The Republic ~ Book II

The Republic
Jean-Leon Gerome
source Wikiart

Book II:

 

Pleasure (1900)
Eugene de Blaas
source Wikiart

Glaucon protests that Socrates has not made a reasonable enough explanation of why Justice is preferable to injustice.  First, he says, there are three classes of good:

 

  1. Pleasures that are enjoyed for themselves
  2. Good that is valued because of its consequences
  3. Good that is desirable both for itself and what comes out of it.
Really it seems that Glaucon believes Justice would fit into the second category, a type of in-between good.  

Then he tells a story of a shepherd called Gyges and his magic ring that helped him to become king (see Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book I).  If one could act however one wanted without threat of punishment or recrimination, wouldn’t everyone act thus?  Why should Glaucon be just if he can get away with being unjust? (Essentially he is asking: What is Justice on the level of an individual?)  It’s only our fear of getting caught that holds us to the course of Justice, and Justice itself is a social construct.  The Social Contract theory implies that people don’t really want to be just but because chaos would result from such a “free-for-all” society and therefore we enter into a “social contract” where we give up free reign on our desires for a greater good; certain rules are imposed on an individual that aren’t part of their nature for a common good. 

King Candaules of Lydia (1858)
Jean-Leon Gerome
source Wikiart
Socrates proceeds in a round-about manner.  Instead of directly commenting on how Justice works in an individual, he instead begins to examine how the same Justice works broadly within a state and then will apply what he discovers to the soul of man.  And thus Plato starts to establish his Republic.  The Republic begins with the need for a community ……. the need we have for each other for the basic provisions in life: food, clothing, shelter.  In the Republic, everyone has a trade or purpose, a division of labour that works best to run the city efficiently.  Right now, the city’s basic needs are met with simplicities, and no luxuries such as furniture, artists, meat, courtesans, perfume, etc. To Socrates, this city is true and healthy.  It’s important to note that in English, we use the word “soul” but the Greek word is actually “psuche” [ψυχή] (the root word for psyche) which can be used in a variety of different ways, such as: mind, self, individual, etc.  (Soul = that part of the human being which is not the body).
The Soul Breaking the Bonds …
Pierre-Paul Prud’hon
source Wikiart

Glaucon is perplexed.  What about the luxuries?  What Socrates has described only meets basic animal needs.  Socrates allows Glaucon his desires and adds in his wishes, but emphasizes that adding meat and sweets will cause inflammation and surely the physicians will be in more demand — he was obviously initially advocating vegetarianism for health.  Interesting ….   In any case, all these luxuries will increase competition, and therefore eventually war is inevitable.  Socrates will not say whether war is good or bad, he only examines the effect it will have on the Republic.  The city will therefore need an efficient soldier but they too must be specialists in their field. However, they must also exhibit a certain temperament, one that is combative and even aggressive, yet tempered by courage of spirit and controlled by rational behaviour.  Given their character and profession, they must be trained carefully to ensure they do not harm their own people.  How is that to be done?  Through education.  They must be trained to be hostile to their enemies and benevolent to their people, not indiscriminate with their behaviour.

Socrates now critiques the education of children.  In spite of the reverence given to the poets Hesiod and Homer, Socrates believes that the stories they have created will damaged the foundation of a good republic.  How can the gods be both good and bad?  Anything divine must be wholly good and it is impossible for it to be bad, therefore (Homer, in this case) is telling tales that are “impious, self-contradictory, and disastrous to our commonwealth.”  All such stories should be censored in a healthy city.  Also, death should never be depicted as something to be feared, so the Guardians of the city are not afraid to die in their defense of it; their defensive behaviour is part of the promoting of Justice and we do not want to impede them being just.

I had to admire Socrates in this section.  Even though he at first appears to advocate a simplistic city that he feels is the most healthy and functional, he bows to Glaucon’s wishes for luxuries, perhaps realizing that it would not be sensible to attempt to eradicate these human desires, and therefore, gives up his “perfect” city for one that is more realistic.  Plato is realizing the flaws in human nature and attempting to work within them.  Quite wise, I would say.

