Ancient History & Civilisation


The next three books, v–vii (Parts vi–viii in this translation) are in form a digression; but in fact Plato is dealing with two features of his State which he can hardly pass over without further explanation. (1) He has, for the Rulers and Auxiliaries, abolished the family and private property (opening note to Part IV, section 2 ff.); he now deals more fully with the reasons for and consequences of this, under two main headings, the Status of Women and the Abolition of the Family. (2) He has also (412c414d) sub-divided Guardians into Rulers and Auxiliaries and the long sections on the Philosopher Ruler and Further Education of the Guardians describe further how this is to be done.

1. The Status of Women

Socrates is interrupted and asked to explain in greater detail his references to the ‘community of wives and children’. He starts by considering the position of women in society. His argument is in principle a very simple one. He asks whether difference of sex is, in itself, a proper basis for differentiation of occupation and social function, and answers that it is not. The only difference between men and women is one of physical function – one begets, the other bears children. Apart from that, both can and both should follow the same range of occupations and perform the same functions (though men will, on the whole, perform them better); they should receive the same education to enable them to do so. In this way society will get the best value from both.

Though Plato’s ideas would have seemed revolutionary to the ordinary Greek, the status of women had been a topic of discussion before he wrote, and ideas similar to those which he puts forward were in the air, and had been parodied by Aristophanes.

[449] I was going on to describe these forms of wickedness in order, and to show how they seemed to me to derive from each other, (b) when Polemarchus, who was sitting a little way from Adeimantus, stretched out a hand and took hold of his coat at the shoulder. He pulled him towards him and, leaning forward, whispered something in his ear, of which I only caught the words ‘What shall we do? Shall we let it go?’

‘Certainly not,’ replied Adeimantus aloud; and when I asked what it was they weren’t going to let go, he answered, ‘You.’

(c) ‘And why me?’ I said.

‘We think you are being lazy,’ he answered, ‘and trying to avoid dealing with a most important section of the argument. You think you are going to get away with a passing reference to it, as if it was perfectly obvious that the principle “all things in common between friends” should apply to women and children.’1

‘But wasn’t I quite right?’ I asked.

‘Yes, but here, as so often, what is right needs explanation. What sort of holding “in common” do you mean? There are (d) many possibilities; so let us be told the one you mean. We have been waiting for you to give us some idea of how the Guardians are to produce children, and bring them up when they are born, and how this whole business of community of wives and children is to work; for it seems to us that this is a matter in which it is vital to society that the right arrangements should be made. You were just going on to other forms of constitution before dealing adequately with it, but, as you heard just now, we resolved that 450 (a) we would not let you do so till you had discussed it as fully as everything else.’

‘This resolution has my vote too,’ added Glaucon.

‘In fact, Socrates,’ said Thrasymachus, ‘you can take it we’re unanimous.’

‘What trouble you’re causing by holding me up like this,’ I said. ‘It’s an enormous subject, and you’re really starting again from the beginning just as I was congratulating myself on having finished with our state, and was feeling glad that no one had questioned the description I had given. You don’t know what a (b) hornet’s nest you’re stirring up by bringing up the subject. I deliberately avoided it before, because I saw all the trouble it would cause.’

‘But what do you think we are here for?’ asked Thrasymachus; ‘idle speculation2 or serious discussion?’

‘But a discussion must have some limit,’ I said.

‘My dear Socrates,’ said Glaucon, ‘anyone with any sense knows there’s no limit short of a lifetime when one’s discussing this sort of thing. Don’t worry about us and don’t give up, but answer our questions. Tell us how you think our Guardians are (c) to have wives and children in common, and how the children are to be looked after between their birth and the beginning of their education, which everyone agrees is a most difficult stage. Do explain to us how it’s all to be managed.’

‘I can assure you it won’t be easy to explain,’ I said. ‘There’s so much that is doubtful, far more than there is in anything we’ve so far discussed. It may indeed be doubted whether what I describe is possible at all and, granted it’s possible, it may well be doubted if it’s for the best. Hence my hesitation in tackling the subject; I’m afraid, my dear Glaucon, you will think I’m (d) merely day-dreaming.’

‘You really needn’t hesitate. We’re a sympathetic audience, and not unduly unreceptive or sceptical,’ he said. To which I replied, ‘It’s good of you to say so; I suppose you are trying to encourage me.’

‘I am,’ he said.

‘Well, you’re having just the opposite effect,’ said I. ‘If I was sure I knew what I was talking about, encouragement would be in place; when one’s talking among sensible friends about issues which touch them nearly, and knows one is telling the truth, one can speak with certainty and confidence. But when one is doing what I am doing now, and trying to discuss things about (e) which one is far from certain, it’s a frightening and tricky business; not because I may make a fool of myself – it would be childish to worry about that – but because if I slip up I shall 451 (a) drag my friends down with me in my fall, just where it’s most important to be sure of the truth. I only hope Fate won’t punish me for what I am going to say. For, I believe, it’s better in fact to be guilty of manslaughter than of fraud about what is fair and good and just. It’s a risk better run with enemies than friends, and so your encouragement is cold comfort.’

(b) Glaucon laughed. ‘My dear Socrates,’ he said, ‘if we are led into error by this discussion, we’ll acquit you of manslaughter, absolve you of fraud, and discharge you without a stain on your character. So cheer up, and say on.’

‘Well,’ I said, ‘the law says that a discharge from the courts leaves one’s character clean, and so I suppose the same holds good here.’

‘Then proceed on that assumption,’ he said.

‘Well, then,’ I began, ‘we must go back and pick the subject up again. We ought perhaps to have discussed it in its proper place, (c) but maybe it’s a good plan to let the women come on the stage now, after the men have played their part, especially in view of your challenge. We can, I think, only make satisfactory arrangements for the possession and treatment of women and children by men born and educated as we have described, if we stick to the course on which we started; our object, you remember, was to make them like watch dogs guarding a flock.’3

(d) ‘Yes.’

‘Let us, then, proceed to arrange for their birth and upbringing accordingly. We can then see if it suits our purpose.’

‘How do you mean?’

‘What I mean is this. Ought female watch dogs to perform the same guard-duties as male, and watch and hunt and so on with them? Or ought they to stay at home on the grounds that the bearing and rearing of their puppies incapacitates them from other duties, so that the whole burden of the care of the flocks falls on the males?’

