The Republic by Plato: Summary & Explanation

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  • 0:03 Plato
  • 0:54 Plato's ''The Republic''
  • 6:29 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Flint Johnson

Flint has tutored mathematics through precalculus, science, and English and has taught college history. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Glasgow

Expert Contributor
Ginna Wilkerson

Ginna earned M.Ed. degrees in Curriculum and Development and Mental Health Counseling, followed by a Ph.D. in English. She has over 30 years of teaching experience.

What is justice? Is it a concept based on the behavior of humans individually, or is it an all-encompassing concept without variation for all mankind? This lesson reviews what Socrates and friends had to say about justice in ''The Republic.''


The most famous student of the Greek philosopher Socrates was Plato, who was born around the year 427 BC in Athens, Greece. Most of what we know today about Socrates came from his students like Plato, who wrote works after his death to illuminate his life and teachings.

Plato's school, called The Academy, is also where we get our ideas of education and pedagogy, or the study and practice of education. Plato developed the Platonic method, or what he called the dialectic, where students are asked to question age-old truths to develop new ideas and concepts that break with tradition.

Since Socrates wrote no books, some historians think that many of Plato's teachings and books on these three forms were adopted from earlier musings from Socrates.

Plato's The Republic

One of Plato's most famous works, which can be attributed to the lessons he learned from Socrates, was The Republic. This is also considered to be the first book on political science or government and uses the Platonic method to reason through ideas on justice. In the book, a group decides to create an imaginary city to define what justice looks like. The city is divided into classes: the Rulers who have an understanding of right and wrong, the Guardians who protect the city and care for its people, and the Producers who provide goods and services for the people.

Book One

In Book One, Socrates and Plato's brother, Glaucon, are traveling home from a festival when they come upon another brother of Plato, named Adeimantus, who was also traveling with a rich Athenian named Polemarchus. Polemarchus invites everyone to his home where they meet his elderly father, Cephalus.

As the men banter, they begin to discuss the meaning of justice, and what it means to be just, like being honest and following the law. Socrates takes each idea apart and this sets the theme for the rest of the book. The primary questions the men try to answer are what justice is, and does it make someone happier if they are just?

Book Two

In Book Two, Glaucon attempts to define the good. He goes on to explain that good can be organized into three categories:

  • Good for the sake of being good
  • Good for the sake of being good and because people get something out of it
  • Good only because people get something out of it

Socrates introduces the idea that they should first define a just city, and this will help them to then define a just individual. The group then begins to argue for what makes a city just, and they imagine the ideal city and what it would look like and how it would function.

Book Three

Book Three involves a discussion about the Guardians, who Socrates calls the 'heroes of the city.' This conversation evolves into one about the education of the Guardians by elder men in the city, and the group argues about what Guardians must be taught to want to protect a city.

Book Four

In Book Four, Socrates finally gives his answer to what constitutes a just society:

  • A city that doesn't use money so that there is no poverty or rich,
  • A city that has the wisest Rulers uncorrupted by wealth, and
  • A city with the best Guardians who value their education more than anything else

and all of this is what creates a just city.

Socrates then discusses the best virtues for any city to possess based on the ones they have created in their Republic. Wisdom is a virtue that the Rulers are endowed with, and courage is the highest virtue of the Guardians. Moderation and justice are liberally spread throughout the city, as there is no money, which prevents avarice from the rich against the poor.

Book Five

Book Five is a deeper discussion, where the social constructs of the city are broken down. Socrates believes women should belong to the Guardian class as well and should receive the same education. He also thinks sex should be regulated so the best breeds with the best. All children should belong to the community, so a new mom would nurse all babies born at the same time and not really know which one is hers. Socrates and the group also discuss war and what the rules of warfare would look like in a just city.

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Additional Activities

Questions for Plato's The Republic

Discussion Questions:

1. Read about Plato's Allegory of the Cave in greater detail. This allegorical tale refers not only to the dualism of matter versus forms (true objects) but also a dichotomy between the body and the soul. The story is meant to illustrate what happens when humans are born, in that they leave the realm of form (perfection) and fall into a flawed human existence. How does this belief fit with the concept of reincarnation? How does it work for someone following Christian ideas?

2. Socrates as recorded by Plato believed that women of intelligence and ability should be educated in the same way as men and be encouraged to become leaders. This was a radical idea in the culture of Ancient Greece and caused some degree of controversy among his followers and students. Why do you think Socrates might have put forth this idea? What would be the advantage for Greek society as a whole?

3. Another analogy presented in The Republic is that of the ship of fools. Plato suggests that a republic that is not governed according to reason is like a ship captained by a fool, with a crew that is also incompetent. The poor navigator in this tale knows what to do but no one respects him or follows his directions. The result is that the ship is wrecked. Discuss this analogy and how accurate a description it is for a country's government. How is this story related to Socrates' dislike of democracy and promotion of a republic instead? Hint: think about what happens on a committee when everyone tries to have equal control.

4. You read in the lesson about the idea that people, especially people in charge, should not own property or raise children. Is this communism? If yes, what makes a difference between this concept in Ancient Greece and modern communism in China or the former Soviet Union?

Note for Teachers:

Students will benefit more from this lesson and discussion if they have a copy of Plato's text available. They can then find the complete versions of parts involved in the questions like The Allegory of the Cave and the ship of fools. The ideas brought out in discussion will vary, but should reflect that the student is at least generally familiar with Plato's text. They should also be encouraged to do background reading on other variables mentioned, such as modern communism.

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