Plato's Republic as Moral Poetry
One of the greatest ironies of Plato's Republic is that, although he condemns the poets and exiles them from his idyllic city, the Republic is perhaps one of the greatest literary works of all time, and a poem in its own right. Although written in prose, it is riddled with intricate symbolism and poetic elements. What sets it apart from the works of poets like Homer is that Plato makes every possible effort to educate his readers in a positive way, rather than presenting them with the dangerous sort of education he finds other poets guilty of. This is clear from many of the arguments presented throughout the dialogue, but is also evident in its poetic aspects. In particular, this positive poetry is seen in two of the myths presented in the Republic, those of the Ring of Gyges and the journey of Er, as well as through the allegory of the cave and the moral growth of the characters present during the discussion.
At the very start of the second book of the Republic, Glaucon presents a challenge to the just life based on the example set by an ancient king of Lydia. This myth seems to show that a just and unjust man would behave the same given the same unlimited power, but in fact it is a parable about bad education. Plato makes it very clear through the images seen in the myth that Gyges and Glaucon are both struggling with misunderstandings which stem from poets like Homer. It also establishes these images as ones readers should take notice of later on in the dialogue, and many of these images require us to look forward to future symbols and arguments.
The bulk of these images appear right at the start of the tale. In the myth, Gyges begins as a shepherd, but as he tends his flocks "an earthquake made an opening in the earth" (Republic II 359d). Thus, the myth begins with an act of destruction which, at the very least, turns potentially nourishing pastures into a barren and rocky cave. This calls to mind not only the degradation of cities and men described in Books VIII and IX, but more importantly should remind us of the Allegory of the Cave. Instead of the upwards ascent taken by the released prisoner, Gyges makes a descent into this new cave. The images of rising towards virtue or knowledge and falling away from them are everywhere in the Republic and abundant in Plato's writings overall.
Take, for example, the rise and fall of souls when they are described as winged chariots in the Phaedrus. Gyges' descent reverses the rise out of the cave of ignorance, and he instead goes down into the realm of shadows. There, "he beheld a hollow brazen horse," which contains the "more than human" corpse on which he finds the ring (II 359d). The image of a hollow horse would immediately remind Plato's contemporaries of the Trojan Horse, and is a direct reference to the works of Homer.
Furthermore, the status of the dead body as somewhat superhuman would remind ancient readers of the mythical age of heroes in which Homers epics are set, in which men were depicted as far larger and stronger than they are now. So, in the myth of the Ring of Gyges, we see a man descending away from the light of truth and into a realm dominated by images of Homer and tools of raw power. Reascending from such a place, Gyges has been corrupted, and his actions are bound to tend towards injustice. Everything about this story implies negative education and the corruption caused by mistaking the goods lauded by the poets for the true Good.
This interpretation of the myth of Gyges cannot be fully realized without reference to the famous allegory of the cave, which is perhaps the most important poetic moment in the entirety of Plato's works. It functions as a description of the difference between the world of Forms and that of images, and solidifies Plato's conception of metaphysics in the readers mind. He depicts a society which lives in the depths of a cave, physically chained such that they can only see shadows cast on the wall in front of them, and hear the echoes of the people who create those shadows.
Their entire understanding revolves around these shadows, and they know nothing outside of this illusory existence. When one is dragged out of his prison and into the light of the sun, against his will because "he will suffer sharp pains[, and] the glare will distress him," he will eventually begin to understand that his knowledge of shadows and echoes inside the cave was not knowledge of the truth at all (VII 515c). His whole life had been spent under the yoke of bad education, and his ascent marks the beginning of good and true learning. While this allegory clearly establishes the symbols of ascent and descent as first seen in the myth of Gyges, it has remained open for numerous different interpretations. Socrates tells Glaucon quite explicitly that, "the prison house is the world of sight, the light of the fire is the sun, and you will not misapprehend me if you interpret the journey upward to be the ascent of the soul into the intellectual world" (VII 517b).