(e) ‘They should share all duties, though we should treat the females as the weaker, the males as the stronger.’

‘And can you use any animal for the same purpose as another,’ I asked, ‘unless you bring it up and train it in the same way?’


‘So if we are going to use men and women for the same purposes, we must teach them the same things.’

‘Yes.’ 452 (a)

‘We educated the men both physically and mentally.’


‘We shall have to train the women also, then, in both kinds of skill, and train them for war as well, and treat them in the same way as the men.’

‘It seems to follow from what you said,’ he agreed.

‘I dare say,’ I rejoined, ‘that their novelty would make many of our proposals seem ridiculous if they were put into practice.’

‘There’s no doubt about that,’ he said.

‘And won’t the most ridiculous thing of all be to see the women taking exercise naked4 with the men in the gymnasium? It won’t only be the young women; there will be elderly women (b) too, just as there are old men who go on with their exercises when they are wrinkled and ugly to look at.’

‘Lord!’ he said, ‘that’s going to be a funny sight by present standards.’

‘Still,’ I said, ‘now we’ve launched out on the subject we must not be afraid of the clever jokes that are bound to be made about all the changes that follow in the physical training and education of women, and above all about them being trained to carry arms (c)and ride.’

‘You are quite right.’

‘So having started off, we must go on to legislate for the real difficulties. We will ask the critics5 to drop their usual practice and to be serious for once, and remind them that it was not so long ago that the Greeks thought – as most of the barbarians still think – that it was shocking and ridiculous for men to be seen naked. When the Cretans, and later the Spartans, first began to take exercise naked, wasn’t there plenty of material for the wit of the comedians of the day?’

‘There was indeed.’ (d)

‘But when experience showed them that it was better to strip than wrap themselves up, what reason had proved best lost its absurdity to the eye. Which shows how idle it is to think anything ridiculous except what is wrong. Indeed, anyone who tries to raise a laugh at the sight of anything but what is foolish and (e) wrong will never, when he is serious again, make goodness the object of his admiration.’

‘That is certainly true,’ he said.

‘The first thing we have to agree on, then, is whether these proposals are feasible or not. For, whether it’s asked in joke or 453 (a) in earnest, we must allow people to ask the question, Is the female of the human species naturally capable of taking part in all the occupations of the male, or in none, or in some only? And if in some, is military service one of them? That’s the best way to begin, and the way in which we are most likely to reach a fair conclusion.’

‘Yes, I agree.’

‘Then shall we ask ourselves the question on behalf of our imaginary critic, so that his position does not go undefended?’

(b) ‘Go ahead.’

‘Let us then suppose him to say: “My dear Socrates and Glaucon, there’s really no need for others to criticize you. You have yourselves, at the beginning of the process of founding your state, agreed on the principle that each man was naturally fitted for a particular job of his own.”’

‘Yes, we must certainly admit that.’

‘ “Well,” he will continue, “isn’t there a very great natural difference between men and women?” And when we admit that too, he will ask us whether we ought not to give them different roles to match these natural differences. When we say yes, he (c) will ask, “Then aren’t you making a mistake and contradicting yourselves, when you go on to say that men and women should follow the same occupations, in spite of the great natural difference between them?” What about that? Are you clever enough to answer him?’

‘It’s not easy to answer on the spur of the moment,’ he replied. ‘I can only turn to you and ask you to explain our case in reply, whatever it is.’

‘Now that’s just what I was afraid of, Glaucon,’ I protested; ‘I saw all this coming– that’s why I was so unwilling to start (d) legislating about the possession of wives and bringing up children.’

‘It certainly doesn’t look an easy job,’ he admitted.

‘It isn’t,’ I replied. ‘But the fact is that you’ve got to swim whether you’re thrown into a swimming bath or into the middle of the sea.’

‘True enough.’

‘So we must swim on and try to keep our heads above water in this argument, in the hope of being rescued by Arion’s dolphin6 or some other miracle.’

‘Yes, I suppose we must.’ (e)

‘Well, let’s see if we can find a way out. We admit that different natures ought to have different kinds of occupation, and that men and women have different natures; and yet we go on to maintain that these admittedly different natures ought to follow the same occupations. That is the charge we have to meet, isn’t it?’

‘That is it.’

‘You know, Glaucon, it’s extraordinary how powerful the 454 (a) influence of debatingtechnique7 can be.’

‘In what way?’

‘I think a lot of people fall under it quite unconsciously, and fail to see the difference between scoring points in debate and arguing seriously. They are unable to draw the distinctions in kind needed for the discussion of a subject, and so get sidetracked into purely verbal contradiction; they aren’t really arguing, but only scoring points.’

‘That does often happen,’ he agreed. ‘But does it apply to us now?’

‘It certainly does. At any rate, I’m afraid we’re unconsciously (b) starting to score debating points.’


‘We are sticking obstinately to the verbal debating point that different natures should not be given the same occupations; but we haven’t considered what kind of sameness or difference of nature we mean, and what our intention was when we laid down the principle that different natures should have different jobs, similar natures similar jobs.’

‘No, we’ve not taken that into consideration.’

(c) ‘Yet we might just as well, on this principle, ask ourselves whether bald men and long-haired men are of the same or opposite natures, and, having agreed that they are opposite, allow bald men to be cobblers and forbid long-haired men to be, or vice versa.’

‘That would be absurd.’

‘But the reason why it is absurd,’ I pointed out, ‘is simply that we never meant that natures are the same or different in an unqualified sense, but only with reference to the kind of sameness(d) or difference which is relevant to various employments. For instance, we should regard a man and a woman with medical ability as having the same nature. Do you agree?’


‘But a doctor and a carpenter we should reckon as having different natures.’

‘Yes, entirely.’

‘Then if men or women as a sex8 appear to be qualified for different skills or occupations,’ I said, ‘we shall assign these to each accordingly; but if the only difference apparent between (e) them is that the female bears and the male begets, we shall not admit that this is a difference relevant for our purpose, but shall still maintain that our male and female Guardians ought to follow the same occupations.’

‘And rightly so,’ he agreed.

