The Rational Kernel of the Platonic Corpus

Lesson 5(b). In the dialogues: from what is no-where to be seen to what is not impossible.

A recurring theme of Plato scholarship is the relation between the Republic and the rest of the dialogues. There is a general consensus which recognises the Republic to be the dialogue wherein Plato, in new ways, synthesises and restates his central ideas. This is another way of saying the Republic collects these ideas in a new form.

Ferrari, commenting on the ‘history’ of such a consensus, notes, the Republic may not always be considered the most technically proficient or even the most philosophical of the dialogues and it may not be the most beautifully written: there may be disagreement over whether it’s a political or moral work (however spurious this distinction may sometimes be), but in general there is agreement with Schleiermacher’s remarks in the 19th century and subsequently Charles Kahn, that the Republic is the culminating text that the many shorter works anticipate.1

Ferrari’s comments expose a subtle dialectic; one that invites us to take a step beyond this consensus. The shorter, ‘earlier’ works anticipate the culminating text, but this anticipation is only visible once the longer work exists. In this sense the Republic exposes within the shorter texts something that was already there, so to speak, but would not be fully realised without the Republic to expose it.

What is there in the early texts is not merely so ‘in anticipation’, but is that which the very ascription of anticipation is predicated upon.  We would therefore posit that what is thought in the so-called earlier dialogues is the thought of the Republic. This dialectic, whose movement is immanent is demonstrable whether we examine an individual text, say the Apology in relation to the Republic, as we have, or examine the ‘shorter works’ collectively.

In the Republic, the Republic is thought into existence as a non-sophistic city and, as such, is unlike any other. It is almost impossible not to see the Republic as the conceptual result of all Socrates’ work while at the same time we see that such a result animates the thought of this very work.

In the Cratylus, Plato seems to demand this very double movement when Socrates says, ‘we have to turn back frequently to what we’ve already said, in order to test it by looking at it backwards and forwards simultaneously as the aforementioned poet put it [Homer]’ (Cra. 428d; emphasis added).  In the Republic Socrates, from within this poetic encyclopaedia, will look forward to the just city in order to look back and discern what its just citizen must look like. In Plato’s hands this movement has the spatial temporality of an equation. Regardless of the variables, they share the same Form.

Samuel Scolnicov illustrates this atemporal reciprocity with reference to Plato’s understanding of ‘participation’. He says, ‘...that the participating and the participated in are not, in the last analysis, essentially different from each other, but are basically the same entity in two different modes of being’.2

If, therefore, we can identify a subjective or participatory procedure, then this procedure, in some way, is already that which it participates in. Conversely, what is participated in, in some way, is already a part of the participating procedure. The subject is one mode of this being ‘true’, while the ‘result’ let’s call it, that which is participated in, is another mode of this same being-true. Formulaically, we have two modes and a single form.

Scolnicov’s analysis turns around the question of knowledge. Intriguingly, he argues that there are three conditions for (the) knowledge (of Forms) in Plato: ‘the Form must be (condition i) for someone, (condition ii) in itself, and (condition iii) in relation to others’. He concludes, ‘Plato does not distinguish, so far as the Forms are concerned, between the presuppositions of condition (ii) and condition (iii)’.

Ultimately, for Scolnicov, Plato denies both the Parmenidean ontology, in which there is no room for true discursive knowledge [and] a total Heraclitean-Protagorean relativism and subjectivism’ which has ‘no concept of truth’.

It is worth recalling that in the Sophist, Plato determines that as variable as they are – and despite, for example, Heraclitus’s dislike of Homer – Homer, Hesiod, Heraclitus, Protagoras and Parmenides all participate in the same Form. As such, they – this ‘many headed sophist’ – are this Form (Sph. 240c).

Significantly, Protagoras announces to Socrates and Hippocrates with his eye fixed, Plato notes, on the company of sophists gathered at Callias’ house, that he teaches only what the student comes for: ‘sound deliberation, both in domestic matters – how to best manage ones household, and in public affairs – how to realise one’s maximum potential for success in political debate’ (Prt. 318e-319a).

As the Phaedo illustrates, the analogy is clear: sophistry is the Form of the state while that which the state is not is the Form of non-sophistry. The subterfuge that subtends this dialogue between Socrates and Protagoras, as it subtends the corpus entirely, is that the Republic is already at work within the Athenian state.

