Friday, August 22, 2014

Politeia (Part I: Opening Moves)

Plato's Republic hardly needs an introduction, being one of the most important and influential works of philosophy ever written. It was often referred to in antiquity as the dialogue "On Justice", and, of course, is most commonly referred to today not by its Greek name, Politeia, or Polity, but by the latinized version, 'Republic'. The dialogue is Plato's second longest (only the Laws is longer) and in antiquity was often treated as a collection of ten dialogues, one for each book. Scholars today commonly treat it as a super-dialogue formed out of previous dialogues -- earlier forms of Book I (which could stand alone and has a structure much like a standard aporetic dialogue) and Books II-V were spliced together and then developed into then ten-book dialogue we now have. This is certainly possible, and even plausible, given the significant anachronisms found throughout; but as always with such speculations, we need to keep in mind that they are speculations.

You can read Plato's Republic online in English at the Perseus Project and in French at Wikisource.

The Characters

  Socrates of Athens
Socrates is the first-person narrator.

  Glaucon, son of Ariston
Glaucon is Plato's older brother; he is also a speaking character in the Symposium and Parmenides.

  Polemarchus, son of Cephalus
Polemarchus was a fervent democrat who would later be executed by the Thirty. We have the record of what happened from Lysias, his brother, although, of course, Lysias is not a perfectly objective source. Polemarchus's house in the Piraeus is the location of most of the dialogue.

  Adeimantus, son of Ariston
Adeimantus is Plato's oldest brother; he is also a speaking character in Parmenides.

  Niceratus, son of Nicias
Niceratus is the son of the Nicias who was a character in Laches. While present, he does not speak.

  Lysias, son of Cephalus
Lysias is the same speechwriter who is discussed in Phaedrus. While present here, he does not speak.

  Euthydemus, son of Cephalus
Plato is the only early source we know who even mentions this third son of Cephalus. He is not to be confused either with the Euthydemus in Plato's Euthydemus or the Euthydemus who si the representative student of Socrates in Xenophon's Memorabilia. While present, he does not speak.

  Thrasymachus of Chalcedon
Thrasymachus was a famous orator, and is mentioned several times in Phaedrus and briefly in Clitophon. He is consistently associated with Lysias and Plato makes a great deal of his desire for money.

  Charmantides of Paeania
Very little is known about Charmantides from outside this dialogue. From a small amount of monumental evidence we can surmise that he was quite wealthy and probably almost as old as Cephalus. While present, he does not speak.

  Clitophon of Athens
This is the Clitophon of Plato's Clitophon, where he was also depicted as associating with Thrasymachus.

  Cephalus of Syracuse
Most of what we know about Cephalus comes from the speeches of his son Lysias. {{}} He ran a shield-making workshop, with many slaves; as one might expect, this was a highly lucrative business during the Peloponnesian War, and he seems to have been one of the wealthiest people in Attica. He and his sons were metics, which means they had more rights than foreigners (like Thrasymachus) but fewer than citizens.

In addition there is an unnamed slave of Polemarchus, who briefly speaks, and also apparently several other unnamed men who listen to the discussion without speaking.

Book I

Socrates opens the dialogue by narrating that yesterday he went down to the Piraeus with Glaucon to see the festival and pray to the goddess Bendis. As they were heading back to Athens, they were stopped by the slave of Polemarchus, who asked them to wait. Polemarchus, who was with Adeimantus, Niceratus, and a few others, insists that they stay, and after some banter between the two about force and persuasion, Socrates agrees. They go to Polemarchus's house, where they find Thrasymachus, Clitophon, and some others, including Polemarchus's father, Cephalus. Cephalus welcomes Socrates and chides him for not coming down to the Piraeus more often to visit, remarking that as physical pleasures vanish with old age, desire for the pleasures of conversation increase.

Socrates replies that he enjoys talking with the very old, because of their experience, and asks if old age is very difficult. Cephalus says that he often gets together with other people his age, and most of them complain about the lost pleasures of youth ("sex, drinking parties, feasts, and the other things that go along with them" (329a). Others complain about how poorly the elderly are treated. But, Cephalus holds, the real problem is just the way people live. If people live in a way that is orderly and contented (kosmioi kai eukoloi), the burdens of age are bearable; if they live immoderately, both youth and age are unbearable. Socrates remarks that most people would think that Cephalus could only say this because he was very wealthy. Cephalus replies that facing old age while poor is very difficult, but that having wealth does not automatically make one's old age better.

