The Republic is one of the most influential books of human history. It forms not just the basis of individual rights and responsibilities, but also, through its method of examination, sets out the structure of contemporary governance of states. The premise of the Republic is an examination of whether it is better to be just or unjust, which at the time, and even now, is not a given. Plato uses the state as a vehicle to examine the advantage of one over the other. Many different human constructions have claimed the legitimacy of their cause through their interpretation of the Republic. Hitler and the Nazi's used the examination of the virtuous state to justify their view, whilst most modern leaders also refer to its supporting theirs. It is therefore a devilishly difficult book to truly understand because of the sheer breadth of topics and issues that Plato introduces over the course of the dialogue. Readers must make sense not only of those issues in their own right but they must also understand them in relation to the larger themes and arguments of the work.
For me the true value of the Republic is found in Books Five and Eight. In Five we see an analogous treatment of character or what Plato calls the soul. According to Plato the soul has three functions that correspond to the three parts of the soul: to rule oneself, to defend oneself, and to provide for one's bodily needs. Two virtues -- wisdom and courage -- follow directly from the functions of ruling and defending oneself. The other two virtues -- temperance and justice -- are holistic and enable the soul to perform all of its functions well. Plato uses the different functions that we would find in a city or state to demonstrate his point. What appealed to the Nazi's was Plato's focus on what we now call eugenics to make his point. He correctly states that each of us have a particular function, and service to the state. He states that only a very few have the capacity to rule a city or state, but not by birth, but rather through education and self-control. He therefore makes it clear that being born in a particular segment of society does not make a person just or virtuous, but rather their ability to rule themselves (porten sui).
In Book Eight Plato examines the natures of different forms of government, and the nature of people that make up those governments (states). His examination of democracy is cutting, with thoughts such as "he grandly does democracy trample all the fine notions of virtue... and promoting to honour any one who professes to be the people's friend (think Trump, populism). Further, "These and other characteristics are proper to democracy, which is a charming form of government, full of variety and disorder, and dispensing a sort of equality to equals and unequals alike." And then he outlines what the individual in a democracy looks like "If any one says to him that some pleasures are the satisfactions of good and noble desires, and others of evil desires, and that he ought to use and honour some and chastise and master the others, whenever this is repeated to him he shakes his head and says that they are all alike, and that one is as good as another." This is what we now term equality, not understanding that things are not equal, but rather that some things are good and some are bad, saying that all things are equal and must be respected. "And above all, see how sensitive the citizens become, they chafe impatiently at the least touch of authority, and at length they cease to care even for the laws, written or unwritten, they will have no one over them". "And so tyranny naturally arises out of democracy, and the most aggravated form of tyranny and slavery out of the most extreme form of liberty."
It is uncanny how Plato knew, in 325bc, what our democracies would look like, and what type of leader would arise. What is really frightening though is that he identifies that the next stage after democracy is tyranny.
It is a very difficult book to fully understand, or in some cases to agree with, and I don't claim that I do, but there is much for us to learn from the attempt.