⇐ Book I                                                                                                       Book III ⇒


The Republic ~ Part I (Book I)

The Republic
Jean-Leon Gerome
source Wikiart

Book I:

The dialogue begins around the year of 410 B.C. at the port of the Piraeus, a town five miles from Athens.  As we read of the overthrow of the Athenian democracy in 404 B.C. in Thucydides’, History of the Peloponnesian War, Socrates begins to ask the questions about the benefits of democracy and builds his Republic on those ideas.  He begins by questioning the benefits and results of Justice.

Returning home from a religious festival with Glaucon (one of the brothers of Plato), Socrates becomes involved in a conversation with Cephalus, an old man.  Cephalus is certain Justice consists of being honest in your dealings with others and fulfilling your obligations, a very traditional Greek worldview.  When Socrates challenges this definition, the son of Cephalus, Polemarchus (who, in history, was executed by the Thirty Tyrants) expands on his father’s ideas, yet Socrates challenges his conception that Justice is treating your friends well and harming your enemies.  Man is libel to be mistaken in his assessment of both, and doesn’t harming someone make him less of a person?  Therefore, if you make someone less than they are, how can one be said to be just in his treatment of them?  

The Madonna of Justice (1620-25)
Bernardo Strozzi
source Wikiart

Thrasymachus, a well-known Sophist*, bursts into the conversation, insisting on a different defintion of Justice: the actions of those in power, as they dispense them on their subjects.  Thrasymachus is embodying the view of a relativist where there is no objective definition; Justice is only whatever the stronger imposes on the weaker.  Socrates counters, asking if a ruler always makes decisions in his own best interest, which Thrasymachus admits not.  Socrates then gives an example of physician or ship’s captain; is their interest in themselves or their patients or sailors?  The latter, of course, so “no skill or authority provides for its own benefit,” but for the benefit of the weaker, which contradicts the assertion of Thrasymachus.  I rather think Thrasymachus’ views would be a recipe for chaos.

Now the larger question is tackled by Socrates …. Is a life of Justice preferable to a life of injustice?  Socrates refutes Thrasymachus’ view, concluding that the virtue of a soul is Justice and injustice its defect.  Thus, “the soul robbed of its peculiar virtue, … cannot possibly do its work well ….. and living well involves well-being and happiness,”and therefore, “only the just man is happy.”  However, Socrates has not yet given a fixed definition of Justice.

* in ancient Greece, Sophists were paid teachers who were experts in using philosophy and rhetoric to promote excellence and virtue, yet are often portrayed as using fallacious reasoning and obscuring moral principles

⇐ Introduction                                                                                        Book II ⇒

The Republic ~ Introduction

“Socrates: I walked down to the Piraeus yesterday with Glaucon the son of Ariston to make my prayers to the goddess.”

Well, I’ve finished History of the Peloponnesian War (except for my final post), yet I’m afraid I’m going to continue on the same track with The Republic and put a number of my readers to sleep.  But I am enjoying this history project ….. as we’ve meandered through Herodotus, then Thucydides, and now Plato, you do see changes and developments within the Greek culture and worldview that can’t be ignored.  And since our civilization, to a certain extent, grew out of it, I believe it’s valuable to learn something about that development.  I anticipate that Plato will be more interesting, but possibly more frustrating.  It doesn’t seem like it was only the ancients who wanted to strangle Socrates …..

Introduction

Plato was born is the year 428/7 BC and his childhood and early youth were overshadowed with the Peloponnesian War, giving rise to a fundamental questioning of the best way to live.  As Thucydides observed in his history that “in peace and prosperity both states and individuals are actuated by higher motives, because they do not fall under the dominion of imperious necessities; but war, which takes away the comfortable provision of daily life, is a hard master, and tends to assimilate men’s characters to their conditions,” and thus Plato saw political life as a type of war for power, money or prestige.

Upon Pericles’s death at the beginning of the war, there ended the reign of a philosopher king, a man whom grew in wisdom through his conversations with the pre-Socratic philosopher, Anaxagoras, and therefore was able to employ both political intelligence and enlightened prudence to his governing of the state.  With his demise, a great chasm began to appear between politics and philosophy.  “To Plato, this drifting apart of the men of thought and the men of action was a disastrous calamity, indeed the root of the social evils of his time.”  (Cornford p. xxiv)  Instead of two separate avenues, each should be united in the other to allow man his full expression.

