Plato Republic

The selection for this evening’s seminar, 333e-336b, concludes a line of argumentation that began at 331e, when Polemarchus ‘inherits’ his father’s notion about justice.

Summary of 333e-336b: 

Socrates has just turned Polemarchus’ revised understanding of justice, in particular as something useful for friends, on its head: on the basis of previous agreements, justice turns out to be useless in its use, and useful in its usefulness.

But then the argument takes a turn along a certain line that says, in effect, that the person most skilled at guarding or protecting something – whatever it happens to be, money or health – would be the very best at stealing or corrupting that thing.

Socrates gets Polemarchus’ halfhearted assent and then concludes that justice turns out to be some sort of art of stealing – and he suggests that Polemarchus must have gotten this idea from Homer. Polemarchus doesn’t find it very convincing, and he sticks to his notion that justice is doing good  to friends and harm to enemies.  

Socrates urges them to a fresh approach. People make mistakes, not the least about who their friends and enemies are. Polemarchus, agreeing to this, is forced to revise his definition, and qualify it: those who seem to be, and who are, good, are friends. And the same would be true for enemies.  This leads Socrates to make an astonishing argument about justice – that it is never just to harm anyone. A just man would not even harm an enemy because harming someone will not make them better, according to the argument established by a series of analogies with animal husbandry.

By the end of this train of thinking, Polemachus’ half-hearted assent has been transformed: “In my opinion, what you say is entirely true.”  At this point, Socrates dismisses Simonides, who, as we have seen, is one of the origins of Polemarchus’ idea about justice. But Simonides is not alone. Socrates names some others: Bias and Pittacus might also reasonably hold the same opinion. Not only does Polemarchus agree with the conclusion of the argument, but he is ready to be partners in “battle”.   Socrates then tries to link the poets to the a group of tyrants – ones to whom this idea in truth “belongs”, even more than the poets: Periander, Perdiccas, Xerxes, Ismenias the Theban  or “some other rich man who has a high opinion of himself.”

Opening Question:

This section might strike the reader as strange for several reasons.  The first movements of the argument, for example, seems incredulous, and even Polemarchus doesn’t buy it.  Let’s try to understand what Socrates is doing here with Polemarchus, and even better why he is doing it.


As was intimated in previous discussions, we seem to be witnessing a sort of genealogy of beliefs here in the opening section of the Republic. The origins of some powerful ideas are being indicated. These are not evidently mere ideas, but ones that a decent human being, Cephalus, has staked his whole life on. Despite Polemarchus’ youth, Polemarchus may be no different in this regard, as far as the ideas he has learned from his father.

Polemarchus’ ‘inheritance’ at first seemed to come from either Cephalus or the poets and orators, or a mix of both. By the end of this section, Socrates is silent about Cephalus, but names several poets, including Homer. There is not one origin; rather, there is a community of voices – who share this same idea. And then, not four lines later, he suggests even further (as we have seen) that the the real origins might not even be the poets, but rather another community, rich men who have “high opinions” of themselves.

Now Cepahlus is a rich man. But the impression we had of him, at least, is that he would not be aptly described as one having a “high opinion of himself.” He seems rather too modest – and someone one might well call a gentleman.

If Socrates suggestions are taken seriously, the discussion – which may have involved some sort of verbal “shell game” (as one of us put it) – has managed to expose something important about the origins of this powerful family’s beliefs, namely in two groups – whose relationship is not yet clear: The Poets, on the one hand, and wealthy and politically powerful individuals (‘with high opinions of themselves’), on the other.   The relationship between these two groups is a question we shall have to keep in mind as we penetrate further into the territory of this book.

Next week: An angry Thrasymachus enters the conversation – 336b-338d

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