Plato’s Wayward Path: Literary Form and the Republic

  Schur, David. 2015. Plato's Wayward Path: Literary Form and the Republic. Hellenic Studies Series 66. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.

5. Digressing toward a Possible Regime

Although the basic trajectory of the Republic could certainly be understood in other ways, one can see the conversation rising from the Piraeus (in the wake of a spectacular event), moving through ideal political regimes and ascending to a high point of theoretical discussion in the middle, and then returning back down through degenerate regimes toward a vision of the afterlife. The conversation gradually becomes a self-conscious investigation of justice, and then it reaches a zenith when Socrates identifies the Good as the highest object of knowledge. Socrates proclaims the knowledge of this ideal to be a precondition of philosophical engagement in political planning and ruling; and indeed, such knowledge is imagined as an educational precondition of philosophy itself.

But if the Good is introduced in the conversation as a profound ideal that should be pursued in education, so that it may be said to guide the ideal ruler of the ideal city-state, Socrates passes up the opportunity to account for the Good directly. As at other moments in the conversation, Socrates is here reluctant to keep talking about something difficult to address, but when it comes to the Good, he defers discussion of it indefinitely. By talking about the sun instead of the Good, Socrates takes a detour from which the conversation will never return. On the one hand, this conversation designed by Plato is an illuminating discussion of profound topics, and whatever else the text may do, it does shed light on these difficult and elusive issues. On the other hand, where we might expect the conversation to reach certain conclusions, it features talk about reaching them instead. In this sense, the book reaches a methodological nadir at its approximate center: it describes method as approximation. It may seem churlish to complain about the missing Good when Socrates gives us so much to think about, but within the framework of conversation led by Socrates, the Good is not just emphatically avoided but also crucially important. And while it is obvious that the Good is missing from the conversation, this chapter and the next do not critique the argument so much as consider examples of how evasive methodological rhetoric functions in the text. This chapter focuses on the development of an ideal regime, and the next one considers the place of the Good in the sequence of Sun, Divided Line, and Cave.

Questions of Procedure

In Book 2, after listening to arguments by Glaucon and Adeimantus, who have been extolling injustice for the sake of argument, Socrates agrees to defend justice on the condition that the conversation adopt a particular methodical approach: to look for justice (and injustice) in the city-state, where its greater magnitude will make it easier to see than in the individual (368b–369b). My concern here is not whether an equivalence between justice in the individual and in the state is a logically valid premise. Let us note instead that it is a premise whose function belongs to a fundamental trend in the discussion overall: nonasserted arguments are entertained for the sake of furthering the discussion, particularly in order to overcome difficulties. Hypotheses or suppositions for which no one claims any certainty are frequently accepted as grounds for extensive discussion. Elaborate theories are thus built on foundations acknowledged as uncertain and accepted only conditionally. The conversation in the Republic regularly relies on conventions of rational agreement—the conversation is not an aimless free-for-all—but while doing so it thrives on claims that are permeated by disclaimers. In the Republic, heuristic conversation tends to move forward by turning aside.

But if Plato is a structurally and rhetorically distant source or origin of what is reported in Socrates’ narrative as having been said by speakers in Socrates’ narrative, the narrative introduces a comparable distance in the form of a gap between the seekers and their goals. When Socrates proposes his innovation in method to his fellow talkers, he first remarks that their powers of sight are inadequate to the task of seeking something like justice, something that is both very abstract and very important. (I presume that Socrates is here acknowledging a widespread weakness of human cognition generally.)

In the passage that shifts attention from individual to city-state (368b-369b), Socrates explicitly, and tentatively, establishes a methodological version of heuristic conversation. It is a procedure of “seeking” (zētēsis, 368d) a “sought object” (zētēma, 368c), fundamentally visual in its conceptual vocabulary, and hinging on a possible “resemblance” (homoiotēs, 369a) between the city-state and the individual. [2] Socrates introduces this method of comparison by making a hypothetical comparison: looking for justice in the city (which might be like the individual) might be like reading a text with big print. The comparison with reading is further complicated because it contains an imaginary scenario, a hypothetical (and in this instance contrafactual) condition: “If someone had ordered men who don’t see very sharply to read little letters from a distance [porrōthen],” the readers would gladly start by reading a larger version of the same letters—“if they happen to be the same” (εἰ προσέταξέ τις γράμματα σμικρὰ πόρρωθεν ἀναγνῶναι μὴ πάνυ ὀξὺ βλέπουσιν … εἰ τὰ αὐτὰ ὄντα τυγχάνει, 368d). Although perhaps not unusual for Plato’s Socrates, the verbal convolutions here are otherwise extraordinary: justice in the individual is nested in the city-state like a subset in a set; the likeness between city-state and individual is nested in a likeness between seeking and reading, which in turn derives (rhetorically) from an imaginary, conditional situation; and the hypothetical situation is a theoretical, metavisual, and metatextual image of perspectival distance in the process of reading. We are reading about readers reading, and we are speculating about methods of speculation by looking at images of looking, using a possible resemblance in order to entertain a possible method of looking.

