The Piraeus in the Republic

06 de novembre de 2010 0

The Piraeus in the Republic

The City Of Being Under The Twilight Of The City Of Becoming

Jordi Graupera








Oh Athens, queen of cities!

How fair your Navy Yard! How fair your Parthenon! How fair your Piraeus!

Fragment of a lost comedy.

R. Kassel and C. Austin. Poetae Comici Graeci (Frg155, Vol VIII)

“To abstract from a circumstance is not to deny it.”

Charles Peirce

Grounds of Validity of the Laws of Logic

“Metaphysics itself grows out of a particular historical situation, from the situation of the decline of the polis, the decline of Athens. It creates a heritage that can survive in the declining polis, and survives even de decline of Hellenism…”

Jan Patocka

Plato and Europe


The problem of Socrates: that place, at that time. Its importance.

It is not possible to begin any interpretation of the content of the Republic if one does not take a position concerning the meaning, the limits or the possibilities that its form, –its genre– brings to the discussion. Before even entering into the specificity of the Republic, the form of all Platonic works (excluding the epistles and epigrams) raises all sorts of questions regarding authorship, fatherhood of certain notions, intention of the philosophical project and the tension, sometimes even contradiction, between what it is said and agreed in a dialogue and the form of it, that is, its inconclusive dialogical nature. In other (and perhaps more Platonic) words: we read Plato’s dialogues looking for the “being” of his philosophy, the “what it is” of his contribution to Western philosophy and the history of the world; but Plato just offers to us the “becoming” of a conversation around that veiled being. The work of unveiling its truth belongs to the reader.

A new question arises then: which reader? Are Plato’s dialogues available to all readers? In other words: is all that is needed to unveil the “what it is” of Platonism contained in the dialogues themselves? It could be so, but it is more reasonable to consider that every dialogue is full of signs that appear opaque to us, but were presumably luminous or obvious to Plato’s contemporaries. The task of bringing meaning to these signs is then central to the work of unveiling Plato. Moreover, Plato is an author who — precisely because of the nature of his works, their narrativity, his care in placing the tension between ideas in someone’s mouth and in a particular place and time — cannot be interpreted through any concrete thing or character in particular. There is neither speaker of the truth nor of Plato’s position in the dialogues. Beyond the speeches themselves, each thing, place, person or moment in his works is in dialogue with everything else. This is why, as Leo Strauss says, everything in Plato’s dialogues is relevant. Nothing is accidental:

“The speeches deal with something general or universal (e.g. with justice), but they are made in a particular or individual setting: these and those human beings converse there and then about the universal subject. (…) Nothing is accidental in a Platonic dialogue, everything is necessary at the place where it occurs.”

The conversation that gives form to the Republic happens in a particular place and in a particular time. We know, because it is explicitly said in the first book of the Republic, that the place is Cephalus’ house, in the surroundings of the Piraeus (328b3). Also, although the year in which it happens is not stated, there are some signs that let us know an approximate date. Probably, most of them were easier to grasp some twenty five centuries ago. For example, the fact that the conversation happens the same night that a certain public religious celebration, i.e. the festival in honor of the goddess and the torch horse-race, is performed for the first time in the city could give some clue to Plato’s contemporaries about the exact year in which it happens (328a). Nevertheless, there are other signs that are easier for us to interpret: the fact that a man called Polemarchus, son of Cephalus, takes part in the conversation means that he is alive, so it must necessarily be before the uprising of the Thirty Tyrants, the regime that condemned him to capital punishment (327b). Indeed, this is a good example of a sign that carries information not contained directly in the dialogue itself. At first glance it may seem like a mere detail, but the presence of Polemarchus (not to forget that he is the host) in the Republic is significant for three reasons: a) the matter of the Republic is justice and the just regime, b) among the Thirty Tyrants there were kins and friends of Plato and Socrates, and c) the Republic was written after that regime ended and after the new one, namely, a democracy, had condemned Socrates to drink the poison.

However, we are facing here a time with political significance, not a real time. In the Republic we experience a sort of fictional time that allows a conversation to happen, and a silence to be meaningful (such as Cephalus’ early mutis), but the text itself, as so often happens in Plato (e.g. the Symposium), is self-contradictory in terms of both internal and external time.

We are therefore compelled to ask not which year Plato wants us to think the Republic to have transpired, (however interesting this inquiry might prove to be), because such a year does not exist; but rather what is the meaning, the philosophical, political and literary meaning of that time. As Leo Strauss says: “…we must understand the “speeches” of all Platonic characters in the light of the “deeds.” The “deeds” are in the first place the setting and the action of the individual dialogue.”


What, then, was Plato’s intention when he created that  conversation at that time in that particular venue? What did it mean to a Greek reader? How does all this affect the entire project of the Republic? In other words: what is the relation between the “becoming” of the conversation and the “being” that lies behind its veil? Since the place is precisely delimited, Cephalus’ and Polemarchus’ house at the Piraeus, while the time is only approximate, we will focus our inquiry on the place by attempting to unveil part of the symbolic and historical meaning of the Piraeus at that time. Since the Piraeus is, indeed, a city, a community, a sort of polis, we will attempt to see the perfectly just city of the Republic under the light of the meaning of the Piraeus.


The Piraeus as the place to go down to: exegesis of 327a


It is in the very beginning of the Republic that Socrates tells us where and when the action happened. The first sentence already contains relevant information for our purpose. First, Socrates says that he “went down to the Piraeus yesterday” (indeed, the first word in the Greek version is “went down”, Κατέβην). This simple narrative sentence implies that the reader already knows what and where this place called “the Piraeus” is. If Socrates (or Plato, for that matter) thought that the place needed more explanation, he could have included a short description of it, “I went to the port-city called Piraeus”, or “the city next to the navy yard”. But he did not. At the same time, he could have included a more detailed localization. He could have  been more precise: “I went down to the Piraeus, next to the Zea Harbor”, or “just two blocks from the Hippodamian Agora”. But he did not. So we can safely infer that whatever Plato wants to imply by mentioning the place where Socrates went is already included in the word “Piraeus”. Moreover, Socrates says “went down”. Taken literally, we must assume that Socrates comes from a higher venue. If we didn’t know anything about Attica’s geography, we would know just that: from high to low, Socrates went down. But, since Socrates was an Athenian, and in fact Athens was five or six miles north the Piraeus, and the way (i.e. the Long Walls) had a descent slope from the main city to its port-city, it is easy to conclude that at a first reading this “went down” means that Socrates went to the Piraeus from Athens, rather than from the sea.

