Plato Republic

After rooting our thinking in the foundations as indicated by the opening stages of the dialogue from the beginning to 331e, the argument is handed off to Cephalus’ son Polemarchus, the ‘heir of the argument’.   From the moment Cephalus leaves and his son takes up the argument with Socrates, from 331e to 333e, the argument takes three turns: the first is at 332a, the second at 332d , and the third at 333e.

The conversation for this evening started with the first turning point, which occurs almost immediately. Socrates gets Polemarchus to repeat his initial affirmation that justice is giving back what is owed, something he has said the poet Simonides also believed. Polemarchus confirms that yes, this really is his opinion of the way justice stands.

Socrates then goes back over the hypothetical scenario he had raised at the end of the discussion with his father, point by point. He gets Polemarchus to face the implications: if it is not just to give back to someone what is owed to them, when they are of unsound mind, then Simonides couldn’t have meant this when he said that justice is giving back what is owed.  Simonides must have made a riddle, just like all the poets. Polemarchus agrees, and here occurs the first turning point: he revises his initial claim about justice. What he meant to say, Polemarchus says, was that friends owe to friends to do something good.  Socrates then offers a restatement of what Polemarchus says, to try to understand his meaning.  So, Polmarchus,  you mean to say that giving back what is good would not include gold, if it was acquired by unjust means.  Polemarchus agrees.

Our starting point, then, was to reflect on this turn and Socrates’ response, to see what it amounts to.  There are agreements made and a revision to the initial statement about justice. Are we on board with this revision?

From this point, our conversation approached several main problems or questions.

The major one is simply sorting through the impression we all have about Socrates – that something strange happens in the course of an argument with him. Some have the feeling that Socrates is just doing some kind of logic-chopping wordplay. And one person ventured a suggestion that the section 331-333e is just an “exercise” in trying out different “definitions” (apokrisis, answer or judgment on a question). Whatever it might mean for this to be an exercise, by the end of this section, Socrates has managed to turn Polemarchus’ argument over on its head – from saying, in effect, that justice is the most useful thing, to saying that justice is the most useless of things.  So precise a reversal as this is might suggest that something more is happening in the course of argument, warranting a closer look.

So many readers of Plato – and not just those in our group of twelve people – have the sense that Socrates’ behavior seems somehow like a game, that is, not completely serious. For this reason, it is hard to know how seriously to take Socrates. The fact that so many feel this way would seem to suggest that there might be something to this perception.  Thrasymachus in fact – who will be entering into the conversation not too long after 333e – is enraged by Socrates. This, taken with the fact that Socrates is eventually executed by Athens, presumably for this behavior, raises a question.  If it is “just wordplay”, then wouldn’t the appropriate thing to do be to laugh and walk away? Why would Socrates’ wordplay (assuming that is all that it is) be so threatening to people like Thrasymachus and those others who brought charges against Socrates?

Even though Plato’s dialogues are mimetic, they are nevertheless “protreptic” plays, i.e. they are in fact built for use, for activity, for participation. (It’s as if he built a playground, workspace, exercise studio – or something like that – rather than a movie to watch passively.)  This means we have to trust our first impression and our questions – and not suppress them out of shame, but rather trust the process. It would therefore be better to assume that Plato actually wants the reader to face Socrates’ arguments and his unusual way of asking questions, so that we can raise the question for ourselves – with more intimacy and urgency – “To what end, Socrates?” One of our members raised this question afterwards, and it is a question that ought to be taken with greatest seriousness.

One of the other problems we faced together concerned what difference Socrates’ ‘exceptional case’ makes to the cause of justice – the case of the man of ‘unsound mind.’  As we have seen, he gets Polemarchus to face that case again. Polemarchus evidently hadn’t considered it sufficiently.  If it is true that justice is giving back what is owed, it would hold for all situations.  But it doesn’t hold for this particular situation. We have to reflect on the tension between these two elements.

It would seem, then, that either the claim must be qualified, or pitched out as unsatisfactory. One person thought that Socrates doesn’t seem interested in qualifying the statement, but rather wants an apokrisis – a stated answer to the question of “what is justice?” – that pins the thing itself down as completely as possible.

The case is an interesting one, however, in the implications it seems to point to. As several people unpacked the sense together, it points to, first of all, the sense that a justice that doesn’t account for contingent circumstances, for plurality, is somehow less than justice. There is a need for what we would call ‘equity’. The statement all by itself does not cover the real circumstances of life, and so all on its own, it would not cover all that what justice is in the global or complete sense. 

