Ancient History & Civilisation


1. First Principles of Social Organization

So far the discussion has been about justice (or right conduct or morality) in the individual. But Socrates now says that it is easier to study things on a large scale than on a small, and proposes accordingly to discuss justice in the state or community first, and then see how the conclusions so reached apply to the individual. This method of argument from the state or community to the individual, runs throughout the dialogue.

Socrates starts by asking how society is made up. His account is historical in form. But the Greeks knew little archaeology or prehistory, and the historical form should not be taken too seriously. Socrates is concerned to find out what are the underlying principles of any society, even the simplest. He finds them to be two. First, mutual need. Men are not self-sufficient, they need to live together in society. Second, difference of aptitude. Different people are good at different things, and it is best for all that each should concentrate on developing his particular aptitudes. In this sense, society, with its regulations, is a ‘natural’ growth.

Starting from these two principles Socrates deals first with what we should call the economic structure of society, though in a very simple form. He finds five main economic classes or functions: (1) Producers, agricultural or industrial, (2) Merchants, (3) Sailors and Shipowners, etc., (4) Retail traders, (5) Wage-earners or manual labourers. (Slaves are not mentioned, but their existence, it is clear from elsewhere (e.g. 469c, 471a), is assumed.1Plato would regard them as appendages to the classes he has defined rather than a separate class on their own.)

Socrates finally sketches the life that the simplest form of society, organized on these lines, would lead. Though he professes (372e) to regard this primitive society as the ideal, the description has sometimes been regarded as an ironic parody of the ‘simple life’ theories of Plato’s day. It is perhaps better taken as a statement of the minimum conditions which must be fulfilled if society is to exist at all.

Much as I had always admired the talents of Glaucon and 368 (a) Adeimantus, I was absolutely delighted by what they had said. ‘Glaucon’s admirer was right,’ I began in reply, ‘to open his poem on your achievements at the battle of Megara2 with the words,

Sons of Ariston, pair divine
Sprung from a famous sire.

The words are apt; you must indeed have something divine about you, if you can put the case for injustice so strongly, and yet still believe that justice is better than injustice. And I am sure that you genuinely believe it; I can tell from your general (b) character – though the speeches you have made would have left me in doubt about you. But the surer I feel the more doubtful I am what to do. I don’t see how I’m to help you; I don’t think I’ve got the ability – witness my failure to convince you just now, when I thought I had demonstrated the superiority of justice in my discussion with Thrasymachus. Yet I don’t see how I can refuse; for I am afraid it would be wicked, while I’ve life and voice in me, to hear justice slandered as I have done and (c) then refuse to come to the rescue. So I must do my best to help her.’

Glaucon and the rest of them all begged me to come to the rescue and not let the argument drop, but try to find out what justice and injustice are and what their real advantages. So I began by saying, quite frankly, ‘This is a very obscure subject (d) we’re inquiring into, and I think it needs very keen sight. We aren’t very clever, and so I think we had better proceed as follows. Let us suppose we are rather short-sighted men and are set to read some small letters at a distance; one of us then discovers the same letters elsewhere on a larger scale and larger surface: won’t it be a godsend to us to be able to read the larger letters first and then compare them with the smaller, to see if they are the same?’

‘Certainly,’ replied Adeimantus; ‘but what bearing has this on our inquiry about what is just?’ (e)

‘I will tell you. Justice can be a characteristic of an individual or of a community,3 can it not?’


‘And a community is larger than an individual?’

‘It is.’

‘We may therefore find justice on a larger scale in the larger entity, and so easier to recognize. I accordingly propose that we start our inquiry with the community, and then proceed to the 369 (a) individual and see if we can find in the conformation of the smaller entity anything similar to what we have found in the larger.’

‘That seems a good suggestion,’ he agreed.

‘Well then,’ said I, ‘if we were to look at a community coming into existence, we might be able to see how justice and injustice originate in it.’

‘We might.’

‘This would, we may hope, make it easier to find what we are looking for.’

‘Much easier.’ (b)

‘Do you think, then, that we should attempt such a survey? For it is, I assure you, too big a task to undertake without thought.’

