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  • Shaw’s Republic
  • Sidney P. Albert (bio)

Unless either philosophers become kings in their countries or those who are now called kings and rulers come to be sufficiently inspired with a genuine desire for wisdom; unless that is to say, political power and philosophy meet together, while the many natures who now go their several ways in the one or the other direction are forcibly debarred from doing so, there can be no rest from troubles . . . for states nor yet . . . for all mankind; nor can this commonwealth which we have imagined ever till then see the light of day and grow to its full stature.

—Plato, Republic 473, trans. Francis Macdonald Cornford

The furniture of Heaven has altered little with the centuries; it remains an idealized replica of the only world we know.

—E. R. Dodds, The Greeks and the Irrational

"Plato was only a Bernard Shaw who unfortunately made his jokes in Greek," once wrote G. K. Chesterton, maintaining that no one ever took the Shavian eugenics proposals seriously. Shaw's rejoinder was that he could not guess the reason for the allegation, "for it is impossible to understand what the word 'only' means in this sentence." Much earlier Chesterton had observed that "Shaw found his nearest kinsman in remote Athens." More specifically, he asserted that "Bernard Shaw has much affinity to Plato—in his instinctive elevation of temper, his courageous pursuit of ideas as far as they will go, his civic idealism; and also it must be confessed in his dislike of poets and a touch of delicate inhumanity."1

During the course of years, a succession of critics have come to endorse this judgment of kinship between Shaw and Plato. C. E. M. Joad, in particular, echoes Chesterton in recognizing "a striking affinity between Plato and Shaw. Both are fundamentally rationalist; both dislike enthusiasm; both are distrustful of poetry and romance; both are temperamentally unsympathetic to the common man; they are revolted by the vulgarity of his tastes and wearied by his incorrigible irrationality." Archibald [End Page 82] Henderson, Max Beerbohm, Edmund Wilson, William Irvine, Eric Bentley, Arthur Nethercot, and Margery Morgan, among others, have also discerned marked similarities between the two writers. Almost half a century ago, in my 1956 article, "Bernard Shaw: The Artist as Philosopher," I, too, called attention to a range of Platonic-Shavian parallels.2

The kinship has been apparent to Greek scholars as well. For example, I. M. Crombie says of one of Plato's criticisms of Homer in the Republic that it "reminds one a little of G.B. Shaw sticking pins into Shakespeare." John Ferguson extends the likeness to Socrates: "When the Delphic Oracle replied to Chaerophon that Socrates was the wisest man in Greece, Socrates, who, like Bernard Shaw, put a bold face before the world and was humble at heart, was genuinely puzzled."3

Shaw himself, whose family arms bore the Socratic motto "Know thyself," made his esteem for Plato evident throughout his writings.4 Notably, we have his own authoritative testimony, presumably hitherto unpublished, about his lifetime reading of the Athenian philosopher: "There is no foundation for the suggestion that I read Plato first at fifty. I have read him at all ages, and there is a sense in which I have not read him at all. That is to say, I have never been right slap through him (see Wegg on Gibbon passim); but I have dipped into him at all sorts of times and ages, and have always managed to keep awake and interested until it was time to stop under the pressure of external circumstances."5

In the belief that a deeper mining of the Platonic vein in Shaw may contribute to a better understanding of his dramatic works, I propose to consider one of these, Major Barbara, as a Shavian Republic, comparable in a variety of significant respects to Plato's classic work. My claim is that in this play Shaw was concerned with many of the same basic problems of human life that Plato explored in the Republic; that in some measure he was influenced by Plato's efforts to solve these problems; that, like Plato, he was engaged in moral...


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pp. 82-88
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