Years ago I studied Plato’s Republic briefly at university. Unfortunately, the impression I then received was that it was a quaint work, mainly about an odd conception that humans need to be woken from non-philosophic slumber by those enlightened ones who perceive that our reality is not true reality. But now that I’ve read it again, and listened to it, and thought about it, and read more of Plato, I feel like I was robbed: by making Plato out to be quaint and exotic, he was stripped of his amazing power to question and provoke.
I now think that the driving idea of the Republic is:
The just life, or the just state, is one that flees from tyranny, by pursuing a harmonious order in which preference is given to knowledge and wisdom.
But part of Plato’s genius is that he doesn’t present it as an easy proposition like this; he goads and prompts and provokes the hearer to come to this sort of conclusion, kicking and screaming: he assumes that the hearer will think that the best life is one in which a person is free to enjoy whatever they want, and the best state is one in which people are free to do what they want. But he shows that without virtue and proper order, such a life, or such a state, is just one step away from tyranny.
So how would I have improved the way Plato’s Republic was taught to me? If I were teaching it, I would have begun by cheekily commending aristocracy as the best form of government – goading people into a defence of democracy, before launching into Plato’s chilling portrayal of democracy’s hopeless descent into tyranny.
This is so often the thing with ancient texts: if we think of them as “quaint,” we may content ourselves too easily with a superficial reading, but if we are willing to let them provoke us, we may find that they have great power to question our own assumptions.