BMCR 2010.04.45

Plato’s Republic. Indiana Philosophical Guides

, Plato's Republic. Indiana Philosophical Guides. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009. ix, 179. ISBN 9780253221599. $19.95 (pb).

[Table of contents is listed at the end of the review.]

[The reviewer apologizes for the delay in the submission of the review.]

For many, the study of the Republic — or at least parts of it — forms their introduction to Plato, if not to philosophy itself. . . . The Republic considers many of the central preoccupations of Western thought: justice, happiness and the good life; truth and the distinction between knowledge and opinion; the relation between physical and metaphysical realms; human psychology; the nature and purpose of education; the ideal form of government and the value of democracy; the place of philosophy in society; the definition and value of art, and so on. To adapt Samuel Johnson’s phrase, when one is tired of the Republic, one is tired of philosophical reflection itself.

Given—as this long quotation from page 1 states—the importance of Plato’s dialogue for the history of Western philosophy, it may be surprisingly that Sheppard feels the need to justify another introduction to Plato’s Republic. But his aim seems to be quite different from that of previous guides to this work. Although he is aware of the difficulty in being completely impartial, Sheppard tries to offer his readers a truly introductory guide to the Republic, i. e., a guide whose author has made as few interpretative decisions as possible in order to encourage new readers to have a personal conversation with Plato’s text. I should say from the beginning that, in my opinion, Sheppard fulfils his purpose very well.

As an introduction, this book clearly addresses readers new to philosophical classics and has consequently a very simple structure: it takes them through the text step-by-step. However, it could also be useful for ‘continental’ scholars who are not really working on Plato but must teach the Republic in their courses, as it provides a short but good overview of recent interpretations of the dialogue in English speaking areas.

In a first section (Introductory Questions, 1 – 18), Sheppard examines the following topics:

1) What is important about the Republic ? Here Sheppard gives a brief résumé of interpretations which led, in the nineteenth century, to the understanding of the dialogue as a work of political philosophy.

2) Who is Plato? A short biography of the founder of the Academy.

3) Who is Socrates? A short biography of Plato’s master.

4) Are the Historical Socrates and Plato’s Socrates One and the Same?. Despite the title,1 Sheppard deals here with the problem of a possible evolution within Plato’s thought (from ‘Socratic’ to ‘Platonic’).

5) Why did Plato Write Dialogues?. Sheppard presents here briefly two main streams of Platonic scholarship, i. e., analytic and skeptical readings, whose methods he will sometimes use through his book.

The second and main section of the book (19 – 158) deals with the text itself. The dialogue is subdivided into its traditional four parts: a) Book I (19 – 43); b) Books II-IV (43 – 84); c) Books V-VII (84 – 125); d) Books VIII-X (125 – 158). As I already noted above, Sheppard’s guide through the text has many merits: it is clear and simple, giving a thorough paraphrase of Plato’s text and providing a good overview of different interpretations. And it is effectively designed to help philosophy students in engaging directly with Platonic topics (extremely interesting are the sections on Justice and the Soul, 57 – 72, the section on the Ideal State, 72 – 84, the section on the three analogies of the Sun, the Line and the Cave, 107 – 119). Therefore I will not discuss the second section thoroughly but mention some aspects that I found particularly interesting or problematic.

Definitively useful is, for example, that Sheppard ascribes a good deal of importance to the first scene in the dialogue (the so-called κατάβασις of Socrates) and offers a useful analysis of its historical and mythological context as well as an examination of the philosophical context (21 – 25). He also provides interesting parallels with modern times. Examples include: a) Glaucon’s response to Socrates’ description of the healthy city (50, Rsp. 327d-e) as a mirror of contemporary reactions to radical environmentalist visions of a post-capitalist society; b) Glaucon’s statement about spectators (89, Rsp. 476d) as a mirror of modern exhibition-goers who spend no more than a minute in front of a painting.

Other such comparisons may be more problematic, as for example the comparison between Socrates’ refusing to allow the guardians any wealth ( Rsp. 416d) and Saint Paul’s stress on the mutual exclusivity of love of money and love of god (59).