Socrates remarks that Cephalus doesn't seem excessively devoted to money, and asks what the greatest benefit of being wealthy is. Cephalus, admitting again that most people wouldn't agree with him, says that as you get old, you begin to think about Hades, and about the potential consequences of having lived a life of injustices. Being wealthy helps you to avoid deceiving people and to pay back what you owed to men and to gods.

Socrates asks whether justice just is telling the truth and paying what you owe, noting that you do not give a friend a weapon you borrowed if they are out of their mind. But Polemarchus jumps in and says that this is exactly what it seems to be, quoting the famous line in Simonides about how justice is rendering what is due to each. Cephalus leaves to do sacrifices, and Polemarchus takes over his role. After some questioning, Socrates elicits from Polemarchus that he takes this to mean that we should benefit friends and harm enemies (cp. Clitophon). This makes the just the same as the appropropriate and fitting (opheilomenon kai prosekon); but the further question is, for what? After some discussion, Polemarchus says money (331b), but this just runs into similar problems, leading to the apparent conclusion that justice is the skill that governs using money when you aren't using it as money, which doesn't seem a particularly important skill, and, moreover, it seems to bring us to the conclusion that the just person would make a good thief (cp. Hippias Minor). Polemarchus agrees that this is not what he intended, but insists that justice is benefiting friends and harming foes. But this runs into the obvious problem that we could be friends with unjust people and enemies to just people, due to being mistaken; and thus justice would in those cases including harming just people. So it seems we must say that justice is benefiting the just and harming the unjust. Socrates goes on to argue, however, that it is never just to harm anyone, and suggests that whoever came up with the idea that justice involved harming one's enemies was probably a "wealthy man who believed himself to have great power" (336a).

At this point Thrasymachus hurls himself into the conversation (336b-c):

What nonsense have you two been talking, Socrates? Why do you act like idiots by giving way to one another? If you truly want to know what justice is, don't just ask questions and then refute the answers simply to satisfy your competitiveness or love of honor (philotimou). You know very well that it is easier to ask questions than to answer them. Give an answer yourself, and tell us what you say the just is. And don't tell me that it's the right (to deon), the beneficial (to ophelimon), the profitable (to lousiteloun), the gainful (to kerdaleon), or the advantageous (to sympheron), but tell me clearly and exactly what you mean; for I won't accept such nonsense from you.

Socrates says that clever people like Thrasymachus should not be hard on unclever people like them, and Thrasymachus laughs, saying that this is just Socrates' usual irony (eironea) or deceptiveness, and that he bet some others earlier that if Socrates were put on the spot to answer questions, he would slip into irony just to avoid doing so. Socrates responds that it's difficult to answer questions if Thrasymachus insists on eliminating all the likely answers beforehand rather than letting him answer in the way that turns out to be true after investigation. Thrasymachus in turn complains that Socrates wants to avoid teaching, instead preferring to learn from others without being grateful. But the others involved, especially Glaucon, convince Thrasymachus to give his own account of justice.

The account, of course, is well-known: justice is nothing other than what is advantageous (to sympheron) to the stronger. Different cities have different regimes; in each of these regimes there is some ruling power. Justice is what is advantageous to the ruling power. Socrates, of course, recognizes that this is one of the forbidden answers, with 'to the stronger' attached; so he focuses in on this modification. Ruling powers are capable of erring, even about what is advantageous to themselves; but this means there can be cases of conflict, e.g., it is advantageous to the ruler to be obeyed but the ruler may command something disadvantageous to the ruler. Polemarchus is very impressed by this argument; Clitophon is not. The two square off, with Clitophon insisting that what Thrasymachus holds is that the advantageous to the stronger is whatever the stronger thinks is advantageous. Thrasymachus denies that this is what he means, because someone who is in error is not one of the stronger insofar as he errs.

