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 ⇒