The Republic, decoded

Cephalus and Socrates are talking.

Cephalus: We are old friends, and you will be quite at home here.

Socrates: I love conversing with aged men; they are travellers on the same path I will take. Let me ask you then: Is life harder towards the end?

Cephalus: I will tell you, Socrates, what my own feeling is. Old men often say to me, I cannot eat, I cannot drink; the pleasures of youth and love are gone. But this has not been my experience. Someone asked Sophocles whether he was still the man he had been, whether he still loved so strongly. He said “I am at peace. I have finally escaped the tyranny of love. I feel as if I had escaped from a mad and furious master.” Old age is calm and free if you let it be.

That’s good, Cephalus. But are you only happy because you are rich and comfortable?

I’ve done quite well, but no. I am happy for other reasons. I don’t love money that much.

That was why I asked you the question, because I see that you are indifferent about money. People who inherit money do not care about it. People who make their own money love money too much. They’re bad company. If you do not worry about money, what do you worry about?

I worry that my sins will catch up with me. Wealth allows us to not harm or defraud others to get ahead. Paying debts and speaking truth: These are justice, and these are the greatest benefits of wealth.

Well said, Cephalus! But this can’t be justice—to speak the truth and to pay your debts. Suppose that a friend gives me a weapon when he is sane. Then he comes back, crazy, and asks for his weapon back. Should I give it back to him? No one would say that I should. No one would say that I should tell him the truth, either.

You are quite right.

But then, speaking the truth and paying your debts is not a correct definition of justice.

I fear that I must go now, for I have to look after the sacrifices, and so I hand over the argument to the company.

Socrates and Glaucon are talking

Glaucon: Listen, Socrates. Justice is whatever a powerful person says it is.

Socrates: Let me first understand you. Justice is whatever a powerful person says it is? You cannot mean that because a powerful athlete likes eating raw meat that raw meat is good for everyone.

Oh, do not be an idiot Socrates. Do you not know that there are democracies, tyrannies, and aristocracies?

Yes, I know.

And these kinds of government make their own laws. The government has the power, makes the laws, the laws favour the rulers, and the laws say what is just or unjust. Everywhere there is one principle of justice, which is the interest of the stronger. Might makes right. The powerful rule to keep themselves in power.

Now we are both agreed that justice is interest of some sort, but you go on to say ‘of the stronger’. I am not so sure. Let me ask you some questions.


Subject should obey their rulers, correct? Do you agree that this is justice?

I do.

But rulers now and then make mistakes, do they not?

Of course they do.

Then sometimes the rules are correct, and sometimes they are incorrect?


And when the rules are correct, the rules are in the interest of the rulers. When the rules are incorrect, they go against the interests of the rulers?


And in either case, the rules have to be followed by their subjects?


Then justice, according to your argument, is doing both what is good for the rulers, and what is bad for the rulers?

What are you saying?

I am only repeating what you are saying, I believe. You said two things: that rulers make mistakes, and that following the rules is justice.

Yes, I did.

Then you must also have acknowledged that justice is not following the interests of the stronger, because when rulers unintentionally command things that hurt themselves, the subjects are supposed to follow the rules. So justice, sometimes, is hurting the powerful. We are certainly a long way from where we started, when you said that justice is doing whatever benefits the powerful.


Socrates, Glaucon and Adeimantus are talking

Glaucon: There is a fable I know. It is about Gyges. He was a good man, at least until he found a ring when he was out taking care of his sheep. The ring made him invisible whenever he put it on. You can guess what happened: he took advantage of his new power and became evil, marrying the queen, killing the king, and all of that stuff. I think that this proves that vice is pleasant and that virtue is unpleasant. Prove to us that virtue is better than vice. Prove to us that it is in our own interest to be just, in other words.

Socrates: Since we’re not doing very well, let’s take the approach a short-sighted person takes. Let’s make the letters we’re trying to read much larger. We should start with something big, examine its details, then come back to this small thing. People are just and states are just. We should start looking at justice in the state and come back to justice for the person.

