The Republic is widely recognized to be Plato’s masterpiece, but for centuries it has been the subject of much debate: is it about the ideal state, or the soul, or art, or education, or something else altogether? Interpretations have been many and various, for three main reasons: 1. studies have tended to concentrate on parts of this very long dialogue to the exclusion of other parts; 2. some of the opinions expressed in the dialogue are routinely regarded as being those of Plato himself; 3. the manifestly problematic inconsistencies and faulty argumentation are discussed and occasionally corrected as philosophical problems in their own right, and not as an organic part of the conversation. This book analyses the dialogue as a dialogue, a conversation between the characters presented in it, and examines the dialogue in its entirety. The result is a holistic interpretation making sense not only of the dialogue as a whole, but also of its parts, including the peculiarities. Each character is a paradigm representing an aspect of the central theme of the dialogue (apparent good), and it is because of what they represent that the conversation takes the overtly rambling and unstructured course that it does, while actually having a tight and well structured dynamic. Embracing the peculiarities rather than ignoring them, explaining them away, or correcting them piecemeal, is the first step on the way to understanding a Platonic text. Indeed, in general it is counter to philosophical thinking to impose on a text what one considers should be its meaning, rather than to examine and explain what is actually there.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Corrigendum. The son is not the father...

p. 97 of my book.

Here's a philologically interesting mistake (aka, an incredibly stupid slip of the keyboard):

On both occasions, the chain of events leading to the diversion begins with an elaborate description of the way Polemarchus uses physical means to attract attention — in both cases, by catching hold of a person’s tunic. In the first instance, it is Polemarchus’ slave who does this, but at the instigation of Polemarchus; in the second, it is Polemarchus himself:

327b2-5 Observing us from afar as we were setting off homewards, Polemarchus, the son of Cephalus, ordered his slave to run and order us to wait about. And the slave, behind me, catching hold of the tunic, said, “Cephalus orders you to wait about.”

The second appearance of "Cephalus", outlined here in red, should of course read "Polemarchus". The mistake seems to have occurred because "Cephalus" has just appeared in the preceding line, after many appearances of "Polemarchus". I am still astounded at my failure to spot this, since the whole point of the argument here is that Polemarchus diverts, the first diversion leading to the discussion as a whole, the second diversion leading to the "digression" of books V-VII.


  1. These things happen! I just started reading your book and am looking forward to it. I'm a PhD candidate at Notre Dame writing on the Republic. My dissertation is titled, "Converting the Soul from Politics to Philosophy: The Philosophic Way of Life in Plato's Republic". I argue that the dialogue is an invitation to experience philosophic conversion through three key moments (1. ignorance and eros, 2. questions and methods, and 3. philosophy, friendship and speeches) that are revealed over the course of the dialogue under the overarching rubric of the question of the best way of life. My thesis advisor was Catherine Zuckert but we parted ways over her disagreement with my thesis. She thinks the Republic is at most an advertisement for philosophy, aimed at those who have no hope of becoming philosophers themselves. I see it as more than that -- it provides the path to freeing one's thought to be able to discover the way of life that can actually lead to one's own happiness. Anyways, I'd love to hear more about your thoughts on the dialogue, in addition to finishing reading your book.

    1. Pleased to meet you. The dialogue does have something to do with turning the soul away from something towards something else. Whether this is from politics to philosophy is another matter that I'll be happy to discuss with you. If you don't mind me saying, you seem to have some Platonistic baggage, such as the notion that eros is a good thing (just look at Phaedrus and Symposium - but then remember that they are different dialogues, with Socrates talking to different people in each of them; eros is treated negatively in our dialogue). Ignorance is a good beginning; questions are a good means (if the questions themselves are good) towards understanding the good; and friendship is to my mind, and the opinion of most Greek philosophers, an aspect of the goal of living well. These points are certainly touched on (through dramatization and in speech) in this dialogue. I of course disagree with your former supervisor with regard to this dialogue and "Plato's philosophers", so if you and I disagree, it will be over different matters, which should keep it interesting for both of us. Quite a few of my thoughts on the dialogue are in my book, so I do recommend finishing it, and then we could discuss specific points. It would be more convenient to discuss them on my Yahoo Group (see the link above my photo on the right).

  2. I just started reading your book and am intrigued. I'm a PhD candidate at Notre Dame writing my dissertation on the Republic. My argument, in a nutshell, is: Plato’s Republic provides an outline of conversion to the philosophic way of life, and in doing so founds a new kind of community that is distinct from the political community and its way of life – the philosophic community.
    In contrast to Plato’s Laws, which is intended to show the degree to which philosophy can transform existing political communities, the Republic (1) depicts three identifiable moments in the experience of philosophic conversion, and (2) connects this experience to the founding of a new, philosophic community. All three moments in the experience of philosophic conversion are guided by the questions of justice and the Good, and culminate in the question, What is the best way of life?
    I'm looking forward to learning more about your thoughts.

    1. Is this a PhD in political science?