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)
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