Saturday, June 20, 2009

Plato's Republic, Book I

Since Blogger doesn't do a very good job of alerting viewers about this, I should probably begin by calling attention to the fact the this is not "A Wiser Man Than I" (whom I know better as Eric), but guest-blogger PJ who is writing. Last summer we had a enjoyably productive exchange over Mill's On Liberty, and we're now hoping to repeat that success with Plato's classic treatise in political philosophy, The Republic. We plan to alternate treating each of its ten books sequentially, perhaps adjusting the format as we go along. What follows is a summary, with very light commentary, of Book I.

The topic to be considered is justice. The book opens not with an argument, but with a description of the setting in which the dialogue will take place. Socrates and Glaucon have been observing the religious festivities of Piraeus and are on their way back to Athens when Polemarchus and some other citizens of Piraeus chase after and rather aggressively persuade them to remain for further events and conversation.

Socrates proceeds to speak graciously with the elderly Cephalus, introducing what may be an implicit theme of the book: a possible contrast of deference and respect for tradition with the a priori, rational approach of philosophical argumentation. Soc asks for a report on the difficulties of old age. Cephalus relates that, contrary to common opinion, he has views old age as a blessing: it is an escape from the appetites and passions that "importune" the young, jerking them from one pleasure to the next without real fulfillment. Of course, he adds, how one ages is the result of how one lives. The just man will enjoy his old age, whereas the libertine will bemoan his loss of the desires that ruled him in his youth, in which he found the all the guidance and satisfaction he ever knew. (Interestingly, Soc will reach a similar sort of conclusion at the end of this book.) Even wealth, to some extent a necessary condition of happiness, is presented as valuable mostly for sheltering us from many common temptations to vicious activity.

And so the question arises of what it is to be just, and, at this point, Cephalus (in a perhaps symbolic move) passes the argument over to his son Polemarchus and leaves the group in order to take part in a religious ceremony.

Here are the four attempted definitions of "justice" that emerge in the subsequent debate, together with the objections raised to them:

1. "Speaking the truth and paying whatever debts one has incurred."

But: Sometime paying back a debt in changed circumstances can lead to evil (as with speaking the truth in certain circumstances). It doesn't seem just to return a weapon to a friend who has lost him mind.

2. "To give to each what is owed to him."

But: (as above)

3. "Friends owe it to friends to do good for them, never harm." (Later emendation: We can be mistaken about who are our friends, so we should revise the original definition accordingly.)

A short detour: Consider justice as a "craft" on analogy with medicine or horse-training. What does it give, and to whom or what does it give it?

This raises the issue of the many respects in which things can be good or bad for different people with different needs in different situations, and of the diverse array of experts best qualified to provide for these needs. To do good for one's friends when they are at sea requires the skills of captain; when they are at war, those of a general; when they are hungry, of a cook; when they are sick, of a doctor; etc. To be truly just, on this definition, would require super-human capacities. (I take the next argument of the text to make the same point in a different way, and so I pass over it here.) In these passage Soc is closely anticipating what I believe will be the (still rather rough) position that he reaches at the end of Book I.

Furthermore: If justice is doing good to one's friends, doesn't it also require us to give to one's enemies what is bad for them? It seems so. But isn't treating enemies badly likely to make them resentful, less virtuous, and unjust in their character and action? Could the authentic exercise of justice directly produce injustice in this way? This seems wrong.


At this point, Thrasymachus violently interjects, expressing anger and contempt with Socrates for refusing to confront the issue and give a real definition.

4. He proposes the following: justice is "the advantage of the stronger." The rulers of a city, whatever its form of government, decide what justice is in accordance with their own advantage.

But: sometimes rulers make mistakes and give orders not to their own advantage. So it appears that sometimes subjects should not obey their rulers.

No, Thras responds, people are only rulers to the extent that they command what is, as a matter of fact, to their advantage, and so all commands that come from rulers, as such, must be obeyed.

Soc rejoinds: Crafts (a class to which we are at least provisionally regarding justice as belonging) do not seek their own advantage, but the advantage of their objects. For instance, medicine is not about about advancing the interests of medicine or of doctors, but of advancing the health of patients. So it seems that rulers must seek precisely what Thras denies: the good, not of themselves, but of their subjects.

Thras accuses Soc of naiveté. As if the ultimate concern of shepherds were for the good of their sheep! Shepherds seek the good of shepherds -- of themselves -- for whom sheep have a merely instrumental value.

