April 4, 2008

The CCLaP 100: "The Republic," by Plato

(Over the next two years, I am writing an ongoing series of essays here that I call the "CCLaP 100," whereby I read for the first time a hundred books considered by many to be classics, and then write reports here on whether or not I think they deserve this title. For the complete list of books, as well as an explanation behind how the list was compiled, you can click here.)

The Republic, by Plato
The Republic (~360 BC)
By Plato
Book #11 in this essay series

The story in a nutshell:
For those who don't know, the last 2,500 years of Western civilization can be roughly broken down into three eras, or "Ages;" the one we're in the middle of right now, the "Modern Age," actually began around the year 1400 or so with what we now call the "Renaissance," in which humanity slowly rediscovered the ideas and philosophies of ancient Greece and other so-called "enlightened societies" from the dawn of written history. (The era of those societies, then, is known as the "Classical Age;" the years between these two eras is known as the "Middle Age" or "Dark Age," in that these were the years such information was lost and forgotten in the first place.) Of all these thinkers and playwrights and architects and scientists of ancient Greece, then, perhaps none was more influential than a man named Socrates, who in our modern days we would call both an educator and philosopher; although he never actually wrote down any of his thoughts about life, his fanboy students did on a voracious basis, including a disciple named Plato who became the most famous of them during the Renaissance, because of so many of his original manuscripts making it through the chaotic times of the Dark Age*.

The Republic, for example, which would be better translated in our modern language to Society, is one of the more important of the dozens of Plato's books to still exist; it is one of the first books in Western culture, in fact, to tackle the very question of what a society is, of how to best organize one, and how to lay the long-term plans to make such a "republic" stable and violence-free. For example, the whole first part of the book tackles nothing else but what Socrates saw as the fundamental question behind all societies, that of "justice;" of how we as an organized group of people determine what exactly is "fair," what exactly is "right" and "wrong," and how we go about not only formally defining that but also enforcing it on a society-wide basis. That then gets the group talking about the creation of laws, which gets into the subject of who in a society is best qualified to write and determine such laws; this gets the reader into what most consider part 2 of the book, an examination of what we today would call not only lawyers but also politicians, philosophers and educators. (Plato and his peers, in fact, believed that the enlightened citizen should be all of these things at once; it's only in our modern times that we split them into four different professions.) This then gets us into part 3 of The Republic, a detailed examination of four popular types of society that were around at the time; this is what gets us our modern definitions of timocracy, oligarchy, democracy and tyranny, and of course the dozens of other government types that have since been invented by later philosophers.

And then finally, the way Socrates and his students actually discuss and arrive at these conclusions is through what is now known as the "Socratic Method," a fancy term for something most people will immediately understand; it's simply the process of teaching through talking and asking questions, guiding a student through a series of answers into discovering the wisdom of that topic on their own. Anytime a public school teacher discusses a subject out loud in a classroom, for example, then calls on a student to answer a question about the subject, that technically is the Socratic Method.

The argument for it being a classic:
Dude, it's a 2,200-year-old book that's still being read on a daily basis; if that's not the definition of a classic, fans say, then what is? Much more importantly than this, though, The Republic and other Classical books of philosophy virtually defined how nearly the entire western half of the planet currently conducts its business; all modern free-market representational democracies, after all, are fundamentally based on the ideas of the "Enlightenment" philosophers of the 1700s, and their ideas originally came from the ideas of Plato, Socrates, Aristotle and others. There's nothing like reading the actual source material, fans of Classical literature will tell you, if you want a deep understanding of the principles guiding all of Western culture; this one single book, for example, laid the groundwork for how over half the world's governments now operate, making it the very definition of a book you should read before you die.

The argument against:
Of course, let's not forget the price of reading a 2,200-year-old book of philosophy, which is that much of it is out-of-date by now; in fact, there's an entire litany of terms in The Republic that a reader must put air quotes around each time they come across, with "democracy" for example not meaning nearly the same thing to Plato that it means to us, nor "republic," nor "equality," nor "freedom." Two thousand years is a long time to be able to tweak and build on a certain set of specific ideas, let's not forget; in fact, most of the incremental improvements we make to government anymore are based on principles from merely a half-century or so ago, which themselves were the product of the 75th or 80th generation of small improvements that have now been made over the centuries to Plato and Socrates' original ideas. Because of all this, critics say, a book like The Republic is certainly historically important, certainly a must-read for anyone devoting their life or career to philosophy or government or education, but not necessarily a book that the general populace should feel a need to read themselves.

My verdict:
So let me admit right off the bat what a p-ssy I am, and that in actuality I only read something like the first hundred pages of this book; because let's face it, we live in a much more sophisticated age than Plato did, with most of us for example deeply comfortable with the Socratic Method even by the time we're done with elementary school. The Republic itself is written in the same pace one would use when explaining something to a five-year-old child, which of course Plato and his co-horts had to do back then; it was a society that was barely literate, that had never tackled these subjects before, who hadn't even invented such words as "philosophy" yet or such concepts as universities. To tell you the truth, the most interesting thing about the book was in fact the modern 50-page introduction by Desmond Lee (I read the Penguin Classics version); like many other synopses that now exist, it does a much better job than the manuscript itself at explaining the historical context that informed these ideas, as well as the outdated terminology and the words that would be better used today. Although it was definitely a fascinating book to explore and learn more about, I can't say in all honesty that I would recommend tackling the actual manuscript; much better I think to read one of the modern analyses instead, and learn more about how the book has shaped society in the two thousand years since.

Is it a classic? Yes, but skip it anyway

The next four books scheduled to be read:
Next Friday: The Gods Themselves, by Isaac Asimov
In two Fridays: Dracula, by Bram Stoker
In three Fridays: Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
In four Fridays: Mrs Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf

Read even more: Amazon | GoodReads | Gutenberg | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

*And in fact, the majority of the Classical Canon would be gone forever if had been up to the Westerners themselves, who were too busy slaughtering and raping and burning down each others' cities during the Medieval period to give much of a crap about a bunch of dusty ol' books; it was mostly the scholars of the Middle East who saved the majority of these manuscripts, by translating them into Arabic and incorporating them into their own great libraries at Alexandria (in modern Egypt), Babylon (in modern Iraq), and more. Bitter irony, I know, considering the way the majority of Middle East states have been treated by the majority of Western nations over the last couple of hundred years.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 2:38 PM, April 4, 2008. Filed under: CCLaP 100 | Literature | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |