Capstone Edition with Introduction by Tom Butler-Bowdon
Available from Amazon UK
Plato’s Republic is one of the most important books ever written. (It’s not often you can say that in a book review!) It’s certainly one of the foundational texts of Western philosophy. It has had a profound and far-reaching effect upon philosophical literature throughout the ages. Plato, of course, wrote these dialogues to give voice to his mentor Socrates. Hence, the Republic resembles a play, in which the scene is set and characters are briefly introduced before Socrates embarks upon a prolonged philosophical debate about the ideal society, which also serves as a metaphor for the ideal organisation of the human psyche. The Capstone edition is an excellent gift. It’s beautifully presented in a small hardcover edition, based on the classic 19th century translation by the Oxford scholar Benjamin Jowett. However, it is also prefaced with an excellent introductory essay by Tom Butler-Bowdon. Tom does a great job of introducing the text to the novice reader and providing an outline of its contents, highlighting some of the most important passages, such as the famous allegory of the cave and the curious myth of Er.
Tom is best-known as a self-help author. Indeed, I’d describe him as an expert on self-help literature, although he’s also written about other subjects such as academic psychology. Is the Republic a self-help book? That might seem like an odd question to many academic philosophers. However, anyone who knows Plato’s writings in detail will confirm that he thought of the practice of philosophy as a form of self-improvement, which aimed at the moral perfection of the soul and its wellbeing and liberation. The Republic, although superficially a book about society, is really an extended contemplation of moral virtue and the art of living in accord with wisdom and that which is absolutely good in itself. It’s not difficult to recommend this book. Indeed it’s one of the few books that I would suggest virtually everyone should read at some point. For many centuries in the past it was held in such high esteem and it continues to be relevant today.
A few comments about the translation might be worth making… As Tom’s introduction notes, this is a book about one of the cardinal virtues, called dikaiosunē in ancient Greek. This is usually translated into English as the word “justice”. A philosophical dictionary called the Definitions, attributed to Plato but probably written by one of his followers, has been preserved that defines dikaiosunē as follows:
- the unanimity of the soul with itself, and the good discipline of the parts of the soul with respect to each other and concerning each other;
- the state that distributes to each person according to what is deserved;
- the state on account of which its possessor chooses what appears to him to be just;
- the state underlying a law-abiding way of life;
- social equality;
- the state of obedience to the laws.
It’s clear that, from our perspective at least, the concept of dikaiosunē has several facets and does not necessarily mean exactly the same thing as “justice”. Indeed, the first definition above perhaps sounds more like what we might mean by personal “integrity” or “authenticity”. Tom suggests that it could simply be translated as “virtue”, which might be better in some ways, although it loses the distinction from the other cardinal virtues: fortitude, temperance, and wisdom. As Tom notes, Socrates says that:
“…the man of justice does not permit the several element within him to interfere with one another, or any of them to do the work of others. He sets in order his own inner life, and is his own master and his own law, and at peace with himself…”
However, this sounds like the first Academic definition above, “the unanimity of the soul with itself”, and if we took our word “integrity” to be a better translation in this context, it would read:
“…the man of integrity does not permit the several element within him to interfere with one another, or any of them to do the work of others. He sets in order his own inner life, and is his own master and his own law, and at peace with himself…”
As Tom notes, in the first book of the Republic Cephalus defines dikaiosunē in Plato’s dialogue as repaying your debts and telling the truth. Again, if you asked an English-speaker what they’d call someone who repays their debts and tells the truth, they probably wouldn’t say “just” but rather “reliable”, “honest” or perhaps “having integrity”. As “justice” is the central concept explored by Socrates in the Republic, it’s important to be aware that nuances of meaning may be obscured by any English translation. Jowett’s translation is nevertheless a joy to read and this handy little book is beautifully presented. Don’t hesitate to buy yourself a copy if you’re thinking about reading Plato, I’m sure you’ll enjoy it.