Plato Republic
Conversation held on Monday, March 19th 2018, 8 pm Central (9 EST/6 Pacific) 

“Come, let’s consider this now: is there some work of a soul that you couldn’t accomplish with any other thing that is?”

Summary of 352b to 354a

In last week’s reading (352b to 354a), against Thrasymachus’ claim that injustice is stronger, Socrates might have argued that justice is choiceworthy for its own sake, apart from any goods that accrue to it.  Instead Socrates aims to argue that justice is mightier than injustice. We see that idea presented that justice is the ultimate power to get the good things of life in a big way – not just in one person but in an entire city – a power of accomplishing things.

This week, they “fill in the rest of banquet” (352b), continuing along the lines of the direction indicated by the initial argument.

The discussion of Book I ends inconclusively. Though the argument Socrates presents feels promising, they still haven’t said what justice is. 

Opening Question

Let’s spend some time reflecting on the argument of this reading. What was the argument? Do we understand it?

Observations and Reflections

As we worked on our grasp of the argument, near the end of the discussion, someone wondered how the conclusion of Socrates’ argument at 354a compares to Thrasymachus’ idea that the ruler or ruling class sets down what is just, regardless of what regime. The ones in power get to decide what is just, but it always works in their favor.

Socrates’ argument says that justice is the power of accomplishing things in the best way possible. He did not say that it was the power of accomplishing the good itself, but a power that makes human beings – individuals and whole cities – happy.  They are happy, because they manage not just to live but “to live well”, to live the “good life.”

Now the good life is not the good simply, the good in itself. In his opening exchange with Cephalus, remember, Socrates had shifted the discussion away from the just and holy life, to the question of justice itself.

Not only is the good itself passed over here, but what it means to live well, or what is the best way of life, is left unspoken for – except that it must involve justice, and – as Socrates admits – they haven’t yet been able to square themselves to what it is.

We discussed at length the move Socrates makes to reflect on the way we think about work.

What is the work of thing? He presents two possibilities. We might think about the work that something doeson the one hand, simply in virtue of what can get done; and, on the other hand, we might determine the work of a thing by what something can do in the finest or best way. 

Socrates’ example is cutting a vine. One could use a sharp knife to do the work of cutting. But a vine-cutter, which is made for this particular work of cutting a vine, would do an even finer or better job than a knife. Thrasymachus seemed to think the latter is the way to understand the work of things – the best in the class of things made for that particular work, whatever it happens to be.

The point that seemed most difficult to follow was the ‘leap’ – as it may have seemed  - from arguing that the best work of the eyes or of the ears is the virtue of eyes and ears - to the question about the work of human soul: what is the work of the soul? 

The soul (psyche) admittedly is a complex thing: the soul ruling, deliberating, managing, but also just living - doing what is necessary to maintain life and survive.  A move is made from simple things – like eyes and ears – to something complicated, as if it were simple.

In this reading the Greek arete is translated as virtue, which is loaded with certain connotations that may or may not be present in Socrates’ thinking.  Arete means excellence, and could aptly describe, say, the particular excellence of anything, the best of a class of any objects whatsoever – for example the virtue of a plant, a dog or a horse. Speaking of the virtue of a human being in the same way we could speak of the virtue of plants, dogs and horse, then, would seem to be complicated by the complexity or ambiguity of the human soul.   

We’ve reached the end of Book I of the Republic, though certainly not of our attempts to think it through.  Next week we will be discussing and reflecting on the whole of Book I.

Our task in the Education Quartet is – to the very best of our abilities – to read slowly and carefully, and attempt to understand the text as it understand itself.

On the one hand, this may sound strange. But it makes sense. For we have to understand what is being said, as it is might be intended to be understood, before we can determine whether it is true or not.  On the other hand, if the proposition (to understand the text as it understand itself) seems reasonable enough – as it in fact is – it may also sound deceptively easy enough.

But after reading Book I together, we are experiencing how difficult it is to come to an understanding of a text like Plato’s dialogues. Plato does not make it easy for us.  

And Plato, more than any other author perhaps, is hard to come to terms with in other ways: Plato’s Socrates stirs us up, and his arguments are stumbling blocks.   

Beyond the usual feeling of unease about the figure of Socrates and whether to trust him, what is most interesting is this. In order to understand what is happening, many feel certain that the source of the trouble is outdated language and thinking – it needs to be updated. Something jars us – it doesn’t fit into what is familiar to us. Not only do we try to fit what is being said into our own most familiar way of thinking, we try to do so according to ‘today’s standards’.  And we do this, thinking that it would help us with our difficulties.  On another level, we also feel that all we need is an easy to understand explanation to boil it down, and that would help alleviate our confusion, and someone else could do our thinking for us. 

But this solution only leads to fresh difficulties.

1. What are today’s standards? American standards today or Chinese standards today or African standards today? Is it the standards of the scientific elite, the academic establishment, or the ones in power in political office, or the entertainment moguls, the vox populi?

2.  We are assuming that not only are today’s standards self-evident, but that we are an authority on today’s standards.

3.  If we can get agreement on what today’s standards are, are today’s standards right?  

4.  If we say they are right, how do we know they are right? Or how would we know whether they are wrong? From what standpoint can we determine that they are the true standards, or at least the ones we ought to depend on, so we can ‘clear everything up’? For it is plain that we couldn’t use today’s standards to establish today’s standards without our words being turned into nonsense. We would have to appeal to some standard outside today’s.

5. The same applies to the standards of the past or the future. Does this mean tomorrow’s standards, in virtue of being tomorrow, makes our present standards wrong? If this is the case, then can “our” standards be depended on to clear things up?  Not at all. 

6. We want to make sure everything fits into what is familiar and easy according to today’s standards. Everything unfamiliar and strange – and difficult, that makes us uncomfortable – is looked at suspiciously and is assumed to be wrong, and therefore either rejected, or converted into the familiar and comfortable.   At this point, we ought to be astonished to find how closed our minds are – we who have prided ourselves on being open-minded. Our habits of thinking, without realizing it, resemble the worst kind of prejudiced behavior we have so assiduously – even vehemently and indignantly – tried to avoid.

For all of these reasons, and more, thoughtlessly relying on today’s standards – whatever they might be – creates more problems than it solves. It would be far simpler, and more direct, were we to try to come to terms with what’s in front of us, not by ‘today’s standards’, but by the texts own standards and the common experience of man as man.

 

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