Even Socrates’ proposal in response to the inadequacy of sight is a retrospective, corrective disclaimer: the best procedure for seeking justice and injustice may be different from what he and the others have been following. This disclaimer is itself qualified; Socrates uses qualifying expressions such as “it appears [phainetai] to me” and “it seems to me [dokō]” (368d); “perhaps” (isōs) and “if you wish” (368e); and hortatory verb forms of invitation: “let us seek” (zētēsōmen) and then “let us examine” (episkepsōmetha) at 369a.

In looking at the methodological exchange between Socrates and Adeimantus, we may also revisit a future-less-vivid condition touched on in chapter 3. A question of procedure, based on a conditional premise, becomes a chain of theoretical argument:

ἆρ᾽ οὖν, ἦν δ’ ἐγώ, εἰ γιγνομένην πόλιν θεασαίμεθα λόγῳ, καὶ τὴν δικαιοσύνην αὐτῆς ἴδοιμεν ἂν γιγνομένην καὶ τὴν ἀδικίαν;

τάχ’ ἄν, ἦ δ’ ὅς.

οὐκοῦν γενομένου αὐτοῦ ἐλπὶς εὐπετέστερον ἰδεῖνζητοῦμεν;

πολύ γε.

“If we should watch [theasaimetha] a city-state coming into being in discourse,” I said, “would we also see [idoimen] its justice coming into being, and its injustice?”

“Probably,” he said.

“When this has been done, there is hope [elpis] of seeing [idein] what we’re seeking [zētoumen] more easily?”

“Far more easily.”


Here the hope held out by the second question depends on our accepting the conditional statement (if we should watch that, we would see this) posed in the first question. The second question functions much like the first: if we see that, then there is hope of seeing this. The argument confirms the theoretical (intellectually visual) underpinnings of the proposed approach, and we may recall that the modern notion of theory derives from the Greek verb theaomai ‘to watch’. Socrates’ appeal to ease may also be read as a gesture of compromise. Here we may compare a saying quoted by Glaucon later in the dialogue during a consideration of method and path: “The fine things are difficult [khalepa].” [
3] This crucial step in the conversation remains open to doubt and may also be a shortcut, capitulating to the difficulty of investigating this important topic.

The Short Path to a Definition

Perhaps the most prominent and sustained focus of the conversation recounted by Socrates is the topic of justice, which in turn leads to that of political organization, which leads to education, which can result in a philosopher-ruler, on whom the possibility of a just politeia would depend. Justice thus serves as both a starting point and a goal. As a quality achieved at the pinnacle of philosophical education, justice is a goal. At the same time, neither a just politeia nor an adequate educational curriculum can rightly be developed without first understanding justice, and that will require an understanding of the Good. The conversation makes repeated attempts to design a just regime for a city-state. The first try is compared to a city of pigs (372d), and the second plan, later complemented by a description of degenerate regimes, gives way to the need for radical social and educational changes.

A definition of justice is nevertheless reached in Book 4 (443b–444a), and this definition seems generally to be accepted by scholars as a solid achievement and a proposition asserted by Plato in the Republic. Before moving through some passages concerning the planning of an ideal city-state, let us take a closer look at how Socrates articulates the definition. After looking for four virtues in the city-state and finally finding a version of justice there, Socrates hesitates to claim victory until, in accordance with the method of reading large letters, justice has also been found in the individual. [4] Before this can be done, Socrates yet again halts for a major methodological concern, because the conversation must determine whether the human soul is indeed structured like a city-state (434d–435d). Glaucon agrees about the seriousness of this problem, and this is when he notes that “fine things are difficult [khalepa]” (χαλεπὰ τὰ καλά, 435c). Socrates wonders whether they should take a shortcut:

ὡς ἡ ἐμὴ δόξα, ἀκριβῶς μὲν τοῦτο ἐκ τοιούτων μεθόδων, οἵαις νῦν ἐν τοῖς λόγοις χρώμεθα, οὐ μή ποτε λάβωμεν—ἄλλη γὰρ μακροτέρα καὶ πλείων ὁδὸς ἡ ἐπὶ τοῦτο ἄγουσα —ἴσως μέντοι τῶν γε προειρημένων τε καὶ προεσκεμμένων ἀξίως.

