This week’s reading assignment, if you will, consists of the first two books of Plato’s Republic. While they are grouped as one reading, I am going to take the two books separately. The first two books are rich with ideas and information and very important to setting up the rest of the work. I think maybe the editors of the set were looking to draw readers into reading the whole thing. That is definitely worthwhile, but for now, I am just sticking with the reading list.
In the first book of The Republic, Plato is essentially saying that the exercise that he is about to go through will not satisfy everybody and lays out some ground rules for the discussion to follow. Years ago, in my undergraduate days, a friend of mine came to me after being assigned readings from The Republic in one of his classes and said that his problem with the book was that it seemed like Socrates was engaging in rhetorical games rather than problem solving and that the things he was talking about did not apply in the real world.
This led me to reconsider and reread the book. I think book one addresses this in a couple of ways.
In the opening, we find Socrates and his friend Glaucon returning from a festival, when they run into Polemarchus and his friends who invite them to have dinner and conversation afterwards. Polemarchus wants Socrates and Glaucon to stay, but meets with some resistance. Here is how he responds:
Polemarchus: But you see how many we are? [Referring to himself and his friends]
Socrates: Of course.
Polemarchus: And are you stronger than all of these? for if not, you will have to remain where you are.
Socrates: May there not be the alternative that we may persuade you to let us go?
Polemarchus: But can you persuade us, if we refuse to listen to you?
Glaucon: Certainly not.
Polemarchus: Then we are not going to listen; of that you may be assured.
While this seems like an exchange to move the story along, I think Plato is saying two things with this passage. First, you can’t convince someone who won’t listen to reason. So, if you are going to read this book, then you must be willing to listen to the arguments. Second, he is saying that sometimes, in the real world, dialectic succumbs to outside forces, such as a mob.
[Permit me a slight aside on punctuation at this point. You will notice the “for” in the above quote is not capitalized. This occurs in several translations in the Great Books set. I think that it is deliberate, and a way to show the ideas flowing together. More on grammar as a logical operator another time, though.]
From here, Socrates and Glaucon go to Polemarchus’ home and there begin their evening discussions with Cephalus, Ploemarchus’ father, who has been making sacrifices to the gods. They talk about the burdens and benefits of old age and wealth, with Cephalus saying that one benefit to being wealthy is a chance to make good with the gods for all the bad things you have done in your life. This leads to the beginning of the discussion of justice. But Cephalus leaves the dialog to his son, and goes back laughing to his sacrifices.
I think here Plato is saying that there are some people for whom philosophical discussion is useful only insofar as it is a practical matter – preparing for the afterlife in Cephalus case. He leaves the discussion to take care of his sacrifices, having gone as far as he feels is useful. Plato is saying you have to stick with these discussions beyond just trying to figure out what kinds of sacrifices you should offer or what actions might be necessary to be a good person. ‘We are going to the heart of the matter,’ Plato is saying.
One more ground rule is laid down in book one that I think is important, and that is the idea that the just man cannot harm anyone. He is trying to get this discussion of justice going in a particular direction. It is interesting that Socrates is sometimes referred to as a pre-Christian Christian. I think passages like this may be why. It is also interesting to read this after reading the Crito, where Socrates says he cannot escape from the prison. The just ought not to harm anyone, including the unjust or evil, because it only makes them worse.
Here is what he says in the Republic:
Socrates: Then to injure a friend or any one else, is not the act of a just man, but of the opposite, who is unjust?
Polemarchus: I think that what you say is quite true, Socrates.
Socrates: Then if a man says that justice consists in the repayment of debts, and that good is the debt which a man owes to his friends, and evil is the debt which he owes to his enemies – to say this is not wise; for it is not true, if, as has been clearly shown, the injuring of another can be in no case just.
So, these are the ground rules for the Republic:
- Be willing to listen and be persuaded.
- Be willing to go to the core of the question.
- Harm no one.
Next time – Plato’s Republic Book II: Your Dog is a Philosopher