Adeimantus: Sounds good.

But it would be hard to find a perfect state—I mean, look around! We should imagine a perfect state instead. That might be hard, but don’t you think it would be worth it?

I certainly do!

It seems to me that people live in communities because they need to specialize. People are good at different things, and when we trade, we all benefit.

That sounds right.

So in our imaginary state, we’ll need farmers and peasants, and artisans and businesspeople. We’ll need people to weave clothing and raise cattle. We’ll need labourers and other people too. But on the whole, things will be pretty simple.

I agree.

We will produce corn, and wine, and clothes, and shoes, and build houses. In the summer, our people will be stripped and barefoot, but in the winter they will have good clothes and shoes. They will eat plain food, and homemade bread and cakes. These they will serve up on a mat of reeds or on clean leaves, themselves reclining upon simple beds. They will feast now and then, with their children, on the food and wine they made, wearing garlands on their heads, and praising the gods. They will be happy, and careful, keeping an eye on poverty and war.

Glaucon: But they live so plainly! That’s not exciting! People want wine, and furniture and prostitutes.

Socrates: Well, I like my state. It seems like the natural one. But I guess we can consider yours, too, Glaucon. In your state, if we’re going to be entertained, we’ll need actors, and tutors. We’ll have to have poets and dancers and the like. That means that we will be envied by other countries, and that we will need the resources of other countries, too. So, we will go to war.

Yes, that is true.

We will need specialized soldiers, then. I have to tell you, this makes me worried. Soldiers are dangerous. We will want soldiers who are gentle with their friends and dangerous to their enemies. That combination is hard to find.

It is.

Our soldiers will be like dogs: loyal and dangerous at the same time. A really good and noble guardian of the State requires wisdom and spirit and swiftness and strength.

How will we raise these soldiers?

It so happens that I have a few thoughts on the matter. We cannot let them be taught in the usual way—look what that leads to: nothing but strife. I think that we will need to educate our youth differently. We will need to ensure that they never hear stories about gods quarreling. Stories of quarreling among gods only set a bad example for our children.


Socrates: We will need to make sure that the storytellers never mention that Hades is a terrible place. Our soldiers must not fear death. We also need to forbid:

  • Violent laughter
  • Gifts of money
  • Sentimental poetry
  • Making funny noises
  • Flutes
  • Complicated rhythms and harmonies
  • Sweet sauces
  • Corinthian women


All of these make our soldiers soft.

Entirely so.

Of course, we don’t want them to be over-hard either! I have a few ideas about what kind of schooling our youngsters require. Music teaches rhythm and harmony, and these make their way into the soul, imparting grace and a sense of beauty. Music, then, should be first in our children’s education.

I concur.

After we have made the soul good, I think we must make the body good. Our youth should be educated in gymnastics through boyhood. Of course, haven’t you noticed how athletes are finicky about food and care? We can’t allow that. Our soldiers must be like working dogs, not purebreds. They must be able to go without food and water, in the sun and in the rain.

I think so.

We can’t have fancy Italian food or pastries then. We need to have a sober, plain cuisine.

Of course.

I think that we have found something wonderful. Most athletes are savage and brutal. They are boastful and crude. Most musicians are soft, limp, and weak. Combining the two creates the best kind of person, one who is attuned, sober, and brave. Speaking of which, in order to be best protected, we should put our young guardians through trials and tribulations to see what they are made of. We will terrorize them, to separate the stronger ones from the weaker ones.

I agree.

And the strongest, best, and older ones will be separated. We should call them something else. They are guardians. The second-best ones, we should call ‘auxiliaries’ or soldiers.


We should also try to come up with an explanation for this, to keep people happy. Otherwise they will get uncomfortable. People tend to not like division into classes, after all. And, though there is nothing to be ashamed of in being an auxiliary, well, you know….

