If you gave people the power to do anything they wanted and never face any consequences for their actions, would they inevitably turn into monsters? Or are there reasons why we should be motivated to behave morally and justly even when all external constraints on our behavior are lifted? Those questions and more are tackled in the Republic’s second book. This episode offers a detailed synopsis and analysis of the book.
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All Men Would Be Tyrants
Plato’s Republic, book 2
Introduction (beginning at 2:40)
One of the most popular and thought-provoking TV shows that has come out in recent years is a series called Westworld. I’m sure most of you have either seen it or heard about it. It’s about a giant theme park in the near future populated by androids who look exactly like real people. These human-like robots walk, talk, breath, and bleed just like us, and they have emotions, desires, and arguably consciousness. In the story, super rich people from the real world pay big money to come to this park, called Westworld, and play god. Once inside the park, they are allowed to do whatever they want to the androids there without suffering any consequences. They can befriend them, drink with them, kill them, or do all kinds of horrible things to them that I need not enumerate. At the end of their “adventure” these guests go back to their normal lives while the park staff collect any dead android bodies, repair them, and reboot them for the next rich visitors.
How is this related to Plato’s Republic? Well, it raises one of the big moral questions that comes up in Republic book 2. You see, when you enter the park, which is designed to look like the wild west of 19th century America, full of robot cowboys and robot Native Americans, hence the name Westworld, you’re supposed to pick a cowboy hat, either a white one or a black one. The white hat is for people who want to live a “noble” fantasy—they want to rescue some robot damsel in distress from some evil robot outlaws and marauders or some other such scenario. The black hat is for people who just want to kill, torture people, and do other unspeakable and sadistic things. As the show goes on, and I’m not giving away any spoilers here, but as you can already guess, a lot of the people who start going to the park and initially pick the white hat, after a few visits, they go over to the dark side and start picking the black hat. And one of the questions the show makes you think about is, Is there anyone who given such unlimited power could refrain from eventually becoming a monster? Again, I’m not going to tell you how the show answers that question.
But in this episode we will see how Plato approaches that very same ethical question in book 2 of the Republic. If you gave people the power to do anything they wanted and never face any consequences for their actions, would they inevitably turn into monsters? Or are there reasons why we should be motivated to behave morally and justly even when all external constraints on our behavior are lifted?
These questions come up in Republic book 2 as a natural extension of Socrates’ debate with Thrasymachus. As you’ll recall from last time, the initial question that drove the discussion in book 1 was, What is justice? But one of the byproducts of that conversation was Thrasymachus’ claim that justice is for losers, while winners practice injustice for their own advantage.
Book 2 uses that claim as a segway to a new question, which is: Supposing that justice really is a good thing (which, again, has yet to be established since we still haven’t determined the true definition of justice, but supposing that the moral teachers of the past were correct that justice is a virtue), “why should I as an individual practice justice rather than injustice? Why not let the majority of people follow the rules, while I break them for my own advantage? Why not don the black hat if I can get away with it? That is sometimes called the amoralist challenge.
This challenge naturally leads to the second big question of book 2, which is: What does justice mean at the communal or political level? Because again, the focus of book 1, was on justice as a virtue. In sum, the first two books lay out three big ethical questions, which will need to be answered in later books, namely, What is the virtue of justice? Why should we be motivated to practice it? And what does justice mean at the group level? That’s the global, bird’s eye view of what’s happening. Now let’s dive into the details.
Book two begins with Glaucon re-entering the conversation. We met him at the start of the first book, if you remember. He was the one with Socrates, when they were both accosted by Polemarchus and his gang and invited to Polemarchus’ house. But then Glaucon took a back seat, as it were, during the discussion of book 1, while Thrasymachus leapt to the forefront like a lion to challenge Socrates.
Now that Thrasymachus has been tamed by Socrates and has his tail between his legs, Glaucon reemerges and will be Socrates’ main interlocutor for the rest of the Republic. He says, “Socrates, you may have won the argument with Thrasymachus. But is that all you want? To win arguments? Or do you actually want to convince us that, as you were just saying, practicing justice is always better than being unjust?”
And Socrates says, “Of course I want to convince you.”
(And let me just remind you all what I said last time, that I’m not quoting verbatim from the text. What I’m giving you is my own highly condensed version with some poetic liberties taken.)
So Socrates says, “I want to convince you that being just is always the way to go.”
“Well you’re not doing a very good job, Socrates. Look, do you recognize that there are three types of things we call good? Namely, goods that we chose for their own sake, goods that we choose on account of their consequences, and goods that we choose both for their own sake and on account of their consequences?”
