Interpretations of The Republic have generally emphasised its role as either a political or an ethical text. Those who interpret it as chiefly a political text point to things like Plato’s arrangement of different social classes in to different types of labour; the absence of private property for the guardians of the state; and the selective curriculum of education delivered to the city’s youth.
Those who interpret it as chiefly an ethical text argue that The Republic is an allegory for Plato’s theory of the tripartite soul, and that the ordering of the different social classes is allegorical to the ordering of the different parts of the soul – namely reason, appetite, and spiritedness.
On this second view, it is difficult to see how topics like private property fit in to the correct ordering of the soul, hence critics of this view argue that The Republic must contain at least some of Plato’s political ideas.
If viewed as a political text, The Republic can be seen as containing ideas we now associate with communism (as with the absence of private ownership), as well as totalitarianism (Plato argues that educational materials should be censored to inculcate a sense of duty to the state; he also argues that citizens of different social classes should not be allowed to procreate), as well as egalitarian ideas like the equal rights of women.
The driving force behind The Republic is Plato’s (told through the character of Socrates) desire to find out what justice is. The ideal city state is one that is just – so once sketched out as such, Socrates and his interlocutors should be able to locate justice within it.
Socrates concludes that justice is to be found in the structure of the ideal city state itself, in the correctly ordered and properly regulated relationship between the different social classes and their division of labour. He argues that each person has an innate tendency towards some or other skill, and that the city as a whole (and therefore the citizens within it) profit most from each person acting according to his or her role.
This belief coheres with Plato’s essentialism, or the belief that there is a singular defining essence common to each person (and to humanity as a whole). The people who should rule the city, therefore, are those most suited to ruling; those most suited to war and fighting should be the ones to guard it; and those most suited to everyday labour such as farming and medicine should fulfill those roles. We would not want a farmer to act the role of a doctor; nor should we want the person or people who rule the city to be unsuitable rulers. For Plato, it is those (and only those) who love knowledge and are guided by reason who should rule the city.
Plato’s insistence that education should consist of a selective (and censored) curriculum of arts, music, and physical sport, can be viewed as a mandate for an education that will make one a better person. For Plato and his contemporaries, ethics was as much about living a good life and being a good person as it was about right and wrong actions. An education that censored books or mentors that taught unprofitable things was therefore a necessary step to becoming a good person.
Viewed as an ethical text, justice is to be found in the proper ordering of the soul and the regulation of appetites according to reason. Just as only those who are guided by reason should rule the ideal city, reason should rule in the ideal individual. Accordingly, the spirited part of the soul (comparable to Plato’s class of those who guard the city), and the part of the soul concerned with appetite, should work together with reason as the sovereign force.
The criticism of The Republic as a text that mandates totalitarianism falls short if we view the text in an ethical light. Plato’s conclusion that justice is to be found in those people who subordinate their fleeting emotions to their more reasonable faculties is not a particularly contentious one. The problem emerges when we consider the sovereignty of reason on the macro level, in the form of governments and their social institutions. When reason is valued higher than individual human beings are, systemic injustices can be justified: the triumph of the majority over the few, or the deliberate extinguishing of genes that are considered deleterious from the gene pool, to name a few examples. Whether The Republic is a mandate for totalitarianism then depends on what interpretation is taken of it: defenders of Plato emphasise its use as an allegory on how to live well, but criticisms of Plato’s more overt political references cannot be defused on these grounds alone.