Analytic Essay of Plato's “Republic”, Books 5-7: Why a good city needs philosophers as rulers
In his work “Republic”, the ancient Athenian philosopher Plato, scholar of the famous Socrates, develops his view of what a 'good' city and a 'good' individual should look like. Beginning with the question “What is justice?” in the books 1-4, he soon turns to the question about how a good city is organized and – related to that – by whom it should be ruled. Plato's main messages of the books 57 are that (1) there is a fundamental difference between what we see (appearance) and what things are (reality), as well as that (2) there cannot be knowledge about appearances, but only about reality. Furthermore, Plato claims that normal people can not know the reality. Only true and genuine philosophers could truly know what is real. Therefore they should be the rulers of the ideal city (Kallipolis).
As these messages may read a little awkwardly, this essay tries to reproduce Plato's argumentation from (1) over (2) to his final conclusion by essentially asking two questions: (A) Why is there a difference between appearance and reality? What does Plato mean by that? And (B) Why do ordinary people – those concerned with appearances – have beliefs or opinions, but no true knowledge? The obvious answer for the latter question would be that appearances cannot be known because Plato assigned the “power of knowledge” (Plato, Republic, 477b) to the reality (which is different from appearance → (1)). Thus, people who are concerned exclusively with appearances are not capable of knowing. Only realities can be known. But why is that so?
The material that is object to this inquiry includes Plato's discussion of true Philosophy (473d503d), the analogy of the divided line (509c-511e) and the allegory of the cave (514a-521b). They all answer question (A) and (B), but we will focus on Plato's discussion of true Philosophy for (A) and on the other two for (B).
Concerning (A): From Plato's ideal city (Kallipolis) to his claim that rulers should be philosophers (and vice versa). In the beginning of book 5, Plato wonders how to achieve a good city in practice and states three points: He claims that women should be equal to men, that the rulers should love their city above all and that philosophers should be rulers or rulers should be philosophers. The first two statements refer to the books 1-4 and are for this essay of minor importance. The third statement however is very controversial. It was – and still is – considered an anti-democratic statement, furthermore, philosophers were considered of no practical use for society. In defending his controversial statement, Plato comes to our first object of interest: the discussion about what true philosophers are. Here, true philosophers are distinguished from “lovers of sights and sounds” (476b), or ordinary people, and they are defined as “lovers of knowledge and wisdom” (476b). According to Plato, philosophers are the only people who are able to find the true and objective answer to the question “what is a good life?”. The reason for this would be that philosophers have the means to find out about the truth – and that is where Plato starts with his first part of the message. He state that there is a fundamental difference between 'appearance' and 'reality'.
Answering (A): What is 'appearance', what is 'reality' and why is there a difference between them? First, let us define the terms. Appearance, according to Plato, is what everybody sees and hears (see 479a&e). It is ambiguous and ever changing (479c&e). Plato elaborates this with an example: If a “lover of sights and sounds” sees something beautiful, it appears – at the same time – in another respect also ugly; similarly, something just can also be seen as unjust. Reality, in contrast, is characterized as what is behind the appearances (of beauty, for example), and what is absolute and unchanging (476a&b: the “lovers of sights and sounds” are able to see and hear beautiful things (that are ambiguously ugly at the same time), but only “lovers of wisdom” - or philosophers – are able to “see the nature of the beautiful itself [...]”). Apart form the example of beauty, and apart from who can see the reality and also apart from the assignment of belief to appearance and knowledge to reality (that is discussed later) – we can draw one conclusion here: Appearance is ambiguous, changing and manifold, whereas reality is absolute, unchanging and clearly distinguishable.
So, now Plato gave us the definitions for the terms appearance and reality and an idea of how appearance is organized – namely in chaos. But how is the reality organized? The answer lies in the next big part of Plato's argumentation, the definition of 'forms'. All the different appearances of – let's say beauty – can be abstracted to one common ground, as the designation of various songs as music is also an abstraction. Music, movies, paintings, interesting articles, and every beautiful thing can, following that, be abstracted to a form – here the form of beauty. Plato calls the process of doing so reasoning. Reasoning allows us to abstract what our senses allow us to see, hear, smell, etc. These things are then abstracted and concluded in forms, that can be thought of as containers in which we throw everything that has a common basis. People who think that there are many forms (of beauty, for example) do not – according to Plato – realize that there exists only one form. Plato's explanation uses pure logic: beauty and ugliness, being opposites, are two separate things (because opposites cannot be the same thing) and in being separate things, they are each one thing (476a). So now we defined what appearance and reality are and what the difference between them is. By now, one can probably already guess why there can be no true knowledge of appearances and why those concerned with appearances can have no true knowledge: because appearances are too quickly changing, too ambiguous and too chaotically organized to form lasting knowledge about them. For Plato's explanation, let us nevertheless have a brief look on the analogy of the divided line and elaborating the conclusions of this analogy, the allegory of the cave.