“In my opinion, we’ll never get a precise grasp of it on the basis of procedures [methodōn] such as we’re now using in the argument [logos]. There is another longer [makrotera] and further road [hodos] leading [agousa] to it. But perhaps we can do it in a way worthy of what’s been said and considered before.”


By taking this shortcut, the speakers clearly make a compromise, and Socrates will later refer back to this decision (504b, 504c; discussed below). The detour here is a turn away from the longer path, and the shorter path of method is preferred because it is easier; it keeps the conversation going, but it is another deviation from the best path.

Although there is agreement in the conversation regarding the resulting definition of justice (which describes justice as a harmonious disposition of the soul), Socrates consistently qualifies his commitment to it, and he sums up his attitude in a peculiar exchange with Glaucon:

εἶεν, ἦν δ’ ἐγώ: τὸν μὲν δίκαιον καὶ ἄνδρα καὶ πόλιν καὶ δικαιοσύνην, ὃ τυγχάνει ἐν αὐτοῖς ὄν, εἰ φαῖμεν ηὑρηκέναι, οὐκ ἂν πάνυ τι οἶμαι δόξαιμεν ψεύδεσθαι.

μὰ Δία οὐ μέντοι, ἔφη.

φῶμεν ἄρα;


“All right,” I said. “If we should assert [phaimen] that we have found [hēurēkenai] the just man and city and what justice really is in them, I don’t suppose we would seem [doxaimen] to be telling an utter lie.”

“By Zeus, no indeed,” he said.

“Let’s assert [phōmen] it then?”

“Let’s assert it.”


Instead of declaring that justice has been found, Socrates makes a hyperbolically indirect and metaconversational observation that functions as a question. He begins with a future-less-vivid condition about making an assertion. The second half of the conditional statement (the then-clause) is a negative conjecture (“I don’t suppose”) about possibly seeming to say something exaggeratedly wrong. On the basis of this fantastically noncommittal utterance, Socrates and Glaucon agree, using hortatory subjunctives (“let us assert”), to assert something. But that is the extent of their eureka moment: instead of asserting—they talk about asserting it. With a third-person imperative—“so be it”—Socrates is ready to move on, even though he is also about to embark on his greatest detour.

Socrates’ Great Detour

When Socrates finally addresses the problem of possibility at length, he makes a methodological point about the difference between word and deed, asking his companions to accept that their politeia should be understood as a paradeigma ‘model, pattern’ that does not even need to be feasible in practice (471a–473a, 592a–b). And the account of the politeia is a kind of thematic statement (not asserted by the author), made by speakers (characters) who themselves expressly back away from asserting its reality. Socrates invokes the model as an explicitly evasive maneuver.

At the beginning of Book 5, Socrates is once again pushed by the others to elaborate on difficult topics when he sees himself reaching a conclusion of sorts. [8] In particular, Adeimantus and the others want more details about the treatment of women and children in the political state that the conversationalists have been imagining, and this is a thorny topic in part because of its radical departure from Greek cultural conventions. Under considerable teasing pressure, Socrates protests:

οἷον, ἦν δ’ ἐγώ, εἰργάσασθε ἐπιλαβόμενοί μου. ὅσον λόγον πάλιν, ὥσπερ ἐξ ἀρχῆς, κινεῖτε περὶ τῆς πολιτείας: ἣν ὡς ἤδη διεληλυθὼς ἔγω γε ἔχαιρον, ἀγαπῶν εἴ τις ἐάσοι ταῦτα ἀποδεξάμενος ὡς τότε ἐρρήθη. ἃ νῦν ὑμεῖς παρακαλοῦντες.

“Think of how much discussion [logon] about the state you are setting in motion [kineite] again as if we were starting from the beginning. And to think how pleased I was myself at how much we had already gone through [dielēluthōs] and delighted if anyone accepted what was said at that point and allowed it to stand.”


I draw attention to the verbs kineō ‘to set in motion’ and dierkhomai ‘to go through’, which characterize the conversation as a dynamic movement that is being forced to continue. The word dierkhomai (which can also mean ‘to pass through, complete’) is often used (in a perfectly ordinary manner) in the Republic to describe the movement of the discussion, the participants having traveled through topics by means of words.

At the prospect of going back to a beginning, Socrates worries that the discussion may get too long, but Glaucon gushes that thoughtful people would be willing to spend their whole lives listening to such a discussion (450b). Even though Glaucon is telling him to proceed without worrying, Socrates remains apprehensive:

οὐ ῥᾴδιον, ὦ εὔδαιμον, ἦν δ’ ἐγώ, διελθεῖν: πολλὰς γὰρ ἀπιστίας ἔχει ἔτι μᾶλλον τῶν ἔμπροσθεν ὧν διήλθομεν. καὶ γὰρ ὡς δυνατὰ λέγεται, ἀπιστοῖτ᾽ ἄν, καὶ εἰ ὅτι μάλιστα γένοιτο, ὡς ἄριστ᾽ ἂν εἴη ταῦτα, καὶ ταύτῃ ἀπιστήσεται. διὸ δὴ καὶ ὄκνος τις αὐτῶν ἅπτεσθαι, μὴ εὐχὴ δοκῇ εἶναι ὁ λόγος, ὦ φίλε ἑταῖρε.

