© 1996 Bernard SUZANNE Last updated November 21, 1998
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Symbolic roles and names in Plato's Republic

February 12, 1995


This page is part of the "e-mail archives" section of a site, Plato and his dialogues, dedicated to developing a new interpretation of Plato's dialogues. The "e-mail archives" section includes HTML edited versions of posts that I submitted on various e-mail discussion lists about Plato and ancient philosophy.

To: plato-republic <plato-republic@freelance.com> ,
Date : February 12, 1995, 18:56:25
Subject : Symbolic roles and names in Plato's Republic

I strongly agree with Christopher Planeaux when he stresses the importance of "introductions", circumstancial details, and in short everything that the author has written, to understand Plato's dialogues. As he starts talking about the cast of characters in the Republic, I'd like to stress two aspects that I think are key in this respect. The first one is the "symbolic role" that some characters play in a dialogue, and the second is the etymological meaning of their name, as it relates to this role. As regards the Republic, I'd like to put it in perspective with two other dialogues which, I believe, prepare it in many ways (see the general scheme for the dialogues I posted on the "sophia" list) (1): they are the Gorgias and the Apology, the first one discussing the appearance of justice as proposed by the sophists and rhetors, the second showing us the justice as lived by Socrates, before the Republic can show us the true idea of justice through the mouth of the one who lived it to the end. As regard what I call "symbolic role", my belief is that the Gorgias is a discussion between two "tripartite souls" in the manner of the Republic. On the one side, we find one soul made up of Gorgias-the-logos, Polos-the-thumos, and Callicles-the-epithumiai; on the other side, we find Socrates-the-logos, Cherephon-the-thumos, and the epithumiai of this soul are not even mentionned because they don't have a part in the discussion of a well-ordered soul (at least in that kind of discussion, as we will see later the part they can take in a discussion designed to "educate" them) (2). As the title of the dialogue implies (Gorgias should be the "hero"), the discussion should be logos against logos, that is, Gorgias against Socrates, the logos of the man who puts his faith in rhetoric against the logos of the one who puts his faith in sophia. But the first words come from the epithumiai of the rhetor, Callicles. And if the logos, Gorgias, eventually gets dragged into the discussion for a (short) while by Socrates, he is soon taken over by his thumos, Polos, who himself doesn't hold long before the epithumiai invade the foreground again and take the longest stand, though Gorgias stays in the background and pronouces one or two words here and there, feebly trying to quiet them down, or get them back to task when they no longer want any part in a discussion.

And not only does the vocabulary used to describe the intrusion of Polos, and later that of Callicles, is consistant with the "part" thet play, but their very name is too! Polos means "young colt", and reminds us of the winged chariot used as an image of the soul in the Phædrus. And Callicles means "one who as a reputation for beauty", without it being possible to decide whether this reputation is deserved or not, the word "kleos" having both meanings. And don't get me wrong! I don't pretend to settle the question whether these people are real persons from Socrates' time or merely Plato's creations. Even if they were real, nothing prevents Plato for choosing them, among other reasons, for the relationship betwen the meaning of their name and the part they are to play in the dialogue (for instance, I strongly believe that the Aristotle, one of the thirty, chosen as respondant in the second part of the Parmenides, who is a historic person, was chosen by Plato because he had the same name as a more famous philosopher, Aristotle, the pupil of Plato, and Plato was discussing in this dialogue the precise point where he thought his pupil could not understand him). Back to the Gorgias, for sure, Gorgias is a real person; this is less sure for Polos, and not sure at all for Callicles. Yet, even if both were real people, there remains to decide why Plato chose precisely those persons to play a part in his dialogue. On Socrates' side, Kairephon means "the one who manifests hapiness, joy, through his speech", a joy of the whole person ("Kaire" was Plato's greeting in his letters). And this is appropriate for one who is only there to let his logos talk, and merely create the circumstances of the discussion, like a tamed thumos in a just soul in the manner of the Republic.

In the Apology, we only hear Socrate talk, Socrate the just. But we hear three speeches, and we can see that, in the first one, Socrates lets his logos talk in his defense, give the rationale, the "logos", of his whole life, while in the second speech, it is the thumos, the will, that speaks, for the "kritical" part, the judgment, the krisis of his life, and in the last speech, he lets his epithumiai express their fears, and their faith in an afterlife elicited by a life long paideia by the logos... (here again, this does not mean that these three speeches were not a real part of an Athenian trial at the time, but only that Plato transfigured them to serve his purpose and unveil their inner meaning). Yet, this way of looking at the Apology only shows the "external", apparent, structure of the work. An "inner" structure can be found, that divides it in two equal parts around a centerpiece (29b-30c) where we find two of the only three uses of the word "psukè" in the Apology (the third one being toward the end), in what can be viewed as the summary of Socrates' goal in life: convince his fellow citizens to take care of their soul. These two parts oppose the act of a divided city (the many) in bringing Socrates to trial for not having understood him, in a mockery of justice (the centerpiece of this first part is at 23c-24c, where we find the text of the act of accusation, and the answering accusation of Socrates against Meletus), to the act of a unified man (the one), unified within himself (the "inner" justice of the Republic, and with his friends and disciples (the "social" justice of the Republic), defending the justice of his whole life (the center of this second part, responding to that of the first part, is at 33a-34b, where Socrates lists his friends present at the trial to support him, as a testimony of his good influence on those who seriously want to follow him).

