Home/Essays Examples/Philosophy/“The Republic” by Plato

“The Republic” by Plato

Introduction

When Glaucon and Adeimantus demand a defense of justice without reference to any benefits that being just might bring to someone, Socrates declares, “I’m not capable of it,” but then says he must defend justice so as not to seem “impious” (368b-c). Socrates may as well admit that he secretly agrees with Thrasymachus that the unjust life is preferable because it brings the most benefits.

Main body

Plato’s Republic has overshadowed all his other Dialogues in fame, for it undoubtedly brings out the many-sidedness of his genius as no other Dialogue of his can aspire to do. It is for that very reason that it has been looked upon as a masterpiece in world’s literature, while to a student of philosophy it offers the best introduction to every branch of philosophy. The Republic, as its name implies, is a book on politics, but only because it was found difficult to define justice in an individual without studying it in the broader perspective of the State.

So it is in its origin ethical. While this great book as a whole presents us with a Utopia and the, world has generally a vague idea that Plato is essentially a dreamer, a close study of his works shows how alive he was to the facts of life. All his fundamental ideas are to be found in The Republic and other Dialogues throw light on his views as developing during his long life. A summary of it will serve to bring out the whole of Platonism.

The first book raises the question of defining justice and affords a brilliant example of Socratic irony especially in dealing with the verbose pomposity of Thrasimachus, a Sophist. After this preliminary skirmishing real serious discussion begins with the second book, but justice in the individual or justice in the moral sense of the term presents difficulties so that the discussion of justice in the larger sense, i.e. in the State, becomes expedient.

The genesis of the State brings out its co-operative character, involving the division of the citizens into three broad classes: the rulers or the guardians, the soldiers and the masses with slaves to carry on the routine work, leaving the citizens free for political and other intellectual pursuits. This division is also based on the psychological distinctions between reason, the spirited part and the appetitive part. The guardians represent reason, the soldiers represent the spirited or active part, while the rest represent merely the appetitive part.

It follows that the State can function satisfactorily only if the three divisions function satisfactorily, i.e. the wisdom of the guardians, the courage of the soldiers and the temperance of the masses meet in the highest virtue of the State: Justice. This explains also justice in the individual. When reason in an individual rules and his spirited part carries out the behests of reason and his appetites are controlled by his temperance, there automatically emerges justice in the individual as the harmony of his soul. (Bloom,1991)

The case which Socrates has to meet is reopened by Glauconand Adeimantus, young men with a generous belief that justice has a valid meaning, but puzzled by the doctrine, current in intellectual circles, that it is a mere matter of social convention, imposed from without, and is practiced as an unwelcome necessity. They demand a proof that justice is not merely useful as bringing external rewards, but intrinsically good as an inward state of the soul, even though the just man be persecuted rather than rewarded. In dealing with inquirers like these, who really wish to discover the truth, Socrates drops his role of ironical critic and becomes constructive. (358c)

Glaucon opens with one of the earliest statements of the Social Contract theory. The essence of this is that all the customary rules of religion and moral conduct imposed on the individual by social sanctions have their origin in human intelligence and will and always rest on tacit consent. They are neither laws of nature nor divine enactments, but conventions which man who made them can alter, as laws are changed or repealed by legislative bodies. It is assumed that, if all these artificial restraints were removed, the natural man would be left only with purely egoistic instincts and desires, which he would indulge in all that Thrasymachus commended as injustice.

Adeimantus supplements Glaucon’s case by an attack on current moral education and some forms of mystery religion, as tacitly encouraging immorality by valuing justice only for the rewards it brings. Since these can be gained in this life by seeming just without being so, and after death by buying the favor of heaven, the young conclude that the ideal is injustice masked by a good reputation and atoned for by bribery. Both speakers accordingly demand that external rewards shall be ruled out of account and justice proved to be worth having for its own sake. The prospect of rewards and punishments after death is reserved for the myth at the end of the dialogue. (Bloom, 1991)

I thought that, with these words, I was quit of the discussion; but it seems this was only a prelude. Glaucon, undaunted as ever, was not content to let Thrasymachus abandon the field.

