views updated May 17 2018


by Plato


A philosophical dialogue set in the Piraeus, the port of Athens, Greece, c, 411 bce; written in Greek sometime between 388 and 360 bce.


Socrates and the group with which he converses construct a “city in speech” in order to discover the meaning and value of justice.

Events in History at the Time the Dialogue Takes Place

The Dialogue in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Dialogue Was Written

For More Information

Plato was born in Athens c. 429 bce to a wealthy and aristocratic family. Little is Known about his youth. Diogenes Laertius, in his Lives of Eminent Philosophers, reports that at the age of 20, when Plato met Socrates, Plato was an aspiring tragedian. After conversing with Socrates, he burned his tragedies and devoted himself to philosophy. Ten years later, in 399 bce, the philosophical tutelage was cut short when Socrates was tried, convicted, and executed on charges of impiety and corrupting the youth. But Socrates’ influence over Plato endured. When he began to write philosophical dialogues, something Socrates never undertook, Plato made his teacher the protagonist of nearly all of them. The Platonic corpus comprises 35 such dialogues and 13 letters. Of the dialogues, 14 are regarded as spurious works, as not really by Plato. Though all the letters are penned as though by Plato, there is no scholarly agreement as to their authorship. In Athens c. 387 bce, Plato founded a philosophical school, the Academy, which stands as the ancient precursor to the modern university. Aspiring young philosophers, including Aristotle, were enrolled at the Academy, which would remain in existence long after Plato’s death in 347. In his lifetime, Plato exhibited a continuing interest in politics; his two longest dialogues, the Republic and the Laws, though quite different in approach, deal with the same fundamental problems of politics. By his own admission, he himself had youthful political ambitions. Plato’s Seventh Letter describes these ambitions as being derailed by two momentous experiences: the cruel and oppressive rule of the oligarchy Known as the Thirty Tyrants, many of whom were his friends and relatives; and the execution of Socrates by the restored democracy (for Plato’s portrayal of this trial, see his Apology, also in Classical Literature and Its Times). Plato’s seventh letter also describes his failed attempt to instruct Dionysius II of Syracuse, the tyrant of Sicily. Contained in Plato’s Republic is a long meditation on the possibility of an ideal city and the seemingly insurmountable obstacles to its achievement. One can see in this work a reflection of the failures in government that Plato witnessed in Athens as a youth, as well as his own failed attempt to influence the political situation in Syracuse as a mature adult.

Events in History at the Time the Dialogue Takes Place

The regime of the Four Hundred

Though when the Republic is set cannot be firmly established, most scholars agree that the conversation takes place c. 411 bce (judging by the age of the participants, all of whom were actual historical figures). In that year, circumstances were bleak. Financially strapped and militarily weakened, the Athenians made a radical change to their regime. The democratic Assembly voted the democracy out of existence and set in motion a chain of events which led ultimately to the institution of an oligarchic regime, consisting of 400 rulers. In order to understand Athens’s dire military and financial straits in 411, one must step back and reflect upon the emergence of the Athenian Empire and the set of decisions that threatened its existence.

The Persians had twice attempted to invade mainland Greece and both times been defeated by an alliance of Greek city-states. As the greatest military power in Greece at the time, the Spartans led the pan-Hellenic (pan-Greek) coalition. But the Athenians distinguished themselves in battle: first by nearly single-handedly defeating a much larger land army of Persians at Marathon in 490 bce and second by spearheading an incredible Greek naval victory at Salamis ten years later in 480 bce. On the strength of these accomplishments, and dissatisfaction with the Spartan leadership, Athens took the helm of a second alliance of Greek city-states, the Delian League, a naval coalition made up mostly of city-states on the Greek islands and on the coast of Asia Minor. Members assembled for meetings on the island of Delos, which housed the league’s treasury.

The members of the Delian League supplied ships or made a monetary contribution for their joint military expeditions against Persia. The growth of the Delian League into an empire—the Athenian Empire, to be exact—was gradual but, after the Athenians moved the treasury to the acropolis in Athens (about 454 bce) and forced its allies to pay a yearly tribute to Athens, its supremacy was clear.

It was only a matter of time before Athens’s growing sphere of influence would come into conflict with that of Sparta. In The Peloponnesian War, his account of the conflict between Athens and Sparta, the historian Thucydides holds that “the growth of the power of Athens and the alarm which this inspired in Sparta made the war inevitable” (The Peloponnesian War, 1.23; also in Classical Literature and Its Times). The war (431-404 bce) stood at a virtual stalemate until Athens made a strategic blunder by attempting an ambitious expansion of its empire during a temporary truce in 415 bce. Athens decided to send a vast contingent of ships and land forces to gain dominion in Sicily by challenging the domination of Syracuse there. Massive amounts of equipment and provisions were required. But more remarkable than the size of the expedition was how much wealth it required to finance it. When the Athenian forces met with more resistance from the enemy than expected, they dispatched even more money and considerable reinforcements. Despite the magnitude of the Athenian force, the Syracusan military, with Spartan assistance, crushed the invading Athenians both on land and at sea. Athens lost almost all of its entire invading force—in the end, the Sicilian expedition turned out to be a complete disaster for Athens.

In 411 bce, Athens, whose democratic Assembly had chosen to mount such a disastrous expedition, was persuaded to change its constitution. The Athenians considered their situation. Though now at a significant disadvantage, they were determined to continue the Peloponnesian War against Sparta and to maintain their empire in the Aegean Sea. According to Thucydides, the exiled Athenian general Alcibiades, who was a well-Known associate of Socrates and who had defected to the Spartan side during the war, claimed to have a deal in place with the Persian ambassador: in exchange for much-needed financial assistance from the Persians and a military alliance with them, the Athenians would have to recall Alcibiades and change their constitution to an oligarchy. While Aristotle, in his Constitution of Athens (29), and Thucydides, in The Peloponnesian War (8.54), agree that the Athenian Assembly, though at first resistant, was finally persuaded to change the democratic constitution, they differ significantly in their portrayals of this dramatic decision. While Aristotle makes the process seem like a peaceful constitutional convention wherein a series of reforms were proposed and adopted, Thucydides showcases the attempt of the upper classes, those who would most benefit from an oligarchy, to intimidate and in some cases violently suppress any opposition to the change and to ensure that the oligarchy would be as radical as possible. Given this discrepancy, scholars differ on how to reconstruct accurately the chain of events that led to the regime of the Four Hundred. What is certain is that the initial capitulation of the democratic Assembly led to power being vested in a group of 400, thereby instituting an oligarchy in place of the democracy—the regime of the Four Hundred. This body would rule without the approval of the people; the Assembly was never summoned while


In 404 bce, Athens finally lost the Peloponnesian War, The Spartan army occupied Athens, tore down its walls and instituted an oligarchic regime composed of thirty Athenian aristocrats, called “The Thirty” its leader was Critias, an uncle of Plato and a one-time follower of Socrates, The regime became Known as the “Thirty Tyrants” because of its cruel, oppressive rule and brutally violent tactics. The Thirty confiscated money and property as they saw fit and exiled or murdered many Athenian citizens, especially, but not exclusively, those who were suspected of being democratic sympathizers, One of their most notorious exploits was the forcible removal and mass execution of close to 300 men of the town of Eleusis so the Thirty would have a base of operations against the growing democratic resistance (Xenophon, Hellenica, 2.4). That resistance, led by Thrasybulus, had its own base in the Piraeus, the chief port of Athens, where the Republic is set. Ultimately the resistance succeeded and, in 403 bce, reinstated the democracy. The restored democracy declared general amnesty for those who supported the Thirty, but not for the Thirty themselves or for those who committed murder on their behalf. Two victims of the tyrants were the brothers Polemarchus and Lysias, in whose house the Republic takes place. Both brothers had their property confiscated and were targeted for further persecution, While Lysias managed to escape, the Thirty took Polemarchus into custody and executed him. In the Republic, Lysias gives a vivid account of Polemarchus’s arrest in a prosecution speech against Eratosthenes, the tyrant who imprisoned his brother.

it was in power. The soldiers in the Athenian fleet, who were patrolling the Aegean at the time and thus could not have attended the Assembly in order to vote against the constitutional change, refused to acknowledge the new government. Persian assistance never came and the oligarchs quickly made themselves unpopular and were deposed. After another set of Assemblies, a new, more inclusive oligarchy, consisting of 5,000 members, was instituted in place of the Four Hundred. Though Thucydides praises this regime as the best he had ever seen in Athens (The Peloponnesian War, 8.97), we know very little about it and it lasted a very short while. The democracy was restored after only a few months. It is just prior to the oligarchic revolution of 411, when democratic Athens is in the midst of a real-life debate about the best form of government, that Plato sets his Republic, a dialogue about the best constitution.

The Dialogue in Focus

Plot summary

In the Republic, Socrates discusses the meaning of justice with a group of men in the Piraeus: Glaucon and Adeimantus, who were Plato’s brothers; Polemarchus and Lysias, two wealthy resident aliens in whose home the dialogue takes place; and the sophist Thrasymachus, who in 411 had published a political pamphlet criticizing the existing democracy. Just as Socrates and Polemarchus are agreeing that justice implies that it is always wrong to harm another, Thrasymachus bursts into the conversation “like a wild beast” (Plato, The Republic, 336b). He introduces his propositions that “justice” is the advantage of the stronger and that injustice is more advantageous than justice. According to this logic, to be just is to follow the laws, which are set down by the powerful ruling class for their own advantage. The laws thus force others to act on behalf of the ruling class. It follows that injustice lies in freedom from the law and the pursuit of one’s own advantage. The un-just man is better off because, shaking off the laws, he pursues his own interests, not those of others, and so is better off than those who follow the rules. Socrates attempts to refute these claims on the grounds that a true ruler will be unselfish and always care for his subjects; he argues that not only is justice itself superior to injustice with respect to virtue and wisdom, justice provides the only path to real happiness. Thrasymachus concedes, though unwillingly, but Socrates himself casts the conclusion into doubt by lamenting the fact that they had failed to define justice adequately.

In book 2, Glaucon and Adeimantus challenge Socrates to come up with better arguments that being just is naturally (regardless of consequences) more advantageous than being unjust. Glaucon sets up two ideals—a thoroughly just man who has the worst reputation for injustice and is despised by all who know him; and a thoroughly corrupt and un-just man who has the greatest reputation for justice and is honored by the city for it. Socrates’ task is to prove that the just man in this case is still better off than the unjust man. In order to accomplish the task, which will take up the rest of the Republic, Socrates proposes an analogy between the just city and the just soul of an individual and suggests that they look for justice in the city, where it will be easier to see, so they may, by analogy, understand it in the individual soul (Republic, 368d).

In conceiving the ideal city, Socrates first takes up the education of the guardian, or soldier, class. In order to make guardians harsh to their enemies but gentle to their fellow citizens, Socrates proposes a balanced educational program of music and gymnastics. The gymnastics will train the body, making the guardians tough and hard; they will be impervious to harsh external conditions and to the lure of pleasure. The musical education, which encompasses all of the fine arts (including poetry and its stories), will train the soul, preparing the guardians for rational argument and providing them with models of good moral conduct. In order to prepare the guardians for argument, all art forms will be strictly regulated so that they will only be exposed to art that exhibits, and thus encourages, harmony and order. The stories that are told to the guardians, especially those of Homer, will be strictly censored so that they never listen to any that encourage bad behavior by portraying any unjust actions of gods or heroes, who ought to be moral exemplars. Since a great deal of Greek poetry did in fact contain portrayals of gods and heroes engaging in unjust activities, Socrates’ criteria for acceptable poetry will banish large swaths of the existing canon. The program of censorship amounts to a direct challenge to the independent authority of poets as moral educators. All active poets will be subject to strict government oversight so their poetry serves the goal of properly educating the guardians. Thus educated, the guardians will acquire the ideal mixture of gentleness and harshness for developing harmonious, well-ordered souls.

The finest of the guardians will comprise the ruling class. In order to determine who amongst the guardians is best suited to rule, they will be subjected to a series of tests—those who unwaveringly look to the benefit of the city even in the most adverse conditions will prove themselves worthy of ruling. To ensure the loyalty of the rulers and the citizenry as a whole, Socrates contrives a “noble lie” (Republic, 414c). The citizens will be told that they are all born from the earth, their mother, and so constitute a single family. Three classes of citizens are to be divided according to the metal mixed in their soul: gold for the rulers, silver for the soldiers, and bronze or iron for the farmers and craftsmen. The guardians will live a communal life, eating together in a mess hall “like soldiers in a camp”; they will possess no money, private property, or individual families (Republic, 416e).

In book 4, Socrates, having established the city in speech, investigates it to see where its virtues lie. Its wisdom consists in the knowledge of the rulers; its courage, in the spiritedness of the soldier class; its moderation, in the agreement of the whole city as to who should rule. Its justice resides in each class “doing its own work” or “minding its own business” (Republic, 433a). Drawing an analogy to the soul, the three classes of the city—rulers, soldiers and craftsmen—correspond to the rational, spirited, and desiring parts of the soul (“the spirited part” being the portion reserved for anger, honor, pride, and courage). Four virtues have been linked to the city—wisdom, courage, moderation, and justice. These four virtues likewise match up with the virtues of the soul. Like justice in the city, justice in the soul consists in each part of the soul minding its own business. Part of the business of the rational part, since it has knowledge, is to rule and control the spirited and desiring parts.