‘Then let us proceed to ask our opponent to tell us for what 455 (a) professions or occupations in the structure of society men and women are differently suited by nature.’

‘A fair question.’

‘But he may well reply, as you did just now, that it’s not easy to answer on the spur of the moment, though there would be no great difficulty if he were given time to think.’

‘He may.’

‘So shall we ask anyone who makes this objection to follow (b) us and see if we can show him convincingly that there is no social function9 peculiar to woman?’

‘Go ahead.’

‘Then let us ask him to answer this question. When you say a man has a natural capacity or incapacity for a subject, don’t you mean that he learns it easily or finds it difficult; and that if his natural capacity is good he can pick it up himself after a little instruction, whereas if it is bad he can’t remember what he’s learnt even after long instruction and practice? And if he has natural capacity aren’t his mind and body well coordinated, if he hasn’t, uncoordinated?10 Aren’t these the sort of criteria by (c) which you distinguish natural capacity or lack of it?’

‘No one will deny that.’

‘Then is there any human activity at which men aren’t far better in all these respects than women? We need not waste time over exceptions like weaving and various cooking operations, at which women are thought to be experts, and get badly laughed at if a man does them better.’

‘It’s quite true,’ he replied, ‘that in general the one sex is much (d) better at everything than the other. A good many women, it is true, are better than a good many men at a good many things. But the general rule is as you stated it.’

‘There is therefore no administrative occupation11 which is peculiar to woman as woman or man as man; natural capacities are similarly distributed in each sex, and it is natural for women to take part in all occupations as well as men, though in all women will be the weaker partners.’

‘Agreed.’ (e)

‘Are we therefore to confine all occupations to men only?’

‘How can we?’

‘Obviously we can’t; for we are agreed, I think, that one woman may have a natural ability for medicine or music, another not.’


‘And one may be good at athletics, another have no taste for 456 (a) them; one be good at soldiering, another not.’

‘I think so.’

‘Then may a woman not be philosophic or unphilosophic, high-spirited or spiritless?’

‘She may.’

‘Then there will also be some women fitted to be Guardians: for these natural qualities, you will remember, were those for which we picked our men12 Guardians.’

‘Yes, they were.’

‘So men and women have the same natural capacity for Guardianship, save in so far as woman is the weaker of the two.’

‘That is clear.’

(b) ‘We must therefore pick suitable women to share the life and duties of Guardian with men, since they are capable of it and the natures of men and women are akin.’


‘And the same natures should follow the same pursuits, shouldn’t they?’


‘We come back again, then, to our former position, and agree that it is not unnatural that our Guardians’ wives should share their intellectual and physical training.’

‘There’s no doubt about it.’

‘So our proposed legislation was no impossible day-dream;

(c) we were legislating in accordance with nature and it is our present contrary practice which now seems unnatural.’

‘It looks like it.’

‘We set out, didn’t we, to discover whether our proposals were practicable, and whether they were the best that could be made?’

‘We did.’

‘We have now agreed that they are practicable.’


‘Then we must go on to settle whether they are the best.’


‘Well then, to make a woman into a Guardian we presumably need the same education as we need to make a man into one, (d) especially as it will operate on the same nature in both.’


‘There’s another point I’d like your opinion on.’

‘What is it?’

‘Do you suppose some men are better than others? Or are all equal?’

‘They certainly aren’t all equal!’

‘Then in our imaginary state which will produce the better men–the education which we have prescribed for the Guardians or the training our shoemakers get?’

‘It’s absurd to ask.’

‘All right. So the Guardians will be the best citizens?’

‘Far the best.’ (e)

‘Then won’t the women Guardians be the best women?’

‘Much the best again.’

‘And is there anything better for a state than to produce men and women of the best possible kind?’


‘But that is the result of the education of body and mind 457 (a) which we have described.’

‘Of course it is.’

‘So the arrangements we proposed are not only possible but also the best our state could have.’


‘Our women Guardians must strip for exercise, then – their excellence13 will be all the clothes they need. They must play their part in war and in all other duties of a Guardian, which will be their sole occupation; only, as they are the weaker sex, we must give them a lighter share of these duties than men. And any man who laughs at women who, for these excellent reasons, (b) exercise themselves naked is, as Pindar says, “picking the unripe fruit of laughter”14 – he does not know what he is laughing at or what he is doing. For it is and will always be the best of sayings that what benefitsusisfair,15 what harms usshameful.’16

‘I agree entirely.’

2. Marriage and the Family

If men and women are to lead the same lives, the family must be abolished. But the sex instinct has to be satisfied and controlled, and new citizens produced. Plato therefore substitutes for the family a system of eugenic breeding analogous to that used in breeding domestic animals. There will be mating festivals at which the Rulers will contrive that the couples from whom they wish to breed shall mate; the children will be looked after in state nurseries. The advantages of the system from Plato’s point of view are, first, that it makes it possible to breed good citizens, and, second, that it gets rid of the distracting loyalties, affections and interests of the family system, and diverts them to the service of the community–the Guardians will become one family. Here, again, the community overshadows the individual, and the women Guardians ‘bear children for the state’ (460e).17

[457] ‘Well, then, we’ve escaped one wave without drowning, and dealt with the regulations about women. We have laid it down that our men and women Guardians should both follow (c) common occupations; and we’ve proved without inconsistency that our proposals are both practical and advantageous.’

‘Yes, and a pretty big wave it was.’

‘You won’t say that,’ I said, ‘when you see the next one.’

‘Go on then; let me see it.’

‘It follows from what we’ve said, and from our whole previous argument –’

‘What follows?’

‘– that our men and women Guardians should be forbidden (d) by law to live together in separate households, and all the women should be common to all the men; similarly, children should be held in common, and no parent should know its child, or child its parent.’

‘That’s a much bigger wave,’ he said. ‘And we shall meet much more scepticism about the possibility or advantages of such a thing.’

‘I don’t think there can be much doubt about the advantages of women and children being held in common, or about it being the ideal arrangement, if it were possible,’ I said; ‘but about its possibility there are likely to be grave doubts.’

(e) ‘Both points will surely be disputed,’ he answered.

‘You mean I’m to be attacked on both issues,’ I said. ‘I had hoped you would agree about the advantages of the proposal, and that I should evade that issue and only have to discuss its possibility.’

