Conversation held on Monday, April 2nd 2018, 8 pm Central (9 EST/6 Pacific) 

“Socrates, do you want to seem to have persuaded us, or truly to persuade us, that it is in every way better to be just than unjust?”

“I would choose to persuade you truly,” I said, “if it were up to me.”

Summary of Book II 357a-362d

Perhaps it is not up to Socrates to persuade anyone of anything – and he is being perfectly frank here in the opening lines of Book II.  But Socrates is ‘arrested’ again for a third time in this dialogue.

Glaucon will not let Socrates go until he can persuade them truly that it is better to be just than to be unjust.  Thus he attempts to restore or revive, for Socrates, Thrasymachus’ argument  – Thraysmachus had been charmed like a snake too easily.

We learn here that Glaucon has heard ‘countless others’ espouse a view similar to  Thrasymachus’ – Thrasymachus’ vision is not original. He may have given up, but others will most certainly not – and Glaucon will continue to hear others advocate for the same ideas long after this conversation has ceased.

What Glaucon wants is what no one else talks about: he wants to hear what the power justice has ‘all on its own, by itself, in the soul’ rather than justice in terms of its consequences and wages.  Socrates had already enticed him along these lines in Book I, with his notion of a power of justice that works not only in communities and families, but inside one man, creating friendship in the soul: and then by concluding that the most important question remains to be answered: what is justice itself?

Glaucon’s restoration has several parts. The first part (358e-359b) is an assertion about the popular idea of justice as a compact that the weaker make to protect themselves from the stronger. According to this idea, all people by nature will do injustice to get ahead, if they can get away with it; but the reality is that not all people are naturally capable of it. So justice is a compact that holds the mean between two extremes: on the one hand, the best possible outcome is getting ahead in a big way and getting away with it; and on the other extreme, the worst possible situation, suffering at the hands of someone who gets ahead and gets away with it.

In the second part (359c-360e), Glaucon tells a story about Gyge’s ring, illustrating of the idea that all people by nature will do injustice on their own, if they can get away with it.

In the third part (360e-362d), Glaucon ‘polishes up’ two people, two lives – the life of the perfectly just man and the perfectly unjust man, to set them side by side. Perfect injustice is to seem to be just, but to be in fact unjust. For the perfectly just man, we must take away all seeming to be just: he will seem to be unjust, but will remain just. This has to be so, in order that no one suspects him of having a ulterior motives besides being and doing good for the sake of itself.    

Opening Question

As we come terms with understanding what Glaucon is trying to claim about justice, does Glaucon have it right when he claims that most people view justice in the way he describes (that is, as a mean between extremes of getting away with unjust deeds, and suffering harm at the hands of injustice)?

Observations and Reflections 

We began Book II of Plato’s Republic in the first week of April and began with a question: Is Glaucon correct that most people view justice as he describes, and is he right about the origin, character, and unwilling practice of justice? We kept this question in mind as we reviewed Glaucon’s long speech (which Thrasymachus was not permitted or able to give).

Socrates thought he was free from argument after taming Thrasymachus, but it was only a prelude. Glaucon asks whether Socrates wants to seem to have persuaded him, or to truly have persuaded him — hinting at a theme, we noted, of appearance and reality.

Glaucon sets the next stage of the inquiry by asking whether Socrates agrees that there is one kind of good that is chosen for its own sake, not for its consequences; a second kind chosen both for itself and for its consequences; and a third form, that is felt to be drudgery, and is chosen only for its beneficial consequences. What kind of good is justice? Socrates answers, “the finest” or “most beautiful” kind: the second kind.

Because most people think justice is pursued only for its reputable appearance, Glaucon implies that its consequential good is not in dispute – although this understanding of beneficial consequences is perhaps not exactly what Socrates meant – so he will therefore focus on the question of why one might choose justice for its own sake.

Glaucon wants to hear what justice and injustice are, and what power each has by itself in the soul, without regard to consequences. As we have seen above, he revives Thrasymachus’ argument by explaining the popular view of the origin and character of justice: all who practice justice do so unwillingly and hold the unjust life to be better. He denies that the common view is his own; but he has never heard the argument for justice presented persuasively. Have we?

He offers to praise the unjust life. Socrates approves, saying that it is “enjoyable” to consider justice (a good in itself is supplied here if it is just to discuss justice.)

People say that suffering injustice is worse than doing it, so those who cannot avoid suffering it agree to neither do nor suffer injustice. They agree that what their laws command is just. Justice, then, is midway between committing injustice without penalty and suffering injustice without revenge: a compromise, not a good. Justice is another’s good, not our own.

Having described the origins of justice, Glaucon further frames the question: if you give two men license to act as they wish, they will act the same. To demonstrate this opinion, he images a just man and an unjust man, each with a ring of invisibility. Neither would restrain himself if he could steal, have intercourse with anyone, or kill anyone without penalty — as a god among mortals with the power do what he pleased.

Now, to judge each kind of person, Glaucon proposes, we need to contrast the most just with the most unjust person, without regard to consequences. The unjust person will appear just, while doing injustice. The just person is stripped of all good things to see if he practices justice for its own sake. Does justice hold up against a bad reputation and horrific consequences? Let the just person appear unjust (while being just) until death.

Socrates remarks that Glaucon has polished the two types of men like two statues ready for judgment. But Glaucon adds dramatic consequences to being but not appearing just: the just man will be whipped, racked, bound, have his eyes gouged out, and after suffering every form of evil, will finally know that appearing to be just is better than actually being just. The unjust man will live by the truth of things, benefiting friends and harming enemies. His rustic comedy ends by saying that even the gods support the unjust life.

Is Glaucon correct? No one really argued that he wasn’t, although we felt a vague uneasiness with the speech. We were a bit unsatisfied with the way the problem was set up, perhaps sharing his brother’s view that the argument has not been adequately stated. We are curious to see whether Adeimantus’ modifications will help clarify the problem of finding the good of justice.

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