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Plato's Republic opens with this famous sentence:

I went down yesterday to the Piraeus [...]

According to Professor David Roochnik, in his lectures about The Republic, the choice of Piraeus as the setting for the dialogue is symbolic for two main reasons:

  1. Piraeus was the place where the Thirty Tyrants were defeated and democracy restored, in 403 BCE.
  2. Being the port of Athens, Piraeus was – as any other port city in the world – full of foreigners, some of whom, like Cephalus, were very rich. This would be related to the discussion about whether cultural diversity in a city is a good thing or not.

Is this interpretation generally accepted among scholars?

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    You know you're a nerd when you see the words "The Republic" and think Star Wars instead of Plato... fml – stoicfury Jan 23 '12 at 16:54
  • The first point clearly seems valid. The second sounds a bit anachronistic and stretched, but it's an interesting point. Cephalus was an armsmaker from Syracuse in Sicily, the birthplace of the rhetoric. – Aputsiak Mar 3 '12 at 0:13
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I am not in a position to answer your question about scholarly consensus regarding the two symbolic meanings of the choice of the Piraeus. There is, however, a discussion of the framing story of the Republic that I encountered recently and found fascinating. That discussion addresses what was said to be going on in the Piraeus just before the dialogue, rather than the port location as a location with characteristics and a history.

The discussion is in the concluding chapter of Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011), by Robert N. Bellah. It is part of a longer discussion of the evolution of the term theoria and its successor, “theory”. Bellah in turn draws on Andrea Nightingale, Spectacles of Truth in Classical Greek Philosophy: Theoria in Its Cultural Context (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

Bellah writes (on page 577):

She notes that Plato himself begins and ends the Republic with examples of traditional theoria. The dialogue begins with Socrates going to the Piraeus, the port of Athens, to attend the festival of the Thracian goddess, Bendis, suggesting that the festival was more “international” than the short distance to the Piraeus might indicate, especially in view of Socrates's remark that the Thracian procession was as fine as the Athenian one, expressing a Panhellenic viewpoint. And the Republic ends with the Myth of Er, which turns out to be a most remarkable theoria, because Er, who had been killed in battle and was about to be cremated, awoke and told his fellow countrymen about a journey he had made to the land of the dead and the festival he had attended there. [Bellah here cites pages 74–77 of Nightingale.]

Thus, on Bellah's recounting of Nightingale's observation, it is the religious festival taking place in the Piraeus, and Socrates's role as a theoros of that festival, that is salient as the opening of the narrative frame for the Republic.

  • Interesting! But I'm afraid I don't understand what theoria means, in this traditional sense. – Otavio Macedo Mar 14 '12 at 23:28
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    @Otavio it's the Greek root of the English word "theory" and is often translated as "contemplation"; etymologically it is related to vision and seeing -- the Latin contemplatio translates it. See en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theoria – Joseph Weissman Mar 15 '12 at 18:30
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    @JosephWeissman Bellah is interested in particular in the transition from the ritual meaning of theoria to the philosophical meaning of the same word, to which you have pointed Otavio. Traditionally, theoria is 'a journey abroad for the sake of witnessing an event or spectacle' (Nightingale 2004, pages 40-41, et passim). – Paul E. Oppenheimer Mar 16 '12 at 6:08
  • so the answer has metaphysical connotations as well? – trocchietto Mar 2 '18 at 19:00
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It is an allusion to the Cave Allegory. The enlightened one is going into the cave to enlighten... It is also a spiritual descent because he is also going there for pagan worship to pray to the goddess for the festival, which is below the wisdom of Plato and Way below the wisdom of Jesus Christ.

  • interesting contribution, even if do not agree with the last sentence. – trocchietto Mar 2 '18 at 18:57
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It simply means Plato went down to the foundation of the Republic to conduct a diagnosis of the condition of the Republic.

  • Welcome to Philosophy SE. Answers typically need to be more developed. The way you answered is more appropriate as a comment. – Alexander S King Dec 15 '15 at 5:57
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We should before distinguish about what is the purpose of the Republic. Without this missing point we cannot pinpoint the real context. Some sources I cannot recall at the moment( sorry, maybe neoplatonic) say Plato kept correcting the Republic books all his life. In any case is such a long book where it is a pertinent assumption Plato did not leave to case the initial sentences. Several reasons for that:

1) Plato dialogues present meanings not always evident initially, nothing esoteric, just a fact, knew people that spent 20 years only on the Repubblic for instance.

2) The book is too long to not take attention to the first phrase, even because in the 10th book also there is a noticeable end.

3) The semantic analysis of all his dialogues show that the way they begin is almost always referring to some particular context.

Said that, the purpose of the book is political, metaphysical, on Dike, the justice? How Plato considers when he writes his book, the environment of that period?

With all these premises we can also think that he is referring to going down to the Ades. And also that can still remain valid other meanings, as the ones quoted so far. The Piraeus is an haven, a place where there are people usually different by philosophers. As it is a fiction, why that procession? It was quite popular this Thracian deity for sure at the time of Plato, but could we think that there was some reasons behind? Bendis as Artemis is linked to Cybele, and here should be seen the link with the last book of the republic where there is the myth of Er. Andin this sense would be interesting to see how the similarities with the concept of a cathabasis in Ades become much more familiar.

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According to Dr. Langton, at Westminster College, the opening line is symbolic of Socrates going back down into the "cave" to free more minds and deliver them out. But all this other mumbo jumbo sounds Intelligent too.

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    There's something missing from this if it is supposed to explain why the Piraeus ... – virmaior Jun 20 '16 at 8:08

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