Plato’s “Republic”: The Descent into Savagery and Tyranny

Plato’s Republic stands in contradistinction to Aristotle’s Politics, indeed, it stands in contradistinction to almost all other works of political philosophy because Plato never speaks in the dialogue.[1]  It would, therefore, be absurd to reach the conclusion that Plato’s dialogues teach us nothing because Plato is silent throughout his entire written corpus – giving way to others not named Plato to participate in the Socratic dialectic.[2]  What, then, are we to make of Plato’s Republic – that “most famous political work of Plato, the most famous political work of all times”?[3]

It is not coincidental that Plato’s Republic deals with the interrelated relationship of his political philosophy and epistemology, which are tied to the unfolding dialectic between Socrates and the various sophists, especially Thrasymachus, Glaucon, and Adeimantus.  In fact, it would be hard not to see how the two are related and why.  Even though the philosopher stands alone on the ship as the squabbling sailors and owner war with one another, the philosopher cannot escape the reality that the light of knowledge corresponds with the light or darkness of the city.  If humans are, by their nature, political (social) animals,[4] something which Plato passed onto to Aristotle,[5] then it is all the more confusing that Plato’s philosopher-king appears to be disassociated with the city in every allegory contained in the Republic.  Meanwhile, the real philosopher (Socrates) is in the midst of social engagement throughout the dialogue.[6]

Socratic irony is one of the most important elements to Plato’s many dialogues, and this is especially true in any reading of Republic.  Socrates appears as an unwise fool seeking wisdom from the sophists only to draw them into a conversation and expose their true thoughts to the public.  Another element of irony in the Republic is the hypocrisy of the sophists that stretches from start to finish.  For instance, in Book II, Adeimantus joined with Glaucon in defending ideas of the good and justice similar to Thrasymachus’s.  And this was just another veil of the same kind of ethical egoism that Hobbes himself drew from without ever acknowledging.[7]

Adeimantus, then, was vigorously defending a political ethic of self-advancement, self-interest, and the benefits of injustice at the start of the Republic.[8]  However, he later challenged Socrates that the guardian philosophers – whom Socrates extoled as the people who should guide the city – are rogue individuals who are completely self-interested.[9]  In the longwinded conversation between Socrates and Adeimantus, Socrates has managed to expose Adeimantus as a hypocrite.  This is made all the more ironic when, at the conclusion of the dialectic between the two, when Adeimantus and Glaucon implored Socrates to remain in their company to expound about his idea of justice rather than desert them, “By god, Socrates, Glaucon said, don’t desert us with the end almost in sight.  We’ll be satisfied if you discuss the good as you discussed justice, moderation, and the rest.”[10]  This is not meant to be lost upon the reader that Adeimantus, and the rest of the sophists, are hypocritical in their teaching of ethical egoism because it suits them while vigorously opposing any notion of justice that displaces their primacy in the city.

While the central theme of Plato’s Republic is justice, the quintessential question of the Republic is what kind of city do we live in?  This is critical to understanding the true impetus of Plato’s political philosophy.  It is not necessarily a question and examination about what kind of city we should aim for, though that is certainly wrapped up within the pages of the work, but it is an examination of what kind of city we live in.[11]  This is important because we are political animals and the city is, as both Plato and Aristotle rightly identify, the highest artful endeavor that humans work and participate in – the city is the end to humanity’s social animus throughout classical political philosophy.

Therefore, any reading of Plato’s Republic would be incomplete without addressing the question of what kind of city did Plato see himself inhabiting and responding to in his work.  To this end it is obvious as to why Socrates converses with the sophists – the sophists are the leaders and supposed “wise men” of the city of Athens.  And who better to analyze in seeking to understand what kind of city one is living in than to scrutinize the leaders and wise men who are also mentoring the next generation of Athenian leaders?

The Savage City: Thrasymachus

The most memorable sophist in Plato’s Republic is Thrasymachus, even though he quickly fades from the scene after the first book.  Thrasymachus is the perfect opposite, and foil, to Socrates at every level.  Not only is he the one who offers the most savage view of justice – that justice is in the interest of the stronger – he is also the most base in his responses.  Even Polemarchus and Cephalus were more eloquent in their attempts to justify their views of justice than Thrasymachus’s angered and acute outburst, “I say that justice is nothing other than the advantage of the stronger.  Well, why don’t you praise me?”[12]  It is also fitting of Thrasymachus to seek praise from Socrates for his brief explanation of justice in lieu of the money he demanded before speaking.[13]  There is an additional irony in Thrasymachus as the savage and wild man, encountering the gentle Socrates, who becomes the tamer of Thrasymachus by the end of their encounter.[14]

We first meet Thrasymachus as a detached listener.  But as he is about to enter into the conversation, Plato describes him in animalistic and predatory language, which is meant to convey, even before he speaks, his savage nature, “[Thraysmachus] coiled himself up like a wild beast about to spring, and he hurled himself at us as if to tear us to pieces.”[15]  Socrates even exclaims that he was started from the ambush from the predatory pounce, “Polemarchus and I were frightened and flustered as he roared into our midst.”[16]  From his first appearance to his first interjection, Thrasymachus is meant to be visualized as a wild and uncontrollable man like a predatory beast waiting to ambush his prey – itself reflective of his dog-eat-dog worldview.  Thrasymachus is not a human, he is not even a barbarian – he is something less than human, he is “a wild beast.”  Thrasymachus and Socrates begin their conversation on the nature of justice with Thrasymachus assailing Socrates for asking too many questions instead of providing an answer.  (This represents the difference between the inquisitive and thoughtful philosopher over and against the pragmatic politician of ready-made answers.)

