30 Day Book Challenge: Day Ten

Book that changed your life: Republic – Plato

There are only a handful of philosophical texts that match the Republic. I wouldn’t say it’s my favorite philosophical work – it’s not even my favorite in the Platonic canon – but it’s stature and gravitas are unimpeachable. I, like everyone else who has taken at least an intro to philosophy course, was introduced to philosophy through this book. Why? Because it’s one of the very few works of philosophy that doesn’t require much context, so it’s by and large the one used to pop student’s cherries.

Most people have a general idea of what biologists, political scientists, and engineers study; philosophers, not so much. Plato is a household name the same way Marx, Freud, Darwin, and Einstein are, but his ideas are pretty obscure. Philosophy is one of the oldest branches of academia (perhaps even the first, if you want to play like that) yet when I tell people that I’m doing a Master’s in Ancient Philosophy, I usually get that confused look, followed by, “What is philosophy anyway?”

But I can’t hate because philosophy’s historical obscurity, and oftentimes notoriety, is due to its damned inaccessibility. It’s near impossible to try and venture into philosophy solo. Mostly because so many philosophers are commenting on and dealing with previous philosophers and traditions, so if you’re unfamiliar with the territory they may as well be speaking another language all together.

What makes the Republic special is that, at the benefit of being so early in the tradition, it is an entity unto itself. It asks a straightforward question, “what is justice?” and begins with relatively straightforward vernacular, gradually progressing into more highfalutin language. It helps if you’re versed in philosophy, especially Platonic, and it gets smarter as you get smarter, but you can dive into relatively green.

Really, it’s an incredible work of curiosity and intellectual rigour. As I said, the main purpose of the text is to try and define justice, but instead of just driving straight to the point, Socrates and company weave around like a serpentine river, traversing all kinds of lateral territory, addressing a plethora of subjects, ranging from religion, art, literature, the state, soldiery, music, law, and early childhood education (all for which Plato/Socrates have some pretty controversial opinions).

However, Plato never really ends up answering the original question. Instead we have a byzantine method by which more questions than answers are dug up and the reader is left with a spinning head trying to reconcile it all. While it may be frustrating, it’s also provocative and inspiring. And it’s for that reason that Alfred Whitehead proclaimed, “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”

cheers,

-B

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~ by braddunne on June 27, 2011.

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