Plato’s The Republic is a dynamic work of deductive philosophy.
The Republic is lofty and challenging.
In his dialectic, Plato lets the us know from the start what he intends to investigate and then proceeds, through a series of conversations with local men of different ages, to prod, dig, and finally unearth what his subject is and is not.
His subject is justice.
Throughout the course of the debate, definitions of justice are offered and examined like high quality pearls, only to be thrown out after Socrates (Plato’s character who may or may not be speaking as the real Socrates) proves them to be flawed.
In The Republic is Plato’s famous Allegory of the Cave, his Theory of Forms, and his design for a Utopia in which a happy class system, comprised of tiers—the gold, the silver, and the bronze—operates in harmony. Only one who knows how to govern and has nothing to gain other than good government (hence: justice) will be the king.
Plato believes the philosopher king is best suited for the job. This idea doesn’t raise a brow with the local philosophers because Plato is a philosopher and his character, Socrates, is a man who thinks very highly of himself.
The only way to understand the volume of material in The Republic is to break it down, part by part, just as Plato did in developing his concept of justice.
So, last Monday I went in search of a philosopher king to help me understand a tiny part of this big philosophical tract.
I know have known several philosopher kings: one was related to me by blood, one I am still evaluating, and one is my mentor. Only one of them is accessible for coffee and lunch: Joe.
On Monday last, I drove down to our usual meeting place: The Elephant Bar.
Something unusual happened before our usual server, Jamie (who Joe calls Yvonne), arrived to take our order.
It happened like this: I confessed to Joe that I found Plato challenging to read and hard to digest.
Joe’s eyebrows rose; his gaze narrowed.
Yvonne…Yvonne…Will you bring the lady and me coffee?
Before Jamie could respond, a low rumble started under my feet. For a split second, the San Andreas Fault came to mind.
Our usual booth became a Greek chariot. *
Patrons faded away; the restaurant melted; modern traffic ceased; we found ourselves out in the middle of a Greek plain. This place looks like Northern California, I mentioned casually.
There we were, dressed in light clothing, protected with armor, standing up, looking over the wide withers of our two splendid steeds. One stood dutifully, waiting for his master’s signal. The other, a stallion, pawed impatiently and without warning, reared up.
How are we going to balance our coffee? I asked Joe.
By controlling the horses, Cheri. And thinking about our destination. You may have to wait until we arrive at the palace before you drink your coffee. This control over your appetites is part of the trip, Joe said.
But I need caffeine, I grumbled.
The horse on the left, mannerly and patient, we can control. The one the right, handsome and wild, will test our wills and our will power, Cheri. Only by using our minds, our reason, will we arrive at the palace, just in time for lunch.
Off we thundered, the large ancient wheels of our chariot turning round and round, the chair on which we balanced rocking to the left and right, under the uneven Greek landscape.
I tried not to think of my coffee, keeping my eyes on the dirt road and on the horse on the left.
But the beauty, power, and strength of the horse on the right, distracted me.
Joe had his hands full, trying to guide that chariot, pulled by two different horses, to our destination. That day, I was just a passenger, a time traveler dressed like a Greek, trying to understand arête.
In the distance, I saw the light of the palace and smelled lunch.
We arrived in one piece.
Joe admonished me for jumping off the chariot and heading into the palace before the horses had been unhitched, cooled, and fed.
You cannot achieve arête unless you are a master of the entire chariot, he stated, matter-of-factly.
I knocked on the large palace door.
Jamie answered. What can I get for you two today?
I will have coffee with cream, I said.
The usual lunch order for both of us.
Joe said, I’ll have coffee, black, Yvonne.
* Courtesy of Plato’s Phaedrus