The Philosopher as Citizen

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The Usefulness of Plato’s Republic to the Philosopher

The topic of this essay is the practical application of reading Plato’s Republic in the life and work of the philosopher. At issue is the extent to which any of the  ideas in Plato’s Republic can help a person become a better philosopher. A philosopher is a lover of wisdom whose role in society is to model the philosophic life – a life lived in harmony with reality.[1] The thesis of this essay is that some of the ideas of Plato’s Republic can help the philosopher fulfill this role in society. Those ideas are his unique theory of justice (443d-e), his qualifications for the true philosopher (485a-487b), and his belief that the just life is superior to the unjust life (347e-354c).[2] The objection that the philosopher requires experience  and reflection in order to acquire wisdom, but not a knowledge of books, is unjustified.

First of all, if Plato’s theory of justice can help the philosopher be a better model bf the philosophic life, then at least one of the ideas in Plato’s Republic is useful to the philosopher. Justice for Plato is an inner harmony of the three parts of the soul wherein reason controls the passions and the appetites (443d-e). In Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature, Hume objected that reason is not and should not control the passions.[3] Hume incorrectly assumes that the passions control reason, for passions such as anger, fear, joy, and sorrow are products of mental interpretations of a situation.

This implies the prior action of the mind to the reactions of the passions, i.e., when one experiences these emotions, one has reasoned that the facts of the situation warranted such a response. Since Plato’s theory of the proper order of the soul is closer to reality than Hume’s theory, an acceptance of Plato’s theory of justice can help the philosopher live more in harmony with reality than Hume’s theory. By living in harmony with reality, the philosopher provides an excellent model of the philosophic life. Thus, at least one of the ideas of Plato’s Republic is useful to the philosopher in fulfilling his role in society.

Second, if Plato’s qualifications for the true philosopher can help the philosophy teacher to model the philosophical life and thus encourage people to adopt the philosophic life, then some of the ideas of Plato’s Republic are useful to the philosopher. At the beginning of Book Six, Plato lists several features of the true philosopher: a lover of truth, moderate, gracious, gentle, well­ balanced, courageous, quick witted, and in possession of a good memory (485c-486d). It is very easy to become concerned with just trying to teach the arguments of the philosopher s to students or readers instead of showing people how to discuss philosophical issues. But, a moderate control of this tendency through the rational questioning of famous philosophical opinions can  nurture the love of wisdom in students and readers. Also, a gentle, gracious, and well-balanced treatment of all sides of an issue while conducting  a philosophical discussion  can  teach people to be fair and open-minded in their own philosophical discussions. Moreover, a quick- witted philosopher encourages people to view the philosophic life as fun and interesting, which, in turn encourages them to adopt the philosophic life. Thus, some of the ideas of Plato’s Republic are useful to the philosopher.[4]

Third, if  Plato’s  belief that the just life is superior to the unjust life (347e-354c) can help the philosopher to be a better model of the philosophic life, then some other ideas of Plato’s Republic can be useful to the philosopher. Plato’s arguments for the superiority of the just life are very persuasive. Plato scholar Gregory Vlastos has noted that the function of something is “the activity in which that thing gets its best chance to realize the excellence (arete) proper to its own specific nature and to contribute to the excellence of other things associated with it.[5]

If the just life of wisdom, courage, and moderation helps the soul achieve its own peculiar excellence better than the unjust life of foolishness, cowardice, and immoderation, then the just life is better than the unjust life. Since common experience teaches us that they do and no other animal is capable of achieving all of these virtues, it follows that the just life is better than the unjust life. Moreover, by achieving (or at least trying to achieve) the just life, the philosopher sets a good example to others. Thus, some of the ideas in Plato’s Republic are useful to the philosopher.

An unjustified objection might be raised that a philosopher does not learn wisdom from books – a philosopher learns wisdom from experience and reflection.[6] Admittedly, a knowledge of Plato’s arguments impedes the process of acquiring wisdom when either his conclusions are accepted as truth without subjecting them to critical questioning or  reading Plato takes the place of experience and critical reflection. However, if his opinions are used as possible answers for perennial philosophical questions, and the individual reader is encouraged to think for herself, then Plato’s opinions do not have to impede the acquisition of wisdom. Moreover, philosophical issues and theories are not new to each new generation; they have been pondered for centuries, and we can learn from past mistakes. Thus, seeking wisdom through either reading books of philosophy like Plato’s Republic or through reflection on experience are not mutually exclusive . That is, people can acquire wisdom from both reading philosophy books and from experience and reflection.