Socrates says, “Yea, I recognize that distinction.”
“Well, in which category of goods do you place justice?” asks Glaucon.
Now, before we move on Socrates’ reply, this is a very important distinction in ethics, so let’s go over those categories again. Of all the things that we call good, there are some that we value for their own sake and not for their consequences, like joy or harmless pleasures, such as smelling a bouquet of flowers, or enjoying a sunset. There’s another subset of things we call good that we value both for themselves and for their consequences, such as health or good vision. We enjoy being healthy and we enjoy being able to see the world, and we also enjoy the consequences of having health and vision, namely that we can go out and do things. But there’s a third category of things we call good, that we don’t actually value in themselves, but only on account of their consequences, such as a bitter medicine or a painful treatment for some illness or even working a hard job in order to feed your family. We accept those things and call them good, only because we value their consequences.
Glaucon asks Socrates, “which of those categories do you place justice in?”
“In the highest and most beautiful class of goods, namely those we value both for their own sake and for their consequences,” replies Socrates.
But Glaucon says, “That’s not what most people think, Socrates. Most people think justice is like a bitter medicine. It’s not fun to practice it. But we grudgingly do so because we value the consequences of being just, especially the consequences of having the reputation for justice.”
Socrates sighs and goes, “I’m aware of that, Glaucon. Thrasymachus was just disparaging justice much along those lines.”
“Well,” says Glaucon, “I’m not satisfied by your discussion with Thrasymachus. It seems to me you overcame him too easily, like a snake-charmer. I want to hear you give a better argument in defense of justice. And to make it easy for you, Socrates, let me tell you exactly how I want you to do that.
“What I’m going to do first is to revive Thrasymachus’ argument, but without the rhetorical flourishes. I’m going to lay out for you all the reasons why most people don’t think that justice is a good in and of itself. And I’m going to put forth the strongest case I can that practicing injustice is a better strategy for an individual. Then I want you to make a similar but opposite and stronger argument in favor of justice.
“The reason why I want you to do this, Socrates, is that I feel in my gut that justice is good in and of itself, and not only for its consequences, but I can’t explain why. And I’ve never heard any teacher, philosopher, religion, or ancient lore explain why justice is a good in and of itself. They only talk about the consequences of justice, while usually admitting that practicing justice is difficult and unpleasant in the short term. On the other hand, Socrates, I do understand the pro-injustice argument. So I will articulate that and ask you to refute it and offer an analogous pro-justice argument, since I’ve never heard such an argument made before. So what say you, Socrates? Are you up for the challenge?”
And Socrates is like, “Bring it on!”
Glaucon’s speech in favor of injustice (11:35)
Glaucon’s speech about injustice can be divided into three parts. He first gives a kind of anthropological account of the origin of justice, which he claims is the common view in his society. The second part of his spiel is a story/parable/thought experiment about a magic ring. And the third is another thought experiment comparing a perfectly just person with a perfectly unjust person. So, let’s take those one at a time.
The account Glaucon gives of the origin of justice is fascinating, in part because it sounds so modern. It’s not based on any religious belief, or traditional values, or moral principles. It is purely based on human self-interest and group dynamics. It’s almost like a proto-game-theory type of explanation. And if Glaucon’s claim that it was the majority view of justice in his society is accurate and not exaggeration, that would imply that ancient Athens had a strikingly secular political discourse.
Glaucon says that all humans, by nature, enjoy oppressing and abusing others. However, early humans quickly found that suffering oppression is a lot more painful than committing it is pleasurable. They realized that, in a society where injustice is rampant, all but the most powerful members will be suffering from injustice a lot more than they’ll be benefiting by committing it. As a result, they established justice as a kind of social compact. Everyone agreed to follow certain rules, norms, and laws in order to protect themselves against suffering injustice. That, Glaucon says, is the origin of justice in human society.
But, he says, people only agree to follow justice because they see it as a compromise between the worst scenario (suffering injustice) and the best scenario (committing injustice with impunity). Everyone would secretly love to commit injustice and never suffer it, if that were possible.
In order to demonstrate that point, Glaucon tells a story about Gyges, the famous usurper of the throne of Lydia in around 680 BC, that’s 400 years before Plato was writing this. Gyges was a real person, but became mythologized over the centuries, and many different exotic stories popped up about how he took power. In the version that Glaucon gives here, Gyges was a shepherd employed by the king of Lydia, who discovered a magic ring that could make him invisible. He soon realized that he could use the ring to get away with anything. So, he used it to kill the king, seduce the queen, and become the new tyrant of Lydia. Glaucon suggests that no one in Gyges’ position, finding himself suddenly able to take what he wants, do whatever to whomever he wants, and act essentially like a god among men, no one, he says, would be able to resist the temptation to use the ring to commit injustice. The boundless human desire for more power would eventually take over even the most gentle nature. That’s the moral of the story, according to Glaucon: that despite what people may say they all follow justice unwillingly. Remove the fear of suffering injustice from anyone, and that person will inevitably turn into a monster.
