iSymposium’s series called “The Education Quartet” held its first session Monday, January 15th 2018 at 9 pm EST (8 Central, 7 Mountain, 6 pacific ) to read and discuss the first book in the series, Book I of the Plato’s Republic. The “Ariadne’s Thread” of the entire reading pathway is a passage from Peter Kalkavage’s book Logic of Desire (Paul Dry Books). Download a PDF of the passage here.
This seminar report, of course, does not pretend to be an exhaustive report of everything said in the evening’s discussion – but merely to sketch the general shape of what was discussed. It is hoped that this will be one useful way to keep track of our reflections as we make our way further into the labyrinthine territory of The Education Quartet.
A peculiarity of this dialogue is that there is only one ‘character’: Socrates. Socrates recounts a conversation in the Piraeus worth telling to someone, unnamed, and this telling presumably takes place within the city walls of Athens, away from Athens. Athens and the Piraeus are thus contrasted from the first line of the dialogue.
For the reading of other Platonic dialogues, an iSymposium group might volunteer to speak the different roles for the particular reading. But for this one, for the Republic, only one reader suffices: for it is Socrates, who evidently even imitates different interlocutors of the previous days’ encounter. It is too early yet to say what the implications are for the deeper questions or themes of this book, but we take note.
Socrates is on his way home from the Piraeus with a young man named Glaucon, after offering religious observances and observing a novel festival, which involved both Thracian and Athenian parades. Polemarchus and some others catch sight of him, and get him to stop – eventually they persuade him to come home with them. Socrates puts up a little resistance at first – plays coy – but then acquiesces. They return to Polemarchus’ home, where Cephalus, his father, is situated. Socrate and Cephalus exchange a few words.
After the reading of 327a-329d, we started with a simple opening question: what are we seeing? What can we notice here in the opening of the dialogue? That is to say, why does the dialogue begin here, in the way it does?
The first observation of our discussion concerned the confrontation between the young men and Socrates. How should we read it? Are the young men being impertinent and even violent in the way they detain Socrates from returning home – even to the point of threatening him if he doesn’t? Or is this a specimen of playful banter? And then, if it is playful, why this particular way of playing?
Polemarchus poses what someone described as a false dichotomy – either stay or be overwhelmed by the force of the group. Socrates suggests that there is third possibility, that they might be persuaded to let him go. The response is terse: not if we don’t listen to you, Socrates. At that, Glaucon and Socrates surrender to the will of the group.
When they return to Polemarchus’ house, they meet an old man, the father of Polemarchus, Cephalus – whom Socrates narrates he hadn’t seen in a very long time, and seemed very old to him. Cephalus is friendly towards Socrates. He indeed goes so far as to welcome him into his home as one of his very own. Socrates is on friendly turf here in this dialogue. We learn that Socrates’ visits to the Piraeus are rare, as Cephalus points out.
The stage is being set in the opening pages for engagement with the larger themes of the book. One observation was that the playful encounter between Socrates and Polemarchus (and his gang), where they ‘detain’ him from going home, gives a indication of the larger political problem that the rest of the book might in some way be trying to deal with: that is the problem of the rule of strength or force – in this case, a ‘mob’ or group overpowering an individual, or the weaker. Socrates is ‘detained’, on against his will or his desire – even if in play or jest. A question was raised about why Socrates might be reluctant to stay in the Piraeus. This same question could be turned in the different direction – what compelled him to make the rare visit to the same in the first place.
This tiny feature is exhibits something that will be important later on the dialogue. Desire – especially sexual desire – is on Cephalus’ mind, as he reflects on the “many mad masters” that youth is subject to, but which do not subjugate an orderly man such as himself on the “threshold of old age”, who -with Sophocles – has seemed to be liberated from these interests of youth. The question of desire leads to that of order – and order, we observed, of both soul and in a community is being presented here in the early pages of the book.
The elder Cephalus presents a striking contrast to the young men, Polemarchus, Adeimatus and the rest who are gathered. The youths are very forward, but Cephalus himself seems retiring. For Cephalus tells Socrates that the slackening of his desires has made him more keen to love speeches. And indeed as someone pointed out, in the next reading he will remove himself from the scene entirely, and leave the conversation to Polemarchus.
Perhaps along the same lines of youth and old age, the novelty or newness of the festivals – the ones Socrates observed, and the ones Adeimantus and Polemarchus promised Socrates will appear during the all-night festival is being is exhibited for us. What this too means is yet unclear, but it is surely important to note.
Another contrast was pointed out in the discussion – that appears between the physical, corporeal or the body, and ‘character’ or the soul – as Cephalus indicates in his response to Socrates prompting. Socrates had asked him: how does life appear to you at this age? Hard or easy? Cephalus’ answer seems to surprise Socrates, who then wonders at him, when he tells him that it has been easy, but that is because most people his age haven’t put their finger on the cause of the difficulty of old age or youth. That cause resides in the character and character alone, according to Cephalus.
There is indeed far more in just a few pages than one would think. But wait, someone said. Couldn’t this just be a simple introduction to the serious conversation that takes place? People are showing up for a conversation that’s about to take place. Aren’t we reading ‘into it’? The answer is a question: what would it even mean for it to be a simple introduction, when in fact what we actually see is far from simple? The opening plausibly serves as an introduction, but one that provides or puts on display many rich indications as to what larger themes and questions we are to watch out for as we follow the unfolding argument. We see the question of force, the question of human desire and ways of living, the question of right ordering of soul and community, and even the theme of liberation or freedom- all reflected in the opening movements of the first three pages of the Republic.
(Please note: your thoughtful comments are welcome. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org and we will be sure to post them.)