‘I know,’ he replied; ‘but you failed to make your escape, and are charged on both counts.’

‘I must stand my trial, then,’ I said. ‘But grant me one favour. Let me indulge my fancy like an idle day-dreamer out for a 458 (a) solitary walk. To save himself the trouble of thinking whether what he wants is possible, he gives up all thought of ways and means and imagines his wish fulfilled; he then goes on to amuse himself with a further detailed description of all he intends to do when his wishes are realized, thus encouraging his habit of mental laziness. I’m not feeling very strong myself, and I want (b) to put off any discussion of the possibility of my proposals till later, and assuming them, if I may for the moment, to be possible, to consider how the Guardians would put them into practice, and to show how they would in fact be to the best advantage both of the Guardians and of the state as a whole. I will try to go into these questions with you first, and leave the question of possibility till later, if you will allow it.’

‘Yes, I will allow it. Continue.’

‘Well, I suppose,’ I began, ‘that if our Rulers and their Auxiliaries(c) are each to be worthy of their name, the Auxiliaries must be willing to obey orders, and the Rulers to issue them, either in direct obedience to the laws, or in obedience to their spirit when we have left them discretion.’

‘A reasonable supposition.’

‘As law-giver, you have already picked your men Guardians. You must now pick women of as nearly similar natural capacities as possible to go with them. They will live and feed together, and have no private home or property. They will mix (d) freely in their physical exercises and the rest of their training, and their natural instincts will necessarily lead them to have sexual intercourse. Or do you think necessity is too strong a term?’

‘The necessity will be sexual and not mathematical,’ he said; ‘but sex is perhaps more effective than mathematics when it comes to persuading or driving the common man to do anything.’

‘Much more,’ I agreed. ‘But to continue – it would be a sin either for mating or for anything else in a truly happy society to take place without regulation. Our Rulers would not allow it.’ (e)

‘No, it wouldn’t be right.’

‘It follows that we must arrange for marriage, and make it as sacred an affair as we can. And a sacred marriage is one that produces the most beneficial results.’

‘Yes, certainly.’

459 (a) ‘How, then, are we to get the most beneficial results? Tell me,’ I said to Glaucon, ‘haven’t I seen a lot of hunting dogs and game birds at your house? And there’s something about their breeding and mating you must have noticed.’


‘In the first place, though they are all well bred, don’t some of them prove superior to the rest?’


‘Then do you breed from all in differently? Or do you take care to breed so far as possible from the best of them?’

‘From the best of them.’

(b) ‘And does that mean from the youngest, or the oldest, or those in their prime?’

‘Those in their prime.’

‘Otherwise, don’t you reckon that your breeds of birds and dogs would degenerate badly?’

‘I do.’

‘What about horses and other animals? Does the same apply to them?’

‘It would be surprising if it didn’t.’

‘My goodness,’ I exclaimed, ‘what outstanding Rulers we shall need, if the same thing is true of human beings!’

(c) ‘That’s true enough,’ he replied. ‘But why exactly?’

‘Because it will be necessary for them to use a lot of medicines; and we commonly consider that a comparatively low-grade doctor can treat patients who are prepared to submit to a diet and do not need medicine, but that when medicine is required someone rather higher-powered is called for.’

‘That’s true; but what is its bearing?’

‘This – that our Rulers will have to employ a great deal of fiction and deceit for the benefit of their subjects; and you will (d) remember that we agreed that they might be used as a kind of medicine.’18

‘It is the right way to use them.’

‘And there will be considerable scope for this “right use” in marriage and procreation.’


‘We must, if we are to be consistent, and if we’re to have a real pedigree herd,19 mate the best of our men with the best of (e) our women as often as possible, and the inferior men with the inferior women as seldom as possible, and bring up only the off spring of the best.20 And no one but the Rulers must know what is happening, if we are to avoid dissension in our Guardian herd.’

‘That is very true.’

‘So we must arrange statutory festivals in which our brides and bridegrooms will be brought together. There will be religious sacrifices and our poets will write songs suitable to the 460 (a) occasion. The number of unions we will leave to the Rulers to settle. Their aim will be to keep numbers21constant, allowing for wastage by war and disease and the like, and, so far as they can, to prevent our state becoming too large or too small.’

‘Quite right.’

‘And we shall have to devise an ingenious system of drawing lots, so that our inferior Guardians can, at each mating festival, blame the lot and not the Rulers.’

‘That will certainly be necessary.’

‘And among the other honours and rewards our young men (b) can win for distinguished service in war and in other activities, will be more frequent opportunities to sleep with women;22 this will give us a pretext for ensuring that most of our children are born of that kind of parent.’

‘Quite right.’

‘Each generation of children will be taken by officers appointed for the purpose, who may be men or women or both – for men and women will of course be equally eligible for office –’

‘Yes, of course.’

‘These officers will take the children of the better Guardians (c) to a nursery and put them in charge of nurses living in a separate part of the city: the children of the inferior Guardians, and any defective off spring of the others, will be quietly and secretly disposed of.’23

‘They must be if we are to keep our Guardian stock pure,’ he agreed.

‘They will arrange for the suckling of the children by bringing their mothers to the nursery when their breasts are still full, (d) taking every precaution to see that no mother recognizes her child; if the mothers have not enough milk they will provide wet-nurses. They will see that the mothers do not suckle children for more than a reasonable length of time, and will hand over all the sitting up at night and hard work to nurses and attendants.’

‘Child-bearing will be an easy job for the Guardians’ wives on those conditions,’ he commented.

‘Which is as it should be,’ I replied. ‘But to continue with our proposals. We said that one should breed from creatures in their prime.’

‘That’s true.’

(e) ‘Would you agree that a woman is in her prime for about twenty, a man for about thirty years?’

‘Which twenty and which thirty?’

‘A woman,’ I replied, ‘should bear children for the state from her twentieth to her fortieth year; a man should beget them for the state from the time he passes his prime as a runner24 until he is fifty-five.’ 461 (a) ‘That is the period of their prime, both physically and mentally.’

