In Plato’s “Republic,” Socrates descends to Hades, is caught in conversation in the house of Pluto, and tells down there the story of his own descent. This then is the setting of the “Republic”: Hades with its tales and a deliverer willing to go down and able to come up.


“Socrates begins most of his investigations not at the center but at the periphery…”

At the center of Plato’s second longest dialogue, the Constitution (Politeia), usually called the Republic, there is an ergon, a deed or accomplishment. In order to find this center, it is necessary to establish the periphery. The Republic is composed on the plan of concentric rings; the themes on the diameter reappear in reverse order as if they were reflected through a central axis. The outermost periphery is a setting of myth. A broad inner ring consists of the construction and destruction of the successive forms of a pattern city in “speech,” logos. The themes of this ring, for instance the attack on the poets, are also symmetrical with respect to the center. This center itself, clearly defined as such by the plan of the dialogue, presents the actual founding of a city in “deed,” ergon. The Republic, as will be shown, exemplifies the insight quoted above, which Søren Kierkegaard expressed in his dissertation The Concept of Irony, With Constant Reference to Socrates (London 1966, p. 70).                             


1. Anyone who has used an annotated edition of the Republic [1] will have read the curious anecdote told by Diogenes Laertius and Dionysius of Halicarnassus about the beginning of the work. Dionysius reports that many stories about the care Plato took to “comb and curl” his dialogues were current, especially one about a tablet found at his death, which contained “that beginning of the Republic which goes ‘I went down yesterday to Peiraeus with Glaucon the son of Ariston,’ transposed with subtle variety.” We may infer that some special meaning was to be conveyed by the beginning. Indeed, there is something curious about its style: ancient as well as modern Athenians, when they visit their harbor, usually go not “to Peiraeus” but to the Peiraeus (e.g., Thucydides VIII, 92, 9);[2] this is Cephalus’s own usage (328c6), and since he lives there he ought to know. The phrase is to be heard in a special way. Now it happens that the Athenians did hear a certain meaning in this name—it meant the “beyond-land,” the Peraia, the land beyond the river that was once thought to have separated the Peiraic peninsula from Attica.[3] Therefore, let us try reading: “I descended yesterday to the land beyond the river, together with Glaucon, the son of Ariston;” “in order to offer my devotions,” he goes on, “to the goddess…” The goddess, we learn at the end of the first book (354all), is Bendis, a Thracian stranger identified with Hecate,[4] the guardian deity of the underworld. Socrates is on his way back up to town when Polemarchus, with his companions, detains him and presses him to come to his house, where they find Cephalus, Polemarchus’s rich old father, sitting in state. He is on that “threshold [to Hades] which is old age” (328e6).[5] As he himself explains, he scarcely has a body anymore; he is, as his name signifies, a mere “head”—as Socrates slyly points out, he sits on a headrest, a proskephalaion (328c1). His riches, ploutos (331b7), Socrates suspects, are his great comfort. A strange light is thrown on him and his house by an ancient source that reports that he was over thirty years dead at the dramatic date of the dialogue, namely between 411 and 405 B.C.; his son himself has only a few more years to live before his death at the hands of the Thirty Tyrants.[6] We are in the city of shades, in the house of Pluto.

Socrates takes occasion to refer to this situation throughout the dialogue, for instance when he declares to Thrasymachus and the others who are there, in solemnly ambiguous language, that he will not cease his efforts until he has prepared them “against that other life when, born again, they may happen to hold such discourse” (498d3-4). And the very figure for the young guardians of the city which he builds for his audience is a reminder of the setting: They are to be like watchdogs, who, as true lovers of wisdom, determine their friends and their enemies by the test of their knowledge or ignorance of them—they know the art of loyalty. The perverse pattern of such dogs is Hesiod’s hound of Hades, who possesses the “evil art” (Theogony 770) of fawning on strangers and devouring those at home in Hades who try to escape. The guardians are tamed and converted hounds of hell.

2. What is Socrates’ business down there? To detect the myth that provides the venerable setting for Socrates’ descent it is necessary to go rather far afield for a moment.

On certain occasions, Socrates uses an oath that was evidently considered in antiquity to be his very own: ”By the dog!”—and in the Gorgias (482b5) more explicitly: “By the dog, the Egyptian god!”[7] Socrates uses the oath twice in the Republic and, as elsewhere, in passages concerned with the philosopher’s part both in human speech and in politics.(399e5, 592a7; cf. Cratylus 411b3) Who is the Egyptian dog-god on whom Socrates calls? Plutarch (On Isis and Osiris 368e-f) describes him in this way: He is born of an underworld mother but nursed by a heavenly goddess and thus belongs to both these realms; he can see his way both by light and by dark and therefore has the office of mediating between the upper and the lower world. His Egyptian name is Anubis, but to the Greeks he is Hermes, the Interpreter, the ”psychagogue” (cf. Phaedrus 271c10) who conducts the souls of the dead and guides those who must descend into Hades while yet alive (cf. Diogenes Laertius VIII, 31). He is also the bringer of political wisdom to men (Protagoras 322c2). In particular, Hermes is known as the guide of the hero Heracles in his famous descent into Hades (Odyssey XI, 626), and he is often so represented on vases.