Concerning (B): Why can there be no true knowledge of appearances? Bringing things together. Plato only claims that philosophers should be kings because he says that this would be the right way to achieve the social good. But what is the good? Or in Plato's terms – what is the form of the good?
Plato says that knowledge is the good (505b; we should keep in mind Plato's claim that only true philosophers are capable of knowing!). But why should we then call it good and not simply leave it at knowledge? The reason for that is that the form of the good is object to the desire that “every soul is pursuing [...]” (506a). Hence, it contains many more things than knowledge – Plato simply states that knowledge of the form of the good is “the greatest thing to learn about [...]” (505a). Without knowing the form of the good, knowing every other form is worthless (505a), because individuals can not know if their deepest desires are contained by the form of the good. So, in order to have complete knowledge of the reality, one must know the nature – or the form – of the good.
We have now all bricks together that we need to build the analogy of the divided line: the appearances and the beliefs about their quickly changing, manifold nature, the forms and how they organize what is standing behind our everyday experiences – namely reality – and finally the form of the good and how it gives sense to all other forms and thus to the complete reality.
In the analogy of the divided line, Plato compares the journey through life to a line that is divided into a bigger part that symbolizes the “visible kind” (509d) of things we perceive with our senses, and into a smaller part of the “intelligible kind” (509d) – the realm of things we perceive with our soul (or, more precisely, with reason). Each section is then divided into two parts, in the same way (see figure 1).
What do these sections stand for? As the individual progresses in understanding and in it's struggle for knowledge, the first sub-section stands for ignorance. Here, one can only perceive illusions of the particular things that appear as they are in the second sub-section. It is maybe helpful to consider Plato's example at this point (479c&e): In the first sub-section, we see the illusion of the beautiful thing, in the second sub-section the beautiful thing itself. In these two sub-sections, the individual can only form beliefs and opinions about what he sees, hears, smells, etc. The third subsection – that of natural sciences – uses “as images the things that were imitated before” (510b; Plato refers to the things in sub-section 2) to form Axioms. That is the first step into the intelligible section, but still not knowing. Knowing comes in the last sub-section, when the individual does not use images any more, but reason to abstract the particular things and to form genuine hypotheses. These are then used as a path (or “chain” - 511b) to the “first principle of everything” (511b) – the form of the good. In knowing the form of the good, the individual concludes to all other forms and achieves true knowledge.
This is illustrated one last time in the allegory of the cave (517b; see figure 2). Plato describes a cave (visible section) that is illuminated by a fire. The prisoners in the cave (individuals) are chained in a way that they stare at a wall on which they see the shadows (illusions) of puppets (particular things) that are standing on the next stair behind them, illuminated by the fire. Since they never saw a thing but the shadows, the prisoners think that the shadows are the truth, until one of them manages to escape to the outside world (intelligible section). As soon as his eyes are used to the immense brightness of the sunlight (as soon as he understands the form of the good), he sees trees, lakes, etc. (he knows all the other forms). Now, he is the only one who has true knowledge (he becomes a philosopher) and the only one who can free the prisoners (who can govern them appropriately). This allegory – although it does not add anything to Plato's argument – explains in a very good manner, how Plato imagined a good society. The prisoners help the one, with the sufficient capacity to do so, to escape to the outside world, where he – after a journey of more than 50 years – acquires true knowledge. Then he is forced to go down into the cave (this corresponds with Plato's claim that philosophers do not want to be rulers; 489a&b) to help the other prisoners.
Now we had a detailed look at Plato's elaboration of his argument about the difference between appearance and reality, the assignment of belief to appearance and knowledge to reality, and his claim that this would necessarily mean that philosophers should be rulers or rulers should be philosophers. Essentially Plato stated – to put it simply – that there can be no knowledge of the truth until the individual has seen the source of the truth – the form of the good. Hence, there can also be no knowledge about the changing, short-lived appearances, as Plato defines them.
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- Ulrich Roschitsch (Autor), 2015, Plato's Kallipolis. Why a good city needs philosophers as rulers, München, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/334518