The Republic [Abridged Book Review]

[NOTE: Originally written in college, this paper weighed in at 10 pages long. I decided to post it, but post an abridged version to spare the reader. The original date is July 14, 2012]

Throughout history, art of all forms have shaped every society in our world. Art has a major influence on people – especially the youth. In order to ensure a better future the youth of a civilization must be raised correctly by their society with good influences. Plato’s book The Republic, in a line of dialogue between Socrates and other men depicts the best ideals that would make the perfect society. In these discussions, Socrates addresses quickly what is wrong with education and what should be acceptable considered acceptable education standards to prepare societies youth to live in his Republic – but he also speaks on a more sensitive issue. Socrates addresses the control of art in this Republic to better the citizens within it. It maybe because Socrates has not lived through communism or nationalism, but one must admit: he is far ahead of his time. Although Socrates proves successful in pointing out flaws in poetry, drama, and all art – he fails to provide a realistic solution to the problems. He foretells and answers artistic flaws within the dialogue, but gives possible solutions as opposed to a plausible solutions.

Beginning in “Book II” of The Republic, Plato begins to write the discussion explaining how important it is to raise children correctly because they are so very impressionable. Socrates begins this discussion asking, “Shall we begin the education with music, and go to gymnastics afterwards?” – showing that the education he is referring to is younger education at an elementary base. He describes these children as young and tender things impressionable to the world in danger of misinterpretation to the stories that are told to them. One immediately begin to think about the crazy things children are exposed to – any reader can agree that the youth are impressionable and need some kind of direction in their education to insure they are raised to be their best. Imagine, for example, that every child is raised in something crazy such as Scientology. Socrates deserves credit for bringing this to the discussion because this will be a problem debated for thousands of years to come.

Even today, parents, scholars, and politicians fight over what children of today can see, hear, and do. Socrates makes the point that society cannot, “just carelessly allow children to hear any casual tales which may be devised by casual persons and to receive into their minds ideas for the most part the very opposite of those which we should wish them to have when they grow up”. Religion comes to mind. Every parent, religious or not, wants their child exposed to the ‘right’ religion and protected from the wrong one. Keep in mind that Socrates was eventually put to death for corrupting the youth and questioning the gods. This could be where that claim against Socrates starts.

The fear is a primal one: that someone or something my corrupt one’s child and ruin them for life. The 20th century children comes to mind as the struggle for artistic freedom in the 1960’s and 1970’s anti-war movement. The sort of art brought rebellion against the state and its efforts ultimately leading to the failure of the Vietnam war. But this cultural revolution not only brought about a split in loyalty in the State but also brought changes that shocked parents with drug use, violence, and a chaotic society. This sort of change is exactly what Socrates is warning against. The dangers of the arts and allowing art to run free is considered anarchy  for the State and its children. Now, our idea of the individual didn’t really come around until the 1700’s with Hobbes, Locke, and the American and French Revolution – so what Socrates is explaining was not so crazy – for the time. But these relatively recent individual liberty liberties is what Socrates would call a big lie, “A fault which is most serious, I said: the fault of telling a lie, and, what is more, a bad lie”. All things considered, Socrates is correct for his concern for youth’s influences within a society when one thinks about the vast amounts of misinformation and propaganda within our society today. Socrates provides the reader a legitimate problem that will reoccur for thousands of years. The solution for this problem is simply censorship. Today, we understand man’s ability for discretion, but Socrates’ plan is centered toward iron fisted censorship, “the first things will be to establish a censorship of writers of fiction and let the censors receive any tale of fiction with is good and reject the bad”. This solution is possible – but not plausible. Simply think of any number of authoritarian dictatorships throughout history. Even if the reader assumes that the censorship of writers is possible and can function flawlessly, the people of the State would never allow it. Think of the resistance in Nazi Germany to receive foreign radio, in the Soviet Union to receive books, in Communist China to write whatever you want, even North Korea where the largest illegal imports are films. Even though Socrates’ goal is a good one and means well, it would be too hard on a nation and it’s people to enforce it – and we are not even talking about the intellectual depression a nation will face with censorship.

 

In Book III and Book IV, Socrates begins to again attack art but this time at its core. Socrates is mostly concerned with productivity of the Republic as it is most important for the State and its people, “the arts of measuring and numbering and weighing come to the rescue of the human understanding – there is the beauty of them”. This aspect of Socrates’ discussion is very insightful and well thought. If there were a type of Utopia attainable, it would need constant intellectual support from it’s people mainly presiding in something more useful such as math, science, and other trades – not art. Plus if these trades are necessary for the growth of the state then the time and skill of the citizens cannot be wasted on such useless trades such as art, “one man can only do one thing well, and not many; and that if he attempt many, he will altogether fail of gaining much reputation in any.” Socrates would have loved – or be completely horrified by our Utopian books such as George Orwell’s 1984 or Ayn Rand’s Anthem. Perhaps he would have changed his mind about the individual’s place within the State. He does, however grim, provides an explanation of human nature and if a perfect society needed trades from it’s people, they would need to be as productive as possible.

After the production of society is handled, Socrates then moves onto the influences of art and recognizes that art influences every single person in society indiscriminately. Whether is is from television, music, theater or painting, there is no avoiding some form of art. And if that was true in Classical Greece, imagine Socrates if he saw how much we are exposed to! Socrates points out that it is not stories citizen’s should be concerned with, but rather good people with a good character, “if they imitate at all, they should imitate from youth upward only those characters which are suitable to their professions- the courageous, temperate, holy, free, and the like; but they should not depict or be skillful at imitation of any kind of illiberality or baseness”. Not only does Socrates suggest censoring people’s work, but the State should also provide examples for it’s people – propaganda. Yes, there is such a thing as unhealthy exposures to our children, but it is not up to the State to decide the ideal citizen.

As a mindful reader, one should realize that Socrates has not experienced the libertarian movements we take for granted nor has he seen the horrors of fascist and communist dictatorships. With that being said, The Republic is still a classic thought provoking book that forces to reader to think about how society should run. The fight for liberty is unfortunately one that has to be fought in every generation. Though this book describes a authoritarian utopia – it is still a necessary book for us to read, wonder, and debate about.

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