© 1996 Bernard SUZANNE Last updated November 21, 1998
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Keys to Republic's prolog

March 12, 1995

This page is part of the "e-mail archives" section of a site, Plato and his dialogues, dedicated to developing a new interpretation of Plato's dialogues. The "e-mail archives" section includes HTML edited versions of posts that I submitted on various e-mail discussion lists about Plato and ancient philosophy.

To: plato-republic <plato-republic@freelance.com>
Date : March 12, 1995, 16:40:05
Subject : Keys to Republic's prolog

At a time where Christopher is about done with his most interesting historical posts on the background of the Republic (1), and after browsing through the archives of this list, let me try to put my own hypothesis to task on the first two pages (327a-328c) of the Republic, in an attempt to get this list moving again.

But first a few points about method (don't forget I'm from the country of Descartes!..).

1) If you want to understand a book such as Plato's Republic, you must not lose sight of the whole picture while you are dealing with details; and you should try and understand if and how the details contribute to the whole picture.

2) My take is that, with Plato, almost everything contributes to the whole picture, and especially those details of "staging" that don't look "philosophical" to many readers. Prologs are an integral part of the dialogues, and are intended to "give the tune" of the whole work. But you can only find out how and "rationalize" it after you got the whole picture straight; at first reading, it's only "imagery" that works at the "sensible" level, and has to be "deciphered" to get an "intelligible" meaning (as any image!).

3) "Slow reading" (2) does not mean "first reading", and most of us are not reading the Republic for the first time. It means we have already some ideas on what we are about to read, and some bias in interpreting it, some prefered "keys" to "decipher" it.

4) Based on these assumptions, there are only two ways to behave: either we stay at the "sensible" level for the time being in our reading of the prolog, set the "interpretative" issues regarding it aside until we got through the whole reading once, and then go back to the beginning to "decipher it"; or we want to have the issue resolved right away, and then, we must each state the interpretative "keys" we are using to decipher the prolog (this might be a way of finding out which one works best, but I'm afraid it would put us ahead of ourselves...)

So, anyway, here are the "keys" I'm using (this is mostly a summary of earlier posts (3) on this and the "plato" lists):

1) To me, the Republic is at the center of Plato's work, at the center of a set of 28 dialogues arranged in seven tetralogies to form a single work, intended to show why and how man should put his "logos" to work in this world to better his life and that of his fellow men, in what is "political" work built on top of self-mastery, taking example on Socrates. To do this is to be a "just" man, a "philo-sophos".

2) The central tetralogy (Symposium/Phædrus-Republic-Phædo), of which the Republic is the center, is about the "soul", its dunamis (eros), its origin, its behavior and its telos. The soul is central to Plato, because it is the link between the "visible" and the "intelligible" world, the "proof" that man is not a mere chunk of matter; actually, it is "man itself". We may not know what it is, but we can't explain man without it...

3) The Republic provides keys to the whole set of dialogues, especially:

And these "keys" help explain the arrangment of the seven tetralogies (see my earlier posts on that).

4) The Republic itself is not either a "political" dialogue or a "psychological" dialogue (a dialogue about the structure of the soul), but a dialogue that precisely shows that it is as impossible to split man in two, a "private" part and a "public" one, and define justice as a mere "social" virtue, as it is to limit the world to either its material part or its intelligible part; that man cannot properly act in society if he doesn't first put his own self in order, and that "justice" is precisely this combination of individual and social order; that this unity to be reached is not merely between "spirit" and "matter", as if we were in a dualistic world, but between several "intelligible" parts of our self, of our soul: one, the logos, that can "participate" in the intelligible, but is small at first and needs to be "educated"; another one, multiple in its structure, the epithumiai, that is rooted in our "material" side, our "biological" needs, but may also be driven by "images", "phantasms", and needs to be "tamed"; and a third one in between, the thumos, the "will", that has the ability to lean toward either one of the other two, and must be helped in order to make the right choice. And the one which makes us a "man" (the only one that looks like a man in the image that is given of the soul at Rep. IX, 588b-592b), is the logos. The Republic tells us that this "internal" unity in our soul requires "education", "conversion" (see the "cave") towards the light of the intelligible "good", that alone can light in us what is our good, and is a prerequisite of any "political" activity, of any"social" justice, these in turn being an integral part of our own justice, that is of the building of our own self, the reaching of our telos.

