Thursday, June 25, 2009

Plato's Republic, Book II

The irascible Thrasymachus has retired, leaving Glaucon to duel with Socrates. The former divides goods into three classes: those "which we welcome for their own sakes" (ex. harmless pleasures), those "which are desirable not only in themselves, but also for their results" (ex. knowledge), and those which "do us good but we regard them as disagreeable" (ex. the care of the sick).

He then asks Socrates into which class would he place justice. Socrates replies: "In the highest class--among those goods which he who would be happy desires both for their own sake and for the sake of their results." But since the actions of men leave this classification in some doubt, they proceed further. Glaucon proposes to speak of: "the nature and origin of justice according to the common view of them". He also hopes to "show that all men who practise justice do so against their will, of necessity, but not as a good." Lastly, he argues that: "the life of the unjust is after all better far than the life of the just" if we take the common view. In this somewhat convoluted way, he hopes to provide a means by which Socrates may make clear to him the superiority of justice in respect to injustice.

Glaucon argues that justice is merely what is lawful, and that laws have been developed by men with the aim of reducing the injustice each suffers at the hands of his fellow men. He then recounts the now famous story of the ring of Gyges. Gyges is a shepherd, who receives a ring from a deceased ancestor. The powers of the ring are such that those who wear it may become invisible at will. After becoming aware of these powers, Gyges seduces the queen and kills the king, proving that men act justly only because they fear the consequences of acting otherwise. "If you could imagine any one obtaining this power of becoming invisible, and never doing any wrong or touching what was another's, he would be thought by the lookers-on to be a most wretched idiot, although they would praise him to one another's faces, and keep up appearances with one another from a fear that they too might suffer injustice."

He next claims that "the highest reach of injustice is: to be deemed just when you are not." The just man will be his opposite, acting justly, but appearing to be unjust. Given such a situation, Socrates finds it difficult to make the case for the just man.

As an aside, since Plato likely viewed his mentor, Socrates as the just man, and since the Republic was almost certainly written after the Athenian assembly condemned the just man to death, the importance of the argument can be readily grasped. If Plato wishes to convince his audience of the desirability of just living, he must confront the fact that in recent memory, just living has led to many undesirable consequences.

Drawing upon an assortment of Greeks, Adeimantus joins in and comments: "Since then, as philosophers prove, appearance tyrannizes over truth and is lord of happiness, to appearance I must devote myself." In other words, justice is seen merely as a means; the end is being thought of and treated well. Justice has merit only insofar as it aids us in attaining the appearance of being just so as to acquire benefits for ourselves. Moreover, quoting Hesiod, since "vice may be had in abundance without trouble; the way is smooth and her dwelling-place is near. But before virtue the gods have set toil, and a tedious and uphill road." We do well do practice vice, only taking toil to disguise it from our fellow man.

Deceiving our fellow man is easy enough, but what of the gods? Adeimantus doubts their existence, or at least their concern for man. We know of the gods only through the poets, anyway, "If the poets speak truly, why then we had better be unjust, and offer of the fruits of injustice; for if we are just, although we may escape the vengeance of heaven, we shall lose the gains of injustice; but, if we are unjust, we shall keep the gains, and by our sinning and praying, and praying and sinning, the gods will be propitiated, and we shall not be punished."

Another aside: I'd be interested, PJ, if you find the existence of the gods--or God--necessary for perfect justice, seeing how injustice seems so profitable in this life. I don't think this can be taken as proof of God's existence, but I'm not sure I find Adeimantus's objections to be sustainable.

Back to the dialogue. Adeimantus ends his argument pleading Socrates to "show what effect [justice and injustice have] because of [themselves] on the person who has [them]--the one for good and the other for bad." He feels that this is not asking too much since Socrates has dedicated his whole life to the question of justice.