Which brings us back to Westworld. When you put on the ring of Gyges, you basically are entering Westworld. Remember how in that story some people choose a white hat and some a black hat? Well there’s a similar element here. Glaucon asks us to imagine two rings of invisibility, and he says, give one to a just man and one to an unjust man. Over time, he claims, those two people will start to look morally indistinguishable. They will both end up at the extreme end of injustice.
And this is also a point that John Adams, Founding Father of America and the second president of the United States, made in an essay he wrote in 1763, before America became independent. The essay was titled “All Men Would Be Tyrants If They Could.” That, by the way, is the source of this episode’s title. We will revisit this essay of Adams’ when we talk about books 8-9 of the Republic, for reasons that will become clear then. But the salient point for now is that Adams makes much the same case as Glaucon does. He says that there is a “great and important and melancholy truth” revealed by the maxim “all men would be tyrants if they could.” And this truth is not that we’re all monsters. Rather, as he explains, it’s that the selfish passions (meaning emotions, desires, instincts etc) are stronger than the social passions. And so, when you remove all external constraints, the selfish passions gradually overpower even the best of us, and turn us into monsters.
That is of course not Plato’s view. Plato is going to have Socrates argue as best as he can that the perfectly just person will have enough internal motivation to stick to justice even if all external constraints are removed. But Plato also makes the opposite case, the one that Glaucon articulates, very strong. And this idea that Glaucon is putting forth here will live on and come up again and again throughout the history of ethical debates. And it’s still being dramatized in our pop culture today in Westworld.
The third and final section of Glaucon’s speech consists in another thought experiment. But this one works in a different way than the previous one. The story of the ring of Gyges is what some modern philosophers might refer to as an intuition pump. It doesn’t prove anything. It makes use of our imagination to bring out our intuition about something. But this next thought experiment is a little different. It’s an example of a very useful mental trick people use in philosophy or even in physics or economics, or any time someone claims a correlation between two things. A quick way to check if that correlation makes sense, is to look at extreme cases.
Here, Socrates is claiming that practicing justice is correlated with happiness and the good life—so much so that the just person, he claims, is always going to have a better life than the unjust person. By the way, this came out in one of the final arguments with Thrasymachus in book one, where Socrates argued that a human soul lacking justice is essentially deprived of its main virtue or excellence, and thus cannot possibly flourish and be happy.
So Glaucon says, “Ok, let’s test that alleged correlation between justice and happiness by considering two extreme examples.” He asks Socrates to imagine a perfectly unjust man, and a perfectly just man, and compare their fates. If Socrates’ claim is true, then we’d expect the perfectly just man to end up happier than the perfectly unjust man, no matter what happens to them. But Glaucon claims that is clearly not true. The perfectly unjust man, he says, will actually have a good reputation in society. He’ll use his mastery of injustice to get away with all sorts of crimes while carefully crafting his public image as a good person, a man of charity, a philanthropist. He will get rich and use his wealth to help his friends and harm his enemies. He will marry into a noble family and be widely respected. In short, he will reap all the rewards of committing injustice while enjoying all the benefits of having a reputation for justice. By contrast, the most perfectly just man is not necessarily going to have a reputation for being just. There are plenty of honest and just people who get taken advantage of, are slandered, and end up being condemned by their societies. Some even end up tortured or killed in horrible ways.
So, what does this thought experiment accomplish? By placing it here, Plato, as the architect and hidden mastermind of this dialogue, is clarifying and focusing the challenge that is put before Socrates. If Socrates wants to succeed at convincing us that justice is always better than injustice, he now has to convince us that the just person who is condemned and put to death by his society is still happier than a tyrant who seemingly enjoys wealth, power, and prestige. That is one of the major points that Socrates will try to prove in the later books of the Republic.
Adeimantus’s speech on the weakness of pro-justice arguments (20:00)
Just as Socrates is about to respond to Glaucon, Adeimantus, who is Glaucon’s brother, and also of course Plato’s brother, jumps in and says, “Hold your horses, Socrates. Before you make your rebuttal, we should also go through the arguments on the other side—the standard arguments people give in favor of justice—and show why they are all inadequate.”
