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The Background to ‘The Republic’ Essay Sample

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The Background to ‘The Republic’ Essay Sample

Plato will be remembered as one of the great Western philosophers. The Republic, written between 374 and 370 BC remains his best known work. In the words of Julia Annes the Republic is described as giving us ‘systematic answers to a whole range of questions about morality, politics, knowledge and metaphysics (the study of reality. )’ During the course of this essay I will attempt to describe the moral, social and political background of fifth century Athens and explain why Plato wrote the Republic, what he was trying to achieve and what his main aims were.

It is very important to consider that the goings on in Athens in the time of Plato would have had a significant bearing on the ideas contained within the Republic. It is also imperative that we understand why Plato chose to write the Republic, i. e. what were his motives? Who were his ideas in response to or in opposition of? Prior to the birth of Plato in 427BC, Sparta and Athens were the two most important Greek states in fifth century Athens. The pinnacle of Greece’s power was reached at the defeat of the Persians in 490BC.

But by the mid-fifth century, Athens and Sparta were locked in the Peloponnesian War and eventually the downfall of Athens arrived in 404BC. The political state of Athens at this time will be explained in more detail later on. We are told that a number of Plato’s relatives held important political connections in Athens. For example his stepfather was linked with Pericles, a great Athenian politician and later on after the collapse of Athens in 404 BC, Plato’s cousin and uncle were part of the thirty oligarchs that imposed a dictatorship and a long reign of terror in fifth century Athens.

The reasons for the writing of the Republic can be partly put down to his disillusionment with politics in the fifth century. However, first of all we need to consider the background of Athens at this time. In the time of Plato, Athens was a democracy of direct and universal kind. In other words nobody was allowed to stand for election in the same way in which candidates are elected to represent people in local areas today. Instead all male citizens could directly play a part in decision making. The exceptions to this rule were women and slaves.

Under no circumstances were theses sections of society permitted to play a part in the running of the state. Nevertheless the Athenian political system was deemed to be more successful than the Spartan system. The Spartans were a military aristocracy living amongst a group of ‘helots’ (peasant serfs) who could be called upon to serve as troops. They generally had no rights or privileges. Each citizen was considered to be a soldier and every aspect of their life was strictly regulated. The aim of the Spartan system was essentially to maintain military efficiency.

Nevertheless politics in Athens was key if one wished to move up the ranks in society. Skills such as public speaking and debating were essential. These lessons were taught by the ‘Sophists’ who can be best summed up by a collection of teachers who were perceived as a group of people that helped those in Athens to get on in life. The Sophists date back to the early fifth century when a shift in the priorities of Athenians began to take place. At this time Philosophers were turned away from the idea of speculating about the physical world to study more closely man and his relationships with others in society.

People also became much more interested in culture and art and how the benefits of knowledge contributed to the running of society. As a result philosophers were now ‘in demand’ for the teaching of these issues. Subsequently the Sophists began to appear. The most famous Sophist in the fifth century was Protagoras (490- 420BC). Protagoras was a man of integrity and famously remarked that ‘man is the measure of all things’ meaning that an individual’s sense-experience is true for him. For example if an object feels hot to one man then it is hot whereas if it feels cold to another then it is cold.

He believed that the need for a law was innate to all men (it is a tendency we are born with). Protagoras was also a firm believer that one could only gain success in life by conforming to these laws set by the state. However not all Sophists took the same approach as Protagoras. The majority believed that the search for the truth should be undermined by the making of money and winning of arguments. In the eyes of another philosopher Isocrates, the Sophists were trivial and pretentious and did nothing more than succeed in the art of public speaking. Overall the Sophists regarded matters of moral importance teachable for a fee.

They dismissed ideas of right and wrong to be a product of ones upbringing and became sceptical about questions of moral values. They preferred to concern themselves with getting on in the world and did not pursuit the ‘good life. ‘ One Sophist, Thrasymachus claimed that a life of injustice was more valuable than a life of justice. His main argument was that those who are intelligent will not pay any attention to moral values if they can get away with ignoring them. He believed that justice is not useful in getting on in the world as it only benefits others.

He backs this up by arguing that surely no-one in their right mind would go against their own interests. In sum, the words of Aristotle are most apt in describing the Sophist, ‘one who makes money from sham wisdom. ‘ The idea of Thrasymachus and his questions of morality also to some extent coincides with the general feeling amongst Athenians in the fifth century. At the time Athens was feeling very strongly the tension between a life built on traditional values and the acceptance of them and an intellectual questioning of those values resulting from a situation where Athenians had taken a more cosmopolitan role.

Exposure to other ways of life had ultimately left people in Athens feeling detached from the values of their own culture. Instead, a popular culture of relativism became prominent. More attention was also paid to the roles in human life of ‘nomos’ and ‘phusis’ ` (convention and nature). ‘ Suddenly many traditional values were thought to be conventional and not natural i. e. if it were not for the fallibility of humans, for example governments, then Athenian traditional values may have been ordered differently.