I have shown that some of the ideas in Plato’s Republic are useful to a contemporary philosopher who is trying to live the philosophic life. First, Plato’s unique view of justice that reason ought to control the appetites and passions is closer to reality than Hume’s view that one’s reason is controlled by the passions and  appetites. Second, Plato’s qualification s of fairness and quick wit for genuine philosopher are useful in encouraging people to pursue the philosophic life. Third, common experience confirms that Plato ‘s four virtues of wisdom, courage, moderation and justice are conducive to living a good life for oneself and others. The objection that a philosopher need not read books was refuted by noting that both experience and reading are important in the acquisition of  wisdom. Since these ideas help a philosopher live in harmony with reality, it follows that some of the ideas in Plato’s Republic are useful to the philosopher.

These writing exercises are just some of the ways in which Plato’s Republic can be useful in the improvement of student reasoning abilities. Let’s turn now to how the Republic can be useful in improving students’ sense of personal and civic responsibility.

Moral Responsibility, Citizenship, and the Republic

What is moral responsibility? For purposes of a working definition, let ‘s stipulate that “moral responsibility” means “knowing what one’s duties are and feeling motivated to do them.” There are four kinds of moral responsibility: personal, social, political  and spiritual  responsibility. We have duties not to harm ourselves, our intimates, society at large and the Earth,  because all living beings have an interest in life. Thus, we ought to be (and most of us are) concerned about our own happiness, the happiness of our family and friends, members of our larger communities of neighborhood, city, and nation and finally the happiness of all sentient creatures on Earth. The moral principles underlying these duties are beneficence and non-maleficence (“Do good” and “Do no harm”). In short, when we are discharge these duties, we act in a morally responsible manner.

What is citizenship? Again, let’s begin with a stipulation: “citizenship” means “the dimension of obligations to one’s community. We normally think that citizenship in America is simply based in whether one has been legally born in America or become a naturalized citizen. However, citizenship involves privileges and duties. Privileges in America include the freedoms enunciated in the  U.S. Constitution and duties include obedience to America laws. I would suggest that citizenship goes beyond these duties and privileges to include a sense of community motivated by a sincere sense of good-will to every other citizen, because each of us is dependent on the contribution of others to our own well-being.

A study of the nature of citizenship is especially vital today. American individualism, as expressed in  the  strong belief in free enterprise and individual rights, discourages a sense of community. But without a sense of community crime, alienation, and superficiality increases. By focusing on Plato’s Republic, students will see how a community is structured for the well-being of all, and they will have the opportunity to consider how the excellence of the whole is dependent on the excellent functioning of the parts. Also, they will see a man, Socrates, who dedicated his life in service to the community. In so doing, students will perhaps mature from their narrow and selfish concerns to a more realistic and liberal concern for the community.

In  general, there is  a justifiable interest and need for moral education in the curriculum. If education, by definition, is the process whereby teachers help students cultivate their abilities, then inasmuch as moral and civic virtue are abilities, it follows that educators have a duty to cultivate them. Some educators might object that the schools are already overburdened with teaching other subjects, and because of the possibility of indoctrination moral education is best left to the family or church. However, since one of the historical functions of American schools has been to prepare students for life, and moral and civic responsibility are crucial dimensions of life, teachers need to work with students on the nature of their moral and civic lives. Regardless, teachers already engage in moral education when they prohibit cheating and civic education when they encourage them to vote. Also, the problem about indoctrination can be avoided by infusing critical thinking skills in moral instruction.