Just like Glaucon’s thought experiments, Adeimantus’ speech is going to serve to clarify and focus the challenge put before Socrates. Adeimantus is basically saying, “Don’t bother resorting to any of the standard arguments given by parents, teachers, or religious figures, cause we’ve heard them all and here’s why they are weak and unconvincing.”
“First of all,” says Adeimantus. “When our parents urge us to be just, they don’t recommend justice for its own sake, but for its consequences. They say it’s important to have a reputation for justice, so that we can acquire friends, attain public office, marry into a good family etc. In other words, what they are really teaching us is that it is important to seem just, not actually to be just.” #fakeittillyoumakeit
Adeimantus next turns to the religious arguments people give in favor of justice. He says how the most respected authorities on the gods, namely the poets Homer, Hesiod, and Musaeus, all praise justice of course. But again, it’s always in terms of the external rewards that the gods supposedly give to just people. Homer and Hesiod claim that the gods reward justice and punish injustice in this life, while Musaeus claims that this happens in the afterlife—the wicked are punished for eternity while the pious sit around drinking wine in a never-ending symposium. And there are other poets who add yet another reward that the gods supposedly bestow on the just, namely that their descendants will flourish for many generations to come. In all cases, Adeimantus points out, the rewards are external. None of these religious authorities explains why justice is good in and of itself.
Finally, Adeimantus turns to another set of commonly held beliefs about justice. He says that there are plenty of people who praise justice but admit what seems to have become a cliche that the path of virtue and justice is difficult, uphill, and steep, but once you get the top after many years of sweat and toil, then it is pleasant. By contrast, the path of vice and injustice is easy; it offers immediate rewards, instant gratification, and a life of sensuous pleasures. Next, Adeimantus says that a lot of people think that the gods are not consistent in how they distribute rewards and punishments among humankind, so that some good people end up with rotten luck, while some bad people get really lucky. Meanwhile, there are always priests on the prowl who, if you pay them well, will use prayers, sacrifices, and incantations to get the gods to forgive your bad deeds, or to get them to harm your enemies, or to grant you good fortune in your endeavors. These priests can also, for a fee, perform rituals that will guarantee you good treatment in the afterlife.
Having concluded this survey of teachings and beliefs about justice promulgated by parents, teachers, poets, and priests, Adeimantus says, “What do you suppose, Socrates, is the effect of all these ideas on the souls of young people who are searching for guidance on how to lead a good life? Isn’t it obvious that the quickest and sharpest young minds will conclude from all of this, that what matters above all is not be just but to seem just, that they can pursue injustice, since it’s easier and offers more immediate rewards, while maintaining the facade of justice, so that they also enjoy a good reputation. That way, they can get rich, rise quickly through the ranks of society. And if, by their crimes they upset the gods along the way, they can always just pay a priest to absolve them of their sins and maybe donate money to a temple or two to win back the favor of the gods. And that’s only if the gods actually exist,” adds Adeimantus. “If they don’t, then there’s nothing to worry about. But just to be on the safe side, it’s a good policy to use some of your ill-gotten gains for charity and sacrifices to the gods.
“So, Socrates, against the backdrop of all those teachings and common beliefs, what reason can you give for why people should prefer justice to the most extreme injustice, which masquerades under the guise of justice? In other words, how would you convince a young person endowed with brains, brawn, and talent to pursue justice and not scoff at the very idea of it?
“In the end, Socrates, my point is much the same as the one Glaucon was driving at earlier, namely that from the age of heroes all the way down to the present day, all you supposed champions of justice have only ever praised justice and denounced injustice on account of the reputation, honors, and gifts that they may bring. None of you has ever done so with reference to the direct effect that justice and injustice have on the soul. Why is it true, Socrates, that, as you claim, justice is the soul’s greatest good and injustice its greatest ill? How is it that, as you were saying to Thrasymachus, justice makes the soul flourish and injustice makes it miserable? If anyone had succeeded in teaching us that, our society would look very different than it does now. We wouldn’t be on our guard against others, we would be guarding our own actions, trying our best not to commit any injustice lest we ruin our own souls.”
Adeimantus ends his speech echoing another thing Glaucon had said earlier. He says that he does not believe the points he made in favor of injustice, but he presented them as strongly as he could to force Socrates to defend the opposite view.
He ends by saying, “Since, Socrates, you claimed earlier that justice belongs to the class of good things that are valuable not only on account of their consequences but also for their own sake, let’s see you back that up. And since you’ve spent your entire life pondering these questions, maybe you can finally succeed where others have failed and convince us that justice is intrinsically good. So, set aside all talk of rewards and punishments, and focus on what justice does to its possessors that makes it good and what injustice does to its possessors that makes it bad.”