At the beginning of book 5, when Socrates is about to discuss four deficient types of regime and the souls that correspond to them, Polemarchus and Adeimantus challenge Socrates to defend certain aspects of his ideal city. He must fend off arguments against three radical proposals that are fundamental to his city: (1) that men and women are equal; (2) that the individual family unit be abolished and replaced by an enlarged sense of family including all citizens; (3) that philosophers should rule as kings. Socrates first argues that women and men must be treated as equals. Since they are different only with respect to physical strength and reproduction, women are equally capable of ruling and must be afforded the exact same education as men. Socrates defends the abolition of the family unit by arguing that, when particular familial bonds are eliminated and one cares for every other citizen equally, public and private interests will become identical. Since no one will be able to recognize his or her own child, the scope of paternal and maternal relationships will be expanded to include a whole generation of offspring rather than any individual member of it. Further, all children born in any given generation will consider each other siblings. The rulers, by virtue of their ability to calculate the mysterious “nuptial number,” the mathematical basis of eugenics, or selective breeding for the benefit of the human race, will regulate the sexual relationships between men and women to produce the best children. After they have passed the age of procreation, men and women will be permitted to have sex with whomever they choose, excepting those whom they consider children.

Socrates claims that philosophers must rule the city as kings if this ideal city is ever to be approximated in reality. In order to rule perfectly, the philosopher must undertake the “greatest study” and come to know “the idea of the good,” without which nothing else can be truly useful or beneficial (Republic, 505a). Socrates refuses to say what the idea of the good is, since he does not himself know, but he explains what the good is like using three images: the sun, the divided line, and the allegory of the cave. First, just as the sun is responsible for our vision and the visibility of what is seen, the good is responsible for our knowledge and the intelligibility (or knowability) of what is Known. Second, the divided line provides an account of what exists: Socrates draws a basic division between what is visible and what is intelligible. He then subdivides the visible into physical images and objects; the intelligible, into mathematical objects and forms. The line is ordered hierarchically: forms are most real on the divided line; physical images are least real. In book 7, Socrates’ allegory of the cave illustrates the education necessary for the rulers to achieve knowledge of the idea of the good. Socrates portrays education as a liberation of the soul from slavery to images and as a turning of the soul towards the good. In the allegory, humans sit in the cave, chained to their seats and staring at a screen, onto which images are projected. The projected images are their whole world. When one of the prisoners is released, that person sees that what he or she has been taking for reality is actually only a set of projections made by other people. Having detected the source and nature of the images in the cave, the person is led up a harsh path out of the cave into the light. Once in the real world, the person can perceive the true reality and may after a long time look at the sun (the source of the real beings of the world, the forms and their intelligibility by people). After doing so, the person feels compelled to return to the cave to liberate others. Outside the cave, one is in the intelligible realm, the realm of knowable forms; the sun stands for the idea of the good, which provides both being and intelligibility to the forms. One can come to know the good: “in the knowable the last thing to be seen, and that with considerable effort, is the idea of the good; but once seen, it must be concluded that this is in fact the cause of all that is right and fair in everything... it [has] provided truth and intelligence” (Republic, 517b-c).

The extensive study that will accomplish this turning of the soul to knowledge of the good, Socrates claims, will consist of the following disciplines: philosophical arithmetic, plane geometry, solid geometry, astronomy, harmonics, and finally dialectic (the search by study and argumentation for the most real beings, the forms). The students who have made it this far—they are by now about 50 years old—will look to the good itself and employ it in order to rule the city justly.

In books 8 and 9, Socrates resumes the discussion of deficient regimes and souls. He takes them


In the myth of Er. Socrates recounts the tale of a man named Er, who died in battle and 12 days later came back to life. Having observed what happens to souls in the afterlife, he recounts the story. After death, souls come to a demonic place with four holes, two in the earth and two in the heavens. A judge passes judgment on the soul, sending the un-just down under the earth to suffer tenfold for the suffering they caused while alive and sending the just up into heaven to enjoy tenfold rewards for good deeds done in life. After a thousand years of reward or punishment, all souls return to the demonic place to choose their next life (except for the worst tyrants and criminals who suffer eternally in the underworld). Each soul receives a numbered lot and, in order of the drawing, chooses its next life from among the lives available. The souls coming from heaven, forgetting what got them into heaven, tend to choose the life of a tyrant or other powerful sort, ensuring that next time they die, they will be sent down under the earth. Conversely, the souls coming up from under the earth, mindful of the mistakes of the earlier life, tend to choose more carefully and wind up with more just lives so that after death they will find themselves in the heavenly place. Thus, most souls are caught in an endless reincarnation cycle of virtuous and vicious lives. The myth emphasizes the importence of the ability to distinguish between the good life and the bad so that one will be able to recognize and choose a just life both while alive and later in the demonic place. Only philosophical inquiry, with its sustained reflection on the good life, will provide the human soul with the intellectual resources to make the right decision consistently and thus escape the cycle of virtue and vice that un philosophical souls must endure, Included in Plato’s myth are figures from the epics of Homer. Odysseus, stripped of his concern for honor, is Plato’s hero: “By chance Odysseus’ soul had drawn the last lot of all and went to choose; from memory of its former labors it had recovered from love of honor; it went around for a long time looking for the life of a private man who minds his own business; and with effort it found one lying somewhere neglected by the others” (Republic, 620c). Odysseus rejects the ethos of honor and fame characteristic of Homer’s world and chooses instead a private life of quiet reflection, nurturing through philosophy his soul and thus minding his most important business.

up in the order of degeneration from the best regime. The timocratic state—governed on principles of honor and military glory—will love victory most of all, and the timocratic man will be dominated by the spirited part of his soul. The oligarchic regime will be ruled by the rich, and the oligarchic man will be ruled by the desiring part of his soul, though, being stingy, he will only seek to satisfy his necessary desires. The democratic regime is the most diverse and superficially attractive; a democracy makes everyone equal by granting freedom to all. In truth, the democratic man is also ruled by his desires. But he treats all desires, both necessary and unnecessary, as equally important; he looks, says the dialogue, to satisfy whichever one happens to strike him. A tyranny is ruled by the desires of one autocratic man; it is warlike and oppressive, violent both to its neighbors and its own citizens. The tyrannical man is ruled by the sadistic, lustful, and unlawful desires that most people encounter only in dreams. Just as the tyrannical regime enslaves and dishonors its best citizens—the philosophers who insist on thinking for themselves—so too the tyrannical man enslaves and dishonors the best part of his soul—his reason. The tyrant, the most unjust man, has the most disharmonious soul possible and is the most unhappy. At this point, Glaucon and Adeimantus are satisfied that Socrates has answered the objections they raised at the start of book 2. Glaucon observes at the end of book 9 that in order to become and remain harmonious in soul, the just man will not be politically engaged:

“[The just man] won’t be willing to mind the political things.”

“Yes, by the dog,” [Socrates] said, “he will in his own city, very much so. However, perhaps he won’t in his fatherland unless some divine chance coincidentally comes to pass.”

“I understand,” [Glaucon] said. “You mean he will in the city whose foundation we have now gone through, the one that has its place in speeches, since I don’t suppose it exists anywhere on earth.”

“But in heaven,” [Socrates] said, “perhaps, a pattern is laid up for the man who wants to see and found a city within himself on the basis of what he sees. It doesn’t make any difference whether it is or will be somewhere. For he would mind the things of this city alone, and of no other”

(Republic, 592a-b)

Thus, the just man, instead of being a politically active citizen in his actual city, will fix his gaze on the ideal city in order to found a just regime in his soul.

In book 10, Socrates revises his earlier account of poetry in the ideal city. Poetry as a whole is banished on the grounds that it is mimetic, or imitative. Imitation, Socrates argues, contains no knowledge since it creates superficial images of a more complex preexisting reality. Imitation also harms the soul by gratifying, and thus fortifying, the part that desires. To finish off the argument, Socrates turns to the consequences of justice and argues that justice will not go unnoticed by one’s fellow citizens nor unrewarded by the gods in this life. He then recounts the “Myth of Er” to show that justice is also advantageous in the afterlife because, in death, we are called to account for our actions in life.

The trial of Socrates

In 399 bce, at the age of 70, Socrates stood trial for impiety and corrupting the youth. Plato dramatized this event in an earlier dialogue—the Apology (also in Classical Literature and Its Times). The work is called an apology because apologia, in Greek, refers to a legal defense speech; Socrates certainly does not apologize for anything. We have no way of knowing how accurately Plato was in his rendition of Socrates’ speech, an important consideration to keep in mind, especially since another major writer, Xenophon, provides a markedly different account of the trial.

In Plato’s version, Socrates mounts an elaborate defense not just of himself but of his philosophical mission in life. Socrates relays how a friend consulted the oracle at Delphi to find out if there was anyone wiser than Socrates. When the oracle replied that no one was wiser, Socrates, realizing he himself was not wise, set out to discover the hidden meaning of the oracle’s words. He went around interrogating those who claimed to be wise, only to discover that many of them did not possess wisdom after all. Socrates reasoned that the oracle must mean that “human wisdom is worth little or nothing” but that his Socratic wisdom, the knowledge that he was ignorant, was superior to misguidedly believing oneself to be wise. Socrates argues that by disabusing the Athenians of their pretensions to wisdom, he was performing an immensely valuable service. He was alerting them to the fact that they were fundamentally ignorant about the most important thing—what kind of life they should lead. Because they all falsely believed that they already knew the answer, they neither investigated nor paid attention to the matter. They neglected the attempt to educate themselves through philosophical inquiry. This neglect, Socrates argues, amounts to a failure to take care of their most important possession, their souls; it ignores a crucial implication of Socratic wisdom, that the “unexamined life is not worth living” (Plato, Apology, 38a). The jury did not agree. By a vote of 280 to 220, they convicted Socrates and, after he antagonized them by proposing free state-sponsored meals for himself as his “punishment,” they sentenced him to death by an even wider margin. It was a misled jury, say some scholars, who condemned Socrates because of his relationships with two unsavory Athenians of the day: a traitor to the city (Alcibiades) and the leader of the Thirty Tyrants (Critias). In any case, in the Republic, Socrates offers a second, more elaborate defense of philosophy and the role of the philosopher in the city. Every political community shuns the philosopher as either useless or vicious. They are “useless”—not part of the horde clamoring for political power, philosophers are left unused by the establishment. There is no dearth of examples of Athens’s enmity towards philosophers: Anaxagoras was exiled on charges of impiety; Socrates was executed; and Aristotle fled Athens a year before his death to escape being prosecuted for impiety. Socrates also argues that those who have great natures suited to philosophical inquiry become vicious when they abandon their philosophical training too soon and attempt to achieve political power. This explanation exonerates Socrates for the crimes of his one-time associates Alcibiades and Critias and accounts for why they became such notorious figures despite being the philosophical companions of Socrates. Philosophy and politics will be at odds, The Republic implies, until the “divine chance coincidentally comes to pass” and they converge in the ideal city (Republic, 592a).

Women and the education of youth in Athens.

In the Republic Socrates proposes that women and men are intellectual equals and that, because of this, they should be treated as equals with respect to ruling the city. To understand how radical and shocking this proposal was, one must know the legal and social status of women in fifth-century Athens.

At no time in her life did an Athenian woman fail to have a protective male guardian, or kyrios. Her father played this role until she was married, at which point her husband assumed responsibility for her. If her husband chose to divorce her or if he died, her guardianship reverted back to her father and, if possible, a new husband was found. There were complex rules governing who was to become her guardian in case her father was dead but, in general, her closest living male relative, including her son if she had one, would take over her protection.

Athenian women did not possess functional citizenship rights: they could not attend or vote in the Assembly, or ekklēsia; they could not hold any political office or administrative position in government. Women were also not permitted to serve on juries. Not surprisingly, women possessed a diminished legal status as well. They could not prosecute cases on their own behalf, nor could they mount their own defense when prosecuted. Except in rare cases, women did not testify in court. Their names were not even mentioned; they were rather identified by their relationship to the legally relevant males—wife of, sister of, or daughter of. A woman’s testimony, if it was required, could be delivered by her guardian on her behalf; oaths sworn by women at holy shrines were also admissible as evidence. In sum, male guardians stood up for women when it came to political or legal matters in ancient Athens.

Athenian women did play a crucial role in the transaction of wealth in the city, but they had little or no control over this role. In marrying off his daughter, an Athenian citizen was expected to send with her person a considerable dowry. This dowry would become the property of her husband and guardian although the woman retained a claim to it in case he divorced her, at which point, it would revert back to her father. In cases where a father left no direct male descendants, his daughter inherited the estate but her control over it was nominal. A woman who thus became an heiress could be claimed in marriage by her father’s closest male relative even if both of them were already married. Any property, including inherited property, associated with an Athenian woman would become the property of her guardian, which at least partly explains why the transfer of guardianship was so strictly regulated. After Pericles passed a law restricting citizenship to those with Athenian heritage on both their mother and father’s side (451 bce), having an Athenian wife became necessary for the bearing of legitimate heirs.

An Athenian woman’s domain of authority and influence was the household, or oikos, the fundamental social unit of the city. Women were expected to manage the household slaves and to care for the children. Women also played key roles in events associated with family. At funerals, for example, women were the primary care-takers of the corpse.

Part of caring for the children was making sure they were properly educated. Customarily elementary instruction of boys was conducted in private tuition-based schools; girls for the most part were educated at home. The cost of education was fairly inexpensive, so a rudimentary level of schooling was widespread; however, since schooling was not mandatory, basic education was limited to those who were willing to educate their children and could afford to do so.