As a result the intellectuals of the time began to question the way that their social lives were ordered. They did not want to accept the values of their predecessors and so social and moral continuity began to weaken. This final statement once again brings us back to the emergence of the Sophists. I will now study in closer detail, the political system in fifth century Athens. As I have already mentioned, the system of a direct democracy existed at this time. We also already know that it was not a democracy in the sense that the people have the power to elect political parties.

Instead all citizens had the right to hold public office, no matter ho suitable they were for the job. However, in many cases this direct democracy can lead to major problems as eventually a lack of respect for authority and law arises and this can lead to an outbreak of anarchy. Overall, the democratic man in Athens was one who though himself to be free but is still at the mercy of his impulses to go against authority and law. Nevertheless the system of direct democracy survived until after Athens defeat in the Peloponnesian War.

The fall of perhaps Greece’s most powerful city dates back to 431BC and the start of the Peloponnesian War, one of many tussles between Athens and Sparta. However, on this occasion the war ended in defeat and humiliation for Athens. It also signalled the break up of the Athens confederation, held by the state since the Persian wars. In fact the Athens confederation was more like an empire which had been built up by Pericles. It was the death of Pericles in 429BC that marked the start of a downturn in the rule of Athens as more radical democrats came to power.

Whereas Pericles had, according to Thucydides, ruled Athens by never sacrificing his independence and too often making policies that he thought would satisfy the people rather than those policies which the situation demanded. On the other hand, the new ‘imperialist’ type rulers came to power recognising the need for force in order to run a successful state. In other words they were ready to act on the ideas put forward by Thrasymachus. It was under these new rulers that Athens eventually lost the Peloponnesian War.

After the first stage ended in stalemate in 421BC, Athens began an expedition of Sicily as part of their policy of expansion. Unfortunately the expedition had failed by 412BC and Athens had lost large amounts of men, money and ships. The failure of the expedition of Sicily could be viewed as important as it was another step towards the fall of Athens. Alternatively it could be considered vital because it increased opposition to democrats and gave the oligarch’s their chance. In 411BC the changeover of leadership to the oligarch’s began.

An oligarchy results in the accumulation of wealth into the hands of a small group. The power of these people is derived entirely from money so in sum the oligarchic man would devote all of his time to making money. Power was handed over to the ‘Council of Four Hundred’ who were succeeded by the ‘Government of Five Thousand’ one year later. This government attempted to restrict the power to the more responsible. However, they soon conceded that Athens depended heavily on the poor for sea power and could not take way their rights. As a result the Government of Five Thousand lasted only a year too.

Little did the people of Athens know that six years of terror were about to begin. After the final collapse of Athens in 404BC, a commission of thirty was set up. The aim of the commission was to construct a new constitution. Instead they used there power wrongly to settle old scores. Eight months of tyranny ensued. A tyranny can be summed up as being the descent from oligarchy into democracy where the democratic system distributes money to the poorer people. In a bid to defend themselves, the rich are accused of plotting against the poor.

Subsequently the ordinary citizens look for a popular leader. This leader starts out as a democrat but he eventually gets his grip on control, becoming a ‘megalomaniac. ‘ Fortunately for the people of Athens, the commission was driven out and killed. Democracy was restored, a democracy of sense and moderation. Although a good understanding of the background is key, we must consider why Plato wrote the Republic, what were his main aims and what was he trying to achieve? Some would argue that Plato’s main aim to startle and shock his reader.

Plato is concerned about a number of issues and feels very passionately about them. He wants to shock us into awareness of these issues and their shocking consequences rather than to keep conversation at a harmless level. As a result it is very difficult for one to be neutral about the Republic, we either agree with Plato and respond to his ideas or we do not like what he is telling us and defend our own personal view. Overall Plato wants us to philosophise and believes that thinking things through and questioning what we are told will eventually make us better philosophers.

The Republic is deliberately provocative- Plato would be disturbed if it wasn’t this way. Another reason that Plato wrote the Republic is related to Socrates. Socrates was born in 469 BC and was an old contempory of Plato’s whom he met in 407. He is the main speaker in Plato’s dialogues and his function is to question people and deflate their pretensions about knowledge.

He does this by goading people into realising the confused and bareless nature of their beliefs. Socrates is summed up his own assessment of himself, ‘I am ignorant in everything except my own ignorance. Other characters in Plato’s Republic often complained at how Socrates destroyed their arguments in dialogues, leaving them speechless and wondering what to do next. However, Plato later replaced Socrates as a positive and almost dogmatic character and never wavered in his belief that Socrates’ ideas were right- that it is better for a man to spend his time discussing abstract questions of right and wrong than to participate in the social and political life of his city. It was perhaps down to Socrates that Plato took up philosophy as a full-time occupation.

Nevertheless, Socrates was still widely disliked in fifth century Athens and in 399 BC was executed wrongly on the charge of ‘corrupting young mind. ‘ Up to his death, Plato still maintained that this decision was unjust and it could be argued that he based his hatred of democracy on the death of his friend. Plato also wrote the Republic in response to Thrasymachus and the Sophists. As mentioned earlier on, the sophists were a group of teachers who supposedly helped fifth century Athenians to get on in life.