Socrates’ reply & the city-soul analogy (26:30)
One and a half books into the Republic, we finally now have a very clear picture of what the ethical task of the remainder of the work is going to be. The remaining 8.5 books will attempt to define justice and make the case that it is in everyone’s best interest to practice it. But there’s also a political dimension to the purpose of the work which is laid out by Socrates in his reply to Glaucon and Adeimantus.
Instead of answering their challenge right away, Socrates says that they first need to establish what justice is. And as a way to do that, he proposes the famous city-soul analogy which forms the cornerstone of the rest of the work.
He says, “We speak of the justice of individuals and also of the justice of entire states. So, maybe the same underlying phenomenon is at work in both cases. It’s at least a possibility worth pursuing. And if the justice of a state or of a body politic is in a sense like the justice of an individual writ large, then maybe it’ll be easier for us to identify justice at the group level, since the group is larger and easier to observe than an individual soul. And once we’ve seen what justice is at the political level, maybe we’ll be able to recognize it in the soul as well. So, he says, let’s mentally construct—let’s “build with words”—an ideal polis or city-state, and see if we can identify justice therin. If we succeed, let’s then see if we can also identify justice in the soul. And then with all that under our belt, with the meaning of justice figured out, maybe we’ll be able to answer your challenge and show that practicing justice is always in the best interest of the individual.”
A lot of modern readers find this proposal of Socrates’ to be strange, to say the least. First of all, the idea that a political community and a soul are analogous to each other strikes a lot of people as problematic by itself. And some people think Socrates’ response to Glaucon and Adeimantus is a total non-sequitur. Instead of answering Glaucon’s challenge directly Socrates wips out this questionable strategy for investigating justice that takes us on a huge detour before we get to any kind of answer.
Regarding the first point, about the validity of the city-soul analogy, we’re going to talk about that in the next episode with philosopher Rachel Barney. But about the second point, when people ask, Why doesn’t Socrates just answer the damn question? That’s like asking a physicist a big unanswered question like, Can you come up with a unified theory of physics? And when they start saying, “Well, that’s a very difficult task, we’ll have to start by considering the limitations of relativity and quantum mechanics…” and you go, “Oh, my god, take forever! Just answer the question already.” Keep in mind that Glaucon’s challenge is a variation of one of the most difficult questions in all of ethics: Why should one behave morally?
As Glaucon and Adeimantus report in the dialogue, no one at the time had yet succeeded in answering that question in a satisfactory manner. And even today, it remains a hotly debated topic that philosophers don’t agree on. So, it’s not the kind of question that can be answered simply and directly. Plato makes a herculean effort to answer it in the Republic, but as we shall see, it requires mustering many tools and insights from logic, psychology, and political theory and putting them all together in a creative way before he can finally come up with something that looks like a decent answer.
Several months ago, when I was still planning this series, I made a little social media experiment, where I posted a question about the Republic on several platforms and in several groups where academic philosophers hang out. My question was this: “Most philosophies and religions encourage us to be just, to behave morally, by offering external rewards as incentives, such as a good reputation or a blessed afterlife. Plato’s Republic sets out to prove that the just life is preferable to the unjust one w/o resorting to such external incentives or consequences. What other philosophical works in more recent history have attempted to do that?”
This sparked some interesting discussions but no one was able to mention any book from the past 1500 years that attempted to show why living morally is good independent of any external considerations. Now, I’m not saying that there is no such book from the past 1500 years. I would guess that there are some. And if you can think of any please write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll mention it in a later episode. But my point is that what Plato is attempting to do here is a feat that has very rarely been attempted in the history of philosophy. So again, it shouldn’t surprise us that the answer he gives is so complicated.
I should add here that some modern philosophers will reject the premise of Glaucon’s challenge outright. They’ll say, “The reasons why we should behave morally are external, plain and simple. These reasons include our obligations to others and the consideration of the consequences of our actions. Those are the things you look at when asking the question, why should I behave justly. Looking internally for further confirmation is a fool’s errand.” So there is that view.
But, as Adeimantus points out, if you could give an internal incentive for people to behave morally, if you could convince them that being just will make them happier than being unjust, imagine what a transformative effect that could have on society. And I’m not talking about duping people into believing what’s not true. I mean if it really is the case that justice makes the soul flourish and you could demonstrate that, imagine what strength that could give to people in sticking to their principles in the face of injustice.
