Our series on Plato’s Republic continues with this deep dive into book 1. The bulk of this episode consists in a detailed summary of the first book and an analysis of the arguments it contains. We then wrap up the episode by taking a step back, and considering the bigger picture. What makes this good philosophy? What makes this fine literature? What does this first book accomplish in the context of the entire Republic?
Support the project
Via Patreon: patreon.com/greecepodcast
Or through a one-time donation: paypal.me/greecepodcast
The Hunt for Justice
Plato’s Republic, book 1
Part 1: Introduction
“Virtues are more important than values.” That line jumped out at me from an audiobook my wife was listening to the other day. I remember thinking, wow, that simple phrase really sums up a key difference between ancient Greek and modern approaches to ethics. Our society today seems obsessed with values—just think about how many times you’ve heard the phrase “our shared values” or “that goes against our values.” Every club, company, corporation, political party, and religious institution today touts its own list of values up on their website. By contrast, the ancient Greeks didn’t care much for what we call values. For them, it was all about virtues. What’s the difference? Well, values are essentially beliefs; Anyone can claim to have them. But virtues are behaviors or activities. It’s very difficult to claim you have a certain virtue, say courage, unless you have a track record of behaving courageously. By contrast, anyone can claim to value courage. And so, an ancient Greek philosopher, if presented with our modern outlook about values, would probably say, you know I think virtues are more important.
Now, you might have guessed that this audiobook was on the history of philosophy. But actually, it was a book by the famous investor and tech entrepreneur Ben Horowitz about how company founders can build a healthy culture among their team that helps their company grow and succeed. He was saying how a lot of startups spend too much time worrying about what list of values to plaster on their walls, only to find that the way team members behave within those walls is in stark contrast to those values. Because again, values are vague and empty, unless backed up by action. So he recommends that founders instead focus on defining specific virtues, i.e. behaviors, they want their team to embody.
Interestingly, Horowitz claims to have derived this insight from the Japanese Samurai code of Bushido, which may seem totally unrelated to ancient Greece. But on this point at least the ancient Greeks and the Samurai were on the same page. Their way of thinking about ethics was so different from our own, that we don’t even have a word in english that fully captures what the Greeks or Japanese meant by virtue. Thanks largely to the influence of Christianity, our word “virtue” usually connotes things like patience, kindness, love, mercy, even chastity.
But for the ancient Greeks the concept of aretê (the term usually translated as virtue) is not that at all. In fact, some scholars prefer to translate it as “excellence” rather than “virtue,” cause it refers to any activity, function, or work that someone or something does really well. A tool can have virtues. An animal can have virtues. And a person can have virtues. The virtue of a hammer, in the ancient greek sense, is the work of pounding in nails— that is its excellence; that’s what it does better than any other tool. A horse’s virtues might include speed, strength, or stamina. And the virtues of humans—well, there are many human virtues, but the Greeks thought there were four in particular that were key. These are sometimes called the four cardinal virtues or the four classical virtues. They are wisdom, courage, moderation, and justice.
So, to get now to the topic of today’s episode, when Plato sets out in the Republic to answer the question, “What is justice?” that is a question about one of the cardinal virtues in a society that was obsessed with virtue. That doesn’t mean that they were more virtuous than us. It means that the concept of virtue was built into the way they saw the world in a way that it isn’t for us. The way we see the world, which is reinforced by almost every movie coming out of Hollywood, is in terms of good and evil. If someone is wicked or cruel it’s because they are evil, and they must be punished, crushed, or killed.
The Greeks of Plato’s day didn’t have that framework. There was no word for evil in their language. This is a topic that deserves its own episode, and maybe we’ll do one later. But in short, for the ancient Greeks, if someone was cruel, or dishonest, or sadistic, it wasn’t because they were driven by some diabolical force opposed to all that is good in the world, it was because they are flawed, they have failed to attain the virtues or excellences appropriate to humans and as a result they are vicious and wretched beings that do harm to others and usually to themselves as well.
This difference in outlook is important to realize as we open up the Republic, because a lot of modern readers find the book confusing in the way it focuses on justice as a human virtue (or a human excellence, depending on your translation). When we think of justice in English we usually think of it at the community or procedural level. Like the justice system. When we “demand justice” we’re not asking for a virtue. We’re asking, usually, for certain people to be punished for crimes they committed. Those senses of the term justice were also in use in ancient Greece, but the sense of justice as a virtue was more common.
So, when the discussion about the nature of justice gets going in book 1 of the Republic, a lot of readers are a little confused and keep wondering, “When are Socrates and company going to get to the real topic, which is the justice system and appropriate punishments and all that?” Well, they never get to that. So, get rid of that expectation from now.
The main question that motivates the discussion in the Republic is not so much, “What is justice?” in the abstract, but rather, “What does it take for an individual to acquire the virtue of justice?” In other words, “What kind of circumstances inspire an individual to behave in a just way?” And by circumstances I mean things like education, experiences, and cultural influences. At the end of book 2, this leads naturally towards also looking at justice at the community level. But again, the question is not so much, “What makes a good justice system?” But rather, “How do we structure a political community so that it behaves justly towards its own members and to other communities?” In other words, the polis is conceptualized as a kind of superorganism that has virtues just like an individual human has. To put it more simply, the Republic asks: How can we be just? And how can we build a society that is just?
Now that you know more about what to expect and what not to expect from the dialogue, and given that we gave you tons of background information already in the previous episode (R0), l think we are ready to dive into the text and tackle book 1.
The bulk of this episode will consist in a detailed summary of the first book. We’re going to go through the arguments one and by one and assess them. We will then wrap up the episode by taking a step back, and considering the bigger picture. What makes this good philosophy? What makes this fine literature? What does this first book accomplish in the context of the entire Republic? Without further ado, let’s open the book and begin.
The Beginning of the Republic (begins at the 7:10 mark)
“I went down to the Piraeus yesterday with Glaucon, son of Ariston, to pay my respects to the goddess and to see how they would manage her festival, which was being held for the first time.”
Thus begins Plato’s Republic. The person speaking is Socrates. The entire Republic is going to be narrated by Socrates, as if he is reminiscing about an interesting conversation he had on the previous day.
But of course, this is not Socrates’ account. This is Plato’s fictionalized and heroicized Socrates speaking. And by using Socrates as the narrator decades after Socrates had died without leaving any writings behind, Plato is making it transparently obvious to his audience that this is a creative work, imagined to have taken place decades earlier when Socrates was still alive and Athens was still the richest and most powerful democracy in the world.
As we read on, or listen on, the voice of Socrates tells us how he came to get caught up in a long and fascinating conversation the previous day about justice. As he tells us in that first line you just heard, he had just attended a religious festival down by the port of Athens, called the Piraeus, with Glaucon, who is actually Plato’s older brother. Plato often uses members of his family as characters in his dialogues, though he himself never appears. As you may remember from last episode, Glaucon is the one who would later go on to join the Thirty Tyrants after the fall of Athens and ultimately be killed when that unjust regime was overthrown (the evidence for this is compiled in Jacob Howland’s book Glaucon’s Fate). But that’s still years in the future. At the supposed time of this dialogue, Glaucon is a bright-eyed, promising young man, though perhaps already showing some oligarchic sympathies.
