Plato’s Republic – Notes from a first reading Book 1 – blow by blow

June 4, 2013 — Leave a comment

Context: The scenario that begins The Republic suggests a dichotomy between strength in numbers (the mob) and philosophic reasoning (speech and argument). This is represented by the group that approach Glaucon and Socrates and insist aggressively that the two join them for the festival and for discussion. Is the will of the majority compatible with philosophy and reason and the better argument? Can a compromise be reached between the two? Is the just city this combination?

The opening of The Republic sets the scene for a lengthy Socratic dialogue on the nature of justice and the nature of hierarchy and leadership amongst men. First of all, justice is argued by Cephalus to be both speaking the truth and repaying what is owed. Socrates points out an immediate flaw: that is, to give back a borrowed weapon to a man who is out of his mind and could use it inappropriately is not just or responsible. At the same time to tell the whole truth to someone who is out of their mind could be equally unjust in some circumstance. Therefore, to be just actually means that one person owes it to another person to do good for them, and never harm. Enemies might therefore receive bad treatment as it is what is ‘owed’ them, therefore appropriate and just.

Next the usefulness of justice is brought into question. Justice is abstracted as a an intellectual skill, to be thought of in the same way as a doctor’s skill is to heal, and a sailor’s to sail. The just man performs the act of being just. Just as a doctor is only useful to those that are sick, when they are sick, the just man is only useful when what is owed needs to be ascertained and repaid (in times of war to deal with enemies, in times of peace for contracts). In business, in this case partnerships requiring contracts, a just person is not as useful as say a builder for a construction business. Plato is model building here. He breaks down all human qualities to the bare essentials to exam the relationships between things. In reality one would argue that people could have multiple sets of skills including just decision making.

With regards to this business side of the skill of being just, it is decided that a just man is adept at safekeeping: gold or goods. Interestingly the opposite is also deemed true; that if one is good at safekeeping, one must also be good at stealing. Justice is useless when things are in use, and useful when they aren’t and need safekeeping.

In terms of doing good for those believed to be good and worthy of justice, human subjectivity becomes a problem. If the perception of the just person is mistaken, good and useful people may in fact be bad and useless. The people they perceive to be good are therefore their enemies, and the bad their friends. The definition of friend and enemy shifts to being:

“Someone who is both believed to be useful and is useful is a friend; someone who is believed to be useful but isn’t, is believed to be a friend but isn’t. And the same for the enemy.” (Republic; Book 1 334e)

Next comes the question of a just person harming and enemy who is bad. Justice is seen as human virtue. To be harmed causes a regress in the victim of human virtue. Therefore a just person cannot harm an enemy as it is not just to cause a regression in human virtue; enemy or not.

At this stage Thrasymachus demands an opinion of Socrates. The dialogue frustrates him and he asserts:

“justice is nothing other than the advantage of the stronger.” (338c)

For Thrasymachus justice is structural in accordance with the governing powers. A tyranny makes tyrannical laws, a democracy makes democratic laws etc. Socrates breaks this down by observing that the rulers are not infallible.

1) it is just to obey the rulers
2) rulers are not infallible – prone to error
3) a law is correct if it is to the rulers advantage
4) a law is incorrect if it is not to the rulers advantage

therefore it is just to do what is disadvantageous for the rulers as they prescribed the law, and it must be obeyed, even if it is an error. In this case the weaker are doing what is disadvantageous for the stronger.

The term ‘precise’ is introduced to further clarify an action. A ruler is a ruler in the precise sense when thwy are performing the act of ruling. When they are not they are a ruler in a general sense. In the same way, a ships captain is captain in the precise sense that he rules over the sailors, and not in the sense that he is a sailor himself. There is something advantageous to the both sailors and the subjects and the captain and the ruler in these analogies. Human hierarchical relationships are mutually dependent and no one self sufficient. Skills in this hierarchy are aimed downwards. This is a market-place style analysis: horse breeding doesn’t seek its own advantage, but that of the horses. A skill is engaged in order to improve the lot of the receiver of the benefits of the skill. A doctor’s skill is advantageous to his patient. Therefore a ruler will seek what is advantageous for his subjects. Thrasymachus’ argument at this point has now been turned on its head. Thrasymachus now insists that injustice is more advantageous to the individual than justice, and therefore to any ruler.

Is injustice more appealing to the individual than justice?

Socrates employs an elaborate set of examples to demonstrate that justice is a virtue that benefits both the individual and the group in a mutual way. By the virtue of justice people operate at their optimum.

Key questions in this book:

1) what is justice?
2) is it vice and ignorance or wisdom and virtue?
3) is injustice more profitable than justice?
4) is the person who has it happy or unhappy?


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