Primary school consisted of three programs of study: letters, music, and physical education. These were taught concurrently beginning sometime between the ages of five and seven. Physical education included both fitness training and coaching in the techniques of the various sports (in javelin throwing, discus throwing, wrestling, etc.). In their music instruction, students learned to play the lyre and sing the poetry of renowned lyric poets. The study of letters encompassed instruction in reading and arithmetic, with a concentration on the reading and memorization of poetry, especially that of Homer. In fifth-century Athens, poetic education was intended “as the basis of moral training, as providing examples of noble conduct to be emulated” (Beck, p. 117). The poets themselves were considered educators: in the Republic, Socrates claims that many people praise Homer as the poet who “educated Greece” (Republic, 606e).

Higher education was available in professional disciplines (like medicine), in purely intellectual pursuits (philosophy, mathematics, and science), and in rhetoric, which provided training for speaking persuasively in the law-courts and in the Assembly. The sophists were a group of traveling educators who charged high fees for courses in rhetoric and public speaking—they tended to train students intent on achieving political influence. In democratic Athens, the sophists had many clients since the ability to persuade your fellow citizens in public policy was tantamount to achieving political power. Plato’s portrayal of the sophists in several of his dialogues, including his depiction of Thrasymachus in the Republic, is an attempt to refute the self-serving ethics they promoted through their style of teaching rhetoric. In his view, their teachings promoted ethical relativism, the idea that there is no right or wrong except by convention or agreement. What’s good or right in a given culture or time period, according to this view, is so only because that is what the culture considers good or right. There is no such thing as independent moral truth, only moral conventions. For Plato, ethical relativism allows a man to act as he pleases in an amoral world, a world without any true right or wrong.

Sources and literary context

After Socrates was executed in 399 bce, several of his followers began writing literature commemorating Socrates’ life. This phenomenon was widespread enough for Aristotle, in the Poetics, to treat Socratic literature, Sokratikoi logoi, as an established literary genre. But only the Socratic literature of Plato and Xenophon still exists. The genre itself occupied a space between history and fiction, a precursor, one might argue, to contemporary historical fiction. It featured characters who were based on real historical figures, but the conversations they had were fictional. Casting Socrates in the role of the hero, the conversations typically portrayed him and a few companions discussing matters of ethical and philosophical import. How close they are to what Socrates really believed remains a matter of vigorous debate. The members of the Socratic circle were not the first to dramatize the figure of Socrates; the comic dramatist Aristophanes satirized Socrates by portraying him as a charlatan and the consummate sophist in his Clouds (also in Classical Literature and Its Times).

Scholars have for a long time noticed that the revolutionary social proposals of Plato’s Republic bear remarkable similarities to those found in Aristophanes’ Assemblywomen. In that comedy, the Athenian women, disguised as men, enter the Assembly and vote to hand over all political power exclusively to the women. Praxagora, the leader of this group, institutes a monumental (and fanciful) governmental change: private property is to be held in common, all will eat their meals together, and the family unit will be abolished. As in the Republic, the parent-child relationship will be expanded to encompass whole generations, and all will live as if in “a single household” (Aristophanes, Assemblywomen in Comoediae, line 674; trans. F. Trivigno). The similarities are too extraordinary to assign to chance though scholars have not come to an agreement about the relationship between the two texts. Most agree that Plato’s Republic probably did not predate Aristophanes’ Assemblywomen and so rule out the possibility that Aristophanes is parodying Plato. Scholars, perhaps uncomfortable with the idea that something so serious and philosophically interesting could have had its origin in comedy, have been likewise reluctant to accept that Plato took up these proposals from Aristophanes. However, since in book 2 of his Politics (also in Classical Literature and Its Times), Aristotle asserts that Plato was the first to take


Plato, unlike most other philosophers, dramatized his philosophical vision rather than divulging it in a treatise. Plato’s own absence from the dialogues presents the reader with a set of interpretive problems unparalleled in the discourse of other philosophers. Why did Plato write dialogues? How does one discover the philosophical meaning of a dialogue? And even if the meaning can be discovered, how does one relate the dialogues to each other? The easiest solution would be to equate the views expressed by Socrates with the philosophical thought of Plato, but this solution poses several problems. It renders the dramatic context empty and meaningless, which suggests that Plato wasted his dramatic gifts gussying up the dialogues with dramatic details when he could have just as easily written a straightforward treatise. This solution also fails to address the fact that across several dialogues, Socrates makes incompatible, even contradictory, claims. Would Plato himself hold such contradictory attitudes? Another approach is to hold that the dramatic context and the views of characters in a dialogue comprise a meaningful whole. The dramatic presentation discourages passive reliance on authority for received wisdom and encourages an active intellectual role for readers, who are prompted to engage in their own philosophical pursuit. Scholars who favor this position, however, disagree over what the philosophical meaning of a dialogue is and even whether any philosophical content is intended at all Others say that Plato held a unified view throughout his career and that the different dialogues represent different teaching strategies for advancing the same philosophical content. Still others argue that Plato’s views changed over time, as shown by the various positions endorsed by different dialogues. Lastly, some interpreters argue that Plato has no systematic philosophy at all and that the dialogue form shows that he just wanted to provoke his readers into asking philosophical questions. In the Republic, he would be provoking them into focusing on such major philosophical issues as the nature of justice, the structure of the soul (or mind), the conditions for the possibility of knowledge, and the role of art in society.

these radical proposals seriously, probably Plato made serious what Aristophanes conceived as hilariously funny.

Events in History at the Time the Dialogue Was Written

The Athenian democracy

As noted, an oligarchy ruled Athens the year that the Republic takes place. The oligarchy interrupted several decades of rule by democracy, which was the system in effect when Plato wrote his Republic. The English word, democracy, comes from the Greek, dēmokratia, which literally means the rule (kratos) of the people (dēmos). Like modern democracy, the Athenian democracy valued liberty, equality, freedom of speech, and citizen participation. Pericles, in describing the Athenian character, observed, “We do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business; we say that he has no business at all” (Pericles in Thucydides, 2.40). Apart from these similarities, however, Athenian democracy differs in several fundamental ways from the modern version. While the latter depends on the election of representatives who, for a term of office, represent the political interests of their constituency, in Athens, any citizen over 20 could speak and vote in the Assembly (ekklēsia), the deliberative body that made nearly all of the important political decisions. The number of times the Assembly met increased gradually from 10 days a year in the early fifth century to 40 days a year in the fourth century. Any one of the 30,000-60,000 Athenian citizens could enter the Assembly on any day it met.

The daily administration of government affairs required about 1,200 magistrates, or public officials. A few positions were elected by the Assembly from the pool of citizens who possessed the relevant expertise (e.g., army generals). “The vast majority of Athenian magistrates were selected by lot; and, since almost all of them held offices that only lasted a year and could not be held by the same person again, the people had to choose 1100 persons in that manner every year” (Hansen, p. 230). Only those citizens over 30 who presented themselves for allotment were eligible, but the expectation was that every male citizen of Athens can and ought to engage in the affairs of the state.

The agenda of the Assembly was set by a committee of magistrates Known as the Council of Five Hundred (Boulē). Any citizen, however, could offer an amendment or modification to a proposal. Debate in the Assembly entailed any number of participants making speeches for or against the proposal, some prepared, some extemporaneous. Though everyone had the right to speak, a small group of professionally trained orators generally dominated the discussion and greatly influenced decisions. In the fifth century, since the responsibilities of the Assembly were so wide-ranging, a citizen trained in persuasive argument could exert considerable influence over the Assembly. In the fourth century, after the fall of the Thirty, the restored democracy curtailed the Assembly’s ability to pass laws though it retained full authority in foreign policy to pass decrees, elect generals, or declare war.

The Athenian jury system selected 6,000 jurors yearly from citizens who applied for service and were older than 30. The number of jurors at a trial was variable, but could amount to as many as 501 or more. In the fourth century, jurors might be selected to serve as legislators as well. To enact a new law, the Assembly would call for a board of 1,000 legislators, who were chosen by lot from the 6,000 jurors, to decide if the proposed amendment should become law.

There was no district attorney to represent the interests of the state and no defense lawyer to represent an individual’s rights; in both civil and criminal proceedings, individual citizens served as prosecutors, and defendants had to defend themselves. In the courts, as in the Assembly, rhetorical virtuosity was highly prized. Any citizen could hire a speechwriter (Lysias, for example) to prepare an eloquent and persuasive speech, but the litigant had to deliver it himself. According to standard procedure, the prosecution and then the defense presented their evidence, interviewed their witnesses, and made their case. The jury voted without any deliberation, which, given the size of the juries, would have been next to impossible. No standard appeal process existed except in the rarest of cases. If a defendant was found guilty and no penalty was prescribed, both parties proposed a penalty, defended it, and then waited for the jurors to vote on the penalty.

The tyranny in Syracuse

It is unclear when Plato composed the Republic. The range of conjectures falls between the dates of Plato’s first and last visits to Syracuse (388 bce and 360 bce). The relationship between the writing and these visits is no mere coincidence: scholars have long tried to firmly establish a relationship between the ideal city articulated in the Republic and the account Plato gives of his trips to Syracuse in his letters. Diogenes Laertius and Plutarch provide independent confirmation that Plato made three visits to Syracuse and that, in each case, his at-tempts to influence the Syracusan tyrant were spectacular public failures.

On Plato’s first trip to Sicily, he made the acquaintance of Dion, the brother-in-law of the Syracusan tyrant, Dionysius I. Dion found in Plato an inspirational teacher of philosophy and Plato found in him a dedicated and gifted pupil. The Seventh Letter claims that Plato had come to Syracuse convinced that the problem of political justice could only be solved by the convergence of philosophy and power. In his Life of Dion, Plutarch reports that Dion, having been convinced by Plato of the desirability of having a philosopher-king, arranged for Plato to meet Dionysius I, hoping to ignite the spark of philosophy in the ruler of Syracuse. Dionysius I was a military strongman who had established his monarchy violently, made several attempts to subdue all of Sicily, and remained at war for most of his career. When the two met, Plato apparently offended him by arguing that tyrants, least of all, possess true courage. Insulted, Dionysius I arranged to have Plato, while on his journey back home, sold into slavery. Plato’s friends ransomed him soon after.

Plato made a second trip to Syracuse on the invitation of Dionysius II, the son of the by-then-dead Dionysius I. The younger Dionysius, encouraged by Plato’s former pupil Dion, was eager for philosophical training. For Plato, the attraction was the opportunity to put his political principles into practice. Upon arriving, he found the court “full of faction and malicious reports to the tyrant about Dion” (Republic, 1.329b). Soon after, Dionysius II exiled Dion for allegedly having plotted against the tyranny; he was accused of using philosophy to subdue and control the tyrant. Although the philosophical relationship never got very far, they parted on more or less friendly terms.

Though the court harbored considerable hostility towards Plato, Dionysius II persuaded him to return to Syracuse several years later. Plato was offered the opportunity to effect a reconciliation between the exiled Dion and Dionysius II and to instruct the latter philosophically. Despite Plato’s efforts, Dionysius II steadfastly refused to attempt any reconciliation with Dion. Plato found that the king had been dabbling in philosophy, his head “full of half-understood doctrines” and was quite unwilling to endure the long, rigorous education required for the study of philosophy (Plato, The Seventh Letter, 340b). Plato fell out of favor with Dionysius II and lived as a virtual prisoner in Syracuse until some friends pleaded successfully that he be permitted to leave. Thus, the attempt to turn a real-life king into a philosopher-king, never got very far.

After Plato’s failure, Dion deposed Dionysius II by seizing Syracuse when the former was away on a military campaign. As ruler, Dion tried to implement a Platonic system of government but lacked the support and resources to achieve it. His rule, beset with turmoil and infighting, lasted only briefly before he was assassinated. Plato’s Seventh Letter is addressed to Dion’s friends and associates, encouraging them to follow in his footsteps by trying, in a nonviolent way, to create “the best and most just constitution and system of laws” (Republic, 1.351c). Syracuse, plagued by social and political unrest, would not recover any semblance of stability for the next 20 years.

Reception and impact

The first major review of Plato’s work was done by his student, Aristotle, in his Metaphysics and Politics. In the Politics, Aristotle argues that the regime of the Republic is excessively unified, harmonized to an unattainable and undesirable degree. Aristotle takes issue especially with the abolition of the family unit and private property. He argues that once family relations are extended to the whole community, rather than having the desired effect of making everyone love each as his own, no one will love anyone as his own. As Aristotle sees it, the citizen’s individual interests in his family and his property are good for the city as a whole because the state is naturally composed of a diversity of elements whose competing interests help the community thrive. But, of course, Aristotle’s rebuke of Plato depends on his interpretation of Plato’s ideas, and many scholars have found this interpretation to be lacking.

It would be difficult to overstate the impact of the Republic or of Plato more generally on the history of Western philosophy. Plato set the stage for the discipline by asking and offering the first attempts to answer nearly all of its central questions (What exists? How is knowledge possible? Where do moral obligations come from?). These questions would become the foundational ones for the different branches of philosophy (metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, political philosophy and aesthetics). Modern interpretations have varied significantly on the meaning of the Republic. Some argue that the city that Plato envisions is a Utopia and provides justification for a totalitarian government; both the Nazis and the Soviets found a justification for their regimes in Plato. On the other hand, many have seen in the Republic an indirect argument for democracy, since it is the most tolerant and congenial to philosophy. Still others have interpreted the Republic as encouraging indifference to politics. According to this interpretation, Plato shows us that political justice is impossible. Socrates makes the conditions for the perfectly just city unattainable by demanding that its rulers acquire a totally comprehensive wisdom in order to rule justly. Thus read, the Republic becomes an anti-political document, encouraging us to refrain from engaging in the politics of our city and to concentrate exclusively on the politics in our soul.

—Franco Trivigno

For More Information

Aristophanes. Comoediae. Ed. F. W. Hall and W. M. Geldart. 2 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Aristotle. The Complete Works of Aristotle. Ed. Jonathan Barnes. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1984.