Socrates then argues that in every other craft (techne), the craft is advantageous to what is less powerful or weaker than the craft itself -- medicine has power over the body and works for its advantage, etc. Thrasymachus responds that shepherds and cowherds tend sheep and cows for their own good, or their master's good, not for the good of the sheep and the cows. Likewise, justice benefits the stronger and harms the weaker. In business it is unjust men who come away wealthier, not just men. In taxes it is the just who end up paying, not the unjust. In subsidies it is the unjust who get the funds, not the just. Just people in public offices find that their private affairs suffer because their public responsibility hampers their ability to maneuver for their benefit and the benefit of their friends; unjust people thrive because they ignore any responsibility that does hamper them in this way. Thus, says Thrasymachus, "A person of great power outdoes everyone else" (344a). (This single sentence, ton megala dynamenon pleonektein, introduces one of the most important ideas of the dialogue, that of pleonexia, the craving for more and more, which Plato regards as the root of injustice.) Thrasymachus concludes:

Those who reproach injustice do so because they are afraid not of doing it but of suffering it. So, Socrates, injustice, if it is on a large enough scale, is stronger, freer, and more masterly than justice. And, as I said from the first, justice is what is advantageous to the stronger, while injustice is to one's own profit and advantage. (344c)

All of this is quite important, and the ideas raised by Thrasymachus will be considered throughout the dialogue. Socrates replies that he is unpersuaded by it, however. He asks if rulers rule willingly, which Thrasymachus says that they do. But in every other craft, people don't rule just for the sake of ruling, but for some benefit, because it is the ruled that benefit from the craft. If we are talking about the shepherd, the sheep benefit just from the shepherd's being a competent shepherd, regardless of whether the shepherd gets anything out of it or not. Any benefit for the shepherd has to be added on.

Socrates proposes that love of money (philargyron) and love of honor (philotimon) are despised by decent people when it comes to matters of rule. Since the craft of ruling would not benefit the ruler, and since decent people would refuse to be regarded as ruling if it meant being seen as money-grubbing or attention-whoring, decent people have to be compelled to rule. But what could compel a decent person to take up politics? Only the fact that it is a terrible burden to be ruled by someone less just than yourself. Thus it still seems to be the case that justice is not what is advantageous to the stronger. But Thrasymachus in his argument has raised an even more important question, because his argument for his thesis involved claiming that the unjust life was better than the just life. He asks which life Glaucon would consider better, and Glaucon replies that he regards the just life as more profitable.

Socrates asks whether Thrasymachus considers justice a virtue and injustice a vice, and Thrasymachus denies both, since injustice is profitable and justice is not. Those who are unjust and can bring whole cities under their sway are in fact competent (phronimoi) and good (agathoi). Injustice on such a scale is splendid (kalon) and strong (ischyron). Socrates asks whether a just person wants to outdo (pleon echein) the unjust person, but not the just person, according to desert, and Thrasymachus says he does, and also says that the unjust person thinks he deserves to outdo (pleon echein) everyone. On the basis of this, Socrates argues that it is in fact the just person who is competent, because competent people in every other field are not interested in outdoing the competent but the incompetent: it is always the competent who make differentiations in what people deserve, and you consistently find that the people who think they deserve more than anyone else are actually incompetent. This argument makes Thrasymachus blush. Socrates goes on to argue that the just are stronger than the unjust because they work together and the unjust are constantly making enemies of men, of gods, and even of themselves. Thus it is justice that is the virtue and injustice that is the vice.

Thus what remains is to look at whether the just have better (meinon) and happier (eudaimonisteroi) lives than the unjust. Socrates thus argues that in everything else, what corresponds to virtue/excellence is what performs its work well, so that what is virtuous for the soul (psyche), i.e., whatever it is that makes us alive, is what makes it so that we live well. But since justice is the virtue, it is what makes us live well, not injustice, and since nobody regards it as profitable to live badly, justice is more profitable (lysitelesteron) than injustice.

Thrasymachus essentially concedes the argument to Socrates, although obviously without being convinced, but Socrates notes that he is not satisfied. Rushed on by the argument, none of the points he mentioned were discussed adequately, and the especially important point is that they never actually determined what justice was, and without knowing what justice is, they can't seriously know whether it is a virtue or makes anyone happy.