In the Republic Socrates concludes one part of his enquiry (or starts another; it is the same thing in Plato who only ‘concludes’ so as to go on) by asserting, ‘...then a just man shall not be any different from the just city with respect to the form itself of justice...’ (R. 435a)?

Plato’s method, as this indicates, is to hypothesis the just city so as to be able to identify the figure best suited to it. He moves from the ‘fiction’ of the result, insofar as this result does not exist, other than in the discourse they are fashioning (and so, conceptually), to the truth that founds it. The former is or will be, if we suppose such a just city to ‘exist’, the knowledge of the latter.

In light of Scolnicov’s points above, the indistinction of the participating and that which is participated in, this notion provides something of a key, for it seems to us that it is on the basis of the thought of the ideal city that Plato is able to show that the just man has existed in Athens. By thinking through the Republic, Plato forces the recognition of this truth. 

We do not need to argue that Plato’s ‘just man’ is Socrates, and we do not need to argue that Plato’s Republic, the ‘city in discourse’, thought-through and declared to be ‘the only city worthy of the name’ is the just city. What we do need to account for is what makes ‘Socrates’ the name for that which participates, and the ‘Republic’ the name for that which is participated in, the same.

This is to say that Socrates and the Republic name ‘the same entity in two different modes of being’: They are, if you like, the truth of Athens: Socrates is, for us, the only one in all Athens who educates and the Republic is the city where this education is the education of all.  The Republic (of the Republic) to which Socrates qua participant belongs, is therefore a) for someone; b) in itself ; c) in relation to others.

In fact more reductively, and in line with Scolnicov’s claim, we would say that ‘in itself’ under the Form of justice it is ‘for all’. In the Socratic idiom from the Apology, he gives what he has, freely and to all.

It is possible to put this in the form of a ‘Socratic axiom’: ‘What is the Republic’? We can see that our emphasis so far has been on the procedures, statements and conditions that (might) establish such a ‘place’ and this emphasis should be understood as critical in discerning what it promises as a consequence.

As such this idea of the Republic depends entirely on the argument we have pursued whereby the Platonic corpus is seen to articulate as and within itself the expression, of a ‘true education’.

The Socratic procedure we have traced, one which subtracts itself from the sophistic state of the situation, a procedure  Socrates calls ‘dying to the state’, which is nothing other than the thought of the end of the state, is characterised by knowing nothing of what this state knows and thus of not teaching and not being paid. We can say that Socrates, in the guise of the subjective figure of the ‘subjective complex’ immanent to the corpus, ‘works for nothing’.

Given that the event/encounter establishes the exceptional nature of his work, Socrates can only work for the impossibility of a sophistic education. This is nothing to sophistry.

Under the rules of Plato’s subtle dialectic to ‘work for nothing’, which is the work of love, is in fact to work for that which is everything.  In the city of the Republic therefore all work to make the lack of a non-sophistic education unknown. Everyone, ‘doing the work best suited to them’, despite what work they do, does ‘Socratic work’. Or to put it the terms of Plato’s doctrine of fair shares, that ‘friends have all things in common’ is articulated through the work of love. This ‘egalitarian statement’, whose name is ‘justice’, cuts through the statist or empiricist framework that Socrates gives to his ideal city. We could call this the love of form.

This framework is Plato’s much criticised division of the ideal state into immutable classes with a fixed division of labour.

Now, what is most criticised is the declaration that confines one to the work prescribed for one’s particular class: that, in other words, each inhabitant of the ideal city stick to and pursue the work best suited to them.

We should note that the citizens of the Republic are not born into this confinement but throughout the years of their youth they are tested as to their apparent suitability to this is or that type of work. The Olympic standards of Gold, Silver and Bronze attributed to mark this typology of labour are results and not matters of hereditary.

This is clearly an argument of Form. For Plato, the irrefutable argument for the justice of this typology boils down to saying that this work, whatever the work is, is the work of love. In essence, if one does work not their own, work they are demonstrably unsuited too, they show that they do not do the work of love. Despite what they might profess they work in support of other interests – even those not their own – like most of us!

Of course this is the essence of Plato’s refutation of the sophist: They, by demonstration, are not lovers of wisdom because at every turn they betray their infidelity to its proper Form.