After a short exchange, Socrates is attune to Thrasymachus’s seething anger for being made to look like a fool, “And you think that I asked the questions I did in order to harm you in the argument?” questions Socrates.[17]  Thrasymachus, in his own Thrasymachean style, answered, “I know it very well, but it won’t do you any good.  You’ll never be able to trick me, so you can’t harm me that way, and without trickery you’ll never be able to overpower me in argument.”[18]  When invited to critically participate in the conversation concerning the nature of justice, Thrasymachus postures to defend his power and ape-like character to scare off Socrates from his turf.  It is amusing to note, here, that from Thrasymachus’s perspective the inquiry and conversation over the nature of justice has become something of a wrestling contest between him and Socrates – and one that he is not ready to lose unless Socrates engages in “trickery.”  Thrasymachus is not interested in learning, that much should be understood by the reader.  He is only interested in advancing his own ideal, prestige, and power by any means – quite literally – necessary.  Thrasymachus is living up to his name as well as his beastly reputation.

It is also interesting to highlight that Thrasymachus, who in defending a view of justice which is centered on power, also sees speech as reflecting power.  Like a territorial beast, Thrasymachus muscles up to guard his turf against Socrates’s encroachment.  Thrasymachus again retorts to Socrates that he will not “be able to overpower [him] in argument.”[19]  The image of beastly animal still lingers over Thrasymachus, which is not meant to be lost to Plato’s readers.

Thrasymachus sees the Socratic dialectic of inquiring about justice and leading to an understanding of justice as principally being about himself and Socrates’s supposed attempt to harm him in argumentation.  Thrasymachus doesn’t even respond to Socrates’s questions – he instead attacks the questions of Socrates as being intentionally harmful.  Thrasymachus defends himself as superior to Socrates through being rhetorically more powerful than Socrates, which can equally be seen as an implicit physical threat toward Socrates too.  “Thrasymachus behaves like a graceless hater of speeches whose only weapon is force and savagery.  It seems to be fitting that the most savage man present should maintain the most savage thesis on justice,” as Leo Strauss noted.[20]

Eventually, Thrasymachus expounds an altered view that justice in the interest of the strong is obedience to laws.[21]  This is nothing new, and is reminiscent of the public orthodoxy that Thucydides stated was an integral aspect to Athenian exceptionalism during Pericles’s Funeral Oration, “We are free and tolerant in our private lives, but in public affairs we keep to the law.”[22]  In this sense, Thrasymachus’s savage view of justice gets coated over with the order of obedience to the law in much the same manner that our savage existence in the state of nature is supposedly expunged by the social contract theories of Hobbes and Locke.  Savagery is painted over with the public benefit of law – but this is a law of compulsory submission, that “sacred and unalterable [legislature]”[23] we have given our consent to by mere virtue of living under its jurisdiction.[24]  The move by Thrasymachus is nothing more than a rhetorical shift, which is the hallmark of sophistry.  If the laws were established by the powerful, then obedience to those laws is still acting in accord with the interest of the strong as Thrasymachus first barked out.

Thrasymachus, then, is the embodiment of the society that he represents: a society that is characterized by power, savagery, and violence, and wields violence and power with savage intent.  Thrasymachus responds to the supposed violent intrusion onto his power by Socrates with a threat reminding Socrates of his might, which is also an implicit demand to Socrates to begin apologizing and showering him with the praise that he seeks in order to sooth his bruised ego.  In many ways, Thrasymachus is the same vulgar youth that Cicero worries about in his own treatise on political philosophy,[25] but Thrasymachus is more dangerous insofar that he is a vulgar animal.  He is the vulgar youth who hasn’t matured intellectually despite maturing in body.  He claims intelligence and wisdom, but when met with the intelligence and wisdom of Socrates – which contrasts so acutely against Thrasymachus – he gets defensive and retorts to his savage instincts by threatening Socrates.

Any challenge to this worldview that promotes a savage life must be met with brutal force, as highlighted in Thrasymachus’s initial response to Socrates, and also Cleitophon’s attempt to rescue Thrasymachus by rudely “interrupting”[26] and simply restating the same savage claim of justice in a different manner.[27]  Say something loud enough, and long enough, and it will be accepted as truth – which is foreshadowing the dictatorship of noise in the Cave.  That Thrasymachus’s thesis on justice is savage is also embodied in his savage rhetoric and engagement with the man whom the Delphi Oracle claimed to be the wisest in all of Greece (though Thrasymachus certainly sees himself as the wisest man in Greece).[28]  Where Socrates is poetic, eloquent, and insightful, Thrasymachus is crass, crude, and spiteful.  Where Socrates acts as a gentle lamb, Thrasymachus acts like an ambushing lion.  The very difference in language, and mannerisms, are meant to contrast Socrates (beautiful, inquisitive, and wise) with Thrasymachus (crass, crude, and spiteful) and highlight the level of thoughtful reflection and wisdom that the two have attained on the subject matter.  The two could not be more antagonistic and oppositional, and this seems to be intentional on the part of Plato to highlight the gulf of difference between Socrates (the philosopher) and Thrasymachus (the politician posing as the philosopher).

