PLATO’S REPUBLIC 
“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of
footnotes to Plato.” (A.N. Whitehead (1861-1947), Process and Reality (1929) part 2, chapter 1) In The
Republic, written c.375 B.C., Plato addresses virtually all the main problems of philosophy.
“Plato derived his idea of God from the Pentateuch. Plato is Moses translated into the language of the
Athenians.” (Numenius in Eusebius’ Preparation for the Gospel (tr. Gifford), XIII, 12)
Plato presents a non-religious route to God: cf. Hebrew Wisdom literature (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Wisdom
of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus (= Sirach)).
So he aims to teach us to Think (rather than pray). He looks to the reign of philosophers (thinkers, eg Alfred
the Great?), where the Bible looks to that of the saints (Revelation 20:4-6). His ultimate reality is not heaven
but the world of abstract forms - the true essences of things in their pure and perfect state - from which all
other (visible) things derive their characteristics.
Highest is the Form of the Good (Absolute Goodness), depicted as the Sun, from which “things that are just
and so on derive their usefulness and value” (505a p.229). It “gives the objects of knowledge their truth and
the knower’s mind the power of knowing” (508e p.234). It is the source of their reality, yet “is not itself that
reality, but is beyond it” (509b p.234). It is “responsible for whatever is right and valuable in anything,...and
being in the intelligible region itself controlling source of truth and intelligence” (517c p.244). It is “a pattern for
ordering [the philosopher’s] own life as well as that of society and the individual” (540a-b p.273).
To reach this the would-be philosopher is to climb a sort of intellectual ladder, depicted most clearly in the
Myth of the Cave (513e-521b pp.240-248), which forms the core of the book. Upon finally beholding the Sun
he can reorder the whole of his understanding on a sound and unshakeable basis with a proper perspective.
This qualifies him, however unwillingly, to become a ruler.
The fourth and highest step of this ladder is “dialectic” or philosophy, which leads directly upwards to the
Good (532a-b p.264), enabling the student to “take account of the essential nature of each thing” (534b
p.266), and to take a “comprehensive view” of knowledge and of the nature of reality (537c p.270).
Can this abstract world of the forms be made good? Plato lived in an age when mathematics was being
ordered for the first time in history as a reasoned discipline, and seems to have played a part in this. He
specified mathematics as the third step in the progression towards knowledge (522-30 pp.251-63), believing
that maths has a special power to draw the soul upwards towards the forms (eg 526b, d-e pp.256-7). The
mathematical disciplines, such as arithmetic (525d p.255) and geometry (510d-e p.239, 527b p.257), present
us with an abstract world of their own, accessible to the mind, in which their abstract objects - abstract
numbers, the absolute square and absolute diagonal - actually exist.
This view of mathematical reality, ‘out there’, is still adhered to by the majority of mathematicians today most
of the time.
‘For me, and I suppose for most mathematicians, there is another reality, which I will call
“mathematical reality”....I believe that mathematical reality lies outside us, that our function is to
discover or observe it, and that the theorems which we prove, and which we descrbe grandiloquently
as our “creations”, are simply the notes of our observations. This view has been held, in one form or
another, by many philosophers of high reputation from Plato onwards.’ - G.H. Hardy, A
Mathematician’s Apology (1940; Cambridge: CUP 1992) pp.123-4; emphasis original.
That a strong case can still be made out for this, and that it is held by so many highly intelligent men and
women, many of whom profess no religion or (like Hardy himself) are actually hostile to faith, is startling in an
age which professes to believe in nothing which is not scientifically observable.
Have there ever been such wise men with a deep knowledge of God outside the Judaeo-Christian tradition?
The Bible itself suggests Melchizedek (Genesis 14:18-20 cf. Hebrews 7), Job?, and Epimenides the Greek
“prophet” (Titus 1:12 cf. Acts 17:28). Clearly Plato has in mind the historical Socrates himself, who
undoubtedly had a deep mystical experience of God and a vocation to the Athenians of his day, for which he
was martyred in 399. His defence speech is reported in Plato’s Apology of Socrates (in the Penguin Classic,
The Last Days of Socrates). He is noted for the personal “divine sign” to which he looked for instruction
(mentioned at 496c p.219 as well as in the Apology and Xenophon’s Memorabilia). Plato seems to have his
trial and death in mind particularly at 526b,e pp.256-7.
Martin Mosse, 31 January 2007.
Page numbers refer to the Penguin Classics second edition (1987) , translated by Desmond Lee. Section
numbers, as 500c, are common to all editions.