His speech in defense of this (343b-344c) is, for me, the most difficult passage of the first book. The problem is that Thras equivocates on the definition of justice. Sometimes he uses it as the "simple" men do, on something like one of the first definitions considered. Other times he uses it in his own sense, where it is equated with strength broadly understood as the ability to gets one's own way in spite of any resistance from others. True justice is actually harmful to the one who obeys, but (presumably) not to obey would be even worse. In a claim anticipating Niezsche's screed against "slave morality," Thras claims that "those who reject injustice do so not because they are afraid of not doing it, but of suffering it." By the end of the passage he has explicitly equated true justice with injustice in its "simple" sense. Thus justice, for Thras, has its perfection in tyranny.

In response, Soc returns to his earlier claims about the structure of craft. A good shepherd, insofar as he is a shepherd, truly does seek the good of his sheep. The fact that wage-earning accompanies this craft does not affect the point in question. Ruling, Soc argues, is a lot of work. And what it is to do that work well and be a good ruler is a separate question from the kind of wages or other benefits he might receive. Indeed, in a now-famous claim, Soc declares: if good people are willing to rule, it can only be out of fear of being ruled by someone worse than themselves--for the best people are not motivated by the love of money or honor that are the typical "wage" of ruling (347c).


Here the argument shifts to consider whether the life of the just man or that of the unjust man is to be preferred.

Thras regards injustice (in its simple sense) as something not merely profitable, but as something "fine and strong," to be included along with the likes of "virtue and wisdom."

Yet, Soc proceeds, the unjust person is precisely the one who thinks that he deserves to outdo everyone -- just or unjust -- whereas the just person will not seek to outdo other just people. Appealing again to the notion of "craft," Soc argues that this simply cannot be right: "in any branch of knowledge or ignorance, do you think that a knowledgeable person would intentionally try to outdo other knowledgeable people or say something better or different than they do, rather than doing or saying the very same thing as those like him?" (350a). He continues to develop this claim for the specific case of justice, and this will be the penultimate movement of the book's argument.

The claim is that justice in something like the simple sense is necessary for the success of justice in Thrasymachus's sense. No city can conquer another without sort of internal coherence that we typically want to characterize as at least akin to justice in its usual sense. In order to become strong enough to assault its neighbors, a city must organize relations among its citizens so that it can function as a single unit. Socrates is here anticipating what I believe will be the final position of The Republic, that justice cannot be cashed out in terms of the actions of singular agents, but only in terms of the harmonious organization of the whole body politic.

The final move of the chapter is to identify justice, thus loosely characterized, as a virtue of the soul, and to infer -- just as Cephalus claimed in the beginning -- that a just person will be happy and an unjust one unhappy. We might return to this later, when Soc says more about the soul and the virtues.


We can discuss from all of this whatever is most of interest to everyone. Do any of these arguments look particularly good or bad? Are there any important possibilities that are simply not considered? Is there any point at which I seem to misread the text? How should the narrative framing affect our understanding of the arguments advanced in the text?

All thoughts welcome!

Cheers, PJ

12 comments:

A Wiser Man Than I said...

PJ,

Well done. I'm in Houghton for the weekend, so I probably won't be able to reply until Sunday night, but I will get to it.

High and Dry said...

One thing I found comspicuously absent from the proposed definitions of justice was some reference to the gods. Granted Plato sort of addresses this in the Euthyphro and goes on to say, later in The Republic, that gods have no place in the equation, but one would have to suspect that in a conversation during that era on this topic, someone would have posited that justice is what is demanded by the gods.

PJ said...

Eric: I look forward to it.


High and Dry:

Yes, interesting observation.

The gods only figure indirectly in this book. Take Cephalus to represent religion and "traditional ways." Socrates respects the wisdom of experience, but demands more than this authority to establish a binding truth about justice.

I'll watch for how divinities and religion figure in the books to come.

Cheers—

A Wiser Man Than I said...

PJ,

My attention was drawn to a couple of things. First, Socrates asks, "And will not men who are injured be deteriorated in that which is the proper virtue of man?"

Polemarchus responds with "Certainly." But I am not so certain. It seems to me that at least some of the time, injuring someone for behaving unjustly, will cause them to rethink their behavior, and could well spur them onto justice.

On the other hand, while I can see that we ought not simply do evil to those who are evil, allowing the unjust to get away with acting unjustly will only cause them to act evil all the more. Despite the flaws in some of his thinking, Thrasymachus basically makes this point.

I liked this bit from Socrates: "Then, I said, Thrasymachus, there is no one in any rule who, in so far as he is a ruler, considers or enjoins what is for his own interest, but always what is for the interest of his subject or suitable to his art; to that he looks, and that alone he considers in everything which he says and does."

This is good to keep in mind as we enter further into the discussion of justice insofar as it relates to the state.

High and Dry,

I find this:

- And O my friend, I said, surely the gods are just?
- Granted that they are.
- But if so, the unjust will be the enemy of the gods, and the just will be their friend?

Then the point is dropped.