‘We know what we are in for,’ returned Adeimantus; ‘go on.’

‘Society originates, then,’ said I, ‘so far as I can see, because the individual is not self-sufficient, but has many needs which he can’t supply himself. Or can you suggest any other origin for it?’

‘No, I can’t,’ he said.

‘And when we have got hold of enough people to satisfy our (c) many varied needs, we have assembled quite a large number of partners and helpers together to live in one place; and we give the resultant settlement the name of a community or state?’

‘Yes, I agree.’

‘And in the community all mutual exchanges are made on the assumption that the parties to them stand to gain?’


‘Come then,’ I said, ‘let us make an imaginary sketch of the origin of the state. It originates, as we have seen, from our needs.’


(d) ‘And our first and greatest need is clearly the provision of food to keep us alive.’


‘Our second need is shelter, and our third clothing of various kinds.’


‘Well then, how will our state supply these needs? It will need a farmer, a builder, and a weaver, and also, I think, a shoemaker and one or two others to provide for our bodily needs.’


‘So that the minimum state would consist of four or five men.’

(e) ‘Evidently.’

‘Then should each of these men contribute the product of his labour for common use? For instance, should the farmer provide enough food for all four of them, and devote enough time and labour to food production to provide for the needs of all four? Or, alternatively, should he disregard the others, and devote a quarter of his time to producing a quarter the amount of food, 370(a) and the other three quarters one to building himself a house, one to making clothes, and another to making shoes? Should he, in other words, avoid the trouble of sharing with others and devote himself to providing for his own needs only?’

To which Adeimantus replied, ‘The first alternative is perhaps the simpler.’

‘Nor need that surprise us,’ I rejoined. ‘For as you were speaking, it occurred to me that, in the first place, no two of us are born exactly alike. We have different natural aptitudes, (b) which fit us for different jobs.’

‘We have indeed.’

‘So do we do better to exercise one skill4 or to try to practise several?’

‘To stick to one,’ he said.

‘And there is a further point. It is fatal in any job to miss the right moment for action.’


‘The workman must be a professional at the call of his job; his job will not wait till he has leisure to spare for it.’ (c)

‘That is inevitable.’

‘Quantity and quality are therefore more easily produced when a man specializes appropriately on a single job for which he is naturally fitted, and neglects all others.’

‘That’s certainly true.’

‘We shall need more than four citizens, then, Adeimantus, to supply the needs we mentioned. For the farmer, it seems, will not make his own plough or hoe, or any of his other agricultural implements, if they are to be well made. The same is true of the builder and the many tools he needs, and of the weaver and (d) shoemaker.’


‘And so smiths and other craftsmen must share the work and swell the numbers of our little community.’

‘They must.’

‘And it will still not be unduly large if we add cowherds and shepherds and stockmen of various kinds, to provide oxen for the plough and draught-animals for builder and farmer, as well (e) as hides and wool for shoemaker and weaver.’

‘No,’ he answered; ‘but it will no longer be so very small.’

‘What is more, it is almost impossible to found a state in a place where it will not need imports.’

‘Quite impossible.’

‘So we shall need another class in our community to fetch for it what it needs from abroad.’


‘And if our agent goes empty-handed, and takes with him 371 (a) nothing of which those from whom he is to get what we want are in need, he will return empty-handed, will he not?’

‘So I should think.’

‘So we must produce at home not only enough for our own needs but also enough goods of the right kind for the foreigners who supply us.’

‘We must.’

‘Which means an increase in the number of farmers and other workers in our state.’

‘Yes, there will be an increase.’

‘And it will of course include agents to handle the export and import of goods, that is to say, merchants. We shall need them too.’

‘We shall.’

‘And if our trade is to be overseas, we shall need a whole lot (b) of experts on ships and seafaring.’

‘Yes, a whole lot of them.’

‘Then within our state, how are its citizens to exchange the products of their labour? For such mutual exchange was the reason for its foundation.’

‘Obviously they will buy and sell.’

‘And that will require a market, and a currency as the medium of exchange.’


(c) ‘And if a farmer or any other producer brings his goods to market at a time when no one who wants to exchange with him is there, will he sit about in the market and neglect his own job?’