Beck, Frederick A. G. Greek Education: 450-350 B.C. London: Methuen, 1964.

Diogenes Laertius. Lives of Eminent Philosophers. 2 Vols. Trans. R. D. Hicks. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1925.

Edelstein, Ludwig. Plato’s Seventh Letter. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1966.

Hansen, M. H. The Athenian Democracy in the Age of Demosthenes. Trans. J. A. Crook. Oxford: Blackwell, 1991.

Just, Roger. Women in Athenian Law and Life. London: Routledge, 1989.

Krenz, Peter. The Thirty at Athens. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1982.

Meiggs, Russell. The Athenian Empire. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972.

Plato. Apology. In Four Texts on Socrates. Trans. Thomas G. West and Grace Starry West. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1984.

_____ The Republic. Trans. A. Bloom. New York: Basic Books, 1968.

Plutarch. Lives. 11 Vols. Trans. B. Perrin. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1918.

Thucydides. The Peloponnesian War. Trans. R. Crawley. Rev. T. E. Wick. New York: Modern Library, 1982.

Xenophon. Hellenica, Books 1-4. Trans. Carleton L. Brownson. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1918.


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The term republic derives from the Latin phrase res publica ("matter" or "thing of the people"). Most generally, the word refers to any political regime in which no king or hereditary dynasty rules over subjects in a state of submission or servility. A republic is thus populated by "citizens" who enjoy some manner of political and legal rights to govern themselves through collective political mechanisms and processes. Because citizens are self-governing, liberty is associated with and regarded as emerging from republican regimes. Yet republicanism must also be distinguished from democracy: the idea of a republic entails the imposition of fixed and strict limits on the power of the people. Consequently, a republic involves a constitutional system that provides checks and balances or a mixture of authorizing agents. Stated simply, the liberty of the citizens must be weighed against the maintenance of a common public good that is best identified by leaders who are insulated from the unchecked passions of the people.

Historically, the language of republicanism has been recognized as one of the central modes of political discourse in the European and modern Atlantic worlds. The title of a synoptic collection of essays from 2002 labels republicanism a "shared European heritage," and many scholars treat it as a European bequest to the New World. Certainly, republicanism seems to be a distinctively Western construction, although a plausible case may be constructed that the pre-kingship system of Judaic government depicted in the Old Testament constituted an embryonic system of "federated republic." (Indeed, many later thinkers viewed the Israelite polity as an inspiration for their own vision of a self-governing constitution.)

Perhaps the most hotly debated issue in current scholarship is the relationship between the ancient or classical, the medieval, and the modern strains of republican thought. Some have traced the diffusion of classical republicanism from the Renaissance through to the founding of the American republic, arguing for an essential continuity, a "Machiavellian moment," in the phrase of John Pocock. Others have sternly criticized the view that a uniform revival of classical republicanism may be attributed to the modern world, contending instead that "classical" republicanism must be distinguished from a "modern" variant and that, despite superficial resemblances, different thinkers may be sorted into one or the other category. Paul Rahe represents the outstanding proponent of this view. Still others posit a continuous and developing tradition of republican thought that commenced in the Roman era and persisted (in necessarily transformed fashion) through the Latin Middle Ages into the modern world.

Roman Republicanism

Republicanism in practice predated any attempt to define or articulate it conceptually. Rome became a self-proclaimed republic at the end of the sixth century b.c.e. as a result of a revolt against the Tarquin dynasty of kings who had ruled the region. Thereafter, the Latin word for king, rex, was anathema to Romans (even after the rise of the Caesars, who styled themselves princeps, "first man," instead.). The basic constitution of the Roman Republic evolved slowly over the course of the succeeding four centuries, always shaped by a practice of diffusing power among a range of institutions: administrative officers, a body of noblemen (the senate), and various popular citizen assemblies. In the beginning, the concentration of authority rested with the senate and the executive magistrates (chief among whom were the two consuls). Over the course of the republic's history, however, the lesser citizens demanded and received greater power via the addition of further magistracies and assemblies.

It is perhaps not too great an exaggeration to say that Marcus Tullius Cicero (10643 b.c.e.) was the most influential republican thinker of the ancient world. Although many other classical authors contributed significantly to the understanding of the theory and practice of the republicPolybius (c.200118 b.c.e.), Sallust (8635 or 34 b.c.e.), and Livy (59 b.c.e.17 c.e.) were among the most importantCicero produced the largest body of writings about the topic. Moreover, he enjoyed the widest audience and most loyal following of any republican author, both in ancient times and later. Drawing on Hellenic and Hellenistic philosophies, as well as on his knowledge of Roman history and his personal experiences with the practical requirements of republican rule, Cicero in many ways represented the pinnacle of republican theory as well as statesmanship. Reflecting the inherent tension within republicanism between populism and elitism, his teachings endorse two distinguishable and potentially competing theoretical defenses of republican government: one highlighting eloquent speech, the other focusing on the faculty of reason.

Populism and public discourse.

In Cicero's writings on rhetoric and oratory, a premium is placed on public discourseamong both citizens and statesmenas the basis for the republican regime. In writings such as De inventione and De oratore, Cicero maintains that the eloquent expression of the common welfare binds the republic together. On the one hand, the leaders of the commonwealth are charged with acquiring the oratorical skills necessary to persuade citizens to accept the laws and policies conducive to the well-being of public affairs. On the other hand, all human beings, regardless of their station, are deemed competent (on the basis of their natural faculties) to discern and judge the pronouncements of orators in public assemblies and proceedings.

Cicero grounds this discursive approach to republican rule on the claim that human nature can only be fully realized through articulate and intelligent speech. While his rhetorical writings do not deny the importance of rationality, they are explicitly critical of the philosophical tradition, which glorifies reason to the exclusion or detriment of language. Rather, human beings are both rational and linguistic creatures, simultaneously capable of reasoning and speaking. Speech is, however, accorded primacy in this formulation of human nature. It is not enough to possess reason, for rational powers require the faculty of language in order that their discoveries may be disseminated.

Cicero believes that the realization of the associative potentialities present within human speech may only be achieved with the aid of oratory. The orator discovers what is truly good for his fellow creatures and communicates it to them in the most forceful and convincing manner so that they may put it to use. The combination of eloquence and wisdom characteristic of the orator assures that he will speak on behalf of the interests of the entire community. Cicero invokes a direct contrast between oratory and philosophy. The philosopher may know the good but lack the skill or training to convey it to the multitude. Inherent in the subject matter of oratory, then, is a regard for fellow citizens, which imposes on the orator an overarching duty to act in the service of public welfare. The orator can only achieve this goal, in turn, by expressing himself in the popular idiom. Oratory is concerned in some measure with the common usage, custom, and speech of humankind, so that, whereas in all other arts that which is most excellent is farthest removed from the understanding and mental capacity of the untutored, in oratory the very cardinal sin is to depart from the language of everyday life and the usage approved by the sense of the community.

Cicero's account of the discursive foundations of public life ties the role of political leadership to a clear notion of citizenship and civic intercourse. The man of public affairs is called on to persuade his fellow citizens to follow the wisest course of action in order to achieve the common good. Eloquent speech must, therefore, be cultivated alongside wisdom as a prized asset for political life; the statesman requires these qualities in order to appeal to and convince an audience. Likewise, even though ordinary citizens may lack the talent and skill of the orator, they are deemed to be competent to judge between competing arguments within the public arena and to choose in accordance with the best and most persuasive (that is, the wisest) case that they hear. Thus, citizenship ought to be construed in an active sense: statesmen seek the approval of citizens, who, by virtue of their inherently rational and linguistic faculties, are all qualified to discern the public good. Public life is a kind of recapitulation of the initial entry of human beings into the social and political order. Hence, this discursive approach has overtly participatory implications; it encourages political actors to conceive of their roles in terms of open rational persuasion and debate leading toward the civic recognition of the public good.

Elites and natural reason.

Cicero bolsters this view with an account of the foundations of republican government that emphasizes the centrality of reason alone as the source of public welfare, and concomitantly diminishes the active and discursive dimensions of citizenship. In this version of republicanism, natural reason forms the cornerstone of human social relations. The role of reason is to discover those precepts of natural law that maintain and strengthen the bonds of communal order, and to impose such dictates through law and rulership in a manner consonant with the public good. Of course, Cicero acknowledges that reason is unevenly distributed among human beings. While all people may be minimally rational, some exceed their fellows in the exercise of reason, a fact that qualifies the wise to ascend to positions of authority within the civic body. Indeed, in a well-ordered regime, those lacking fully developed powers of reason ought freely to accede to governance by their betters, on the grounds that wise rule is the strongest safeguard of the common good. The rational powers of statesmen guide the republic for the benefit of citizens, and the people are best governed when they defer to magistrates of superior wisdom. Cicero's philosophical writings, in particular, tend to highlight the Stoic-derived view that human beings are inherently rational creatures and that their natural powers of reason constitute the precondition for all social intercourse and political community.

Cicero maintains that society, and hence people's very capacity to conceive of a public welfare, depends on the cultivation of virtue. Virtue is directly dependent, in turn, on the cultivation of the rational faculties. Hence, the mark of a harmonious communal setting is the presence of virtue as an ingrained feature of its organization. Cicero singles out and concentrates on justice, identifying it as the virtue most crucial to the perpetuation of human association. The Ciceronian conception of justice is rooted in the doctrine of natural law. Cicero holds that nature imposes on individuals a certain code or measure of conduct, constituted in particular by the requirement to promote the ends and interests of human society. In order to prevent perpetual endangerment to the bonds of society, the law of nature is afforded prescriptive force. To know what accords with the law of nature, and hence what behavior is required by justice, one reasons about the common good. One's duty on the basis of natural law is always to act in the general welfare when there exists a conflict between private benefit and the general interests of society. The Ciceronian doctrine of natural law codifies and authorizes the obligation stemming from justice to value social fellowship above all else.

Cicero believes that all human beings share in the faculty of reason, and therefore are equal in their capacity to grasp what is just and lawful. But it is obvious that all people are not equally rational, and therefore virtuous and law-abiding. Whatever equality human beings enjoy by birth is in effect eradicated by differences of circumstance, so that wisdom is ultimately achieved by a very few persons, and the multitude remain in a state of ignorance. The distinction between the wise and the foolish has important implications for the foundations of the republic. Since civil law, properly speaking, has a rational origin in "what is true and just," according to Cicero, only those statutes that are framed and approved by the wise should be counted as valid. Valid legislation, therefore, must be referred to reason in accordance with nature and justice. No enactment of the multitude, regardless of how overwhelming the popular support, deserves to be accorded respect and obedience unless it is consonant with natural law. And only the wise are qualified to make this determination.

Cicero therefore turns to the optimates (best men), in whose hands the security of government must reside. The well-ordered republic of Cicero's De re publica the constitution most in conformity with natureis the creation of individuals who apply wisdom to the art of politics. In turn, the ideal constitution is balanced and harmonious when the optimates (embodied by the senate of the republic) enjoy the influence appropriate to their superior learning. De re publica commends that stage in the growth of the republican system when "supreme authority was in the senate with the sufferance and obedience of the people"; and Cicero bemoans the popular grasping after power (in the name of liberty) that leads to the decline in the concord afforded by the republic.

Hence, the rational conception of the republic promotes a passive conception of citizenship as well as an exalted idea of statesmanship. While all human beings are deemed minimally rational, Cicero regards the powers of reason of most of them to be insufficient for sharing directly in the judgment of the common good. Rather, it is up to the statesman, with his wisdom and superior virtue, to serve the public welfare by pioneering and preserving just institutions. Given the distinction between the ignorance of the multitude and the wisdom of the virtuous few, a direct appeal by a statesman to the masses would almost certainly be an act of demagoguery or tyranny, an attempt to destabilize the order of the republic. There is a noticeable contrast between this idea of the rational statesman, who governs on behalf, not at the behest, of citizens, and the oratorical model, in which the statesman can only lead the citizen body by the force of his eloquence and must accede to the popular will.

Medieval Republicanism

The tension between the populist and elitist dimensions in republican thought is recapitulated in later important contributions to republicanism. Italy, in particular, produced a number of exponents of republican doctrines, such as Brunetto Latini (1220c. 1294) and Ptolemy of Lucca (c. 12361327). Perhaps the most famous medieval republican work was the Defensor pacis (1324), written by Marsilius of Padua (c. 1280c. 1343). Marsilius stresses the linguistic foundations of the community, following Cicero's account of the formation of the human community as a consensual process in which the multitude is convinced to join into bonds of social and political cooperation by the "persuasion and exhortation" of oratorically gifted individuals. In turn, Marsilius ascribes to discourse a continuing role in the conduct of public affairs, as a sort of repetition of the original foundation of the community. The framing of legislation, for example, he regards as a function of public speech. He stipulates that draft statutes are to be framed by prudent persons (prudentes ) who, by virtue of their leisure and superior experience, are best qualified to discover just and useful laws. Yet the wisdom of the few does not entitle them to enact legislation on behalf of the general mass of citizens. Rather, the whole body of citizens (which Marsilius terms the legislator humanus ) must consent to draft statutes in order to give them the status of laws that the community is obligated to obey.

The Defensor pacis ascribes to oratory two pivotal functions in the process of a "bill becoming a law." First, it is assigned to the prudentes, when they present their legislative proposals to the citizen body, to "explain" publicly the measures they have recommended; and their fellow citizens are likewise bound to "listen attentively" to the arguments given. The prudentes in effect play the role created by the primordial orator: they must attempt to persuade the assembly of citizens that the draft statutes are consistent with justice and contribute to the common good, while it is left to the multitude, whose powers of reason are less well developed, to reflect on the justifications presented to them and to approve (or withhold approval from) laws. Second, Marsilius views the occurrence of legislative authorization as an occasion for general public discussion and debate among the members of the civic body. The whole citizen population must have an opportunity to speak about the matters of communal concern placed before it, and the words of the populace are ultimately binding. Lest "partiality" creep into the legislative process, the entire citizen body is to enjoy a say in the laws by which it will be governed.