5) The Republic is not the concatenation of two dialogues, an early Thrasymachus limited to book one, and the later books two to ten. It is a masterpiece of careful construction, intertwining several plans, an "external", "visible" one, and an "internal", "intelligible" one, as I tried to show in an earlier post (4). The "prolog" of the Republic is not limited to book one, but includes part of book two as well (Glaucon's and Adeimantus' speeches). If book one exhibits a difference in style, it is not because it is an earlier work stitched to a newer one, but because of its specific purpose and of its "role" in the work. It is no more surprising than the different "style" of Phædrus' "bucolic" prolog (which is intended to introduce a study of soul's "nature") compared to the dialogue proper; only, the Republic is about ten times longer, and the prolog is accordingly about the size of most other dialogues. The part we are about to examine is thus the prolog to the prolog.

6) In order to "enact" what it "teaches", the Republic "stages" two "tripartite souls", each one being "played" by a trio of characters. One of these "souls" is the one whose logos tells the story, that is, it has Socrates "playing" its logos; it is the soul of a philosophos. Of this soul, Glaucon plays the epithumetikon part, and Adeimantus the thumos. In the dialogue, this "soul" is confronted to another "soul", the soul of the "man in the street" of that time (those men in the street, a mixture of demiourgoi, sophists, poets, rhetors, who condemned Socrates a while ago), of which Polemarchus plays the thumos, Cephalus the logos, and Thrasymachus the epithumiai. And the dialogue will show us how a soul that is "coerced" (5) by another one who doesn't want to listen, but has strong feelings about a "popular" kind of justice and acts accordingly (for instance in condemning Socrates to death without even listening to him, see Anytus in the Meno), can find peace in itself to answer the "aggression", and show us, along the way, what true justice is. In that respect, the prolog of the dialogue is in two parts:

The dialogue proper (down to 580c) will show us how the talking soul's logos (Socrates) quiets down the fears of his own soul and "teaches" them what their best interest is, and at the same time, by doing it in front of the other "soul", "instills" his teaching inside the other soul by means of his"material" logos (Polemarchus may have "bodily" coerced Socrates to stay, and stated he doesn't want to listen to his reasons not to (327c), the fact is Socrates, and the whole "soul" he is a part of, "moves" into Polemarchus' oikos, that is, "sneacks" into his "body" (via sounds in his ears), if not in his soul).

The epilog of the dialogue (580c-621d) answers the questions raised in the prolog with the help of what was stated during the course of the dialogue, first those raised by the other "soul", even if it remains silent, starting with the "will", that is, Polemarchus-thumos, in showing him that the true "judge" of what is good for man is the philo-sophos (580d-583a), then moving to the logos to show him that he is the one who should decide which pleasures are good and which are bad (583b-588a), before eventually displaying an "image" of the soul to the epithumiai, an image being the only thing it may "understand" (588b-592b). This being done, he may answer his own fears, in showing Adeimantus-thumos that the poets are not the appropriate teachers of the soul, unlike what he stated in the prolog (595a-607b), and eventually quiet his own epithumiai (Glaucon) with a "myth" (the myth of Er, another "image") that answers the one Glaucon used in his speech (the story of Gyges' ring) and shows him that man is, up to a certain point, master of his own fate, precisely thanks to his logos, and not prisonner of his "bodily" chains (607b-621d).

We may now go back to the prolog to the prolog and see how to "decipher" it with these "keys" (part of it has already been done in outlining the overall plan of the work). So here we go...

So, here is a logos going down toward the sea, that "intermediate" world of all the dangers (see Laws, 704a-705b, about the danger of establishing a city too close to the sea). He goes down like the prisonner from the cave goes back down to the cave, after having seen the light of the sun. Here, he goes down for a religious festival: to pray the godess and to see the festival. Both mind and body are involved, both the "visible" world and the "intelligible" one.

