Notes on “Statues” or “Sculpture” in Plato’s Republic

The Greek term for “sculpture” is andrias. It is related to aner, which is a “real man,” as opposed to a mere anthropos (human being; Socrates in Xenophon is never called aner). Andreia, also stemming from aner, is “courage,” but more literally “manliness.”

A large part of the Republic concerns a proposed guardian class of awesome warriors who will be extremely courageous and practice moderation of a sort. While there are only a few times the term “sculpture” comes up in the discussion in any way, it looks like it might provide an important clue as to how the Republic imagines man.

Bloom’s index contains five references to “sculpture:”

  • 361d: Glaucon has just finished arguing that Socrates needs to prove the just life is superior to the unjust life no matter what. This includes proving that an unjust man who has the greatest reputation for justice is unhappy compared to the just man who has the greatest reputation for injustice. Socrates’ response: “My dear Glaucon, how vigorously you polish up each of the two men – just like a statue – for their judgment.”
  • 420c – d: Adeimantus wants to know how the guardian class can be happy with virtually no material rewards. Socrates argues that the happiness of the guardian class must be conceived with regard to the whole, but leaves it an open question whether we are talking about the guardians’ own happiness or the city’s happiness. A statue metaphor is used to bring forth the notion of the whole. Just as you don’t use what you think is the most beautiful color while painting a statue’s eyes to make a statue realistic, you have to consider what is fitting to get a beautiful whole.
  • 514c: The Cave. Men behind the prisoners use statues and a fire to project shadows onto a wall.
  • 515a: Nearly the same as above. The word is more than likely around in the Greek, but I really don’t want to ferret it out right now.
  • 540c: The philosopher-kings have been described. Glaucon: “Just like a sculptor, Socrates… you have produced ruling men who are wholly fair.”

The first reference pushes us to think that Glaucon is thinking of “the just man” the way one could think of a wrestler or blacksmith. You could create statues of the latter two people easily; their arts (techniques) involve tools or physical characteristics. If justice is an art – and that’s a big “if” – it does not work quite the same way.

Still. The “statues” were shaped. Socrates accepted Glaucon’s premise for his argument. Hence, I surmise, the idea of painting the statue to address the whole. The immediate problem for Glaucon’s query is that civic virtue is not the same thing as an individual’s virtue. The more the city becomes perfectly just, the more the classes fail to be just in any elementary sense. The mere creation of the guardian class requires dissolution of the family. Adeimantus’ problem is hinting at that: does civic happiness conflict with individual happiness? Of course it does. But again, we’re working with a “statue” that assumes “What is justice?” can be simply answered.

Painting and creating images (even mere shadows) are not entirely exercises in mendacity. Imitations give us a basis for likeness. If there is no apprehension of the absolute truth, we can still know relevant aspects of a thing. I’m not saying the Cave is the realm of knowledge. We are told that if people in the Cave see the true objects in the light, they will nonetheless be very reluctant to give up their “knowledge” of shadows. The Cave can almost destroy the ability to gather any sort of real knowledge. What I am saying is that there are ways to describe the good of a thing without describing its form. The poets don’t understand all the consequences of their depictions of myth and the foundation of law. But they create a convincing enough picture of people and error that they can show the law and the city as good in important ways. We can all show for the most part that the just life is much better than the unjust life. That does not mean we can show what “justice” is.

The philosopher-king, we realize now, was presupposed in Glaucon’s depicting the just man like a statue. The philosopher-king is the only person who could contemplate the form of justice. He would be just. The image of man presupposed throughout the Republic is a huge problem. Note the rough order these “statue” references occur with regards to class: first, the guardians. Second, nearly if not everyone (the Cave). Third, the philosopher-king. “Nearly everyone” is the issue. No guardians or philosopher-kings exist or have existed. Socrates has painted Glaucon’s statue with wild, unrealistic colors because the statue itself is wild and unrealistic.


Bloom, Allan. The Republic of Plato: Second Edition. New York: Basic, 1991.

Strauss, Leo. “Plato.” History of Political Philosophy: Third Edition. ed. Strauss & Cropsey. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1987


  1. There’s another reference on the statue that’s not exactly on the Republic, but it is connected to the Republic. In the Timaeus, Socrates is telling Kritias that, ‘yesterday’, they’ve described a city just like a statue; because of this, Socrates is demanding that Kritias and the others put the statue in motion, making it real, true and live.

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