Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Great Books: Plato's Republic Books One and Two (Part 1)

The Republic, Books One and Two
Written by Plato circa 385 BCE
Place: Athens, Greece
Great Ideas: Justice, Vice and Virtue, State

The complete text of the Republic can be read online at http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/republic.html for free. It uses the same Benjamin Jowett translation that is cited in this work, though page citations given for quoted material corresponds to the 2nd edition of the Great Books of the Western World set.

Unlike the emotional rollercoaster of Plato’s trilogy on the Trial and Execution of Socrates, The Republic is, in many ways, more typical of Plato’s work as a whole. It presents, in written form, a fictional conversation in dialogue form between Socrates and a number of other Greek men as they ponder a variety of philosophical issues. The Republic stands out as notable, if not unique, among Plato’s writings because of the expanse of topics methodically dissected within its narrative, the universal nature of the questions under consideration, as well as the exhaustive insights it provides into the worldview of both its writer and the audiences for whom it was intended.

One of the great questions in reading the Republic is, “How fictionalized is Plato’s version of Socrates anyway?” We know that Plato was a student, admirer, and probably friend to Socrates. We also know that, as a scholar, Plato would have to have been as comfortable retaining information taken in via the oral tradition as he was learning information from written sources. Put plainly, there is more evidence suggesting the veracity of Plato’s account of Socrates’ ideas than that of the writers of the Gospels in regards to the life of Jesus Christ. If Plato’s descriptions were, indeed, intended as transmissions from his master, they would be as close to direct as possible without being penned by Socrates’ own hand.

As tempting as this idea of an untainted glimpse into the mind of one of humanity’s great thinkers may seem, we must consider the possibility that Plato does not intend these “utterings” of Socrates to be mistaken for truth nor did the original audience have any expectation that they might be. It was custom among members of a particular tradition to attribute any knowledge acquired to the source of that tradition. By this mechanism, Pythagoras continued to gain attributions to his reputation for decades if not centuries after his death. Old ideas were the most valuable and, pragmatically, ideas would circulate further under these acknowledged information brands than they would as the crackpot theory of whatever scholar might have actually had them. We know that, in addition to his studies with Socrates, Plato was trained in a number of other schools including that of the Pythagoreans and Heraclitean. So, it is not unreasonable to posit that Plato’s writing would be a filter through which the sum of his knowledge, including much of what he learned directly from Socrates might find a more permanent home than the lecture room.

The two books of the Republic under consideration here can be broken into a series of debates over the nature of justice in which Socrates is called upon to fully defend its virtues over the spoils of injustice. The bad news is that he never even comes close in these first two books (of ten) to completing that argument. His solution to the problem of first defining and the defending justice is to create an ideal state and then contrast it with existing governments in order to see justice in those differences. In all honesty, The Republic, at times, reads like a Dungeons and Dragons manual with its careful classifications of like and unlike things (a nasty habit that will only prove more intolerable in the hands of Plato’s student, Aristotle). The good news is that those first two books alone are so pithy that they provide ample material to assess what Plato might have thought about three of the Great Ideas; in particular, Justice, Vice and Virtue, and the State.

This whole imaginary conversation begins as Socrates and his companions are detained by friends after attending a public ritual and pressed into returning to their villa to rest before the night’s festivities. Upon arriving, Socrates engages in a conversation with their father, Cephalus about the process of aging, asking him, “Is life harder towards the end, or what report do you give of it?” After establishing that how someone lives (happy, sad, angry etc) is the greatest indicator of how they will approach death, Socrates suggests that Cephalus’ relative wealth may skew his impression of how life’s end is for all who approach it by age. Agreeing that a happy man with wealth fares better in the end of his life than a happy man with none, Socrates asks him, “What do you consider the greatest blessing which you have reaped from your wealth?” After some consideration, Cephalus tells him that his wealth has allowed him to deal with men in an honorable way (ie without lying to them) and keep from dying knowing that he owed someone something he was unable to pay. When Socrates challenges him on these criteria as the foundation for a just man’s actions, Cephalus gently begs out of the conversation and hands it off to his son, Polemarchus.

Before looking at what ideas regarding justice spring out of this continued debate, let’s take just a moment to see what role Plato plays in constructing this dialogue. Socrates is depicted as having great zeal in worshipping the gods, having left his home and traveled some distance to attend a new Thracian variation on a festival honoring Artemis. This supports Plato’s narrative begun in Apology that Socrates was a deeply pious man despite the charge that got him executed, advocating for the worship of foreign or otherwise improper gods. Secondly, as he arrives at Polemarchus’ house, he is met warmly by Cephalus, a respected elder who admonishes him for not coming by to teach more frequently. This also reinforces Socrates’ posthumous defense against the charge of corrupting the youth as what father would welcome a teacher into his home that he knew taught things that were unwise or untrue? If Plato’s writing is seen as building upon the reputation of his teacher, the responsibility of burnishing that legacy belongs to him as well.