And if the Apology is almost entirely a monologue by Socrates, we see thru the eyes of Socrates the "soul" of the city, made up of, guess what, three persons! Meletus the poet, Anytus the demiourgos become politician, and Lycon the rhetor. These three represent the three categories of persons that Socrates successively interrogated in his inquiry (21c-22e): first the politicians, the "logos" of the city, next the poets, the "poietes", that is the "makers", who materialize the will, the thumos of the city, and last, the demiourgos, the last class of the Republic, the "epithumiai" of the city. But the image the three accusers of Socrates give is that of a city upside down: the supposed "logos" of the city is represented by a rhetor, Lycon, the "wolf" (too good to be true, don't you think! But this one isn't mentionned elsewhere, as far as I know...), but a mute rhetor, who doesn't say a word, at least as far as Socrates is concerned; the will of the city, its thumos, the poietes are represented by Meletus, considered by Socrates as the "maker" of the accusation (even if he knows Anytus to be its "soul", the logos that pushed him to act), and the mocker of justice (as Homer had become a parody of teacher for the Grece of Plato's time), and he is the one Socrates talks with in his argument; and, last but not least, Anytus symbolises the demiourgous become politicians, that is, the lower class not having kept its role in the city, but pretending to the role of leader and guardian of the city, which is the exact opposite of justice in the city according to the Republic... But enough with the Apology, which, along these lines, no longer looks like a journalistic report written a few years after the fact by a still young Plato trying to avenge his master's memory, and long before the so-called "middle dialogues".

Back now to the Republic, where we find the synthesis of both viewpoints, the rationale for what was enacted in the earlier dialogues presenting us with Socrates against the rhetors at home (Gorgias) and in the city (Apology), in "logos" (Callicles is only "talking") and in "ergon" (the city is darn serious and will eventually kill Socrates). The prolog of the Republic (which I take to go down to book 2, at 369b), is a carefully built piece in five acts designed to set the stage for the ensuing discussion. The first three acts are built along the same lines as the Gorgias, from Cephalus-logos (note that Kephalos means "head", again not forgetting that he is probably a "historic" character) to Thrasymachus-epithumiai thru Polemarchus-thumos (Polemarchos means "principle, or leader, of war, of fight, an appropriate qualification for the "will"), except that, here, the best known character is no longer the one that "plays" the logos, but the one that "plays" the epithumiai, Thrasymachus taking the place of Callicles (but the relative length of each part is about the same in both "dialogues", larger and larger as we go down that upside-down soul). I'll leave it to another time to show in more details what's going on with each "part" of this tripartite soul, and how the words used about each partner anticipates the image of the soul at the end of book IX. I just want, as an example, to stress the case of Cephalus, the "head" of the discourse, and the giver of the subject-matter, whose "speech" is itself in three parts, mostly three monologs in which Socrates takes very little part, each centered on the citation of somebody else: Sophocles, a writer of tragedies, Themistocles, a politician, and Pindar, a poietes, in that order, that is, in no order at all. And it is no hazard if the central speech revolves around the very ambiguous theme of his "ousia" (329e, 330d), taken here to mean "wealth", but loaded in Socrates', and Plato's, mouth with a whole other meaning... In other words, Cephalus is a head that cannot think by itself, understands ousia to mean only material wealth, and leaves the stage as soon as the discussion begins, to leave it to his thumoeide son to argue (even Gorgias stayed till the end of the discussion with Callicles!). Against this tripartite soul, we find, alongside the same Socrates-logos as in the Gorgias, a more articulate pair of defenders for the two other parts: moving us back in the reverse order toward the logos from the depths where Thrasymachus dragged us, are first Glaucon (whose name reminds us of a marine god, a god of that sea world that is dangerous for cities and close to the underworld), who talks in defense of the epithumiai (he is the one who will soon rebel against the "city of pigs"(372d) and force Socrates to introduce some "luxury" in his city) with the story of Gyges' ring (which, by the way, is an exact counterpoint to the myth of the cave, who answers it in the dialogue proper, and calls for the myth of Er, in the epilogue (580d-621d), an epilogue which is also divided in five parts, each answering one of the five parts of the introduction, only in a different order; but more of that later); and then Adeimantus, who talks in defense of the thumos, and tries to better justify Cephalus' attitude than Polemarchus, in showing the role of the poets as educators (the answer to his discourse in the epilogue being the critic of poetry in the first part of book X, which becomes possible after the dialogue proper has shown us what the true education of the philosopher-king should be, and is thus perfectly explained both in location and contents).

I will stop here for today. What I meant to show is that Plato's dialogues are truly philosophical works from a to z, both in their words and in their setting, even where it does not seem philosophy can hide; that everything in them contributes to the understanding of what Plato intended to tell, including the most minute details; and that they are marvelously constructed masterpieces whose plans are as stunning when you unearth them as they are carefully hidden by Plato's craftmanship, each dialogue having two plans superimposed on one another, that we could call a "sensible", or "visible" plan and an "intelligible" one, usually perfectly balanced whereas the "visible" one is often off balance (we have seen a case with the Apology, but the same is true with the Republic, which has also two plans, the second perfectly balanced around the centerpiece of Plato's thinking, the paradigm of the philosopher-king (471c-474c), which was already present in the VIIth letter to explain Plato's attitude toward politics, and his choice of withdrawing from it to build the Academy; I'll detail these plans in another posting).


(1) For a better presentation of this scheme, go to the map of the dialogues. (back)

(2) In the part of the introduction to the second tetralogy that deals with the Gorgias, I have somewhat modified the roles played by Socrates and Cherephon, but the meaning of the whole dialog is not much changed. (back)


Plato and his dialogues : Home - Biography - Works and links to them - History of interpretation - New hypotheses - Map of dialogues : table version or non tabular version. Tools : Index of persons and locations - Detailed and synoptic chronologies - Maps of Ancient Greek World. Site information : About the author.

First published December 8, 1996 ; Last updated November 21, 1998
© 1996 Bernard SUZANNE (click on name to send your comments via e-mail)
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