Republic Slow Reading project, final day

Yesterday, we “ended” our Slow Reading of Republic, Book I — although some of you noted/complained that it wasn’t really that slow at all! Look, take as much time on it as you like. You can go back and still comment on any of the texts from the last five days; I will be sure to answer you. Or perhaps, this reading has inspired you to charge boldly on and to read the Republic as a whole. Great! Good idea!

For those of you encountering the dialogue afresh, which may include some of you who have “read” the dialogue before but are seeing it with entirely new eyes, you may want to skip this post. When I teach the Republic, I often make my students read Book I again at the end, so that I can show them what was present there in embryo but couldn’t be noticed without the light of the later parts of the dialogue. What follows are a few insights available to those who have finished the whole dialogue. So beware, *spoilers follows*:

1. Platonic dialogues often signal a subtextual theme in the opening sentence. This is especially true of the Republic. The very first word is “kataben,” which translates “I went down…”  Where later in the dialogue are we told of a going-down/katabasis?  Actually, several notable places. (All of my long citations are from the translation of the Republic available at the Perseus Project.)

a. The Cave Allegory at the beginning of Book VII — Any reader of the Republic can’t help but remember the vivid image of the condition of mass humanity:

[514a] “Next,” said I, “compare our nature in respect of education and its lack to such an experience as this. Picture men dwelling in a sort of subterranean cavern with a long entrance open to the light on its entire width. Conceive them as having their legs and necks fettered from childhood, so that they remain in the same spot, [514b] able to look forward only, and prevented by the fetters from turning their heads. Picture further the light from a fire burning higher up and at a distance behind them, and between the fire and the prisoners and above them a road along which a low wall has been built, as the exhibitors of puppet-shows have partitions before the men themselves, above which they show the puppets.” “All that I see,” he said. “See also, then, men carrying past the wall [514c] implements of all kinds that rise above the wall, and human images [515a] and shapes of animals as well, wrought in stone and wood and every material, some of these bearers presumably speaking and others silent.” “A strange image you speak of,” he said, “and strange prisoners.” “Like to us,” I said; “for, to begin with, tell me do you think that these men would have seen anything of themselves or of one another except the shadows cast from the fire on the wall of the cave that fronted them?” “How could they,” he said, “if they were compelled [515b] to hold their heads unmoved through life?” “And again, would not the same be true of the objects carried past them?” “Surely.” “If then they were able to talk to one another, do you not think that they would suppose that in naming the things that they saw they were naming the passing objects?” “Necessarily.” “And if their prison had an echo from the wall opposite them, when one of the passersby uttered a sound, do you think that they would suppose anything else than the passing shadow to be the speaker?” “By Zeus, I do not,” said he. “Then in every way [515c] such prisoners would deem reality to be nothing else than the shadows of the artificial objects.” “Quite inevitably,” he said.

The story then goes on to describe the release of one of the prisoners:

“Consider, then, what would be the manner of the release and healing from these bonds and this folly if in the course of nature something of this sort should happen to them: When one was freed from his fetters and compelled to stand up suddenly and turn his head around and walk and to lift up his eyes to the light, and in doing all this felt pain and, because of the dazzle and glitter of the light, was unable to discern the objects whose shadows he formerly saw, [515d] what do you suppose would be his answer if someone told him that what he had seen before was all a cheat and an illusion, but that now, being nearer to reality and turned toward more real things, he saw more truly? And if also one should point out to him each of the passing objects and constrain him by questions to say what it is, do you not think that he would be at a loss and that he would regard what he formerly saw as more real than the things now pointed out to him?” “Far more real,” he said. “And if he were compelled to look at the light itself, [515e] would not that pain his eyes, and would he not turn away and flee to those things which he is able to discern and regard them as in very deed more clear and exact than the objects pointed out?” “It is so,” he said. “And if,” said I, “someone should drag him thence by force up the ascent which is rough and steep, and not let him go before he had drawn him out into the light of the sun, do you not think that he would find it painful to be so haled along, and would chafe at it, and when [516a] he came out into the light, that his eyes would be filled with its beams so that he would not be able to see even one of the things that we call real?” “Why, no, not immediately,” he said. “Then there would be need of habituation, I take it, to enable him to see the things higher up. And at first he would most easily discern the shadows and, after that, the likenesses or reflections in water of men and other things, and later, the things themselves, and from these he would go on to contemplate the appearances in the heavens and heaven itself, more easily by night, looking at the light [516b] of the stars and the moon, than by day the sun and the sun’s light.” “Of course.” “And so, finally, I suppose, he would be able to look upon the sun itself and see its true nature, not by reflections in water or phantasms of it in an alien setting, but in and by itself in its own place.” “Necessarily,” he said. “And at this point he would infer and conclude that this it is that provides the seasons and the courses of the year and presides over all things in the visible region, [516c] and is in some sort the cause of all these things that they had seen.”