‘If any man or woman above or below these ages takes a hand in the begetting of children for the community, we shall regard it as a sin and a crime. If they escape detection, the child they beget will be begotten in secrecy and fear and incontinence, without the sacrifices and prayers made by priests and priestesses and by the whole state at each marriage festival, and without the prayers they offer that the children may be better and more (b) useful citizens than the parents.’

‘That is true.’

‘The same rule will apply if any man still in his mating years lays hands on a woman of child-bearing age without the Rulers’ sanction; we shall regard him as putting upon the state a child that is a bastard on both civil and religious grounds.’

‘Quite rightly.’

‘But when our men and women get past the age for breeding, then we can leave them free to mate as they please, provided that no man mates with his daughter or granddaughter, or with (c) his mother or any of her forebears, and no woman with her son or father or their descendants or forebears. But we shall first order them to make every effort to prevent any conception which takes place in these unions from seeing the light at all, and if they fail to prevent its birth, to dispose of it as a creature that must not be reared.’25

‘That is all quite reasonable. But how,’ he asked, ‘can they distinguish fathers and daughters and the other relations you (d) mentioned just now?’

‘They can’t,’ I answered. ‘But a man will call all males born in the tenth or the seventh month26 after he has been a bridegroom sons and all females daughters, and they will call him father; similarly, he will call their children grandchildren, and they will in turn call his marriage-group grandfathers and grandmothers, while all who are born during the period when their mothers and fathers were producing children will call each other brothers and sisters. This will enable them to observe the (e) prohibitions we mentioned. There will be no rule to prevent brothers and sisters cohabiting, if the lot so falls out and Delphi approves.’27

‘I quite agree.’

Promotion, Demotion and Infanticide

The passage 459e461e has been interpreted by Adam in his edition (p. 357, Appendix IV) and by Popper, The Open Society , Vol. I, p. 51, as implying that Plato sanctioned infanticide. A more balanced discussion than Popper’s can be found in R. B. Levinson , In Defence of Plato , p. 185, and H. D. Rankin , Plato and the Individual , Ch. III. With this passage should also be considered what Plato says about movement betweenclasses (415ab, 423c). Briefly the position seems to be as follows:

There would be nothing very shocking to Greek sentiment in the suggestion of infanticide. It was practised at Sparta, where weak or deformed children were exposed, after examination by public authority. The extent to which it was practised at Athens is a matter of dispute, but there seems no doubt that it was practised, even if only to a limited extent, with unwanted (e.g. illegitimate) or defective children. And the custom seems to have been widespread in the Greek world in general (Levinson, p. 196; Barclay , Educational Ideals in the Ancient World, Appendix A ).

The most important piece of evidence is supplied by Plato himself. In the opening pages of the Timaeus he gives what is generally recognized as a summary of the social and political provisions of the Republic . What he says about promotion and demotion runs as follows: ‘You will remember too that we said that the children of the good were to be brought up, and those of the bad distributed secretly among the rest of the community; and the Rulers were to keep an eye on the children as they grew up and promote any who deserved it, and degrade into the places of the promoted any in their own ranks who seemed unworthy of their position.’ The ‘secret distribution’ of the Timaeus is very similar to the ‘quiet and secret disposal’ of the Republic (460c). Thus it appears that Plato’s own interpretation of what he said in the Republic was that children of inferior Guardians (and perhaps (415bd) children of any Guardian who were below standard) would be distributed among the third class. Such distribution would, obviously, have to be done unobtrusively and without general knowledge. Where Plato is open to criticism in this part of his proposals is that he never gives any particulars of the provisions that would be needed to effect the promotion, demotion and distribution which he so emphatically states to be necessary (cf. Levinson, p. 540; Ran-kin, pp. 72–3) .

But in addition to the ‘children of inferior Guardians’ (and sub-standard children generally) there are three other groups of children (or perhaps four) mentioned by Plato in this passage:

(a) defective children,

(b) children of Guardians within the breeding ages begotten without sanction outside the Mating Festivals,

(c) children of the over-age,

and perhaps (d) children of any man or woman outside the breeding age ‘who takes a hand in the begetting of children for the community’ (461a. It is not easy to see exactly what Plato means by this last group; unions between those above the prescribed age are covered under (c), and the other possibilities appear to be unions between those below the prescribed age and between those above or below the prescribed age and those within it. These must be subject to a similar disapproval to that attaching to those in group (b), in that both are without religious or official legal sanction, children in group (b) being in addition explicitly characterized as illegitimate. From Plato’s point of view children in both groups, being the product of unions that were against the law, would be illegitimate.

As to infanticide – it seems likely enough in view of Greek practice that Plato would have favoured the exposure of children in group (a) (though they are only referred to in a passing phrase). And if, as has been argued above, illegitimate children were commonly exposed, the same would be true of groups (b) and (d). His language is most explicit about group (c) and, as note 25 suggests, the natural interpretation of it is that it gives a choice of abortion and infanticide. If this interpretation is correct, it seems reasonable to suppose that Plato would have favoured infanticide in the other cases. To sum up: Plato seems to have sanctioned infanticide (1) of defective children (the grounds here would be eugenic), (2) of children born to over-age Guardians (eugenic grounds again no doubt), (3) of children in any sense illegitimate (i.e. conceived in contravention of the laws regulating the relation of the sexes). In this last instance he seems, as Rankin says, to have regarded the child as having a hereditary taint due to the moral weakness of the parents. As for children of ‘inferior’ Guardians, or sub-standard children of any Guardians (‘mixed-metal’ children ,415b), Plato’s own emphatic statements in the Republic and his equally unambiguous restatement in the Timaeus can only mean that the normal procedure is to relegate them to the third class. But their inferiority can hardly have been judged at birth, and Plato is at fault in giving no indication of how relegation and promotion are to be decided (cf. Rankin, p. 55). In addition, his language in this passage is often obscure and minatory. This may, as Rankin suggests, be due to a basic dislike of killing, which he tries to avoid by the analogy of breeding animals which permeates the whole passage.

‘Well, that completes the description of how women and children are to be held in common among the Guardians in your state, Glaucon. And the next business of our argument,’ I went on, ‘is, I take it, to establish that it fits into our general plan and 462 (a) is indeed much the best arrangement.’

‘Yes, certainly.’