Leading experts in education theory recommend the teaching of ethics in the schools . Daniel Callahan and Sissela Bok released a report from The Hastings Center in 1979 entitled The Teaching of Ethics in Higher Education in which they offered some guidelines for ethics courses that included   the teaching of personal responsibility.[7] The five goals are: (1) stimulating the moral imagination; (2)  recognizing ethical issues; (3) developing analytical skills; (4) eliciting a sense of moral obligation and personal responsibility, and (5) tolerating-and resisting-disagreement and ambiguity.[8]  Callahan and Bok note that personal responsibility presupposes freedom and a sense of the seriousness of morality. Indeed, the concept of responsibility makes no sense without freedom and a sense of the importance of morality. If one is not free to choose what to do, then one cannot be held responsible for one’s actions. Moreover, since the function of morality is to aid society in achieving its conception of the good life, then knowing and doing one’s duties is vital to society. Thus, cultivating moral and civic virtues should be part of the curriculum.

A pursuit of the other four goals, as outlined by the Hastings Center study, are essential to achieving a sense of moral responsibility and service to the community.

First of all, “stimulating the moral imagination” means that teachers must seek to evoke a sense of the anguish of moral dilemmas and an appreciation that actual moral decisions have consequences for the happiness and sorrow of real people. This emotional dimension of ethical instruction can encourage a sense of community by enabling students  to  empathize with others,  which  should  lead  to a commitment to community service. Emotional identification with others (empathy) awakens the sense moral responsibility and community service by concretely experiencing human inter­ connectedness in community.

Second, recognizing ethical issues is a relevant and material skill that must be cultivated before a sense of moral responsibility and citizenship in a community can be cultivated. Recognizing ethical issues involves the rational articulation of the felt injustice, for example, in the violation of the duty to do no harm. What moral rule has been broken? Being physically harmed by a defective product or being emotionally harmed by a date rape, for example, result in feelings of injustice. However, without a clear verbal articulation of the ethical issue in a situation, the injured party’s emotions of anger and sorrow may lead to breaking the very same moral rule, and thus be guilty of the very same moral wrong. In this way, learning to quiet one’s emotions and formulate the moral issue in a situation leads to the moral sensitivity necessary  for community service.

Third, developing an ability to tolerate and resist disagreement and ambiguity can also foster a sense of moral responsibility. A lack of  agreement and certainty are inevitable in ethical discussions, for there is no universally agreed upon decision procedure, or algorithm, for deciding all moral dilemmas, like there is in algebra or trigonometry. Some people appeal to the law, others to God, and still others to rational self-interest or the principle of social utility. These fundamental appeals do not always support the same conclusion. Callahan and Bok recommend that ways be found to sort out the source and kinds of disagreement between people and that attempts be made to narrow the range of disagreement by finding points of agreement, both factual and moral. In doing this, one affirms the importance of human relationships, and thereby cultivates a sense of moral responsibility.

The last goal of Hastings Study is the development of analytical skills. Analytical skills include the abilities to clarify concepts, to identify assumptions and consequences, and to construct and evaluate the strength of arguments in support of alternative courses of action. Clarifying concepts and identifying assumptions are crucial skills in reducing disagreement and ambiguity. Identifying consequences is an essential skill in learning to empathize with others, for it helps students see the possible and potentially serious results of their moral choices. Moreover, learning to construct and evaluate rationally convincing arguments helps students identify issues and take responsibility for their actions by demanding that they rationally justify their decisions. Thus, analytical skills enable the student to achieve the other four goals of moral instruction.

Plato’s Republic can be used in the core curriculum to help in moral instruction. Someone might object that the Republic cannot be used for moral instruction inasmuch as the Socrates of the “Meno” did not think that moral virtue could be taught since nobody was able to provide an adequate definition of “moral virtue.11 Socrates did not always think this way, for the Socrates of the Republic (Book Four (443ds)) argued for a conception of justice (moral virtue) he considered to be adequate. However, even if we do not know precisely what moral virtue is, it does not follow that we cannot begin with a provisional definition of it. The realization of moral values is so important that we must begin somewhere, otherwise, moral chaos or moral harm may result. If the concept proves to be counter-productive in realizing moral values such as responsibility and respect, then a new definition can be sought. At any rate, the important thing in moral education is not moral knowledge, for that could involve indoctrination or mere verbal fluency with moral  language.

The important  goal  is morally sensitive action. Let us, then, stipulate that “moral virtue” means “the ability to take responsibility for one’s actions through empathizing with others, being sensitive to moral issues, and using analytical skills to tolerate and reduce disagreements and ambiguity in moral discussions.” Plato’s Republic is ideally suited to help reach these five goals of the Hastings Center for higher education instruction in ethics.