Finally, the story imagines the one having climbed up to the real world, having to return to the cave and release the prisoners there:

“And consider this also,” said I, “if such a one should go down again and take his old place would he not get his eyes full of darkness, thus suddenly coming out of the sunlight?” “He would indeed.” “Now if he should be required to contend with these perpetual prisoners [517a] in ‘evaluating’ these shadows while his vision was still dim and before his eyes were accustomed to the dark—and this time required for habituation would not be very short—would he not provoke laughter,and would it not be said of him that he had returned from his journey aloft with his eyes ruined and that it was not worth while even to attempt the ascent? And if it were possible to lay hands on and to kill the man who tried to release them and lead them up, would they not kill him?” “They certainly would,” he said.

So we have described here the situation of one who, having escaped from the fettered world of shadow and opinion, now takes it upon himself to go back down to rescue his former prisoners. Socrates has “come down” to Peiraeus to release the prisoners! And we see the other character as representative of the various stages of the climb out: Cephalus remains fettered to the shadowed wall, dominated by his fears and dreams; Polemarchus makes the “turn” and actually realizes what he thought about justice is wrong and boldly allies with Socrates to move up; Thrasymachus is one of the puppeteers, who thinks of “justice” as an artifice to rule over those bound below. The house of Cephalus, the “house of the head”, is obviously the cave.

b. The Myth of Er that ends Book X — In a couple of earlier posts, here and here, I mentioned the strong symmetry of the Republic’s structure. It as if every topic is treated twice, which allows a wonderful resource for comparison of parallel texts. At the end of the dialogue, there is a mythic story told about a character named Er from Pamphylia (“all-tribes”). Er dies on the battlefield and is taken down to Hades, where he has a chance to see the various fates of the souls under judgment. These souls, after enduring whatever punishments are due to them for their injustices, then have to choose a form of life into which they are reincarnated:

[618a] And after this again the prophet placed the patterns of lives before them on the ground, far more numerous than the assembly. They were of every variety, for there were lives of all kinds of animals and all sorts of human lives, for there were tyrannies among them, some uninterrupted till the end and others destroyed midway and issuing in penuries and exiles and beggaries; and there were lives of men of repute for their forms and beauty and bodily strength otherwise [618b] and prowess and the high birth and the virtues of their ancestors, and others of ill repute in the same things, and similarly of women. But there was no determination of the quality of soul, because the choice of a different life inevitably determined a different character. But all other things were commingled with one another and with wealth and poverty and sickness and health and the intermediate conditions. —And there, dear Glaucon, it appears, is the supreme hazard for a man. [618c] And this is the chief reason why it should be our main concern that each of us, neglecting all other studies, should seek after and study this thing—if in any way he may be able to learn of and discover the man who will give him the ability and the knowledge to distinguish the life that is good from that which is bad, and always and everywhere to choose the best that the conditions allow, and, taking into account all the things of which we have spoken and estimating the effect on the goodness of his life of their conjunction or their severance, to know how beauty commingled with poverty or wealth and combined with [618d] what habit of soul operates for good or for evil, and what are the effects of high and low birth and private station and office and strength and weakness and quickness of apprehension and dullness and all similar natural and acquired habits of the soul, when blended and combined with one another, so that with consideration of all these things he will be able to make a reasoned choice between the better and the worse life, [618e] with his eyes fixed on the nature of his soul, naming the worse life that which will tend to make it more unjust and the better that which will make it more just. But all other considerations he will dismiss, for we have seen that this is the best choice, [619a] both for life and death. And a man must take with him to the house of death an adamantine faith in this, that even there he may be undazzled by riches and similar trumpery, and may not precipitate himself into tyrannies and similar doings and so work many evils past cure and suffer still greater himself, but may know how always to choose in such things the life that is seated in the mean and shun the excess in either direction, both in this world so far as may be and in all the life to come; [619b] for this is the greatest happiness for man.

Most of those, given the choice, chose quite poorly. The moral seems to be that one must make the effort in one’s lifetime to prepare to make a good choice of the right life. Again, we have a character “going down” who sees the state of his fellows. If we fold this Er story upon its symmetrical other in the house of Cephalus, we are able suddenly to grasp what is at stake there. The characters there are “choosing their lives”! In fact, we readers, who are silent participants, are also choosing our lives — here, now, always!  And the choice matters — it is of fundamental importance. But here’s the rub: most of us don’t even realize where we are and what is at stake. We are, like the prisoners in the Cave Allegory, fettered and staring at shadows. Philosophy is the turn toward the light that allows us to see the seriousness of the choice and the light to make the choice well.


OK — I could say much more, but those are the highlights. I’ll try give more in the comments later in the day.


3 thoughts on “Republic Slow Reading project, final day

  1. Please don’t think I was complaining about the time we took to read. I was suggesting that we stretch it out because it seemed like not enough people commented, and I hoped that if they had more time they could come up with a comment or two. If a person makes a comment on day 4 regarding day 1 I don’t know if I would see it because I would be concentrating on day 4. This is not a complaint. I really enjoyed it and thank you for doing this. I would love to participate in another one.

    • It wasn’t just you, Billy. I agree that this was a faster pace than I probably should have posted. Lesson learned — I’ll do better next time. I appreciate you and others nudging me into realizing this.

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