Education, freedom, and happiness, are, among lesser issues, the preeminent themes of Plato’s Republic. I suppose no one ever accused the philosopher of thinking small. As is the case (though the contrast is less stark) with Shakespeare, or The Beatles, a modern reader (or viewer, or listener, respectively) might be struck by the seemingly pedestrian nature of Plato’s work. What, perhaps, strikes the modern reader the most, is the philosophical dialogue Plato, through Socrates, seems to be responding to. Here we find one clue to the riddle of Plato’s novelty. What makes Republic so seminal – along with other Platonic dialogues – is its very novelty, or, more precisely, the widespread impact this type of novel thinking would have on the Western world.
While the works of Homer, Sophocles’ Aias, perhaps even The Symposium (my history may be confused here) represent a certain type of relationship between the good and ourselves, between society and the individual, Republic conceives of a person’s relation to the world differently. While those works judge action and right as concerns measured relative to social context, Republic judges our actions as internal affairs. That which is best is that which assures the greatest happiness, to be recognized by the proper balance felt within the individual. Though Plato is ostensibly speaking of how to ensure the proper stability of society he is, so he says, primarily concerned with understanding and fostering the best persons. Perhaps his seeming focus upon the best state was Plato’s subtle transition towards a more individualized ethics.
Unquestionably Republic casts a long shadow, perhaps the longest in Western literature. By turning our focus inwards, by transforming glory into the pursuit of knowledge and the pre-eminence of individual consciousness, Plato helped to inaugurate the modern world.