Socrates, he broke out, you have made a show of proving that justice is better than injustice in every way. Is that enough, or do you want us to be really convinced?

Socrates has been challenged to define justice and its effects in the individual soul. Since the life of a political society manifests the life of the men composing it on a larger scale, he proposes to look first for the principle which makes a state just and then to see if the same principle has similar effects in a man. So he starts to build up a social structure from its necessary rudiments.

Plato is not here describing the historical development of any actual state. (In Laws iii he says that civilization has often been destroyed by natural cataclysms, and he traces its growth from a simple pastoral phase on lines quite unlike those followed here.) He takes the type of state in which he lived, the Greek city-state. The construction is based on an analysis of such a society into parts corresponding to fundamental needs of human nature. These parts are put together successively in a logical, not an historical, order. (363a).

As against the social contract theory, Plato denies that society is ‘unnatural,’ either as being the artificial outcome of an arbitrary compact or as thwarting the individual’s natural instincts, which Thrasymachus assumed to be purely egoistic impulses to unlimited self-assertion. Men are not born self-sufficient or all alike; hence an organized society in which they are interdependent and specialize according to innate aptitudes is, according to Plato, both natural and advantageous to all the individuals. (363c).

Like father, like sons: there must indeed be some divine quality in your nature, if you can plead the cause of injustice so eloquently and still not be convinced yourselves that it is better than justice. That you are not really convinced I am sure from all I know of your dispositions, though your words might — well have left me in doubt. But the more I trust you, the harder I find it to reply. How can I come to the rescue? I have no faith in my own powers, when I remember that you were not satisfied with the proof I thought I had given to Thrasymachus that it is better to be just. And yet I cannot stand by and hear justice reviled without lifting a finger. I am afraid to commit a sin by holding aloof while I have breath and strength to say a word in its defense. So there is nothing for it but to do the best I can (366e).

Glaucon and the others begged me to step into the breach and carry through our inquiry into the real nature of justice and injustice, and the truth about their respective advantages. So I told them what I thought. This is a very obscure question, I said, and we shall need keen sight to see our way. Now, as we are not remarkably clever, I will make a suggestion as to how we should proceed. Imagine a rather short-sighted person told to read an inscription in small letters from some way off. He would think it a godsend if someone pointed out that the same inscription was written up elsewhere on a bigger scale, so that he could first read the larger characters and then make out whether the smaller ones were the same.

No doubt, said Adeimantus; but what analogy do you see in that to our inquiry?

I will tell you. We think of justice as a quality that may exist in a whole community as well as in an individual, and the community is the bigger of the two. Possibly, then, we may find justice there in larger proportions, easier to make out. So I suggest that we should begin by inquiring what justice means in a state. Then we can go on to look for its counterpart on a smaller scale in the individual. (433a)

That seems a good plan, he agreed. Well then, I continued, suppose we imagine a state coming into being before our eyes. We might then be able to watch the growth of justice or of injustice within it. When that is done, we may hope it will be easier to find what we are looking for.

Justice being now defined and admitted to be more profitable than injustice, Socrates seems to have answered the challenge of Glaucon and Adeimantus. But Plato more than once hints that the argument so far has been carried on at a superficial level. Virtue is, directly or indirectly, dependent upon that wisdom the love of which is ‘philosophy’; we have yet to learn what wisdom is and how it can be attained. This will be the subject of Part III, which will also answer the question whether the ideal state, however desirable, can be realized on earth. (434d-445e)

Socrates has opposed to the popular conception of justice one of his own deepest convictions. Polemarchus’ ready acceptance of this provokes a violent protest from Thrasymachus, who represents the doctrine that might is right in an extreme form. He holds that justice or right is nothing but the name given by the men actually holding power in any state to any actions they enjoin by law upon their subjects; and that all their laws are framed to promote their own personal or class interests. ‘Just’ accordingly means what is for the interest of the stronger, ruling party. Right and wrong have no other meaning at all.