Polemarchus’ defense of his father’s definition of just action is something of a rhetorical dead-end. After some positioning on semantics, Polemarchus refines it to suggest that justice is “the giving to each man what is proper to him, and this he termed a debt” [298]. This allows for justice to be given to both those deemed as friends and those as enemies. Socrates counters with the idea that committing evil against one’s enemies is not just, but unjust regardless of the circumstances, asserting that:

…if a man says that justice consists in the repayment of debts, and that good is the debt which a man owes to his friends, and evil the debt which he owes to his enemies—to say this is clearly not wise for it is not true, if, has been clearly shown, the injustice of another can be in no way just. [300]

While Polemarchus seems content to leave the inquiry at that, Thrasymachus, another visitor to the home is not. In Book One of the Republic, he gleefully plays the role of the skeptic, not merely of the nature of justice but indeed of Socrates’ method of argument. The descriptions that Plato includes to add some kind of tension to the narrative borders on hysterical. Thrasymachus (in “Socrates’” words) “came at us like a wild beast, seeking to devour us,” also noting that:

I was panic-stricken by his words, and could not look at him without trembling. Indeed, I believe that if I had not fixed my eye upon him, I should have been struck dumb: but when I saw his fury rising, I looked at him first and was therefore able to reply to him. [300]

Thrasymachus charges that none of the men have any interest in learning anything about the nature of justice, only in agreeing with one another. After mocking Socrates’ method of inquiry, Thrasymachus finally puts in his own two cents about the nature of justice, describing it as “nothing else than the interest of the stronger” [301]. When pressed by Socrates to expound on this, he goes on further, suggesting that:

…in all states there is the same principle of Justice, which is the interest of the government; and as the government must be supposed to have power, the only responsible conclusion is that everywhere there is one principle of Justice, which is the interest of the stronger. [301].

While the conversation begins with how a particular person might practice just living in relation to those in his community, Thrasymachus steers it now towards how the idea of Justice might define not only the relationship of the individual to his peers, but also a state to its citizenry. Once arrived, he presents a view of the world that, while cynical, is difficult to deny as too often reflecting our own.

…my meaning will be most clearly seen if we turn to that highest form of injustice in which the criminal is the happiest of men…that is to say, tyranny, which by fraud or force takes away the property of others, not little by little but wholesale…for which acts of wrong, if he were detected perpetuating any of them singly, he would be punished and incur great disgrace…But when a man besides taking away the money of the citizens has made slaves of them, then, he is termed happy and blessed, not only by the citizens but by all who hear of this having achieved the consummation of injustice. [304].

Rather than addressing this otherwise common sense observation directly, Socrates attacks Thrasymachus’ argument at its core, that justice represents the interests of the stronger over the weaker. Using a series of analogies, Socrates proves to his own satisfaction that justice is, in fact, more concerned with the interests of the weaker over the stronger. “Governments,” he asserts:

…rule and provide for the interest of their subjects who are the weaker and not the stronger…And this is the reason…why…no one is willing to govern [without payment]; because no one likes to take in hand the reformation of evils which are not his concern without remuneration…and therefore in order that rulers may be willing to rule, they must be paid in one of three modes of payment, money, or honor or a penalty for refusing [306].

He follows this up with a second analogy that ties the qualities of the just and unjust man with that of wisdom/goodness and evil/ignorance respectively. In the former, wisdom and goodness are predisposed towards cooperation with their like and conflict with that which they are unlike. In the latter, evil and ignorance will attempt to vanquish all competitors, good and evil alike. Socrates finishes the analogy by demonstrating that justice also cooperates with its like and against its unlike, whereas injustice seeks injustice for all. Seeing no way out of the rhetorical trap that Socrates has put him in, Thrasymachus concedes the point with as much grace as he can muster and leaves the discussion.

As a final point before continuing on to Book Two’s focus on justice and injustice in human behavior (considered in this context as Virtue and Vice), it is worthwhile to note that Plato chooses three very different kinds of people to verbally spar with Socrates in this opening book. While they are no doubt based on real people that may have been well known to the Athenians who first read this work, they also function as convenient archetypes suggesting how Socrates himself was received in his lifetime by his community. Cephalus, as a man shown as nearing the end of his life, lends authority to Socrates’ teaching through his approval but also represents the kind of traditional wisdom in the Greek culture that Socrates, and Plato after him, are trying to move beyond. Polemarchus is among the generation of younger men supposedly corrupted by Socrates’ teachings and presents an amiable, if half-hearted response to his teacher’s dissection of his half-baked argument. Thrasymachus is openly hostile to Socrates at the beginning of his discussion and derides not only his arguments but his methods for arriving at them. Only after the verbal battle begins turning distinctly against him does Thrasymachus regain his sense of courtesy and exhibits something resembling begrudging respect as he leaves the conversation. While he may not agree with Socrates, the text suggests, he leaves with more respect for Socrates’ methodology and cunning debate skills.

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