‘The best way to reach agreement about that will be to ask ourselves what we regard as the greatest social good, the objective of the law-giver’s activity, and what as the greatest social evil; and then to consider whether the proposals we have just outlined bear the imprint of the good and not of the evil.’

‘Yes, that is the way.’

(b) ‘Is there anything worse for a state than to be split and fragmented, or anything better than cohesion and unity?’


‘And is not cohesion the result of the common feelings of pleasure and pain which you get when all members of a society are glad or sorry at the same successes and failures?’


‘But cohesion is dissolved when feelings differ between individuals, and the same events, whether of public or individual (c) concern, delight some and dismay others.’

‘Of course.’

‘And doesn’t this happen when the members of society no longer agree in their use of the words “mine” and “not mine”, “somebody else’s” and “not somebody else’s”?’

‘That is very true.’

‘So the best-ordered state is one in which as many people as possible use the words “mine” and “not mine” in the same sense of the same things.’

‘Much the best.’

‘What is more, such a state most nearly resembles an individual. For example, when one of us hurts his finger, the whole partnership of body and soul, constituting a single organism under a ruling principle, perceives it and is aware as a whole of the pain suffered by the part, and so we say that the man in question has a pain in his finger. And the same holds good of (d) any other part in which a man suffers pain or enjoys pleasure.’

‘Yes,’ he agreed, ‘and, as you said, the same thing is most nearly true of the best-run communities.’

‘That is because such a community will regard the individual who experiences gain or loss as a part of itself, and be glad or (e) sorry as a whole accordingly.’

‘That’s bound to be so in a well-regulated society.’

‘It’s time for us to return to our own state and see whether it has these features we’ve agreed on, or whether we must look elsewhere for them.’

‘Let us do so.’

‘Well, our state, like others, contains both rulers and common 463 (a) people.’

‘It does.’

‘And they will all call each other fellow-citizens.’


‘And in states other than our own, what do the common people call their rulers, in addition to calling them fellow-citizens?’

‘In most states they call them masters;28 in a democracy they call them simply the rulers.’29

‘But what will the common people say the rulers in our state are besides fellow-citizens?’

‘Protectors and defenders.’ (b)

‘And what will the rulers say about the common people?’

‘That they provide their pay and livelihood.’

‘And what do the rulers in other states call the common people?’


‘And what do they call each other?’


‘And in our state?’


‘And tell me, in other states, do not some of these fellow-rulers call each other friends and others not?’

‘Yes, that’s quite common.’

‘And don’t they think and speak of their friends as “one of (c) us”, and of others as “not one of us”?’


‘And what about our Guardians? Could any of them seriously think or say he had nothing to do with his fellows?’

‘Certainly not,’ he replied. ‘For he’s bound to regard any of them he meets as related to him, as brother or sister, father or mother, son or daughter, grandparent or grandchild.’

‘You are quite right. And here is a further point. They won’t be allowed to treat these legally defined relationships as merely (d) nominal, but will be required to behave accordingly, to show their fathers all the customary honour and love, and to obey their parents; any other behaviour will be considered impious and wrong, and subject both to divine and human disapproval. Isn’t this the sort of traditional strain you’ll expect your citizens to chant in the ears of the children about their conduct towards those they are to call their fathers and other relations?’ (e) ‘Yes. It would be absurd for them merely to use the words without the appropriate actions.’

‘In our society of all societies, then, the citizens will agree in their use of that phrase we were talking about just now, and will refer to the successes and misfortunes of an individual fellow-citizen as “ my success” or “ my misfortune”.’

‘That is very true,’ he agreed.

‘And didn’t we say that this way of thinking and talking leads 464 (a) to common feelings of pain and pleasure?’

‘Yes, and we were quite right.’

‘Our citizens, then, are devoted to a common interest, which they call my own ; and in consequence entirely share each other’s feelings of joy and sorrow.’


‘And the element in our constitution to which this is especially due is the community of women and children in the Guardian class.’

‘Yes, that is the chief reason for it.’

‘But we agreed that this unanimity was the greatest good a (b) society can enjoy – we compared, you remember, a well-run society to the human body, in which the whole is aware of the pleasure and pain of the part.’

‘And we were quite right,’ he said.

‘And so we may say that the community of women and children among its protectors confers the greatest of all benefits on our state.’

‘Yes, we may.’

‘And what is more, we are being quite consistent, because we said earlier that our Guardians, if they were to do their job properly, should have no houses or land or any other possessions (c) of their own, but get their daily bread from others in payment for their services, and consume it together in common.’

‘Yes, we said that.’

‘Then don’t you agree that, as I say, these further arrangements will make them even truer Guardians than before? They will prevent the dissension that starts when different people call different things their own, when each carts off to his own private (d) house anything he can lay hands on for himself, and when each has his own wife and children, his own private joys and sorrows; for our citizens, whose interests are identical and whose efforts are all directed so far as is possible towards the same end, feel all their joys and sorrows together.’

‘Yes, I entirely agree.’

‘And besides, since they have no private property except their own persons (everything else being common), won’t litigation virtually disappear? There won’t in fact be any of the quarrels (e) which are caused by having money or children or family.’

‘They will inevitably be rid of all that sort of thing.’

‘And there will be no justification for actions of violence and assault; for we shall decree that it is both fair and right for one man to defend himself against another of the same age. This will make them keep themselves fit.’

‘Which will be an advantage.’

‘And the regulation is one that has the additional advantage 465 (a) that if one man is angry with another, he can take it out of him on the spot, and will be less likely to pursue the quarrel further.’

‘True enough.’

‘But we shall lay it down that older men are to have authority over all younger men, and power to punish them.’


‘And that, as is only right, no younger man shall attempt to do violence to or strike his elders, unless ordered to do so by the Rulers. Indeed I don’t think that the young will behave badly to their elders in any way, because they will be prevented by two effective safeguards, fear and respect. Respect will stop them laying hands on their parents, and they will fear the assistance (b) the victim would get from those who count themselves his sons and brothers and parents.’

‘Yes, that follows.’

‘Our laws in fact will mean that the Guardians will live at complete peace with each other.’

‘Complete peace.’

‘And if they don’t quarrel among themselves, there will be no danger of rebellion or of faction in the rest of the community.’

‘None whatever.’