This is not a theory of social contract: it is not suggested that the subject has ever made a bargain with the ruler, sacrificing some of his liberty to gain the benefits of a social order. The ruler imposes his ‘rights’ by sheer force. The perfect example of such a ruler is the despot (the Greek ‘tyrant’), whose position Thrasymachus regards as supremely enviable. He is precisely the man who has the will and the power to ‘do good to himself and his friends and to harm his enemies.’

The discussion begins by clearing up the ambiguities of Thrasymachus’ formula. The word translated ‘stronger’ commonly means also ‘superior’ or ‘better’; but ‘better’ has no moral sense for Thrasymachus, who does not recognize the existence of morality. The superiority of the stronger lies in the skill and determination which enable them to seize and hold power. ‘Interest,’ again, means the personal satisfaction and aggrandizement of the ruling individuals. (442d)

Socrates, is the view of justice and injustice which Thrasymachus and, no doubt, others would state, perhaps in even stronger words. For myself, I believe it to be a gross perversion of their true worth and effect; but, as I must frankly confess, I have put the case with all the force I could muster because I want to hear the other side from you. You must not be content with proving that justice is superior to injustice; you must make clear what good or what harm each of them does to its possessor, taking it simply in itself and, as Glaucon required, leaving out of account the reputation it bears.

For unless you deprive each of its true reputation and attach to it the false one, we shall say that you are praising or denouncing nothing more than the appearances in either case, and recommending us to do wrong without being found out; and that you hold with Thrasymachus that right means what is good for someone else, being the interest of the stronger, and wrong is what really pays, serving one’s own interest at the expense of the weaker. You have agreed that justice belongs to that highest class of good things which are worth having not only for their consequences, but much more for their own sakes-things like sight and hearing, knowledge, and health, whose value is genuine and intrinsic, not dependent on opinion.

So I want you, in commending justice, to consider only how justice, in itself, benefits a man who has it in him, and how injustice harms him, leaving rewards and reputation out of account. I might put up with others dwelling on those outward effects as a reason for praising the one and condemning the other; but from you, who have spent your life in the study of this question, I must beg leave to demand something better. You must not be content merely to prove that justice is superior to injustice, but explain how one is good, the other evil, in virtue of the intrinsic effect each has on its possessor, whether gods or men see it or not.

Adeimantus objects that the above description of the man of thought as gifted with all the qualities of a ruler is only an ideal. In actual fact the better sort of philosophers prove useless to the state, and others who have the natural gifts are demoralized.

Conclusion

Socrates was accused at his trial of having ‘demoralized the young men’ of the upper class, who were concerned in anti-democratic movements during the Peloponnesian War. He was confused in the public mind with the Sophists, and both were thought to have undermined traditional morality and loyalty to the constitution. The Sophists were travelling teachers, who met a growing need for advanced education by lecturing in private houses to young men rich enough to pay their fees.

Socrates never taught in private or took fees; he conversed publicly with all comers. The name ‘Sophist’ had originally meant an expert in any art or a man of special sagacity in practical life or in speculation. But in Plato it has acquired some of the modern meaning and stands for a tendency antagonistic to the Socratic philosophy. The Gorgias defines rhetoric, which many of the Sophists taught, as the art of influencing public assemblies without any real knowledge of right and wrong. The Sophist lives wholly in the world of appearances; he only echoes the conventional notions of the public and teaches the ambitious young how to get on in life by flattering and cajoling the Great Beast. The extreme consequences of such teaching are expressed in Thrasymachus’ view of life. (442d).

References

Plato, The Republic, trans. Allan Bloom, 2nd ed. (New York: Basic Books, 1991).

The Republic of Plato, trans. Allan Bloom (New York: Basic Books, 1968).