However, there are still many different ways to examine the characters of the tale. For example, who are those who carry objects in front of the fire in order to cast shadows? They seem to have some greater access to knowledge than those chained, and can be interpreted as numerous different sections of society. They could be the poets like Homer, who use their art to enrapture readers with mere shadows of truth; they could be the masses, who project their desires onto the wall for the examination of the aspiring politicians whom are chained; or they could even be the rulers of cities keeping their citizens distracted with the false shadows.
The best part of this allegory is that if functions more like a passage from a work like the Bible or Dante's Divine Comedy, perhaps the two most closely examined literary works of all time. The allegory of the cave is much more like poetry than philosophy, because it purposefully does not define its terms and rather leaves them open to exploration and various interpretations. It solidifies the meanings of the most important symbols seen in the dialogue and presents the reader with an engaging and puzzling image which will linger in the memory even if the rest of the dialogue is forgotten. It is one of the most powerful moments in the Republic, and it strength comes in part from its poetic structure and purpose.
Returning to the second of the two myths this paper will discuss, it is interesting to note that the myth of Gyges begins the argument that takes up most of the Republic, but the myth of Er concludes it. This myth of Er is much longer and more intricate, and its intent is not to establish the foundation of an argument which will attack justice, which is why Glaucon tells the first myth, but rather to wrap up an argument which defends justice and to extol the benefits of leading a just life. Therefore, it depicts direct benefits to a good education and shows the terrible consequences of a bad one. Whether or not Plato believes this to be a true account of the afterlife or these benefits to be real is irrelevant here, because the real purpose of all such myths is to portray the truth through easily recognizable images, and Plato does just that.
After spending ten days as a dead man, Er suddenly revives just before his body is about to be burned. He recounts much from his experiences in the afterlife, but one important scene stands out; when he witnesses the spirits choosing their next lives. This scene shows with striking clarity that leading a good life provides a positive outcome for the soul. When he reaches this critical moment in the myth, Socrates pauses in order to give a concrete affirmation that this myth, and really the whole Republic, is about the importance of a good education.
From 618c to 619b, Socrates states that the most important thing for a man to do in life is to become, "able to learn and discern between good and evil, and so to choose always and everywhere the better life as he has opportunity" (X 618c) This passage leaves the mythic form temporarily and returns to the argument, but it is reinforced and highlighted by the actions of souls who lack such an education. The first soul to choose a new life acts rashly, and selects the life of a tyrant, "his mind having been darkened by folly and sensuality" (X 619b). For although he had come from a thousand years in heaven, "his virtue was a matter of habit only, and he had no philosophy" (X 619d).
Furthermore, Plato shows the choices of many of the Homeric heroes, who by definition must have been victims of a poor education, and usually choose beasts rather than humans. Telamonian Ajax, for example, becomes a lion, and Agamemnon an eagle, because both resented the suffering they endured as men. Thersites, the great Homeric buffoon, becomes a monkey. Odysseus is the only major Homeric hero who chooses a human life, but one of privacy and solitude, considering these to be the Good. None choose for the right reasons because none know them, and the reader can clearly see that if the heroes of the epic poems are not prepared to lead the just life, then Homer's writings must not provide an adequate education.
In contrast to the miseducation of the poets, Plato expresses the positive effect of the Republic by showing the improvement of the characters in the dialogue. In Books VIII and IX he describes the five main types of state and their corresponding types of soul. Similarly, there are five people participating in or listening to the conversation for most of the dialogue, and at the start of the book, each one relates to a different type of soul. Socrates exemplifies the philosopher and the ideal state, and as such is the source of the good education the others receive. Glaucon, who is often referred to as "always the most courageous of men," represents a timocratic soul (II 357a).
When describing such a soul, his brother notes that he shares the timocratic "spirit of contention" (VIII 548e). Glaucon speaks bravely and often, and makes his initial argument against justice because he has an eye for the honor and praise one like Gyges could potentially win through injustice. Adeimantus, on the other hand, backs up his brother by arguing that, "if I am really just, [...] profit there is none. [...] But if, though unjust, I acquire the reputation of justice, a heavenly life is promised me" (II 365b). He is, therefore, the oligarchic man. Beneath Adeimantus is Polemarchus, who, as we can clearly see in his first conversation with Socrates, has a democratic soul. He continually references the fact that he has a great many people with him to enforce his will over Socrates, and when asked if he could be convinced to let Socrates go, replies, "But can you persuade us, if we refuse to listen to you?" (I 327e).
