Next week, I will start teaching Plato’s Republic to high school sophomores in my Western Thought classes. This is the eighth year I’ve taught the book. It’s a great gig, one that I truly love. One would think that after teaching Plato for seven years, that it would be possible to “have it down”. However, I don’t think there is any text I feel more inadequate to teach, other than possibly Paradise Lost.
To start with, if I were inventing our curriculum, I probably wouldn’t start with the Republic as one’s maiden voyage into Plato. The Last Days of Socrates volume, which includes the Apology, the Crito, and the Phaedo (I think), would be a gentler introduction. The advantage the Republic has is that it is a fairly comprehensive overview of Plato’s thought in a single volume.
I’m feeling somewhat stumped because my views about the Republic have changed over the years. For the first few years I taught the book, I assumed the view that Plato was writing a utopian political piece. As I’ve delved into Plato over the years, this seems less possible, unless Plato is being ironic. What appears to be more likely is that Plato is writing about “the republic of the soul,” as someone has put it. He teaches the importance of cultivating virtues of the mind, heart, and will, as we might say. He shows us the possibility and importance of self government, and that a just society will be composed of men and women who govern themselves virtuously.
What I’m not sure about is how his digression about communal marriage and child-rearing fit into this interpretation. The maxim that “it takes a village to raise a child” seems to come into play here. The role of the community in cultivating virtue is undeniable. Perhaps Plato’s “communal marriage” is strategy to attempt to skirt the role of marriage in political alliance-building and power-seeking that has been a part of politics since time immemorial. Thus, applied to the moral government of the individual, this would encourage playing down the passions rather than taking the bacchanalian nuptial festivals that the Republic describes at face value.
I’m still thinking this through, so if there are any Plato students out there that have come to a satisfactory solution, I’d love for you to chime in!