What’s more, as someone else in the group indicated, the case involves a person of unsound mind. The implication of this is that an individual is not always of stable, single unchanging self. People suffer from fits of rage under certain circumstances, and they do unjust things as a result. This vulnerability in our natures would seem to at least suggest that there is the possibility of injustice in everyone.

We spent more time looking at the first half of 331e-333e than the second half. But we did spend some time reflecting on Socrates’ revision of the original formulation “what is owed” to “what is fitting” at 332c.  This revision takes place after Polemarchus expands his second claim to include enemies – justice gives what is owed to enemies. What is really meant, then, Socrates says, is that justice gives what is fitting to each. How do we understand this exchange of words? Again, we are tempted to feel it is wordplay, nothing more. And soon after, it almost looks as though the words are used interchangeably: Socrates takes Polemarchus (and Plato, the reader) through two analogies to set up a question about justice: the art called medicine gives what is owed and fitting to the body; the art called cooking gives what is owed and fitting, that is, seasoning, to meats. ‘Justice, by analogy would be the art that gives what to which things?’ he asks Polemarchus, which precipitates a second revision of his claim at 332a7: Justice gives benefits to friends and harm to enemies. Or, Socrates clarifies: Justice is doing good to friends and harm to enemies.

Analogies like this continue holding the argument together though 333e, the end of our section for the evening.  Socrates tests this second revision of Polemarchus’ original claim, in this way, and the questioning ends by turning Polemarchus’ notion on its head, as mentioned above:  Justice turns out, on the basis of the previous agreements, to be a useless thing. Justice amounts to doing nothing very beneficial at all.

Polemarchus had stated that Justice is most helpful and useful in war (332e5); in peacetime, it is useful for contracts. But as they unpacking this further,  a certain emptiness is exposed at the heart of Polmarchus’ idea of justice.

If justice is only about doing something for someone, whether friend or enemy, this would not seem to cover the possibility that there are just or unjust human beings, distinguishable from just or unjust actions, a distinction that will have to be given attention.

At this point, we are in a better to position to reflect on a kind of lineage, following on the ‘playful’ idea that Polemarchus is inheriting the argument – a lineage that emerges in the course of the discussion, descending from the original claim made by Cephalus around 331a. The original claim or idea is first re-interpreted by Socrates as saying something about ‘justice itself’ and not about the ‘just and holy way of life’ that is actually on Cephalus’ mind.  Socrates drops the ‘holy’ and the ‘way of life’ and focuses on ‘justice itself’. He has Cephalus now saying that justice itself is giving back what is owed and being honest. He easily dispatches this idea with his very powerful and believable special case, and gets Cephalus’ affirmation. Now Polemarchus is unconvinced, and objects to Socrates’ refutation at 331a, and marshals Simonides the poet into his corner as an authority who will back them up. Then at 331e, the argument that he evidently inherits, loses even more of the original content: Polemarchus drops the ‘being honest’ part of the argument, and looks exclusively to the ‘giving back what is owed.’  So we can see the original idea offered by Cephalus has undergone three transformations before the inquiry from 331e – 333e has even gotten underway.

And how does this help us?

For one thing, what we are witnessing here by means of Plato’s art or writing is perhaps nothing more than an exhibition of the natural drifting and shifting of the of words we use, as convictions, opinions and beliefs get passed around and passed down, and become derivative.  Socrates’ reformulation may be a sharpening and clarifying, but we can’t help but notice that something is lost in the process. The question would be – is anything important lost in the process, that is, anything that ‘leaves’ with Cephalus as he departs for the sacrifices, that we should not forget?  On the other hand, could Cephalus’ idea itself be merely derivative of one of the poets he and his son love to quote – like Pindar, or Simonides or any other poet? The poets’ visions and words may be the true source of the genealogy of ideas indicated here in the speech.  In which case, Socrates ‘extraction’ of ‘justice itself’ from Cephalus’ speech may be seen as a challenge to the wisdom of the poets, not just the life wisdom of Cephalus. The poets are least likely to pin down ‘justice itself’ and give an account of the the things they say.  

It all seems to begin with ordinary conversation. That is, the starting point of the Republic appears to involve taking our ordinary speaking seriously – following up on the meanings of the words we use in ordinary speech. This surely seems to be one of the first lessons of the Republic, if not one of the more important lessons – there appears to be a much wider gap between the important things we talk about, even the most important words we live by – and what we really have in mind, or mean to say (compounded by the fact that those ideas themselves may need some care and attention) than we would perhaps be prepared to admit.

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