I have read some phenomenal books during my degree over the past three years, but The Republic is, without a doubt, the finest. Some of Rousseau’s writing and Kant’s Groundwork come close, and I agree with the ideas in them more than I will ever agree with Plato. But there’s something about knowing that, as you read Republic, you are witnessing a group of men think through these questions about morality, knowledge, metaphysics and politics for the first time, and the fact that they did so over 2,000 years ago and their arguments remain powerful until this day – well, it’s an achievement unparalleled in the history of Western philosophy.
So let me do my best to explain just a handful of the problems and theories Plato ponders, and I’ll begin with the question that The Republic starts with, and which thus sets the tone for the work. In Book I, Socrates asks his companions what justice is. This is typical of Plato’s dialogues: each one involves probing a certain concept and trying to provide a decent definition of it. And yet this time, instead of staying focused, the question quickly develops into: is justice valuable? By which Socrates means, is it something we should each try to have? Is it good in itself, or merely for its consequences? Does it give you happiness? Can you be happy without it? And The Republic’s primary thesis will turn out to be: without justice, you cannot be happy. Injustice will never pay.
Now, there’s no reason to fear dogmatism here. This will not be simply asserted. In fact, Plato allows the beginning of the book to be dominated by the opposite view: the radical, devilish position that injustice is what is really good, and only fools value justice. So we have a precursor to Nietzsche straight away in the form of Thrasymachus, and his case is soon taken up by Glaucon. And Glaucon insists that the only reason it’s good to be just – to respect people’s property, to not murder people, to not rape women and so on – is because it will ensure you have a good reputation. Avoiding those acts is not in itself good or beneficial. So justice is like chemotherapy: a necessary evil towards a positive end.
And to ensure that Socrates responds by defending justice for its intrinsic value, rather than merely appealing to the fact that unjust people are likely to be locked up or named and shamed and so on, Glaucon proposes a test, made famous by Oscar Wilde: The Ring of Gyges experiment. Glaucon asks us to imagine that we could wear a ring which renders us invisible. So now we can keep the appearance of being a good, just person in public, whilst getting up to all kinds of nasty things behind closers doors. Who would still do just acts now? Glaucon lets rip:
No man can be imagined to be of such an iron nature that he would stand fast in justice. No man would keep his hands off what was not his own when he could safely take what he liked out of the market, or go into houses and lie with any one at his pleasure, or kill or release from prison whom he would, and in all respects be like a God among men. Then the actions of the just would be as the actions of the unjust; they would both come at last to the same point. And this we may truly affirm to be a great proof that a man is just, not willingly or because he thinks that justice is any good to him individually, but of necessity, for wherever any one thinks that he can safely be unjust, there he is unjust. For all men believe in their hearts that injustice is far more profitable to the individual than justice, and he who argues as I have been supposing, will say that they are right. If you could imagine any one obtaining this power of becoming invisible, and never doing any wrong or touching what was another’s, he would be thought by the lookers-on to be a most wretched idiot, although they would praise him to one another’s faces, and keep up appearances with one another from a fear that they too might suffer injustice.
And if that seems overwhelming, wait for his second, stronger test: he goes on to ask Socrates to prove not only that you would still avoid unjust acts when there are no bad consequences, but that you would still do just acts when you face the consequences of injustice! So imagine every time you respected the rights of others and did well by people, you faced the social and legal consequences as if you had attacked them. And the alternative choice on offer is doing injustice all the time, but everyone thinking you’re a great guy.
Now, you need not give the same answer in both experiments: one could agree that you should be just when wearing the Ring, whilst denying you should still be when the bad consequences of injustice are added on. But this outrageously high bar and challenge that Glaucon sets – Socrates wholeheartedly embraces it. He sets out to show justice is worthwhile no matter what. And that’s the point of Plato’s Republic.