Plato conceived that there were two great causes of human corruption, viz., bad or ill-directed education, and the corrupt influence of the body on the soul. His ethical discussions, therefore, have for their object, the limiting of the desires, and the cure of the diseases produced by them in the soul; while his political discussions have for their immediate object, the laying down of right principles of education, and enforcing them by the constitution of the laws and the power of the State. His two great works, in fact, the Republic and the Laws, may be considered as theories and plans of civic education, rather than schemes of legislation and details of laws. The former, it is true, inquires more particularly into the principles on which a right government may be formed, and the latter presents a systematic view of the principles of legislation: but, comprising, as both works do, so much matter of a purely intellectual and ethical character, we are compelled to conclude that their primary object is, the improvement of human nature by social institutions expressly formed for that purpose. We are not to suppose, moreover, that Plato, in his Republic, had in view the actual foundation of a State, but that he presents rather an example of the most perfect life -public as well as private free from those impediments which all existing governments and laws throw across the path of the virtuous. Thus, in the Laws (lib. vii.), he says "Our whole government consists in the imitation of a most excellent and virtuous life"; and again, "these excellent things are rather as wishes stated in a fable than actual facts, though it would be best of all if they could exist in all States." He thought, in fact, that as Philosophy is the guide of private life, elevating it to the knowledge of the true and the good, so it was seated, likewise, on the throne of government, and exhibited the eternal ideas of social good and truth, modifying society after their pattern; and hence is it, that (as Aristotle observes in the second Book of his Politics, Chapter 2) Plato overlooks impossibilities in his arrangements, and sacrifices all to the one great object of sketching the idea of good as a social principle, apart from the evil influences of society.
We shall now proceed to describe at some length the subject-matter of the Republic; and we shall just remark, that if the work itself had been more studied, there would have been far less difference of opinion respecting the nature and object of this Dialogue. In fact, no exposition or theory can explain Plato, who is, above all others, a writer to be studied in his own works; and his character as a writer and philosopher would have been far higher in general estimation at the present day, if there had been fewer to pronounce sentence on him without having read a single syllable of his writings.
The Republic of Plato is a development of the analogy between the ideas of the perfect man and the perfect state, the two principles being elaborated throughout the Dialogue, in perfect harmony and mutual dependence on each other. He exhibits, indeed, the image of perfect and consummate virtue, such as ought to be seen in the whole life of man, whether in his private capacity simply, as a sentient and moral agent, or in his public position as the member of a State. As man, moreover, has certain special social relations and social functions, he considers him also collectively, as part of a State, and is hence led to inquire into the best or pattern form of a State, a proceeding quite in unison with the custom of the Greeks, who treated Politics rather as a branch of Ethics than a separate science. This Dialogue, therefore, one of that splendid group of which the Timaeus, the Critias, and the Laws are the other members, comprises two subjects constantly connected and cohering, the contemplation of the perfectly good man, composed of body and soul on the one hand, and on the other the perfectly good State, composed of many members in different classes, performing their respective functions. Justice, then, the principle, cause, and uniting bond of all the other virtues, one, too, that is essentially of a political character forms a very suitable discussion by way of introduction to this Dialogue. The refutation of incorrect or inadequate definitions of this virtue, occupies a large portion of the first Book; and Socrates (the hero of this, as of most other of the Platonic Dialogues) then proceeds, with the view of educing some abstract definition of justice, to explain his notion of a perfect State, as one in which all ranks of its members accurately fulfill their respective functions, dwelling together in harmony.
The understanding of the Symposium has sometimes been hampered by failure to recognize the vital distinction between the second and third types of lover. Comparison with the Phaedrus, which is also largely concerned with the subject of love, confirms the existence of the distinction, if confirmation is needed. There too we are presented with the same three types, the purely sensual, those who are called in the Phaedrus 'lovers of honour', and the lovers of wisdom. The second type, who have not entirely passed beyond physical love, and who correspond to the nobler lovers of Pausanias, are not condemned in either dialogue; in the Phaedrus it is positively stated that these lovers are capable of growing wings which may lift them again into the eternal world of the Forms which the soul once inhabited. Such lovers may have trouble in subduing their physical desires, and may never rise above the level of the 'lover of honour', but they are infinitely to be preferred to the merely sensual lover, who is severely indicted, and they have made some progress towards the state from which they fell at birth. The best type, however, the lover of wisdom, though he may still feel some pleasure in the things of sense, will never allow them to divert him for an instant from the pursuit of real beauty. But it is to be remembered that the first impulse to that pursuit, even in his case, is provided by the physical beauty of particular persons. Plato's opinions, when he wrote these two dialogues, had not yet crystallized into the complete reprobation of all physical homosexuality which we find in the Laws, and there can be little doubt that he, as well as Socrates, was strongly attracted by beautiful young men. Socrates frequently speaks of himself as being in love with them, and we must recognize that such language is not wholly ironic; the irony consists in such love having a meaning for him quite different from that which the common man attaches to it. Such considerations lead us to the final scene of the dialogue, the speech of Alcibiades in praise of Socrates.
The best commentary on such a situation is provided by Plato himself in the Republic (494), where, no doubt with Alcibiades in mind, he shows that it is the most promising natures which go most disastrously wrong if they succumb to the temptation offered by public life. Alcibiades' condition may in fact be excellently summed up in the famous words Video meliora proboque, deteriora sequor, and it seems odd that, faced with the example of his conscious rejection of the higher for the lower, both Socrates and Plato should have remained unshaken in their profound belief that all wrong-doing is the result of ignorance.
However that may be, it is not to be doubted that one object of the Symposium in general and of Alcibiades' speech in particular is to make plain that Socrates was in no way responsible for Alcibiades' betrayal of his country in the Peloponnesian War two years after the dramatic date of the dialogue. It had been one of the main charges against Socrates at his trial that he had corrupted several of the most prominent and talented young Athenians by his conversation, and led them to abandon traditional morality and embark upon courses subversive of the Athenian democracy. The fact that an act of oblivion made it necessary to veil all reference to this in general terms in no way diminished the strength of the prejudice against Socrates on this account. Among those of his associates who had proved enemies of the state none bore a heavier share of guilt than Alcibiades, and, as far as he is concerned, Plato supplements in the Symposium the defence of Socrates against the charge of 'corrupting the young' which he has already elaborated in the Apology and elsewhere. So too the anecdotes of Potidae and Delium serve a double purpose, revealing Socrates as patriotic citizen as well as true philosopher;…