As Socrates and Glaucon start making the trek back home to Athens from the Piraeus, a group of young people including a certain Polemarchus and one Adeimantus run into them and invite them over to Polemarchus’ house, which then serves as the setting for the rest of the dialogue. Adeimantus is Plato’s other brother. And Polemarchus, if you remember from last time, is going to end up, years later, as one of the victims of the Thirty Tyrants. He and Glaucon will eventually end up on opposite sides of a bloody civil war. But at this point, they are just a couple of friends without a thought in the world that that could ever happen.
So, Socrates and Glaucon accept the invitation and together with the others head over to Polemarchus’ house, where a bunch of well-known intellectuals are already gathered. This btw is a typical setting for a Platonic dialogue—the house of a wealthy socialite who likes to host gatherings where artists, musicians, and public figures all hang out and schmooze. In this case, the real master of the house and host of the party is technically Polemarchus’ aged father Cephalus, a well-known arms-manufacturer for the Athenian military.
When they arrive at the house, Cephalus is conducting a sacrifice, which basically means a glorified barbecue. When he sees the new arrivals he says, “Ah, Socrates, so great to see you. You should visit us more often. Now that I’m an old man, I can no longer make the trek to Athens easily. But you should come hang out with us here. The older I get, the more fond I become of rational discourse and debate.”
And Socrates says, “Sure thing, Cephalus. And actually I enjoy talking to old people very much because I feel that they have taken a journey that we too are bound to make. And I feel that we ought to try to learn from them as we do from travelers who have been where we are headed, what that journey is like, whether rough and difficult or smooth and easy. I’d like to hear your thoughts, Cephalus.”
I should clarify here that I’m not quoting verbatim from the book. In case you were wondering what translation I’m using, I’m not using any. What I’ll be giving you is my own, highly abridged, sometimes simplified or paraphrased, sparknotes version, if you will, based on the Greek text but updated with modern phraseology and the occasional joke, to make it entertaining and manageable within the scope of a single podcast episode.
Now back to Socrates. He asks Cephalus, “So, is old age hard to bear, or what report do you have to give of it?”
“Well, Socrates,” replies Cephalus, “most of the old people I know are always complaining that old age is the worst, but I gotta say it's been pretty smooth for me. I think it all comes down to your character. If you have an orderly and cheerful character, old age isn’t that bad. And if you’re not moderate and cheerful, your whole life will be unpleasant, not just old age.”
“That’s interesting,” says Socrates. “But I bet a lot of people would not accept what you say and would claim that old age is only easy for you because you’re rich.”
“You’re right,” says Cephalus, “they probably would say that. And they do have a point, though only to a limited degree. Being rich is not enough to make old age pleasant, but it does make it easier.”
Now, let’s pause here for a second. We haven’t even gotten to the real topic of the dialogue, and yet there’s a lot of food for thought in just these first few pages. I don’t know about you, but I find this discussion of old age both beautiful and moving. I mean, we live in a society (as did Plato) that is obsessed with youth and marginalizes the elderly. We send our aged parents and grandparents off to nursing homes so we can lead our own fast-paced lives unbothered by them. But here, Socrates is offering us a way to empathize and connect with the elderly by viewing them as fellow travelers on the unpredictable journey that is life.
And then we have Cephalus’ reply that a good character makes old age pleasant, while a bad one makes all of life difficult. That single adage is worth pondering for a long time. You could write a whole book exploring that topic. And in fact, Cicero, the Roman philosopher, did that centuries later, largely inspired by this passage. In short, it’s easy to rush through this early part of the book, imagining that it’s just fluff and filler leading up to the real topic. But every page of this work contains little nuggets of wisdom that are worth mulling over.
Returning now to our narrative, Socrates asks Cephalus, “What do you think is the greatest good you’ve enjoyed from being rich?”
“Well,” says Cephalus, “you know all those stories about punishment in the afterlife for the injustices we commit in this life, the stories that you laugh about when you’re young? Well, when it finally hits you that you’re not going to live much longer, fear grips your soul and you start wondering if those tales might be true? At that point, people who have committed a great injustice in their past, start waking up in the middle of the night from nightmares about what might await them on the other side of the grave.”
Quick parentheses. Did you guys catch what just happened? The topic of justice has just been broached! *fanfare*
Cephalus continues, “But if you’ve lived a just life, you can remain hopeful as you approach the end. So, in my opinion, Socrates, the greatest advantage of having wealth is this: that it enables you to go through life not having to cheat or lie to make ends meet, and it allows you to pay all your debts to both gods and men, and thus, in the end, to depart from this world without fear for what lies in the next.”
And now comes the inevitable Socratic hook. “Beautifully said, Cephalus. But speaking of justice, do you really think it’s just a matter of telling the truth and paying back all your debts? Surely if a friend had lent you a weapon, and came asking for it later while drunk or insane, no one would say you ought to give it to him because you owe it to him? A just man wouldn’t do that, nor would he tell his friend the whole truth so long as that friend is deranged.”
“You’re right,” says Cephalus.
“So, telling the truth and returning what you owe is not the definition of justice,” says Socrates. Which is kinda funny because Cephalus never intended to give a definition of justice. He was just shooting the breeze. It’s Socrates who has a one-track mind and is always seeing definitions even where there aren’t any.
At this point, you can imagine the group of young people who came to the house with Socrates are probably listening to this discussion somewhat impatiently and are eager for Socrates to wrap things up with the old man, or at least open up the conversation to everyone else. But of course, it would be impolite for one of the guests to butt in.
But Polemarchus, being the son of Cephalus and co-host of this gathering, sees here an opportunity to jump in ostensibly to support his father’s claim. So, when Socrates says, “that’s not the definition of justice,” Polemarchus retorts, “It is according to Simonides,” who btw was a famous poet of an earlier time, so Polemarchus is doing a bit of name dropping and showing off his learning.
Now, Cephalus here sees his opportunity to escape Socrates’ infamous mode of questioning and says, “Well I’ll let you young people carry on. I need to go attend to the sacrifice. Don’t want to ruin the barbeque.”
Polemarchus Tries to Define Justice (begins at the 13:50 mark)
When Cephalus exits the chatroom, Polemarchus picks up the baton, as it were, to defend the idea that justice is giving to each his due. This is the first of many definitions of justice that we will encounter in the dialogue. Socrates here reiterates to Polemarchus the example of the deranged friend asking for his weapon back, and says, “So, clearly Simonides and other wise people who say that justice is giving to each his due, must have something else in mind other than simply returning what someone gave to you. So, what does one’s due mean?”
“Well,” Polemarchus replies, “in the case of the deranged friend, it’s not the weapon that is his due. Rather, since he’s your friend, what you owe to him is to do him good and not harm him.”
“Ah,” says Socrates, “so you shouldn’t return something to a friend if doing so will harm either of you.”
“Precisely,” says Polemarchus.
“But you would return something harmful like that to an enemy?”
“Yea, why not.”
After a few more questions, Socrates gets Polemarchus to agree that by “give to each his due,” what Simonides and others really mean is “give to each what is appropriate to them.” And what’s appropriate to friends is assistance, while what’s appropriate to enemies is harm.
As you can imagine, this revised definition opens up a can of worms for Polemarchus. Because “appropriate” is obviously a vague category. When you say that justice is rendering whatever is appropriate to each, you’re basically just kicking the can further down the road, cause you are trying to define something that is difficult to define, justice, by introducing another concept that’s also hard to define: “appropriate”.
So Socrates leads Polemarchus on a whirlwind of questions that leaves him totally befuddled and contradicting himself. Finally, Polemarchus says, “By Zeus, Socrates, you got me all confused, but I still believe that justice consists in helping your friends and harming your enemies.”
