“If God is dead, then everything is permitted.” That is one of the most famous lines from the works of Fyodor Dostoevsky. At least that’s the most commonly quoted version in English. But a more accurate and fuller translation of the original Russian text is, “If there is no God and no afterlife, is everything permitted?” (Brothers Karamazov, Part 4, Book 11, Ch. 4) As you can see it’s not a declarative statement, but a question—one that torments several characters in Dostoevsky’s final and greatest novel, the Brothers Karamazov.

It’s also, as you’ll recall, one of the main questions that arises in Plato’s Republic. In book 2 of that work, Glaucon challenges Socrates to explain why people should be just, why they should behave morally, without recourse to religious arguments, without speaking about rewards or punishments in this life and the next. This question of whether the fear of God is necessary in order to motivate people to behave morally, has been asked on and off for thousands of years, and is still debated today.

So, what kind of answer does Socrates give? Well, the short answer is that he gives a very long answer. It will take him the next 8 books to expound in full. But he lays out the plan for his answer in book 2 of the Republic. We did an in-depth summary of that book in the last episode.

For today’s discussion, we are joined by Rachel Barney, professor of classics and ancient philosophy at the University of Toronto, and Canada Research Chair in ancient philosophy, who specializes in the work Plato and has spent many years analyzing and unraveling some of the key issues in the Republic. We will go through some of the major arguments of book 2 and try to answer some of the questions that were left unanswered in the previous episode.

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Scholarly works mentioned during the conversation

Rachel Barney. “Ring-Composition in Plato: the Case of Republic X,” in M. McPherran (ed.), Cambridge Critical Guide to Plato’s Republic. Cambridge University Press, 2010, 32-51.

Jonathan Lear. "Inside and Outside The Republic," in Phronesis, 1992. vol. XXXVII/2