First of all, the main issue of the book is whether or not the moral life is superior to the immoral life, even if the moral person is not known to be moral, or is even thought to be immoral. This is an issue all human beings must face, especially younger college students who are planning their lives and forming their personal philosophies. Will you do what is morally wrong if it is to your advantage and nobody will catch you? The general American public is tired of professional people answering yes to this question. If the student can experience the significance of moral decisions in terms of their impact on the feelings of others, Plato’s Republic will help to cultivate moral excellence, however “moral excellence” is to be defined. Sub-issues in the Republic involve how to improve education and government, how to organize the family and state, and how to understand the role of the arts in a good human life. Social arrangements are not absolute; human beings organized their social institutions, and human beings can change them if they choose to do so. Since these are social issues, a sensitivity to them can deepen a student’s sense of belonging to something larger than themselves, which, in turn, ought to awaken their commitment to community service. Also, Plato’s Republic offers Socrates’ conception of the ideal way to structure society, which gives students the opportunity to discuss their natural sense of ethical idealism about communities.

Second, Socrates gives the students an excellent example of someone using analytical skills in reducing moral disagreement and conceptual ambiguity. Instead of simply stating his opinions and trying to intimidate others to accept them, he uses arguments to support his contention that the moral life is superior to the immoral life. His arguments at the end of Book One and Book Ten are based in the practical and eternal consequences of both lifestyles respectively and from the intrinsic worth of justice in the soul in Book Four. Furthermore, by eliciting and rejecting inadequate definitions in Book One from Cephalus, Polemarchus, and Thrasymachus, Socrates helps clarify our conception of justice.39 By the end of Book Four, Socrates has convinced Adeimantus and Glaucon of the adequacy and utility of his conceptions of justice as the harmony of the soul. Even though Socrates fails to convince Thrasymachus, Socrates remains cool, calm, and collected while Thrasymachus ridicules him (343a). Socrates’ devotion to the rational approach in moral discussion provide an excellent model for students, for sometimes it is successful at reducing moral disagreement and ambiguity, but when it is not successful it enables one to calmly tolerate disagreement and ambiguity.

Third, the Republic is an excellent source for learning moral and civic responsibility. A major message of the Republic seems to me to be contained in the famous saying from Book Five (473d) that the ills of society will continue until philosophers become kings or kings become philosophers. In a democracy that means that all of us ought to be concerned with how to solve the problems of society. Socrates and his interlocutors spent their time discussing social problems such as the nature of morality and its relation to the arts. The serious tone of the Republic suggests that they thought responsible human beings would be concerned about things like this. Some scholars even think that Plato established his academy as a school for statesmen.[9]

Of course, Socrates think that political power and wisdom should be united in men and women who have survived a long and rigorous process of education, which many scholars have rejected. However, the point of the Republic is not so much the truth or falsity of Socrates’ solution to social problems as it is the message that we all ought to feel a sense of responsibility and respect for how we live our lives and how we organize and live in our social institutions of the family, school, and government. Our present and eternal happiness depend on it.

Good citizenship can be enhanced by reading Plato’s Republic. First of all, since the Greek word “politeia” can be translated as citizenship, the main subject of the work is citizenship. Second, even though Plato separates the classes in the community, the members of each class experience a sense of togetherness and are motivated by service to the community. The guardians and auxiliaries see themselves as  brothers  and sisters, and the producers  willingly obey the laws the guardians make because they believe they are designed for the well-being of the whole city (419e).

Most importantly, though, the communal motivation behind Plato’s idea of the philosopher-king and queen could inspire a change in American politics if partially adopted by American citizens. Contrary to popular opinion, the philosopher-king and queen are not benevolent dictators; they are moral individuals who selflessly strive for the well-being of the comm unity as a whole. Reflection on this concept could be very useful in cultivating a new kind of citizenship that turns from a focus on selfish concerns to a concern for others. Moreover, the natural outgrowth of moral education should be service to the community, for morality is inherently other-regarding. Clearly service to the community is a pressing need in view of our huge, mobile, and impersonal society, and much of the new education reforms in America focus on developing a commitment to community service.[10]

In addition, since according to psychologist Abraham Maslow, all of us have a need for a sense of belonging and togetherness, a human need exists to cultivate the civic lives of our students. But, progress in civic virtue has to be predicated on an awareness of our inter-dependence, which Plato’s Republic makes clear in its analogy of the parts of the community to the parts of the soul and in its theory of justice as the harmony of those parts. So, when our citizens view themselves as intimately inter-connected, perhaps then they will be motivated to give back to their communities what they have received from them rather than just take from them.

