The Republic was the most difficult book I have ever read. It took me two months of concerted effort to complete, and I feel as if new grooves had to be dug into my brain to get the job done. Mostly I learned that my brain wants to vociferously resist any kind of improvement of this sort. My eyes will water and my mouth will hinge into gaping yawns after two pages. I had to read, and re-read, then re-read again, most of the entire book. I apparently have the attention span of a gnat. But the more I read, the more I was drawn in. It is not a book one just reads; it must be studied and puzzled over, discussed and studied again. It was a transformative experience. Mediocre reads I had previously enjoyed seem exceptionally lame now, like I have been spoiled for them.
The Republic surprised me on many levels. Many concepts that I thought came straight out of Catholicism actually had their basis in the philosophy of Socrates. The cardinal virtues, prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance, and the underpinnings of Catholic social justice teaching, were directly codified by Plato. Who knew? And though Socrates gave lip service to “the gods,” at times, he often seemed to unify them into just one. Also, the story of “Er” while fully supporting reincarnation, definitely gives credence to an early form of Purgatory as well. And this is all 400 years before the birth of Christ.
I found the portion discussing the various political states very illuminating. Socrates’ explanation of why a meritocracy will devolve into an oligarchy, which will then devolve into democracy and finally into tyranny is almost chillingly prescient. It was very odd to see any other form of government held up as being superior to democracy, but his reasoning, of course, is very sound, since he considers democracy a sort of mob-rule. Surprisingly, Socrates also appears to have believed somewhat in the equality of the sexes, or at least, that exceptional woman could compete on a male playing field.
The Republic is worth all the effort it took to absorb. I understand now why it is considered a foundational work in the western literary cannon. It is amazing that so much well-reasoned thought came from a single source. We are lucky that it has survived, when so many other works perished. The world would be a completely different place if everyone read Plato; it certainly deserves a place on every classicist’s short list.