However, this “went down” welcomes other less literal interpretations

, (in fact the concept in Greek, Κατάβασις, was used in several religious rituals). The place where Socrates comes from could be “higher” in a non-geographical sense. Socrates “goes down”, meaning that he approaches the world of the mundane. Even more: if this “going down” of the Book I is connected with the cave allegory of Book VII, being Socrates a philosopher, it seems plausible that Socrates goes down to the interior of the cave, in order to discuss the shadows of the world of senses, and to give notice of the higher world of real –intellectual/intelligible– things. Moreover, this line of interpretation would account for a confused Socrates. According to the cave allegory, if someone who had gone to the upper world “were to come down again and sit in the same seat, on coming suddenly from the sun wouldn’t his eyes get infected with darkness?” (517e3-5). So in “forming judgements about those shadows while his vision was still dim” he would be the source of “laughter” (517e7). Also, since it was “yesterday” that he “went down” to he Piraeus, in present time of the book, while giving his account of the conversation that forms the Republic, he is no longer “down” there; but he could equally be confused by the change, this time from darkness to light, which is a painful process (515c4-516b2). This coming down explains the nature of the conversation, or, more precisely, the nature of the way in which Socrates “teaches”; that is, through maieutics rather than through magisterial lectures. The difficult dialectical process to knowledge that Socrates proposes, the fact that Plato’s ultimate “lessons” on the “good” were esoterically hidden, never written and available only through real dialogue

, and the way in which the conversation of the Republic transpires, with double meanings, irony, reductios ad absurdum, contradictions and the absence of a closed conclusion in favor of an open reflection that calls for more and more conversation, all these and other characteristics of Plato’s works and Socrates’ teachings in them are partially explained by this “going down” to the cave. This unavoidable difficulty is then always present: accessing the truth inside the cave, down at the Piraeus, means finding the way out of it.

However inspiring or plausible this metaphysical interpretation of the “coming down” of Socrates may be, in the text he says that he “went down” with Glaucon. And throughout the Republic we see that whatever virtues Glaucon possesses, he is not (yet) an enlightened inhabitant of the upper level, the outside-of-the-cave realm. The analysis of why Glaucon accompanies Socrates, or whether it is Socrates who actually accompanies Glaucon would take us too far afield. Leo Strauss, however, mentions Xenophon’s Memorabilia to assert that Socrates tried to ease Glaucon’s political ambition, and that that might be the reason for him to be one of the main interlocutors of the Republic.

Be that as it may, what we know of Glaucon is that he is the son of Ariston, that is, the brother of Plato and Aidemantus (who will be another main character in the Republic), and that means that he is a member of the wealthiest families of Athens, an aristocracy, so to speak, close to power, and a nephew of one of the Thirty Tyrants. This Κατάβασις to the Piraeus could then have another non-geographical meaning. It could have a political meaning: going down from the old, rich, political, oligarchic Athens to its port-city, with all that port cities entail at a first glance

. It could be then a going down to the political arena with one young ambitious Athenian who must be taught and appeased.

However, the reason for them to go down to the Piraeus, as we also find out in the very first sentence, is not to discuss anything. The purpose of the visit is “to pray to the goddess; and, at the same time, I [Socrates] wanted to observe how they put on the festival, since they were holding it for the first time.” So, first, the main reason for going doing has to do with piety, religion. But, at the same time, Socrates wants to “observe;” he wants to examine the festival because it is “new.” Socrates is curious about the novelty of the festival. Pray and observe. Whether this is Plato’s way to respond to the accusation of impiety that lead to Socrates’ death sentence, or it is a way to express the balance between these two activities, it is difficult to say. However, the statement draws a first profile of Socrates, both respectful with tradition and enthralled by novelty, both interested in religion and in observation (however, this profile will seem ironic in light of the rest of the book,).

On the other hand, which goddess is the new “festival” celebrating? The next sentence of the paragraph of this translation (“Now, in my opinion, the procession of the native inhabitants was fine; but the one the Thracians conducted was no less fitting a show”) and the kind of city that the Piraeus was (as we will see later), together with the fact that we are in front of a new festival and that a little later on in the dialogue the torch-race is mentioned as part of the celebration, imply that Socrates is not talking about Athenea here. Rather, it is more likely that he is talking about the Thracian goddess Bendis, a version of Artemis, whose cult had been introduced to Attica.

This, then, would be the first celebration of the festival devoted to Bendis, which used to be celebrated at the beginning of June, a perfect time for a night-long conversation.

Therefore, even before we start discussing the historical reality of the Piraeus at that time, we can glimpse the kind of “city” it was. It was a city in which foreign goddesses were not only admitted but celebrated,

a city of plurality not only of options but of peoples (the Thracians to start with, but also the rich Metics, Cephalus and his sons, hosts of the Republic among others), and a place were cultural or religious manifestations performed by foreigners, namely the procession conducted by the Thracians, compared with the local one can be “no less fitting a show” according to an Athenian hoplit, a veteran of the Peloponnessian Wars, called Socrates.


These are the first characteristics that we learn of the place where Plato puts forth a dialogue on justice, on justice as it is in itself, és a dir, on universal justice. The question of the possibility and limits of the perfectly just city, together with (or as a consequence of) the question of justice in itself are the foundations of Political Philosophy. The beginning of it, as it were. It would be excessive to claim that it is the Piraeus, as the place of diversity, that is the cause or the reason for raising the question of universal political concepts. First of all, there had been many diverse  places in history before the Piraeus to call the Piraeus the primordial ooze out of which outcropped Political Philosophy as such. Secondly, the diversity of the Piraeus was a Greek diversity, with too few “barbarians” taking part in its life to consider it the crystallization of an ultimate diversity. And finally, the social and political context is not the only cause for Western Philosophy as we understand it to have come into life.