When Socrates asks for clarification, Polemarchus says that by “one’s friends” he means people who seem to be good, and by “one’s enemies” he means people who seem to be bad or vicious. Now, I’m sure that you can already guess the problem with that definition.
“Don’t people often make mistakes about who is an honest person and who is wicked?” asks Socrates.
“Yea, I suppose they do,” says Polemarchus.
“So then, by helping your friends and harming your enemies, you’re probably going to end up helping some bad people and harming some decent people along the way.”
“I guess so. And that can’t be right,” concedes Polemarchus.
He then offers a third attempted revision to the original definition of “give to each his due.” He says, Justice is helping a friend if he truly is good, and harming an enemy if he truly is bad.
The way that Socrates approaches this one is quite interesting. He says, “Polemarchus, would a just person ever harm anyone?” That’s another of those sound bites from this dialogue that can get planted in your brain like a seed and become something you think about for years. Would a just person ever harm anyone?
Polemarchus doesn’t hesitate to answer. “Certainly,” he says. “He would harm enemies who really are bad people.”
Now let’s think about this. If you could know objectively that someone was a vicious, nasty, douchebag. If you could somehow confirm that it’s not because of any personal bias on your part, or prejudice, skewed information, or ideological differences that you think that, but this person was objectively a crappy human being. Would it be just to harm that person? Polemarchus says yes.
Socrates then proceeds with a line of questioning that is baffling to many modern readers unless you remember what we said in the beginning of this episode about the ancient Greek idea of virtue being the peculiar excellence of any kind of thing. Socrates asks, “When you harm a horse, does it become better or worse?”
“Worse,” says Polemarchus.
“And by worse, do we mean with respect to horse virtue, aka equine virtue, or worse with respect to, say, dog virtue or human virtue?”
“No, the horse becomes worse with respect to equine virtue,” says Polemarchus.
This is admittedly a little awkward in English translation, but the idea is that when a horse is harmed its ability to do the things it is naturally suited to doing well, whether that’s running fast, working hard, or even providing companionship, is impaired.
Socrates continues, “And when a dog is harmed, does it similarly become worse with respect to dog virtue aka canine virtue?”
“Yes,” replies Polemarchus.
“So then, by analogy, when people are harmed, don’t they become worse with respect to human virtue?”
“Assuredly,” says Polemarchus.
“Isn’t justice human virtue?”
“And so, by harming someone, whether a bad person or not, you make that person become worse with respect to the virtue of justice. In other words, you make that person more unjust.”
“I guess so,” mutters Polemarchus.
“So according to your definition, justice has the strange effect of making some people more unjust.”
After some further questioning, Polemarchus concedes that this can’t be right, that his definition must be wrong, and that a just person, as Socrates hinted at earlier, actually wouldn’t harm anyone.
Analysis of Socrates’ Counterarguments
Now, a lot of readers today are unimpressed with this argument. Cause what about cases where, say, a criminal is punished severely for a crime he committed, and this actually causes him to reevaluate his choices and turn his life around for the better? And there are other such examples you could come up with, like a parent punishing a child for doing something wrong and then the child’s behavior improves. In such cases, isn’t harming the criminal or delinquent child just?
I think Socrates would say that in those cases you are not actually harming the person. You are helping them or helping to reform them. Polemarchus’ definition does not say, “punish your enemies who are bad people.” It doesn’t say, “inflict temporary pain or discomfort on them until they get their act together.” It says harm them, which means they come out of it harmed, injured, damaged.
When I make this point to my students or to friends who are reading this book, they usually say, “Well, when you add that clarification, yea the argument starts to make more sense. Why then doesn’t Socrates, or rather, why doesn’t Plato have Socrates spell that out explicitly?” To which I say, first of all, if Plato clarified every possible source of confusion within every minute point of every argument, the Republic would be ten times longer than it is. But more importantly, doing so would undermine one of the pedagogical aims of this work, which as we said in the last episode, is to get you to think. Plato doesn’t want to spoon feed you everything. He wants to give you sufficient food for thought, while still keeping you hungry enough to search for new ideas and possibilities on your own. If a mother eagle fed her chicks all they could ever eat, they would never venture out of the nest and learn to fly. Plato wants you to fly. Somebody please make that into a bumper sticker.
Getting back to the whole harming your enemies thing, most people I talk to find the harm vs punishment distinction helpful. But some are still puzzled by Socrates’ finer point that people are made more unjust when they are harmed. Like if I harm someone who is truly an awful person, that person is already unjust. How am I making them more unjust? That’s a counter-intuitive claim for a lot of people. How does Socrates back that up? Well, he uses the analogy with horses and dogs, which might not have convinced you right off the bat. But let’s explore that a bit and see if we can make sense of it.
I think most people would agree with Socrates’ initial claim, that if you harm or injure a horse you are somehow diminishing its equine virtue. And if you harm a dog you are diminishing its canine virtue. Even though we don’t think in terms of virtue/aretê today, if we try to take the Greek perspective for a moment, it kind of makes sense, you know? If you harm a dog, depending on the nature of the injury, it won’t be able to run as fast, smell as keenly, or be as loving a companion as before.
And the same holds true even for a horse or dog that is behaving viciously. If a horse routinely kicks people who walk behind it, or if a dog is aggressive and bites people, beating the crap out of the animal is probably just going to make its behavior worse. I mean there’s a good chance its hostile behavior is the result of prior abuse to begin with, so harming it is just going to compound the problem. As an ancient Greek might put it, the animal is failing to fulfil its proper excellence or virtue, and harming it is only going to take it further away from its potential excellence. Ideally, we’d like to correct its behavior without inflicting harm.
What if we applied the same attitude towards people whom we perceive as wicked or vicious? What if, instead of thinking that they are incorrigibly evil and must be crushed, we thought of them as failing to achieve human virtue or excellence? And what if, instead of wishing them harm, we tried to help reform them without causing them lasting harm? Those are questions I think Plato wants us to think about.
Even if we accept Socrates’ point that harming any animal diminishes its virtue, how does that imply that when humans are harmed they become more unjust, as opposed to merely “less virtuous”? I mean, dogs and horses have a few obvious main virtues or excellences, like speed, endurance, or loyalty. And those things are clearly hindered if the animal is harmed. But humans have a much wider range of virtues. So it isn’t obvious why Socrates is justified in singling out justice as the quintessential human virtue that suffers when a person is harmed.
Socrates moves very quickly through this argument, and it may seem like he’s pulling a fast one on an unsuspecting Polemarchus who just goes “Yes, Socrates; why of course, Socrates,” to every one of his questions. But I think the reason why Polemarchus agrees so readily is that this idea was already embedded in the intellectual culture of their society.
From the beginning of Greek literature in the 8th century BC down to the philosophy of the Roman era, you find again and again the idea that justice is the queen of the virtues (as Cicero said). Without justice, none of the other virtues matter. What good does courage do, for example, if it serves an unjust cause? It is our sense of justice that makes our other virtues useful, and it is our sense of justice that enables us to be productive members of society. As Hesiod claimed, some four centuries before Plato, “the beasts and the birds and the creatures of the sea kill and devour each other. But to humans Zeus has given justice” (lines 277-9) And elsewhere, “Therefore heed justice and put away all thoughts of violence” (line 275). That’s from Hesiod’s Works and Days, which we talked about back in episode 21.