You are hesitating. Speak. Fear not.

Well, maybe we can have a royal lie. Citizens, we’ll say, you are brothers, yet God has framed you differently. Some of are made to command. God mingled gold into you. Others are made of silver. You will be auxiliaries. Others he made of brass and iron; you are to be peasants and craftspeople. Sometimes a golden parent will have a silver son, or a silver parent a golden son. You will have to hand your children up or down as nature requires. This is our story. Is there any possibility of making our citizens believe in it?

Not in the first generation. But sooner or later, maybe.

I have just a few more things to say. The auxiliaries and guardians should be kept separate. They should live communally. Everything they own should be communal, and not too fancy, so that nobody becomes jealous. The gold and silver classes should be paid only enough to be comfortable, as they should not care about money and worldly success. Whatever they need, though, will be provided by the bronze class, so that they will never become covetous. Don’t you agree?

I certainly do.


Adeimantus: But Socrates, why should the guardians be poor? Everyone else in town is happy. They are allowed to build large houses, party, and have private wealth. Aren’t the guardians suffering so that the rest of the state can be happy?

Socrates: Yes, you’re right. Also, they can’t have mistresses or take vacations. There are other things, too. Don’t forget the rest of the restrictions.

Adeimantus: Well?

Socrates: Well, we’ve made this state to make the whole state happy, not to favour one part. Suppose that we were painting a statue, and some one came up to us and said, “Why do you not put the most beautiful colours on the most beautiful parts of the body—the eyes ought to be purple, but you have made them black.” We would probably say, “Sir, you don’t paint everything beautifully, part by part. The whole thing has to be beautiful, and that requires balance.” It is the same thing with the republic. Each person must do his job well and industriously, not meddling in the work of others. This will make a noble, harmonious, and just state. If we let the potters drink and relax, they won’t make pots. If we let the shepherds play flute all day, they won’t raise sheep. It is especially true of the guardians. They need to work at their job; the security of the whole state is in their hands.

I think that you are quite right.

I wonder whether you will agree with another remark which occurs to me.

Tell me, what is it?

Truly, I said, we are stupid fellows.

Why so?

Well, we started off looking for justice. It fell right at our feet, and we just ignored it. We missed the forest for the trees.

What do you mean?

I mean we have been talking of justice for a long time, but we have failed to recognize it.

Oh, come on, Socrates! Out with it.

Remember when we said that each person should do one thing well?

Yes, we said that one man should do one thing only.

We also said that justice was doing your own business, and not being a busybody.

Yes, we said so.

Then let’s finish what we started. Remember we said that if we looked for justice on the large scale, that we might be able to see it on the small scale. We said that we would look for justice in the state to see what it is in the individual. Let’s apply what we learned to the individual now.

Go on.

Well, the state is just when the three classes in it do their own business: when the rulers rule, the soldiers soldier, and the peasants, er, peasant. And moreover, a state is best when the guardians have good intelligence, the auxiliaries are brave, and the peasants are hard working.


Well, it’s true of the individual, too! The soul has three parts, just like the state: Scythians are passionate people. Athenians love knowledge. Egyptians love money. We all have some kind of desire: let’s call this part of ourselves, ‘appetitive’.


But everyone also knows that the appetites can be excessive. We know from our intellects that drinking too much or loving money too much is a bad thing. Reason dictates rules that we must try to follow.


It seems, then, that we have two parts: the rational and the appetitive.

Yes, and they are clearly different.

Are there any other parts of the soul?

I don’t know. I don’t think so.

Well, there is a story I remember. Leontius saw some dead bodies lying on the ground where they had been executed. He felt a desire to see them, yet also an abhorrence of them. He struggled and covered his eyes for a while, but eventually, he ran up to the dead bodies and said “Look, you wretches, take your fill of the fair sight.”

I have heard the story myself.

The moral of the tale is this: sometimes we hate our desires. We are angry with what we want.