Plato (1560)
Paolo Veronese
source Wikiart

By mid-life Plato opened his Academy, basing his conversational instruction on his mentor, Socrates, whom he’d studied under since his early twenties.  Plato sought an answer to the problem that if knowledge was a means to power, and power to wealth, then society was doomed to a materialistic cycle that left men blind to not only the consequences of their actions, but led them to mistake the path to true happiness: “which every soul pursues as the end of all her actions, dimly divining its existence, but perplexed and unable to grasp its nature with the same clearness and assurance as in dealing with other things, and so missing whatever value those other things might have.” (5a95 E, p. 216).  With his astute insight, Plato presents a problem that is ubiquitous, a universal dilemma.

The translator, Conford, suggests that in reading Plato, ask yourself why you agree or disagree with Plato’s utopian design, and in response, suggest an alternative.  In this way, through time, you can experience an abstract participation in Plato’s Academy and perhaps determine, as Socrates implied, that it’s just as important to discover what you don’t know, as what you do.

Arcadian Ruins (c. 1720)
Giovanni Paolo Panini
source ArtUK

Book I ⇒


The Apology of Socrates by Plato

The time is 399 B.C. and Socrates has been charged with the corruption of youth and for believing in gods other than the gods of Athens.  His defence?  He was told by Chaerophon, a companion of his, that the gods at Delphi had declared that no one was wiser than Socrates, and Socrates, knowing that he was neither great nor wise, set out to find a wiser man than he.  But ….. surprise! …… with each man, or segment of society Socrates questioned, he discovered that, while most men had knowledge, they were lacking wisdom and, as of the date of the trial, it does not appear that he has found one wise man.

So what made these respectable men of Athens so enraged that they demanded Socrates’ death?  Perhaps the problem was that Socrates didn’t merely question men …… he grilled them, he roasted them, he flambéd them, he broiled them and he probably verbally flogged them, before going on his merry way.  Is it any wonder that a large segment of Greek society was out for his blood?  Yet Socrates was not ignorant of his unfortunate affect on people.  He was aware of the brooding animosity of the enemies he had left scattered in his wake, but he proclaimed that his duty to God, nay, his responsibility to God, was to answer the question that was set before him:  Is Socrates the wisest man?

“Strange, indeed, would be my conduct, O men of Athens, if I who, when I was ordered by the generals whom you chose to command me at Potidea and Amphipolis and Delium, remained where they placed me like any other man, facing death —- if, I say, now, when, as I conceive and imagine, God ordered me to fulfil the philosopher’s mission of searching into myself and other men, I were to desert my post through fear of death, or any other fear; that would indeed be strange, and I might justly be arraigned in court for denying the existence of the gods, if I disobeyed the oracle because I was afraid of death: then I should be fancying that I was wise when I was not wise.  For this fear of death is indeed the pretence of wisdom, and not real wisdom, being the appearance of knowing the unknown; since no one knows whether death, which they in their fear apprehend to be the greatest evil, may not be the greatest good.  Is there not here conceit of knowledge, which is a disgraceful sort of ignorance?”

And to the possibility of being freed on the condition that he agreed to no longer attempt to influence the people (or to tell the truth, as Socrates would term it), he responds:

” ……. if this was the condition on which you let me go, I should reply:  Men of Athens, I honour and love you; but I shall obey God rather than you, and while I have life and strength I shall never cease from the practice and teaching of philosophy, exhorting anyone whom I meet after my manner, and convincing him, saying: O my friend, why do you who are a citizen of the great and mighty and wise city of Athens, care so much about laying up the greatest amount of money and honor and reputation, and so little about wisdom and truth and the greatest improvement of the soul, which you never regard or heed at all?  Are you not ashamed of this? …….”

As far as Socrates was concerned, he had a duty to God and to truth to fulfill his purpose and nothing was going to sway him from this quest.  His rhetoric is brilliant but he really makes no effort to placate his accusers.  Though his life is important, which is evidenced by his attempt to refute the charges, there is something he places in much higher esteem:  the truth and his obligation to it.

“….. I cannot hold my tongue, you will not believe that I am serious; and if I say again that the greatest good of man is daily to converse about virtue, and all that concerning which you hear me examining myself and others, and that the life which is unexamined is not worth living …..”  

The Death of Socrates
by Jacques-Louis David

Sadly, the verdict was death for Socrates, his final words a moving epitaph:

“The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our ways — I to die, and you to live.  Which is better, God only knows.”