‘There are other minor evils they will get rid of, which are (c) really so insignificant that I hesitate to mention them. The poor won’t have to flatter the rich, and there will be none of the difficulties and anxieties of raising a family and earning what is necessary to feed a household of servants – borrowing, not paying one’s debts, and scraping enough together somehow for one’s wife and servants to spend. All these and similar vexations are, I think you will agree, too obvious and too sordid to be worth talking about.’

(d) ‘They’re obvious even to a blind man.’

‘Well, they will be rid of them all, and will lead a far more blissful life than any Olympic victor.’


‘They have far more to make them really happy. Their victory is more distinguished, and their maintenance by the public more complete. Their victory brings security to the whole community, and their reward is that they and their children are maintained and have all their needs supplied at public cost, that they are held in honour by their fellow-citizens while they live, and given (e) a worthy burial when they die.’

‘These are indeed great rewards.’

‘And yet do you remember,’ I asked, ‘how earlier on someone or other objected that we weren’t making our Guardians happy, because they were to have nothing of their own in spite of being in control of everything? And you will remember that 466 (a) we answered that we would return to the question later, if convenient; but that for the moment we were concerned to make our Guardians into guardians and to ensure the highest degree of happiness for the community as a whole without concentrating attention on the happiness of any particular section of it.’

‘Yes, I remember.’

‘Well, if the life our Guardians are to lead is better and more splendid than an Olympic victor’s, we can’t really compare it (b) with a cobbler’s or farmer’s or any other manual worker’s.’

‘I should think not.’

‘None the less, it is only right to repeat again what I said then: if any Guardian looks for happiness in a way unworthy of his status, if he tires of the restraint and security of the ideal life we have drawn for him, and is impelled by some senseless and extravagant idea of happiness into using his power to appropriate the community’s wealth – well, he will learn the wisdom of (c) Hesiod’s saying that the half is more than the whole.’30

‘My advice to him would be to stick to his own way of life.’

‘Do you agree, then, that the best arrangement is for our men and women to share a common education, to bring up their children in common and to have a common responsibility, as Guardians, for their fellow-citizens, as we have described? That women should in fact, so far as possible, take part in all the same occupations as men, both in peace within the city and on (d) campaign in war, acting as Guardians and hunting with the men like hounds, that this is the best course for them and that there is nothingunwomanly31 in this natural partnership of the sexes?’

‘I agree,’ he said.

3. The Rules of War

Socrates has promised to show next that his proposals are not only desirable but possible. But he digresses (perhaps because he has just mentioned the function of women in war and the subject is therefore in his mind) to discuss the conduct of war. He deals first with the familiarization of children with military operations, then with military rewards and punishments, and finally with the rules of warfare and treatment of enemies. He deprecates war between Greek states and lays down rules to regulate and humanize it. He clearly regards war as a permanent feature of human affairs; but, equally clearly, he hopes for a measure of Greek unity, and regards non-Greeks (barbarians) as in some measure natural enemies.

‘It remains, then,’ I said, ‘to decide whether and how this sharing of functions is possible among human beings, as it is among animals.’

‘You’ve taken the words out of my mouth,’ he replied.

(e) ‘I suppose the arrangements they will make for the conduct of war are fairly obvious?’ I asked.

‘What will they be?’ he said.

‘Men and women will serve together, and take the children to war with them when they are old enough, to let them see, as 467 (a) they do in other trades, the job they will have to do when they grow up. And besides seeing what goes on, they will fetch and carry and make themselves useful to their mothers and fathers during the campaign. Haven’t you noticed how, in a craft like the potter’s, children serve a long apprenticeship, watching how things are done, before they take a hand in the work themselves?’

‘Yes, I have.’

‘Oughtn’t the Guardians to take just as much care, when they are training their children, to let them see what their duties are and get used to them?’

‘It would be absurd if they didn’t.’

‘And besides, any animal fights better in the presence of its (b) young.’

‘That’s true. But isn’t there a considerable risk, Socrates, that if they are defeated, as may well happen in war, their children will be killed as well as themselves, and what is left of the state be unable to recover?’

‘That’s perfectly true,’ I replied. ‘But in the first place do you think they should avoid risks altogether?’


‘Then, if they are to take risks, ought they not to do so when they will really be the better for success?’


‘But won’t it make all the difference to children who are to be fighting men when they grow up if they see something of war when they are young? Isn’t it a risk worth taking?’

‘Yes, well worth it.’

‘We must therefore act on that assumption and make it possible for our children to be spectators of war, but take measures to ensure their safety, and all will be well.’


‘Then, to begin with, their fathers will be as knowledgeable as men can be in these matters, and be able to tell whether a campaign is dangerous or not.’ (d)

‘That seems likely,’ he said.

‘So they will take them on some campaigns, and avoid others.’


‘And they will put them in charge of really trustworthy officers, who are qualified both by age and experience to act as their leaders and look after them.’

‘That is as it should be.’

‘Yes, but things often turn out very differently from what we expect.’

‘They do indeed.’

‘So I think we ought to give our children wings as an additional precaution, so that they can fly away if necessary.’

‘What do you mean?’ he asked. (e)

‘I mean that we must put them on horseback as young as possible, and when they have learnt to ride take them to see the fighting, on horses that aren’t too spirited or fiery, but fast and easy to manage. Then they will get the best view of their future job and be able to follow their more experienced leaders to safety quite easily, if need be.’

‘That seems to me a good arrangement.’

468 (a) ‘Then what about the actual fighting? What treatment will your soldiers expect for themselves or give their enemies? I wonder if I’m right about that.’

‘Tell us what you think.’

‘I think that any of them who deserts or throws away his arms or shows any similar signs of cowardice should be relegated to the artisans or farmers.’


‘And any of them taken prisoner should be abandoned to his captors to deal with as they wish.’

(b) ‘I entirely agree.’

‘Then what about anyone who has distinguished himself for bravery? Do you agree that he should first be duly crowned, while the army is still in the field, by his fellow-campaigners, by youngmen32 and children in turn?’


‘And that they should shake his hand?’

‘I agree again.’

‘But I’m afraid you won’t agree to what I’m going to say next.’

‘What is it?’

‘That he should exchange kisses with them.’