The aesthetics of language in Plato’s dialogues is one of the enduring features of Plato’s writings.  The savagery of Thrasymachus is not just in his character, it is in his speech, and it is also in his view of justice (most visibly).  This is not lost on Strauss who stated, “One might go so far as to say that Thrasymachus presents Injustice incarnate, [or] the tyrant.”[29] Plato’s philosophy is premised upon an examination of the social mind toward the good, the true, and the beautiful in escaping the chaos, darkness, and ignorance of the world.  This dialectical element of Plato’s philosophy plays itself out in the dialectic between Socrates and Thrasymachus.  Their encounter is one of the good, the true, and beautiful (Socrates) coming into a head-on collision with chaos, darkness, and ignorance (Thrasyamchus).  The speeches and inquiries by Socrates are beautiful and easy flowing while the speeches by Thrasymachus are crass and crude.

Furthermore, there is no beauty in Thrasymachus’s actions toward Socrates.  This is reflective of the savage city, embodied by Thrasymachus, and symptomatic of how the savage city responds to those who seek wisdom, truth, and virtue.  Wealth, power, and prestige – all things that Thrasymachus represents, defends, and seeks – are the only things worthwhile to pursue in the Thrasymachean worldview.  In some way, then, he is not altogether dissimilar to Polemarchus who also sees the pursuit of wealth and power from wealth as part of the justice that comes with paying off debts, though Polemarchus is the first of the sophists to side with Socrates after listening carefully and reflecting upon Socrates’s challenges.[30]  Even previously amoral Polemarchus is awoken from his moral stupor in coming to side with Socrates by being and engaged and attentive participant in the dialectic – this is intentionally inserted by Plato and to be realized by the reader.

Plato’s pessimism is equally tempered by an implicit optimism.  In this encounter between the savage fighter and the wise sage, the wise sage eventually tames the savage beast.  It is a complete reversal of the encounter between Hector and Achilles in which the wise and just individual overcomes the savage brute.  By the end of the first book, Thrasymachus’s combative and bombastic character and style and has tempered by the wisdom and insight being offered by Socrates.  Socrates even claims to have become friends with Thrasymachus and defends him against possible slander from Adeimantus, “Don’t slander Thraysmachus and me just as we’ve become friends.”[31]  From roaring animal attempting to ambush Socrates to a friend whom Socrates defends from libel was the result of the dialectic between the two, even if Thrasymachus’s altered views concerning justice remain unknown to us.  Though the reality of living in Thrasymachus’s savage city is just starting to become visible to the reader.

Thus, Plato highlights how savagery is tamed – through words and language, and truthful words at that.  The pursuit of wisdom is what overcomes savagery.  To have met savagery with savagery – as was Thrasymachus’s original intent in attempting to gaud Socrates into a savage fight in which Socrates would stoop down to Thrasymachus’s level – would have only begotten further chaos and violence and expose Socrates as unwise and uninterested in the genuine pursuit of light.[32]  But the taming of Thrasymachus isn’t the exit into the light, in many ways Plato’s journey in the depravity and savagery of sophist philosophy is just beginning.

The Nihilistic City: Glaucon

Through the encounter with Thrasyamchus Plato invites us to think about the savage city and whether we live in it – and how to respond to the combative and violent impulse of such a city.  While Glaucon and Adeimantus defend Thrasymachus’s savage city in their apologia of the benefits of injustice, the turn to Glaucon and Adeimantus represent the logical end to Thrasymachus’s violent city which the two are attempting to defend: permissive nihilism ending with murder (which is the celebration of the culture of death).  Despite being listeners to the views of justice recently offered, it is evident that it had no impact upon Glaucon or Adeimantus who charge headlong into dialectic and seek to defend Thrasymachus’s thesis against Socrates’s rebuttal.

In the conversation over the nature of the Good and whether humans naturally act immorally, Glaucon and Adeimantus not only defend Thrasymachus’s original thesis, but their defense of Thrasymachus is the logical devolution demanded from Thrasymachus’s original view of justice.  Like the cyclical spiral in the latter half of the Book of Judges things are only getting worse. Plato is now descending farther down into the pit of darkness in exploring the implications and logic of the sophists which began with Socrates’s examination of Thrasymachus.

Glaucon’s defense of the Good is the opposite of Plato’s.  But Glaucon’s exposition of the Good should be familiar to us: the Good is that which is pleasurable to the body (desirable in-of-itself), desirable in-of-itself and for results, and desirable for results only.[33]  Glaucon expounds doctrines that are later promoted by Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, the broader utilitarian tradition, and their heirs: the logic of humans as automata set in bodily motion,[34] or as Julien Offray de La Mettrie said more basely, “man-machines,” ends in humans seeing the Good only self-centeredly, bodily, and mathematically.  After all, Hobbes’s philosophy of goodness is identical to Glaucon’s bodily pleasures in-of-themselves.[35]

What is visible in Glaucon’s three definitions of the Good is that it turns from humans being stimulated pleasure-seeking masses of matter of motion (first definition) into humans becoming machines seeking only material results (third definition). The end result of hedonism is nihilism and the disintegration of human nature as we become Laputans.  Plato is aware that the logic of Glaucon’s first definition of the Good eventually leads him to conclude that the ultimate definition of the Good is that which is desirable for end results, even if Glaucon thinks the first definition is the highest Good in-of-itself.  All three definitions of the Good reflect the egoism and materialism of the sophists.  In rapid succession Glaucon moved from hedonism, to empiricism, and then to physicalism, which is the very logical devolution that hedonism demands.