Nevertheless, it is arguably necessary to overcome tribalism and localism for a universal idea of justice to flourish. And to overcome tribalism it is also necessary to go beyond confrontation. The denial or the will to destroy the other, meaning, another people, country, culture, language, religion (or Greek city-state) implies a certain degree of knowledge of the enemy, especially of its weaknesses, but the primary will is founded in the conviction that one’s own community is superior in every sense. Defeat is fatalism, and alliance is deferral of the inevitable confrontation. To overcome localism a community of diverse individuals, or of diverse sub-communities must  be able to live together peacefully and prosperously. And the Piraeus is, at a first glance, a good example of this. So, independent of the real influence of the existence of the Piraeus, and of the Athenian naval empire, in the birth of Western humanism, or in the birth of Political Philosophy, the place really works as a mythical, political setting to develop such a system of thought.

However, the political/social context is necessary but insufficient. There is also an ontological premise for this beginning of political philosophy to become real. It is necessary to be able to make the distinction between what is visible and what is invisible. Or, what is the same, to be able to make a distinction between what is perceptible and what is intelligible. Or, what is the same also, between what is common and what is particular. Class and case. Being and becoming. Once the setting of the action of the Republic is established, once the conversation starts at the Piraeus, the rest of the night climbs this ontology, this path from becoming to being to utter what is behind the veil of the worldly world. Call it dialectic, abstraction, induction or revelation; and an entire system of thought will appear. In order to better understand Plato’s version of it, in order to ascend with him to the highlands of the outside-the-cave realms, we must first go down to the Piraeus, once again. This time to its historical, mundane sounds, smells and shadows. And consider then how relevant it is for the just city in speech to have been uttered in such a place.


The Historical Piraeus

The Piraeus was built after the battle of Salamis, like so many other things in Athens, both physical and intangible. Democracy, Aeschylus and the Republic are probably consequences of that battle, cunningly led by Themistocles, that Athenian who in 483 B.C. envisioned a city linked to the sea, proposed in the Assembly of Athens to use the silver surplus that the mines had produced that year to build up the greatest navy in Greece (170 triremes) and ultimately led the fleet against the Persian invader just 3 years later

.  Salamis was the end of a rather mediocre city called Athens, and the beginning of the Delphian League, the maritime empire that would make of Athens the city we remember when we utter words like Socrates, Sophocles, Pericles or Demosthenes. That city lasted only a century and a half, and in order to absorb all the wealth, people and military power that the imperial enterprise demanded, the Piraeus was built.

The meaning of the historic Piraeus as a setting for the Republic has, at least, three vectors that converge in that friendly conversation, and then diverge and disappear under the regime of the Ideal City. The first one is democracy, the second one is diversity, and the third one is sensuality. These three vectors shape the character of the Piraeus. All of them are the consequence of the rule of the sea by Athens, the consequence of their navy, and the consequence of their imperial ambition. By the time of the conversation of the Republic all these three characteristics have reached their zenith; by the time Plato wrote the Republic their decadence was already present. The history that is whispered now and then in the Republic by Plato is the history of the limits of a city that puts all its eggs in the basket of the “becoming”, the strength of the opinion of the mass, the power of the muscle of thousands of rowers, and the force of the desire for novelty, pleasures and eros. All trusted to the will of a bunch of different capricious gods, as relativistic in their will as the desire of their people in the marketplace. In the Republic, Socrates will purge all these three characteristics by showing their weaknesses when contrasted to the “being” of justice. But it is in the tension between these two extremes, and in the presence of its limits –injustice in one case, impossibility in the other– that this tension finds its meaning.

Just as democracy, the luxuries of the market or the lively diversity, the city at the Piraeus was a consequence of the Athenian naval empire

. The increasing role of the navy and the maritime trade led to the need for both a fortified Piraeus with its Navy Yard and its city of merchants. What is really significant for our purposes, however, is that the city of Athens decided to hire a urban planner to design the entire city, to create a city capable of both serving the navy and directing the traffic of all kinds of goods that the Athenians, as rulers of the sea, controlled. The man for the job was Hippodamus of Miletus. The city of Miletus had been rebuilt on a grid plan after the Persian War, and the success of the project made of Hippodamus a professional urban planner throughout Greece.


Hippodamus’ ambition was to design the physical setting for a perfect community. He would have been a perfect character in the Republic, but he was not, unless we consider the possibility that he was indeed present through his work, the Piraeus. Some of his ideas and deeds were close enough to the ideas defended by Socrates in the Republic to make us think of a connection:

“In his ideal city the population would be divided into three classes: craftsmen, farmers, and warriors. Land should also have its tripartite division: sacred, public, and private. Hippodamus even proposed that juries should be able to choose from not two but three possible verdicts: guilty, not guilty, and not sure. How his heart must have leaped when he caught his first glimpse of the three natural harbors at the Piraeus.”

The most relevant characteristic of his project, however, was its rationality. His idea was of a city based on a grid plan,

in which every space would have its purpose, and each public and private purpose would have its place. The Hippodamian plan was logical, rational, planned ahead not only to respond to human necessities, but in order to create a type of community, that is, an ideal city.  Leo Strauss comments on the difference, however, between Hippodamus’ and Socrates’ projects:

“In spite or because of his ambition, Hippodamus did not succeed in founding political philosophy or political science because he did not begin by raising the question “what is political?” or rather “what is the polis?” This question, and all questions of this kind, were raised by Socrates who for this reason became the founder of political philosophy. The “what is” questions point to “essences”, to “essential” differences –to the fact that the whole consists of parts which are heterogeneous, not merely sensibly (like fire, air, water, and earth  but noetically: to understand the whole means to understand the “What” of each of these parts, of these classes of beings, and how they are linked with one another.”

