Plato Dates: 428-327 B.C.
Plato was a Greek philosopher who was (1) a pupil of Socrates, (2) a teacher to the Greek philosopher Aristotle, and (3) a founder of the Academy School of Philosophy, which was created in 386 B.C. to produce a new type of leader, the philosopher ruler. As a pupil of Socrates, Plato viewed Socrates as the ideal person because he never sought political power, he taught with expertise, and he never sought pay like so many intellectuals of the day.
Plato was the author of philosophical dialogues, that is, conversations about a range of philosophical issues, from metaphysics to ethics to politics. The bulk of his philosophical thinking is found in two works: The Republic and The Laws. Many of his ideas have influenced western views regarding religion, politics, and ethics.
Though Plato could have entered politics, he chose not to, believing that Athenian politics had become too corrupt. Much of Plato's distaste for politics in ancient Greece arose when Socrates was executed for introducing what the democratic government of Athens considered dangerous new ideas, ideas that criticized the political, moral, and social practices of Athens.
Historical Context of The Republic
Athens and Sparta
Plato lived in ancient Greece. Greece was made of many city states, having Athens as its capital. The height of Greece's power was 500-336 BC. Under the leadership of a politican named Pericles, ancient Greece developed a democratic form of government. The type of democracy practiced in ancient Greece was
different from the type of democracy practiced today. One feature of ancient Greek democracy was that anyone, no matter his lack of experience, expertise or education, could seek political leadership.
Athens faced a major rival in Sparta, another major city-state in ancient Greece. Athens and Sparta had very different political systems. Sparta was an oligarchy. In other words, Sparta's government was organized such that power was held by just a few. Not only was Sparta an oligarchy, but it was also a military oligarchy, which meant its citizens lived under strict discipline, being brought into military training as young people, refraining from excessive materialism, and living together in military units.
The wars between Athens and Sparta made Plato believe that neither democracy nor oligarchy were systems that could promote political stability and an orderly society. He believed that, at the root of each type of government, be it a democracy or an oligarchy, there existed the insatiable desire for power.
As a genre, The Republic is considered a philosophical dialogue. It was written around 375 B.C.
General Summary: In The Republic, Plato discusses what makes for a perfect or properly operating society. He suggests that the only way for a society to operate properly is for the philosopher to gain political power or for politicans to become philosophers: "The only hope of finding justice for society or for the individual lay in true philosophy, and that mankind will have no respite from trouble until either real philosophers gain political power or politicans become by some miracel true philosophers." Only the philosopher ruler, according to Plato, can properly handle power. Other rulers simply use power for their own gratification, causing trouble for their communities, for their societies. Instead of calling for a political system built upon democracy, oligarchy and other forms of government, Plato advocates for a political system built on the philosopher ruler who, in addition to using power properly, rules with genuine expertise, skill, and knowledge. In other words, a philosopher ruler combines virtues like wisdom, courage, self-discipline, and justice with "techne," that is expertise, skill, and knowledge.
General Purpose: In general, Plato tries, through The Republic, to reveal to Anthenian society the flaws inherent in a democratic form of government. He does this by imagining an ideal city, a city ruled by a philosopher ruler who uses power to help bring about stability.
Organizational Structure: The Republic is organized as a conversation between four main characters: Socrates, Thrasymachus, Glaucon, Adeimantus. Though these were individuals that Plato actually knew, they are fictional characters as they are presented in The Republic. In real life, Socrates was Plato's teacher. Glaucon and Adeimantus were Plato's brothers, and Thrasymachus was a philosopher and teacher in ancient Greece.