“It isn’t easy to go through [dielthein], my dear fellow,” I said. “It admits of many doubts: even more than the matters we went through [diēlthomen] before. For one might doubt [apistoite] the things we are proposing are possible, and even if they were actually to turn out to be so, even here there might be doubt [apistēsetai] as to whether they would be for the best. For this reason I feel a certain reluctance to touch on these matters in case the discourse [logos] might seem [dokēi] like wishful thinking, my friend.”


Here we can observe complicated elements of qualification in Socrates’ hesitation, when the difficulty of explaining difficulties is aggravated by doubt. Socrates has not just a quantity of separate doubts but an accumulation of doubts in which some are subordinated to others. “It isn’t easy to go through” here presumably conveys the (metaconversational) difficulty of explaining the controversial conditions for women, children, and guardians in the politeia; but these are also doubts about continuing the conversation and about explaining the doubts. The second occurrence of dierkhomai, in the phrase “matters we went through before,” evidently refers to the subject matter of the discussion, casting doubt on earlier stages of the conversation and thus calling the discussion’s cumulative chain of argumentation into question. The two uses of the same verb in close proximity give a microcosmic view of the dialogue’s self-reflective preoccupation with method; the idea of verbal movement draws a parallel between the verbal articulation of current metaconversational difficulties and an earlier part of the conversation into which these difficulties are being projected back, rhetorically, and in which they are embedded. This digressive pause in the conversation is in fact no less a part of the overall conversation (or of the overall design of the Republic) for being self-reflective.

The ensuing series of doubts, which Socrates raises impersonally, as though they might be raised by an unidentified doubter, is perhaps an even more characteristic example of Socratic rhetoric (in the Republic, at least). Far from directly addressing reality himself, Socrates wonders whether someone else might potentially doubt whether these newer proposals for the imagined politeia would be possible. This possible doubting of possibility is then the condition for the potential question as to whether the innovations would be beneficial. And finally, as a result of these imaginable doubtings, Socrates wonders whether the discussion itself could end up so far from reality that no one would take it seriously. In this stacking of conditional statements, subsequent conditions are rhetorically subordinated to previous ones, with modal verb forms (optatives and a subjunctive) at each step taking the discourse even further from certitude.

Undaunted by this cascade of doubt, Glaucon tells Socrates not to hesitate, because his listeners are ready and willing to hear more. But this only makes Socrates more anxious, sending him into a lengthy explanation of his self-doubt; he says he is comfortable speaking “when I believe [pisteuontos] myself that I know what I am talking about [ha legō]” (πιστεύοντος μὲν γὰρ ἐμοῦ ἐμοὶ εἰδέναι ἃ λέγω, 450d). But when he is “doubting [apistounta], and at the same time seeking [zētounta] to express myself [logous poieisthai]” (ἀπιστοῦντα δὲ καὶ ζητοῦντα ἅμα τοὺς λόγους ποιεῖσθαι, 450e), like right now, he runs into trouble. Socrates here uses the same verb (apisteō ‘to disbelieve, distrust, doubt’) that he used above when describing the hypothetical doubts that someone might have regarding their conversation. Those doubts have now joined his own, and he is threatening to bring the conversation to a standstill—but instead of bringing conclusive completeness, the standstill is a pileup of uncertainty, to the point where Socrates is now reflecting generally about his uncertainties rather than about this specific conversation, let alone the politeia.

By claiming to be extremely unsure of himself as a knower and a speaker, Socrates does not disavow knowledge so much as make no claims to it. And Socrates’ disclaimers not only concern knowledge in itself—knowledge about good policies for an ideal state; they also distance him from knowledge about his own knowledge (knowledge of himself) and from the knowledge needed for proper verbal expression. The Greek expression ha legō clearly denotes “what I am talking about,” referring to the subject matter for discussion, but Socrates’ search for the right words (logoi) reinforces the more literal sense: “what I am saying.” Either way, Socrates’ own words put reflexive emphasis on the difficulty of finding the right language for investigation and explanation. Indeed, the verb zēteō ‘to seek’ is here turned away from the supposed goals of the investigation and back toward the use of language, suggesting how involute the procedure of investigation can become in its self-reflection.