Now, I know what some of you are thinking. You look around the world today, and you see some war mongers, billionaires, or dictators who are in their 70’s or 80’s, and have spent decades defrauding, killing, starting wars, or abusing people, and yet they’re still flying around on their private jets and chilling on their yachts. And you think, wow, these people are soon going to die without ever facing any consequences for the horrible things they’ve done. They are criminals, and yet they will die happy. Where is the justice in this world?
But what if they’re not happy. What if, despite all appearances, despite the parties and the booze and the palaces, they are more miserable inside than you can imagine. That’s what Plato wants to show in the Republic. It’s also what the Stoics who came later believed. Now, that thought that all criminals are secretly miserable inside is of course not much consolation to the victims of their crimes. But, if it’s true, and I personally have come to feel that there is some truth to that, it does profoundly change your perspective about the world. And I think it does give you a bit of a motivation boost to do the right thing even when it is unpopular or dangerous. But that is something to be explored more in later books.
Glaucon and Adeimantus agree to Socrates’ proposal, and together they begin to verbally construct an ideal polis. This exercise takes up the full second half of book 2, but we’re going to skim through it in the interest of time and just touch on the main points.
There are actually two virtual cities that are constructed in book 2. The first one is, I guess you could call it idyllic. Its inhabitants lead pure and simple lives. There are craftsmen for only the most necessary things like food, shelter, clothing, basic tools etc, but not for luxury goods or services. And the people are content to live in simple abodes, eating a vegetarian diet, and their entertainment consists in upholding simple traditions, rituals, and folklore.
This first city is quickly rejected by Glaucon and Adeimantus. As soon as Socrates finishes painting a picture of this society, Glaucon is like, “Wow wow wow, Socrates. Did you say, a vegetarian diet? You mean there’s not going to be any meat? What kind of society are you trying to sell us here, a city of pigs? What about all the finer things in life, like entertainment, works of art, music festivals, the theater, and all the other fruits of civilization? We want our city to have those as well.”
And Socrates says, “Oh, I see, so you want luxuries, and entertainment, fancy cuisine, all that jazz. So we’re going to need a lot more types of craftsman then, artisans, traders, money lenders, entertainers, sex-workers, musicians, etc. Is that what you want?”
And Glaucon’s like, “Oh yea.”
So they abandon the first city, the so-called city of pigs, and proceed to construct a larger, fancier, more complex polis.
One of the questions that naturally arises when you read this is, Why does Socrates put forth the first city? It seems like he knows it will be rejected for lacking the comforts and pleasures of civilization. So why paint that picture of the idyllic city in the first place, only to have it shot down? What is he trying to get us to think about? Does the first city and its rejection reveal something about human nature? Or about justice? I’ll let you ruminate on those questions, and we will revisit them in the next episode.
Socrates says that, since they’re going to have money, luxuries, and other fine things, they’ll need to have an army to protect the city. And so they’ll need to have a class of professional soldiers whom he calls the guardians.
But Glaucon and Adeimantus are a bit taken aback by this claim. Because it wasn’t common for ancient Greek poleis to have professional armies. Sparta of course had an elite group of super-soldiers, but that was the exception. In Athens and other places, as a citizen you had your day job, and in case of war, you donned your hoplite armor or manned a trireme. So, Why, they ask Socrates, do we need a dedicated class of guardians?
Socrates says, “Didn’t we establish, in the discussion of the first city, the principle of the division of labor? Didn’t we say that society is more efficient when each member masters one craft, instead of doing a little bit of this and a little bit of that?
Glaucon and Adeimantus concede that they had in fact agreed to that. And Socrates is like, “Isn’t warfare an important task that requires much skill and training?”
And they’re like, “Yea.”
So the remainder of book 2 consists in describing this class of guardians. In particular, how will they be brought up so that they become servants of the common good?
Some people today read this and go, “Oh my god, Plato is building an imperialistic police state.” But actually the goal, at least the stated goal, is the opposite of that. As we read on, we will find that the aim is to fight as few wars as possible, never to fight wars of expansion, only to fight when absolutely necessary to defend one’s territory. And on the domestic side, in order to prevent the class of guardians from becoming a tyrannical police force, they are gonna be forced to give up all wealth and private property.
The idea is that being a guardian is a powerful position. And as Spiderman once said, with great power comes great responsibility. So in this ideal Republic, if you are going to be invested with the power to be a guardian of the state, you have to prove that you’re not just hungry for wealth and power. In fact, you have to completely disavow wealth and property forever. It’s a system that is designed to weed out all people who thirst for power from all the positions of power.