The Hippodamian ideal crystallized in a space-order. This is important because although it can be claimed that the Ideal City of Hippodamus was a rational project, it was a project aimed at re-ordering a society through stones, buildings, and streets, that is, through the physical world. It was not a project of re-building souls with souls, the aim of education and philosophy. The Hippodamian grid plan was conceived as series of straight streets (fig1), that had a proportioned size-ratio between them, and an idea of why and how each thing was as it was.

Even private houses were designed to follow the totalizing ideal of perfect community that Hippodamus had.

In what concerns the first vector of this city, namely, democracy, the form of Themistocles proposal in the Assembly showed the nature of change that came along with the leadership of Athens from the old democracy in Athens to the naval democracy. According to his old-style proposal, “one hundred of Athens’ richest citizens would each be allotted a talent of silver, (that is, six thousand drachmas). Each man would then use the money to buy raw materials and organizing the building of a warship.”

The form of this proposal expresses very clearly the preeminence of the wealthy class of Athens in a democracy that excluded the thetes, the lowest class of citizens, from the deliberation process as well as banning them from holding any public office in the city. But that would later change. One hundred new triremes would call for “seventeen thousand men to pull the oars.” Considering that Athens already possessed seventy ships, the only way that the city had to put all one hundred and seventy ships into battle was by conscripting the thetes: the new navy would empower the city’s masses. Not to forget that the rowers were always free men. Actually, most were citizens:

“They took pride in their navy and welcomed the steady pay and political equality that it offered. At times of supreme crisis, all free adult males in Athens –rich and poor, citizens and aliens, aristocratic horsemen and common laborers –would board the triremes and row to save  their city. On one desperate occasion, when the main fleet was blockaded in a distant harbor, the Athenians freed thousands of their slaves so that a new fleet could row to the rescue. All these former slaves received citizenship.”

The victory of Athens based on the navy, that is, on the peoples’ muscles and sweat meant a turning point in the development of Athenian democracy. As Aristotle said in his Politics: “The Athenian democracy was strengthened by the masses who served in the navy and who won the victory at Salamis, because the leadership that Athens then gained rested on sea power.”

But not only the navy meant an empowerment of the masses, it also meant a new kind of proximity between horsemen, hoplits and thetes. For the Persian War, Athens had mobilized its entire citizen body. An experience of equality came from that enterprise, not only because of the convivial atmosphere that any war brings, but also because of the nature of the task that they performed: indeed “rowing demanded perfect unison of action.”

When Socrates discusses in the VIII book of the Republic the coming to be of democracy he sees the roots of the democratic convictions against political and economical inequality in the experience of a community of shipmates from diverse social origins (556 c6-e), and in Adeimantus answer we are probably witnessing an historical assertion rather than an ideological one:

“When the rulers and the ruled, each prepared in this fashion, come alongside of each other –either wayfaring or in some other community, on trips to religious festivals or in campaigns, becoming shipmates or fellow soldiers, or even observing one another in dangers themselves –the poor are now in no wise despised by the rich. Rather it is often the case that a lean , tanned poor man is ranged in battle next to a rich man, reared in shade, surrounded by a great deal of alien flesh, and sees him panting and full of perplexity. Don’t you suppose he believes that it is due to the vice of the poor that such men are rich, and when the poor meet in private, one passes the word to the other: “Those men are ours. For they are nothing?

I certainly know very well, he said, that this is what they do.”


The years following the battle at Salamis, Athens’ relationship to the sea became extremely politicized. The age-old battle between democracy and oligarchy was expressed in terms of more or less sea-power right from the beginning. Two main examples of the link between the seapower and democracy:

a) During the battle at Salamis, the people of Athens had left the city and had found shelter either on the ships –if they were able to fight or row– or in allied cities. The city was given to the Persians because Themistocles didn’t want to face them by land, and he decided to concentrate all their efforts on the sea front. The Persians reduced the city to ruins. After the war, Themistocles tried to persuade his fellow citizens to “abandon the old city around the Acropolis and rebuild Athens directly on the coast.”

That would have completed his dream of transforming Athens into a polis absolutely devoted to the sea. His proposal was not accepted, but the Assembly decided to “finish  constructing a fortified port at the Piraeus, a project that had lain dormant for more than a decade.” And also to “offer incentives to attract skilled craftsmen from other cities to immigrate to Athens.”


b) In the mid-5th century, two great Athenians, Ephialtes and Pericles changed the way Athenians had done politics for decades. Ephialtes emptied the Council of Areopagus of almost all power and brought it to the democratic council of the Five Hundred, the Assembly or the jurors. Pericles, after him, went beyond that. The wealth that the Athenian naval empire had brought permitted him to complete the democratic revolution. Before them, “all archons and generals came from the ranks of the wealthy, and the bar of property qualification was set so high that even the ten thousand hoplites were excluded.”

They could vote “yes” or “no” to some of their leaders decisions but leadership itself was denied to the common citizen. Pericles’ change meant exactly the opposite: democracy came to mean the possibility for all citizens to hold office.

Concerning the second and third vectors, namely, diversity and sensuality, as much rational as it may have been as a receptacle, Hippodamus’ Piraeus had a content that was far from being ordered, or as straight or proportioned as its streets were. The Piraeus was the place where sailors arrived from every patrolling trip to the Aegean Sea, and from every commercial trip all around the Mediterranean. The Piraeus was the hub of an extensive international trade. It was filled with foreign merchants that had finally stablished their houses and headquarters at the better place to control their goods and also to enjoy as many different products and luxuries as one could find in Greece. With them, these merchants and mercenaries brought their religions, customs and styles of dress. The Piraeus also received envoys from all the allied cities who either visited the city for political purposes or to pay tribute to the leader of the sea.

