The first part of the Author Sketch for Plato can be read here
Works Under Consideration: The Republic: Books One and Two
Place: Athens, Greece
A mere seven years after Aristophanes daydreamed about a peaceful end to the Peloponnesian War in Lysistrata, Athens found itself facing utter ruin and, ultimately, surrendered to Sparta and her allies in 404 BCE. Stripped of its former glory and wealth, Athens began a slow descent that merely scouted ahead on the route of Greece’s overall decline in importance in relation to world affairs, ceding its sovereignty first to Alexander and later, to Rome.
Herma of Plato, Musei Capitolini, Rome
taken by Ricardo André Frantz
This is the Athens in which Plato would write his works; still benefiting from the concentration of learning and inquiry present in the first decades after the fall but marginalized by the ever-escalating tensions and complexities of civilization as it waded into every inlet and onto every isthmus of the Mediterranean.
Yet, even as its fortunes in world affairs begin to diminish, Greece would remain a dominant force in culture for centuries to come. Around 385 BCE, Plato founded a school just outside of Athens in a place sacred to Athena and, in so doing, laid the foundation for The Great Conversation to truly develop beyond its mostly Greek origins. The final incarnation of the Academy would not be shuttered until nearly 800 years later, having attracted minds from all over the known world in pursuit of knowledge.
Plato’s trilogy about the trial and execution of Socrates (comprised of Apology, Crito, and Phaedo) are among his earliest and most accessible works. Perhaps it is for this reason that Plato is often read (or misread) as merely the ideas of Socrates, an oral teacher, into writing. Of course, Plato doesn’t discourage this notion by using Socrates, as a character, at the core of his most widely read works including the one under discussion here, The Republic. This device, however, should not tempt us into overlooking at least two other streams important to Plato’s contribution to the Great Conversation.
The Republic is, at its simplest, an attempt to use philosophy as the means to discover the best ways for humanity to govern itself. While Plato no doubt drew upon the teachings of Socrates, most notably in his method of inquiry, he was not, as it turns out, the first person to try this sort of thing. For that honor, we must turn to the first philosopher, Pythagoras who, himself, founded a school of learning that outlived him by several centuries and, indeed, used the principles of his philosophy to intervene into politics with somewhat disastrous results. Because Pythagoras, like Socrates after him, also insisted on the primacy of oral teaching but did not, like Socrates, have someone like Plato to write some of his ideas down after his death, history offers very little credible information about what exactly Pythagoras himself may have believed or taught. His influence must be reverse-engineered from the transmission of that influence through the course of ancient philosophy until it runs, smack dab, into Plato in the early 4th century BCE.
There is every reason, however, to suspect that, in his time, Plato was perceived as a Pythagorean and his writing was read in context of that tradition. The Republic, in this sense, can be seen as Plato, still devastated from the loss of his teacher and the defeat of his city, returning to first principles and working out the fundamental relationships between people and the city-nation-states that develop in their massing just as Pythagoras had before him.
Their efforts are differentiated (as Plato and Socrates are differentiated) by the contrast between abstract philosophical inquiry, captured for posterity in the act of writing, and applied philosophical inquiry, as practiced by Socrates and Pythagoras that would ultimately get them both killed. The third important influence within the Republic is that of Plato himself, having seen the dangers in the applied school of political philosophy in action and deciding that there had to be a better way. While it may be nigh impossible to truly parse what ideas belonged first to whom, it is in this melding of three minds that we see the potential for the Great Conversation develop and, ultimately, blossom into something unlike anything that world had ever known.