Is it good to be just?

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Is it good to be just?

Surya K. Singh reviews the first book of Plato's Republic.

"...the guiding thread of the book remains correspondence between the inhabitants of the city and the parts of the soul," writes Surya K. Singh .

Political Thought or Political Philosophy studies questions of power, justice, rights, law, and other issues related to governance. While some believe that these concepts are static, political thought explores how they originated and to what effect. If one examines texts from Western political thought, authors can be observed posing difficult questions about the political community, social order, and human nature. To understand Western Political Thought one must explore how Plato, Machiavelli, and Rousseau responded, and how these philosophers contributed to the broader conversation about human needs, goods, justice, democracy, and the ever-changing relationship between the citizen and the state. Western political thought has served as a philosophical and ideological foundation for governments around the world, and at the zenith of this discipline lies the Republic. Since the mid-nineteenth century, the Republic has been Plato’s most famous and widely read dialogue. As in most other Platonic dialogues, the main character is Socrates.

Reading the Republic could be the most important intellectual experience you ever have! Every other work that has since been written is, in one way or another, a response to the Republic. The Republic provides a historical, social and cultural context to relate to contemporary political society.

The Republic by Plato, available online for free
The Republic by Plato, available online for free

The first and the most obvious thing to say about the Republic is that it is a long book, probably the longest work I’ve ever read. The first five books deal with the “Ideal City” ruled by “Philosopher Kings”. One might not be able to grasp its meaning on the first reading or even on the tenth if it is not approached with proper questions and a proper frame of mind. An understanding of the work can be developed sequentially by asking simple questions like, “What is the Republic about?”

Right from the beginning, one begins to question the domain of the book. Is it a book about justice? Or about moral psychology and right ordering of the human soul? Is it a book about the power of poetry and myth to shape our society or about metaphysics and the ultimate structure of being? The surface of things reveals the essence of things. At the surface, the Republic reveals that it is a dialogue, a work of literary drama. It is a work comparable in scope to other literary masterworks. It is something the author wants us to join, to be in this conversation by means of active participation in the dialogue that takes place in the book over the course of a single evening.

To make sense of all the broad ideas propounded and developed in the Republic, it is essential to understand the intent of the author. In the 7th letter of the Epistles , which can be read here , Plato talks about the reasons that compelled him to write the Republic. According to Plato, all the existing systems of control in ancient Greece were misgoverned, their laws in an almost incurable state. In his words, “true praise of philosophy is when it enables men to see what justice in public and private life really is,” and, “there will be no cessation of evils till either those who are pursuing a right and true philosophy receive sovereign power in the States, or those in power in the States by some dispensation of providence become true philosophers.” He expresses strong disapproval of the kind of life people were leading: the life of excess, which entailed eating to repletion twice every day and always having a partner for the night, among other habits which this manner of life produces. For if these habits were formed early in life, no man under heaven could possibly attain wisdom. No city could remain in a state of tranquility under any laws whatsoever when men think it right to squander all their property in extravagance and consider it a duty to be idle at everything except eating, drinking, and the laborious prosecution of debauchery. It follows necessarily that the constitutions of such cities must be constantly changing, tyrannies, oligarchies, and democracies succeeding one another, while those who hold the power cannot so much as endure the name of any form of government which maintains justice and equality of rights.

He presents a solution: the establishment of a harmonious city based on the conception of justice, where the individual and the society may achieve their best. He insists that the best city must be the one that produces the best individual, and no city will ever be free of conflict or strife unless Kings become Philosophers or Philosophers, the Kings. Plato provokes us to consider what a city would look like if it were ruled by Socrates or a philosopher like him. Hence, the Republic!

In the Republic, Plato moves on to present an extended argument in dramatic form over what might constitute the ideal polis, considering all aspects of governance, citizenship, social order, and personal virtue. Speaking through the character of his teacher Socrates, Plato's model of the ideal city-state mirrors the order of nature as based in his metaphysical Theory of Forms, famously articulated in the Republic (Book VII) through its Allegory of the Cave .

Plato's streamlined view of political and social life holds that the city-state should be governed by a ruler with philosophical training, capable of comprehending the true nature of reality, justice, and wisdom, and should be one in which one's place in society is determined by one's natural abilities.

The first book opens at Piraeus, a port of Athens some time around 411 AD. Socrates is returning home from a religious festival, at which a new goddess was introduced into the pantheon of deities, with his young friend Glaucon, one of Plato’s brothers. On the road, the three travelers are waylaid by Adeimantus, another brother of Plato, and the young nobleman Polemarchus, who asks them to stay. Socrates requests Polemarchus to excuse him, which Polemarchus refuses to do, saying that he won’t listen. Finally, Socrates agrees to take a detour to Polemarchus’s house, to dine with his aging father Cephalus, and others. The opening notion itself gives an idea of the belief system of Polemarchus, which is to rule by strength. On the other hand, Socrates and Glaucon represent reason and argument.