Before allowing himself to be pressed into explaining the treatment of women and children in the politeia, and the education of the state’s guardians, Socrates describes a feared situation in which

ἀλλὰ μὴ σφαλεὶς τῆς ἀληθείας οὐ μόνον αὐτὸς ἀλλὰ καὶ τοὺς φίλους συνεπισπασάμενος κείσομαι περὶ ἃ ἥκιστα δεῖ σφάλλεσθαι.

“not only tripping up regarding the truth myself, I will lie prostrate, having also dragged my friends with me concerning things about which one ought least to trip up.”


Whether this dramatic picture of Socrates and friends tumbling into error is tragic, comic, or both, one might compare it with the scenario of the cave as a descent toward death and murder, because Socrates rounds out this volley of doubts by declaring he would rather commit involuntary manslaughter than mislead his friends in a discussion of important topics. Be that as it may, the imagery of tripping, lying down, and dragging participates in a network of metaphors frequently used in Plato, in Greek, and in general to describe methodical movement. The prospect of tripping and falling in the pursuit of truth, viewed as murder of a sort, is a rhetorically forceful articulation of the speaker’s hesitation to continue speaking. Glaucon laughingly reassures Socrates that the others will not hold him responsible for any investigative crimes occasioned by the logos ‘discourse, thought’ (451b). And so this digression concerning doubts and fears, which is described by the narrator as a moment in the conversation where a near ending got turned into a new beginning, functions to qualify the discourse concerning women, children, and education that follows, which is itself a digression from the topic of conversation that preceded.

Dodging the Politeia

Having secured a reprieve (458b), Socrates continues traveling-conversing as though the group’s plans for the politeia’s guardians could possibly be put into practice. Eventually, however, Glaucon fears that Socrates’ detour will never end; he insists on returning to the topic of “the possibility of this politeia coming into being and how it could ever be done” (471c). Socrates says that Glaucon’s unexpected “raid” (katadromē) on his “discourse” (logos) is bringing on the third wave of difficulty (472a). Whereas Socrates has been traveling freely, without having to worry about whether his theoretical discourse conforms to physical reality, Glaucon is making an incursion from the practical world. And in response, Socrates takes the significant methodological step of describing the imagined politeia as an idealized portrait.

To repeat, the question is, could the politeia actually exist? (Followed by the next question: Could a lover of wisdom ever rule an earthly state?) Socrates’ answer is a profound dodge. On the one hand, he is now confronting rather than evading the problem of feasibility. On the other hand, he asks that the investigation proceed in accordance with a policy of methodical evasion. If everybody would agree that the politeia does not need to be possible, then its possibility could be bracketed, in effect making the problem into a nonproblem. Just as Socrates wanted to wander earlier, now he would adopt a method of approximation. In my analysis, his call to approach the politeia as a model has recursive qualities, admitting the prospect that the unending, insuperable conceptual distance that accumulates from these stacked conditions might come between the conversational search and its envisioned goals.

Before explaining how a model like this might work, Socrates wishes to establish that the question of possibility is now on the table because the group has been engaged in a goal-oriented journey of seeking: “First it should be recalled that we arrived here [deuro] while seeking [zētountes] what justice and injustice are like” (πρῶτον μὲν τόδε χρὴ ἀναμνησθῆναι, ὅτι ἡμεῖς ζητοῦντες δικαιοσύνην οἷόν ἐστι καὶ ἀδικίαν δεῦρο ἥκομεν, 472b). Socrates then asks Glaucon to choose between two conditional statements:

ἀλλ’ ἐὰν εὕρωμεν οἷόν ἐστι δικαιοσύνη, ἆρα καὶ ἄνδρα τὸν δίκαιον ἀξιώσομεν μηδὲν δεῖν αὐτῆς ἐκείνης διαφέρειν, ἀλλὰ πανταχῇ τοιοῦτον εἶναι οἷον δικαιοσύνη ἐστίν; ἢ ἀγαπήσομεν ἐὰν ὅτι ἐγγύτατα αὐτῆς ᾖ καὶ πλεῖστα τῶν ἄλλων ἐκείνης μετέχῃ;

“If we find [heurōmen] what justice is like, will we also insist that the just man must not differ at all from justice itself but in every way be such as it is? Or will we be content [agapēsomen] if he is nearest [engutata] to it and participates in it more than the others?”


The choice depends, in the first place, on figuring out what justice is; Socrates now evidently does not think that this has been accomplished. [
11] As we have seen, the definition was accepted earlier in very roundabout and questioning terms (444a), and now the status of that earlier conclusion has been downgraded, making the knowledge of justice only conditionally accessible, and far from accepted (as of this latest reflection on the conversation, at least). As a consequence, the verb agapaō ‘to be pleased, content’ acquires a sense of compromise when Glaucon says that he and his companions would be content with a practical reality that came close to the ideal (472c).