The problem with Glaucon’s definitions of the Good is that they are not really three definitions of the Good at all.  The third definition of the Good is the devolutionary logical fulfillment of the first definition that Glaucon began with.  Glaucon’s second definition is equally problematic since it is the fulfillment of atomistic hedonism seeing everything as means to an end, the end being self-centered pleasure through the usage of things in the world.  What is desirable for results only is what is desirable in-of-itself in the atomized, egoistic, and self-centered philosophy of the sophists.  This problem was dealt with in a tragic sense by Jean Paul Sartre when he talks about “The Look”[36] which dissolves into concrete relationships with others and our want for self-pleasure exhausts itself in either masochism or sadism.[37]  That we are trapped in this being-for-itself is Sartre’s more eloquent re-appraisal of the tragedy of the Good Glaucon defends as being desirable in-of-itself.

That Glaucon sees the three definitions as separate indicates his ignorance, which is not lost on Socrates.  Socrates baits Glaucon to highlighting the depravity of his views of the Good and justice when he states that he is “a slow learner.”[38]  It is therefore unsurprising that after establishing these definitions of the Good that Glaucon presents his most famous analogy immediately afterward, the story of the Ring of Gyges – which is the fulfillment of his own nihilistic views of the Good, which Socrates has now successfully goaded Glaucon into revealing by posing as an ignorant slow learner.

There is nothing to critique or find repulsive about the shepherd’s behavior because he has found a pleasurable end in his efficient actions of self-advancement.  It is also impossible to critique the actions of the shepherd because Glaucon associates such behavior as humanity’s natural state of being. What is often forgotten in this brief but famous story is that Glaucon stated before the story that the power to do injustice is freedom in its most natural form – the power to commit injustice is freedom according to Glaucon.[39]  As Glaucon informs Socrates, “We can see most clearly that those who practice justice do it unwillingly and because they lack the power to do justice, if in our thoughts we grant to a just and unjust person to do whatever they like.  This is what anyone’s nature naturally pursues as good, but nature is forced by law into the perversion of treating fairness with respect.”[40]  In other words, the ability to be savage is freedom in its most pristine physis which is what the sophists teach to their students.  Insofar that Glaucon and Sartre are in agreement, and that both see the end to material existence as a physical power struggle between subject-consciousness and subject-objectified attempting to sublate one another – the dialectical tension that St. Augustine later called libido dominandi – it is unsurprising that the unnamed shepherd seduces the queen, kills the king, and seizes the kingdom for himself.[41]

The exhaustive end to Glaucon’s definitions of the Good is nihilism, which is why it ends in the ultimate form of nihilism: the killing of a human for a self-centered end.  It is the ultimate form of theft, the theft of one’s life.  Virtue is completely absent in Glaucon’s city because virtue is about self-restraint and order rather than licentious lust and an acceptance of the doctrine that the ends justify the means; but Glaucon’s philosophy of ends justifying the means is given even more impossibility to critique because it is what is naturally natural by Glaucon’s own admission – and the “moral” is the natural and the natural is injustice.[42]  This is why justice is injustice in the minds of the sophists.  Glaucon’s city is the opposite of the healthy and laboring city that Socrates would later describe.[43]

The city that Glaucon represents is the city of permissive nihilism ending in murder.  By murder Plato means death, much like how Philo’s reading of the murder of Abel is about the culture of death embodied in Cain rather than the tale of Cain slaughtering Abel.  The murder of the king in the Ring of Gyges is not the central message being conveyed, per se. Instead, it is the underlying foundation of the city Glaucon advocates for – premised on Glaucon’s defense of Thraysmachus’s thesis and his definitions of the Good – which is the city that celebrates the culture of death as the highest expression of the natural freedom as one of injustice.

Glaucon’s city is not just savage, as was Thrasymachus’s city; it is the city of death that results from being the savage city in-of-itself.  We are meant to realize that Glaucon’s city is the savage city of death writ-large, the fulfillment of savagery in the culture, life, and practices of the city.  Glaucon’s city of death, then, is the logical debasement of Thrasymachus’s savage city.[44]  Thus, Glaucon’s city is the city without virtue, and in comparison to Thrasymachus, it is Thrasymachus’s city that is “more sober [and] more pedestrian than Glaucon’s.”[45]  In other words, Glaucon’s city is one of “unrighteous philosophy.”