Last and least is Thracymachus, who blatantly supports his tyrannical soul, and through much of the first book argues in favor of tyranny. Thus we see in the first few books that each of these five men correlates to one of the five types of soul. However, the beauty of these correlations is not clear until the start of Book V, right as Socrates planned to define the four lesser forms of government, when the reader can discern a notable change in all but Socrates himself. It starts with Polemarchus, who begins whispering to Adeimantus in order to bring up an objection. This is not the behavior of a democratic man, who would propose that the matter be public or even voted upon, but much more like the behavior of Adeimantus earlier, who often discussed matters with Glaucon and let his brave brother speak out first. Similarly, Adeimantus steps up and does the speaking for Polemarchus, taking on the role Glaucon used to play.
When they convince Socrates to consider their objection, we even see Thracymachus acting out of character, and stating that "you may consider us all to be equally agreed," the words of a democratic man like Polemarchus. Each has moved up a rank by this point: Thracymachus has become democratic, Polemarchus oligarchic, and Adeimantus timocratic. Glaucon, as the primary interlocutor for most of the dialogue, is quickly becoming a philosopher like Socrates. This is the subtle yet remarkable evidence of the positive education the Republic can bring. It demonstrates the benefits it has which other poetry lacks by showing the growth of the characters who participate in it.
As a literary examination of the Republic rather than a strictly philosophical one, the position this paper expresses is less vulnerable to direct criticisms and subject to less dangerous flaws. Perhaps the most obvious and direct argument that could be made against the idea that the Republic is an example of poetry is the harsh treatment of poetry throughout the dialogue. At the start of the final book, Socrates states quite happily that, "of the many excellences which I perceive in the order of our State, there is none which upon reflection pleases me better than the rule about poetry" (X 595a). Here near the conclusion of the argument, the exile of the "imitative tribe" of poets has been reinforced by the full conception of Plato's metaphysics (X 595b).
If all objects are imitations or reflections of the forms, and poetry is an imitation of physical objects, then such poems are the mere reflections of reflections, twice removed from reality. Socrates goes further and calls them "thrice removed," as they often do not even attempt to depict reality but rather just its appearance" (X 597e). Even the myths and allegories given in the Republic suffer from this fundamental flaw under Plato's view. He states quite clearly, "that all poetical imitations are ruinous to the understanding of the hearers, and that the knowledge of their true nature is the only antidote to them" (X 595b).
However, in a direct response to himself, Socrates also admits that poetry will not be irrevocably exiled. He personifies Lady Poetry, and says, "that she may not impute to us any harshness or want of politeness, [...] let us assure [her] that if she will only prove her title to exist in a well ordered State we shall be delighted to receive her" (X 607b-c). So long as poetry can be proven beneficial, such poets and their work will be allowed back in all censure removed. That is because the condemnation of poetry stems primarily from its role as a bad educator, and from claiming that it lies closer to the truth that it really is. Since this is the case, it becomes obvious that the Republic is exactly the type of beneficial and truthful type of work which would redeem the art of poetry. Though written in prose, which Socrates takes care to permit in defense of poetry, the Republic's poetic stand out and reinforce its philosophical points, exemplifying truthful poetry.
These are just some of the examples of beneficial poetry seen in Plato's Republic, and indeed the entire dialogue is a literary masterpiece. Plato rejects Homer, and yet at the same time aims to take his place. He establishes Socrates as the new Achilles, the new Odysseus, ready to set an example for others with just as much influence as Homer's heroes but with the exact opposite effect. Gyges descends down to see the horse, but Socrates leads the blind prisoner out of the cave. Like Homer, Plato depicts the afterlife, but in a way that will foster moral improvement and growth. Lastly, the readers of Homer will be led astray, into arguments like those of Thracymachus and Glaucon in the first two books, but those who listen to the poetry of the dialectic will receive a truly good education.
Plato. (2004).The Republic. New York, NY: Barnes & Noble