Besides claiming that justice is a defining feature of humans that sets us apart from the beasts, this story also implies that every single one of us has a god-given, innate sense of justice. By contrast, the Greeks did not think that the other virtues were equally distributed among all people. Different people may be naturally more temperate or patient or bold than others, but justice, at least according to Hesiod and others (see e.g. Protagoras’ speech reported by Plato in Protagoras 320c-328d), is the one virtue that at least the seed of it is planted in all of us equally.
In sum, a lot of ancient Greek thinkers (e.g. Hesiod, Protagoras, and the Stoics later) were promoting the idea that the basic function of humans is to help each other out and be productive members of society by exercising our sense of justice. Plato is taking that a step further and saying, if justice is indeed the primary excellence of humans, then when you inflict harm on someone, you are hindering them from behaving justly. Whether that person is initially just or unjust, you are only making them more unjust and still less productive members of society. That’s the argument.
Now, is it a valid argument? That’s debatable. Arguments by analogy are always risky and often carry hidden assumptions that fall apart under scrutiny. And even if the way we just fleshed out the argument is a way to make it valid, is that how Plato intended us to think about it? There is no way to know that of course. But what is certain, I think, is that this is exactly the kind of exercise Plato wants us to engage in when reading this text. What he gives us is an abbreviated argument. If you only accept in your mind what’s spelled out on the paper, if you limit yourself to that information, the arguments in Plato’s dialogues are almost always going to fall short. And they’re going to seem silly, sloppy, or incomplete.
But if you give Plato the benefit of the doubt that maybe he’s getting at something, and he’s giving you some bread crumbs to lead you on the right path, and it’s your job to fill in the blanks, then you’ll find these exercises much more rewarding.
Now, as we move on, don’t worry, we’re not going to unpack every argument that we encounter in so much detail. But every argument does need to be unpacked if you want to get the most out of this work. What we just went through is one example of how you might do that. Now let’s pick up the pace to get through the rest of the book.
Thrasymachus Challenges Socrates (beginning at 29:30)
Through Socrates’ questioning, Polemarchus is once again reduced to aporia, the state of puzzlement, and concedes that, in fact, the just man never harms anyone.
At this point in the conversation, a new character enters the fray. And this is one of the most memorable figures in all of Plato’s dialogues. Thrasymachus, who btw was a real person and seems to have been a kind of sophist/traveling public intellectual/teacher of rhetoric, who had come to Athens from what’s now Turkey, because Athens was where you could make it big.
True to his name, which literally means “audacious battle,” Thrasymachus is a force to be reckoned with. He clearly thinks Socrates is an intellectual con artist, and he’s not afraid to say it. So, he butts in and goes, “Socrates, what kind of buffoonery is this? … If you really want to know what justice is, don’t just ask questions to show off. Asking questions is easy. Why don’t you tell us what you think justice is?
And Socrates goes, “but how can I tell you what I don’t even claim to know?”
“Oh right, the famous Socratic irony,” retorts Thrasymachus. “Always claiming that you don’t know anything.” Thrasymachus here is referring to the fact that Socrates used to go around saying that the one thing he knows, is that he knows nothing. That’s why he’s always asking questions—because he wants to learn.
A lot of people today, especially first time readers of Socratic dialogues, find this attitude really annoying and even disingenuous. They think Socrates is just a performance artist trying to make a fool out of other people.
But here are some reasons why maybe Socrates’ attitude is genuine and philosophically productive. First of all, there does seem to be this paradoxical phenomenon in human society that many people throughout the ages have claimed to notice, which is that confidence and knowledge seem to be inversely correlated. In other words, the people with the most knowledge are often very humble and keenly aware of the limitations of that knowledge, whereas the loudest and most assertive voices in the public sphere are often from people who lack expertise or training in the subjects on which they pontificate so forcefully.
In fact, one of the main concerns of Plato’s Republic is this: How do you convince the best scientists—the most qualified people, who more often than not don’t want anything to do with politics—how do you convince them to take positions of leadership and do good for the community?
So, maybe Socrates’ claim to ignorance isn’t just performance art. Maybe it’s the result of a life spent earnestly investigating ethical issues, which made him acutely aware of just how difficult it is to answer with certainty any of these big questions. Like, What is justice? What is wisdom? What is beauty? These are very tough questions, and a lot of answers people throw around don’t hold up under scrutiny. On the other hand, Socrates is not going to the other extreme and saying, these things are unknowable. There’s no way to answer them. He’s taking a middle path and saying, “I don’t know the answers. I’ve spent my life trying to find them. But they are much more elusive than people realize. But, I want to keep looking. And so I’m always going to ask questions. And I’m always going to be open to the possibility that we’ll find some answers.” And the conversation of the Republic is an example of one of those cases where they do allegedly find some answers. So stay tuned for that in later episodes.
Now, if you are a teacher, proclaiming publicly that you know nothing is obviously not a good business strategy. Imagine if Harvard put out an advertisement saying, “Come to Harvard, where our professors know nothing.” That wouldn’t be a smart move. But remember, Socrates never tried to make money from his teaching. By contrast, Thrasymachus is a career intellectual. As a teacher of rhetoric, his source of income is going to be from wealthy families who hire him to teach their sons public speaking, the art of appearing to know something and confidently offering policy solutions in the public assembly, even if you don’t know what you’re talking about. People paid big bucks for that skill, as they do now. So, to Thrasymachus, Socrates is not merely competition, since they are both vying for the attention of the wealthy young men at this very gathering in Cephalus’ house. He is also an intellectual threat, because the Socratic approach to knowledge is an implicit condemnation of the product that Thrasymachus is selling.
After Thrasymachus butts in, they go back-and-forth for a while, taunting each other, with Thrasymachus trying unsuccessfully to get Socrates to offer his own definition. It’s all very entertaining, but we’re going to skip over it cause it doesn’t have much by way of philosophical argument.
Thrasymachus Tries to Define Justice (beginning at 34:20)
In the end, Thrasymachus can’t resist sharing his own definition of justice, which he’s apparently very proud of. And this sets off a new line of questioning by Socrates. Up until this point, all the definitions we went through were variations of the original giving to each his due conception of justice. This was initially revised to “giving to each what is appropriate,” then to “benefiting friends and harming enemies,” and finally to “benefitting friends so long as they are truly good, and harming enemies so long as they are truly bad.” Now we are starting a fresh line of inquiry based on Thrasymachus’ new definition.
“Justice,” he says, “is nothing other than the advantage of the stronger.”
When Socrates presses him to explain what he means by “the advantage of the stronger,” Thrasymachus is happy to oblige, because it gives him the opportunity to give a little speech, which is what he does professionally. Again, I won’t quote it verbatim, but the gist of what he says is this.
“Different countries have different conceptions of what justice is. But if you look closely, you’ll see that these various manifestations of justice are always related to the type of regime they are found in. Monarchies have a certain system of laws that benefits the monarch. Democracies have different sets of laws that serve the interest of the people or the popular party in charge. In short, each government frames laws for its own advantage and calls that justice. And anyone who breaks these laws is punished as a criminal. Thus, what all conceptions of justice have in common, is that they always benefit the established ruling class of every regime to solidify their rule.” That, Thrasymachus explains, is what he means when he says justice is “the advantage of the stronger.”
“Now I get what you mean,” says Socrates. “But, I still have to see if it’s true.” And so the questioning resumes. “So, you say that justice is the advantage of the rulers?”
“Absolutely,” says Thrasymachus.
“And the rulers create laws that serve them?”
“And it is just when people obey the rulers.”
“Are rulers infallible, or do they sometimes make mistakes?”
“Of course they make mistakes.”