Somewhat at a loss, Socrates then proposes to examine the argument at a larger scale. If it is difficult to define justice at an individual level, perhaps it will be profitable to examine justice "as the virtue of a State". Once a consensus is arrived at regarding justice at a large level, the principles can then be applied to the individual level.

Socrates proceeds to examine the beginnings of a theoretical city. "Then, as we have many wants, and many persons are needed to supply them, one takes a helper for one purpose and another for another; and when these partners and helpers are gathered together in one habitation the body of inhabitants is termed a State. "

He begins to people his city. I am struck here by Socrates identification of the advantages of the division of labor. Starting with four or five people, the city quickly begins to swell, as individuals are brought in to provide a specific need.

Another striking statement: " And they will take care that their families do not exceed their means; having an eye to poverty or war." Meanwhile, spurred on by Glaucon, Socrates adds yet more people, with an aim of adding luxury, at least for certain members of his society.

He believes that he has stumbled on the origins of war. Since the land of his growing city will be insufficient for the number of people now living in it, he believes his city will attack that of his neighbors. This is a reasonable conjecture, but it seems too narrow. Athens, whence Socrates hails, entered in on an expedition to Syracuse without any real need for land. Instead, Alcibiades, a student of Socrates, plainly argues that the war will bring glory to Athens.

His point about the superiority of a division of labor leads him to conclude that a standing army will be necessary for his city. But I'm unconvinced on this point. One of the downsides to a standing army is that this class can become cut off from the rest of the population, as in late Imperial Rome, and as with the Military Industrial Complex today. This leads to a separation of interests, as the soldiers will be more eager to practice an art which should be reserved for defensive purposes.

Nonetheless, Socrates dwells on the "guardians". They must be "spirited" so as to fight well, but gentle in regards to their fellow citizens. To maintain this balance requires a philosophical mind. He then proceeds to discuss the education of the guardians, starting with "music and poetry before physical training." Since the young are the most malleable, it will be crucial to supervise those who tell them stories. Only those which are beautiful and true will be acceptable; no lies about the gods, for instance, will be allowed. The gods must be told of as they are, which is to say, good.

Here I must interject. Insofar as this is an intellectual exercise, it may proceed with much edification. However, if someone were to actually implement the society of Socrates, anyone dwelling therein would find himself in the midst of a totalitarian nightmare. A State which may limit what stories a mother may tell her child has a far reach indeed.

Socrates engages in a somewhat lengthy aside on the gods. First, we are not to accredit bad things to the gods, but only good things. Second, gods do not change, because any change would be a degradation, and no one would willingly make himself worse. Third, the gods would never deign to use falsehood. "Then is God perfectly simple and true both in word and deed; he changes not; he deceives not, either by sign or word, by dream or waking vision."

9 comments:

High and Dry said...

"Glaucon argues that justice is merely what is lawful, and that laws have been developed by men with the aim of reducing the injustice each suffers at the hands of his fellow men."
I find this circular and am dismayed that Socrates combats it on the grounds of human nature and not logic. If justice is what is lawful, laws are required for justice. But he states that laws are made to eliminate injustice, however, injustice requires justice, which does not exist prior to the installment of laws, at least in this scenario.

"He believes that he has stumbled on the origins of war. Since the land of his growing city will be insufficient for the number of people now living in it, he believes his city will attack that of his neighbors. This is a reasonable conjecture, but it seems to narrow. Socrates own Athens entered in on an expedition to Syracuse without any real need for land. Instead, Alcibiades, a student of Socrates, plainly argues that the war will bring glory to Athens."
Socrates thinks he has found the origin of war, not the cause of all wars. Some civic success would seem to be required before a state can seek its own glory. I don't think you would suggest barbarian sackings of cities would be for their own glory. A people would seek to ground themselves before trying to elevate themselves, and they may consider war to be necessary in either case.

"A State which may limit what stories a mother may tell her child has a far reach indeed."
Not to spoil it for any Platonic n00bs, but this point will pretty much be a non-issue by Book V.