Heracles himself is a most versatile hero.[8] He is the chief founder of cities—witness the many cities called Heracleia. He is the great civilizer, “using music” (Plutarch, On Music XL, 4), at which he is proficient, in this task. He is the guardian of boys’ education, the guardian of the palaestra, and the boys devote their hair to him. He teaches men letters; Plutarch jokingly calls him “most dialectical.”(The E at Delphi 387d) He is a partisan of virtue, having, according to a story told by Socrates (Xenophon, Memorabilia II, i, 21; cf. Plato, Symposium 177b), chosen to follow Virtue rather than Vice as a teacher because of the happiness (eudaimonia) she had promised. But Heracles’ greatest fame derives from the deeds or labors imposed on him by the unjust king Eurystheus. These include the killing of the snake-headed Hydra and of the Nemean Lion; but his most awesome deed is his descent, his katabasis, into Hades. His task there is to bring up to the light of day the triple monster Cerberus. He has Hades’ permission to do this, but he is instructed to persuade the beast and make it more gentle, not to hurt it. On his way into Hades, so the story goes, he forgets his business, at first, and allows the shades to detain him in conversation. Before returning, he performs an incidental labor, a parergon, in releasing Theseus, his emulator and the founder and lawgiver of Athens who had been chained down in Hades; however, he fails to free Theseus’s companion Pirithous. While in Hades, Heracles is nearly washed away by the underworld river.

This hero is, as it were, made for Socrates, and Socrates himself makes the comparison. In the Apology, speaking of his search for a wise man, he says to the court: “And by the dog, men of Athens—for I must speak the truth to you…those who had the greatest reputation seemed to me nearly the most deficient… so I must show you how I wandered as if performing certain labors.”(22a1).  Every Athenian would, of course, recognize the allusion; most translators put it into the text. In the Cratylus, Socrates says to Hermogenes: “You are raising a class of names not to be despised; however, since I have put on my lion helmet I must not be cowardly…. By the dog, I am having an inspiration” (411a-b). Again, in an interlude in the Phaedo, Socrates explicitly consents to take the role of Heracles in the battle of argument, with Phaedo taking the role of Iolaus, Heracles’ friend (89b-c). As they talk, Socrates plays with Phaedo’s hair: as Heracles, the hair is his due, and as Iolaus’s friend, the intimacy is his right.

There are certain signs and indications that Socrates plays this same role in the Republic. He “descends” to the land beyond, is caught in conversation in the house of Pluto, and, like the phantom Heracles whom Odysseus meets on his own visit to the shades—the true Heracles is among the gods—he tells down there the story of his own descent (Odyssey XI, 601). He first fights the sophist, Thrasymachus, who comes at him “like a beast” (336b5)[9] and with whom he says he would as soon quibble as “shave a lion” (341c1). A little before, Thrasymachus, laughing sardanion—”like one doomed,” as the scholiast explains the word—had addressed him “O Heracles! this is that wonted dissembling of Socrates” (337a4). This is, of course, nothing but a popular exclamation of wonder, but it sounds almost like the lion’s roar of recognition; by the end of the first book, the lion is subdued. And at one point, Socrates refers to the wrong way to kill the Hydra, implying that he knows the better way (426e8).

3-4. But the longest labor begins after the “prelude” (357a2) of the first book.[10] In the nine books following, the running motif will be that old Heraclean theme, the relation of virtue to happiness, which is ever recalled, even in the midst of yet greater matters that are curtailed in its favor (e.g.,445a, 580b, 608c); this relation is to be examined in a man who is wearing the Ring of Gyges (359d1), and, as Socrates adds, the Helmet of Hades too (612b5), a magic cap that deprives him in life of all appearance and reputation and puts him on a level with the bare, stripped souls in Hades.(cf. Gorgias 523c) In the course of this argument, Socrates will indeed teach his audience letters, using the great text of the city to teach them the small letters of the soul (368d; cf. 402a7). He will also, as we shall see, found a city. By the “psychagoguery” of his rhetorical music (Phaedrus 261a, Aristophanes, Birds 1555[11]), he will release his Theseus, blamelessly confined to Hades (391c9). But his longest effort will drag to light a triple monster having, like Cerberus himself, a blush of snakes for its lower part (590bl). For when he has plumbed in argument the remote depths of the tyrant’s life, Socrates recalls once more “those first words because of which we are here” (588b2), namely, Thrasymachus’s claim that injustice under the reputation of justice is profitable. To conclude the case against him they “model an image of the soul in words” (588b10). It will, Socrates says, be a creature such as is found in ancient myth, a Chimaera or Scylla or a Cerberus, whose nature it is to have “many forms grown together into one” (588c4) under the outward guise of a man’s shape. As soon as this soul has been hauled up and cleansed of its accretions (611), “we have,” Socrates says, “discharged ourselves of this argument” (612a8). Heracles has delivered Hades from its monster, a deliverance that signifies that exposure of human nature which is the condition of its rescue. And he has, incidentally, brought up a young Theseus (the name connotes nomothesis, law-giving)—Plato’s brother, Glaucon.