“I see,” says Socrates. “So, once in a while, they’ll frame a law that they think is to their advantage, but is actually harmful to them, and is therefore to their disadvantage.”
“But you say it is just to do whatever the rulers prescribe?”
“So sometimes, in obeying the laws of the rulers, the people serve the interest of the rulers, but sometimes they work against the interest of the rulers.”
“So justice is sometimes the advantage of the rulers. And sometimes it’s the disadvantage of the rulers.” Once again, Socrates has reduced his interlocutor to aporia, the state of puzzlement.
Here, one of the other minor characters named Cleitophon tries to rescue Thrasymachus’ argument by saying, “Come on, Socrates. Obviously what Thrasymachus meant to say is that justice is what the stronger think is to their advantage.”
But Thrasymachus rejects this proposed revision and doubles down, saying, “No, I meant what I said. And Socrates is trying to pull a fast one here, as usual, by using words in a sloppy manner. Would you call a man a doctor precisely because he screws up a cure? Would you call someone an accountant because they mess up their calculations? No you wouldn’t, because insofar as someone is a doctor, he cures people. When he messes up a cure, in that moment, he is failing to be a doctor. So, if we are going to be absolutely precise, since you, Socrates, are such a stickler for precision, we should say that no craftsman, so long as he is a craftsman, ever messes up. If he does, he is not a craftsman in that moment. It follows that a ruler, insofar as he is a ruler, does not make mistakes, but always enacts what is best for himself and makes his subjects obey. So I still say what I said at the beginning. Justice is doing what’s advantageous to the stronger.”
Now obviously Thrasymachus says all this in ancient Greek, and even when you translate it into English, that way of thinking is still a bit alien to us. I guess if you were to express his ideas the way modern academics talk, you might say that justice is a social construct promulgated by the ruling class and, as such, it varies from country to country depending on the type of ruling elite and regime that is in place but is always constructed in such a way as to serve their own interests. That way of thinking implies a kind of moral relativism, since justice, under that view, is not a stable thing, there’s no fixed truth about it, it is constructed based on the particular needs of particular regimes.
So, how does Socrates respond to that? His next line of questioning is actually quite intricate and subtle. It would take a long time to go through it step by step. And different scholars disagree on whether it represents a valid argument or not. Furthermore, this scene is depicted by Plato as a battle between two formidable debaters. There are plenty of insults and jokes exchanged. And Socrates’ questioning is clearly designed at least in part to disorient Thrasymachus, so it’s a little hard at first to see the bare bones of the argument under all this fuss.
In the interest of time, what I’ll give you is a highly abridged, and perhaps overly simplified distillation. I’ll leave it to you to dig into the details on your own, if you’re so inclined.
Socrates decides to run with Thrasymachus’ emphasis on terminological exactitude. He says, “Let’s consider a doctor in the strict sense of the word, as you were just saying. Is he strictly speaking a money-maker or a healer of the sick?”
“A healer of the sick,” answers Thrasymachus.
“So the fact that he makes money is not part of the art of medicine per se but something extra. Likewise, a ship captain also makes money. But that’s not why he’s a ship captain. Nor is the fact that he sails on a ship. Rather, it’s the fact that he rules over or manages all the other sailors that makes him a captain.”
Thrasymachus agrees, and Socrates then leads him along the following line of reasoning. First, the art of medicine exists for the advantage of the sick, not for the advantage of itself, since Thrasymachus agreed that money-making is not integral to medicine. The word “advantage” here is a little awkward. The Greek term that it translates, συμφέρον, has a range of meanings including advantage as well as profit and benefit. So, medicine exists for the advantage/benefit of the sick and not for its own profit, even though doctors of course do make a profit.
Likewise, the art of being a ship captain, strictly speaking, exists for the advantage/benefit of sailors, not of itself. Similarly, the art of horsemanship, strictly speaking, when separated off from its money-making aspect and other unessential features, is for the benefit of horses. That one, I know, is a little hard to accept. But the point is, in order to be a good horseman, you need to keep your horses healthy, happy, strong, long-lived etc.
The conclusion Socrates draws from all this, and Thrasymachus very reluctantly agrees to, is that every art exists for the benefit/advantage of the people or animals over which it has sway. Furthermore, each of these arts holds power over certain people or animals and is therefore, in a sense, stronger than them, and they are, in a sense, the weaker party. Therefore, every art exists for the advantage not of the stronger, but of the weaker.
The doctor, insofar as he is a doctor, works not for his own benefit/advantage for the benefit of the sick. The captain, insofar as he is a captain, works not for his own benefit but for the benefit of the sailors. Similarly, and here’s the kicker. The ruler or statesman, insofar as he is a ruler or statesman, works for the benefit/advantage not of himself but of the people he rules.
When Thrasymachus sees that Socrates has once again led him into a contradiction, he responds with a comeback that sounds like it came straight out of an ancient Greek high school cafeteria. He goes, “Hey Socrates, where’s your nanny?”
And Socrates goes, “now why would you ask a thing like that?”
To which Thrasymachus says, “Because she lets you run around driveling and doesn’t wipe your snotty face. You obviously need a nanny if you still haven’t learned the difference between a shepherd and a sheep.”
“And why do you think I don’t know the difference?” Asks Socrates.
Thrasymachus’ Speech in Praise of Injustice (beginning at 42:25)
“Because by your logic, a shepherd works for the advantage of his sheep. But that’s nonsense. A shepherd only tends to and fattens his sheep with a view to making a fat profit. And the same goes for rulers of cities. All they care about is looking out for number one. You’re so naive, Socrates, you don’t even realize that those who follow justice are acting for someone else’s advantage.
“The truth of what I’m saying is obvious if you just consider what happens whenever a just person and an unjust person are both involved in the same activity or enterprise. The unjust person always comes out on top. Whether we’re talking about a business partnership, or the distribution of resources, or even paying taxes, the unjust person always comes out with more gains, more money acquired, and fewer taxes paid than the just person who stupidly follows the rules put in place by other people.
“But it takes skill to master the art of injustice. If you rob one person or kill an individual, people will call you a thief or a murderer. But if you kill thousands in battle then you’re not a murderer but a conqueror. And if you rob the entire citizenry of their freedom, thereby making yourself their sole master and tyrant, then they will envy your success and consider you the most fortunate of men.
“You see, the blunt fact of the matter is that people don’t condemn injustice because they don’t themselves want to commit it, but only because they are afraid to suffer it. They would love to commit injustice if they could get away with it. Because injustice is maximizing your own interest. It’s looking out for number one. It’s how you get to the top. And so injustice that is skillfully done on a grand scale is stronger, freer, and more masterful a thing than justice, which is a kind of naiveté, you follow the rules put in place by people who have power over you. And so, like I said from the start, justice is the advantage of the stronger, while injustice is one’s own advantage.”
When Thrasymachus finishes his tirade, he acts like he just delivered an epic smackdown and makes a move like he’s going to leave. But Socrates’ is like, “Wow wow wow, you’re just gonna walk out like that, bro, before we can test if what you said is true or not? Why don’t you stick around and answer a few questions?”
In what follows, Socrates responds first to what Thrasymachus said about the shepherd only caring to profit from his sheep. Socrates reminds him that they had separated the money-making art from the art of shepherding, which strictly speaking is taking care of the flock so that it is healthy and thriving.
