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July 17, 2006 | by  | in Books |
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Plato’s Republic: a Biography

By SIMON BLACKBURN

Platos Republic pic. Plato, for those of you who have been living in a cave for the past few thousand years (ha! Philosophy nerd joke), is one of the Big Names in classical philosophy. The Republic is one of Plato’s most famous works, written as a dialogue led by Plato’s own mentor, Socrates. The Republic covers a lot of ground, including discussion of the nature of reality, the place of art in the world, and the functioning of the ideal state. Plato’s dialogues have been picked over by philosophers for centuries, like vultures cleaning a particularly magnificent carcass of its meat.

Simon Blackburn is a professor of philosophy at Cambridge, and was commissioned to write this book as part of a series on ‘Books that Shook the World’. Unfortunately, as he admits in his preface, he didn’t come into the project with any particular interest in or knowledge of Plato, and he thanks a better-qualified colleague for educating him in Plato. She probably should have been given the job, because his lack of interest shows. The object of this series is to give the average punter a gentler way into some dense but terribly important books, and the authors should be fiercely passionate about their chosen author. As it stands, Blackburn’s commentary reads like a series of dull lecture notes.

There’s really a vibe coming off the pages that Blackburn would rather not be talking about Plato at all. He spends a lot of time telling us how absurdly false and morally wrong Plato’s arguments are, and while he may be right, it’s not an angle that will send us racing back to the original Republic. A lot of Plato’s ideas are abhorrent to sensitive modern readers, for he believed that there should be a strict division of labour in society, and that any movement between castes was the ultimate in immorality. Nonetheless, it’s poor form to discard his arguments on the basis of mere common sense. This is supposed to be philosophy.

So I can’t really recommend this book. If you have to study Plato for some reason, it could be a useful primer, but it’s not written with enough authority or wit to deserve your attention on its own merits. Hopefully the authors for the other books in this series will be better-chosen.

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