Glyn Hughes’ Squashed Philosophers
INTRODUCTION TO The Republic
As a famous philosopher once said, “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato”. Alfred Whitehead may not have been exaggerating. Many of the conclusions presented in The Republic may seem, with two-and-a-half thousand years of hindsight, just silly. But its method of reaching those conclusions, by a precise process of honest and careful step-by-step searching after absolute answers, has been, and remains, the one great distinguishing feature of the European way of thinking. It underlies the impossible search for perfection which has given rise to Europe’s science, politics, psychology, education and much of its angst. It stands in valorous contrast to the world’s only other great founder-philosopher, Confucius, whose love of harmony and the certainties of tradition built a very different society.
Socrates, the belligerent Athenian street-corner philosopher, refused to write anything down. It was therefore left to his pupil Plato to record his many discussions, of which The Republic is one. It is presented as a dialog between Socrates and, among others, Glaucon, Plato’s younger half-brother, and Thrasymachus, one of the most famous of the ‘Sophist’ teachers of rhetoric and persuasion who enjoyed such popularity in the Athens of 400BC. We cannot know which of the ideas presented here are genuinely from Socrates, and which are Plato’s idealised revisions, but most of us can see much of what we are now in them.
The Republic was written in Greek, a language rather different from English, making many of Socrates’ ideas terribly tricky to translate. A few of the trickier words are included in the text, italicised in square brackets[techne].
Arete (areth): Appropriateness to or for purpose, translated here as ‘goodness’ or ‘excellence’.
Dikaiosuene (dikaiwsunh): The central theme of The Republic, translated here as ‘doing right’ or ‘justice’ or ‘morality’.
Episteme (episthmh): Science, specialist knowledge.
Glorious Myth:  Sometimes translated as ‘The One Royal Lie’ or ‘A Magnificent Myth’.
God or gods (qeos): Plato refers to ‘gods’ ‘the God’ and ‘god’ apparently without distinction. It is likely that, along with most of his fellows, he believed in a single supreme god together with a multiplicity of other spiritual powers which might be described as subordinate gods.
Goeteuo (goeteuo):  ‘To cast a spell on’ or ‘bewitch’ has sometimes been translated as ‘propaganda’, I’ve said ‘to spirit away’
Mimesis (mimhsis): Imitation, copying, reproduction. Representation as found in literary, artistic and dramatic works.
Momus:  The traditional Greek personification of mockery and ridicule.
Nomos (nomos): Law, convention, custom, ‘that which is expected’.
Paradeigma (paradeigma): Not quite the English ‘paradigm’. An example or pattern, especially an outstandingly clear or typical example. In Plato’s terms, the ‘ideal form’.
Philosopher (jilosojia): Literally, ‘friend of wisdom’.
Plato’s Divine Sign:  “A kind of inner voice which sometimes forbade me to do things” (Apology)
Polis (polis): One of the constituent small, self-governing cities, islands or regions of ancient Greece. Translated here as city, State, society or community.
Psuche (yuch): Originally meaning ‘breath of life’, it is less neccessarily religious than the English ‘soul’ as it covers the life principle, the personality, character and the seat of understanding. Translated here as ‘mind’ ‘personality’ and ‘soul’.
Sophists (sojisths): The professional teachers of public speaking, persuasion and what they, if not Plato, called ‘wisdom’.
Techne (tecnh): Technical ability, craft, skill, job, profession.
ABOUT THIS SQUASHED EDITION
Based on the classic 1871 translation by Benjamin Jowett, this condensed version reduces the original 130,000 or so words down to a mere 15,000. In achieving this, it may sometimes give the impression that the text shows Socrates simply presenting ideas for others to agree to, but we hope to have included sufficient of the original’s detailed arguments to retain an impression of the Socratic method of debate. The numbers in pale [square] brackets are the approximate positions of page numbers in the 1578 Stephanus edition of Plato’s works, commonly used as a reference.
THE VERY SQUASHED VERSION OF…
“Until Philosophers are kings, or kings have the spirit
of Philosophy, cities will never have rest from their troubles.”
Socrates: What is Justice?
Polemarchus: It’s giving everyone the good or evil they deserve, helping friends and harming enemies.
Thrasymachus: It’s following the law, doing what the people in power say.
Socrates: Rulers aren’t always right, and they’re never happy. Let’s try to design a perfectly just society. It’ll have people sticking to the skill they’re best at, supplying each other’s needs. It’ll have three classes, golden ruler-guardians, silver auxiliaries and iron and bronze artisans. We’ll have no families, but bring up the best people, women as well as men, to be rulers. They’ll avoid poetry, do physical training and study philosophy. We’ll have justice because everyone sticks to their own job. We’ll have the three classes in harmony, just like the mind has three parts: desire, reason and spirit.
Glaucon: So what’s philosophy, then?
Socrates: It’s pursuing wisdom. Trying to find the immutable, the perfect, the true form of reality. It’s not like foolish sailors squabbling over who’s to take the helm. It’s not like taming a wild beast. Imagine a cave where prisoners have been held since birth, they’d believe that the shadows they see are reality. The true philosopher is like someone who escapes from that cave and sees real things, when he gets back, no-one believes him. We’ll get this by careful education up to the age of fifty.
Glaucon: What about the perfect State?
Socrates: It isn’t a timarchy built on ambition, nor money-based oligarchy, nor squabbling democracy or gangster-ish tyranny. Our perfect society of philosopher-kings may never exist on earth, but we can hope.
Squashed version edited by Glyn Hughes Â© 2008