Republic Outline X, Book II
Prof. Bill Long 9/9/05
Finishing Book II, 375a-383c
Now that S has introduced us to the guardian class, which at this point is only referred to as the soldiers (later the class of guardians will be divided into rulers and auxiliaries, with auxiliaries being the soldiers of Book II), he will focus on the character of the guardians, the education of the guardians and the so-called "true falsehood" that will be permissible in the kallipolis (382d). This and the next essay will explore these three themes.
1. The Guardians' Character, 375a-376c
The work of the guardians, fighting wars, is "of the greatest importance" (374c) to the kallipolis. Unlike the case in the Roman Republic or many societies since antiquity, Plato believes that there needs to be a soldier class, a professional army, which is culled out of the population by identifying the character of their souls and then training them appropriately. But what is the character of this class? Like a pedigree young dog, a warrior "needs keen sense, speed to catch what it sees, and strength in case it has to fight it out with what it captures" (375a). Such a person must be "spirited" in disposition, which means that he (no female warriors, I am afraid), has to be of "invincible and unbeatable spirit" or "fearless and unconquerable." We know the type: confident, ready to join into combat, given to optimism and a sense of unconquerability.
But a potential danger arises. This kind of lusty, martial spirit might tend to be directed towards one's neighbors or fellow soldiers, and we don't want that to happen. So "surely they must be gentle to their own people and harsh to the enemy" (375c). This causes a bit of a problem for S because of the seeming impossibility of finding people that are both "gentle and high-spirited" at the same time. Aren't these traits contradictory? Then S returns to the illustration of the pedigree dog (376e), who is suspicious of those it doesn't know but fawns over those it does. After a bit of a digression (is it tongue in cheek?) where these dogs are called "philosophical" because they are "lovers of learning" (i.e., they love to recognize those whom they know), he concludes about the guardians:
"Philosophy, spirit, speed, and strength must all, then, be combined in the nature of anyone who is to be a fine and good guardian of our city" (376c).
Let that definition sink in, as it is a very important one for Plato. He will be most interested in this ruling/fighting class, and his (or S's) early thoughts on their nature will be an important anchor for us as we learn more about them later.
The Guardians' Education, 376c-382a
Foundational for their education is "physical training for bodies and music and poetry for the soul" (376e). Music and poetry also include stories, but S hastens to add that the guardians must be nurtured on "true" stories (377a). This emphasis will be extremely important for Plato, and so we should pause on it for a second. The "stories" he has in mind are primarily the myths of Greek gods and heroes mediated by Homer, Hesiod and the other poets and playwrights. To our mind today the question of the "truth or falsity" of these stories is generally secondary to the imaginative quality of them, the beauty of the language, and the way the stories illustrate lessons of life. But Plato wanted to make an important point here. He believes that if stories of gods are narrated where gods are seen as dishonorable, such stories will infect the minds of youth and set a poor moral example for them. As he says:
"You know, don't you, that the beginning of any process is most important, especially for anything young and tender? It's at that time that it is most malleable and takes on any pattern one wishes to impress on it" (377b).
Armed with this insight, S then says two more things. First, "we must..it seems supervise the storytellers. We'll select their stories whenever they are fine or beautiful and reject them when they aren't" (377c). Second, "many of the stories they tell now...must be thrown out" (id.).
S then introduces two "laws" that should implement these principles. First, stories ought to be excised when they "give a bad image of what the gods and heroes are like" (377e). For example, when Hesiod tells us that Ouranos ate his children or that Cronus punished him by castrating him (378a), these stories must be expurgated. What if the stories were true? "But even if it were true, it should be passed over in silence, not told to foolish young people" (378a). Why not? "The young can't distinguish what is allegorical from what isn't, and the opinions they absorb at that age are hard to erase and apt to become unalterable" (378d).
But it isn't for the sake of the children that S makes this argument. He knows that children grow up and eventually become guardians, and he believes that if they have early images in their soul telling them that the gods or heroes do immoral things, they too will begin to hate each other. "We musn't allow any stories about gods warring, fighting, or plotting against one another, for they aren't true" (378c). It seems to me, however, that truth of stories is really not the bottom line for Plato--the purported ability of the story to teach a moral lesson is.
The next essay describes the second "law" of the guardians' education and then probes the concept of the true falsehood.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long