PJ,

At the end, Socrates throws in that "Justice is the excellence of the soul, and injustice the defect of the soul." He does this to make a bit of a cheap point without expanding it further--at least here. This is the only definition, if we can call it such, that you may have overlooked.

PJ said...

Eric,

I wasn't satisfied with many of the remarks on virtue either. If we don't get more on this as we proceed, I may have a look at the "Protagoras" or some of the other dialogues that address the issue more directly. I'm not sure whether it's helpful to recall that the Greek word translated as "virtue" is "aretē," which many prefer to render as "excellence," for it does not have all of the moral connotations of "virtue." The idea, then, would be that hurting someone damages some of their capacities, the perfection of which we regard as excellences of human beings. This, of course, would be to render the claim almost tautological, which I'm not at all sure is right. Hopefully we will get a more substantive conception of human aretē as we continue.

What do you think of the arguments advanced? The difference between Thras and Soc, it seems to me, amounts to a disagreement over the eliminability of the language of justice (and perhaps of all virtue). Thras thinks that this language is just a power-play, better described in terms of our brute desires for dominance and animal satisfaction. Soc defends for justice an independent reality (still much in need of specification). I can offer that I am very sympathetic with the argument offered in what I describe as the "penultimate movement" of the book, and would give a hand at defending it if anyone it unpersuaded.

Cheers,
PJ

A Wiser Man Than I said...

The difference between Thras and Soc, it seems to me, amounts to a disagreement over the eliminability of the language of justice (and perhaps of all virtue).

I think Thras doesn't justify himself, but I will defend him on two accounts: first, because he recognizes that Socrates can be annoying with all of his questioning, even if we must applaud his attempts to seek truth; and second, because it is not at all clear that justice is its own reward.

The fact that the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike, to quote the Good Book, is one of the things that makes justice somewhat hard to defend.

I can offer that I am very sympathetic with the argument offered in what I describe as the "penultimate movement" of the book, and would give a hand at defending it if anyone it unpersuaded.

My basic problem with the third definition--if this is not the one you are referring to let me know--is that, like Mill's defense of liberty, harm is an elusive concept. It may be harmful, or perceived as harmful, for instance, to take away a friend's keys when he is drunk at the bar. It may be perceived as even more harmful to take away his beer. But without knowing exactly what Socrates means, I'm not sure how we determine whether or not one is doing harm.

For this reason I think it important to define justice in terms of natural rights. In my example then, taking away a man's keys or beer would be unjust because they are his property. However, this may be mitigated since his driving would threaten the lives of others, and would thus make violating his property rights acceptable, at least according to St. Thomas.

My apologies if I've gone a bit far afield.

PJ said...

Eric: It is not at all clear that justice is its own reward.

PJ: Agreed! This issue is raised and developed explicitly later in the book.

Eric: My basic problem with the third definition--if this is not the one you are referring to let me know

PJ: Nope, I don't think any of the definitions proposed so far hold up to scrutiny. The argument I like is that justice in something like the "simple" sense is necessary for the success of justice in Thrasymachus's sense; i.e., no city can conquer another without sort of internal coherence that we typically want to characterize as at least akin to justice in its usual sense. In order to become strong enough to assault its neighbors, a city must organize relations among its citizens so that it can function as a single unit. This is to anticipate what I believe will be the final position of The Republic, that justice cannot be cashed out in terms of the actions of singular agents, but only in terms of the harmonious organization of the whole body politic. Notice, of course, that this characterization is still conspicuously lacking in the degree of specificity that we like to see in a definition.

Eric: I think it important to define justice in terms of natural rights.

PJ: "Natural rights" is a term that demands a huge amount of background theory and explanation. Maybe if we get through The Republic in a timely fashion we can have a look at Thomas on the subject? It will be interesting, in any case, to see if Plato can persuade you that he has a theory of justice that does not appeal (or at least not explicitly) to such a notion.

Looking forward to your post on Book II --
PJ

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Bilbo-Baggins said...

Hi PJ,
Thanks for an engrossing blog post.I had posted a lengthy comment but blogger does the most irritating things sometimes.
I kinda forgotten what I had written. ...Hmmm
The definitions lack the veneer of experience. Soc/his opponent never appears to consider actual human nature.i.e. observations of it. The definitions come through application of dialectic on Soc's part and occasional rhetoric overall combined by logic. An illustration is the definitions of the perfectly just and unjust man. It is Soc who builds up the lead to the questions and traps the opponent into it. The others don't seem to know the dialectic approach or is loath to practice it with Soc. I think that most of the questions are leading questions and would have gone nowhere in a court of law. That's my two-cents. None the less, it is interesting.
Regards
Arindom
http://salesgyaan.blogspot.com