Now here again, a lot of people today find this to be at best unconvincing and at worst plain old sophistry. But I think Socrates does have a point. There is something to this idea that skill in money-making is independent from whatever it is you do professionally. I mean in every line of work, there are people who are phenomenal at what they do but terrible at making money, and there are people who do a mediocre job and somehow are always raking in the big bucks. So, when you say that someone does a job to make money, that doesn’t tell you anything about the nature of that job.
I think another way to phrase what Socrates is saying here is that Thrasymachus’ claim that justice is simply a construct of the ruling class to profit from those they rule, is like saying, medicine is a construct of doctors to make money from the sick, or the art of being a ship captain is a construct of captains to make money from sailors, or the art of shepherding is a construct of shepherds to make money from sheep. Those various claims may have some truth to them, in a cynical way, but they don’t tell you anything about what each particular craft is, what sets it apart from other crafts that you can use to make a profit. In other words, Thrasymachus’ “definition,” even if it has some truth to it, is extremely incomplete. All he is saying is that different regimes use different conceptions of justice for their own advantage. Even if that’s true, that doesn’t tell you anything about what a conception of justice is. How many such conceptions are there? Do they all have some common features or are they wholly different from one another? Do you see how many questions are left unanswered? That’s what Socrates was trying to expose with all that stuff about isolating each art from its non-essential features such as money-making.
But at this point, Socrates is not interested in arguing that point all over again. He already won that part of the debate, and is now more interested in addressing a new claim that Thrasymachus made during his tirade, namely that the unjust life is greater and more profitable than the just life. When he presses Thrasymachus to elaborate, the latter maintains that justice, contrary to popular opinion is not an aretê—a virtue or excellence—but rather a kind of simplemindedness and therefore a vice. On the other hand, perfect injustice (not petty crime, mind you, but skillful injustice on a grand scale) is an excellence or virtue.
When Socrates asks him if he sincerely believes that, Thrasymachus replies, “Why does that matter? Refute the argument if you can.”
And Socrates goes, “Ok, sure, no problem. One refutation coming your way.”
Whether or not Thrasymachus is in earnest here, he certainly thinks that the strange and unexpected nature of his claim is going to make it difficult for Socrates to refute. But Socrates, of course, being the hero of this story, meets the challenge with an equally strange and unexpected type of argument. He gets Thrasymachus to agree that, on the one hand, the unjust person tries to outdo, or get the better of, everyone, i.e. both just people as well as unjust people. On the other hand, a just person does not try to outdo, or get the better of, other just people but only unjust people.
Once again, this is a little awkward in English. The Greek term here is pleonektein (πλεονεκτεῖν), which is a really important concept in ancient Greek political life and philosophy. Etymologically it means “to have more,” and the implication is to take more than one’s fair share, or simply to outdo, or get the better of other people. This is obviously not a behavior you want in a democratic society where you want all citizens to cooperate and make collective decisions for the common good.
So, the unjust person, Thrasymachus agrees, tries to outdo everyone, just and unjust, while the just person does not try to get the better of other just people, but only of the unjust. In other words, the unjust person tries to outdo both those similar to him and those unlike him, while the just person tries to outdo those unlike him but not those like himself.
But this, Socrates argues, is not what you’d expect if injustice were a virtue or excellence, as Thrasymachus now claims, and justice were a vice. Because usually, people with a virtue or excellence don’t try to get the better of other people with that same virtue, but only to outdo those lacking in that virtue. For example, a doctor doesn’t try to outdo another doctor when he prescribes a cure. He simply tries to get the cure right. While he does try to outdo someone ignorant of medicine when prescribing a cure. By contrast, a vicious person tries to get the better of other vicious people as well as of virtuous people. In other words, a vicious person tries to get the better of both those similar to him and those unlike him, which is what we said earlier the unjust person does. While a virtuous person only tries to outdo those unlike himself, which is what we said the just person does.
Thus, the just person seems to fall into the category of virtuous people while the unjust person seems to fall into the category of vicious people. Once again, Thrasymachus reluctantly admits that Socrates has gotten the better of him.
Now, is this argument valid? I’m inclined to agree with most scholars that it is not. I’m open of course to being corrected on this matter. But I think there are a lot of problems with this argument. Just to name one, I think it depends on an equivocation between two meanings of the Greek word πλεονεκτεῖν, which, as we said, can mean both “to get the better of” and “to outdo.” There’s an important difference between those two meanings. You can outdo someone without getting the better of them. So I would agree that a doctor does not try to get the better of another doctor in prescribing a cure, but he may very well try to outdo another doctor in the sense of being a better doctor and treating his patients better.
So I’m not sure the argument works. But let’s move on, because we’re almost done with the summary. And we’ll say a bit more later about what to make of seemingly fallacious arguments in the text.
There are two final arguments between Socrates and Thrasymachus. By this point Thrasymachus has just about had it with Socrates, but he can’t just walk out because that would be admitting defeat. So he very reluctantly allows Socrates to finish his questioning.
Socrates asks Thrasymachus if what he said about the perfectly unjust man being the strongest and freest and best also applies to entire states. Thrasymachus affirms that that is the case. The best and strongest countries are the ones that practice injustice and thereby make themselves masters of other countries.
Through his questioning, Socrates gets Thrasymachus to admit that these countries cannot be 100% unjust through and through, but they need at least some justice internally in order to operate cohesively and not fall apart through discord and civil war. In fact, even a band of thieves, or a group of criminals, no matter how unjustly they act as an organization, must have some degree of justice internally in order to operate successfully. It’s the proverbial honor among thieves that Socrates is talking about.
Thrasymachus concedes the point, and Socrates presses on, arguing that the more injustice you introduce into a group of people, the more internal strife and discord you generate, which in turn hinders the group from collective action. Thus, Thrasymachus’ original claim can’t be right, that the most unjust states are the strongest and most successful at subjugating others, because the most unjust states are too paralyzed by internal strife to effectively project power on anyone else.
Now comes the final argument with Thrasymachus. And this one hearkens back to the point we opened this episode with about virtue or aretê being a peculiar excellence of a person, animal, or tool. Having worn him down and tired him out, Socrates finally gets Thrasymachus to agree that justice is a virtue of the soul, not a vice. And by “agree,” I mean that Thrasymachus basically says, “Whatever Socrates, I’ll concede the point so you can finish your argument and we can be done with it.”
Socrates then proceeds to get Thrasymachus to reluctantly agree that anything that is deprived of its aretê/virtue/excellence cannot function properly. For example, the virtue/excellence of an eye is to see well. If an eye is deprived of that virtue, it obviously can’t function properly. Likewise, the virtue/excellence of a racehorse is speed. If deprived of that excellence, the racehorse cannot fulfil its proper function of racing. Now, the proper function of the soul is to live well. Thus, if the soul is deprived of its virtue/excellence, it cannot live well. But justice is the quintessential virtue of the soul. That means that if deprived of justice the soul cannot live well. Therefore, it can’t possibly be true what Thrasymachus was saying, that the unjust person lives the best life. Because the deprivation of justice hinders a person’s soul from living well.
Folks, I’ve got some good news for you. The intellectual duel between Socrates and Thrasymachus is finally over. Thrasymachus tells Socrates a sarcastic bravo, gives him a slow clap. Socrates gets the last word in and says, “Well, unfortunately we didn’t actually discover what justice is, so I guess I’ll have to carry on ignorant as before.” And that’s the end of book 1.
Epilogue 1: Is this Good Philosophy? (beginning at 54:45)
After the last episode, I was thrilled to hear that a bunch of you went out and bought the Republic and started reading it. One listener in particular, sent in the following message after reading book 1. I found it so amusing that I asked if I could share it with you. Here it is.