Yes. That’s the meaning.

Also, sometimes, when someone suffers an injustice, he boils and chafes. He wants revenge. Either he will get it, or his reason will quiet his anger.


So, willpower is sometimes on the side of the intellect, and sometimes it is on the side of the appetites. Some get their willpower under the control of their intellects, while some have their willpower under control of their appetites. Some people’s willpower goes back and forth; that’s why they get angry with themselves. The anger comes from their will.


So, the state and the person have the same three parts: intellect or reason, will or spirit, and appetite. Excellence in one is the same as excellence in the other.

That follows, of course.

This is exactly as justice in the state was when each class did its own work.


In summary, then, the rational principle, which is wise, should rule. The passionate or spirited principle should be its ally. And these two, brought together by a good education in gymnastics and music, should rule over the appetites. The appetites are the largest part of the soul and the most insatiable.

That sounds perfect.

The best kind of person will have these three elements in friendly harmony. Reason leads. Spirit executes instructions, and the desires follow. Justice is the same in the person and the state: the rulers rule, the spirited parts are strong and effective, and the appetites follow orders. Each does its own role well and all work in harmony.



Adeimantus: What about women? You’ve spoken about men.

Socrates: They should do exactly the same thing as the men do. If they did, and if we didn’t keep them separate from us, they wouldn’t be so attractive and mysterious. Here’s why. Men can do everything a woman can do, right? We’re not as good at cooking and making jam, but we can do it.

You are quite right, women are generally inferior, but there are many women who are superior to many men at many things.

Nature has given us all the same skills. Men tend to be better at almost everything, but the skills are still there in women.

Very true.

Since men and women both have what it takes to be a guardian, we should let women try. If they are better at it than some men, there is no reason to prefer the worse man to the better woman.

Very true.

Remember how I said that all the property of the guardians is to be shared?

Of course.

Well, I didn’t want to mention it, but here’s one more thing I wanted to say. The wives of our guardians should be common, and their children should be common too. I don’t think parents should know whose child is whose. No children should know who their parents are, either.

That’s a pretty bold thing to say.

I know, but we’re just daydreaming. Let me explain why I think this is a good idea. Men and women are drawn together. We can’t stop that. We should try, though, to ensure that if men and women are going to mate that they do so for the greatest good of the state. The best should be mated with the best as much as possible, and the worst with the worst as little as possible.

Very true.

Nobody will like this, however, and I think we will again be forced to lie. We can have festivals to bring people together. We will have a lottery, and set men and women up with each other. It will seem random—but in secret, we will plan it all out so the best joins with the best.

Good idea.

When there are babies, we’ll take them away. The good ones we will keep. The bad ones will go to some secret, unknown place, if you know what I mean. The good babies will be raised by everyone together—that way every child will think every elder could be her father or mother, and every elder will see each youngster as his child.

Yes, that must be done.

I’ve saved my biggest idea for last. Until philosophers are kings, or the kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy, and political greatness and wisdom meet in one, cities will never be free from evil.

That’s a big one.

Philosophers are lovers of truth. Only philosophers know the absolute and eternal and immutable. Everyone else sees only a portion of the absolute, eternal and immutable. They have mere opinion.


Socrates: So it is clear, isn’t it Glaucon, that the state needs to be ruled by philosopher kings? Only they are able to grasp the eternal and unchangeable.

Glaucon: There can be no question of that.

Philosophers love truth. They hate illiberality. They detest meanness. And they are magnificent of mind and spectators to all existence.

Most true.

Philosophers will not be afraid of death nor will they love life. They will not be cowardly, boastful, or covetous. They have harmonious souls and rule harmoniously. We should even be able to see these characteristics in youth.


The philosopher will have a well-proportioned and gracious mind that will love learning and seek the truth of everything.

Yes, he will.

And isn’t it true that the brightest and best youngsters are likely to be flattered early in life? And aren’t they likely to become lazy and vain, especially if their bodies are as beautiful as their minds?

