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Plato, The Republic

ed. by G.R.F. Ferrari, transl. by T. Griffin, Cambridge Texts in the History of political Thought, 

Cambridge  2000


rec. Stefano MASO





This volume presents an English version of the ten books of Plato's dialogue. The featured introduction deals with seven problems: The Thirty (xi), Faction (xiii), A Spartan utopia (xiv), The philosopher and the king (xviii), A politician work (xxii), City and soul (xxv), Mathematics and metaphysics (xxxix). There is then a useful and up-to-dated bibliographic guide for the reader, a synopsis of The Republic, a glossary which includes real and mythological characters, names of towns and places, an English analytic index. The translation joins, at the foot of the page, only the strictly necessary notes.


There are useful and interesting choices in this publication. First of all it is significant that the volume is meant as a part of the collection "Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought". This is to testify the urgency of a serious change of mind about the value and the role of Plato's Republic. This dialogue, in fact, forms the unavoidable starting point on the History of western-Greek political thought and, especially, of the political reflection tout court. Think to the role this dialogue had in forming the thought of Thomas More, Francis Bacon, Hobbes or Hume; in the developing of Ninth Century utopian and scientific Socialism and the role it has in contemporary elaboration (for instance Popper's one).

Plato however wrote using dialogic form; he did not adopt the treatise form that nowadays is usually exercised.

By doing this, he wanted to reproduce that liveliness which makes it possible to attain the result desired in a constructive and not dogmatic way; that liveliness which represents the reason itself "by its power to conduct a rational discussion", te tou dialegesthai dunamei (511b). Griffith, as a translator, assumes well the task of reproducing exactly the direct liveliness of Plato's dialogic language. This is a very delicate enterprise because it clashes with the demand of accuracy to the text, which is often -and rightly - claimed from philological hermeneutics. The result can be considered positive, especially from the point of view of the modern reader who has the opportunity to follow clearly and directly the plot of the argumentation.  

Certainly there are some inevitable problems which are due to the lack of an explicit reference (may be a note) to the original text in the cases of more difficult interpretation. G. Ferrari is the editor of this volume and also a scholar with a consolidated experience (see Listening to the Cicadas: a Study of Plato's Phaedrus, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1990). He assures he has discussed for a long time with Tom Griffith (the former translator of Symposium, Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Phaedo and Phaedrus) about the more efficacious solutions for critical passages. Unfortunately the reader is not put in a position to realise this. Moreover the collection's editorial project does not provide for the Greek accompanying text: this is a right choice, according with the kind of privileged addressee, but at least the signalling of the reference text (Burnet, I believe) would have allowed the most exacting reader to control those situations and solutions that seem ambiguous to him.

None the less the group of chapters appears translated in an efficacious and involving way: let's take, for instance, the famous myth of the cave (at the beginning of book 7) or the Er's one (at the end of book 10). On the contrary, in the specific, the interpretations of some single key terms are suspect. Some example: "category of understood" and "category of the see" translate to noetou genous and to horatou genous. The Greek language uses genos = "genus", "class", "sort", "kind". Griffith uses "category": an expressly Greek term (see kathagoreuo) with a meaning that has a close and different philosophical connotation. On the whole, text and understanding run, but a reader (one might think to Aristotle) thinks to be dealing with "categories", not with "classes". Moreover: in 511e and 534a noesis = "Understanding"; dianoia = "Thinking"; pistis = "Belief". Why eikasia = "Conjecture"? James Adam had, already, written: “The translation ‘conjecture’ is misleading, for conjecture implies conscious doubt or hesitation, and doubt is foreign to eikasia in Plato’s sense” (Cambridge 1902, 19802, p. 72).  The reader looses the true sense Plato meant: apprehension by means of images/shadows. A note might perhaps have observed what a such solution left of implicit.

And then: how can the reader imagine that behind the reductive term "form" (see "the form of the good") there is the highly significant term idea = "ideal form"?

One could say these are incidental matters: nevertheless are the single words that define the essence of things, the substance of what we say. And this … just according to Plato! Some little signalling  (maybe a glossary in the appendix) would have been enough to perfect Griffith's meritorious enterprise.

And now let's move on to the introduction. First of all we find a consideration on the historical framework, that is the political instability of Greek world in the late Fifth and early Fourth Centuries BC; and then Ferrari discusses on the cultural influences on Plato when he came to write the Republic. I think that the paragraph entitled A politician work? is decisive as concerns the interpretation. There is no doubt that dialogue deserves its classification as a political work, but what is its political stance? We may find the first stirrings of Socialism. On the other hand we may also find a prescient charter for Fascism. Perhaps Liberalism as well?

We can foresee the solution only if we move to the ethical and educational plane: in the perfect society (Callipolis) the philosopher has a special role and governs by using his moral and intellectual excellence. His natural superiority is reinforced and perfected by a careful education and he sees to propagate and perpetrate this organisation and this structure. The philosopher and politician man has the object of promoting virtue making flourish the whole society, and modelling the community on permanent ideals of good and perfection.

So political action and ethical need are perfectly united and do not determinate a precise choice of political form but rather impose the need to become, somehow, to the best self-governing community. Of course this is the most important trait of Plato's work and Ferrari grasps this perfectly. Then Ferrari writes: "The philosopher, even the philosopher who becomes king, does not look to society as the realm in which to exercise his freedom and realise his virtue, but looks rather to the life of the mind for his liberation" (xxiv). This is a kind of automatism: the way to wise man's beauty-perfection can succeed only in a social context in which the beauty-perfection is coming true. And this is the heart of Platonic utopia. This is the surprising anticipation of individualism and socialism we find in Plato's Republic.

Only on this understanding the dialogue can be defined as a political work.

Only on this understanding the matching between psychological inquiry and social research is understandable and justifiable. As a matter of fact, in book 4, Plato described the virtues of single man to the ones of social classes. Wisdom is located in the ruling class; courage in the army; self-discipline in the class where subjects are willing to be ruled by those who are better suited to rule. Just as the rational element in single individual (to logistikon) and so wisdom and justice rule the desiring element (to epithumetikon) and the spirited element (to thumon).

On the contrary, from Machiavelli on, we know that ethical motivations must absolutely be absent from political strategy if we want to reach a particular and not utopian object. So we can conclude: in modern political conception, Plato's work can not remain an actually useful work, but it is only an historic grounds to depart from or, better, to refute. Of course Plato's is a project impossible to propose. Because of this Ferrari writes, rightly I believe, the 'Republic' is a "counterpolitical work" (xxv).


Ferrari rises another important problem in the paragraph "Mathematics and metaphysics" (xxix): since the knowledge, which qualifies a guardian to rule, is philosophic wisdom and since philosophic wisdom has for its object the whole cosmos (486a), "how intimate is the connection between this knowledge and philosopher's political activity?" (xxx). Surely Plato is bringing attention from political level to physical and metaphysical one. The harmony that rules the "polis" should certain be the same that rules the cosmos. And this harmony can be understood only through mathematical instruments. For this reason the philosopher-king must be learned in advanced mathematics and so in the knowledge of perfect being world that is as perfect as Callipolis will become or will be. Like in others dialogues (for example see Sophista or Teaethetus), Plato confirms that the dialectical science can only be an instrument for this. Because of this the philosopher-king will master the dialectics that, may be with too much hesitation, Ferrari suggests to be "some kind of metamathematics". It goes without saying that, in this prospect, the echo of the tension with sophistic science is placated.

 With this meritorious work by Ferrari-Griffith, we can now hope that the basic text of Western political philosophy will come out from the hands of the classical philologists and will become a part of a renewed contemporary political debate. Suggestions are really innumerable.