Book 1, The Republic

The inaugural post of this blog is a summary of Book 1 of the Plato’s Republic, the first of ten installments in a series which summarizes the Republic.  You might rightly wonder why the first work I have chosen to examine in this sociology blog is the  Republic. Although a political scientist might claim otherwise, I contend that the Republic truly is a masterpiece of sociology. It deals not only with some of the most timeless questions of sociology, e.g., what is justice, how can one be secure in their knowledge of justice, what are the origins of society, how does society evolve over the course of time, what are the causes of political revolution, etc,. The Republic is an early work in the sociology of knowledge to the extent that it explicates how a particular discipline (i.e., philosophy) comes into being after establishing its own particular domain (the Forms) and method of inquiry (i.e., dialectics). It also illustrates the contemporary debates within the discipline of sociology regarding the nature of truth (especially essentialism) amongst constructivists and non-constructivists, and amongst metaphysical foundationalists and non-foundationalists. The purpose of this series, therefore, will not only be to provide a summary and critical commentary of the Republic, but to do so with an eye towards claiming this text for sociology. -KT

Part 1: Down at the Piraeus (Context/Setting)

Book 1 opens with the famous line: “I went down to the Piraeus yesterday with Glaucon, the son of Ariston” (326e). This line is immensely symbolic for reasons that will be revealed as one progresses through the Republic. For now it is enough to note the following points about it. Socrates’ use of the past tense, i.e., “I went down to the Piraeus yesterday,” tells us that Plato intends the Republic to be an historical account in which Socrates recollects yesterday’s trip to the Piraeus with Glaucon. It is also symbolic that Plato chose the Piraeus, the port city of classical Athens, as the opening setting of the Republic. Why?  Writing in 430 BCE, Plato would have chosen it with the knowledge that it was to be the location where the Thirty Tyrants were defeated, and the Athenian democracy (the regime that would put Socrates to death) was to be restored in 403 BCE. Because this port city was a multicultural hub in which the rich intermixed with poor, and Athenians intermixed with non-Athenian “foreigners”,  it also symbolizes the cultural and economic diversity of Athenian democracy. That Socrates characterizes his journey with Glaucon as a trip down to the Piraeus, is also symbolic. It represents the overall structural movement of the Republic, a theoretical journey of descent-ascent-descent, Plato’s dualist metaphysics (as the reader will see especially in Books 5, 6, and 7), as well as the value Socrates/Plato attributes to the Piraeus. That they went down to the Piraeus, an area associated with crime and vice, symbolizes their movement into (and out of) the shadowy realm of appearances, opinion and belief. The conversation begins after Socrates and Glaucon are detained by Polemarchus’ slave, who demands that they wait for Polemarchus and Adeimantus, on their way back up to Athens. An exchange occurs between Polemarchus and Adeimantus on the one hand, and Socrates and Glaucon on the other wherein the former attempt to force the latter to return with them to Cephalus’ house (Polemarchus’ father) for dinner and conversation. After threats of force on behalf of Polemarchus and pleas for persuasion on behalf of Glaucon, they finally reach an agreement. Socrates and Glaucon will join them for dinner, after which they will partake in that evening’s festivities which includes a relay torch race on horseback for the new goddess Bendis, and socialize with the young men of Athens. Part 2: Socrates vs. Cephalus (Justice as the Return of What Is Owed) At Cephalus’ house Socrates, Glaucon, Adeimantus, and Polemarchus are joined by Cephalus, Thrasymachus, and others. Cephalus welcomes Socrates warmly and they start talking. Socrates asks Cephalus to given an account of his experience of old age. Cephalus praises old age, especially the release from bodily desires that coincides with it, which he analogizes to the experience of a “slave who has escaped from a savage and tyrannical master” (330c). Cephalus agrees with Socrates that his immense wealth has contributed to his positive experience of old age, but only because he pursued his sexual desires moderately during his youth. Cephalus tells Socrates that the ability to avoid injustice is most important benefit he has received from his personal fortune:  “Wealth can do a lot to save us from having to cheat or deceive someone against our will and from having to depart for that other place in fear because we owe sacrifice to a god or money to a person” (331a-331b). Cephalus’ wealth, in other words, gave him the option of living a virtuous life to the extent that he could choose not to steal, for example, because he lacked the financial resources to provide for his needs, and the needs of his family.  Socrates thinks that Cephalus’ remarks about the benefits of wealth implies that Cephalus defines justice as the act of “speaking the truth and paying whatever debts one has incurred.” Socrates asks Cephalus whether he agrees (331b-331c) with the definition he has attributed to him. Before Cephalus has the chance to reply, however, Socrates contends that this definition is inadequate since repaying debts and telling the truth (e.g., to a person who has lost their mind) would be unjust (331c). Cephalus passively agrees with Socrates on this point, and exits the conversation to oversee a sacrifice after Polemarchus interjects on his behalf. Part 3: Socrates vs. Polemarchus (Justice as the Return of What is Appropriate) Polemarchus notes that Cephalus’ definition of justice borrows from Simonides who defined justice as giving “to each what is owed to him” (331e). After agreeing with Socrates that Simonides could not have understood justice to imply an unconditional obligation to “return what is owed” (332a), Polemarchus advances an alternative interpretation of Simonides’ definition of justice on behalf of his father and himself: justice is “giving to each what is appropriate (i.e., owed) to him” (332b). According to this definition whereas one’s friends are owed good rather than harm, one’s enemies are owed harm rather than good  (332a-b).  Socrates logically refutes this argument in three ways (332a-334d) but I only deal with his third refutation because it’s the one that convinces Polemarchus to abandon his interpretation of Simonides. Socrates’ third refutation hinges on two concerns. 1) Can one be secure in their knowledge that another really is a friend (or an enemy)? 2) And if so, can the just person harm another, even an enemy, without ceasing to be a just person? After Socrates points out how easy it is to mistake someone as a friend (or an enemy), Polemarchus tightens his definitions of friend and enemy to account for the gap between seeming and being:

  • A real friend is one who is believed to be useful and is useful.
  • A mistaken friend is someone who is believed to be useful but isn’t useful.
  • A real enemy is one who is believed to be useless and is useless.
  • A mistaken enemy is someone who is believed to be useless but isn’t useless.

Accordingly, justice can be characterized as treating “well a friend who is good and […] harm[ing] an enemy who is bad” (335a) and the just person is one who harms those “who are both bad and enemies” not those who are both good and friends.

Socrates, however, convinces Polemarchus that even this definition is problematic. Because, a just person is good, and because a good person cannot “make people bad through virtue,” a just person cannot harm anyone (even their enemy), without making that person more unjust as a result (335c). Moreover, because the just person is only a just person to the extent that he or she abstains from harm, the person who harms even an enemy cannot claim to be just. It is the function of an unjust person (not a just person) to harm another (335d). After not only defeating Polemarchus’ interpretation of justice, but revealing it to be a tyrannical interpretation of justice, Polemarchus agrees to partner with Socrates and fight against anyone who misrepresents the definition the “wise” and “blessed” Simonides gave to justice. For, when Simonides said that “it is just to give to each what he’s owed,” he didn’t understand this to mean that “a just man should harm his enemies and benefit his friends […] since […] it is never just to harm anyone” (335e). Socrates attributes this gross misrepresentation to various tyrants and wealthy men who falsely believed themselves to possess great power (e.g., Periander, Perdiccas, Xerxes or Ismenias of Corrinth). Part 4: Socrates vs. Thrasymachus (Justice as the Advantage of the Stronger) Before Polemarchus is able to given an account of justice and the just, Thrasymachus interjects himself into the conversation like a wild beast and demands that Socrates provide a account of justice.  Socrates reminds Thrasymachus that he and Polemarchus were completely serious about finding justice: “If we were searching for gold we’d never willingly give way to each other, if by doing so we’d destroy our chance of finding it…you surely mustn’t think that, but rather–as I do–that we’re incapable of finding it” (336e). Thrasymachus doubts Socrates admission of ignorance regarding justice, and states that he views it as a deliberate attempt to deceive his interlocutors (i.e., Socratic irony). They then enter into a debate about the nature of truth (see: 337a-337c) which establishes the main point of contention between the two. Socrates seeks a single, unconditional and objective definition of justice, whereas Thrasymachus thinks such a task is impossible since the truth is, at root, a socially defined convention. Thrasymachus asks Socrates to define justice, but Socrates refuses. Even if Socrates “knew” what justice was, a claim which he does not make in Book 1, he would be unable to provide Thrasymachus with an acceptable account of it since Thrasymachus has forbidden from “expressing his opinion” about it (337e). The end result of this debate about the nature of truth is Socrates’ admission that he can only characterize his assertions about justice as opinion, at least at this stage in the Republic. Taking up the challenge to define justice positively, Thrasymachus defines justice by appealing to social convention rather than abstract essences. Justice is “nothing other than the advantage of the stronger” (339b-339c). This does not mean that what is beneficial to the strongest element is just, and thereby advantageous to the weakest element. Rather, justice is the medium through which the strongest element(s) obtain their advantage over others. Thrasymachus looks towards the city-state for empirical evidence. Justice is the interest of the element that rules in a particular regime. In any regime, this ruling element enacts laws that secure their particular advantage relative to the ruled. They not only declare that such laws are just for their subjects, they punish those who flout their laws and characterize them as lawless and unjust. Since it is just to obey such laws, those who enact justice by acting in accordance with the law, will necessarily advance the interest of the rulers. Hence, justice is the advantage of the tyrant who enacts the tyrannical laws of a tyrannical society, much like how justice is the advantage of the people in a democracy which enact the democratic laws of a democratic society:

This, then, is what I [Thrasymachus] say justice is, the same in all cities, the advantage of the established rule. Since the established rule is surely stronger, anyone who reasons correctly will conclude that the just is the same everywhere, namely, the advantage of the stronger (338e-339a).

Socrates agrees that “the just is some kind of advantage,”  but investigates Thrasymachus’ assertion to discern whether justice truly is the advantage of the ruling element in a given regime (339b). To this end, Thrasymachus agrees with Socrates on a number of premises:

  • It is just to obey the ruler(s).
  • It is just to obey whatever laws the ruler(s) enact.
  • Rulers are prone to errors such that some of the laws they enact will to be to their advantage, whereas some of the laws they enact will be to their disadvantage.

Based on these premises, Socrates concludes that Thrasymachus’ assertion that justice is the advantage of the stronger implies that: “it is just not only to do what is to the advantage of the stronger, but also the opposite, what is not to their advantage” (339c-339d). Because justice is the same as acting lawfully in accordance with the particular customs of a city, particular laws–which may or may not advantage the ruler–are the highest standard one can appeal to with respect to justice. Without some overarching standard of justice, Thrasymachus’ conventionalist definition of justice implies that “what is to the advantage of the stronger is no more just than what is not to his advantage” (340b). After Socrates points out to Thrasymachus that the rulers might pass laws that disadvantage themselves (and advantage the ruled), Thrasymachus advances “precise” definition of the ruler in which the ruler, ceases to become a ruler when he errs. This definition is supported through an analogy which compares the knowledgeable man and the ruler-craftsman. The moment a ruler (or an craftsman) errs, he is neither the strongest nor the ruler but rather weak and ignorant: “It’s when his knowledge fails him that he makes an error, and in regard to that error he is no craftsman” (340e).

Socrates uses this argument against Thrasymachus. The ruler qua ruler, is only concerned with the well-being of his subjects. To clarify this argument, Socrates also turns to a discussion of the crafts (i.e., sciences).  By nature, the crafts rule over the things they are the crafts of, and provide for their advantage. For instance, the only function of the craft of medicine, which exists because bodies are deficient and have needs, is to improve the health of the body (341e). Thrasymachus agrees: The crafts only seek the advantage of, and are stronger than, that which they are the craft of (342d). On the basis of these premises, moreover, Socrates concludes that Thrasymachus’ definition of justice as the advantage of the stronger is an account of injustice rather than justice since the true ruler would not seek the advantage of himself, but of his subjects. These conclusions enrage Thrasymachus (see: Thrasymachus’ speech at 342e-344c). He describes Socrates as a baby, and tries to denigrate Socrates’ knowledge of the craft of “shepherding” (i.e., ruling). For Thrasymachus, a ruler only acts to secure his own advantage rather than the advantage of his “sheep”.  From Thrasymachus’ perspective, Socrates is completely ignorant of the meaning of  justice and injustice and the just and unjust:

Justice is really the good of another, the advantage of the stronger and the ruler, and harmful to the one who obeys and serves. Injustice is the opposite, it rules the truly simple and just, and those it rules do what is to the advantage of the other and stronger, and they make the one they serve happy, but themselves not at all […] A just man always gets less than an unjust one (344b-344d).