And thus ends Book I. One of the things that makes the Republic as long as it is, is that no major issue raised will fail to be woven into the whole tapestry by the end; quite literally everything will find its place -- even side comments will bloom to fruition later.

  Additional Remarks

* The Piraeus is about five miles away from Athens proper, although the walk is entirely within the Long Walls:

Lange Mauern.png
"Lange Mauern". Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

* It is perhaps notable that, just as in the dialogue Clitophon, Clitophon spends most of the dialogue not listening to Socrates and getting what Socrates has previously said wrong, so here he gets Thrasymachus wrong, too, since (as Polemarchus notes) he attributes to Thrasymachus something Thrasymachus does not actually say. And when asked by Socrates, of course, Thrasymachus himself denies that Clitophon's statement is what he means. It seems that this has to be deliberate: Clitophon gets everyone wrong, whether he's talking Socrates in Clitophon or Thrasymachus in the Republic.

* The discussion between Thrasymachus and Socrates, of course, echoes (or is echoed by) the discussion between Callicles and Socrates in Gorgias; but the two dialogues take the basic points in rather different directions. Rachel Barney, in her excellent SEP article on Callicles and Thrasymachus, notes that the kinds of views put forward by both seem to be found elsewhere, e.g., in the works of Antiphon the Sophist, and suggests that the positions put forward by Callicles, Thrasymachus, and Glaucon (when Glaucon reformulates Thrasymachus's position in Book II) can be seen as part of a systematic attack on this influential position:

Antiphon's text and meaning are unclear at some crucial points, but the idea seems to be that the laws of society require us to act against our own interests, by constraining our animal natures and limiting our natural desires and pleasures; and that it is foolish to obey these laws when we can get away with following nature instead. Without wanting to deny the existence of other contemporary figures working similar terrain, we can easily read Callicles, Thrasymachus and Glaucon as Plato's analysis of Antiphon into three possible positions, distinguished in order to clarify the complex philosophical options involved in the immoralist challenge. Thrasymachus represents the essentially negative, cynical and debunking side of the immoralist stance, grounded in empirical observations of the ways of the world. At the same time his idealization of the ‘real ruler’ suggests that this is an unstable and incomplete position, liable to progress to a Calliclean ‘heroic’ form of immoralism. Callicles represents immoralism as a new morality, dependent on the contrasts between nature and convention and between the strong and the weak. Glaucon shows that immoralism can do without the latter: we are all complicit in the social compact which establishes law as a brake on self-interest, and we all have every reason to cheat on it when we can.

Thus the Republic when paired with Gorgias constitutes a full-scale attack on all the major ways one could go about holding the position that might makes right, or any position equivalent to it. It is this, combined with Plato's ingenuity as a writer, that has made the Republic the classic it is: nowhere else do you find such an intense defense of civilization against the idea that repeatedly threatens to destroy it.


  1. Enbrethiliel2:58 PM


    I don't know if I'll get through this. I'm so over Socrates arguing with people. LOL! When Polemarchus jumps into the conversation, it got really boring for me.

    But I do like it when Socrates asks questions and approves of the answers, and I loved the little exchange with Cephalus at the beginning. =) Wealth and possessions as media for justice is a fascinating idea!

    Of course, that begs the question of what justice is in the first place--a question I believe I asked some time during this Plato reread. After the wonderful bit with Cephalus (which resonated with me inasmuch as I can see my elderly grandfather's life in its light), Polemarchus's argument that paying what we owe is merely benefiting our friends and harming our enemies seemed like the kind of rationalisation people make when they know they haven't been virtuous and can only save face by devaluing virtue. He's such a contrast to Cephalus, who is pious and speaks from experience; Polemarchus just seems to want to sound good. =P

    I chuckled at the description of Thrasymachus as a wild beast who got Socrates and Polemarchus "fluttering" apart, but I didn't want to hear another argument and decided to call it a night.

  2. branemrys3:04 PM

    It gets much less argumentative; in Book II Glaucon will reboot the discussion and put Socrates in the hotseat, and most of the rest of the dialogue is Socrates giving his response. And Socrates actually does give a response, which is perhaps a bit unexpected!


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