Yes, certainly that is true.

True philosophers, then, are going to be very hard to find. The best and brightest will become lazy. The space they leave behind will be taken over by Sophists. No state is free from this kind of problem right now: the best are always ruined before they can reach their potential.

True enough.

That is why no state will be perfect until philosophers are compelled to rule, or until kings become philosophers.

Quite right.

Let’s review, then. The philosopher kings have to be patriotic. They have to be tested. The successful ones will come forth like gold is washed from rock. The golden will receive rewards in life and after death. And now we say it clearly: the perfect guardian must be a philosopher.

Yes. Yes!

What does a philosopher study though?

Permanent things, I think we said. Isn’t that right, Socrates?

Yes, Glaucon. I’m going to try to explain something tricky. Try to keep up. Take a line and cut it into two unequal parts. Take each of those parts, and cut them again, unequally. On the bottom, in the smallest section, we have images, shadows, reflections, and stuff like that.

I understand.

Above that, we have animals and everything that is grown or made. Physical things.

Very good.

On the top two parts we have intellectual stuff.

Like what?

Well, the lower part is made up of the things we make hypotheses about. Above that, we have pure ideas.

I do not quite understand your meaning, he said.

You know how when people do geometry, how they draw triangles and circles? They experiment with ‘this circle’ or ‘that triangle’, but they are trying to draw conclusions about every circle and every triangle.

I know about that.

Well, that’s what I’m referring to. We have images, physical things, sciency and geometric things (like circles and triangles) and one level above that. This top level can only be reached by doing philosophy. It is the realm of truth. It is above hypothesis. It is permanent and perfect. It is a kind of intellectual heaven above the ideas of science and math.

Ok, I sort of get it. You are asking the big ideas, I think, when you get to this top level: what knowledge and being are. You are contemplating questions like what truth and goodness are. I sort of see it.

That’s right, Glaucon.


Socrates: Imagine that there are prisoners in a cave. No, better: imagine that there is a prisoner in a movie theatre. She has never been outside, and all she can see is the movie screen. She can’t move around. It’s like virtual reality.

Glaucon: Sure. It’s strange, but I will try.

Imagine, too, that the movie projector is always on. It shows different movies all the time. It doesn’t show credits, though.

Go on.

Well, our prisoner would think that the people on the screen were real. The movies would be reality to her. And she would come to see the same person a few times. She might see Fight Club, Ocean’s Thirteen and Mr. and Mrs. Smith. What do these movies have in common?

They are all bad?

Yes, especially Fight Club. But they all also have Brad Pitt in them. So our prisoner would see Brad a bunch of times and probably even come to recognize him. She might call him “Rat Face”.

She might, I guess.

She would. She would even think that she knows Rat Face. She would think that she knows a lot about him, after watching all those movies.

Right. What is your point?

She would know other people, too. She would know Julia Roberts and George Clooney. She would think she knew what real people were like from watching the screen. In her mind, people would be huge, and handsome, preternaturally witty, and well armed.

She certainly would think that.

So, our prisoner in the movie theatre would see two levels of ‘reality’, and think she knew them. She would see Brad Pitt, and the characters that Brad Pitt plays. She would think herself quite clever, too, knowing that the ‘real’ Brad Pitt is different from the characters. Those of us who are outside the theatre, though, know that she is in error. The real Brad Pitt is flesh and blood, not on the screen. The real Pitt is 6 feet tall, not 30. Our prisoner thinks she knows reality, but doesn’t.

Quite right, Socrates.

Well, imagine, then, that we took her from the cinema and pulled her outside. After a lifetime inside, the daylight would be blinding. She would want to go back. If we kept her there, after a while, her eyes would adjust, and she would see that the real world is much different and much, much more real than the world of the cinema.


And if we wanted to send her back down into the cinema, she wouldn’t want to go. She would hate to go back down into the artificial world once she had seen the real world.