The consequences of this refutation are extensive insofar as this is what the Republic will be: A city that realises as itself the very consequences of this refutation. We would claim that what is common to all in this ‘stratified’ Republic – stratified in the sense that there is a variety of work as there is a variety of workers, but only one ideal-form of this work, as such – is that by keeping to one’s own work one participates in the exemplary practice of non-sophistry. This is the collective production of justice, of that which is for all and, as such, is the work of love.

In order to grasp this conception of the Republic as an ideal non-state or even ‘counter-state’, Plato’s ‘city in words’ will be understood to be the truth of the Athenian situation: a truth pursued relentlessly by those rare figures that enter into the practice of non-sophistry – added to Athens itself. 

In other words, the Republic (and the Republic) provides the gathering place of all that is expressible in the contention of a ‘post-Socratic’ education by truths. This can be expressed as ‘what constitutes the Republic is an education by truths’ and what the Republic verifies precisely is that such an education will have existed in the Athens of the dialogues.

The circularity of this definition is interrupted when we realise that in Athens the sign of this education was not the Republic, the site of verification, but Socrates, the site of its (existing) inexistence, and that in the Republic the Republic presents as itself all the matter that this sign signifies. In other words, the Republic includes Socrates just as Socrates includes all that is non-sophistic in Athens.

 The whole difficulty of this equation, which is intuitively straight forward for anyone familiar with the dialogues, is that Socrates, the gadfly of Athens, the figure who will not leave the confines of the city, does not in effect belong to Athens but to the Republic alone, a city which exists nowhere and is as such nothing. Yet as Plato notes, the city is not-impossible and for the subject, worth working for.

I have already noted that the dialogues, as a series of enquiries, anticipate the ideal city in which sophistry is assigned its proper place. There are many statements to this effect: In the Apology Socrates agrees with his accusers that he is a stranger to the language of the present state. He cannot take part in its politics. In the Gorgias his argument with Callicles over the proper conception of justice provokes Callicles to say, ‘by the gods Socrates... if you are in earnest, and these things you’re saying are really true, won’t this human life of ours be turned upside down, and won’t everything we do evidently be the opposite of what we should do’ (Grg. 481c).3

Socrates’ reply, as mentioned is a satire; a mixture of sarcasm and seriousness. First, he makes fun by noting Callicles’ inability to contradict either of his lovers: a boy named Demos and the polis of the same name. Socrates points out that in order to ‘stay on side’ with both, Callicles will say whatever is necessary.

He is rhetorician, a ‘cook’ – despite his protestations to the contrary. In turn, Socrates’ lovers are Alcibiades and philosophy. Philosophy, by contrast and regardless of whom it addresses, always says the same thing (unlike Alcibiades, Socrates notes). Socrates’ fidelity to the demands of the love of wisdom is invariant despite how out of tune it puts him with his lover Alcibiades. In this context Alcibiades is exemplary of a city in which all the best virtues have gone astray by want of an education without interest (Grg.481d-482c). Ironically, Callicles then accuses Socrates of ‘playing to the crowd’ – ironic, because in our sense he is.

Again, in Euthydemus, Socrates is forced to wonder at a polis so constituted that, despite not caring whether a fellow is clever or not, it becomes extremely ‘disturbed the moment [it] suspect[s] he is giving his ability to others’. Its people ‘get angry’ he says, ‘whether out of jealousy… or… some other reason’ (Euthphr.3cd).

He goes on to remark that the Athenians must think him ‘too kindly’ in his imparting of wisdom in the sense of his giving it too freely: ‘… I pour out all I have to everyone and not merely without pay – nay, rather glad to offer something if it would induce someone to hear me’ (Euthphr. 3cd,).As seen, the central and abiding reason for Socrates’ exclusion from the statist consideration of what it is to educate is that he is a figure without ‘interest’.

Enquiry certainly ‘knows’ what is of interest in this sense. Every enquiry proceeds through the state. But between those who might hear Socrates and those who will not lays the conviction that sophistry, interest in interests, is not all. What is lamented here by Socrates is that the work of love, the desire for that which you need but do not have (Smp. 201b), has no currency in such a state.

