Book II of the Republic shows how a little question can get way out hand. But to show this, I need to reach back into Book I for a moment. Thrasymachus, one of the other party goers, says that justice is the interest of the stronger. In doing so, he brings up the idea that laws are written for the benefit of the state and the state is stronger than individuals. I am compressing a lot of argument here, but this seems to plant an idea in Socrates’ head.
Glaucon and Adeimantus both take up the argument to say that being unjust is better than being just. Glaucon tells the story of the ring of invisibility and how if people could get away with it, they would commit all sorts of unjust acts. He also says that the unjust man can deceive others into thinking he is a really great guy and even make a just man seem bad. The unjust man reaps rewards, while the just man:
Glaucon: They will tell you that the just man who is thought unjust will be scourged, racked, bound – have his eyes burnt out, and, at last, after suffering every kind of evil, he will be impaled: Then he will understand that he ought to seem only, and not to be, just….
Adeimantus raises the possibility that there are no gods to punish the unjust in the hereafter or that they are in different to human affairs or can be swayed. The two men make the case that it is better to be unjust and ask Socrates to refute them.
Adeimantus: And therefore, I say, not only prove to us that justice is better than injustice, but show what they either of them do to the possessor of them, which makes one to be a good and the other an evil, whether seen or unseen by gods and men.
This is important, because it sets up the idea of the Platonic ideal: that there is something that is irreducibly just, or good, regardless of the opinions of me, or even gods. There is something inherently good about justice, and thus there is an inherent good. This good is elemental, rather than something that is open to interpretation.
Here’s where things get out of hand. Socrates proposes that the assembled company explore the idea of justice by looking at it as a large virtue, in the form of a state.
Socrates: Then in the larger the quantity of justice is likely to be larger and more easily discernable. I propose therefore that we enquire into the nature of justice and injustice, first as they appear in the State, and secondly in the individual, proceeding from the greater to the lesser and comparing them.
So they decide to imagine a state that is just. Apparently truly just states are in short supply, even in Ancient Greece. The party agrees to create one from scratch, and thus the stage is set for the rest of the book.
In the creation of this state, the company decides that it needs guardians, people who will protect and take care of the city. People who will be perfectly gentle to their familiars and the reverse to strangers, which is how well-bred dogs are. Socrates says this shows that a dog is a true philosopher.
Socrates: Why, because [a dog] distinguishes the face of a friend and of an enemy only by the criterion of knowing and not knowing. And must not an animal be a lover of learning who determines what he likes and dislikes by the test of knowledge and ignorance?
Here we come back to this idea of knowing and not knowing. It is this idea of knowing something elemental, friend versus foe, testing knowledge and ignorance, that determines what something is and how we behave. Whether or not this is applicable to a dog I think could be debated, but for Socrates’ point it comes down to learning the form of friend and stranger that is important.
From here, The Republic goes on to develop a number of ideas, and Book II is really the entry point into much more. But, the editors have us bounding off to our next reading.
Next Time – Aristotle’s Ethics: Learning to Behave