Dear Lantern Jack,
I read book 1 of Plato’s Republic last night. Most sophomoric thing I’ve ever read. We used to play such games at my fraternity house back in the day. It’s the kind of thing you do when you first discover how to use logic chains to back a debate partner into a contradiction. In Socrates’ case, as reported by Plato, his logic chains are fraught with unstated questionable assumptions, definitions by non-essentials, and numerous other cheap tricks that a more sophisticated counterparty would have called him on before allowing himself to be led to the next step. And at the end of the chapter Socrates admits he made no progress defining justice! All he did was aggravate everybody while proving that humans are a walking bundle of muddled thoughts and unresolved contradictions, making them easy pickings. What else is new? Every time I do this at dinner parties my wife kicks me under the table.
Then again, I suppose this was the first time that anyone wrote this kind of thing down. Which makes it special. I look forward to seeing how Lantern Jack deals with this in his podcast.
Well, Bill, thanks for your email, first of all. I wanted to share it because I think it’s emblematic of how a lot of modern readers react to this text. I’m sure many of you listening can relate to at least some of Bill’s frustrations.
A lot of people today think that this stuff is sophomoric, as Bill put it. They look at these definitions like “giving to each his do” or “helping friends and harming enemies” and they find them so almost cartoonishly simplistic that they think this stuff must represent an earlier, more primitive stage of human thought. Nobody today would offer such simple definitions. We’ve surpassed that way of thinking. So, the reason why the Republic is considered a classic of world literature, must be that it was the first time people wrote down such thoughts. In other words, it’s impressive for it’s time, but now it’s just an ancient artefact, a relic of a lost world.
Then again, there are other people today, including professors of philosophy, who find this text incredibly valuable and still relevant for today’s world. So, what is it that they see of value in this first book of the Republic? I can’t speak for all scholars who are interested in this text. But I can offer a few insights that I’ve picked up over the years as to what makes this a great piece of philosophy and of literature.
First, let’s address this idea that the definitions offered are more simplistic than anything anyone would say today. It’s certainly tempting to think that people back then lived in a simpler world, and their minds operated in simpler terms. But what if the definitions offered are not simplistic because people back then were simpleminded. What if Plato deliberately offers us simplistic definitions for a reason?
What reason might that be? Well, let’s start with the first definition. “To give to each his due.” This might sound overly simplistic, but it is actually one of the most common definitions of justice throughout history. You find it in Aristotle. You find it in the 6th century AD law-code of Justinian, which went on to form the basis of most modern European legal systems. And you find it in encyclopedias today. In fact the very first line of the Wikipedia entry for justice says that it’s “the principle that people receive that which they deserve.” And in book 1 of the Republic, Plato informs us that this idea was popularized already more than a century before his time by the poet Simonides.
So it’s not an overly simplistic definition. It’s actually perhaps the most pervasive and persistent definition in history, and it lies at the heart of many conceptions of justice even today. For example, you might think that what everyone deserves is equality, or you might think it’s equity, or you might think that some people deserve to have more wealth and power than others. Whether you are for socialism or capitalism, a flat tax or a progressive tax, you’re for reparations, or against reparations, you support universal basic income or you are opposed to the welfare state, every one of those positions boils down to a central claim about what different people deserve. All of these positions fall under the umbrella of “give to each his/her due.”
That means that Socrates’ criticism of that first definition, is a criticism of all such positions that involve claims about what people deserve. If you want to defend such a view, you need to be able to explain why people deserve equality or inequality or whatever you’re advocating. And doing that is surprisingly difficult. The first step is often to appeal to fairness or, as Polemarchus does, appropriateness. But that only introduces new terms into the definition that also need to be defined.
When Polemarchus is made aware of these problems, he resorts to the idea that justice is helping one’s friends and harming one’s enemies. Once again, it is tempting to find this definition overly simplistic, banal, maybe even ridiculous. No one today would make such a claim.
But hold on. What if, instead of looking at this definition in isolation, we look at the sequence of definitions we’ve had so far. Remember what we said earlier about how we need to be active readers and work to unpack these arguments? What if there is a deeper meaning here?
What if Plato is hinting at something like the following? We all have beliefs about who deserves what and, like Polemarchus, we are all ready to appeal to fairness or appropriateness to support our views. But if we dig down deeper, is it possible that we’ll discover a bunch of biases and unexamined assumptions that really just serve to help our friends, our tribe, our political party and harm the other side? There are modern psychological studies that have demonstrated that many of our beliefs about other people and other groups—beliefs that we think are the product of reason—are actually determined by social pressures, incentives, and other unconscious forces.
So maybe, through this sequence of definitions, each of which may seem silly on its own, Plato is asking us to wonder whether it is ever possible for us to objectively determine who deserves what. Maybe he’s asking us to consider the possibility that even when we think we’re being moral and objective, our unconscious desire to help our team, our side, and harm the other team, creeps its way into our minds and shapes our opinions without us realizing it. Thus, unbeknownst to us, our highfalutin claims about justice may gradually feed into tribalism, factionalism, and in the worst case, may lead us to suffer the fate of Glaucon and Polemarchus and end up in a civil war.
Centuries after Plato, when the Roman Republic finally succumbed to factionalism, it fell into a vicious cycle where every time one faction would gain power, they would immediately punish everyone that had anything to do with the previous regime and reward those who helped the new group gain control. This got very bloody very fast. One notorious figure from this period was the dictator Sulla, who ordered thousands of his political opponents executed in the name of saving the Republic, of course. So, under Polemarchus’ definition, Sulla was the most just man of his time. When he sensed the end of his life approaching, Sulla arranged to have his tombstone inscribed with the epitaph: “No better friend. No worse enemy.” (Plutarch Sulla 38.4)
What about Thrasymachus’ definition: the advantage of the stronger? Once again, it may seem banal at first. But when you express his core idea in modern language (that justice is a construct promulgated by the ruling classes to maintain and increase their power) then it starts to sound a lot like Foucault or plenty of other modern thinkers who talk about social or epistemological constructs.
I’m not saying that Thrasymachus is as sophisticated a thinker as Foucault, or that Foucault would agree with Thrasymachus on all points. Thrasymachus’ positions are expressed in very simple terms. But again, that generality may be a deliberate move on Plato’s part that allows him to give an argument against all philosophical positions that claim that justice is a construct of the powerful.
So, those are some of the reasons why I believe there’s a lot more philosophical substance to this first book than initially appeared to Bill and to myself when I read it for the first time. A lot of philosophical work is accomplished in the span of this opening section.
And it is just the opening section. That’s important to keep in mind. Bill in his email was saying, by the end of the book, they didn’t even figure out what justice is. It’s like, yea, that’s just the beginning. There are nine more books. The point of the first one is not to give you all the answers, it’s to introduce the main topics, clear away common misconceptions, and get your brain activated and thinking about the right questions. And that’s what this book accomplishes.
It’s true, as Bill said, that some of the arguments appear to contain fallacies. But that also may be deliberate. Why? Because Plato here is depicting a sophistic debate, the kind that used to attract huge crowds of spectators in ancient Athens, just as big debates today garner millions of views on Youtube. We all love a vigorous debate. And if there are some dirty tricks and rhetorical fireworks thrown in, then it’s all the more entertaining. Plato here is showing us that Socrates was able to beat the Sophists at their own game.