 We should recall that the work of love, which is to say the ‘truth of love’, (Smp. 199b) is the only work Socrates admits to knowing anything about and this precisely because, as both the Symposium and Phaedrus remind us, it is unknown and comes, if it does, of a ‘sudden’.

In the Crito, Socrates speaks past the representatives of the polis and directly to the justice of its constitution. He will not retreat from the justice of the constitution, from what he loves, by running away into exile. On the contrary, he seeks to fulfil it by staying in Athens, which for him and perhaps for him alone, is the place of the Republic.

We could multiply these examples but the point to be taken from them all is that each in its own way evokes that which is lacking in the present state: the place (the ‘thought-place’ to be more accurate) by which such statements as Socrates makes above are shown to have been true.

However, while it is possible to resurrect from the dialogues every such statement – this because the corpus can be defined ‘historically’ as a subject of the Socratic encounter and as such is finite (there are only so many words that belong to the Platonic corpus) – it is not possible to resurrect every statement that might be true of the encounter between Socrates and the sophistic state. This procedure has by no means been exhausted despite the century or so of rumours to the contrary.

Let’s put it this way, the Republic is the forced result of all that Socrates anticipates throughout the dialogues, and Socrates is the immanent term which names that which can only be verified as such under the name of the Republic.

The question is of the equivalence between these names. It is wholly a Platonic question – one which the Republic addresses when it seeks to discern the reciprocity between the constitution of the individual and that of the state. Again, we note that ‘the participating and the participated in are not, in the last analysis, essentially different from each other, but are basically [or generically] the same entity in two different modes of being’.

The poet/sophists Plato says, those who tell us that Homer is the ‘educator to all Hellas’ who should be studied as a guide for life, ‘deserve to be listened to politely’ but the poetry of the ‘honeyed muse’ or the ‘lyric verse’ must, the argument requires, be banished from the commonwealth. Such is our ‘apology’, he continues, and if we are convicted for being too harsh we will remind these devotees of Homer that there is a ‘longstanding quarrel between poetry and philosophy’ (sophistry and non-sophistry): A quarrel that can only be displaced if poetry recant from its attachment to ‘pleasure and imitation’.

If it does so it will be welcomed back into the city, ‘being as we are conscious of its charms’. However, as things stand, it would be unholy to betray what is true (R. 606a-607d).

This passage from Book X is justly famous and is one way or another always cited as the culmination of Plato’s efforts to expel poetry from the city.

However, two things:

 a) What Plato cannot allow is that the poet-sophist has the educational effect he does; alter this effect, interrupt this effect, counter this effect and the poets will ‘fare-well’

 b) Book X is not the point of expulsion but the climax to the demonstration of the truth of this assignation. Essentially, from the point at which Thrasymachus is seen to blush, the poet/sophists will have been assigned to the place proper to them.

Finally, it is affirmation and not destruction that is the accomplishment of an education by truths. The only education is that which addresses the generic ‘capacity for reason’ whose disavowal is the constitutive condition of the sophistic state.

Surely the formalisation of this generic address is Plato’s singular and decisive in(ter)vention.

What the Socratic taking place makes manifest is simply that the sophist cannot educate, that what one receives in exchange for ones ‘callous cash payment’ is not an education but a calculated return on ones investment and a stake in the regime predicated on the conceited yet powerful knowledge of what – at all costs – must not be.

In the Republic – the decided place of philosophy, constituted by a thoughtful, subjective transformation – a place where sophistry cannot be for all, it cannot be simply because it never was an ‘education by truths’. 


Ferrari, G. R. F., ‘Editor’s introduction’, G. R. F. Ferrari (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Plato’s Republic. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007, pp. xv–xxvi. & Kahn, Charles, H., ‘Response to Christopher Rowe’, Journal of the International Plato Society,


Scolnicov, Samuel, ‘Two faces of Platonic knowledge’, Journal of International Plato Studies, no. 4,


Cf. Emerson on this section of the Gorgias: ‘[Plato’s] illustrations are poetry and his jests illustrations. Socrates’ profession of obstetric art is good philosophy; and his finding that word ‘cookery,’ and ‘adulatory art,’ for rhetoric, in the Gorgias, does us a substantial service still. No orator can measure in effect with him who can give good nicknames.’ ‘Plato: Or, the Philosopher,’ in Representative Men, p. 174.