As a result, there is no light in Glaucon’s city as all persons selfishly slave away at their own desires and ends.  And, more dangerously, we are all at the mercy of those with the power to commit injustice as the highest expression of “freedom.”  Glaucon’s freedom, ironically, is reminiscent of the tragedy of freedom in Sartre’s modern classic – the freedom for the lust for domination and nothing more than that; though in Sartre we are anguished by this burden of freedom while Glaucon celebrates this immorality and injustice because “immoralism” and “injustice” are conventions while the philosophy that Glaucon defends is the savage freedom of natural man.  Glaucon, after all, boldly proclaims in front of everyone, “Indeed, every man believes that injustice is far more profitable to himself than justice.”[46]

If injustice is our nature, and it brings about desirable results, then Glaucon’s second definition should be the only definition of the Good for that which is desirable in-of-itself is also what is desirable for results only.  If justice is desirable only for results, then Glaucon’s own logic should agree that people want justice because it is also desirable in-of-itself, which he does not believe because that would make justice the highest possible Good rather than the lowest possible Good.  So which is it?  Is justice desirable because humans are weak and therefore seek justice because it is desirable for results only due to their weakness and powerless state against those who are more powerful, or do the masses actually desire justice because it is also desirable in-of-itself indicating a natural longing for justice as that which is desirable in-of-itself?  Socrates has managed expose all the internal inconsistencies of Glaucon’s philosophy of the Good and defense of injustice as naturally good without saying a word.  Glaucon has tangled himself in his own web.  One would almost be moved to take pity on Glaucon if not for his otherwise base views on the Good and defense of natural injustice as man’s natural mode of existence.

The genius of Plato is fully seen in the conversations between Socrates and the sophists.  By Thrasymachus’s and Glaucon’s own admissions the savage injustice of the “state of nature” is the savage city of injustice that we live in.  The “social contract” never changed anything – even in Glaucon’s telling of it.  The social contract still primarily serves the benefit of the powerful despite some concessions to the masses and the new incantations of repentance and sacrifice established in public religion to keep the image of “justice” in the minds of the public.[47]  (Which in-of-itself embodies a religion under the control of the state or religion having become a “civil religion.”)  The social contract simply gave injustice and savagery a new polished shining.  To obey the law is to be obedient to the interests of those who established the law in the first place.  The public rituals and rites are grand spectacles that allow the wealthy to “benefit his friends [while] harming his enemies,”[48] while maintaining the illusion of justice to the weak majority.  On this note it is peculiar that Glaucon is simply defending the same views of (in)justice from Polemarchus and Thrasymachus, only this time within the parameters of legal contracts and the law of justice.  The “just” city is still unjust, which is why Socrates critiques Glaucon and presents the evolution of the truly just city as evolving from the city of pigs to the city of philosophers.

The Tyrannical City: The Cave

Plato’s descent into the depth of hell is not yet complete.  What could be worse than the savage city of death and lust writ large?  Savagery leading to death and lust is the gateway to tyranny, which is to say that Thrasymachus’s savage city is the pathway to tyranny.  It is also to say that savagery leads to ignorance and that savagery and ignorance are linked together as the two enjoined roads descending into the pit of tyranny.

The most famous allegory of the Republic is the Allegory of the Cave.  While it is undoubtedly true that this allegory also contains Plato’s epistemology, but Plato’s epistemology cannot be separated from his political philosophy and the Allegory of the Cave cannot be separated out as anything but a continued examination of the question of what kind of city do we live in.  After all, the entire book is an examination of that question masked by the theme of justice.

Just as there are three identifiable stages of a city’s growth to the ideal, there are three cities that are opposites of each stage.  The opposite of the city of pigs is Thrasymachus’s savage city.  The opposite of the healthy city of honest toiling labor is Glaucon’s city of deceit, lust, and theft.  The opposite of the heavenly city of the philosophers is the dark and tyrannical city of the Cave.  Where the growth from pigs to light is the maturation of the eidos, the cruel devolution of the cities of the sophists runs in the other direction ending in the deliberate enslavement of humanity preventing maturation into the forms.  It is reverse engineering – social engineering – preventing the natural growth of seeds into fruit bearing trees as they take on their form.

It should come as no surprise, then, that we begin in the dark cave deep underground, like seeds, who are meant to be called up to the light of the sun.[49]  But this is no place of enjoyment, as Socrates makes clear, we are hemmed in, deceived, with walls enclosed all around – like with Sartre’s hell – we are trapped with no exit since “a low wall has been built.”[50]  The wall keeps us in place as the captors deceive us with artifacts, echoes, and shadows.

The Cave is an entirely dark and physical place.  The people along the wall carry only material artifacts.  Some speak and others remain silent which adds confusion to the senses – the same senses that are important to Glaucon’s second definition of the good – and embodies the idea of the dictatorship of confused and inarticulate sounds reminiscent of when Elijah flees from the sounds of the enraged masses, the violent crashes of thunder and earthquakes, to find solace in silent contemplation and the “still small voice.”  After all, it is the still silence under the radiant light of the sun in which the freed prisoner is able to come to understand truth.  One is freed from all the sounds of the Cave – the dictatorship of noise, or the sounds of opinions.

Glaucon is no fool, however.  He is aware that this appears to be a prison-like atmosphere, “It’s a strange image you’re describing, and strange prisoners,” he says to Socrates.[51]  Socrates, in one of his blunt moments of honesty, immediately responds, “They’re like us.”[52]  Openly states that they are like the prisoners, Athens is like the Cave, and the sophists are the frauds holding up artifacts and deceiving the imprisoned masses inside the Cave.

We have moved from Thrasymachus’s dog-eat-dog world from the surface to an enchained, dark, and cramped world of deceit, lies, and confusion deep underground.  Socrates, here, admits that we live in the city dominated by the sophists and that Thrasymachus’s thesis, while not necessarily correct as to what justice is, is the foundation of the city we inhabit.  This is because the question of justice is linked to the question of the type of city we inhabit – and it is clear that we live in a city that was premised on Thrasymachus’s thesis and we have now reached the revelation as to what the end of Thrasymachus’s city of savagery becomes.

