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Beautifully written and presented, one of the most imporant books ever written
on 20 June 2012
Plato's Republic is one of the most important books ever written. (It's not often you can say that in a book review!) It's certainly one of the foundational texts of Western philosophy. It has had a profound and far-reaching effect upon philosophical literature throughout the ages. Plato, of course, wrote these dialogues to give voice to his mentor Socrates. Hence, the Republic resembles a play, in which the scene is set and characters are briefly introduced before Socrates embarks upon a prolonged philosophical debate about the ideal society, which also serves as a metaphor for the ideal organisation of the human psyche. The Capstone edition is an excellent gift. It's beautifully presented in a small hardcover edition, based on the classic 19th century translation by the Oxford scholar Benjamin Jowett. However, it is also prefaced with an excellent introductory essay by Tom Butler-Bowdon. Tom does a great job of introducing the text to the novice reader and providing an outline of its contents, highlighting some of the most important passages, such as the famous allegory of the cave and the curious myth of Er.
Tom is best-known as a self-help author. Indeed, I'd describe him as an expert on self-help literature, although he's also written about other subjects such as academic psychology. Is the Republic a self-help book? That might seem like an odd question to many academic philosophers. However, anyone who knows Plato's writings in detail will confirm that he thought of the practice of philosophy as a form of self-improvement, which aimed at the moral perfection of the soul and its wellbeing and liberation. The Republic, although superficially a book about society, is really an extended contemplation of moral virtue and the art of living in accord with wisdom and that which is absolutely good in itself. It's not difficult to recommend this book. Indeed it's one of the few books that I would suggest virtually everyone should read at some point. For many centuries in the past it was held in such high esteem and it continues to be relevant today.
As Tom's introduction notes, this is a book about one of the cardinal virtues, called dikaiosunç in ancient Greek. This is usually translated into English as the word "justice", although sometimes as "righteousness", and it in some contexts it appears to carry the connotation of personal integrity. As "justice" is the central concept explored by Socrates in the Republic, it's important to be aware that nuances of meaning may be obscured by any English translation. Jowett's translation is nevertheless a joy to read and this handy little book is beautifully presented. Don't hesitate to buy yourself a copy if you're thinking about reading Plato, I'm sure you'll enjoy it.