The Piraeus was a good place to find a doctor, a barber or a prostitute. The piraeus was a good place to taste the best and the worst wine, to find filthy taverns or luxuriously dressed daughters of rich merchants. In its two open-air theaters, free citizens from all around Greece could enjoy Aeschylus’ Persians, funded by the young Pericles, which explains the battle of Salamis from the Persian perspective, in which the queen of the Persians is amazed by the news of the Athenians not being subject to anybody, and by their courage in fighting as a commonwealth of free men; or later on, they could laugh at comedies such as Aristophanes’ Clouds, in which Socrates is ridiculed. Their naval endeavor represented everything, from being the source of a perfect sexual metaphor (vz. nautria” or “female rower” for a certain position) to the source of both wealth and freedom. In this context, the Piraeus was both the place of eros, and the place of difference. From the taste of an almond to the power of a god, difference and desire were present everywhere.

Even cemeteries were witnesses of this diversity in peoples and souls:

“Egyptian merchants carried Isis with them from the banks of the Nile, just as the traders from Asia Minor brought Cybele the Mother Goddess and the Syrians imported Astarte. The Phoenicians introduced to the Piraeus not only the cult of Baal but also a mysterious divinity with the body of a man and the head like the prow of a warship, complete with ram. In one of the tombstone of a Phoenician resident of the Piraeus, this strange ship god was shown wrestling with a lion for possession of the corpse.”

And bodily desires were called to be fulfilled in many different ways:

“Athenians of the Golden Age never tired of enumerating the sea-born imports that flowed into the piraeus. From Libya came ivory, hides and the medicinal plant and dietary supplement called silphium. Egypt provided papyrus and sailcloth. Cretan cypress wood was good for carving images of gods, and Syrian incense could be burned at shrines in thanksgiving for safe return. (…) An Athenian feast could include salt fish from the Black Sea, beef ribs from Thessaly, pork and cheese from Syracuse in Sicily, dates from Phoenicia, raisins and figs from Rhodes, pears and apples from Euboea, almonds from Naxos, and chestnuts from Asia Minor. The rounds of flat bread, often dressed with relish or fish sauce, were usually made from Russian, Egyptian, or Sicilian wheat. As they enjoyed these delicacies, Athenians could rest their feet or elbows on brightly colored carpets and cushions from Carthage. If the dinner lasted into the night, a bronze lamp-stand of Etruscan manufacture from central Italy might light the convivial scene.”

This state of licentiousness, tolerance, and freedom, however, was not a time of peace. The First Peloponnesian War (449-446 B.C), the Samian War (440 B.C), and, finally, the  Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.) kept Athens and the Piraeus occupied with military activity. The action of the Republic happens right before the beginning of the last Peloponnesian War, but it was written after its end. What does this time lapse mean? At 404 B.C the Peloponnesian War ended with the surrender of Athens to the Spartan Lysander’s forces. The Long Walls were torn down, the navy was reduced to twelve triremes, all the fortifications of the Piraeus destroyed, and an oligarchy of Thirty Tyrants hand-picked by the Spartans was imposed on Athens. Democracy was terminated. Athens would no longer have any overseas policies of its own but would follow Sparta’s lead on land and sea alike.


Just one year later (403 B.C.), however, the regime was overthrown and Democracy was restored. There had been a “resistance movement that took as its headquarters the old democratic stronghold of the Piraeus.”

In 399, after the democratic restoration, Socrates is condemned to death. This time-lapse then was the beginning of decadence for both Athens and the Piraeus. Although democracy was restored, Athens was never to be the same. The cave of shadows that the Piraeus was, with its shadows of freedom and knowledge in the Assembly, with its shadows of health and happiness in its marketplace, and with its shadows of faith in its festivals was finding its limits. Under the twilight of its day, the city in Speech will show the blinding light of being, and its own limits.

Undoubtedly, the political, social and economical significance of the Piraeus is central to understand 5th-century Athens, and the disputes of its daily politics, as well as its long term goals and its discussions on the best regime, but this is not our purpose. Our purpose is to explore the tension between the city of becoming and the city of being.



The City in Speech as the antagonist of the Piraeus.

The city in speech that Socrates builds up in the Republic is the opposite of the Piraeus in several aspects. The conversation that Socrates leads from the moment in which he compares the soul with a city in order to better grasp what justice is (468d) until the completion of the city in speech and the acknowledgment of its impossibility at the end of Book VIII, is a process of increasing abstraction. The city in speech, the so called Ideal State, is a regime that appears after the abstraction of all worldly differences. As Strauss says, the first abstraction is the abstraction from eros,

and, then, from all the diversity that comes from eros, that is, almost all particularity, all what is private and corporeal is extracted from the city.

On the other hand, however, once the city is abstracted from all difference, Socrates starts the opposite process, a process of distinction of what it is essential. This is apparent in the two arguments behind the claim that philosophers must rule: first, they must be able to ignore the irrelevant differences of the world (i.e. shadows in the cave) and, at the same time, they must be capable of knowledge, that is, capable of distinguishing the forms in themselves (474b4-6): the essential difference of justice in itself, of beauty in itself, etc. Moreover, in this moment, Socrates will re-introduce eros into the equation, but this time, eros will be directed to knowledge of real objects, with real differences (474d-475d).

It is our claim that this perfect just city is the opposite of the Piraeus because the Piraeus, as we have seen, is the place of mundane difference, the place of liberated eros and the place of Athenian democracy, that is, the place where all opinions count just the same as the one and only knowledge. The Piraeus is the city where every particularity can take place, and indeed it does. It is the city where every desire and every vice can be fulfilled, and this is its great virtue. It is the city where the opinion of the many, however wrong, irrational or impulsive, rules; and this is its only political knowledge. It is the regime ruled by private dispositions, however publicly spirited their navy might seem. It is the realm of shadows and its hermeneutists, demagogues and imitators. And, nevertheless, it is the perfect place to have the friendly conversation (dialectics) to understand its nature, and the limits of its opposite. It is where Socrates utters the tension between the limits of a décadent democracy and the limits of rational utopia.

Three moments in the Republic show in a more perfect way the abstraction of the ideal city from Piraean differences and the pursuit of essential distinctions: the change from the true city to the feverish city (372c) and the consequences it produces (399), the noble lie (414b) as a point of no return, and the three waves (454-484) as the fulfillment of all abstraction, and hence, the impossibility that it entails.

