While Plato spends much of the Republic having Socrates narrate a conversation about the city he founds with Glaucon and Adeimantus "in speech", the discussion eventually turns to considering four regimes that exist in reality and tend to degrade successively into each other: timocracy, oligarchy (also called plutocracy), democracy and tyranny (also called despotism).
Socrates defines a timocracy as a government ruled by people who love honor and are selected according to the degree of honor they hold in society.
These temptations create a confusion between economic status and honor which is responsible for the emergence of oligarchy. In Book VIII, Socrates suggests that wealth will not help a pilot to navigate his ship. This injustice divides the rich and the poor, thus creating an environment for criminals and beggars to emerge. The rich are constantly plotting against the poor and vice versa.
As this socioeconomic divide grows, so do tensions between social classes. From the conflicts arising out of such tensions, democracy replaces the oligarchy preceding it. The poor overthrow the inexperienced oligarchs and soon grant liberties and freedoms to citizens. A visually appealing demagogue is soon lifted up to protect the interests of the lower class. However, with too much freedom, the people become drunk, and tyranny takes over.
The excessive freedoms granted to the citizens of a democracy ultimately leads to a tyranny, the furthest regressed type of government. These freedoms divide the people into three socioeconomic classes: the dominating class, the elites and the commoners. Tensions between the dominating class and the elites cause the commoners to seek out protection of their democratic liberties. They invest all their power in their democratic demagogue, who, in turn, becomes corrupted by the power and becomes a tyrant with a small entourage of his supporters for protection and absolute control of his people.
Reception and interpretation
The idea of writing treatises on systems of government was followed some decades later by Plato's most prominent pupil Aristotle. He wrote a treatise for which he used another Greek word "politika" in the title. The title of Aristotle's work is conventionally translated to "politics": see Politics (Aristotle).
Aristotle's treatise was not written in dialogue format: it systematises many of the concepts brought forward by Plato in his Republic, in some cases leading the author to a different conclusion as to what options are the most preferable.
It has been suggested that Isocrates parodies the Republic in his work Busiris by showing Callipolis' similarity to the Egyptian state founded by a king of that name.
Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism, wrote his own imitation of Plato's Republic, c. 300 BC. Zeno's Republic advocates a form of anarchism in which all of the citizens are philosophers, and advocates a more radical form of sexual communism than that proposed by Plato.
The English translation of the title of Plato's dialogue is derived from Cicero's De re publica, a dialogue written some three centuries later. Cicero's dialogue imitates the style of the Platonic dialogues, and treats many of the topics touched upon in Plato's Republic. Scipio Africanus, the main character of Cicero's dialogue expresses his esteem for Plato and Socrates when they are talking about the "Res publica". "Res publica" is not an exact translation of the Greek word "politeia" that Plato used in the title of his dialogue: "politeia" is a general term indicating the various forms of government that could be used and were used in a Polis or city-state.
While in Plato's Republic Socrates and his friends discuss the nature of the city and are engaged in providing the foundations of every state they are living in - which was Athenian democracy, oligarchy or tyranny - in Cicero's De re publica all comments, are more parochial about (the improvement of) the organization of the state the participants live in, which was the Roman Republic in its final stages.
In antiquity, Plato's works were largely acclaimed; still, some commentators had another view. Tacitus, not mentioning Plato or the Republic nominally in this passage (so his critique extends, to a certain degree, to Cicero's Republic and Aristotle's Politics as well, to name only a few), noted the following (Ann. IV, 33):
Nam cunctas nationes et urbes populus aut primores aut singuli regunt: delecta ex iis (his) et consociata (constituta) rei publicae forma laudari facilius quam evenire, vel si evenit, haud diuturna esse potest.
Indeed, a nation or city is ruled by the people, or by an upper class, or by a monarch. A government system that is invented from a choice of these same components is sooner idealised than realised; and even if realised, there will be no future for it.
The point Tacitus develops in the paragraphs immediately preceding and following that sentence is that the minute analysis and description of how a real state was governed, as he does in his Annals, however boring the related facts might be, has more practical lessons about good vs. bad governance, than philosophical treatises on the ideal form of government have.
In the pivotal era of Rome's move from its ancient polytheist religion to Christianity, Augustine wrote his magnum opus The City of God: again, the references to Plato, Aristotle and Cicero and their visions of the ideal state were legion: Augustine equally described a model of the "ideal city", in his case the eternal Jerusalem, using a visionary language not unlike that of the preceding philosophers.
Hegel respected the form of Plato's theories of state and ethical life much more than he did that of his early modern predecessors, those such as Locke, Hobbes or Rousseau, since it was the fashion of these thinkers, and of that time, to use the fiction of a "state of nature" in which the individual was considered as to his or her "natural" needs, desires and freedom. For Hegel this was a contradiction since nature and the individual are contradictory, the individual and the individual freedoms that define individuality as such, are latecomers on the stage of history. Therefore these philosophers unwittingly projected man as an individual, i.e., abstracted from modern society, onto a state of nature. Plato on the other hand had managed to grasp the real ideas of his time:
Plato is not the man to dabble in abstract theories and principles; his truth-loving mind has recognized and represented the truth of the world in which he lived, the truth of the one spirit that lived in him as in Greece itself. No man can overleap his time, the spirit of his time is his spirit also; but the point at issue is, to recognize that spirit by its content
For Hegel, Plato's Republic is not an abstract theory or ideal which is beyond, or too good for the real nature of man, but is not ideal enough, it is not good enough for the ideals which were already inherent or nascent in the reality of his time; a time when Greece was about to enter decline. One such nascent idea was about to crush the Greek way of life. The real idea of individual freedom, Hegel avers, was what destroyed the ancient Greek way of life, and therefore Modern freedoms— or, Christian freedoms, in Hegel's view —such as the free choice: of the class to which one belongs, of what property to possess or which career to follow, were excluded from Plato's Republic:
Plato recognized and caught up the true spirit of his times, and brought it forward in a more definite way, in that he desired to make this new principle an impossibility in his Republic.
