PLATO: The Republic [Book III]

In Book III of Plato’s Republic, Socrates continues his discussion of poetry. He asserts that poetry ought to dispel the fear of death, not encourage it. For example, he criticizes Homer’s portrayal of Achilles in the underworld. In Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus meets Achilles in the underworld. Achilles tells Odysseus that he “would rather be a serf on the land of a poor man than rule over all the dead.” Socrates argues that this type of attitude will cultivate a fear of death in the minds of young men who read Homer’s Odyssey. This development of cowardice is contrary to Socrates’ goal of training men to “choose death in battle rather than defeat and slavery.”

Next, Socrates turns his attention to the poets’ portrayal of the gods. Again, Socrates finds fault with Homer. Homer depicts the gods’ behavior as capricious, cruel, and petty. Socrates contends that men will find justification for their wickedness in these types of portrayals. If the gods behave in such an unvirtuous manner, then men will not feel ashamed about their own shortcomings and will not pursue a virtuous life. Socrates requires that poets present the gods as models of virtue – models that men desire to imitate; for “imitations, beginning in early youth and continuing far into life, at length grow into habits and become a second nature.”

Like poetry, Socrates regards music as a means by which the State can train its citizens to behave nobly. He believes that only the Phrygian and Dorian harmonies ought to be allowed in the State. These harmonies, or modes, are very similar to the modern natural minor scale. Socrates selects these two harmonies because he considers them conducive to the development of courage in times of war and temperance in times of peace.

After discussing poetry and music, the conversation naturally turns to art. Socrates’ speech about art rises to sublime levels; and therefore, I will simply let him speak. “We would not have our guardians grow up amid images of moral deformity, as in some noxious pasture, and there browse and feed upon many a baneful herb and flower day by day, little by little, until they silently gather a festering mass of corruption in their own soul. Let our artists rather be those who are gifted to discern the true nature of the beautiful and graceful; then will our youth dwell in a land of health, amid fair sights and sounds, and receive the good in everything; and beauty, the effluence of fair works, shall flow into the eye and ear, like a health-giving breeze from a purer region, and insensibly draw the soul from earliest years into likeness and sympathy with the beauty of reason.”

While poetry, music, and art strengthen the mind, physical training strengthens the body. Socrates approves of the adage – “healthy mind, healthy body.” He recognizes that the mind cannot perform properly when the body is sick, and that regular physical exercise wards off many illnesses and enables the body to recover quickly when it suffers an illness. He recommends moderation in exercise, fearing that excessive care for the body at the expense of the cultivation of the mind leads to boorish, coarse, and uncivil behavior. But Socrates reserves his harshest words for those who care nothing for the body. He argues that doctors should not treat those who are indolent and intemperate, but rather allow them to die. “Asclepius is right in that he did not want to lengthen out good-for-nothing lives, or to have weak fathers begetting weaker sons; if a man was not able to live in the ordinary way he had no business to cure him; for such a cure would have been of no use either to himself, or to the State.” This is a jarring notion for those who have been raised in a Judeo-Christian culture, which believes in the sanctity of all human life. However, the ancient Greeks had a moral code vastly different from the Judeo-Christian moral code. The ancient Greek city-state of Sparta routinely practiced infanticide, exposing infants who were deemed unfit. Thus, Socrates’ approval of eugenics is not as radical within an ancient Greek context as a modern reader might expect.

Socrates concludes Book III with what many academics now call ‘the myth of the metals’, or ‘the noble lie’. In order to render citizens happy about their position within the State as a laborer, warrior, or ruler, and to inspire feelings of brotherhood and patriotism, Socrates believes that a myth is required. Socrates’ myth runs thus: “The rulers will teach children that they were formed and fed in the womb of the earth… and so, their country being their mother and also their nurse, they are bound to advise for her good, and to defend her against attacks, and to regard her citizens as children of the earth and their own brothers. Citizens, we shall say to them in our tale, you are brothers, yet God has framed you differently. Some of you have the power of command, and in the composition of these he has mingled gold; others he has made of silver, to be warriors; others again who are to be laborers he has composed of brass and iron.”

Socrates’ myth functions as a religion. It explains the origin of life; it bestows meaning upon the lives of believers by convincing them that they have been made to perform a certain role within the world; and it inspires feelings of fellowship. Despite the truthfulness or falsehood of myths and religions, Socrates clearly believes that societies benefit from a unifying belief system. Whether a society’s belief system is true or false is irrelevant. His attitude is surprising considering that he proclaims to value Truth above all else. In the case of the noble lie, at least, Socrates values the health and security of the State over Truth. Perhaps he realizes that without a stable society, the pursuit of Truth is impossible.

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