"Socrates engages in a somewhat lengthy aside on the gods. First, we are not to accredit bad things to the gods, but only good things. Second, gods do not change, because any change would be a degradation, and no one would willingly make himself worse. Third, the gods would never deign to use falsehood. "Then is God perfectly simple and true both in word and deed; he changes not; he deceives not, either by sign or word, by dream or waking vision.""
Hmm. Maybe Platonists and Thomists aren't so different after all.

A Wiser Man Than I said...

But he states that laws are made to eliminate injustice, however, injustice requires justice, which does not exist prior to the installment of laws, at least in this scenario.

Good point. I'm guessing Plato includes this in the dialogue because it helps lead him into the argument he takes up later in this book and which he continues for most of the rest of the dialogue, namely, the idea of justice on a societal level.

Socrates thinks he has found the origin of war, not the cause of all wars.

Thanks for correcting me on this. My point, poorly made though it was, was that previously peaceful societies may be inclined to go to war without any real need for land. They may be concerned that their neighbors might attack, for instance.

Maybe Platonists and Thomists aren't so different after all.

Shh. We musn't tell the Platonists.

A Wiser Man Than I said...

Just a heads up: I'll be out of town this weekend, so I will probably be unable to respond until Sunday evening at the earliest.

troutsky said...

"justice on a societal level". exactly, as an imperfect method (backed by a perfect concept) to manage a social contract.The concept exists in every society, those with gods and those without.

PJ said...

Hi Eric,

Sorry for such a delay in my reply. You've done an excellent job with this, and I have just a few thoughts and comments.

I'll begin with two general reactions to the chapter. First, I like Glaucon's indirect argument. The position he articulates strikes me as quite plausible. In fact, I would likely present a similar account, if someone pressed me to define "justice." So I too am eager to see whether Socrates can convince us that justice is good "in itself," i.e., independently of anyone recognizing its presence.

Second, and more briefly, I was surprised and disappointed that Socrates made the move from the individual to the societal with no explicit justification. It comes off as quite an arbitrary, "what happens if we try this?" sort of legerdemain. I had somehow reconstructed it in my memory as a more principled transition. Hopefully he'll address this concern in future books. In any case, I will want to come back to assess the move when we see what it buys him in later books.

PJ said...

Next, to respond to a few of your specific points:

Eric: Another aside: I'd be interested, PJ, if you find the existence of the gods--or God--necessary for perfect justice, seeing how injustice seems so profitable in this life. I don't think this can be taken as proof of God's existence, but I'm not sure I find Adeimantus's objections to be sustainable.

PJ: I see justice as always a matter of some compromise in that it involves setting limits on our natural capacities and desires in order to achieve and maintain the social order on which so much of our well-being depends. Construed in this way, it almost seems that God would be either irrelevant to justice (if he endowed us with free will and left us to manage our own earthly lives) or that he would abolish it altogether (if he assigned to each of us a nature from which we could not waiver and according to which all of our lives played themselves out). These thoughts are rather speculative, however. If you wanted to expand on your interest in the question, I'd be happy to give it some more thought.

Eric: He believes that he has stumbled on the origins of war. Since the land of his growing city will be insufficient for the number of people now living in it, he believes his city will attack that of his neighbors. This is a reasonable conjecture, but it seems too narrow.

PJ: I agree that this is a bit narrow. We could also interpret in another way by shifting emphasis to the more general notion of "overstepping necessity" (373d). This leaves us with something more akin to greed as the origin of war. It seems plausible that, together, these two readings cover the primary origins of most wars: scarcity and greed. Even this strikes me as bit simplistic, but, as long as it doesn't play too large of a role in his greater argument, I'm not very worried.

Eric: His point about the superiority of a division of labor leads him to conclude that a standing army will be necessary for his city. But I'm unconvinced on this point. One of the downsides to a standing army is that this class can become cut off from the rest of the population, as in late Imperial Rome, and as with the Military Industrial Complex today. This leads to a separation of interests, as the soldiers will be more eager to practice an art which should be reserved for defensive purposes.