Greece was at a crossroads, Plato's new "constitution," defined in The Republic, was an attempt to preserve Greece, or, in modern terms, it was a reactionary reply to the new freedoms of private property, etc., that were only given legal form through Rome and in ethical life through a religion that elevated all individuals, metaphorically or not, to be the possessors of an immortal soul.
In his 1934 Plato und die Dichter (Plato and the Poets), as well as several other works, Hans-Georg Gadamer describes the utopic city of the Republic as a heuristic utopia that should not be pursued or even be used as an orientation-point for political development. Rather, its purpose is said to be to show how things would have to be connected, and how one thing would lead to another — often with highly problematic results — if one would opt for certain principles and carry them through rigorously. This interpretation argues that large passages in Plato's writing are ironic, a line of thought initially pursued by Kierkegaard.
The city portrayed in the Republic struck some critics as unduly harsh, rigid, and unfree; indeed, as a kind of precursor to modern totalitarianism. Karl Popper gave a voice to that view in his 1945 book The Open Society and Its Enemies. Popper singled out Plato's state as a utopia which was argued by Plato to be the destiny of man. In particular, Popper thought Plato's envisioned state had totalitarian features as it advocated a government not elected by its citizens, with the identification of the ruling class' interests as being the fate and direction of the state. In addition, Plato's state aimed at autarky, and advocated censorship according to Popper.
Eric Voegelin in Plato and Aristotle (Baton Rouge, 1957), gave meaning to the concept of ‘Just City in Speech’ (Books II-V). For instance, there is evidence in the dialogue that Socrates himself would not be a member of his 'ideal' state. His life was almost solely dedicated to the private pursuit of knowledge. More practically, Socrates suggests that members of the lower classes could rise to the higher ruling class, and vice versa, if they had ‘gold’ in their veins. It is a crude version of the concept of social mobility. The exercise of power is built on the ‘Noble Lie’ that all men are brothers, born of the earth, yet there is a clear hierarchy and class divisions. There is a tri-partite explanation of human psychology that is extrapolated to the city, the relation among peoples. There is no family among the guardians, another crude version of Max Weber's concept of bureaucracy as the state non-private concern. Together with Leo Strauss, Voegelin considered Popper's interpretation to be a gross misunderstanding not only of the dialogue itself, but of the very nature and character of Plato's entire philosophic enterprise.
Strauss and Bloom
Some of Plato’s proposals have led theorists like Leo Strauss and Allan Bloom to ask readers to consider the possibility that Socrates was creating not a blueprint for a real city, but a learning exercise for the young men in the dialogue. There are many points in the construction of the "Just-City-in-Speech" that seem contradictory, which raise the possibility Socrates is employing irony to make the men in the dialogue question for themselves the ultimate value of the proposals. In turn, Plato has immortalized this ‘learning exercise’ in the Republic.
One of many examples is that Socrates calls the marriages of the ruling class 'sacred'; however, they last only one night and are the result of manipulating and drugging couples into predetermined intercourse with the aim of eugenically breeding guardian-warriors. Strauss and Bloom's interpretations, however, involve more than just pointing out inconsistencies; by calling attention to these issues they ask readers to think more deeply about whether Plato is being ironic or genuine, for neither Strauss nor Bloom present an unequivocal opinion, preferring to raise philosophic doubt over interpretive fact.
Leo Strauss's approach developed out of a belief that Plato wrote esoterically. The basic acceptance of the exoteric-esoteric distinction revolves around whether Plato really wanted to see the "Just-City-in-Speech" of Books V-VI come to pass, or whether it is just an allegory. Strauss never regarded this as the crucial issue of the dialogue. He argued against Karl Popper's literal view, citing Cicero's opinion that the Republic's true nature was to bring to light the nature of political things. In fact, Strauss undermines the justice found in the "Just-City-in-Speech" by implying the city is not natural, it is a man-made conceit that abstracts away from the erotic needs of the body. The city founded in the Republic "is rendered possible by the abstraction from eros."
An argument that has been used against ascribing ironic intent to Plato is that Plato's Academy produced a number of tyrants, men who seized political power and abandoned philosophy for ruling a city. Despite being well-versed in Greek and having direct contact with Plato himself, some of Plato's former students like Clearchus, tyrant of Heraclea; Chairon, tyrant of Pellene; Eurostatos and Choriskos, tyrants of Skepsis; Hermias of Atarneus and Assos; and Calippus, tyrant of Syracuse ruled people and did not impose anything like a philosopher-kingship. However, it can be argued whether these men became "tyrants" through studying in the Academy. Plato's school had an elite student body, part of which would by birth, and family expectation, end up in the seats of power. Additionally, it is important to remember that it is by no means obvious that these men were tyrants in the modern, totalitarian sense of the concept. Finally, since very little is actually known about what was taught at Plato's Academy, there is no small controversy over whether it was in fact even in the business of teaching politics at all.