Having ceased to enact a myth, Socrates closes the dialogue by telling one, a recollection of one of the “myths which are told about those in Hades.” These are the very myths that keep tormenting Cephalus, because he is so close to these things (330d7). In it, Er, the Pamphylian or “All­ tribesman” (614b4), is charged by the souls to carry back to the living the long tale of their thousand-year journey, of the ascent or descent that is their reward or punishment. He actually tells only of the end of these journeys, since, as Socrates significantly observes to Glaucon, who has now listened the better part of a day and a night, the story itself would take “a very long time to go through.”(615a5) Socrates ends the dialogue by urging Glaucon to hold fast to the “upward way” (cf. 514b4), so that they may do well in the thousand-year journey “which we have just gone through” (621d2). He must mean the ascent of the dialogue itself (473a5, 544b2).

This then is the setting of the Republic: Hades with its tales and a deliverer willing to go down and able to come up—a most appropriate setting, for down there, so it is said, justice is close at hand (330d8, 614c3; cf. Apology 41a, Gorgias 523, Sophocles, Antigone 451). In recounting the discourse Socrates will then be playing that “noblest of games: telling myths about justice and other things” (Phaedrus 276e).

This is the first essay in this series. The other essays may be found here: II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, and X. We highly recommend Eva Brann’s The Music of the Republic: Essays on Socrates’ Conversations and Plato’s Writings. This essay originally appeared in the St. John’s Review (Volume 39, Number 1 and 2, 1989 – 1990) and is republished here with gracious permission of the author. Miss Brann welcomes questions/comments via mail: Dr. Eva Brann, St. John’s College, 60 College Avenue, Annapolis, MD, 21401-1655 (she does not use computers).


[1] Plato’s Republic, B. Jowett and L. Campbell (Oxford 1894) III, p. 4; The Republic of Plato, ed. J. Adams, 2nd edition (Cambridge 1963) I, p. 1. For a discussion of the “concentric” organization of the Republic postdating the present essay, see R. Brumbaugh, “A New Interpretation of Plato’s Republic,” Journal of Philosophy 64 (1967), 661 ff.
In this essay, all translations are by the author.

[2] Liddell and Scott, Greek Lexicon (Oxford 1958), see Peiraieus, 1354b. It is, however, certainly permissible to omit the article, cf. 439e7.

[3] Pauly-Wissowa, Real-Encyclopaedie der klassischen Altertumswissenschaft (Stuttgart 1937) XIX, i, p. 78.

[4] Ibid., III, i; see “Bendis” p. 269. The torch race mentioned may be accounted for by the fact that Thracian Hecate had the epithet Phosphorus, Light-bearer.

[5] Adams, op. cit. (supra, N. 1) I, p. 5.

[6] Jowett, op. cit. (supra, N. 1) II, pp. 2, 7, and 79, on 368a3.

[7] Also Gorgias 461a, 466c; Phaedo 98e; Phaedrus The scholiast to Wasps 83 says that Sosias is imitating Socrates’ oath “by the dog”; Aristophanis Comoediae, ed. Dindorf (Oxford 1837) III, 460; cf. Platos Gorgias, ed. Dodds (Oxford 1959) p. 262; also Lucian, Philosophies for Sale 16, who connects Socrates’ dog with Anubis, Sirius, and Cerberus.

[8] Pauly-Wissowa, Suppl. III, see “Heracles,” pp. 1007 ff., 1018 ff., 1077 ff.; also Aristophanes, Frogs 108.

[9] See Phaedrus 267c9, and Aristotle, Rhetoric 1400b19, on Thrasymachus’s notorious violence.

[10] Socrates, having completed the refutation of Thrasymachus, begins anew and in a new mode: “Socrates no longer comes forward with questions in the character of a man who is ignorant . . ., but as one who has already found what he seeks.” Schleiermacher’s Introductions to the Dialogues of Plato, W. Dobson (Cambridge 1836), p. 356.

[11] Aristophanes actually compares Socrates to Odysseus, another famous visitor to Hades. But in the Republic the comparison is, if suggested at all, made to discredit Odysseus. For the Myth of Er is offered as an improvement over Odysseus’s supposedly boring and false “tales of Alcinous,” that is, as a new Nekyia (614bl, see scholia; cf. also Kierkegaard, Concept of Irony 130, note). Furthermore, his soul, disenchanted with ambition, chooses the perfectly private (620c6), the most un-Socratic life.

The featured image is “Charon carries souls across the river Styx” (1861) by Alexander Dmitrievich Litovchenko (1835 – 1890) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

All comments are moderated and must be civil, concise, and constructive to the conversation. Comments that are critical of an essay may be approved, but comments containing ad hominem criticism of the author will not be published. Also, comments containing web links or block quotations are unlikely to be approved. Keep in mind that essays represent the opinions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Imaginative Conservative or its editor or publisher.

Leave a Comment
Print Friendly, PDF & Email