Guus Bosman

software engineering director

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This was the first time I read a book by Plato. Throughout the years I've read about his ideas, about Forms and the Allegory of the Cave, but I'd never read his actual work -- I was always intimidated! Well, now I'm on my Gutenberg reading spree, he was next in line. It turns out that Republic was quite readable, in a good translation and with great introductions by Melissane Lane in the Penguin Classics series.

So how does one review Plato? Obviously, this was a very smart man, as was Socrates who this book is essentially about. Thinking through these things as he did, 2,500 years ago, was a huge achievement and it is very special to read his work. That said, by modern standards it is quite lacking -- which is of course the result of more than two thousand year of education and progress.

First off, the morality of Socrates is pretty awful. His ideal city includes infanticide, a rigid cast system, pedophilia and many other things that are morally reprehensible. Some reviewers of The Republic think that the proposals are not meant to take literally, they are more of a study -- but I'm not too sure about that.

Another thing that bothers me is the shoddy logic, the fuzzy reasoning with analogies. "So if the individual is like a city, and we have seen that the city has 3 independent components, it is reasonable that the individual will also have 3 individual components". Anyway, I won't nitpick the book like that because it is very special to get a feeling for people's minds all those ages ago.

It's interesting how Plato describes education for his Guardians should be. He says that stories told to future Guardians should describe God a certain way, and the afterlife. He thinks that by only allowing certain viewpoints in books, he can influence the Guardians behavior. A rather quaint idea but one that gets repeated through the ages: "kids shouldn't read bad books", haha.

The dialogues are fun to follow and lighten up the book. At some point they are chasing a thought and they all pretend it's a physical race: "I think we are on the track, and our quarry won't altogether escape us.". At times the participants are obsequious to Socrates, agreeing with everything he says, but every now and then they challenge him which make the story interesting to follow.

In discussing who should rule the city -- surprisingly, the philosophers agree that the philosophers should rule the city -- I'm very much reminded of technologists today. I bet if Plato lived in 2020 he'd be a software engineer, quite good at what he does but viewing the entire world through a narrow prism. He writes about the perfect philosopher: "His eyes are turned to contemplate fixed and immutable realities, a realm where there is no injustice done or suffered, but all is reason and order [...]" (Republic, 500c). This love of reason and order seems important to understanding Plato's mindset and character.

Aside from the political parts, the division of Knowledge into various components or levels was interesting but internally inconsistent and not particularly enlightening.

It was very special to read this book, skepticism about someone from so long ago hardly is fair and this was a very interesting experience.


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