Renaissance Italian Republicanism

Scholars often view the Renaissance, especially in Italy, as a decisive period in the development of republican thought. Many important authors of the Renaissance glorified civic-minded virtuethe ethos of sacrifice for the sake of one's fellow citizens and cityshared by members of a community (the so-called civic humanism identified most influentially by Hans Baron). While a simple equation of Renaissance thought with the revival of classical republicanism has come under serious and deserved challenge, some of the greatest humanists of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries embraced citizenship as the fullest expression of a virtuous human life, taking Cicero as their exemplar. Consequently, republican discourse became one of the primary forms of political expression during the period.

The tension within classical republicanism between discursive and rationalistic conceptions of governance thus also reemerged among Renaissance thinkers, perhaps most strikingly in the works of Niccolò Machiavelli (14691527). One of the central themes of Machiavelli's famed treatise on republican government, the Discourses on the Ten Books of Titus Livy (1517) is the defense of the view that the popular elements within the community form the best safeguard of civic liberty as well as the most reliable source of decision making about the public good. In particular, Machiavelli contrasts the constancy and trustworthiness of the people, who are often accused of fickleness and ineptitude, with the improbity of the nobility, who are commonly regarded to be the "natural" leaders of a republic. What permitted Rome to avoid public corruption and to extend its empire for so many centuries, Machiavelli believes, was precisely the fact that ordinary citizens demanded and were accorded such a large hand in public determinations. The people thus thwarted the use by patricians of public power to pursue private interests. The apparent "tumults" between the popular and elite segments of the Roman population were in fact the key to Rome's success. Machiavelli's praise for the role of the people in securing the republic is supported by his confidence in the generally illuminating effects of public speech upon the citizen body. Near the beginning of the first Discourse, he notes that some may object to the extensive freedom enjoyed by the Roman people to assemble, to protest, and to veto laws and policies. But he replies by referring to Cicero's view that "the people, although they may be ignorant, can grasp the truth, and yield easily when told what is true by a trustworthy man"; that is, the people are competent to respond to and support the words of the gifted orator when he speaks truly about the public welfare.

Machiavelli returns to this theme in a chapter of the Discourses intended to demonstrate the superiority of popular over princely government. He argues that the people are well ordered, and hence "prudent, stable and grateful," so long as room is made for public speech and deliberation within the community. Citing the formula vox populi, vox dei, Machiavelli insists that the people are competent to discern the best course of action when orators lay out competing plans, and in fact they are better qualified to make decisions, in Machiavelli's view, than are princes. The republic governed by words and persuasionin sum, ruled by public speechis almost sure to realize the common good of its citizens; and even should it err, recourse is always open to further discourse. Nonrepublican regimes, because they exclude or limit discursive practices, ultimately rest on coercive domination and can only be corrected by violent means.

English Republicanism

According to many scholars, James Harrington (16111677) walks directly in Machiavelli's footsteps, circulating classical republicanism beyond the confines of Italian (especially, Florentine) writers, into the English tradition, and eventually across the Atlantic. Yet Harrington's The Commonwealth of Oceana (1656) seems to have detoured around some of the more populist elements of Machiavelli's classical republicanism. In preferring the government of Venice to that of Rome, and to a lesser extent, Sparta to Athens, he manifests overt hostility to public speech. Rome and Athens, he asserts, were both ruined by the "storms" arising from the "debate of the people." Far preferable is Venice, which, like its alleged Lacedaemonian exemplar, Sparta, never sanctions public debate. Indeed, in his own ideal commonwealth of Oceana, popular discussion of political affairs is punishable by no less a penalty than death. Harrington's abhorrence of public speech is tied to the rationalistic side of classical republicanism: namely, that public decision making must be conducted in accordance with a strict principle of right reason, accessible only to the wise few, who therefore take it upon themselves to serve as guardians of the people for the sake of the common benefit.

Harrington expressly distinguishes three concepts of reasonas self-interest, as group interest, and as the interest of the wholeand contends that only the latter should be taken into consideration in the formation of laws and public policies. The problem is how the "common right" may safely be discovered and converted into the law of the land. In Harrington's view, this cannot be achieved by the people as a whole, since he observes that nature itself generates clear differences between human beings and, in particular, produces a "natural aristocracy" of the wise who are clearly more adept in their faculties of understanding. Harrington thinks that the foolish or ignorant will recognize that it is desirable to be led by the "excellent parts" in whom special "virtue or authority" resides.

Harrington institutionalizes this distinction between the wise few and the foolish multitude in his construction of the constitution of Oceana. The natural leaders form the body of the senate, whereas the foolish are represented in a popular assembly (or "prerogative tribe") composed of 1,050 delegates. The functions of these two groups differ markedly. The senate is charged with debating public affairs and with decreeing laws and policies; within its halls, discussion of proposals is to be open and unrestricted, and its members are deemed free to express disparate and conflicting opinions, until some conclusion is achieved. That this will not lead to disorder, Harrington believes, stems from the fact that the procedures of debate will occur strictly in accordance with the precepts of reason. The prerogative tribe, by contrast, performs a completely passive role: strictly enjoined from debating the senate's decrees, its members instead either affirm or reject the proposals presented to them. This has the effect of ensuring that the senators do not attempt to employ their authority to pass measures that reflect either private or group interest. The popular assembly thus has the primary purpose of checking potential abuses of power. But Harrington ascribes to the prerogative tribe no positive or active functions; it cannot air grievances, suggest issues or topics for legislation, make any sorts of changes in proposals, nor even question the wisdom of the senatorial decrees. Starting with the principle that reason is a special competence of the few, Harrington's republicanism excludes popular speech from the well-ordered constitution.

Modern Republicanism

The modern period witnessed a number of important practical experiments in the implementation of republican ideas, including the Netherlands, France, and the United States. One of the important facets of these experiments was the introduction of novel features into the classical tradition in recognition of the de facto replacement of the city by the territorial state as the central unit of public life. Modern republicans recognized that the process of political debate could not realistically be modeled on a direct interaction between speakers and an audience. Hence, political representation rather than direct governance by the people emerged as a hallmark of republican regimes, even as the principle of popular sovereignty was retained and reinforced. Representation permitted discussion and dispute in an assembly setting that presumably mimicked the views and disagreements that were held by members of society at large. Moreover, republicans such as James Madison (17511836) in the United States sought ways to mitigate the consequence of the factionalism that Machiavelli had regarded to be the hallmark of a healthy republic by institutionalizing mixed government by means of a constitutionally designated system of checks and balances. Thus, no faction could entirely impose its will on its opponents.

Another modification to traditional republican conceptions came with the challenge posed by the commercialization of Atlantic economic relations and social values. For classical republicans, the private accumulation of liquid wealth had been widely viewed as incompatible with civic virtue, but early modern authors began to reevaluate this doctrine. Some thinkers contended that citizens should proudly acknowledge industriousness and self-acquired possessions as the foundation of morality and the greatness of their cities. The Dutch-born Bernard Mandeville (16701733) proposed in his Fable of the Bees (1714) the famous principle that private vices yield public goods, which is to say that the pursuit of personal gain, and indeed the desire for comfort and luxury, leads directly to the enrichment of society as a whole and the consequent benefit of all its members. Republics should thus orient their political institutions in order to promote commercial enterprise.

With the rise of liberalism, capitalism, and democracy during the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, republican ideas entered a period of decline. Only in very recent times has this fortune been reversed. On the one hand, historical scholars such as Gordon S. Wood and John Pocock have offered reminders of how great was the debt of modern political institutions to the language and doctrines of republicanism. On the other hand, political philosophers critical of the excesses of liberalism have turned to the communitarian orientation of classical republicanism for inspiration. Among the best known of these "new republicans" are Hannah Arendt (19061975), Alasdair MacIntyre (b. 1929), Michael Sandel (b. 1953), and Philip Pettit (b. 1945). It seems clear that in the early twenty-first century the republican tradition is enjoying a considerable revival that suggests its continuing vitality and the relevance of its fundamental tenets to modern life.

See also Capitalism ; Constitutionalism ; Democracy ; Liberalism .



Cicero, Marcus Tullius. De inventione, edited by H. M. Hubbell. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1949.

. De officiis, edited by Walter Miller. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1913.

. De oratore. Edited by E. W. Sutton and H. Rackham. 2 vols. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1942.

. De re publica and De legibus. Edited by C. W. Keyes. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1928.

Harrington, James. The Political Works of James Harrington, edited by J. G. A. Pocock. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1977.

Machiavelli, Niccolò. The Chief Works and Others. Translated by Allan Gilbert. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1965.

Marsiglio of Padua. The Defender of Peace. Translated by Alan Gewirth. New York: Columbia University Press, 1956.


Baron, Hans. The Crisis of the Early Italian Renaissance. 2 vols. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1955.

. In Search of Florentine Civic Humanism. 2 vols. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1988.

Blythe, James M. Ideal Government and the Mixed Constitution in the Middle Ages. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1992.

Fink, Zera S. The Classical Republicans: An Essay on the Recovery of a Pattern of Thought in Seventeenth-Century England. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1962.

Hankins, James, ed. Renaissance Civic Humanism. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Hulliung, Mark. Citizen Machiavelli. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1983.

Pettit, Philip. Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government. Oxford: Clarendon, 1997.

Pocock, J. G. A. The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1975.

Rahe, Paul A. Republics Ancient and Modern: Classical Republicanism and the American Revolution. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992.

Skinner, Quentin. The Foundations of Modern Political Thought. Vol. 1: The Renaissance. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1978.

van Gelderen, Martin, and Quentin Skinner, eds. Republicanism: A Shared European Heritage. 2 vols. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Viroli, Maurizio. Machiavelli. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Wood, Gordon S. The Creation of the American Republic. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1969.

Wood, Neal. Cicero's Social and Political Thought. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

Cary J. Nederman


views updated May 18 2018


by Plato


A philosophical dialogue set in late fifth- century b.c. Athens; written around 380 b.c.


The Republic examines the concept of “justice” in the state and the human soul and provides a detailed description of Plato’s vision of the perfect society.

Events in History at the Time the Dialogue Takes Place

The Dialogue in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Dialogue Was Written

For More Information

Plato (428-347 b.c.) was the son of wealthy and powerful Athenian parents. He rejected the political life that had corrupted members of his family and became a student under the famous scholar and philosopher Socrates. The Republic was written at a time when Athens was shaking itself off from its defeat by other Greek city-states in the Peloponnesian War, and when it and other city-states were negotiating the best methods of civic organization and rule.

Events in History at the Time the Dialogue Takes Place

Athenian democracy

The established political system out of which Plato wrote the Republic was a type of democracy, although Athenian democracy always had an element of aristocratic control about it. The Athenian democracy, which began in 510 b.c., replaced an earlier form of government by individual rulers called tyrannoi, or “tyrants,” although the Greek word did not at first have a negative connotation. A tyrant was a man who had overthrown a local aristocracy and seized power in the government illegally. The tyrant’s power was closely linked to the general populace who had supported him in his overthrow of the former aristocracy. Some of the early tyrants were strong leaders who provided an effective transition government before the eventual democracy. However, the last tyrant of the era became a harsh ruler, and he was ousted in 510 b.c. Some nobles at first attempted to restore the aristocracy, but this was very unpopular with the now democratically inclined populace. It was Cleisthenes, a member of the Alcmaeonid family, who came up with the brilliant idea of bringing the masses of ordinary Athenians into an alliance with his family. Thus was born the Athenian democracy.

Cleisthenes sought to avoid factional disagreements among the Athenian people by breaking up the four regional “tribes” of Athens into ten tribes, with members of each tribe drawn from many different Athenian regions. A strong sense of centralized nationhood was thereby encouraged. He also set up the “Council of 500,” manned by fifty men drawn by lot from each of the ten tribes. The council prepared business for the assembly, which included all free adult male citizens. The assembly voted on all matters concerning the city. A program of “ostracism” was also installed; if 6,000 citizens voted to exile a man, he could be banished from the city-state, with his property and other rights intact, for a period of ten years. It was a program designed to ensure that no one person rose to a position of extreme power in the city, whether by wealth or influence, and with a few exceptions, it endured into the time that Plato wrote the Republic.


Socrates: The finest government and the finest kind of man remain for us to discuss, dictatorship and the dictatorial man.

Glaucon: They certainly do remain.

Socrates: Come, my dear friend, what is dictatorship like? That it evolves from democracy is pretty clear.

Glaucon: Obviously.

Socrates: Does it not evolve from democracy in much the same way as democracy does from oligarchy?

Glaucon: How?

Socrates: What they put before them as the good, which was the basis of oligarchy, was wealth, was it not?

Glaucon: Yes.

Socrates: Then their insatiable desire for wealth, and their neglect of other things for money-making was what destroyed it. was it not?

Glaucon: True.

Socrates: Now insatiability for what democracy defines as the good also destroys it.

Glaucon: And what do you say it defines as such?