The Cave is dark because there is no truth in it.  The echoes and shadows deceive the senses to the point that “the prisoners would in every way believe that the truth is nothing other than the shadows of those artifacts” even though we know, as readers, that those artifacts, echoes, and shadows are deceiving and not true representations of the truth but represent the false claims of the opinion of the senses established by the walls of the Cave as “truth.”[53]  But the actual journey to the truth of the light, especially when having been ensnared in darkness and the world of false opinions for so long, is a tough and painful journey.[54]  The freed prisoner is pained and irritated.  Though after adjusting to the light and basking in the glory of the sun, he begins to know truth and finds joy and happiness in having been freed from the ignorance and tyranny of the Cave.

What follows is one of the most remarkable short exchanges in the whole of Plato’s Republic.  The freed man, who has matured from ensnared seedling to blossoming and flourishing human, decides to descend back into the Cave to help free the prisoners and bring them back up the glory and happiness of the light of the true world.  However, he is unable to adjust to the ignorance of the Cave and appears to be a stumbling and mumbling fool to the prisoners.[55]  The prisoners ridicule him at first, but then come to see him as a madman who threatens their lives in the Cave and subsequently kill him.[56]  “Precisely the best of the non-philosophers, the good citizens, are passionately attached to these opinions and therefore passionately opposed to philosophy.”[57]  It is not just the ignorant masses who are attached to false opinions which lead them to the killing of the philosopher, which is to say that ignorance is the culmination of savagery and savagery is the culmination of ignorance, but it is the “best citizens” who get their hands wet with the blood of the philosopher precisely because it is their interests that are at stake.

Like Jeremiah, Plato’s philosopher speaking the truth of light and wisdom to the masses ensnared in opinion is seen as a madman and fool.  The people eventually decide to kill the philosopher for disturbing their comfortable world of opinion just as the Jerusalemites tried to kill Jeremiah for disturbing their comforts being mouthed by Hananiah.  In their ignorance the masses in the Cave are blind to simplest dictates of natural reason that are contained in the Decalogue.

The most interesting aspect to the Allegory of the Cave is the enslavement of humans in the Cave, and how total tyranny is not merely the end result of savagery, but is also linked to ignorance.  The implication is that the world of the sophists – to which Socrates says that he and his companions are prisoners of the sophist’s tyrannical Cave since the prisoners “are us” – is one of tyranny.  The end result of sophistry is the chaos, ignorance, and tyranny of the Cave – a literal hell manifested due to ignorance and the forced preventing of people to grow into wisdom.  It is the city that is savage, deceitful, and tyrannical: the prisoners are kept in darkness, enchained, and prevented from maturing out of the darkness of the Cave to the splendor of truthful brilliance which is the light of the sun.  The ultimate form of tyranny is ignorance since, for Plato, knowledge is related to virtue and proper virtue is action and the putting on of one’s form – which is to say to be fully living in accord to human nature.  In this regard Aristotle fully agrees with Plato that human nature is about the attainment of knowledge.[58]

In being enchained, and prevented from the journey to the truth of the sun, the Cave is attempting to reverse engineer human life with the power of spectacle and technology.  After all, the people on the wall parade artifacts that cast shadows that keep the ensnared commoners “entertained,” they howl about to dizzy the senses, and great iron chains keep them shackled to the ground.  The people are attached to the world of opinions which has, through legislation, spectacle, and technology, been fed to the cave-dwellers as the pill of nobility and truth despite it being the pill of debasement and falsity.  “The cave-dwellers…do not know that that these their most cherished convictions possess no higher status than that of opinion.”[59]

The sophist leaders of the Cave, those “legislators”[60] who parade artifacts and cast shadows, on the other hand, are not enchained or confused as the people in the Cave are.  The sophists know precisely what they are doing in keeping the masses attached and enchained to deified opinion as they freely move about in the Cave.  It is the elevation of enshrined opinion to the point of deification in the civil cult that is necessary to ward off the philosopher who comes to the Cave to teach about the falsity of the world of opinion.  The truth would crush simple opinion, but sacralized opinion draws the defense of the cave-dwellers who see the philosopher as mad – ridiculing him at first, but in his determined persistence, is murdered so as to save the realm of opinion.  The tyrannical city is built on lies and other sacred myths that mask the reality of the savage city in which the people live.

The Cave is not merely the savage city of Thrasymachus or the city of death and deceit of Glaucon, it is both.  Moreover, it is tyrannical precisely because of its savage, deceitful, and deadly character.  Not only is the philosopher killed as he tries to bring to the Cave a message about the brilliance of the light of truth beyond the walls, the people inside the Cave are completely dead in the Platonic sense.  The mass men of the Cave are not thinking minds searching for wisdom, but minds numbed and completely given over to the pit of opinion and desiring acceptance in the world of opinion rather than taking on their form in the pursuit of wisdom, they are not living souls at all.  Socrates implies that the soul enchained in darkness will never realize he is darkness unless he has glimpsed the brilliance of light.[61]  But without this opportunity, the soul slumbers in eternal darkness and never cultivates virtue.[62]  And there are serious ramifications for the city as a result of this.[63]

The Cave is the final devolution of Thrasymachus’s savage city and Glaucon’s murderous and licentious city.  Plato has taken us from the world of beastly barbarism (Thrasymachus) to the dark depth of the underworld (the Cave).  But our hero, the philosopher, has been killed in his descent into the realm of the dead.  In his impetuous enthusiasm he was deemed a mad-man who threatened the “truths” of sacred opinion – threatened the order of the Cave itself – and therefore had to pay the gruesome price as a threat to the public.

