Learning to Read the Small Letters in Republic Book 2

Naly Thaler*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


The interpretation of the spelling analogy in Republic book 2, which Socrates introduces as an illustration of the method he intends to use in order to discover the nature of psychic justice, has been beset with problems. In the past, interpreters have attempted to make sense of the analogy by claiming either that the reader in the story knows for a fact that the large letters he has found are identical with the smaller ones he is ordered to read or, alternatively, that he merely conjectures that they are identical, and intends to verify this conjecture by going back to the smaller letters and comparing the two sets. Both interpretations face serious problems: while the first seems internally incoherent, the second provides a poor fit with Socrates' actual method for discovering the nature of justice. In view of these difficulties I present a new interpretation of the analogy, one that is both internally coherent, and adequately reflects Socrates' philosophical method. According to my interpretation the scene depicted in the analogy reflects a reading and spelling drill familiar to Socrates' interlocutors from their days in Grammar school, which involved reading aloud a series of similar, but non-identical, syllables of varying length. After clarifying the details of the analogy and mapping them onto those of Socrates' investigation, I use some of the basic features and presuppositions inherent to the field of the alphabet to shed new light on some of the basic epistemological presuppositions that govern both Socrates' investigation of justice and the philosophical education reserved for the ruling elite in the just city.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)45-66
Number of pages22
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2020

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2017 by De Gruyter 2017.


  • Plato
  • Republic
  • letter analogy
  • philosophical method


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