In short, I have shown that Plato’s Republic provides an excellent opportunity for working on achieving some of the goals of the core curriculum. Learned societies such as the American Philosophical Association, the Carnegie Center for Teaching Excellence, and the Hastings Center for the study of Ethics have suggested pedagogical goals such as the cultivation of critical thinking skills, a cultivation of people with a set of integrated ideas about nature and human life, and the cultivation of morally responsible and caring citizens. A detailed analysis, interpretation, and evaluation of Plato’s Republic through an application of principles of critical thinking, reading, writing, speaking, and listening can help reach these goals. Let’s begin our pursuit of those goals by turning to Book One.



[1] Different philosophers of life from Epicurus to Aurelius taught that philosophers should live in harmony with nature (reality).

[2] I will refer to the Stephanie numbers, but the translation that I have in mind is G.M.A. Grube, Plato’s Republic, (Indianapolis, IN:  Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. 1974)

[3] David Hume, Treatise of Human Nature, Ed. L.A. Selby-Bigge, (Oxford:  Clarendon Press, 1965).

[4] Regarding a playful atmosphere in the classroom, Montaigne wrote : “I would have portraits there of Joy and  Gladness, and Flora and the Graces, as the philosopher Speusippus did in his school.” Michel Montainge, “Of the Education of Children,” Essays, trans. Donald M. Frame (New York : Appleton-Century, 1948), 24. Numerous other philosophers such as Rousseau and Russell have recommended a lighthearted and joyous spirit in the classroom.

[5] Gregory Vlastos, “Justice and Happiness in the Republic,” Modern studies in Plato: Ethics, Politics, and Philosophy of Art and Religion, Ed. Gregory Vlastos, (New York: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1971), 70.

[6] Mystics have always criticized the scholastic approach to wisdom. See Idries Shah, The Sufis (New York: Doubleday, 1964), “The Subtleties of Mulla Nasrudin,” 63-111. Also, none of the founders of the great religions of the past were pedants.

[7] Daniel Callahan and Sissela Bok, The Teaching of Ethics in Higher Education: A Report by The Hastings Center, (Hastings-on­ Hudson, N.Y. , 1979). There is considerable interest in teaching moral responsibility in the  primary and secondary schools. Thomas Lickona, in “Educating the Moral Child,” The Education Digest September/1989:45-47. Professor Lickona even reports that a recent Gallop  study indicates that 80 percent of American parents want the primary and secondary schools to teach moral values.

[8] Ibid. 48-51.

[9] Allan Bloom makes this point in his “Interpretive Essay,” that accompanies his translation of Plato’s Republic, 195.

[10] Benjamin Barber, Aristocracy of Everyone: The Politics of Education and the Future of America, (NY: Ballantine Books, 1992). Robert Bellah, Habits of the Heart, (NY: Macmillan, 1985).


Also available are “Plato’s Republic in the Core Curriculum,” “Learning Goals and Teaching Methods for Exploring the Republic,” “Writing Exercises and the Republic,” and “Moral Conduct and Citizenship.”

This excerpt is from Plato’s Republic and the Core Curriculum: Critical Thinking, Moral Education, and Citizenship (University of Lamar Press, 1990)

Jon Avery

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Dr. Jon Avery is a retired lecturer in philosophy and religious studies from Bluegrass Community and Technical College in Lexington, Kentucky and a former secretary-treasurer of the American Association of the Advancement of Core Curriculum. He is also co-author, with Hasan Askari, of Towards a Spiritual Humanism: A Muslim-Humanist Dialogue (Seven Mirrors, 1991), and editor, with Kevin Dodson, of Ways of Knowing: Selected Readings (Kendall Hunt 2000).