From Death to Life: Er and the Republic in Perspective

Having examined Plato’s Republic as principally being one concerned with the question of what kind of city do we live in moreover than what kind of city we should strive for – though it is concerned with that question too – the question of what type of city we should strive for is presupposed by needing to understanding what kind of city we live in the first place. And in recognizing that we live in the city of death and tyranny, Plato’s Republic is a work of resurrection insofar that we begin with savage death, descend into the bottom circle of hell in the Allegory of the Cave, and emerge at the end of it all with the resurrection of Er before the brilliant light of wisdom that grants true life to those who find it.[64]

Insofar that Er’s resurrection correlates to his having attained knowledge, and being informed that he is to be a messenger of this truth to other humans, the coming into form and the taking on of human nature is reflected in Er’s “death to life” narrative.  Since human nature is linked to the attainment of wisdom, and that the attainment of wisdom is the seed having now come to bear fruit, Plato’s political animal is different from Aristotle’s political animal insofar that Plato’s political animal is the social mind.[65]

The Myth of Er is opposite of the Cave.  There is the light of brilliance as opposed to the darkness of shadows.  A corpse is revivified by light rather than remain shackled to the ground in darkness.  Er is not confused by the dictates given him, which stands in stark contrast to the confusion of noise and rhetoric from within the Cave.  In the story of Er justice is linked to knowledge and that knowledge inculcates the habit of virtue that is necessary to be just.  It is the ordering of one’s mind to the Good from which knowledge, justice, and virtue flow.  In this one recognizes the reward of a life lived on earth is not based on the public sacrifices and rituals enacted in civic religion as Glaucon suggested,[66] but is entirely linked to the Logos and how one acts in relation to others and the life lived in the city itself.[67]  Suffering is linked to the degree of virtue one has attained.  The implied message being that the more knowledge and virtue there is, the less suffering there will be in the city.

Plato’s Republic is an invitation to awaken the slumbering mind to life.  It is an invitation to invest and contemplate the nature of the city one finds themselves living in.  Only after assessing the nature of the city can the individual know how to act in accord with knowledge and virtue and help lift up the rest of the city out of the pit of the Cave.  Socrates, in this sense, is Er.  Socrates, unlike the impetuous philosopher retold in the Allegory of the Cave, is the political animal – the social mind – seeking out wisdom from others, and in doing so, fulfills his social animus but also awakens his partners into becoming thinking and reflective minds.  In this way the movement from city of pigs to city of light commences.

Plato, then, subtlety informs us that we do live in the savage city.  Whether we live in the Cave remains to be seen, but is always a present danger because Plato makes clear that the devolution of the savage city finds fulfillment in the Cave.  Plato is inviting us out of the Cave because the philosopher who descends into the Cave risks death, so Plato doesn’t descend into the Cave with us but calls us out of the Cave through the awakening of the mind which is the art of dialogue.  Plato’s dialogues are eternal because they invite us to dialogue with him, even after all of these millennia.

Throughout the Republic Plato satirizes the sophists and exposes the sheer depth of their savage ways.  But Plato also indicates to us that we live in the sophist’s savage city.  And Plato is also warning that the city that the sophists represent is not merely savage, but will exhaust itself into tyranny and lead to human corpses being enchained in darkness.  Plato’s Republic is not a roadmap to utopia; it is a critique of the savage city that is now a work that allows us to ponder the question as to what kind of city we live in.

That the work ends in the city of light – like Dante’s journey through hell and purgatory – is equally telling since Plato’s work starts off in savagery and confusion, the mind wandering for union with the Good, and ends with a vision of the Good, however incomplete it is.  Plato, then, leaves it to his readers to complete it.  This is the enduring allure of Plato’s Republic.  It is an incomplete work because in being incomplete it invites the reader to become a thinker – which is philosophy in its most primal and basic form.


This article was published by VoegelinView, 17 January 2018 under the title “Savagery, Irony, and Satire in Plato’s Republic.”

Author’s Note: I am (now) an Associate Editor at VoegelinView.


[1] Leo Strauss, The City and Man (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964), 50.

[2] Ibid., 51.

[3] Ibid., 62.

[4] Aristotle, Politics, trans. Benjamin Jowett (New York: Modern Library, 2001), 1.1.1253a

[5] In Book X of the Republic, during the story of the “Myth of Er” (10.614a–10.621a), Plato seems to be suggesting that humans take on their nature as social animals only after enlightenment and taking embodying the virtues necessary for maintaining a healthy civil society.  The full journey out of the Cave to the light is not merely an individual philosopher’s journey.  The light of the city is brought to fruition in the story of Er and Er’s quest to bring his knowledge to the city and its inhabitants.  The journey from darkness (hell) to light (heaven) is complete by book’s end.  In this manner, Plato bequeathed to Aristotle the same view that nature is the taking on of form through growth, cf. Aristotle, Physics, trans. C.D.C. Reeve (New York: Modern Library, 2001), 192b-200b.  See also Francisco Gonzalez, “Of Beasts and Heroes: The Promiscuity of Beasts and Animals in the Myth of Er,” in Plato’s Animals: Gadflies, Horses, Swans, and Other Philosophical Beasts, eds. Jeremy Bell and Michael Naas (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2015), 227.