Well, stay with me now, but I think that we are all like prisoners in the theatre.

What do you mean?

Well, we think we know what reality is, when in fact, we have been living in an artificial world.

Go on.

I’ve been trying to make an allegory. The cinema is the world of sight. We see things, and we think that they are the real world. Crawling out of the cinema into the bright light of day is the soul’s ascension into the intellectual world. This is the world of true knowledge.

Yes, I follow you.

Furthermore, the world of real knowledge, of certainty, and the world in the bright light is clear and unmistakable. Once we have seen it, we cannot be fooled. It hurts to see it at first, but we adjust, and our minds cannot be deceived a second time.

Yes. I see where you’re coming from.

Well, the way I see it, reality has one major division and two minor divisions. The major division is between the physical world and the intellectual world. The minor divisions divide those two categories up into four subcategories.

Tell me more.

It goes like this: there are the images of things, like a picture of a jug or a unicorn. These things are not very real. Then there are the objects that seem permanent but are not. Those are objects, like this jug or that horse. This is the stuff that most people believe to be real. Most people are mistaken, however.

Go on.

Then, in the intellectual universe, there are the real objects. I call these “The Forms”. These are the really real things—things like horsiness or juginess. These are the essences. Once we have perceived them, we know that they are the truth, and we can’t be mistaken about them. They are, more or less, the objects of scientific knowledge.

Sure. Is that it? Are there three levels to reality? I thought you said there were four.

There is one more. This is the top level of The Forms. There are some capital-I Ideas we need to understand the objects of science. We need to know some things like equality, unity, goodness, truth and beauty. These must be a higher level of reality, because we can compare Forms like horsiness and cowiness and see that they have something else in common. We can also compare Ideas like circularity and triangularity and see that they have some things in common. These things must be the most real of all.

If you say so, Socrates. But what does this have to do with our republic?

Well, Glaucon. The philosopher kings will have to keep their eyes on the top level of The Forms: the Good, the Beautiful, and the Truth. This is what they should study if they are to lead the country. However, just like the woman in the cinema, once they have seen real reality, we can expect that they won’t be interested in stupid illusion. They won’t be interested in what the common people are worried about. We will have to compel them to care.

Yes, I see. How will we do this?

Through a good education, of course. The philosopher kings will have to be educated in music and gymnastics, as well as mathematics and geometry. Math and geometry make people wonder about the big things. They also require the use of pure intelligence. Math and geometry study the eternal and the perfect.

You are absolutely right.

But there is one more thing. Our philosopher kings will need to study dialectic and the art of philosophy. Only philosophy goes straight to the top level of The Forms of things. Only philosophy is concerned with the essence of a thing and the truth.

Wow, Socrates. This is good. Go over it one more time for me.

Sure. Reality is divided into four parts:

  • Ideas required for science
  • Ideas of science
  • Physical things
  • Images and representations

1 and 2 are the realm of The Forms. 3 and 4 are the realm of the physical world. The Forms are real, even though most people think the physical world is. The physical world is impermanent, while The Forms are permanent.

Great! That is so clear. But we have not really laid out a plan for our future philosopher kings. Explain that to me one more time.

Well, here is how I see it. We take the first generation of children and send their parents away ‘into the country’. Ahem. Then we educate the kids. For 20 years or so, we educate them in battle, horsemanship, and gymnastics. The best ones go onto the second stage. For 10 years, we educate them about the sciences. Again, we take only the best ones. For 5 years, we educate them about philosophy. Then, when they are 35 years old, we send them out to work for a while. They can work in the military or in politics. They do this until they are 50 or so. Finally, we take the best of the best, and teach them about the highest level of The Forms. We tell them how to govern. By this time, they should be concerned only with justice and fairness, and being the best rulers. They will not care about personal success; they will only care about being good.

Socrates, you are a sculptor. You have made our governors faultless.