Socrates thereupon submits that the investigation of justice has been “for the sake of a model [paradeigmatos]” (παραδείγματος ἄρα ἕνεκα, 472c). As he prepares to explain philosophy as the love and pursuit of wisdom (474b–480), Socrates here reconsiders what the conversation has been trying to do, allowing that the knowledge of justice-in-itself was not the final goal. If justice could possibly be found (and Socrates is no longer saying that it has been) in conversation, then its verbal portrait could (possibly) serve as a model for pursuing wisdom in everyday life, and thus wisdom could (possibly) be realized—as justice, for instance, in a city-state. Although Socrates denies the possibility neither of realizing justice in everyday life nor of making a perfect model of it in speech, finding the perfect model would be a condition for creating an imperfect earthly city-state, and a spirit of compromise is invading the entire project of the investigation.

Socrates gets a concession from Glaucon that is based on their earlier agreement: if justice could be found, the man nearest to that ideal would meet their criteria sufficiently enough to be deemed a candidate. Socrates asks for permission to forgo worrying about enacting what “we went through in discourse [diēlthomen]” (τῷ λόγῳ διήλθομεν, 473a):

ἀλλ’, ἐὰν οἷοί τε γενώμεθα εὑρεῖν ὡς ἂν ἐγγύτατα τῶν εἰρημένων πόλις οἰκήσειεν, φάναι ἡμᾶς ἐξηυρηκέναι ὡς δυνατὰ ταῦτα γίγνεσθαι ἃ σὺ ἐπιτάττεις. ἢ οὐκ ἀγαπήσεις τούτων τυγχάνων;

“But if we are able to find [heurein] that a city-state could be governed in a way most nearly [engutata] approximating what has been said, say that we’ve found [exēurēkenai] the possibility of these things’ coming into being on which you insist. Or won’t you be content [agapēseis] if it turns out this way?”


The methodological concession is again expressed in the form of a complex condition, with the attainment of one goal dependent on reaching another. If it should prove possible to find (heuriskō) that a government near enough to their verbal model was possible, then they would say that they had found (heuriskō) the possibility of realizing the city-state in deed. I take it that “what has been said” refers to a plan, a paradeigma, that would be like, but is no longer necessarily equivalent to, the definitions of a just man and a just politeia that were reached earlier in the conversation. In any case, Glaucon agrees that he would be content with Socrates’ proposed preference for verbal portraiture over practical implementation. Having agreed already that “it is the nature of action to attain to less truth than does speaking” (φύσιν ἔχει πρᾶξιν λέξεως ἧττον ἀληθείας ἐφάπτεσθαι, 473a), Glaucon now allows, in effect, that if something could come close to an ideal verbal portrait, it would be close to the truth, regardless of actual reality. [

The verbal aspect of the paradeigma so described is expressed by the word logos (472e, 473a), while I refer to portraiture because both here (472d) and later (500d–501c) Socrates uses the example of a painter to explain the exemplary function of an ideal verbal model. Here Socrates points out that observers are not concerned about physical reality when a painter draws an idealized portrait of a human being, a paradeigma (472d). “Weren’t we, as we assert, also making [epoioumen] a pattern [paradeigma] in discourse [logōi] of a good city?” asks Socrates (οὐ καὶ ἡμεῖς, φαμέν, παράδειγμα ἐποιοῦμεν λόγῳ ἀγαθῆς πόλεως; 472d–e). For those interpreters who see in Socrates’ notion of a paradigm an anticipation of a more technical Form (eidos) to be introduced later, this comparison between conversing and painting puts the conversational investigation in an odd light. If the group has been seeking—hunting near and far—to find an abstract ideal of justice in order to see and understand its true nature, they have simultaneously been making (poieō ‘to make, create’) a portrait of the just city in words. If this is so, then their verbal pattern of a good city, contrary to our expectations, did not proceed from a prior understanding of justice. Indeed, they began to draw up the pattern of a political system in order to understand justice in the individual, and then they returned to the individual before accepting their account of justice in the city-state. Were they ready, we might wonder, to create an ideal pattern, which would in turn be worth contemplating from the imperfect perspective of Athenian citizens? [13] Or were they just practicing, getting a foretaste of philosophical inquiry by talking about how one might talk about abstract ideals? Perhaps they are being presented to us all as role models in the making?