‘I think it’s the best idea of all,’ said Glaucon. ‘And what is (c) more, I should add to your law a clause that would forbid anyone to refuse his kisses for the rest of the campaign, as an encouragement to those in love with a boy or girl to be all the keener to win an award for bravery.’

‘A very good clause,’ I said. ‘For we have already said that the better citizens are to be more frequently selected for marriage than others and have more free choice in such matters, so that they may have correspondingly more children.’

‘So we said.’

‘And we have Homer’s authority for honouring bravery in the (d) young. For he tells how, when Ajax had distinguished himself in battle, he was “paid the honour” of a helping from the “long chine of the beast”33 as if it were a suitable honour for a brave man in his prime, something which, in addition to the distinction it brought, would increase his strength.’

‘And how right Homer was.’

‘Then we will follow his advice, this time at any rate. At sacrifices and similar occasions we will reward excellence, according to its degree, not only with song and the other privileges we mentioned, but “with the best seat at the table, the first cut off the joint, and a never empty cup”.34 In this way we shall (e) honour the bravery of our men and women and improve their physique.’

‘An excellent suggestion.’

‘Good. And then those who die bravely on active service we shall reckon as men of gold –’

‘They certainly deserve it.’

‘– and believe with Hesiod that when they die they “become 469 (a) holy, beneficent Guardian Spirits on earth, protectors to shield mortal men from harm”.’35

‘Yes, we will believe him.’

‘And we shall bury them with whatever special ceremonies Delphi prescribes, in reply to our inquiry, for men of such divine and heroic mould.’

‘Of course we shall.’

‘And for the rest of time treat their tombs with reverence and worship them as Guardian Spirits.36 And we shall pay the same (b) honour to all those who are judged to have lived a life of special distinction and who die of old age or other cause.’

‘Very right.’

‘And how will our soldiers treat their enemies?’

‘In what respect?’

‘First, over slavery. Do you think it is right for Greek states to sell Greeks into slavery, or to allow others to do so, so far as they can prevent it? Ought they not rather to make it their custom to spare their fellows, for fear of falling under barbarian (c) domination?’

‘It would be infinitely better to spare them.’

‘There will then be no Greek slave in our state, and it will advise other Greek states to follow suit.’37

‘Certainly. That would encourage them to let each other alone and turn against the barbarian.’

‘Then is it a good thing to strip the dead, after a victory, of anything but their arms? It gives the cowards an excuse not to (d) pursue the enemy who are still capable of fight, if they can pretend they are doing their duty by poking about among the dead. Indeed, many an army has been lost before now by this habit of plunder.’

‘It surely has.’

‘And don’t you think there’s something low and mean about plundering a corpse, and a kind of feminine small-mindedness in treating the dead body as an enemy when the fighting spirit (e) which fought in it has left it and flown? It’s rather like the dog’s habit of snarling at the stones thrown at it, but keeping clear of the person who’s throwing them.’

‘Yes, it’s very like that.’

‘So we’ll have no stripping of corpses and no refusal to allow burial.’38

‘I entirely agree,’ he said.

‘Nor shall we dedicate the arms of our enemies in our temples, particularly if they are the arms of fellow-Greeks and if we have 470 (a) any concern for friendship with them. On the contrary, we shall be afraid that we should desecrate a temple by offering them the arms of our own kin, unless indeed Apollo rules otherwise.’

‘Quite right.’

‘Then what about devastating the lands and burning the houses of Greek enemies? How will your soldiers treat their enemies over that?’

‘I’d like to know what you think about it.’

‘I don’t think they ought to do either, but confine themselves (b) to carrying off the year’s harvest. Shall I tell you why?’

‘Please do.’

‘I think that the two terms “war” and “civil strife” reflect a real difference between two types of dispute. And the two types I mean are the one internal and domestic, the other external and foreign; and we call a domestic dispute “civil strife”, and an external one “war”.’

‘What you say is very much to the point.’

‘Then do you think it equally to the point if I say that all (c) relations between Greek and Greek are internal and domestic, and all relations between Greek and barbarian foreign and external?’


‘Then when Greek fights barbarian or barbarian Greek we shall say they are at war and are natural enemies, and that their quarrel is properly called a “war”; but when Greek fights Greek we shall say that they are naturally friends, but that Greece is sick and torn by faction, and that the quarrel should be called “civil strife”.’ (d)

‘I agree with your view.’

‘Consider, then,’ I went on, ‘what happens in civil strife in its normal sense, that is to say, when there is civil war in a single state. If the two sides ravage each other’s land and burn each other’s houses, we think it an outrage, and regard two parties who dare to lay waste the country which bore and bred them as lacking in all patriotism. But we think it reasonable, if the victors 470 (e) merely carry off their opponents’ crops, and remember that they can’t go on fighting for ever but must come to terms some time.’

‘Yes, because the last frame of mind is the more civilized.’

‘Well, then,’ I said, ‘your city will be Greek, won’t it?’

‘It must be.’

‘And its people good and civilized?’


‘Then they will love their fellow-Greeks, and think of Greece as their own land, in whose common religion they share.’

‘Yes, certainly.’

‘And any dispute with Greeks they will regard as civil strife, 471 (a) because it is with their own people, and so won’t call it “war”.’

‘That’s true.’

‘So they will fight in the hope of coming to terms.’

‘Yes, they will.’

‘They will in fact correct them in a friendly way, rather than punish them with enslavement and destruction; they will act in a spirit of correction, not of enmity.’


‘It follows that they will not, as Greeks, devastate Greek lands or burn Greek dwellings; nor will they admit that the whole people of astate– men, women, and children–are their enemies, (b) but only the hostile minority who are responsible for the quarrel. They will not therefore devastate the land or destroy the houses of the friendly majority, but press their quarrel only until the guilty minority are brought to justice by the innocent victims.’

‘For myself,’ he said, ‘I agree that our citizens ought to behave in this way to their enemies; though when they are fighting barbarians they should treat them as the Greeks now treat each other.’

‘Then let us lay it down as a law for our Guardians, that they (c) are neither to ravage land nor burn houses.’

‘We will do so,’ he agreed; ‘it is a good rule, like all our others.’

You can support the site and the Armed Forces of Ukraine by following the link to Buy Me a Coffee.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!