For Thrasymachus, stated differently, power determines what appears just: “A person of great power outdoes everyone else” (343e). Complete injustice–i.e.,acting unjustly and not getting caught–has the appearance of justice. If one’s actions are completely unjust, one will be rewarded by the ruler. If one actually acts justly, one will be punished by their ruler or their peers. Those who publicly reproach injustice, moreover, do so because they are afraid of suffering injustice, and of getting caught and having to pay the penalty. In this sense, injustice is freer, stronger and more masterly than justice. It is: “what is advantageous to the stronger, while injustice is to one’s own profit and advantage” (344c). After uttering these shocking statements, Thrasymachus tries to leave the argument but is reproached for cowardice, and for failing to teach others whether the life justice or injustice is superior. Socrates admits that he is unconvinced by Thrasymachus’ account of justice:

I don’t believe that injustice is more profitable than justice, not even if you give it full scope and put no obstacles in its way. Suppose that there is an unjust person, and suppose he does have the power to do injustice, whether by trickery or open warfare; nonetheless, he doesn’t persuade me that injustice is more profitable than justice (345a).

In an attempt to persuade Thrasymachus that injustice is not more profitable than justice, Socrates sets out to logically prove that “justice is virtue and wisdom and that injustice is vice and ignorance”. Socrates and Thrasymachus agree that just person only desires to outdo an unjust person, whereas an unjust person desires to outdo everyone regardless of their virtue. Going back to the craftsman analogy, Socrates argues that those who attempt to outdo those that are similar to them, are nothing but bad craftsmen. The doctor, for example, will only try to outdo a non-doctor rather than another doctor. Socrates concludes that the one that possess virtue and wisdom–i.e., true knowledge of his or her craft–will not try to outdo those men practicing the same craft. Thus, whereas the one who attempts to outdo other unjust person, lacks knowledge of the craft of justice and is therefore weak and bad, the just person, who only attempts to outdo  unjust people, possesses knowledge of the craft of justice and is therefore strong and good. In this famous climax of Book 1, Thrasymachus blushes as he realizes that Socrates has logically refuted his argument: “A just person has turned out be good and clever, and an unjust one ignorant and bad” (350c) (see: 349c-350c). After aligning justice with wisdom and virtue, and injustice with vice and ignorance, Socrates establishes that justice is stronger than injustice. Thrasymachus agrees with Socrates that the existence of injustice in an entity (whether it be an city, small group, or an individual soul) renders the fulfillment of a common purpose impossible because it causes civil war, hatred and fighting with. Hence, justice is stronger than injustice, no matter what it arises in, because of the presence of injustice makes it impossible to achieve a common purpose on account of the civil war that results when one becomes the enemy of oneself (as well as of other just people) (see: 351e-352a). Socrates finally concludes that just people live better lives, and are happier than unjust ones. Insofar as things perform their functions well by means of their own particular virtue, and badly by means of their own particular vice (e.g., the eyes only perform their function well if they possess the virtue of sight), the soul, whose function is to rule over and take care of things, can only perform its function well be means of justice, which is its virtue, rather than by injustice, which is its vice (353e). Hence, because a just soul will rule over and take care of things well whereas an unjust soul will not: A just soul and just man will not only live well and be happy, while an unjust man and soul will live badly and be wretched (353e). Justice, furthermore, is also more profitable than injustice since one cannot profit if they are unhappy. At the close of Book 1 Socrates revels in his defeat of Thrasymachus. He has revealed Thrasymachus’ account of justice to be an account of injustice–an argument in favour of tyranny–and that the just man’s life is happier than the unjust man’s. Yet, Socrates laments his continued ignorance. For without knowing what justice is, he can hardly know whether it is a virtue or a vice, or whether the person possessing it is happy or not (354b).

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