‘Certainly not,’ he replied. ‘There is a class who see here a chance of doing a service. It consists, in a well-run community, of those who are least fit physically, and unsuitable for other work. For their job ties them to the market place, where they (d) buy goods from those who want to sell and sell goods to those who want to buy.’

‘And so this requirement produces a class of retailers in our state. For that is what we call those who serve the public by buying and selling in the home market, as opposed to merchants who travel abroad.’


‘There is another class whose services we need – those who (e) have no great powers of mind to contribute, but whose physical strength makes them suitable for manual labour. They market their strength and call the return they get for it their wages, and in consequence are usually called wage-earners.’

‘That is so.’

‘And with wage-earners our complement of citizens seems to be complete.’

‘Yes, I think so.’

‘Then, Adeimantus, can we now say that our state is full grown?’

‘Perhaps we can.’

‘If so, where are we to find justice and injustice in it? With the introduction of which of the elements we have examined do they originate?’

‘I don’t know, Socrates,’ he replied, ‘unless they arise some-372(a) where in the mutual relationship of these elements.’

‘You may be right,’ said I; ‘we must press on with our inquiry. So let us first consider how our citizens, so equipped, will live. They will produce corn, wine, clothes, and shoes, and will build themselves houses. In the summer they will for the most part work unclothed and unshod, in the winter they will be clothed and shod suitably. For food they will prepare wheat-meal or (b) barley-meal for baking or kneading. They will serve splendid cakes and loaves on rushes or fresh leaves, and will sit down to feast with their children on couches of myrtle and bryony; and they will have wine to drink too, and pray to the gods with garlands on their heads, and enjoy each other’s company. And fear of poverty and war will make them keep the numbers of (c) their families within their means.’

‘I say,’ interrupted Glaucon, ‘that’s pretty plain fare for a feast, isn’t it?’

‘You’re quite right,’ said I. ‘I had forgotten; they will have a few luxuries. Salt, of course, and olive oil and cheese, and different kinds of vegetables from which to make various country dishes. And we must give them some dessert, figs and peas and beans, and myrtle-berries and acorns to roast at the fire as they sip their wine. So they will lead a peaceful and (d) healthy life, and probably die at a ripe old age, bequeathing a similar way of life to their children.’

2. Civilized Society

Glaucon protests at the uncivilized nature of the life of this primitive society. Socrates proceeds to add to it the refinements of civilization, and so to multiply the number of trades and occupations and increase the population. The increase in wealth and population will lead to war, which means that we shall need a new class of soldiers to fight for us (the principle of specialization demands that they should be a separate class). These soldiers or ‘Guardians’ Plato will develop into the ruling class of his state: they retain their military function but their function as governors soon overshadows it.

The society described in this section would have seemed quite normal to the ordinary Athenian. Plato’s profession to regard it as ‘luxurious’ and ‘fevered’, in contrast to that described in the previous section, which is ‘true’ and ‘healthy’, may be, as we have seen (heading to section 1), partly ironic. But he did regard contemporary society (which is what he is here in effect describing) as in need of reform; and the rest of the Republic contains the basis of the reforms which he thought necessary to reduce it to health (cf .399e).

‘Really, Socrates,’ Glaucon commented, ‘that’s just the fodder you would provide if you were founding a community of pigs!’

‘But how would you do it, Glaucon?’ I asked.

‘Give them the ordinary comforts,’ he replied. ‘Let them recline in comfort on couches5 and eat off tables, and have the sort of food we have today.’

(e) ‘All right,’ I said, ‘I understand. We are to study not only the origins of society, but also society when it enjoys the luxuries of civilization. Not a bad idea, perhaps, for in the process we may discover how justice and injustice are bred in a community. For though the society we have described seems to me to be the true one, like a man in health, there’s nothing to prevent us, if you wish, studying one in a fever. Such a society will not be satisfied with the standard of living we have described. It will want 373 (a)couches and tables and other furniture, and a variety of delicacies, scents, perfumes, call-girls and confectionery. And we must no longer confine ourselves to the bare necessities of our earlier description, houses, clothing, and shoes, but must add the fine arts of painting and embroidery, and introduce materials like gold and ivory. Do you agree?’