Socrates abruptly asks Cephalus about the feeling of being old and about his sexual urges, to which Cephalus responds by citing the merits of old age, stating that he is glad to have passed that phase, for he can engage in higher pursuits like offering sacrifices and prayers. Here, it is evident that while Cephalus is not a bad man by any means, he is perceivably unreflective. Using his striking question to Cephalus, Socrates targets the very embodiment of conventional opinion, and as the men banter, they begin to discuss the meaning of justice and what it means to be just. Socrates takes each idea apart and this sets the theme for the rest of the discussion. The primary questions that the men raise concern what justice is, and whether a person is happier if they are just.

Cephalus, a rich, well-respected elder of the city and host to the group, is the first to offer a definition of justice. Cephalus acts as spokesman for the Greek tradition; his definition of justice is an attempt to articulate the basic Hesiodic conception that justice means living up to your legal obligations, paying what you owe and being honest. Socrates defeats this formulation with a counterexample of returning a weapon to a madman. You owe the madman his weapon if it belongs to him legally, and yet this would be an unjust act, since it would jeopardize the lives of others. So it cannot be the case that justice is nothing more than honoring legal obligations and being honest.

At this point, Cephalus excuses himself to attend to some sacrifices, which appears to be a representation of banishing the conventional. His son Polemarchus takes over the argument for him and lays out a new definition of justice. To him, justice means owing help to friends and harm to enemies. Though this definition may seem different from that suggested by Cephalus, they are closely related. They share the underlying imperative of rendering to each what is due and of giving to each what is appropriate. This imperative will also be the foundation of Socrates’s principle of justice in the later books. Like his father, Polemarchus’s take on justice represents a popular strand of thought - the attitude of the ambitious young politician - whereas Cephalus’s definition represents the attitude of the established old businessman.

Socrates reveals many inconsistencies in this view. He points out that because our judgment concerning friends and enemies is fallible, this credo will lead us to harm the good and help the bad. We are not always friends with the most virtuous individuals, nor are our enemies always the scum of society. Socrates points out that there is some incoherence in the idea of harming people through justice.

Socrates attempts to define justice by challenging notions held by Cephalus and Polemarchus. He finds their notions wanting, but nonetheless, they hold that it is better for a person to be just than unjust. Thrasymachus challenges the assumption altogether - is it necessarily good to be just?

All this serves as an introduction to Thrasymachus, the Sophist. We have seen, through Socrates’s cross-examination of Polemarchus and Cephalus, that the popular thinking on justice is unsatisfactory. Thrasymachus shows us the nefarious result of this confusion: the Sophist’s campaign to do away with justice, and all moral standards, entirely. Thrasymachus, breaking angrily into the discussion, declares that he has a better definition of justice to offer. Justice, he says, is nothing more than the advantage of the stronger. Though Thrasymachus claims that this is his definition, it serves as more of a delegitimization of justice. He is saying that it does not pay to be just. Just behavior works to the advantage of other people, not to that of the person who behaves justly. Thrasymachus assumes here that justice is the unnatural restraint on our natural desire to have more. He adds that justice is a convention imposed on us, and it does not benefit us to adhere to it. The discussion concludes with Thrasymachus’s remark that the rational thing to do is ignore justice entirely. This also marks the end of the first book.

As observed, the guiding thread of the book remains correspondence between the inhabitants of the city and the parts of the soul. Cephalus, a businessman in pursuit of pleasures and money, represents the appetitive part of the soul whereas Polemarchus, meaning “warlord,” seems to be preoccupied with questions of honor and loyalty. To Polemarchus, justice is helping friends and harming enemies. He is a venerable paterfamilias, a patriot who defends honor above all and a clear representation of the spirited part of the soul. To the contrary, Thrasymacus portrays a cynical intellectual rivaling Socrates. His discussions with Socrates make the most interesting part of the entire book. He is a sophist who seeks to teach and educate, an apt representation of the rational soul. We do not find mention of Glaucon and Adeimantus in history apart from the Republic - in the book, Adeimantus appears hedonistic, and Glaucon, meaning “shining,” is the fiercer of the two.

Through the voice of his teacher Socrates, Plato defines what he considers the ideal forms of justice, leadership, social order, and philosophical discipline. At the same time, Plato tries to address the tension between the pursuit of individual self-perfection and public service.

Socrates and Plato (Source: Custom Wallpaper)
Socrates and Plato (Source: Custom Wallpaper )

Surya K. Singh is a voracious reader and an autodidact, pursuing his Masters in Statistics. He works as a Data Analytics Consultant and has published columns on on public policy, politics and philosophy among others.

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