We may note that the festival is to a godess, not a god, and a foreign one at that. Right away, we are reminded that we must take into account both the male and female, the "material" and the divine parts in man (see the first "wave", later in the dialogue); and also that gods are meant to unite all men, greek and barbaroi as well, not to divide them and bring war amongst them (remember Homer and the Iliad?..)

When the story starts, we are in the presence of a "split" personnality: after praying and watching the ceremony, a satisfied logos (Socrates) and a tired "body" (Glaucon, as appeased epithumiai) want to go home; but the "will" (Adeimantus) is left behind, with some friends, and wants more of it; it does not want to miss a piece of the action, which is not over yet; it drags its feet along with the other soul's will (Polemarchus) which is here at home, and doesn't have to leave to get some rest.

The other soul's will doesn't want his friend to leave, and is ready to use bodily constraint to have him stay. His logos (Cephalus) is already at rest. Actually, he doesn't care for the festival, and is satisfied with "private" prayer: he prays the god at home, in the backyard, in the aulè; for him, religion is a private matter and has nothing to do with "justice", so long as he respects the "traditions", and does not introduce "new" gods (as opposed to Socrates, or at least to what Socrates was accused of; note that the festival is the first one to a new foreign godess!...). And his epithumiai (Thrasymachus) are quiet at home, sure that the "will" will do what they want, that is, keep his friend around for the later part of the festival (Cephalus-logos is not a logos to get on the way; after a few words, he will let his"will" talk and will go back to his own "private" festival...).

The later part of the (public) festival has to do with horse racing, and horses are an image of the soul in the Phædrus. And the horses' race is a relay to pass the light. The light to be passed may be an image of the light of the good to be passed from soul to soul (it seems to me somebody already mentionned something like that before I subscribed)...

So, eventually, everybody moves to the oikos of the other soul: the remainder of the dialogue thus takes place inside a "private" place in the middle of a "public" festival. It shows how physical constraint on the person of a philosophos (Socrates), probably the product of an underlying ungroomed eros in Polemarchus, can be converted into a means of introducing into the other person's mind some of that sophia that is in the coerced person's soul (and maybe this is an "analogy" with Socrates' trial, where his death, physical coercion, becomes for Plato a means of enlightening his fellow citizen and his students at the Academy, by revealing his true nature of "just" man, of "politician"; and certainly, it enacts what the Symposium theorizes).One last word: why are more than six people named in this prolog? Who are the other ones? I have two suggestions to offer, for you to choose from. One is that it might suggest that, in a truly divided soul, as Polemarchus' is ("Polemarchus" being taken here as a shorthand for "the soul whose thumos Polemarchus plays the part"), even the epithumiai are several, and divided; and all these people are Polemarchus' epithumiai, some brother with one another, other foreign to each other. In this case, Thrasymachus is only the most articulate, or maybe the stronger one, of these desires... Another way to look at it is to say that the "other" soul is not one, and that Socrates is actually talking to the many, of which Polemarchus is only the talking representative.

And now, I'm waiting for your critics!...

(1) This refers to a set of posts by Christopher Planeaux providing historical background on the first Bendideia, the feast that serves as a background to the Republic, and on the various characters that are gathered in the house of Cephalus and Polemarchus according to Socrates' story. Most of this information may be found at Christopher's page on Plato on the web. (back)

(2) The <plato-republic> list was intended to undertake a "slow reading" of the Republic. At the time of this post, it was still dealing with the first two pages (back)

(3) This refers to Symbolic roles and names in Plato's Republic, dated February 12, 1995 and the series Platonism: a fresh look (parts 1 to 4), dated February 26, 1995, available elsewhere on these archives. (back)

(4) See the page on the plans of the Republic on this site for a description and comment of these two plans of the Republic. (back)

(5) A large part of the discussion going on on the list at the time of this post had to do with whether Socrates was physically "coerced" into Polemarchus' house in the opening scene of the dialogue. (back)

Plato and his dialogues : Home - Biography - Works and links to them - History of interpretation - New hypotheses - Map of dialogues : table version or non tabular version. Tools : Index of persons and locations - Detailed and synoptic chronologies - Maps of Ancient Greek World. Site information : About the author.

First published December 8, 1996 ; Last updated November 21, 1998
© 1996 Bernard SUZANNE (click on name to send your comments via e-mail)
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