Socrates: Liberty…

(Republic, 562a-c)

There were many different levels of responsibility and rights within the Athenian democracy. Not everyone who lived in the city-state had a voice in what went on. Women, slaves, and foreigners were unable to participate in the democratic process. Early on in the Athenian experiment with democracy, even some of the men who were eligible could not participate in the assembly for practical reasons. Attendance at assembly was an unpaid activity that absorbed a lot of time. Only those with a lot of time and money were able to take part on a regular basis. Although this situation had changed by the time Plato was writing the Republic, it does tend to suggest that, at its heart, Athenian democracy was not perceived as the system of utter equality that we sometimes associate with the word “democracy.” What’s more, the aristocrats did tend to have a dominant role in the city’s political life. From 445 to 429 b.c., for example, the Athenian democracy was dominated by Pericles, a great general from the Alcmaeonid family who single-handedly directed the city’s lively effort at civic reconstruction and imperial expansion. As one author comments, “so special a position seems to have been possible only in Athens, and there largely because the change to democracy had been so rapid and so thorough that people, used to more authoritarian systems, still looked for a leader” (Bowra, p. 76).

Plato is not tolerant of what he sees as the excesses of democracy; in Book 8 of the Republic, Socrates—the central character in the dialogue—sarcastically describes a democracy as a wonderful state in which everyone gets to do what he likes: “In this city... there is no compulsion to rule, even if you are capable of it, or again to be ruled if you do not want to be, or to be at war when the others are, or at peace unless you desire peace. If some law forbids you to hold office or to go to law, you nevertheless do both if it occurs to you to do so. Is that not a divine and pleasant life for the time being?” (Plato, Republic, 557e)


The Republic is set in the late fifth century b.c., while Socrates, who died in 399 b.c., was still alive. Perhaps the most famous and influential man of his day, Socrates left not a single written word to be remembered by—everything we know about him and his philosophical theories comes from his many students, most notably Plato.

Socrates was born in Athens around 470 b.c., the son of a stonemason. He came into conflict with the Thirty Tyrants, a group of aristocrats installed by the Spartan commander Lysander to oversee the defeated Athens at the conclusion of

the Peloponnesian War. Yet when these men failed to take control of Athens and democracy returned, Socrates was charged with corrupting youth and failing to worship the old gods of the city. In response to these charges, Socrates chose not to break out of prison, as a friend encouraged him to do, but rather to follow the state’s order to poison himself by drinking hemlock. The death of his beloved teacher at the hands of the reinstated democracy in 399 b.c. spurred Plato to try and discover the “just” state by writing the Republic.

Socrates is often referred to as “the greatest teacher in European history” (Jaeger, p. 27). He revolutionized Greek society by questioning every traditionally held pattern of thought and by studying the motivations of the individual as a philosophical subject. “Education is more than teaching,” one scholar notes, “and Socrates’s chief aim was not to impart information but to make the other man think, and thus to make him a better person” (Ehrenberg, p. 381). The late fifth century b.c. is commonly held by modern historians to have been a time when Athenians began to question the political and social traditions that had long guided them; the teachings of Socrates were an important part of this self-examination.

The Thirty Tyrants

In the turmoil surrounding Athens’ defeat by Sparta in the Peloponnesian War (431-404 b.c.), the city was badly disorganized. Thirty members of the aristocracy were installed to take charge of the city, a move that was heralded as a return to ancestral laws. The appointments, however, were actually orchestrated by the leaders of Sparta. Plato came from the wealthy and powerful class of landholders in Athens, and his family was well represented among these thirty men; one of his uncles and a cousin were prominent members of the group.

The Thirty Tyrants proved to be a corrupt group. They hired thugs with whips to strike fear into the citizens and keep order in the streets, banished 5,000 of the city-state’s residents, and executed more than 1,500 Athenian citizens, mostly rich and powerful men who opposed their policies. The reign of terror was relatively shortlived, however. After about ninety days, the Thirty Tyrants were defeated and exiled, and Athens once again operated under a democratic constitution.


The city-state Sparta, the traditional enemy of Athens, figures at different times and in different ways in the Republic. Sparta is cited as an example of how things can go wrong in a city if it is run by its aristocrats or by its military, but also as a model of the ideal city. Sparta was the second largest city-state in Greece and was run in a way almost exactly opposite to the democratic management of Athens. It was led by two hereditary kings who were in charge of the city during times of war, which tended to be often. The city was dominated by its military, which had the leisure to develop its strength because it had groups of other people to tend the land and do most of the labor necessary for running the city. Among these groups were the helots, the native people of the area. The helots outnumbered the Spartans by about five to one but were kept in a state of serfdom in the agricultural lands surrounding the city. They were not actually slaves, but they were required to give half or more of their produce to the city-state. Moreover, they were subject to unspeakable abuse by the Spartans, whose soldiers seem to have had an initiation ritual—called the “hiding game”—that involved attacking and killing helots at night. The other large group of people under Spartan rule were the perioeci, which means “the people living around here.” These people inhabited towns in the vicinity of Sparta and were allowed to be more or less independent except at times of war, when they were forced to serve in the Spartan army.

The single feature of Spartan life for which that city has remained famous is its military might. Sparta built its military prowess in a ruthless manner. Raising the perfect soldier began at birth, when weak-looking babies were killed at the discretion of the state, not of the parents. Beginning at age seven, boys were taken from their parents and housed in military dormitories. Admitted into the army at age twenty, they continued to live in strictly military quarters. They were prevented from residing with their wives unless they had children, though in some cases even this right was refused. “Military training was the central and ongoing part of [a soldier’s] life,” one historian observes. “All facets of [the soldier’s] existence indicated the final goal: the production of the single-minded, simple-living, superbly disciplined soldier” (Robinson, p. 57).

The Republic’s perfect city-state bears some likeness to Sparta in several respects. Plato, for example, argues that the ideal form of education is state-sponsored, a notion based in part on the Spartan model. Plato’s own city-state, Athens, allowed the family to educate its children, an arrangement that Plato thought made for poor citizens. In addition, Plato’s statement that the guardians of the city should not have money echoes the Spartan refusal to provide gold and silver to its citizens, a prohibition that was designed to keep them from trading for foreign luxury goods. It is a mark of how revolutionary the Republic was intended to be that Plato, who was writing for an Athenian audience, should invoke Sparta as a model in any way, given the long and ongoing history of war between the two cities.

The Dialogue in Focus

The plot

The Republic tries to define justice and to show that justice is better for states and for individual men than injustice. Summing up the author’s views, one researcher explains: “Plato taught a conception of justice as a quality of the soul, in virtue of which men set aside the irrational desire to taste every pleasure and to gain a selfish satisfaction out of every object, and accommodated themselves to the discharge of a single function for the general benefit” (Barker, p. 171).

The Republic is divided into ten books in which Socrates, the major character of the work, asks questions of his listeners in order to arrive at a definition of the ideal city-state. In the context of his discussion, Socrates describes the three classes of citizens (the guardians, or leaders; the auxiliaries, or soldiers; and the workers, providers of food and clothing) and explores the need for these classes to function together harmoniously. Socrates compares them to the components of the human personality, which must function together well if a person is to succeed in life. In Socrates’ view, the ideal man is the philosopher, literally a “lover of wisdom,” and guardians of the state should, along with their other preparation, be trained as philosophers so that they might be wise leaders. In a famous analogy, Socrates compares the philosopher to a man who leaves a dark cave and discovers the true world outside; he returns to the cave to illuminate others, who believe that reality consists only of the shadows on the cave wall in front of them. Because he has dared to explore beyond the confines of the average mind, the philosopher becomes able to teach wisdom to the common man.

Examining different types of government, Plato’s Republic investigates the relative strengths and evils of timocracy (rule by the military), oligarchy (rule by aristocrats), democracy (rule by the masses), and dictatorship (absolute rule by one person). The ideal city as explained in the Republic is ruled by the philosopher-king, a completely just man, and managed by the guardians, people of both genders who are intelligent, liberal, and stable.

But the Republic is much more than simply a political document; it aims to reorganize the life of every person in the city-state and offers detailed advice on how to carry this out. The work is accordingly wide-ranging, addressing social, economic, political, and religious concerns. Plato develops theories of education, public housing, child-rearing, marriage, labor division, and poetry—all of which are shown to contribute to the happiness of citizens and the effective running of their state.


Plato recalls the days immediately following the fall of the Thirty Tyrants and how they affected the rest of his life:

In general the restored democratic exiles exhibited considerable decency. As it chanced, however, some of those in control summoned our companion Socrates before the law courts and brought a most unholy charge against him, one that he least of all deserved, for they charged him with impiety [disrespect against the old gods] and the people condemned and put [him] to death.... The result was that I, who had at first been full of eagerness for political affairs, when I considered all this and saw how things were shifting about every which way, at last became dizzy. I didn’t cease to consider ways of improving this particular situation, however, and, indeed, of reforming the whole constitution... and I finally saw that the constitutions of all actual cities are bad and that their laws are almost beyond redemption.

(Plato in Klosko, p. 2)

Gender revolution?

In Book 5, Plato writes that women should be allowed to be guardians, the governors of the ideal state under the philosopher-king:

[I]f the male and the female are seen to be different as regards a particular craft or other pursuit we shall say this must be assigned to one or the other. But if they seem to differ in this particular only, that the female bears the children while the male begets them, we shall say that there has been no kind of proof that a woman is different from a man as regards the duties we are talking about, and we shall still believe that our guardians and their wives should follow the same pursuits.

(Republic, 454e)

Many historians have seen this statement as an early vote for feminism, but others caution that “Plato’s interest is neither in women’s rights nor in their preferences as they see them, but rather with production of the common good, and a state

where all contribute the best they can according to their aptitude” (Annas, p. 181). Just the same, because Athenian women were kept almost completely inside the home—they were not allowed to shop, socialize, or even walk about freely—and were often denied access even to their own husband’s social lives, any move toward granting them duties other than bearing and raising children was revolutionary for the time.

Plato’s style of family planning

Perhaps the best glimpse into Plato’s conception of the role of women in an ideal society comes later in Book 5, where he proposes that “guardian” wives be shared among the ruling class: “All these women shall be wives in common to all the men, and not one of them shall live privately with any man; the children too should be held in common so that no parent shall know which is his own offspring, and no child shall know his parent” (Republic, 457d). (The guardian class, it should be noted, is to be small, intelligent, and morally upright; sharing wives and children is not a practice that Plato suggests for all members of the city.) From the age of twenty to forty, women are to breed children for the state; men can continue to father children until they are fifty. Plato writes that only the best men and women should be allowed to bear children and describes how their offspring should be raised communally: “The children of good parents they will take to a rearing pen in the care of nurses living apart in a certain section of the city; the children of inferior parents, or any child of the others born defective, they will hide, as it is fitting, in a secret and unknown place” (Republic, 461c). Here, Plato is really recommending that weak babies be killed, a practice that was fairly common even in his day; the Spartans, as noted earlier, practiced this grim version of family planning.


After Socrates died, Plato went to mainland Italy and Sicily and may have studied with the Pythagorean philosophers living there. These men believed that numbers and ratios were the key to understanding the world. Many scholars have noted the influence of the Pythagorean philosophers on Plato’s ideas: “One can easily imagine Plato seeing . . . the possibility of giving precise definitions in wholly mathematical terms of such apparently vague and evaluative notions as harmony and disharmony, beauty and ugliness, maybe even justice and injustice, good and evil, and the other things of which Socrates sought definition” (Grube in Republic, p. xii).

Of course the most important sources for the Republic were the teachings of Socrates, Plato’s mentor. His beliefs cannot be studied firsthand because Socrates did not keep any written record of his thoughts. We do know that Plato copied from Socrates the method of learning through dialogue—in which answers to difficult problems are arrived at through a series of logically connected questions. Socrates also influenced Plato’s thoughts on the relationship between ethics and politics. Socrates’s extraordinary impact on Plato is evident in even a cursory examination of his student’s collected works, for Socrates is the main character in most of Plato’s dialogues.

The dialogue’s impact over the years

In later years, the Republic had a varied history. It influenced the Latin writer Cicero in his attempt to work out a just system of government for the Romans. Cicero in turn influenced the early medieval philosopher St. Augustine of Hippo, who tried to do the same for Christian culture. In the Renaissance the Republic emerged as a very important text; it influenced Sir Thomas More’s Utopia, for example. The Republic was also embraced by more sinister elements. It has been pointed out that “in our own century a regime like that of Hitler tried to use the Republic as some sort of prototype for its own particular type of Brave New World” (Robinson, p. 122).


What has been said about the State and its government is not a mere dream, and though difficult it is not impossible; but it is only possible when philosophers become kings, or kings philosophers.

(Republic, p. 540d)

Events in History at the Time the Dialogue Was Written

The polis

The Greek polis is the basic political unit about which Plato writes in the Republic; it is commonly referred to by modern historians as the “city-state.” But to fifth- and fourth-century b.c. Greeks, as one author points out, it was “not simply a city or a state; it implies active participation, a joint undertaking on the part of its citizens” (Klosko, p. 6). Political life was made more intense and more necessary by the populations of the city-states at the time: when the Republicwas being written, Athens had a population of only 40,000 active citizens (Athenian males), although this figure climbs to 110-150,000 if Athenian women and children are included, and to 300,000 if foreigners and slaves are counted. Because women, slaves, and foreigners were not allowed to vote, the polis was run by a small minority of its population. By the time Plato wrote the Republic, a very large percentage of the citizens of Athens were civil servants, earning their living by serving as jurors, or “sitting in the Assembly, in military service, as magistrates” and the like (Klosko, p. 6). But the strongest relationship between citizens and the polis was not political or economic, but spiritual: “The polis recognized no separation between state and church. Greek religion was state religion; the individual performed religious service by worshipping the gods of his polis” (Klosko, p. 6).