At the same time, Plato accomplishes a lot with this initial scene. All the different little arguments in book 1 foreshadow more serious discussions that will come up later. For instance, Thrasymachus’ claim that the tyrant or the perfectly unjust man is the happiest. That will be explored at much greater length in book 9. Or when Socrates makes the claim that any organization, even a criminal one, must have some degree of justice internally in order to operate. That paves the way to book 2, where Socrates and company will decide to consider in tandem the question of justice as the virtue of an individual and as a property of a large group of people. Also, Thrasymachus’ discussion of how different regimes craft different conceptions of justice foreshadows book 8, where the various regime types are categorized and explained.
A lot of the brilliance of book 1 only becomes apparent when you read the Republic for a second or third time. It’s like a musical piece or a song, where the more times you listen to it, the more details you pick on—little features here and there that tie the whole work together.
Epilogue 2: Is this Good Literature? (beginning at 1:08:10)
Now we’ve said a lot about what this book accomplishes philosophically, but what about it’s literary qualities? Cause Plato is not just known as a great philosopher, but also as a consummate literary artist. Let’s wrap up this episode by considering what makes this fine literature. In order to do that, let’s just take another look at the very first page, and I want to show you just how much is going on in those first few dozen lines. Remember the first line of the book?
“I went down to the Piraeus yesterday with Glaucon, son of Ariston, to pay my respects to the goddess and to see how they would manage her festival, which was being held for the first time.”
That might sound like a very casual way of beginning a story. It’s like saying, “Eh, I went downtown with my buddy yesterday to check out a show.” It’s so… ordinary, right? But beneath this deliberately plain facade, lies a web of meticulously crafted messages. Every single word in that first sentence serves a purpose. First of all, we’re introduced immediately to the two main characters of the work, Socrates and Glaucon, who doesn’t play much of a role in book 1 but becomes Socrates’ main interlocutor thereafter.
Next, Socrates says that he went to a religious festival to pay his respects to the goddess. So, the first bit of information that we get about Socrates is that he is a pious man. This is Plato working to dispel the rumors about Socrates that helped get him executed, namely that he subverted the religion of the state. No. Plato wants us to know right away that Socrates was a good and devout citizen. Here he is, going to a public religious festival to pay his respects to the goddess.
Who is this goddess? That’s also important. As we find out at the end of book 1, this was a Thracian hunting goddess, named Bendis. While Bendis is not discussed much in the dialogue, she’s always lurking in the background. Hunting metaphors pop up throughout the dialogue, which itself is like a hunt for the truth. And this idea of a powerful female huntress is going to loom large in book 5 where we get the argument that men and women should be trained in the same activities, including things traditionally thought of as manly pursuits, like war or hunting.
Finally, the very first phrase, I went down yesterday, is perhaps most important of all. As we’ll learn in book 7, where we get the story of the cave, it is the duty of the true philosopher to go down into the cave of ignorance to help enlighten the rest of us. So the entire conversation of the Republic can be thought of as Socrates descending into the cave and trying to pull his companions up towards the truth.
As you can see, the first line tells us a lot about what’s coming. There was actually a story circulating in antiquity that after Plato died, someone found a wax writing tablet among his things with something like 10 different versions of this first line. Which shows that Plato had tried many possible combinations of these words until he arrived at this final version of the opening sentence. Now, most scholars today think this story was probably made up centuries later. But if it was made up, it’s precisely because people noticed how cleverly crafted this first sentence is. It sounds so casual, but therein lies its brilliance.
Besides the meticulous care with which every sentence of this work is crafted, the book is also full of what we might call Easter eggs. You know how certain movies have these little cool features that the director likes to hide throughout the film, and then die-hard fans will watch the movie dozens of times to find them all?
Well, the Republic is full of such Easter eggs. They are hard for us to spot, but audiences in Plato’s day would have been able to. Just to give you one example, again on the very first page. When Polemarchus and Adeimantus and company run into Socrates and Glaucon, Polemarchus makes a joke. He says, “Hey Socrates, do you see how numerous we are compared to you two? You better do as we say and come to my house.”
In other words, he’s making a joke about factionalism. During times of social harmony, such jokes may be funny. But to Plato’s audiences, this is a very dark joke. Because his audience knew, as we discussed last time, that Polemarchus himself, would later become the victim of the kind of factionalism he now makes light of. Plato’s audience would also know that this road from the Piraeus back to Athens is where, decades later, the Thirty Tyrants would be overthrown in a battle (the Battle of Munychia in 403 BC) and their leaders killed.
In response to Polemarchus’ joke, Socrates says, “What if we persuade you to let us go?” To which Polemarchus jests again, saying, “Can you persuade someone who refuses to listen?”
Again, it’s easy to read past this stuff and not think much of it. But how brilliant is this setup? That one question alone, sums up the essence of factional division. How do you persuade someone who refuses to listen? Not only does this Easter egg build up a dark sense of irony, it also subtly broaches the topic of factionalism, which will figure prominently throughout the entire dialogue. There are little Easter eggs like this all over the Republic, and unfortunately we don’t have time to go through them.
But when you think about just how much is going on on just this first page, with that carefully crafted first sentence and this encounter on the road, you’ll start to see why Plato is considered such a brilliant literary artist.
In conclusion, the first book is philosophically rich, is of a high literary quality, and acts as both an appetizer and a preview of the epic philosophical discussion to come. Moreover, since it is a little over an hour long, when read straight through, it is a great length for a public reading or performance.
Back in the day, a common way for authors to advertise and “publish” their work (before publishing houses existed) was to give public recitations of them. The entire Republic is obviously too long for that. More importantly, it probably would have been too controversial to perform publicly for reasons that we shall see. But this first book is the perfect sized, entertaining, and uncontroversial teaser for Plato to offer publicly in order to both attract new acolytes and filter out unreceptive audience members. Cause some listeners are going to find Socrates really annoying, they’re going to sympathize more with Thrasymachus. That’s one of the reasons I think Thrasymachus is there—to mirror the reactions of audience members who don’t like Socrates, and to give them something to relate to. Those people are probably not going to be interested in hearing more about Socrates.
But some audience members are going to appreciate Socrates’ approach, and they might go up to Plato after the reading, and say, “Hey, Plato, I love what you’re doing here. And I’m dying to hear more. Is there a way I can subscribe to your channel so that I never miss an episode?” And Plato might invite those people to a more intimate setting, like the very gathering in the house of Cephalus where this dialogue is imagined to have taken place, and the later books of the Republic might have been read aloud and discussed in such settings.
Of course, there’s no way to know any of this for sure. But, if you are feeling sympathetic to Socrates’ approach and would like to know what happens next, there is a way for you to subscribe to this channel so that we can explore the rest of the Republic together.
I know that I’ve kept you all waiting too long since episode R0, and I promise it won’t happen again. My wife and I just had a baby, and while parenthood turned out to be more joyful than I could’ve imagined, it also turned out to be way more time-consuming than I could have imagined. But the following episodes are dialogues with other scholars. They are already recorded and almost done being edited. So they will be coming out every two to three weeks, max, which should give you enough time to read each book, if you’re doing that, but also not keep you waiting too long between episodes.
If you have any questions as you read, please, send them in, and if I get enough, I’ll do a bonus Q&A segment. If you want to support the show, you know what to do. Subscribe, tell your friends about the show, or become a Patreon supporter at patreon.com/greecepodcast
In other news, my book is out. I’m a published author now. I can’t believe it. But anyway, I’ll tell you more about that later.
Until next time, in the words of Bill and Ted, be most excellent to each other.