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I am halfway through reading The State from Plato. But I think I am reading it from the wrong perspective. In the book Sokrates has a conversation with some other pals in which they build a state up from the ground. Not just a state, but an ideal state.

Some examples of rules Sokrates wants to maintain in his ideal state:

  • Artists, writers and musicians can't freely publish what they want. Only positive 'validated' stories can be published to avoid bad influence on the education of children.
  • Actors/Performers/People in general are not allowed to play/act as 'another person' because every person has one and only one task in the society on which they must focus.
  • Soldiers are not allowed to have any money. Having material assets would make them weak.
  • Luxury assets will not be present in the society.
  • When someone is incurably sick doctors should not try to prolong the life of that person. 'It'd be best for the doctor and the sick person if he/she would just die. Because a person that is focusing on his sickness can't focus on his task in the society.'
  • People with mental problems also should just better die. 'Would be better for everyone'.
  • ...

All these rules are very logical. I perfectly understand why they would work or make a society more productive. But I won't call that an "ideal state". I think nobody would want to live in a state as described in this book. If so, can we even call it ideal?

Or maybe the state described is ideal but the problem lies with mankind? Because mankind isn't perfect and desires stuff like luxury and sex, is building an ideal state is impossible because you wouldn't find people who want to?

Anyway, the question I have is: Can someone explain how I should continue reading this book? What is the right perspective/context/understanding?

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    Well, if you start from Plato’s premises, that is the content of his ideal state. This is not to say that the assumptions are correct or defensible, but only the they lead you to the Republic. Dec 28 '20 at 23:49
  • It’s ideal if you’re the philosopher king, which I’m pretty sure that the author believes would be his proper role. Dec 29 '20 at 20:35
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IMHO, the meaning of the Republic is is usually lost on modern readers. At first Socrates describes a very simple state, and describes such a state as "perfected". But his interlocutor asks whether Socrates is describing a state for humans or pigs? Socrates' ideal state is too simple for him. Socrates then replies:

Yes, I said, now I understand: the question which you would have me consider is, not only how a State, but how a luxurious State is created; and possibly there is no harm in this, for in such a State we shall be more likely to see how justice and injustice originate. In my opinion the true and healthy constitution of the State is the one which I have described. But if you wish also to see a State at fever-heat, I have no objection. For I suspect that many will not be satisfied with the simpler way of life.

What then ensues is IMHO NOT what Socrates considers a healthy state, or an ideal state, but a state with a fever, a sickness. Things do not go so well for this state, as luxury comes with a set of problems. To solve these problems, modifications to the state are proposed. But adopting these modifications leads once again to yet more problems. The process of modification to fix problems, and then more modification to fix the problems that arose from the previous modification continues on and on, until the end result does not seem very appealing to us. In my opinion, Socrates/Plato was not offering us a vision of Utopia, but a vision of how attempts to build such a Utopia will, in the end, not be so perfect after all. The paragraph that I quoted really bears repeating:

Yes, I said, now I understand: the question which you would have me consider is, not only how a State, but how a luxurious State is created; and possibly there is no harm in this, for in such a State we shall be more likely to see how justice and injustice originate. In my opinion the true and healthy constitution of the State is the one which I have described. But if you wish also to see a State at fever-heat, I have no objection. For I suspect that many will not be satisfied with the simpler way of life.

No, the "ideal" state of Socrates/Plato, the healthy one, is the simple state, the one that is rejected in the beginning. The state described in the rest of the Republic is state which is sick with fever. It is a dystopic vision of what comes from recklessly pursuing luxury. It is a warning to us.

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    I remember the paragraph you quoted which Sokrates said before he continued explaining the Republic, but I underestimated it's importance. It is a warning to us This is the answer to my question. If I understand it correctly, Plato is trying to make a state which has the infectious 'disease of luxury' but tries to contain that luxury by making up rules nonetheless which results in the issues I raised in my original post.
    – O'Niel
    Dec 28 '20 at 19:47
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    I think this is largely correct, but it misses the point a bit. It's true that much of The Republic is focused around the sick, degraded societies, but the OP's question is why does the "ideal" society --the Republic itself --seem so odd to us as modern readers. Dec 28 '20 at 23:05
  • @ChrisSunamisupportsMonica it seems less like "why does it seem so odd to us?" and more like "why doesn't it seem so dystopian to them as it does to us?"
    – TKoL
    Dec 29 '20 at 15:13
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    Suggestion: don't use acronyms like IMHO in answers. Such acronyms are better relegated to text messages; they don't belong in a Q&A context. If you want to say "In my humble opinion," just say it.
    – user319
    Dec 29 '20 at 16:36
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    @user319 - I think that you're fighting a losing battle there TBH. Acronyms are part of the fabric of the internet at this point, and are common on SO, MSO and most SE sites IIRC. FYI, they're not informal - they just carry across common and useful phrases tersely. FWIW, you can try to avoid them as much as you want, but YMMV.
    – Lou
    Dec 29 '20 at 17:12
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There is a single key to all of Plato's work: His primary goal is NOT to explain the world as it is (which is what Aristotle tried to do). His primary goal was to paint a picture of the "ideal" world. The word "ideal" for him does not just mean "perfect." It means a world made up of ideas, where there are no bodies, no death, no lust, no hunger, no selfishness, and none of the other problems that come along with the physical world.

Thus, when he talks about his "ideal" state, he means the one that comes closest to the non-physical world that he imagines. People don't write "bad" stories, because there is nothing bad in the ideal world. People don't playact roles, because that's basically a lie. There's no luxuries, because those are just physical items, they don't really mean anything, and they take your mind off the ideal world. Death is not a problem, because that just releases you from the physical world, and allows your soul to go back to the ideal world.

Now, it so happens that he thinks making the physical world more like the non-physical world really is the best way to make people happier, to make the world a better place, and so forth. So he also thinks his "ideal" state is the perfect state. But that's a side-effect. That's not why he's making the decisions and the rules he's making. The only reason he even mentions the practical side of things, is because it's a way to get people interested in the ideal world.

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If you are looking for practical models of good governance, The Republic may not be much help, despite the fact that it is perhaps the foundational text of "political science" in the West. The term political, of course, derives from the Greek polis.

But recall that the origin of the dialogue is the search for the meaning of Justice, which then scales up from individual Soul to the City "constructed out of words." As it does so, it weaves into its arguments, the theory of forms, the allegory of the cave and the nature of illusion, the tripartite nature of the psyche, later drawn upon by Freud, the compelling, arguments for justice as pure "power" in the manner of Machiavelli or Nietzsche, the various styles of rhetoric, the nature of poetry, the search for the ideal education, the reincarnation myth at the end, and much else.

It has endless layers of nuance and insights into nearly all the major themes of philosophy, with much relevance even today. It is not hard, for example, to see the matrix or the internet in his cave allegory and the impact of television in his reluctant prohibition of dramatists. So I wouldn't look for a single lesson or merely a description of an ideal government. Yet certainly the pitfalls and crucial issues of governance itself e.g. "who guards the guardians," are all laid out in a grand manner.

It is equally well worth reading, once at the very least, simply because it is one of the most influential and referenced works in history, a cornerstone of any proper education, if I may wax archaic. In Plato you will find almost everything.... except definitive conclusions.

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