In order for the guardians not to become a brutal and oppressive ruling class, Socrates suggests that they will have to be selected, educated, and trained to be ferocious towards external threats but gentle towards their fellow citizens. This type of nature, Socrates points out, can be observed in dogs. A guard dog treats everyone he knows in a friendly way, whether they are kind or mean to him. By contrast a guard dog acts ferociously towards all strangers, again regardless of whether they are mean or friendly.
In a passage that has provoked all kinds of reactions from readers ranging from laughter and ridicule to appreciation, Socrates claims that dogs are essentially philosophers or lovers of wisdom since their only criterion in showing affection is knowledge or knowing a person, and their only criterion for showing ferocity is ignorance, or not knowing a person. In other words, dogs are philosophers because they love knowledge and hate ignorance.
The guardians of the city, Socrates says, should be like that. They should be strong, brave philosophers, who have a similar temperament to well-trained puppies, and be tough on foreign enemies and gentle on their fellow citizens.
Now it’s obviously very easy to poke fun at this line of reasoning and claim that Socrates is fudgining his argument here. And a lot of people do that. I’m not going to try to defend the argument, because I think it’s just a joke. Not everything in this book is meant to be taken at face value. Plato does add a bit of comic relief here and there to lighten up the narrative. One reason I think it's a joke is that nothing really hinges on it. The point that the guardians should be philosophers is argued later at great length. The only crucial point about the dogs here, that is required for the argument to proceed, is to show that it is possible for the same nature to be both ferocious and gentle at the same time. And I think the example of a guard dog does exactly that.
The education of the guardians (38:30)
The discussion next moves on to the education of the guardians. How do you raise citizens to become reliable and brave guardians of the polis? Well, the standard components of the education of children in ancient Greece were poetry and gymnastics, which is really the same as today, if you think of poetry as standing for the stories, songs and folklore that we tell our children, and gymnastics just means physical activity. Socrates & co decide to discuss what kind of poetry (which again encompasses stories and fairytales) and what kind of physical training would provide the best education for the young guardians. They focus on poetry first, since we start telling children stories before they become physically agile.
Socrates argues that children should not hear stories that promote anti-social values and behaviors. That seems like a straightforward idea. The problem, he says, is that a lot of the mythological stories of his society do exactly that. There are stories about gods overthrowing or punishing their parents and stories of gods deceiving and abusing each other. And while Socrates concedes that those stories may have some allegorical wisdom to them, small children, he says, are not able to distinguish allegory from literal meaning. And so such tales would make children think that it’s ok to harm your parents or your companions since the gods do it.
Glaucon and Adeimantus go, “Ok Socrates, let’s say we do away with these stories. What are we going to replace them with? What are the new stories that we tell about the gods going to be like?” Socrates replies that God is truly good and must be spoken of as truly good, and never as the cause of any evils in the world.
It’s interesting that Socrates says “God” here, and not “gods.” This sudden talk of God in the singular as one supreme being is striking to a lot of modern readers because it sounds kind of like monotheism. Fun fact: Socrates and Plato and several other intellectuals of the time seem to have believed that there was one overarching, rational and benevolent deity. They didn’t necessarily reject the standard pantheon of gods, perhaps because that would be dangerous, but there are many passages in their writings when they suddenly speak of God as if he is one. Some scholars today refer to this as henotheism, to distinguish it from monotheism. Henotheism means belief in one God, while monotheism means belief in only one god.
In any case, book 2 ends with the establishment of two laws for the stories that will be allowed to be told to children. The first is: “God is not the cause of all things but only of the good.”
The second law is: “the gods shall not be represented as sorcerers who change their shapes or as lyers who deceive us in word or deed.”
Socrates argues that they must take care that no young minds hear any tales that portray the Gods as the cause of misery or bad things in the world.
This censorship program that Socrates recommends is one of the most controversial parts of the Republic, and we’ll have a lot more to say about it in future episodes.
For now, what we can say about Socrates’ reasoning is that it has two components. On the one hand, small children will naturally emulate, he thinks, and imitate the gods in the stories they hear. So it’s important to portray them as noble and good, so that children have good role models. On the other hand, he really believes that the gods are good, and that the supreme deity especially is rational and benevolent. And that view is based on rational arguments that are found scattered across many Socratic dialogues. So, by telling children stories about good gods only, he thinks you won’t just be providing them with good role models. You’ll also make them emulate the true nature of the gods, which is good. As Socrates says at the end of book two, the point of the two laws just mentioned is, “So our guardians may grow up pious, and as nearly divine as humans can be.”
