I'm half way through Plato's Republic, and frankly I find it about as nonsensical as any utopia. The speculations may be reasonable taken one at a time but when piled up in a giant vision of the perfect state of politics they become absurd. Plato asks us to - what? Accept? Understand?
I wonder if Socrates is presenting an extreme version of justice in order to simply stimulate enquiry on multiple points?
The best way I can take this dialog is as pure fun...I can't account for its bizarre silliness otherwise. When Socrates suggests tricking a population into a eugenics program I am a little disconcerted. But when he suggests a totalitarian state - then I am positively turned off.
THE THREE WAVES: treating women the same as men; eugenics; and putting the state into practice. Here is Socrates on putting the ideal into practice:
"Then what we're looking for is an ideal pattern [paradeigma]. Just as a painter might portray the perfect man, we don't say that he is a poor painter if that man cannot be found. We've been painting a word-picture of an ideal state. Is our portrait any the worse if that state can't be found?"
"I can accept that."
"Now, I happen to think that there is one single change that needs to be made to a State for our ideal to be realised."
"Until philosophers are kings, or the kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy, and political greatness and wisdom meet in one, and those who pursue one to the exclusion of the other are made to stand aside, cities will never have rest from their evils, nor humanity itself I believe. Only then will this our State have a possibility of life and behold the light of day."
So it's possible to read The Republic as a stream of questions: What is justice? What is a just state? What is the source of a just state? (A philosopher king.) Finally this leads us to ask Socrates: Well, what is a philosopher then?
The realm of metaphysics is addressed elsewhere in Plato's work. I'm sure this is just a brief representation of his ideas. It is as if Republic is the keystone but, without the other dialogues to support it, it remains just an oddly shaped stone. Here are the highlights for me of his metaphysics:
TAKING WHOLE: The principle of holism is stated as clearly as it ever will be here, right at the start of things: Socrates said: "Really Glaucon!" I said, "Whenever you take a fancy to a pretty boy you call a small nose charming and a big one noble, a dark complexion manly and a fair one divine. You always manage to find beauty in the whole."
METAPHYSICS: Socrates makes the distinction between essence and substance, between how things are and how things seem, which is the root of metaphysic (and indeed of modern science in the forms of quantum theory and evolution wherein appearence and fact are often at odds).
INSPIRATIONAL: Socrates philosopher - transparent his own beloved self - is presented with paradoxical subtlety here by Plato. Because Socrates is talking theoretically he may describe himself fully. But because he is so evidently aligned with the absolute good that a philosopher king embodies his words at this place have the resonant quality of spiritual revelation. They are strikingly profound and universal here.
THE SHIP NAVIGATOR. Here is the root of cybernetics, of helmsmanship, and of the systems theory view of the world. But what Socrates says next is even more sophisticated -
AGAINST THE SOPHISTS. Training in mind tricks of the sophists doesn't corrupt the young, what corrupts the young is public opinion. The conditions a philosopher needs to flourish are "no publicity" and "no politics".
The next question, then, is: What is good?
Socrates answer: the good is like the sun, by which all good may be seen.
THE DWELLERS IN THE CAVE: AHA! the context of this image is within the dialect and analogical thinking inspired by the previous notions. So the remarkable experience of reading this image IN CONTEXT is that one experiences it at the same time as one experiences Socrates' character and Plato's craftsmanship. The complex of imagery is illuminating, striking, resonant, and profound. Again, I cannot emphasize enough how powerful reading this for the first time in context of the entire dialogue is.
EDUCATION AND CURRICULUM: I find myself disappointed by Socrate's curriculum. Perhaps because it doesn't seem to have been implemented in history before. I shall have to learn more about it!
DEMOCRACY, TIMOCRACY, OLIGARCHY, AND TYRANNY: Where does Socrates get these views from? I mean, what is his experience and credentials in expressing these remarkable views on the faults of other systems than his? In other words, where does he get off?
I don't like the second ending much. The original ending is subtle and precisely placed at the point where the reader is finished best. The arc of illumination climbs to the notion of the philosopher king, then climaxes and relaxes in the first ending, not the second.
The second is like the addition of a bit of pompous philosophizing to back up religion. Which is why I don't like it. It's dull and it drags on .
The first ending is best: "Perhaps," says Socrates "this perfect world already exists in some otherworld of the mind. Maybe it is already now there, so that any man with a heart fit for justice can become one of its citizens."
This is the tone of great dreams and great vision which ends the Republic properly, on a note of lighthearted inspiration as it began.