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Thursday, 12 January 2012

The Republic, by Plato, Reviewed.

The Death of Socrates
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This classic, in the true sense of the word, was written by Plato some time after the execution of his admired narrator, Socrates, in 399BC. The supposed dramatic setting for the narrative is around 420BC.
Taking the form of a discussion between Socrates and friends, the work is a philosophical treatise founded on the theme of justice. It touches, along the way, many other aspects of life and thought and can be seen to be a foundation stone in the building of Western thought, politics and ideas.
That Plato wrote in an era when slavery was not only accepted but was an everyday normality, and where women were perceived as inferior beings, permeates the text for a modern reader. There are many places where I felt like grabbing the narrator, and his fellow conversationalists, by the metaphorical lapels and shaking them out of their complacency over these two issues. But that is more a reflection of my attitudes about these issues than of the quality of the writing.
I started reading this tome, which requires a good deal of concentration, before Xmas and the season rather interrupted the serious read. But I became determined to finish the book before starting on the editing of the novel I'd written the preceding November (NaNoWriMo challenge for those interested). The reason was that it immediately became clear that The Republic deals with many of the themes I included in my novel and I wanted to see what this seminal work had to say on these ideas.
The ideas expressed are remarkably contemporary in many cases. I was surprised by references to personality, character, political systems and religion that I'd previously considered to be relatively modern. There were times when I completely forgot that this book was written almost 2,500 years ago.
What I found most disturbing, however, were some of the theories and philosophical ideas that have clearly been responsible for the way we think and live today in the Western world. That some of these ideas have been distorted, misunderstood, partially comprehended or, in some cases, deliberately taken out of context, to justify certain modern political decisions became clearer as I read. I understood, for the first time, some of the classical references I've come across in life and many of the underlying reasons for our current way of life became obvious. It's clear that many of our current leaders are steeped in the arguments put forward in this narrative. The teaching of the classics is, of course, fundamental to the education supplied by most private schools. That it isn't generally included in the curricula of state schools is equally clear. I'm not a lover of conspiracy theory, but it's difficult to avoid the conclusion that there has been a deliberate policy of discouraging the reading of such books as this, lest the general populace become aware of what leaders have always known.
It's impossible to do justice to this text in the space of a simple review. I can only suggest that those who have the intellectual stamina and the necessary curiosity about the nature of thought and life read this book. There is much that the modern reader will deplore, disagree with and denigrate. The benefit of living long after the work was completed provides us with a greater understanding of many things that must have been mysteries to Plato and his contemporaries. But the fundamentals of his thesis on politics, rule and the actions of leaders and the general populace are sound.
Those who love the superficial and the easy will find this book indigestible but those who like depth, provocation of the grey cells and stimulus for the imagination and curiosity will find this a singularly rewarding read. I thoroughly recommend it.

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