These questions become more pointed when, a bit further on, we find Socrates describing the ideal philosopher-ruler as both an imitator of truths and a maker of models (500a–501c). This happens once Socrates has introduced the need for a philosopher-ruler, at a moment when he also becomes much more sanguine about the possibility of philosophy’s and politics’ combining in practice (499b–c). And with the possibility of a philosopher-ruler seeming more imaginable, Socrates now even appears to revisit his doubts about the attainment of individual as well as political perfection (499b). As far as the current analysis is concerned, however, whether the possibility is deemed possible or not, the entire discussion continues to be modalized by evasive rhetorical expressions. When Socrates forcefully asserts that a philosopher might somehow come to rule, or that a ruler could develop “a true erotic passion for true philosophy,” his statement takes a doubly negative form: “I deny that there is any reason why either or both of these things is impossible” (τούτων δὲ πότερα γενέσθαι ἢ ἀμφότερα ὡς ἄρα ἐστὶν ἀδύνατον, ἐγὼ μὲν οὐδένα φημὶ ἔχειν λόγον, 499c).

Socrates says more about city planning after he and Adeimantus have outlined some of the difficulties facing philosophy in everyday life, and concluded that there is currently no philosophical politeia in existence (497b). Understanding that they are back to discussing an envisioned, unrealized politeia, Adeimantus asks “whether it is the same one we have gone through [dielēluthamen] in founding the city-state” (εἰ αὑτὴ ἣν ἡμεῖς διεληλύθαμεν οἰκίζοντες τὴν πόλιν ἢ ἄλλη, 497c). After all, this very problem has guided much of the conversation thus far. Socrates’ response is paradoxical. On the one hand, the politeia they are now talking about would be the same:

δεήσοι τι ἀεὶ ἐνεῖναι ἐν τῇ πόλει λόγον ἔχον τῆς πολιτείας τὸν αὐτὸν ὅνπερ καὶ σὺ ὁ νομοθέτης ἔχων τοὺς νόμους ἐτίθεις.

“There would always have to be present in the city something [ti] possessing the same understanding of the regime as you, the lawgiver, had when you were setting down the laws.”


On the other hand, the sameness is qualified, because Socrates feels that some “long and difficult” explanations, mainly concerning radical innovations in philosophical education, have not yet been ventured. Much as he hesitated to talk about women and children when designing the politeia earlier, Socrates now contends that some other topics were “not sufficiently clarified” because he was afraid of being rebuked (οὐχ ἱκανῶς, εἶπον, ἐδηλώθη, 497d–e). Socrates’ words are striking for the directness with which he names Adeimantus a lawgiver, putting him in the same position as a philosopher-ruler. Nevertheless, whereas he was able to act as the founder of a city-state in conversation, enacting a politeia in reality would require “something” else (ti) besides Adeimantus. In Adeimantus’ view, a plan already exists: he actually did help to design an ideal politeia. Socrates, hedging his own view of the existing plan, does not criticize the conversation’s achievement (its contents) directly so much as raise metaconversational reservations about its conduct.

In short, Socrates is saying that more needs to be said. The inadequacy of the conversation’s politeia lies in the need for more explanation. This is a digressive movement of revision, in which the conversation must turn back and continue to explain itself. Using the optative mood—something “would” be needed in the city—Socrates, as he very often does, limits his opinion to a condition, a possibility, or a potential state of affairs. The uncertain mood is compounded by the indefinite pronoun ti ‘something’, the vagueness of which leaves Adeimantus out of the revised plan. And so the current discussion changes its course, if not quite leaving behind the existing but insufficiently developed plan, then reenvisioning it enough so that it is now once again more potential than real. Socrates reassures Adeimantus that he will again do his best to explain what had been neglected (497e).

A short while later in the conversation, the philosopher-ruler takes his proper place as an ideal legislator, and the speakers try to defend against imagined opponents who would doubt his worthiness. Socrates asks Adeimantus:

ἀλλ’ ἐὰν δὴ αἴσθωνται οἱ πολλοὶ ὅτι ἀληθῆ περὶ αὐτοῦ λέγομεν, χαλεπανοῦσι δὴ τοῖς φιλοσόφοις καὶ ἀπιστήσουσιν ἡμῖν λέγουσιν ὡς οὐκ ἄν ποτε ἄλλως εὐδαιμονήσειε πόλις, εἰ μὴ αὐτὴν διαγράψειαν οἱ τῷ θείῳ παραδείγματι χρώμενοι ζωγράφοι;

“Now, if the many perceive that what we say [legomen] about this man is true, will they then be harsh with the philosophers and say [legousi] they distrust us [when we say] that a city could never be happy unless the painters using the divine model [paradeigmati] were to sketch it?”


