Conversation held on Monday, April 16th 2018, 8 pm Central (9 EST/6 Pacific) 

“If we should watch a city coming into being in speech,” I said, “would we also see its justice coming into being and its injustice?”

“Probably,” he said.

Summary of Book II 368c-369b

This brief but rich section sets out Socrates’ ‘opinion’, how it looks to him they should proceed forward on the question or problem of justice Glaucon and Adeimantus have posed to Socrates. Socrates proposes they ‘watch a city come into being in speech’, and by viewing justice and injustice in the bigger, the city, they might be able to learn how it is in the smaller, in the individual.  The group ‘resolves’ that this is the way to go forward, playing on the ‘resolution’ passed in the beginning of Book I that Socrates and Glaucon would stay for the party and refrain from heading home just yet.

Opening Question

The opening question for this evening is an invitation to think together about what Socrates is proposing here – a proposal the governs the rest of the book.

Observations and Reflections 

Despite the ‘resolution’, there is an air of uncertainty surrounding the procedure, in the text, and in our group as well.  We reached back into Book II – and also parts of Book I – to reflect a little more closely on how this passage had arisen from Glaucon and Ademinatus’ concerns, and we wanted to especially catch Socrates’ own hesitations about his ability to help the brothers.  The brothers, we recalled, appear to want a life-changing speech from Socrates that will save themselves and others like them – the ones with the good natures – from ‘flying’ to the wrong things.

Socrates appeared to us, at least, to be making a tentative suggestion to look in this direction and see what we might learn about justice in the soul all by itself. 

On the other hand, the proposal to “watch a city come into being in speech” strikes the reader as a rather unusual suggestion, if not an utterly bold one. The way he articulates it makes it sound as if a city will be arising on its own, growing like a plant or a human being.  We are to watch something at a distance, from a position of detachment; and the growth of the city, its coming into being, will presumably be governed by some sort of necessity the way a plant appears to be. Socrates does not say, “let us build what we think is an ideal city in a speech,” but rather let us watch a city “come into being” in speech.

The presupposition underlying Socrates’ analogy is that justice in the city is the same as justice in an individual man – “if, of course, they do happen to be the same.”  Socrates gets Glaucon to agree that, in addition to there being justice of one man, there is also “justice of a whole city”. We are not to be looking for justice within a whole city, that is, how just men show up here and there, among people who are perhaps not perfectly just, nor yet again completely unjust.

Socrates leads Glaucon to accept – in contrast to the individual – justice as a property of a whole city: the city itself as whole is just. This would seem to suggest that the city itself is independent of the individuals that comprise the city, its citizens – the good city would seem to be something more than merely a city of good men (347d). A city of good men, simply in virtue of being a collection of good people, may not necessarily bring about a good city. It hardly seems conceivable, on the other hand, that a good city could be composed of wicked people.  So there must be some  sort of relationship between a good city, on the one hand, and the goodness of its individual citizens as individuals, on the other.  But it seems at least clear that Socrates wants to contrast the city taken as a whole or taken simply, and the individual.      

If justice in the soul of the individual, results in a blessed and happy life (354a), then the justice of the whole city, we are compelled to say, results in a blessed and happy city. But we have questions about this.  In Book I, Thrasymachus’ argument presupposed that there is a tension between the happiness of the city and the happiness of one man. The only way a human being can ever be truly happy, in his view, is if he subjugates an entire city to the commands of his soul – if the city is a slave to the individual as its master.

We have already seen in Glaucon’s arguments in Book II that there is some sort of tension between the individual’s desires and the burdens that law places on him.  The happiness of a city seems to involve the curtailment, abbreviation or subjugation of the individual to the demands of the whole city. The needs of the city may not be in consonance with the needs of the individual. Is it conceivable, then, to have a just (and thus a happy) life, while living in a city that is not just? Or is not possible for an individual to live happy life in a city that is not happy, if he is also a good man? Will he be compelled, because is is good, to surrender or look beyond his own private happiness, for the sake of the good of the whole city? In this case, the just life cannot be equated with the happy and blessed life, at least not simply.

Next week: we begin to “watch a city come into being in speech”


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