Plato’s pessimism in The Republic

Despite its enduring appeal and timeless celebration of the sovereign power and beauty of Philosophy, The Republic reflects its author’s pessimistic views on human nature and the world of politics. The description of the prisoners in the cave sadly demonstrates how easily the masses can be manipulated and turned into consenting slaves as they are reduced to the condition of children, foolishly entertained by a mere clay puppet spectacle. Also, the human potential to become philosophically enlightened is only realised by a tiny minority, the first ‘philosopher’, being mysteriously freed from his physical chains and ‘forcefully’ dragged out of the cave before he can start contemplating the outside world and ultimately comprehend the World of Ideas. Although the status of ‘philosopher can theoretically be conferred on any individual making the grades through a most competitive educational course, Plato remains confident that only very few, special, individuals can attain the supreme level of philosophical consciousness, demanded of the Guardians.

But what of the world of politics? A staunch enemy of democracy which he considers as ‘an agreeable anarchic form of society’, lacking legal order and social unity, Plato enumerates the inherent limitations of each political system presiding, for a time, over an ‘imperfect society’. From timarchy to tyranny, via oligarchy and democracy, each one rises to temporary pre-eminence before being, in its turn, toppled by some inner corruption of its leaders. Having failed to turn the tyrant Dionysius of Syracuse into a Philosopher-Guardian, Plato rightly held tyranny as the most abject form of government since it encapsulates all the moral vices of a single individual.

To the eternal and incorruptible World of Ideas, History only seems to offer the prospect of an endless, self-destructive process. By the end of the dialogue, Socrates’ listeners are, like us, left with little doubt as to the future predictability of human events. After all, the dialogue was never meant to guide humanity into a glorious philosophical age but more prosaically, only served as ‘a pattern in heaven, where he who wishes can see it and found it in his own heart.’

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