Concerning the original abstraction, namely, the abstraction of eros, Strauss says:

This abstraction shows itself most strikingly in two facts: when Socrates mentions the fundamental needs which give rise to human society, he is silent about the need for procreation, and when he describes the tyrant, he presents him as Eros incarnate. (573b-e, 574d-575a). This is to say nothing of the fact that the Republic almost opens with a curse on eros (329b6-d1).  It seems that there is a tension between eros and the city and hence between eros and justice: only through the depreciation of eros can the city come into its own.

The silence about procreation in the city of sows, is not the only silence that wraps up that “true and healthy” city. None of the institutions or laws that Socrates proposes later on are present either, and the social structure that is implicitly attributed to it is rather different from the final one that is at the core of the city in speech, vz. in the healthy city there are families (372b).

However, when Glaucon complains about the austerity of the city arguing that it is more akin to a city of sows than a city of human beings (372c), and urges Socrates to go beyond necessity, beyond peace and survival, Socrates accepts taking the “feverish” city (373e), full of “luxuries,” as the starting point for their project. This is a very “Socratic” acceptance, however. We will see how Socrates does not look for justice or injustice in this feverish city as he promised to do. On the contrary, he will exclude bit by bit all these luxuries from the city before he makes the essence of the perfect regime present in his speech.  In fact, the institutions and laws that this city will have are a response to control and erase this feverish state of Glaucon’s city. It is arguable that in the healthy city they are not necessary, but once necessity is substituted by eros, then all these laws and controls must be put in motion. Or, as Socrates himself puts it, they must “purge” this city (399e).

In the few pages that go from the acceptance of the feverish city as the plan of work, to the first explicit acknowledgment of the purging, Socrates has already accomplished several “abstractions”. He has separated the city from tradition: both Homer’s and Hesiod’s traditions are undermined and subjected to the interest of the city (377e-378a, and most of Book III).

In doing this, Socrates is introducing a public religion, and, hence, a sole religion. Or, as Jan Patocka puts it, he turns mythology into religion.

Moreover, in his new public theology for the city, Socrates tends to reduce the manifold of greek divinities into a unified conceptual divinity. We see an example of this in the fact that while his interlocutors always speak of “gods” in the plural, he always answers with the singular “god”,(379a5-8) except when he speaks of actual rituals, and temples (437b-c). But his characterization of “god” is an expression of unity, in the sense of “one”. God is good, simple and true (381-382).

Even more explicitly, before admitting the purge, he states the need for moderation of the guardians (389d), condemns licentiousness in sexual intercourse (389e) and bans sexually loaded stories about the gods (390e). He also reformulates the style, voice and content of public speeches and poems in such a way that the only admitted style (that is, no diversity) is a style without many changes, and the only admitted way of expressing a voice in a speech or poetry is a voice focused on the narrator’s perspective rather than on giving form to the manifold of voices or characters. Therefore, poetry is now more mono-cord, unchanging in its style and themes and less varied in terms of perspective. (397c). This is exactly the same as he does with music: harmonies are to be monotonic; both many-toned and pan-harmonic melodies are banned in the city (399c). The laws and means of this city in speech are aimed at both banning sensual richness and encouraging simpler lifestyles.

The essential principle, however, that unifies all these laws is “one man does just one thing”, which comes from the idea that justice is “minding one’s own business.” This principle, that ironically is a principle of disinterest in public affairs will end up being “do the only thing you can do for the common good.”

Doing one’s part for the common good is a form of convergence: unity is the goal. There is a tension between the many and the one that will be present in the whole dialogue, and it works behind each law and institution: unity is accomplished by both harmonizing real differences and by excluding all other “virtual” difference (i.e. the mere “shadows” of difference). This is what we call the abstraction of difference and the acknowledgment of essential distinctions.

Stating all this in the Piraeus had to be, at the very least, comical: the characterization of sex as a dangerous corrupting pleasure (403a), the banning of homosexual intercourse (403c), or the condemnation of exotic goods as luxurious (404d).  In the place where the navy was trained in complex and sophisticated rowing maneuvers, Socrates proposes simple gymnastics for the guardians (404e), and exactly in the place where these soldiers spent their pay after a trip in barbers, prostitutes, alcohol and cosmopolitan meals, Socrates proposes that they must not have any private property, no pay (just food and drink according to necessity) and no house (416d-e).

The epitome of the contrast between the Piraeus and the city in speech is the abstraction from all economical difference. The guardians must take care that no wealth and poverty exist in the city (421e-422a). The reason behind this abstraction from economical difference is, once more, unity. The true city that can be called just “one city” is the city in which differences do not exist. Other so called cities are, in fact, many cities (its rich part and its poor part being the most evident separated cities, 423b). From here on, then, it is only a matter of logical deduction: in order to be just one true city, one sole education is needed for the youth (423e), and women and children must be in common (424a), all desires must be prohibited, especially for the guardians, and moderation must be the rule for everybody (432d), because there is only one form of virtue but and an unlimited number of vices (445c).

However, the point of no return in this process of abstraction is the noble lie (414b). Socrates introduces the noble lie as a form of inner control of the ruled, and especially of the guardians. The noble lie is a form of belief, a foundational myth that shapes a cosmology, a theory of nature and a theory of human nature. It is the Eden or the Theogony of the city in speech. The consequence of this originary myth is the establishment of an exclusive religious story. This time, after the correction of the Greek tradition, and the exclusion of all its inconvenient parts, Socrates adds his own positive narrative. In the noble lie we witness the production of a distilled religion meant to sanction the abstraction from eros in the city, and aimed at placing its principle in the most private realm of an individual, his or her beliefs.

Moreover, concerning its content, in the noble lie we also witness how the process of abstraction from eros, and from all the differences that eros produces away from the control of the city, necessarily arrives at the point in which nature itself must be negated. The erotic natural impulse for procreation and the strong sense of belonging that family ties create must be overcome if the laws of the city are to prevail. “The good city is not possible then without a fundamental falsehood; it cannot exist in the element of truth, of nature.”