Analysis and conclusion (44:50)
Let’s take a step back and consider what Plato as the architect of this dialogue has accomplished in the second book. First of all, we’ve moved on now to a more productive mode of philosophical discussion or dialectic as Plato would call it compared to book 1. The debate with Thrasymachus was a battle of wits. It was a sophistic duel. It was not about finding the truth, because in order to find the truth through discussion, both parties need to debate in good faith, need to share the goal of finding the truth, and be willing to follow the argument wherever it leads without antagonism and personal attacks. So now, with Thrasymachus out of the way, Plato is showing us how that’s done. And it’s interesting that this more productive phase of the dialogue begins with Glaucon presenting the best argument he can give for a position he doesn’t believe. Remember, he doesn’t think injustice is better than justice, but he argues that point, in order to focus the discussion and compel Socrates to make the opposite argument. And that’s an important skill in philosophy, and I would say in life in general. It’s important to be able to understand the opposing view to what you believe. And it’s a mark of intellectual honesty on Plato’s part that he presents the opposing argument as strongly as he can, via Glaucon, before attempting to make the opposite case through the voice of Socrates.
Another thing Plato has accomplished in the first two books is to collect and organize all the major opinions and beliefs about justice that existed in his day. One might ask, how well did Plato do in terms of covering all the available positions and opinions about justice? Did he leave anything out? Is there any conception of justice that we have today that is missing from Republic books 1 and 2?
In order to answer that question, I did another social media experiment a few months ago. I posted in the same groups that I mentioned earlier, where philosophers hang out, the following. I said, “Here are six basic conceptions of justice that I can discern in the first two books of Plato’s Republic. Is there any modern conception of justice that does not fall under one of these categories?”
The six categories were:
1. giving to each his/her due
2. helping good ppl & harming bad ppl
3. a construct of the elites to control us
4. rules and norms ppl grudgingly follow in order to be accepted in society
5. a social compact to protect the weak from the strong
6. obeying the gods
In the various discussions that followed, some people disputed whether those six categories are the best way to organize what Plato is saying, some people said there are more than six some people said there are really 5. And I’ll grant that there’s room for debate on that question. But what was interesting is that no one was able to provide a modern notion of justice that doesn’t fall into one of the categories discussed in the first two books. I mean some people tried. For example, one person said, what about the idea that justice is following the golden rule (to treat others as you would have them treat you). But if everyone agrees to such a rule, then it falls under the category of a social compact, which is discussed in book 2. Alternatively you could argue that what everyone deserves is to be treated by others as they would treat themselves, in which case it falls under category one, giving to each their due. And if you say, as some people do, that God ordained that we should all treat each other following the golden rule, then it falls under category six, obeying the gods. So the golden rule falls under either one or a combination of the ideas discussed here.
Another person said, what about utilitarianism, the idea that we should work to maximize everyone’s happiness. But that also falls under the first category of giving to each his/her due. It’s like saying what is due to each person is to have their happiness maximized.
If any of you can think of a modern notion of justice that isn’t covered in these first two books, by all means send it in, and I will not only mention it in a future episode, I will be thrilled to discover something that’s missing here. So, I’m not ruling out the possibility that Plato missed something. Still, you got to admit, it’s pretty amazing how effectively the beginning of the Republic covers virtually all the common frameworks for discussing justice that are still in operation today. Books 1 and 2 show that each of these common conceptions is either problematic in some way or fails to motivate us to be good. And in revealing these shortcomings, the discussion paves the way and provides the impetus for the bulk of the Republic, books 3-10, where Plato is going to try to lay out a new understanding of justice.
In conclusion, the first two books of the Republic set the agenda for the remainder of the work by laying out three big questions that need to be answered. What is justice at the individual level? Why is it in each person’s interest to be just? And what is justice at the community level? These are all huge questions in ethics. Philosophers have spilled bucketloads of ink over the millenia in trying to answer them. Any one of these questions would be worth reading an entire book about, and here, Plato is giving you all three in one book. Never mind that we talk of the ten books of the Republic, those are really just ten chapters, as you’ve probably already discovered. Cause back in antiquity, a book or biblion, was a scroll. The Republic was ten scrolls long. And because classicists are old-fashioned, we still call them books today, even though they’re really just chapters.
Anyway, my point is, for those of you who might be thinking, damn, the Republic is really long and difficult, I would say, yea it is. But it’s tackling no less than three million-dollar questions in ethics and political philosophy. These are questions that had not been answered by Plato’s time, and arguably still have not been answered definitively today. Now, what can one make of that? Does it mean these questions are unanswerable? Does it mean we haven’t made any progress since Plato? Well, those questions are also in dispute. I guess we’ll be better positioned to answer them when we get further along in the Republic. I hope you’ve been enjoying this series so far. I certainly have. And I look forward to continuing the journey with you all.