‘Yes,’ he said. (b)

‘We shall have to enlarge our state again. Our healthy state is no longer big enough; its size must be enlarged to make room for a multitude of occupations none of which is concerned with necessaries. There will be hunters and fishermen, and there will be artists, sculptors, painters and musicians; there will be poets with their following of reciters, actors, chorus-trainers, and producers; there will be manufacturers of domestic equipment of all sorts, especially those concerned with women’s dress (c) and make-up. And we shall need a lot more servants – tutors, wet-nurses, nannies, cosmeticians, barbers, butchers and cooks. And we shall need swineherds too: there were none in our former state, as we had no need of them, but now we need pigs, and cattle in quantities too, if we are to eat meat. Agreed?’

‘There’s no denying it.’

‘With our new luxuries we shall need doctors too, far more (d) than we did before.’

‘We certainly shall.’

‘And the territory which was formerly enough to support us will now be too small.’

‘That is undeniable.’

‘If we are to have enough for pasture and plough, we shall have to cut a slice off our neighbours’ territory. And if they too are no longer confining themselves to necessities and have embarked on the pursuit of unlimited material possessions, they will want a slice of ours too.’

‘The consequence is inevitable.’ (e)

‘And that will lead to war, Glaucon, will it not?’

‘It will.’

‘For the moment,’ I said, ‘we are not concerned with the effects of war, good or bad; let us merely go on to note that we have found its origin to be the same as that of most evil, individual or social.’6

‘Yes, I agree.’

‘But it means a considerable addition to our state, the addition 374 (a)of an army, which will go out and defend the property and possessions we have just described against all comers.’

‘But can’t the citizens fight for themselves?’

‘Not if the principle, on which we all, yourself included, agreed when we started constructing our state, is sound. And that was, if you remember, that one man could not do more than one job or profession7 well.’

(b) ‘Yes, that is true.’

‘Well, soldiering is a profession, is it not?’

‘Very much so.’

‘And is it of any less consequence to us than shoemaking?’

‘Certainly not.’

‘Well, we forbade our shoemaker to try his hand at farming or weaving or building and told him to stick to his last, in order that our shoe making should be well done. Similarly with other trades, we assigned each man to the one for which he was (c) naturally suited, and which he was to practise throughout his life to the exclusion of all others, and so become good at his job and never miss the right moment for action. Now it is surely of the greatest importance that the business of war should be efficiently run. For soldiering is not so easy a job that a man can be a soldier at the same time as he is a farmer or shoemaker or follows some other profession; why, you can’t even become a competent draughts or dice player if you don’t practise seriously from childhood, but only do it in your spare time. Does a man (d) become competent as an infantryman, or in any other branch of military service, the moment he picks up a shield or any of the other tools of the soldier’s trade? Merely to pick up the tools of any other trade does not turn a man into a craftsman or games-player: the tool is useful only to the man who knows how to use it and has had enough practice in the use of it.’

‘True; otherwise tools would indeed be precious.’

‘And so the business of our defence force, just because it is the most important of all, requires a correspondingly complete freedom from other affairs and a correspondingly high degree of skill and practice.’ (e)

‘I suppose it does,’ he said.

‘It will need also natural aptitude.’

‘Of course.’

‘And so we should make it our business, if we can, to choose men with suitable natural aptitudes for the defence of our state.’

‘We should.’

‘And let me say,’ I added, ‘that it’s no mean task to undertake. Still, we must not shrink from it, but do it to the best of our ability.’

‘We must.’ 375 (a)

3. Qualities Required in the Guardians

The need for a defence force or Guardian class (the Greek word, phulakes, occurs for the first time at the end of the last section) having been thus established, the other classes (producers, merchants, etc.) fall into the background and are hardly mentioned again. Plato’s main concern is with the production of Philosopher Rulers, and the rest of the Republic is largely devoted to the educational and other measures needed to turn the Guardians into Philosophers.