The noble lie has two parts. The first blurs differences among citizens that arise out of family origin and rearing. All citizens come from the earth, as if they were vegetables, and belong to the same mother: the land where the city is. They are sons and daughters of the polis, and to the polis-mother they owe their life, that is, everything.

This is a vertical relationship with the public affairs: the preeminence of the city overcomes all private interests, desires, and alliances. But there is also a horizontal relationship: all citizens are brothers, there are no hereditary differences. This time, this equality not only includes the economic inheritance but now it includes also the imponderable leverage that a name, a family name, a tradition of power, give to an individual. Socrates erases with this move all the meanings and leverage that come with the becoming of a human life. How one becomes citizen is no longer part of the city: all becomings are to be equalized in this noble lie. The difference of becoming is to be abstracted because it is not relevant in the construction of a political justice.

The second part of the noble lie, however, aims at the opposite goal: the distinguishing of being. Each soul is made out of gold, silver or bronze. Depending on which predominates, one is meant to be a ruler, a guardian or a ruled. The new differences that Socrates introduces here, are differences of the soul. Essential differences, differences of the being: permanent, incorruptible, imperceptible through the senses.

The unifying power of the noble lie contrasts with the religious diversity of the Piraeus. Moreover, the religious diversity of the Piraeus was often a difference in ritual, a difference of phenomena, of liturgy. The common practice of translating gods in ancient polytheistic religions, (from Artemis to Bentis, for example, the different processions devoted to which are the reason for Socrates to go down to the Piraeus), makes this phenomenological difference especially relevant. It is true that the Piraeus is a place of religious diversity, but, above all, it is a place of ritual diversity. Socrates both excludes this diversity, along with a more theological one, and gives birth to a more essential one, which is always more exclusive, as monotheistic religions tend to be: the content of his new religion is precisely the possibility of distinguishing the hierarchy of beings.

The tension between the perfect just city and eros,  finds its final moment in the three waves. The three waves come into the conversation despite Socrates. Polemarchus and Adeimantus, (and “the others”), want further clarification of the common possession of women proposed by Socrates. This is the extreme point of the abstraction away from eros: no exclusive sex, no marriage, no family, no erotic alliance. Socrates widens the question to an even more difficult one: the question of women in general. The first wave, then, is the problem of gender equality: is it possible and beneficial that women and men do the same? The answer will be positive: men and women have the same nature with respect to guarding a city, to ruling it and to everything else. It is possible for women to be equal to men (456a) and it is the most beneficial thing for the city (457a). The shame that comes from the fact that women are now to exercise in the gymnasium along with the men, that is, naked, must be overcome by the acknowledgment of its beneficiality and its fairness. Socrates, again, blurs this form of difference, i.e. the physical difference of genitality, that found its social importance in the ruling of eros. Actually, for Socrates, the difference between men and women is comparable to that of baldness and longhairedness (454c).

The erasing of this difference finds also its contrast with the Piraeus, and especially with traditional Greek society. In the Piraeus, beyond its sexual business, and its licentiousness, women and men had so greatly different roles that even Hippodamus, in his model rational “Piraeus house” included the traditional “men’s room” (see footnote 22 above), the place for men to rest, and talk with their friends: indeed, most probably the room in which Socrates and the others were saying that women should exercise naked along with men in the gymnasium, i.e., that such a difference must be ignored in the new city. The radicallity of the measure (457b7-c), however, contrasts with the entire feminine areté of the ancient Greek values, as seen in Homer, that reserve for women nothing more than beauty and wit, at the most.

The overcoming of the first wave brings meaning to the second (457c5-7). The second wave is the question that Adeimantus and Polemarchus first asked: how will this “women in common” law be organized? Given that women “belong” to the men, at a first glance it seemed that Socrates’ proposal led to the extreme licentiousness of permanent orgy, in which everyone has intercourse with everyone. However, it turned out to be a complete rationalization of sex and procreation, given that, in fact, women are equal to men, and that child-bearing must be carried out by the community and not by men’s personal, private, wife, that is, the mother of one’s children. The law establishes that all women belong to all men,

that no wife is to live privately with any man and that all children will also be in common, no parent knowing who his or her children are, and no children knowing who their parents are.


Again, this law destroys the family as an institution, and with it, the privacy of love, education, wealth and power. But it also creates a new institution: the city must take over the power of deciding when and through whom the city will increase or maintain its population. It is the institution of eugenics (461). It is in this battle that the war between ideal justice and eros arrives at its zenith. Until here, the beneficality of the abstraction of all differences that the presence of eros produces in a city had been accompanied with a sense of possibility: the law made it possible, so to speak. While the perfection of  the city grew, also the difficulty of its realization increased. In this second wave, Socrates has postponed the question of possibility (458a) in favor of the beneficiality of the measure. This postponing of it will end up being the principle of utopia: its impossibility does not lessen its goodness. (472). And, eventually, the impossibility of accomplishing the perfect union, the absence of privacy, the abstraction of eros and its differences will open the path for the third wave, and the rest of the Republic. After having identified the good city with the perfect union and the bad city with the existence of the many (in any realm of things) (462b), after having ended with political parties, through the establishing of the power of family ties among the rulers (463c), after admitting nothing private but the body (464d-e),

after having even turned the traditional Greek wars into family quarrels (supposedly, at the beginning of the Peloponnesian War! In the Piraeus!), after the abstraction from eros and the extraction of all differences, once impossibility is unavoidingly present, then, and only then, the real purpose appears.

The purpose that opened the long path of the Republic: to know what justice is in itself, one must be able to distinguish things in themselves. Philosophers must rule, this is the best way to be as close as possible to the perfect just city, because they know how to distinguish being (474b4-6). After undermining becoming, after abstracting pure thought from its insignificance, the realm of being can be discovered. Socrates now reintroduces delight, desires and eros, but its a desire and a delight for learning (474d-475d). It is the difference of the soul the it is relevant for a real philosopher. He seems to be, in his becoming, a useless citizen, a stargazer, but in his being, he is made of gold. Philosophers ignore irrelevant differences, contemplate things in themselves and take into account relevant, real differences of the forms(576a-b). Philosophers are those who are able to “grasp what is always the same in all respects” (484b).

