Central Works of Philosophy - Vol. 1

Central Works of Philosophy - Vol. 1

Central Works of Philosophy - Vol. 1

Central Works of Philosophy - Vol. 1


This collection of essays showcases the most important and influential philosophical works of the ancient and medieval period, roughly from 600 BC to AD 1600. Each chapter takes a particular work of philosophy and discusses its proponent, its content and central arguments.


Plato’s Republic is many things to many people. To some it is among the first works in political theory in the Western tradition. To others it is a penetrating discussion of the relationship between the arts and the state, the nature of education or the sociological role of myth. To others still it may be the first examination of a fundamental ethical question, or the presentation of a fundamental metaphysical theory, or simply the locus classicus of classical Platonism. And as far as I can tell they may all be right. Nevertheless, I believe that the Republic contains a single thread of argument that one must come to terms with before the other issues in the Republic can be properly understood, and it is this thread of argument that will be the focus of this essay.

Before turning to the Republic, let me say a brief word about its author. To the best of our knowledge Plato was born to an aristocratic family in Athens in 427 BCE. His father, Ariston, who traced his lineage to the old kings of Athens, died in Plato’s youth. His stepfather, Pyrilampes was a personal friend of Pericles, the great Golden Age Athenian statesman, and his mother, Perictione, was related to Solon, the famous Athenian legal reformer. Some time in his late teens or early twenties, Plato began to associate with Socrates (469–399 BCE), who was executed for impiety by the Athenians in 399 BCE. Around 387 BCE, Plato founded the Academy, which was named after the sacred olive grove in the outskirts of Athens in which it was located, and which boasted such members as Eudoxus and Aristotle. Plato died in 347 BCE. Plato flourished during the attempt by Athens to recover from its defeat at the hands of Sparta in the Peloponnesian War (431–404 BCE), a war that ended the so-called Golden Age of Athens.

A quick outline of the Republic

The Republic falls into ten books. These divisions do not reflect Plato’s choices, but rather the work of a later Greek scholar and the constraints of what will fit on a single papyrus roll. Nevertheless, it is traditional to trace the outline of the Republic by discussing what takes place in each of these books.

Book I resembles Plato’s shorter so-called Socratic definitional and aporetic dialogues, dialogues like the Euthyphro, the Laches, the Charmides, the Lysis, and the Hippias Major. In these dialogues, Socrates examines with one or more interlocutors various answers to his “What is F-ness?” question, a question that aims to determine the nature of F-ness rather than various instances or examples of it. For example, in the Euthyphro, Socrates and Euthyphro consider a variety of answers to the question “What is piety?”; in the Laches, Socrates, Laches and Nicias consider a variety of answers to the question “What is courage?”; and in the Charmides, Socrates, Charmides and Critias consider a variety of answers to the question “What is temperance?” In none of these dialogues, however, does a satisfactory answer appear to be uncovered. The first book of the Republic has a similar structure.

In Book I, Socrates and his companion, Glaucon, while walking back to Athens after attending the feast of Bendis in the Piraeus, are invited to join a gathering at the house of Polemarchus. As is common in the Socratic dialogues, the discussion quickly turns to the nature of some moral concept. In this case, the question raised is “What is justice?” After dismissing the implied answer of Cephalus, Polemarchus’s father, with a counter-example, Socrates turns first to Polemarchus’s defence of his father’s . . .

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