The Guardians are now compared to watchdogs, and shown to need physical strength, courage, and a philosophic temperament. Courage requires ‘high spirits’. The Greek word ( thūmos ) which this phrase translates is used by Plato to cover a group of characteristics such as pugnacity, enterprise, ambition, indignation, which he will later regard as one of the three main elements of the mind or personality. In traditional English ‘mettle’ or ‘spirit’ (as e.g. in ‘a man of mettle’, ‘a man of spirit’) is a fair translation, and the slang term ‘guts’ and the politer ‘vitality’ have a somewhat similar meaning; compare also the distinction made in common parlance between qualities of the ‘heart’ and ‘head’, and see below, opening note to Part V, section 2.

‘Don’t you think,’ I asked, ‘that the natural qualities needed in a well-bred watch-dog have a certain similarity to those which a good8 youngman needs for Guardian-duty?’

‘What similarity?’

‘I mean that each must have keen perceptions and speed in pursuit of his quarry, and also strength to fight if need be when he catches it.’

‘Yes, he will need all these qualities.’

‘And also courage, if he is to fight well.’

‘Of course.’

‘And no horse or dog or any other creature can be courageous if it has no spirit. For have you not noticed what an irresistible and unbeatable thing high spirits are, giving their possessor (b) a character quite fearless and indomitable in the face of all dangers?’

‘I have indeed.’

‘We know therefore what the physical qualities of our Guardians must be.’


‘And also that in character9 they must be high-spirited.’


‘But if they have these qualities, Glaucon,’ I said, ‘won’t they be aggressive in their behaviour to each other and to the rest of the community?’

‘It won’t be easy to prevent it.’

(c) ‘And yet they ought to be gentle towards their fellow-citizens, and dangerous only to their enemies; otherwise they will destroy each other before others can destroy them.’


‘What are we to do, then?’ I said. ‘Where are we to find a disposition at once gentle and full of spirit? For gentleness and high spirits are natural opposites.’

‘They seem to be.’ (d) ‘But yet if we deprive them of either quality, they won’t make good Guardians; we seem to be asking the impossible, and if so a good Guardian is an impossibility.’

‘I am afraid so,’ he agreed.

I felt myself in a difficulty, but I thought over what we had just been saying, and then exclaimed: ‘You know, we really deserve to be in a difficulty. For we have failed to press our analogy far enough.’

‘In what way?’

‘We have not noticed that there are natures which combine the qualities we thought incompatible.’

‘And where are they to be found?’

‘In different kinds of animal, but particularly in the watch-dog to which we have compared our Guardian. For you must have noticed that it is a natural characteristic of a well-bred dog to (e) behave with the utmost gentleness to those it is used to and knows, but to be savage to strangers?’

‘Yes, I’ve noticed that.’

‘The kind of character we were looking for in our Guardian is therefore quite a possibility and not at all unnatural.’

‘So it appears.’

‘Would you agree then that our prospective Guardian needs, in addition to his high spirits, the disposition of a philosopher?’

‘I don’t understand what you mean,’ he said. 376 (a)

‘You will find it in the dog, and a remarkable quality it is.’

‘What sort of quality?’

‘It is annoyed when it sees a stranger, even though he has done it no harm: but it welcomes anyone it knows, even though it has never had a kindness from him. Haven’t you ever thought how remarkable this is?’

‘I can’t say I ever thought about it before,’ he replied. ‘But of course it’s what a dog does.’

‘And yet it is a trait that shows discrimination and a truly philosophic nature,’ I said.

‘How so?’

‘Because,’ I replied, ‘the dog distinguishes the sight of friend and foe simply by knowing one and not knowing the other. (b) And a creature that distinguishes between the familiar and the unfamiliar on the grounds of knowledge or ignorance must surely be gifted with a real love of knowledge.’

‘There is no denying it,’ he said.

‘But is not philosophy the same thing as the love of knowledge?’10

‘It is.’

‘And so for man too we may venture to lay it down that gentleness towards his own fellows and neighbours requires a (c) philosophic disposition and a love of learning.’

‘We may,’ he said.

‘And so our properly good Guardian will have the following characteristics: a philosophic disposition, high spirits, speed, and strength.’

‘I entirely agree.’

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