As already explained, the grounds on which they based this teaching were very dubious. One of Plato’s aims by writing the Republic was to refute their moral sceptics. He was very concerned by the fragmentation of moral consensus and the erosion of confidence in similar moral values. In opposition to the Sophists and Thrasymachus, Plato wanted to prove that there were moral objective truths in life. However he was not simply writing in response to these groups of people but in fact is in response also to the way that the wealthy lead their lives.

For example one dialogue is set in the home of a wealthy family and even thought Socrates devastatingly questions their moral values, the family fail to become at all sceptical about their values of justice. He wrote the Republic partly to address the re-establishment of moral values. In fact you could even have mistaken Plato for a conservative for the views he maintains. After all he did believe that all the wrong existing in society was a result of scepticism produced by Thrasymachus etc.

He would also be thought of as a man who attempted to re-order society so that people are unable and as a result unwilling to question moral judgements. But it is clear when we think more carefully that Plato could not have been a conservative. If we think back to his ideas on the ‘good life’ many of his ideas are radical, for example the sharing of sexual partners and a rule by experts. Overall he is trying to state that there are objective moral truths in life but at the same time he is trying to change our views as to what these moral truths are.

Nevertheless it still seems a little rather ironic that the point of view of Thrasymachus (expressed through Glaucon and Adeimantus in the Republic) is opposed by none other as Socrates, the same Socrates who challenges freedom speech. But again we come back to the same point about Plato. Of course he does not want us to think at all about these morals, but instead to think a little deeper. This is most probably the reason for using such a controversial mouthpiece in the form of Socrates.

Linked into the idea of Thrasymachus and the Sophists is that Plato is in part writing the Republic to find out what justice is. The only reasonable translation of ‘justice’ into Greek is dikaisuni??. As a result of this rough translation we are not sure whether the Republic is trying to give us a theory of justice. Socrates claims that justice can however cover a wider area of ‘the right way to live. ‘ So in truth it is likely that the Republic responds more to morality than justice. Plato describes justice as a virtue rather than a notion of equality.

Does this therefore mean that he has no other words in order to describe ‘rights? ‘ So it is perhaps the case that the Republic is more likely to be talking about what we mean today by the word ‘rights’. We already know that Plato was opposed to democracy in Athenian society. In stead he believed that the philosophers should rule. So another point of note that Plato is trying to convey is that of ‘The Philosopher Ruler. ‘ In the Republic, Plato tells us that the Philosopher ruler represents the highest talent, should be given the highest training and is to be put at the disposal of the state.

He believes that they are dedicated to ruling in the interests of all. Plato explained that he would train his prospective rulers in the abstract arts e. g. maths, science and literature. In opposition some argued that a more practical experience would be more useful for these men in order to provide better rulers. There was also an objection that a small amount of experts does not make a successful government. According to Plato, men would be chosen for leadership by their merits, no longer by democratic election.

Plato was a strong believer that in no society are all men of equal abilities. Therefore in order to run a successful society it is a case of putting the best talents available to use and using them profitably. In other words Plato wanted an aristocracy of talent, a modern day example of which is ‘Managerial Meritocracy’ where people are judged on qualifications and their competence for the job. However another objection to Plato’s theory is that the idea of a philosopher ruler encourages us to look for a degree of knowledge that is not there.

Of course human knowledge is limited and a philosopher ruler is yet still expected to have the greatest degree of knowledge. Apart from the obvious problems of the limitations of knowledge, a moral problem lies here. Power is a corrupting influence which few can resist. So is it not better to limit power rather than to look for the perfect ruler. The argument against Plato’s idea is not that it trusts the common man too little, but that it trusts the philosopher too much. The other main reason for Plato’s work on the Republic is perhaps to underline his ideas of the class system and education.

Plato believed that three classes should exist in society: the rulers, the Auxiliaries and the third class. He thought that rulers should be at the top of the tree as it were; they should govern society and make all the decisions that take the form of a government. Next, he said should come the Auxiliaries. As the name suggests, the Auxiliaries would act as a back-up or support to the philosopher rulers. Their main job would have been to execute the orders of the rulers and carry out the function a modern-day police force. Finally came the third class.

They would be made up of the majority of the population (farmers, manufacturers, traders etc. ) and would be required to provide material and the economic needs of society. Overall Plato believed that everyone should be educated equally until the age of sixteen when the students would be split into castes, some eventually going on to be philosopher rulers. In fact Plato’s academy was the first of its kind. However despite this breaking up of society, Plato still believed that people should still have the chance to gain promotion or demotion up or down the ladder of society

Having considered all the reasons and aims for Plato to write the Republic I believe that one reason stands out against the others. The concept of the philosopher ruler is in my view the most important aim of Plato. It seems to sum up most if not all of Plato’s main ideas contained within the Republic. Firstly the idea that philosophers are the pinnacle of society is pointed out whilst at the same time Plato is raising very interesting questions about justice and morality, two problems that he is anxious for us to be jolted into awareness of.

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