[6] That Socrates is a social animal is reflective of the fact that he is like Er, he is the wise man who also has an understanding of virtue which compels him into social engagement.  But in order to thrive as a social mind – which is Plato’s understanding of what it means to be a social animal – Socrates treads lightly with irony.  Thrasymachus is aware of this and attempts to expose Socrates as a fraudulent individual who is not unwise but very wise indeed.  Socrates appears unwise to engage in dialectic with others but does so with good intentions.

[7] Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965), 168.

[8] Plato, The Republic, trans. G.M.A. Grube (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2005), 2.362d-2.372, 2.376d-383c.

[9] Ibid., 6.487a-6.507a.

[10] Ibid., 6.506d.

[11] It is the confusion of this question, I believe, which caused Karl Popper to wrongfully see Plato as the philosopher who is in the background of all totalitarian movements as he explained in The Open Society and Its Enemies: The Spell of Plato (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1966).

[12] Plato, Republic, 1.338c.

[13] Ibid., 1.337d.

[14] Strauss, The City and Man, 74.

[15] Plato, Republic, 1.336b.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid. 1.341a.

[18] Ibid., 1.341b.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Strauss, The City and Man, 74.

[21] Plato, Republic, 1.339c.

[22] Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, trans. Rex Warner (New York: Penguin Books, 1972), 2.37.

[23] John Locke, Two Treatises of Government, ed. Ian Shapiro (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), Second Treatise, 11.134.

[24] Ibid., Second Treatise, 8.119.

[25] Cicero, The Republic, trans. Niall Rudd (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 1.67.

[26] Plato, Republic, 1.340a.

[27] Ibid., 1.340b.

[28] Strauss, The City and Man, 74.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Plato, Republic, 1.340a.

[31] Ibid., 6.498c.

[32] It seems clear that was Thrasymachus’s attempt.  Thrasymachus claims that this was Socrates’s plan all along – to assault and harm him and his honor, to which he militantly strikes back by claiming Socrates cannot overpower him with rhetoric.  This is surely an invitation to Socrates to engage in a rhetorical battle with Thrasymachus, which would bring Socrates down to his level where Thrasymachus believes he has the competitive and combative advantage.  Thus, Thrasymachus’s intent is to engage Socrates in rhetorical debate instead of dialectic where he believes he will win – like the lion slaughtering the lamb, Thrasymachus’s intent is to lure Socrates into a trap and devour him.  Socrates takes the road less travelled, as it were, and ends up taming Thrasymachus as a result.

[33] Plato, Republic, 2.357b-2.357c.

[34] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (New York: Barnes and Nobles, 2004), Introduction, xxxiii.

[35] Ibid., I, 6.  Leo Strauss also notes that Hobbes’s philosophy is sophistry writ-large wrapped up in the language and post-Baconian New Science that (intentionally) obscures his connection to the Greek sophists.  “When speaking of earlier political philosophers, Hobbes does not mention that tradition whose most famous representatives might be thought to be the ‘sophists.’”  See Strauss, Natural Right and History, 168.

[36] Jean Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness (New York: Washington Square Press, 1992), 340.

[37] Ibid., 474-534.

[38] Plato, Republic, 2.358a.

[39] Ibid., 2.359b-2.359c.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Ibid., 2.359b-2.360b.

[42] Ibid., 2.359b-2.359c.

[43] Ibid., 2.372a-2.373a.

[44] Strauss, The City and Man, 87-88.  Strauss sees Glaucon as breaking from Thraysmachus.  However, I see Glaucon as the fulfilling debasement of Thrasymachus – in this sense, Glaucon doesn’t break with Thrasymachus at all but is the devolved fulfillment of Thrasymachus’s starting thesis which Glaucon is defending.

[45] Ibid., 87.

[46] Plato, Republic, 2.360c.

[47] Ibid., 2.362b-2.362c.

[48] Ibid., 2.362b.

[49] Ibid., 7.514a.

[50] Ibid., 7.514b.

[51] Ibid., 7.515a.

[52] Ibid.

[53] Ibid., 7.515b-7.515c.

[54] Ibid., 7.515d-7.515e.

[55] Ibid., 7.517a.

[56] Ibid.

[57] Strauss, The City and Man, 125.

[58] Aristotle, Metaphysics, trans. W.D. Ross (New York: Modern Library, 2001), 980a.

[59] Strauss, The City and Man, 125.

[60] Ibid.

[61] Plato, Republic, 7.518a-7.518b.

[62] Ibid., 7.718c-7.718e.

[63] Ibid., 7.519b-7.519c.

[64] Ibid., 10.614b-10.614c.  It is interesting to note that Er is revived after having “seen…the world beyond.”  Plato makes a deliberate move to link Er’s resurrection with knowledge, which is the true form of life – the thinking soul whom attains knowledge.  Er is erroneously laid on the pyre as dead, as he does not yet possess knowledge, but is suddenly brought to life precisely because he has attained knowledge.  This is not merely subtle, but explicit.  Er’s resurrection is linked to his attainment of knowledge.

[65] Gonzalez, 227.

[66] Refer back to supra note 47.

[67] Plato, Republic, 10.615a-10.615c.

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