Sometimes, as he himself recognizes in his preface (vii), Sheppard could not remain on a descriptive level and advances his own interpretation: this happens explicitly three times and those cases should be briefly mentioned. The first of them concerns the overall interpretation of the dialogue: Sheppard does not explicitly argue that the traditional political reading of the work is completely mistaken, but it is clear that he is an advocate of the ethical interpretation of it.2 I do not agree with him on this point, but Sheppard makes thorough use of the political interpretative approach and a discussion of this claim would transform the review into an academic quarrel, thus I will not argue this point.3

Secondly, Sheppard proposes his own interpretation of the philosopher’s return to the cave (119 – 124). His first argument is persuasive: the philosopher returns to the cave because the knowledge of the Good leads him to grasp that only in this way he can fully realize himself as a human being. With his second argument Sheppard tries to substantiate the ethical interpretation of the dialogue and the impossibility of realization for Socrates’ Kallipolis. Sheppard points out that the philosopher would not possess the rhetorical tricks of the political trade and therefore would not succeed in becoming a political guide. Although the problem cannot be solved within the dialogue itself, a solution could be found if the Republic is read as a step in a wider political project, whose conclusion is the Laws. In Plato’s last dialogue, in which the philosopher seems to disappear, the topic of persuasion has a central role:4 one of the main problems of that dialogue is indeed, how the law-giver (who is—in some respects—the ‘philosopher’) could persuade the citizens that they should live virtuously.

Lastly, Sheppard agrees with Strauss and Bloom5 that the Republic, though its harsh criticism of democracy, is in fact a defense of it (136 – 140). It is undeniable, as Sara Monoson has demonstrated,6 that Plato was deeply tied to Athenian democracy and its political propaganda. Nevertheless, as for example Dominic Scott argues,7 the Republic is not a defense of democracy. On the contrary, I would say, it is Socrates’ Kallipolis that becomes the new, true democracy (cp. 463A-D). In spite of academic disagreement, it is true—as Sheppard stresses (138)—that the “Straussian” reading of Plato’s Republic usually does not find a place in first-reader guides to this dialogue. Therefore Sheppard’s mention of it should be seen as a positive point.

The book is closed by a third Section (Study Aids, 159-163), which contains a glossary of Greek terms and a list of types of questions a student will encounter. A short bibliography directs the readers’ attention to further readings.

Though a few critical remarks were made above, the opinion of Angela Hobbs on the back cover is absolutely justified: “This is an attractive and well thought-out guide which fills a definite gap in the market for first-time readers of the Republic“.


1. The reader would rather expect an explanation of the relationship between the historical Socrates and the reconstruction of his theories with the help of Xenophon’s, Plato’s and other authors’ evidences. Compare for example: Boudouris, K.J. ed. [1991]: The Philosophy of Socrates. Athens; Montuori, M. ed. [1992]: The Socratic Problem. The History—The Solutions. From the 18th Century to the Present Time. 61 Extracts from 54 Authors in their Historical Context. Amsterdam: J. C. Gieben; Navia, L. E. [1993]: The Socratic Presence. A Study of the Sources. New York—London: Garland Publishing.

2. See e.g. Annas, J. [1997]: “Politics and Ethics in Plato’s Republic” in: Höffe, O. ed. [1997]: Platon. Politeia. Klassiker Auslegen Bd. 7. Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 141-160; Annas, J. [1999]: “The Inner City: Ethics without Politics in the Republic” in: Annas, J. [1999]: Platonic Ethics, Old and New. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 72-95; Blössner, N. [2007]: “The City-Soul Analogy” in: Ferrari, G. R. F. ed. [2007]: The Cambridge Companion to Plato’s Republic. Cambridge – New York: Cambridge University Press, 345 – 385.

3. Persuasively arguing for a political reading of Plato’s Republic are: Pradeau, J.-F. [2002]: Plato and the City. A New Introduction to Plato’s Political Thought. Exeter: University of Exeter Press; Pradeau, J.F. [2005]: Platon, la démocratie et les democrats. Essay sur la réception contemporaine de la pensée politique platonicienne. Napoli : Bibliopolis ; Vegetti, M. [2009]: “Un paradigma in cielo”. Platone politico da Aristotele al Novecento. Roma: Carocci; Zuolo, F. [2009]: Platone e l’efficacia. Realizzabilità della teoria normativa. Sankt Augustin: Academia Verlag.

4. See on the topic the three very different approaches of Bobonic, C. [2002]: Plato’s Utopia Recast. Oxford: Oxford University Press; Laks, A. [2000]: “The Laws” in: Rowe, C. – Schofield, M. eds. [2000]: The Cambridge History of Greek and Roman Political Thought. Cambridge – New York: Cambridge University Press, 258 – 292; and Brisson, L. [2000]: “Les préambules dans les Lois” in: Brisson, L. [2000]: Lectures de Platon. Paris: Vrin, 235 – 262.

5. Strauss, L. [1964]: The City and the Man. Chicago: The Chicago University Press; Bloom, A. [1968]: The Republic of Plato. Translated with an interpretative essay.

6. Monoson, S. [2000]: Plato’s Democratic Entanglements. Athenian Politics and the Practice of Philosophy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

7. Scott, D. [2008]: “The Republic” in: Fine, G. ed. [2008]: The Oxford Handbook of Plato. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 360 – 382.