Therefore, in an ever changing world, a world of shadows and sensual chains, where each imperfect regime is followed by its decadence, only philosophers can introduce the adequate reforms to approach the ideal. But, how can this be done if the ideal is impossible? This is when the democratic Piraeus finds its most important significance. Given that in the world of becoming, in the world of mundane possibilities, in the world of eros, decadence and change is unavoidable, only philosophy can bring some truth and justice, both in the individual and in the collective sphere of life. But, when and how is philosophy possible? According to Socrates (524e-525), at the individual level, only the experiencing of difference, that is, the experience of sensible contradictions, provokes the question for the whole. Differences produce thought. Equally, at the collective level, democracy is the only regime that brings to the forefront the phenomena of all other regimes, and their differences provoke the question for the whole, the ideal justice.


The Piraeus means here this place of convergence, the place where all these differences are present, where eros shows its powers, and where shadows and demagogues have their paradise. But, at the same time, it is the place of the Republic, meaning that it is the place where a philosopher can utter his speeches, a place where he can accomplish the quest for a better regime, and a better man.  Reading the Republic, figuring out the radicality of the City in Speech, under the light of the Piraeus is a process of discovering the fundamental tension that goes undercover in the dialogue. There are many ideas of justice, and many ideas of a just city in the Republic, but at the end, the city in speech, and its failure, the revindication of philosophy that follows it, and the promise of Being, the fundamental Socratic project, finds its mirror in the Piraeus, as both its negation and its condition of possibility.


Why the Piraeus is the antagonist of the City in Speech has been shown: the reign of eros and its effects are perfectly clear in the port-city; as well as the presence of different regimes in the souls of its inhabitants; e.g. aristocracy in its heros, timocracy in its soldiers, oligarchy in its merchants, tyranny in the temptations of Socrates’ interlocutors, and democracy as a ground. The process of abstraction and purge that we have seen throughout the Republic up until the limit of the possible brought in front of our eyes, for us to witness it, the being of justice. Once the city in speech is rendered impossible, the analysis of the other regimes appears as an analysis of the relation between imperfect forms of political justice, — i.e. the rule of age-old areté, the rule of honor, the rule of money, the rule of freedom and the rule of hate –, and the ineffable form of perfect political justice. However, the ultimate goal of the conversation is to give form to the relation between the being of justice and the becoming of the polis and to acknowledge the tension between them, because only through the consciousness of this tension will the inhabitants of the cave be set free from their chains and capable of distinguishing the things in themselves.

Embodied human beings are thrown into the cave, this is why only imperfect forms of political justice are possible in the polis. There is no actual choice between perfect justice and its perversion. Justice is not ‘corrupted by human affairs’: justice is simultaneously present in and absent from all human activity. Every shadow of the cave indeed outlines the light as much as it shapes the object of which it is a sign. A shadow is always a presence and an absence of both light and matter. Once one sees a shadow as a shadow, light and matter can be thought. But in order to see a shadow as it is, there must be both a will to overcome it and the possibility of contrasting the whole scale of grey that shadows can display.

In the Republic, relative justice (or, what is the same, politics) is the name of such a scale: perfect justice being its whiteness and the objects of mundane eros being its blackness; presence and absence of all colors at the same time. This is why we claim that the Piraeus is both the negation and the condition of possibility of the City in Speech. It is not to be understood as the condition of possibility of Justice, but of its coming into be in speech. The differences present in the Piraeus bring doubt to private beliefs, its democratic character brings the will to the proscenium, and the extreme sensuality it hosts conveys the distance between the spirit and the body.  More importantly, the fact that its freedom implies that everything can be said makes possible for the truth to be uttered.

The realm of becoming is the realm of politics. The description that Socrates makes of the evolution of each regime into its decadence, and the presence-abscence of justice in each of them show that the place of justice is an inner place. In other words: only the soul can host justice because the soul is of the same nature as the outside-the-cave realm and as the idea of justice. We have said that the experience of contrast and the will to overcome it are conditions for seeing things in themselves. But that would be a mere form of banal empiricist induction. There is a metaphysical condition: the care of the soul. Philosophy is this path from becoming to being, and it expresses the lack of knowledge as well as the eros for truth.  But, in its extreme, philosophy is a form of justice. In its askesis (ἄσκησις) it elevates the soul to the eidos. We face here the ultimate tension. Perfect justice is not possible in the world, (nor perfect beauty nor perfect goodness), because it does not belong to the world, but it is present in the world with enough evidence for us to try and follow its path outside the world. Philosophy is a worldly askesis that connects both realms: things as they are and things as they appear. But Philosophy only gets to rule in an impossible city, a city that can only be spoken of, not realized. Its actualization would destroy its perfection, its being. But in the speech, in the city that appears in speech, Philosophy can convey and make present the nature of the things in themselves. And this possibility to convey and make present the things in themselves in the impossible city in speech is perfect justice. Therefore, insofar as the world of politics is the realm of the cave, only the possibility of the speech matters. And this possibility depends on the possibility of a conversation to happen.

The Piraeus is the place chosen by Plato to host this conversation. Its characteristics display a richness of meanings and contradictions that brings meaning to the difficult question of justice in several levels: sociologically, politically, philosophically, and so forth. When we say that the Piraeus is both the negation and the condition of possibility of the City in Speech it is our claim that difference, sensuality and democracy are this negation and this condition of possibility. The City of Being finds its light outlined by the shadow of the City of Becoming. And thus the Piraeus is a masterly chosen setting for the Republic.

“I do not imagine that philosophy would be the driving force of the world and that it would even ever have any chance for this. But this is how it is. As soon as this human possibility once emerges, it steps into the radius of all other human possibilities. Although philosophy as clarity, as radical reflection about the world in its whole evidently will never be realized and who knows whether it could ever be realized, it forces all the other possibilities of man, the non-philosophic, to reflect. And by this it brings not-philosophy itself onto another level and into another state than it had been prior to reflection. That is the task of philosophy.”




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