Social upheaval

The Republic is set during a time of political unrest and general cultural experimentation throughout Greece. The Peloponnesian War (431-404 b.c.), a conflict that pitted Athens against nearby Sparta and her allies, ended in 404 with the defeat of Athens and the widespread decay of all the cities involved in the war. The fall of Athens left a huge power vacuum in Greece that Sparta attempted to fill. Sparta had presented itself as the great liberator of Greek cities from the tyranny of Athens during the war. After the war Sparta became the tyrant. By the time the Republic was written, Sparta was more powerful than ever, but the city’s power was based on fear rather than respect. Moreover, the shattered Greek city-states were beset with massive interior weaknesses, “incapable not only of leading one another but of following a leader” (Hammond, p. 438). The Republic thus appeared at a time when the city-state was put to its crucial test as a political form and its citizens approached a new stage of intellectual freedom and capitalist development.

This fundamental questioning of the political, social, and intellectual status quo enriched Greek culture. It was “an age of bold experiments in politics, philosophy, literature and art” according to one historian; “[I]n the civilization of the fourth century [b.c.] many of the most fruitful ideas in human history came to birth” (Hammond, p. 438). We see the influence of the times in the Republic’s recommendation of a radical new view of traditional political and social arrangements such as the family.

The Academy

After the death of Socrates, Plato left Athens for some time and traveled to Sicily and mainland Italy. Around 385 b.c. Plato founded in Athens what some historians have called the first university. It was at this academy that Plato is said to have written the Republic. He spent the rest of his life working there. The Academy was Plato’s legacy to the city of Athens; it endured until 529 a.d. The curriculum at the Academy combined the studies of mathematics and geometry with work in ethics, politics, and psychology. Some members of the Academy, including Plato himself, were invited by various Greek and foreign cities to help develop workable civic constitutions. Such invitations put the Republic in the context that Plato intended—not as a text of theories with no consequences but as a document intended to be used in political reform. As far as Plato’s own efforts are concerned, however, the ideals of the Republic did not prove popular in his day, and his career as a political reformer went nowhere.

Aristotle comments on the Republic

The most complete response to Plato’s work, including the Republic, can be found in Aristotle’s Politics. Aristotle, who studied under Plato at the Academy, was not always the most sympathetic reader of his teacher’s work. He registered objections to several of Plato’s more radical proposals, including that for a community pool of wives and children for the guardian class: “Each citizen acquires a thousand sons, but these are not one man’s sons; any of them is equally the son of any person, and as a result will be equally neglected by everyone” (Aristotle, Politics, 1261b32). He argued further that the severing of personal ties among people runs contrary to what is best for the state: “Community of wives and children is prescribed for the Guardian class. It would seem to be far more useful if applied to the agricultural class. For where wives and children are held in common there is less affection, and a lack of strong affection among the ruled is necessary in the interests of obedience and absence of revolt” (Aristotle, Politics, 1262a40).

For More Information

Annas, Julia. Introduction to Plato’s Republic. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981.

Aristotle. The Politics. Translated by T. A. Sinclair. London: Penguin Books, 1992.

Barker, Ernest. Greek Political Theory: Plato and His Predecessors. New York: Methuen, 1960.

Bowra, C. M. Periclean Athens. New York: Dial Press, 1971.

Ehrenberg, Victor. From Solon to Socrates: Greek History and Civilization during the 6th and 5th Centuries b.c. London: Methuen, 1976.

Hammond, N. G. L. A History of Greece to 322 b.c. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1959.

Jaeger, W. Paideia. Volume 2. Oxford University Press, 1944.

Klosko, George. The Development of Plato’s Political Theory. New York: Methuen, 1986.

Plato. The Republic. Translated by G. M. A. Grube. 2nd ed. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1992.

Robinson, T. M. The Greek Legacy. Toronto: CBC Merchandising, 1979.


views updated May 11 2018


The concept of the republic has been used to describe at once an attitude toward political life and a constitutional form of political order. In both senses it has always been contrasted with tyrannical or monarchical rule. The term has its roots in Roman political vocabulary. The res publica means literally "the public thing," or that which is shared by a public. The Roman orator Cicero (106–43 b.c.e.) summed up its usage best in De Republica (On the Commonwealth) when he argued that a republic consists of rule by the people, and the people consist of the citizens gathered together under law for mutual advantage, that is, for the public good.

Along with the emphasis on a regime deriving its authority from popular will and aimed toward the common good, the Roman meaning also included an emphasis on civic virtue and the striving for glory—citizens distinguishing themselves by putting the good of the whole community above their personal interest. Finally, for the Romans a republic, unlike a tyranny or a monarchy, protected the freedom of its citizens both in the negative sense of prevention against unjust intrusions by political power and in the positive sense of guaranteeing the right of citizen participation. Indeed, the two notions of freedom were seen as supporting each other, for both derived from protection against domination.

Curiously, as a constitutional arrangement of power, a republic could take many different forms. The only requirement was that it be a mixed form of government, combining the positive features of monarchy, aristocracy , and democracy so that these different kinds rule might balance and moderate the extremes of one another. This requirement was derived from Aristotle's (384–322 b.c.e.) concept of polity in books three and four of The Politics. During the Roman period it was further developed by Polybius (200–118 b.c.e.), who argued that a durable republic could be constructed by balancing these three forms in the distribution of public offices: If properly done, each form would provide a check on the others; however, during an external crises all three would compete to enhance the good of the state.

During the later medieval period and through the Renaissance (1400s and 1500s) debate was ongoing among the civic humanists over the exact composition of a well-ordered republic. Some sided with the model of the Venetian republic, which was highly stable and ruled by an oligarchy based on birth. Others sided with the Florentine model, which was far less stable but incorporated the lower classes of craftspeople into the rule of the city. Different civic humanists saw the mixture of popular government, aristocratic government, and executive rule differently, depending on whether they emphasized stability or liberty through citizen participation.

In 1513 Niccoló Machiavelli (1469–1527) entered this debate in a new and innovative way with his Discourses on Livy. Machiavelli attacked both the aristocratic model of a republic based on achieving stability through balance and the more democratic model seeking to transform the inner character of citizens into public-regarding beings. Radically revising the Roman model, he argued that republican liberty and the common good will best be achieved in a republic that encourages a constant but controlled conflict between the ordinary people seeking to escape domination and the few who desire to rule. When the common people actively resisted the rulers through street protests and indictments of power-hungry political leaders, laws leading to republican self-government would be introduced.

Equally important, Machiavelli insisted, a republic that responded to the demands of the common people could mobilize all of its citizens to fight on its behalf when it sought to expand its power over other states—aristocratic or oligarchical republics could not avail themselves of this political resource. Machiavelli was one of the first political thinkers to recognize that even though there was an inherent tendency in all republics for an oligarchical or aristocratic political class to arise, a constant tension between the many and the few would result in the continuous expansion of popular self-government and the introduction of laws favoring the common good.

radical republicanism versus commercial society

Machiavelli's focus on the ordinary people as a dynamic force in a republic and his emphasis on popular conflict as a healthy element of political life spawned a variety of reactions among later republican thinkers. Some republican thinkers, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), Thomas Paine (1737–1809), and later Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826), sought to make popular sovereignty the center of republican theory. Others, such as James Madison (1751–1836) saw radical republicanism as a danger to political stability and sought instead to redefine republican theory so that it might accommodate the new commercial market society of the later eighteenth century and its notions of private property.

Rousseau is of particular importance to the post-Machiavellian tradition of radical republicanism because he combined democratic popular sovereignty with mixed government in a way that shifted the model republic decidedly in the direction of direct democracy. Famously he argued in The Social Contract that the only legitimate republic is one in which the sovereign authority consists of an assembly of citizens who participate directly in legislating general laws for themselves as subjects. He called this authority, in which the makers of the laws and the subjects of the laws were identical, the general will. In an even more radical move he argued that the government must be made dependent on the general will. Its job was to carry out the laws, not to make them.

According to Rousseau, for the government to heed the general will, it had to combine the monarchical principle in an executive, the aristocratic principle in a representative body, and the democratic principle in the subjects of government. The right balance would be reached when the government was strong enough to implement the laws but not so strong that it usurped the authority of the general will. By putting the republican approach to constitutional balance in the service of the republican ideal of direct citizen participation, Rousseau claimed he was merely restoring the ancient model of citizenship at a time when it had been undermined by large territorial centralized states and by the inequalities of property produced through the new commercial markets.

Viewing such radical notions of republicanism as a danger to both private property and a stable political order, James Madison, especially in The Federalist Papers numbers 10 and 51, argued that a republic was distinct from a democracy. Although republican government must be authorized by the people, it must be organized so that no majority could attack the natural rights to private property of the few. To this end, he proposed that instead of transforming citizens into publicly interested legislators, as did Rousseau, republican government should be spread over so wide an area as to encompass as many self-interested factions as possible.

In this way, a new kind of balance was introduced into republican theory; namely, organized partial interests would at once compete with one another to advance their political goals and check one another so that a permanent majority interest could not form. Here Madison quite explicitly believed he was applying the new psychology of interest developed in Adam Smith's (1723–1790) theory of the competitive market as well as the Newtonian theory of a closed balanced energy system to produce stability through an equilibrium of interests.

On this foundation, Madison introduced his famous account of the American constitution as a system of checks and balances among the legislative, executive, and judicial branches, as well as his slightly less famous account of representative government in which the House of Representatives would be elected by the citizens but the Senate would be selected from the better, more politically virtuous classes through the state legislatures. The significance of Madison's revision of the republican model is that he at once made it compatible with a society of commercial interests while diminishing the republican ideal of citizens participating in authorizing laws for the public interest. Liberty as protection against popular rule trumped liberty as participation in popular rule.

from political way of life to constitutional form

The tension between the radical popular republicanism and a republicanism rooted in the protection of individual rights continued into the nineteenth century in Europe and the United States. Increasingly, from the later nineteenth century through the whole of the twentieth century the latter took the place of the former. Liberal states based on constitutionally limited government, representative institutions, competitive parties, and capitalist property relations have claimed to be republics to the degree that they have consisted of a divided government whose authority is derived from the people. The ideal of participatory republicanism, however, has disappeared into the struggle for democracy. Since the nineteenth century, democratic movements—whether they were seeking universal suffrage, socialist transformations of the economy and the state, or more participation in the workplace or the local community—have incorporated that ideal. In the twentieth century both liberal and illiberal states claimed to be republics in their constitutional structure. Indeed, almost all constitutional regimes call themselves republics. At this point the original plasticity of the term has led almost to complete shapelessness.

the revival of the republican ideal

Nonetheless, in the later twentieth century and the beginning of twenty-first century a number of writers sought to revive republican thought as a way of criticizing the concern in modern liberal "democracies" with the individual pursuit of private interest, the dominance of the market in social life, and, above all, the limited participation of citizens in political life. Among them, Jürgen Habermas (b. 1929) has proposed a synthesis between liberal procedural democracy and radical republican models. His model institutes an active sphere of deliberative public opinion between society and the institutions of government that would legitimate legislative actions according to whether they might achieve the public good.

Other commentators have argued that the Internet could revive the republican ideal of public participation in political life by instituting a sphere in which all citizens, no matter how dispersed, could discuss and debate opinions. However, others fear it might allow citizens to select only those opinions and sources of information with which they agree. Finally, some commentators, using the European Union as a model, speak of republican citizenship being extended on a global scale as new problems arise, such as regional diseases, global poverty, and ecological damage, that cannot be dealt with at the national level.


Throughout the history of its usage, a tension has always existed in the concept of republicanism. As a form of political life, it represents the striving to launch a political community in which citizens regularly participate in legislating laws for the common good, resist tendencies toward tyranny, and seek recognition by fulfilling their duties to the community as a whole. It is the idea of a small civic community applied to a large-scale political order. As an institutional arrangement of power, however, it has accommodated a variety of political forms. Some republics tend toward a democratic form of sovereignty, including citizens actively in their common life; others are more aristocratic, allowing citizens only to be represented by their betters; still others tend to subordinate both the few and the many to more executive rule; and yet other forms claim to derive their authority from the common people but divide the decision-making power among representative legislative bodies such as a parliament or congress, an executive such as a prime minister or president, and a judicial branch such as a supreme or high court.

niccolÒ machiavelli (1469–1527)

Niccolò Machiavelli is generally considered the founder of modern political science. Born in Florence, he entered the service of the city's government in 1498. Machiavelli learned about power politics firsthand through his work as a diplomat. His missions on behalf of the Florentine Republic included meetings with King Louis XII of France (in 1504 and 1510), Pope Julius II (in 1506), and Emperor Maximilian I (in 1507).

After the Medici family returned to power in Florence in 1512, Machiavelli was jailed and briefly tortured on charges that he had been involved in a plot against the family. After his release, he retired to the countryside to write his major works, the Discourses on Livy (1517) and The Prince (published posthumously in 1532). In May 1527 the Florentines again drove out the Medici and briefly reestablished a republic, but the people no longer trusted Machiavelli. He died on June 22, 1527, embittered by the city's refusal to offer him a government position.

Machiavelli's political thought is marked by two important innovations. The first is his notion that a healthy state is marked by internal social conflict rather than stability—an idea set forth in the Discourses on Livy. The second is his separation of political analysis from ethics or moral philosophy—a break with tradition that made his name a synonym for the cynical and amoral use of power.

Hence, as an institutional form, a republic can deviate rather widely from the ideal that is intended to legitimate it. And yet, in practice, almost every regime in the world in the twenty-first century—be it dictatorial, ruled by one party, or organized through a system of competitive parties—claims to be a republic of some kind. It would seem that very few political regimes want to forgo the claim to legitimacy represented by the republican ideal of a constitution resting on popular will—even if they are loath to realize it.

See also: Constitutions and Constitutionalism; Democracy; Popular Sovereignty.


