The Republic is one of what have become known as the Great Dialogues by Plato. In it he explains what he considers to be the ideal State and the definition of justice.
Many Greek works that survive from the time of Plato (5th - 4th Century BC), especially his own writings, are in the form of dialogue. This means that rather than present the ideas in the form of an essay, it is represented as an argument or discussion between two or more people. For instance, The Republic is a long discussion held by Socrates1, with interruptions or comments coming from Glaucon, Adeimantus, and the sophist Thrasymachus. It has often been suggested that Greek authors thought their work would appear to be more critically accurate if they wrote in dialogue form, as it appears that the author himself is scrutinising his own work. Although The Republic is written as a dialogue, in fact it contains large sections of prose from Socrates with the odd one-word interjection from a fellow, which could suggest that Plato was not comfortable with this style.
Plato first explores the sophist view, presented by Thrasymachus in The Republic, that justice is whatever is in the interest of the powerful man, and unfavourable to the weaker. Socrates determines this to be incorrect, and that justice is when the three parts of the mind, signified by reason, impulse and observation, are working in their correct places. He then sets out to show that justice in the state is the same as justice in the individual, and does this by defining the ideal state.
Analogous to his view on individuals' justice, Plato describes three parts of the State: Rulers, Auxiliaries and Workers - that must be working in unity for the state to be functional. Although he rigidly defines the three castes (see below), Plato allows for promotion and demotion between the three, and hence does not believe that his system is unjust. Compare this with the Hindu caste system, where an individual's class is determined by his or her lineage. He describes the function of each of these three castes, going into considerable detail about the education, training and duties of the Philosopher-Rulers, see the next section.
It is important to note that a State of the type known by Plato is much different to a modern-day country. In fact, a county such as those found in Britain would be about the same size as a Greek Polis2. Plato compares his state to four other types known to him: Oligarchy (capitalism), Tyranny, Timocracy and Democracy.
Timocracy, the government of a Timarchy and the form practised in Sparta, is similar in some respects to Soviet Communism. In the Timarchy, no person is allowed to have personal possessions and the lower classes work exclusively for the benefit of the upper classes.
The form of Democracy known by Plato was wildly different to today's. In a Greek state, only a small section of the population (possibly 30,000 people from a city the size of Athens) had the vote, but each one of these people was allowed to sit in government and discuss legislation.
True Oligarchy is what became known in the states as laissez-faire3 capitalism, in which everyone works for their own personal gain. A government of this kind was what Margaret Thatcher was aiming for when she said, 'There is no such thing as society'.
It is first important to note that when using the word tyrant, Plato does not associate with it the pejorative meaning it now has. A tyrant is a single person who controls a state, whether fairly or not. Plato's main fault with the tyranny is that the tyrant must prove himself to be better than all of his subjects to be considered a worthy ruler, but as this is impossible, it will fail.
In order to ensure that the people who will run Plato's state are of the best mettle, he envisages a system of education in which the would-be ruling caste are learning until they reach 50. The system includes philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, natural science, music and physical education. The initial five were considered by the Greeks to be the five main branches of science4.
In quite a radical move, given the contemporary climate towards women, Plato suggested that in his Republic men and women would be treated as equals and that either could become a member of the ruling caste.
The Auxiliary caste were to be, as the name suggests, an extra form of ruler and would take on the roles of army and of internal police. Again, Plato allowed women to fight in the wars.
Not much is said about the working caste in The Republic, except that each person would have one job to do and would not do anything else. Would a shoemaker make a good farmer? Or would he make a good shoemaker if he had to tend to a farm as well?
A facet of The Republic that causes controversy even now is his support of eugenics - forming the ideal human by, in this case, selective breeding, but also other methods such as genetic engineering - and of terminating disabled infants. His argument in favour of these practices is that to do so would make The Republic function better as an entity and, as his definition of justice relies upon this, then it is just to do so.
The last couple of sections of The Republic read as addenda, in which Plato addresses subject matter not directly related to the rest of the text. These chapters include a discussion of Greek poetry5, a discussion on the differences between the observed universe and the true universe, and a legend in which a man views the afterlife and the structure of the universe.