Tragedy and Plato’s Republic

I recently found an article that provided a tragic interpretation of Plato’s Republic which, given the material we covered earlier in the semester, seemed an appropriate vein of discussion. John D. Harman’s article “The Unhappy Philosopher: Plato’s Republic as Tragedy” highlights the philosopher’s obligations to two worlds, the perceived world (as in the Cave) and the real world (outside of the Cave) to interpret it in a tragic sense. The philosopher, of course, knows the Forms, and because of that it is most just for him to be a ruler of the “perceived” world.  Harman argues that the nature of the philosopher necessitates him to do the just thing and re-enter the Cave, but in doing so he must move away from the Forms themselves and by the very definition of the Forms, he fails to implement them ideally, which creates the philosopher’s tragedy (590-1).

In class we defined tragedy as a genre in which the protagonist (who has a heroic trait) struggles with forces beyond his control and is inevitable defeated by them. In order to be tragic Plato’s philosopher must be struggling with forces beyond his control (fate) and be defeated or fail, inevitably. The tragic conflict occurs because of the philosopher’s need to go back to the Cave and attempts to guide and rule the people. The philosopher’s very nature must turn him on this course, as this action is intended to be just and represent the Forms in the perceived world (Harman, 590).

The philosopher is ideal for governing the kallipolis because of his superior knowledge of the Forms. As a ruler, he must represent and use the Forms to guide the perceived world. Though the attempt to represent and utilize the Forms in the kallipolis is inevitably flawed it can be viewed as the philosopher’s heroic trait. A true philosopher knows that it is most just for him to rule because of his knowledge of the Forms, which must be the guiding principles and values of the kallipolis. By following his knowledge of justice and the Forms, he must rule.

It is unsurprising that this fails in the perceived world. Since the Forms are nothing that we can actually perceive with our senses (that limitation being a key aspect of the perceived world) it is impossible that the philosophers could purely implement the Forms in the perceived world. Harman explains:

While the realm of eternal ideas can be apprehended and appreciated through reason, such action as reason entails can only be undertaken              in the imperfect realm of appearance. Because action can only proceed in this latter world it can never coincide with the perfect pattern set              for it in the philosopher’s vision of the Idea of the Good (590).

The philosopher must attempt to represent the Forms in his actions in the perceived world.  But the Forms are not action, not visual, and can’t be perfectly portrayed, because of their nature, in a world of perception (or appearance, to use Harman’s language). The crucial differences between these two worlds create the “fate” aspect of this tragedy. Their differences by definition make the philosopher’s attempt to rule and coincide with the Forms an inevitable failure. His philosophic nature necessitates him to do the just thing and rule the people in the perceived world, but by doing so he is moving away from the Forms themselves. Harman references the Noble Lie and the lies that Plato instates in the kallipolis as evidence of this (582-3). Clearly, the Forms are in the intentions behind these actions, but not purely represented. The philosopher who has knowledge of the Forms is compelled to rule and guide, but because of the nature of the Forms and the limitations of the perceived world he is destined to fail.

All of the elements of tragedy from this interpretation are present. The implication of the argument is that it is impossible to create a perfectly just city because of the failure of the philosophers to use the Forms in the perceived world. The tragic failure is due to the incompatibility between the perceived world and real world. The Forms themselves lose their perfection when applied the perceived world, which would mean they lose their functionality and don’t exist in the world where they are implemented. It seems questionable at the very least to use such ideals in a political system. The ideal form of justice will never be a reality in the perceived world. The failure of these lofty ideals is significant. Since the Forms are not functional and can’t be correctly applied to the perceived world, the philosopher is only imitating and acting on what he thinks he knows of the truth, but not actually representing it. The philosopher, in this sense, is more of a poet than a philosopher, and Socrates establishes him as the ruler. Rather than setting up an ideal just city, there is a set of problems and imperfections that arise from the idea of establishing a world of perfect forms incompatible with the perceived world. The establishment of the Forms seems to justify the rule of the philosopher-kings, but the establishing perfect ideals do not translate into an ideally just system. Since the Forms are not ever going to be able to be functional in a world against their own nature, the more important element of their establishment might be that they justify the philosopher-kings actions. Justice, in the kallipolis, is never ideally just, but perhaps closer to Thrasymachus’ estimation of justice. The philosophers have the advantage of ruling by claiming they have genuine knowledge, and supposedly having this genuine knowledge justifies their rule. But if their ability to represent the genuine knowledge in the perceived realm is a failure, then they have no justification for rule.  Thus, by viewing the tragic conflict between the two worlds, the failings of Socrates’ ideal city and Forms are exposed.

The article by John D. Harman can be found online here:


Harman, John D. “The Unhappy Philosopher: Plato’s “Republic” as Tragedy.” Polity 18.4 (Summer, 1986): 577-94. Palgrave Macmillan Journals. 


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