Appleby, Joyce. Liberalism and Republicanism in the Historical Imagination. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1992.

Aristotle. The Politics, trans. C. D. Reeve. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1998.

Cicero, Marcus Tullius. On the Commonwealth and On the Laws. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Fontana, Biancamaria, ed. The Invention of the Modern Republic. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Habermas, Jürgen. "Three Normative Models of Democracy." Constellations 1, no. 1 (1994):1–10.

Held, David. Democracy and the Global Order. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1995.

Hirshman, Albert O. The Passions and the Interests. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997.

Jay, John, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison. The Federalist Papers. New York: Penguin Books, 1987.

Machiavelli, Niccolò. Discourses on the First Ten Books of Livy, trans. Nathan Tarcov and Harvey Mansfield. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Pocock, J. G. A. The Machiavellian Moment. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1975.

Petitt, Philip. Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Polybius. Historie. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. "On The Social Contract." In The Basic Political Writings, ed. D. A. Cress. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1987.

Sunstein, Cass. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002.

Von Fritz, Kurt. The Theory of the Mixed Constitution in Antiquity: A Critical Analysis of Polybius Political Ideas. New York: Columbia University Press, 1954.

Peter Breiner


views updated May 11 2018



The origin of the term republic lies in the Latin phrase res publica, or public thing. The term implies the development of the public, distinct from the private, in both degree and manner. First, a republic must be developed socially and economically to a degree that sets it apart from a mere collection of private households. Second, a republic must be developed politically in a manner that distinguishes its rule from despotism, wherein the ruler regards all land and people as his or her private property. Over time, as noted in Paul Rahes definitive work, Republics Ancient and Modern, republics have taken on different characteristics. Some have been authoritarian, using the power of the regime to establish a fixed way of life for all citizens, while others have been liberal, allowing citizens to pursue happiness as each individual defines it. Some republics have been highly democratic, others less so. Consequently, republics have featured different kinds of institutions, from presidential to parliamentary systems and constitutional monarchies. This diversity has developed largely in response to the changing relationship between public and private.

Early republics, such as the Greek polis, or city-state, tended to be small and homogeneous. Aristotle argued that the polis came into existence for the sake of security, but once formed it assumed the higher purpose of providing a venue for self-perfection or virtue. In order to promote virtue, the classical republic assigned not only politics, but also religion, the arts, and the economy, to the public sphere. Politics were generally democratic, but they were also inegalitarian and illiberal. The regime expected citizens to conform to the public understanding of the best way of life, and it rewarded those who did with rule over those who did not. The nineteenth-century historian Fustel de Coulanges notes that public control of the economy was not intended to equalize wealth so much as it was used to make sure people found a vocation and engaged in production and exchange in a manner consistent with the moral vision of the regime. In sum, the ancient republics left little other than matters exclusive to the household to the private sphere. Yet the ancient republic is also the birthplace of philosophya pursuit that entails questioning public ideas. This was considered hostile to the regime, so ancient republics tended to protect themselves by exiling or, in the case of Socrates, executing those who questioned the citys beliefs.

Changing public ideas about the household, economy, and religion brought to light a new conception of the republic. The English philosopher John Locke argued that people had a natural right to appropriate the goods of the earth to satisfy their personal self-interest. This required an economy in which people took up a vocation and engaged in the production and exchange of goods based on personal appetites and desires. At the same time, the idea of religious toleration left decisions about faith to individuals, prompting the secularization of the modern republic. With greater emphasis on the household, there was less justification for the use of law to establish a common way of life. This did not, however, constitute an unqualified preference for the private, or any disregard for the public. Rather, the expanded private sphere was intended to serve a public purpose by mediating and channeling behavior driven by self-interest to raise the standard of living for all.

Thus, the modern republic is, by definition, liberal in character, existing not for virtue but for security. Consequently, modern republics feature institutional safeguards to prevent the abuse of power, particularly the separation of the legislative, executive, and judicial branches, as recommended by the French philosopher Montesquieu. Most scholars, including Thomas Pangle, credit Montesquieu and Locke with having a considerable influence on the founding of the United States. Others, however, such as J. G. A. Pocock, dispute the degree of this influence.

James Madison took a special interest in the development of republics, noting the problem of instability that had plagued both classical and modern regimes. In Federalist No. 10, Madison argued that instability was the result of factions, or organized groups motivated by a common goal adverse to the rights of others. Factions arose because republics permitted citizens to formulate individual opinions, gave them the freedom to associate, and offered groups the ability to influence policy to reflect their narrow interests. Madisons solution was the extensive commercial republic, which was a break with earlier thinkers who believed republics had to be small and homogeneous.

Madison used the idea of representation to distinguish the republic from a pure democracy. A representative government, he argued, could take in greater territory and population. People would put the land to use differently, and the different types and amounts of property would lead to diverse opinions. This would result in a multiplicity of factions, such that no single interest could dominate political decisionsa condition Robert Dahl famously termed pluralism. However, James W. Ceaser, among others, has disputed the fidelity of Dahls logic to Madisons argument. Madisons strategy intended the political arena to be a public place where people of differing passions and interests would engage one another, allowing the experience to refine and enlarge their views. This would produce decisions that did not benefit some at the expense of others, but that were conducive to a common good. Ultimately, Madisons plan would have a centralizing effect on public opinion, but it would still offer freedom for those who desired to pursue more unconventional ideas.

Pressure from those exercising the right to explore the margins continues to redefine the center. This has made the modern republic the site of important rights movements, particularly the womens liberation movement and the civil rights movement. This has intensified as globalization has prompted yet another reconsideration of the place of the market, religion, and the household. Economically, some want the market to be more purely private, seeking to reduce regulatory controls on land use, production, and exchange. Others advocate greater public control over the marketplace in the name of safety, fairness, and increased public assistance to the poor. At the same time, some desire a greater separation between religion and the public sphere, while others would prefer to see an increased public role for religion, allowing church groups to replace government agencies in the provision of social services. Finally, there is a debate over the nature of the household itself. Many republics, for example, are considering public recognition of same-sex marriages. Some see these changes as the next logical step in the evolution of the republic. Others consider them a radical departure and a threat to the very existence of the republic. Thus, the persistent redefinition of the relationship between public and private, especially with regard to the economy, religion, and the household, continues to shape the nature of the republic.

SEE ALSO City-State; Democracy; Federalism; Locke, John; Monarchy, Constitutional; Pluralism; Republicanism; State, The


Aristotle. 1986. The Politics. Trans. Carnes Lord. New York: Prometheus Books.

Ceaser, James W. 1986. In Defense of Republican Constitutionalism: A Reply to Dahl. In The Moral Foundations of the American Republic, 3rd ed., ed. Robert H. Horwitz et al., 253-281. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia.

Dahl, Robert A. 1956. A Preface to Democratic Theory. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Fustel de Coulanges, Numa Denis. 1864. The Ancient City: A Study on the Religion, Laws, and Institutions of Greece and Rome. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980.

Locke, John. 1689. Two Treatises of Government. Ed. Peter Laslett. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Madison, James. 1788. The Federalist Papers. Ed. Charles R. Kesler. New York: Signet Classics, 2003.

Montesquieu, Charles de Secondat, Baron de. 1748. The Spirit of the Laws. Trans. and ed. Anne Cohler, Basia Miller, and Harold Stone. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Pangle, Thomas L. 1988. The Spirit of Modern Republicanism: The Moral Vision of the American Founders and the Philosophy of Locke. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Pocock, J. G. A. 1975. The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Rahe, Paul A. 1992. Republics Ancient and Modern: Classical Republicanism and the American Revolution. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

B. Jeffrey Reno


views updated May 23 2018


REPUBLIC. The word republic derives from the Latin res publica; res means "thing" or "affair," and publica means "public," as opposed to "private." The word thus denotes government in which politics is a public affair and not the personal prerogative of a single ruler. There have been aristocratic republics and oligarchic republics, but, as applied to the United States government, this term usually connotes a democratic republic, one in which elected representatives carry out the functions of government. This conception of the terms derives both from classical philosophy and eighteenth-century liberal thought. In the context of the debate over the Constitution of the United States in 1788, federalists refined the concept further so that the term republic referred to a particular kind of democracy.

James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay articulated this conception of a republic in their 1788 essays that were later compiled as The Federalist Papers. These essays, intended to support the ratification of the federal Constitution in New York, distinguished a republic from a pure democracy, describing the latter as "a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person." In the context of The Federalist Papers, a republic differed from a pure democracy only in that it was "a government in which the scheme of representation takes place." According to this interpretation, a republic was a representative democracy. As Madison pointed out, the representative principle militates against the irresponsible exercise of majority power, for it makes a large republic possible, and it is difficult in a large republic for any faction to become a majority. According to these authors, a large republic would foster the formation of many factions, and this sheer multiplicity of interests in turn would create shifting coalitions, which would hinder the formation of an oppressive or irresponsible majority. Furthermore, because of the checks and balances and separation of powers between different branches and levels of government, any upstart tyrannical faction would encounter many legal and institutional roadblocks.

Europeans had established partly or wholly representative governments before the American Revolution, but none was both wholly representative and wholly democratic. The republic of the United States achieved that novel combination. A danger remained, however, according to Alexis de Tocqueville, in its representative institutions: if representatives are little better than their constituents, he argued, the hoped for improvement in the government of democracy might come to nothing.


Bailyn, Bernard. The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1992.

Banning, Lance. The Sacred Fire of Liberty: James Madison and the Founding of the Federal Republic. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1995.

Hamilton, Alexander, John Jay, and James Madison. The Federalist Papers. ed. Gary Wills. New York: Bantam Books, 1981.

Morton J.Frisch/s. b.

See alsoAntifederalists ; Citizenship ; Constitution of the United States ; Federalist Papers ; Liberalism ; Political Theory ; Republicanism .


views updated May 14 2018


That form of government in which the administration of affairs is open to all the citizens. A political unit or "state," independent of its form of government.

The word republic, derived from the Latin res publica, or "public thing," refers to a form of government where the citizens conduct their affairs for their own benefit rather than for the benefit of a ruler. Historically republics have not always been democratic in character, however. For example, the ancient Republic of Venice was ruled by an aristocratic elite.

In the U.S. historical tradition, the belief in republicanism shaped the U.S. Revolution and Constitution. Before the revolution, leaders developed many political theories to justify independence from Great Britain. thomas paine, in his book Common Sense (1776), called for a representative government for the colonies and for a written constitution. Paine rejected the legitimacy of the monarchy to have a part in government. This attack on the king was echoed the following year in the Declaration of Independence, where thomas jefferson proposed that colonists reject the monarchy and become republican citizens.

Framers of the U.S. Constitution intended to create a republican government. Article IV, Section 4, states "The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government…." Though the language was vague, the authors of the Constitution clearly intended to prevent the rise to power of either a monarchy or a hereditary aristocracy. Article I, Section 9, states, "No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States," and most state constitutions have similar provisions.

The guarantee of republican government was designed to provide a national remedy for domestic insurrection threatening the state governments and to prevent the rise of a monarchy, about which there was some talk at the time.

james madison, the author of many of the essays included in The Federalist Papers (1787–88), put forward a sophisticated concept of republican government. He explained in Number 10 that a republic must be contrasted with a democracy. In the eighteenth century the term "democracy" meant what is now called a pure or direct democracy, wherein legislation is made by a primary assembly of citizens, as existed in several rural Swiss cantons and in New England towns. In a pure democracy, Madison argued, there is no check on the majority to protect the weaker party or individuals and therefore such democracies "have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention," where rights of personal security and property are always in jeopardy.

By a republic, Madison meant a system in which representatives are chosen by the citizens to exercise the powers of government. In Number 39 of The Federalist Papers, he returned to this theme, saying that a republic "is a government which derives all its powers directly or indirectly from the great body of the people; and is administered by persons holding their offices during pleasure, for a limited period, or during good behavior." Generally, such leaders as Madison and john adams believed that republicanism rests on the foundation of a balanced constitution, involving a separation of powers and checks and balances.

The republican form of government has remained a constant in U.S. politics. State constitutions follow the federal constitution in dividing powers among the legislative, executive, and judicial branches. Likewise, states have adopted the various checks and balances that exist between the three branches, including the executive veto power and judicial review.

The U.S. Supreme Court has stayed out of controversies that involve whether the government of a state is republican in character. For example, in Pacific States Telephone and Telegraph Co. v. Oregon, 223 U.S. 118, 32 S. Ct. 224, 56 L. Ed. 377 (1912), the Court declined to rule whether state legislation by initiative and referendum (legislation approved directly by the people through the ballot) was inconsistent with republicanism. The Court refused to rule because it considered this issue a political question outside its jurisdiction. It is now well established that it is the province of Congress and the president, not the courts, to decide whether the government of a state is republican in character.


Constitution of the United States; Federalist Papers; Locke, John.


views updated May 23 2018

re·pub·lic / riˈpəblik/ • n. a state in which supreme power is held by the people and their elected representatives, and which has an elected or nominated president rather than a monarch. ∎ archaic, fig. a community or group with a certain equality between its members.


views updated May 23 2018

republic a state in which supreme power is held by the people and their elected representatives, and which has an elected or nominated president rather than a monarch. The Republic is the English title of Plato' most famous work.
Republic Day the day on which the foundation of a republic is commemorated, in particular (in India) 26 January.


views updated May 11 2018

republic †state, common weal; state in which the supreme power resides in the people. XVII. — F. république — L. rēspublica, f. rēs affair, thing + fem. of publicus PUBLIC.
Hence republican †pert. to the commonwealth; pert. to (sb. advocate of) a republic XVII; whence republicanism XVII.