PJ: Socrates/Plato is quite sensitive to this concern. You see it here in his insistence upon the "gentleness" of the guardians and in their "philosophical" disposition. (The explanation of why dogs should be considered philosophical animals, is worth quoting, just by virtue of hilarity: "how could it be anything besides a lover of learning, if it defines what is its own and what is alien to it in terms of knowledge and ignorance?" (376). Did Socrates mean this to be as glib and sophistical as it reads to us? I really can't tell.) There will be more on the guardians in future books, so we can return to this if you're still concerned at the end.

Eric: Insofar as this is an intellectual exercise, it may proceed with much edification. However, if someone were to actually implement the society of Socrates, anyone dwelling therein would find himself in the midst of a totalitarian nightmare. A State which may limit what stories a mother may tell her child has a far reach indeed.

PJ: I think that this is a very real concern for us to keep in mind as we continue, and at the end when we turn to assess the work as a whole.


I will try to deliver on Book III later this week.

Cheers,
PJ

A Wiser Man Than I said...

PJ,

I should have done this sooner, but I cracked open my copy of the Summa--be jealous, H&D--to see what St. Thomas had to say. He answers in the affirmative to the question: Whether justice is fittingly defined as being the perpetual and constant will to render to each one his right?

I'd have to dig a little further, but my limited knowledge of Thomas leads me to believe that his definition of justice would go well with his conception of God, Who, being pure act, can maintain and indeed is a perpetual and constant will, rendering naturally to all his right.

I'm a bit surprised at your dismissal of justice as it related to God. In fact, quite apart from the truth of the matter, one of the obvious advantages of religious belief is that it provides a way for evil men to be punished and good men to be rewarded. In other words, since it is sadly not true that justice is meted out on this earth, it is defensible to hope that justice will be served elsewhere. If memory serves, Socrates himself takes up this theme briefly at the end of the Republic.

I had somehow reconstructed it in my memory as a more principled transition.

I had quite the opposite reaction. The first time I read it, I was quite taken by surprise. It seemed less out of character since I knew it was coming, although the title of the dialogue should have given me a hint the first go around.

There will be more on the guardians in future books, so we can return to this if you're still concerned at the end.

I think it's very important that Socrates find a way to minimize the temptations for the guardians. Of course, if he forces too much asceticism upon them, he may have an altogether different problem.

PJ said...

Eric: I should have done this sooner, but I cracked open my copy of the Summa--be jealous, H&D--to see what St. Thomas had to say. He answers in the affirmative to the question: Whether justice is fittingly defined as being the perpetual and constant will to render to each one his right?

PJ: I have just selections of the Summa, but, if you can give me a reference, there's a chance I can find the passage. (Can't be jealous, I'm afraid since don't know what "H&D" stands for.) Likely, though, we'll have to defer the issue to a later date.

Eric: I'm a bit surprised at your dismissal of justice as it related to God. In fact, quite apart from the truth of the matter, one of the obvious advantages of religious belief is that it provides a way for evil men to be punished and good men to be rewarded. In other words, since it is sadly not true that justice is meted out on this earth, it is defensible to hope that justice will be served elsewhere. If memory serves, Socrates himself takes up this theme briefly at the end of the Republic.

PJ: I suppose God can be instated as the ultimate dispenser of justice. However, not having any reason to believe in an afterlife, I'm not tremendously interested in what sort of justice might be instated after death. The challenge, as I see it, is to establish a convincing definition of justice, and then to explain why we ought to strive to perfect this ideal in our actual lives. (The threat of hell might do the latter work, but, again, that's a separate discussion.)

A Wiser Man Than I said...

PJ,

The entire Summa is available online; the relevant question on justice is here.

Can't be jealous, I'm afraid since don't know what "H&D" stands for.)

H&D is simply High and Dry, whom you and I both know as Pepin.