This sentence is difficult to describe because Socrates embeds complex conditional statements inside a conditional question. To put it another way: would not the city’s approval depend on its perceiving the truth of what we are saying; namely, that its happiness would depend on philosopher-painters, whose worthiness as legislators would depend on their copying laws from a divine model? The question is rhetorical, but it functions to express likelihood (and not certainty) for the sake of argument, while it also acknowledges how hypothetical the overall proposal is.

Adeimantus asks what “manner” (tropos) of sketching Socrates has in mind (501a). In Socrates’ response, the conditional question-proposal concerning philosopher-painters becomes the condition or premise for a small hypothetical scenario. Allow me to summarize what Socrates envisages, using the English word would to indicate verb forms that are in the optative mood in the Greek. The painters would first make the city into a clean slate; straightaway they would differ from others in starting from scratch (501a). Next they would trace an outline of the regime (501a). Then they would look both toward ideals such as the just, the good, and the moderate, and also toward human beings, and they would put a human image into their plan (501b). And then they would erase one thing and draw another again, until they had made a version of humanity as close to the divine as it could be (501b–c).

Adeimantus then affirms that the resulting drawing “would be … very good” (καλλίστη γοῦν ἄν, ἔφη, ἡ γραφὴ γένοιτο); and Socrates asks whether the philosopher they had been praising earlier is not this sort of “painter of regimes” (πολιτειῶν ζωγράφος, 501c). Like the Cave scenario we will discuss in the next chapter, the picture Socrates paints here in words is an image about the making of images. The regime painters’ portrayal is not a single image, but an evolving sequence of argumentative propositions that relies on imagery. Although the argument comes to seem like a moving picture, it could hardly be called a narrative; instead, it is a type of theoretical discourse, a series of conditional statements, each subordinated to the last, starting from a nonasserted premise (if philosophers drew regimes) and building toward a hypothetical conclusion (they would paint excellent regimes that their citizens might embrace).

Unlike the Cave, however, which is a scenario about what happens in a prison full of false images, the scenario in which the hypothetical philosopher-legislator draws relatively true images is tremendously positive. The resulting drawing of a regime would be a very good drawing indeed, based on “the divine model [paradeigmati]” (τῷ θείῳ παραδείγματι χρώμενοι, 500e).


[ back ] 1. See Blondell 2002:190–199, and also her observation on “ventriloquations” (42).

[ back ] 2. So, as recalled at 430d, the entire investigation (verb = zēteō) is for the sake of finding justice (dikaiosunē) in itself. And this investigation may be said to fit within the defense of the benefits of justice that replaces the initial attempt to define justice as a kind of behavior.

[ back ] 3. At 435c; cf. 328e, 364d, 435d, 497d, 498a, 499d, 504b; and see Schur 1998:60–65.

[ back ] 4. At 434d. See Cross and Woozley 1964: “Despite the fact that the order of exposition is first city and then individual, Plato’s order of argument is the other way round, from individual to city” (111).

[ back ] 5. So Annas 1981:185.

[ back ] 6. See Republic 500d and Fujisawa 1974.

[ back ] 7. The feasibility of realizing the politeia in actual circumstances is an important part of the third and most intimidating wave of paradox that ushers in the philosopher as an ideal ruler (472a). “Seldom does Plato build his reader’s anticipations so deliberately” (Pappas 2013:137).

[ back ] 8. Like other commentators, Shorey 1937 views Books 5 through 7 as a digression, but adds, “‘Digression’ need not imply that these books were not a part of the original design” (ad loc.). So Emlyn-Jones and Preddy: “Structurally a long digression, Books 5–7 actually contain the philosophical core of Republic” (2013, ad loc.). See also Goldschmidt 1963:136.

[ back ] 9. The three waves of controversy concern the equality of male and female guardians, the disposition of women and children as common property, and the need for a philosopher-ruler (457c–d, 472a, 473c).

[ back ] 10. On festivals, feasting, travel, and theory, see Nightingale 2004:75–76.

[ back ] 11. Shorey 1937 ad loc. writes, “Plato seems to overlook the fact that the search was virtually completed in the fourth book.”

[ back ] 12. Reeve, who strongly discounts the idea that the Republic is “vitiated by equivocation” (1988:xii), takes the view that Plato is in fact outlining a third polis at 473b4–544b3 (170). Given the repeated displacement of one plan by another, it seems to me one must be sure that the planning has reached completion once and for all if it is to avoid retroactive vitiation (or modalization); Reeve finds each previous plan included and assimilated inside the next, and he stops at three (172). For Cross and Woozley 1964, “the third and final city is entirely different” from its predecessors, “in that it is based on a political principle,” but this third city is more or less Reeve’s second (99).

[ back ] 13. Benardete 1992 discerns two cities in the Republic, one made in speech by the group, the other being a dialogic city where Socrates is king and the others are spectators (46–47).