality. Justin said that the perpetuation of this philosophy prepared the Gentile world to receive the gospel. The opening lines of the Gospel of John view Christ through this lens: Christ is the Logos (Word), the ultimate reality which the Socratic philosophers sought. From the beginning Christ was with God and was God. Christ is the sum and substance of all existence. No mere man can fulfill Socrates’ criteria for a rightful ruler; only the man from Heaven, the true philosopher-king, who combines perfect wisdom and perfect strength. Only Christ is fit to rule the city.

There’s so much wisdom and insight in the Republic that this essay has only touched on a few keys parts of it. Hopefully those who read it under the tutelage of some socialist professor will perhaps go back and read it with new perspective, and those who have never read it will be motivated to do so. But as for this brief study, considered in light of the New Testament, what can we conclude?

1. Plato shows us that only those who spend their lives contemplating ultimate reality could possibly have the wisdom to rule, but such a man, if he rightly understands the significance of what he’s contemplating, would then have no desire to rule. To force him to rule against his will would be unjust and therefore nullify the just city. According to Plato, something in our world is fundamentally broken, and it is therefore impossible for man to create a political utopia.

2. Those enslaved to love of power, money, honor, or even external/bodily freedom are not actually free. Tyrants are the least free, most unhappy of all people. The world’s methods would have us hate tyrants and seek their destruction, but this is not the way of Christ, whose law commands us to overcome evil with good (Romans 12:17-21). In opposing tyranny in Christ-like ways, we are loving our enemies (cf. Matthew 5:43-47), and calling them to repent and find freedom in Christ.

3. Though the Republic starts with a discussion of justice, it ultimately leaves the term essentially undefined and without satisfactory resolution. In Christian theology, we understand that men are sinners, and that our sin has ruined the world. In Romans, Paul resolves the Republic‘s great paradox by expositing the justice of God. Justice is God’s perfect righteousness and balance in full conformity to his being, and Paul tells us how God has opened the way to establish the perfect and just city amidst our brokenness. In Christ, God is vindicated as both just and the justifier of the ungodly (Romans 3:21-26). In Christ, we have become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21).

4. The just man, who is made perfectly just by Christ, is also the happiest of men. He is free, regardless of any external circumstance. Indeed, only such a man, set free from the most vile tyrannies of sin, Satan and death, can be said to be truly free at all (John 8:34-36 ; cf. Colossians 2:13-15 ; cf. 1 John 3:8)

5. Like Socrates hoped for, there is indeed an ideal city whose plans are laid in Heaven (Hebrews 11:8-16). That perfect city is the Church, the New Jerusalem, which actually is one community, one family, one Body, with all things in common, married to and under the lordship of our Bridegroom, Jesus Christ (Romans 12:3-8 ; 1 Corinthians 12:12-27 ; cf. Ephesians 5:22-32).

6. Christ is the one true philosopher-king, perfect in power and wisdom, who from eternity gazed upon the face of the Father: the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. Out of love he descended into the darkness of the cave, the mire of sinful humanity, in order to set the captives free, lead us out of the cave, show us the sun (cf. John 3:19-21), and take us beyond the sun to ultimate reality: to know God (John 17:1-3). In Christ, we are raised from the darkness, glorified, and brought into the eternal, loving fellowship of the Father (Romans 8:31-39 ; Ephesians 1:3-14).


* Direct quotes from the Republic are taken from the Allan Bloom translation, Basic Books, 2nd edition

** After the writing of this article, the author noticed that there have been two recent pieces from The Foundation for Economic Education discussing the same issue (making for interesting timing). For Richard Ebeling’s interpretation of Plato as a statist, see here. For Aeon Skoble’s interpretation of Plato as moderate, see here.

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