In Danger’s Lap: Why The Republic Begins Where It Begins
Plato’s Republic, the most complete and enduring work from the birth of political theory in the West, is a book of incredible depth. Dramaturgical, literary, and philosophical reading lenses are required in simultaneity to get purchase on its contents. Even then, its store of insights and provocations has yet to be exhausted after several millennia. And its beginning provides but one of its many puzzles.
“I went down to the Piraeus yesterday with Glaucon,” reads its famous opening line. Already, we notice this is a descent, a thematic movement that appears twice more in the dialogue at crucial junctures. But why does it start in the Piraeus? And why is Glaucon, one of Plato’s brothers, Socrates’ companion?
The Piraeus, the Athenian harbor district, had two walls that flanked either side of the water. People called them the “legs” of Athens, the limbs that gave the city-state the power to move about Greece and expand its naval empire. But in the Piraeus’ lap, many Athenians came to grief during the Peloponnesian War. Especially those who fell prey to the rule of the Thirty Tyrants and those who participated in its reign of terror.
The Thirty Tyrants, a choice band of oligarchs the Spartans selected to rule Athens once they declared victory, sought to “Spartanify” Athens by stripping it of its democracy and replacing it with an oligarchy. To realize this goal, the Thirty Tyrants earned their nickname by committing a brutal and protracted series of purges that spanned from the summer of 404 BC to the summer of 403 BC.
Stripping a society of institutions and traditions that have congealed over the course of decades is no mean feat. They failed to overcome the inertia of precedent. Eventually, the Thirty’s efforts evaporated when a democratic resistance rose up to meet them on the field of battle. Led by Thrasybulus, an aristocrat biding his time in exile up until then, the democratic insurgents clashed with the Thirty in the Piraeus district. They won through.
In the decisive skirmish, which took place at the temple of Bendis, Plato lost two family members. Charmides, his uncle, a member of the Thirty whose special task was the management of the Piraeus. And his brother, Glaucon, who serves as Socrates’ companion to the temple of Bendis at the outset of the dialogue. Critias, the leader of the Thirty, also perished in that fight. And, once the democrats regained power, they forced Socrates to drink hemlock in part for his relationship to the men of the Thirty like Critias, Charmides, and Glaucon.
But The Republic (set during the Peloponnesian War, but before the rule of the Thirty) has a more specific setting than nearby Bendis’ temple. The action of the dialogue takes place at Polemarchus’ house. Polemarchus, the son of Cephalus and brother to Lysias, lost his life during the Thirty’s purges. In bringing oligarchic control to Athens, many resident-aliens, especially merchants of hoplite arms like Polemarchus, found themselves on the business end of their political agenda.
It is through Polemarchus, who sends his slave to stop Socrates and Glaucon so that his group may catch up to them, that the dialogue truly begins. In jest, Polemarchus says Socrates has two choices: he can either “prove stronger” than Polemarchus and company, or simply stay put and talk.
“Isn’t there still one other possibility…” Socrates asks, “our persuading you that you must let us go?”
Polemarchus responds, “Could you really persuade if we don’t listen?”
Glaucon concedes they could not. And so Polemarchus sweetens the offer by inviting them to see a new, novel night-festival with them. Socrates, joking in the formal language of the Athenian Assembly relents and says, “Well, if it is so resolved, that’s how we must act.”
Already, we see tensions, if only in banter, between domination and submission, force and persuasion, all greased with the seductions of culture. In other words, the dialogue opens in a historically significant locale rife with political conflict and begins its investigation with the issues fundamental to politics itself.
The Republic begins where the trouble begins.
Check out my free ebook on the dramatis personae of The Republic!