Moral Conduct and Citizenship

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Analysis of Book One

Scene: 1990s American college core curriculum class in philosophy.

Players: Professor and students

Professor: Today I would like us to analyze the first book of Plato’s Republic. First of all, what does the title of the book suggest about the content of the book?

student: The book is  probably about representative government.

Professor : Not exactly, but the English word “Republic” does mean representative government . The title is misleading, for the Greek word is “politeia,” which means citizenship, the relation of the citizen to  the state, community, or government . Traditionally, the Republic is thought to contain Plato’s vision of the ideal society or government.[i]  Let’s keep all these different meanings in mind when interpreting the Republic, but for now let’s consider the book to be about ideal citizenship in an ideal community.

Please turn back to page 42 of this book to the critical reading guideline .

What is Plato’s main topic in Book One?

student: The nature of justice.

Professor: Yes.  In fact, later editors added the subtitle of “On the Just.” But, let’s look at the Greek word that is translated “justice”.”Dikaiosyne” can mean justice or righteousness. All translators, including      ours-Grube, use the word “justice” throughout the Republic, but it is  commonly agreed by scholars that the meaning of the Greek word is more closely related to what we would call morally right and good conduct.[ii] We tend to separate morality and justice in America and confine justice to the realm of law and morality to our individual lives, but the ancient Greeks did not make such a distinction, perhaps because they did not make the distinction we Americans do between public and private lives. The human self was a communal self.[iii] This wider moral context is crucial to how we interpret the discussion of justice.[iv]

Given this moral interpretation of justice, how would you reformulate the main topic of Book one?

student: The nature of morally right and good conduct.

Professor: Good.

What main question is asked in Book One?

student: What is the nature of morally right and good conduct?

Professor: Correct. How would you connect this question to the title of the whole book?

Student: Ideal citizenship in an ideal community is a matter of morally right and good conduct.

Professor: Very good. Plato will need to tell us why he thinks this is true.

What would you say Plato is doing, or is trying to accomplish in Book One?

Student: I’m not sure if he is telling a story about a conversation Socrates had with Cephalus: Polemarchus, and Thrasymachus, or whether he is inquiring into the implications of an idea.

How do we separate Plato from Socrates?

Professor: That is  an excellent question .Your question is known as the Socratic problem. The problem originates in the fact that Socrates did not write anything, or at least, none of his writings are extant, and of Plato’s 26 dialogues (his only extant works), Socrates, rather than Plato, is the main character in almost all of them. Thirteen letters of Plato are extant, but there is too much controversy among scholars concerning their authenticity to give us confidence that they were penned by Plato. Th e traditional view is that Plato put his own views in the mouth of Socrates.[v] Plato is inquiring into the implications of an idea through the dramatic personae of Socrates.

What is Socrates’ attitude towards the different characters?

student: He seems to be fatherly towards Glaucon and Adeimantus, but adversarial with Cephalus, Polemarchus, and Thrasymachus.

Professor: Yes he does. In fact, Glaucon and Adeimantus were Plato’s brothers and Socrates was a friend of the family. The adversarial style here is called the Socratic method. The Socratic method is like a lawyer’s cross-examination of a witness; in fact, the contemporary legal practice of cross-examination may have originated with Socrates. The lawyer can only ask yes or no questions of the witness, and the most effective cross-examination is a series of leading questions that lead the witness to contradict an earlier statement. If the witness contradicts herself, then her testimony is not credible. Socrates does the same thing with Cephalus, Polemarchus, and Thrasymachus, and it is called “elenchus” in the Greek.

What historical forces influenced Plato’s writing of the Republic?

First of all, there is some debate about when Book One of the Republic was written .  One scholar says that it was written around 375 B .C.E . (before the common era) when Plato was 52 as a statement of the curriculum of the Academy that Plato had founded in 386.[vi] (Historians use B.C.E. and C.E. now so that non-Christians will not feel estranged.) Another scholar says that it was written soon after 366 as a series of addresses to a secret society of elder Athenians.[vii] The issue of dating the composition of the Republic  is an interesting but lengthy subject that goes beyond the scope of the goals of the core curriculum. Suffice it to say, then, that the dating is based on stylometric (stylistic) considerations and comments in the works of other Greek writers. Let’s leave open the question of the date of the Republic.

A short historical context may provide some useful background for understanding the Republic.[viii]

750-500 B.C.E.-capricious Landed aristocracy/tyrants/Four-clans

507 B .C.E.- Kleisthenes established a democratic government in Athens

490 B .C.E.- Astonishing Athenian defeat of Xerxes’ army at Marathon

480 B.C.E.- Athenian defeat of Darius ‘navy at Piraeus, a port near Athens

480-428 B.C.E.- Prosperous Athenian Confederacy of Greek city­states (“polis”)

469 B .C.E .-Socrates ‘birth in Athens

427 B .C.E.-Plato ‘s birth in Athens

428-404 B.C.E.-Bloody Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta

412 B.C.E.-Athenians lost at Syracuse (kingdom of Sicily whom Plato Dionysius the Elder and the Younger,  both later visited to act as a political advisor)

404 B .C.E.-The Thirty Tyrants seized control of Athens and executed thousands of Athenians. Alcibiades, an associate of Socrates and Critias, Plato’s uncle was among them.

403 B.C.E.-Democracy was restored.

399 B.C.E.-Socrates was executed for corrupting the youth and atheism.

387 or 369 B.C.E.-Founding of the Academy as a school for statesmen

380 or 366 B .C.E.-Republic

367 B.C.E.-Plato’s First Visit to Dionysius the First in Syracuse to advise him on politics

364 B.C.E.-Aristotle came to study at the Academy at 20 years of age.

361B .C.E.-Plato’s Second Visit to Dionysius   the Younger in Syracuse to advise him on politics

347 B.C.E.-Plato ‘s death in Athens

Also, a  familiarity with the sophists and pre-Socratic philosophers will help us understand the historical milieu behind Socrates ‘ cross-examination of  Thrasymachus. Thrasymachus was a sophist (“sophistes” – one who professed to make men wise) . Sophists were itinerate professional teachers who arose in Greece during the fifth century B.C.E. to teach young Greek men the art of political eloquence, which, they taught, would help the young men of Greece secure political and legal power and wealth.

The pre-Socratic philosopher s Thales, Democritus,  and Pythagoras had developed different theories about the nature of the physical universe and different theories about the supreme good in life worth pursuing. For       sophists  like Thrasymachus, Protagoras, and Gorgias, the  different physical theories of the philosophers about nature (“physis”-physics), the good in life (“ethikos”-ethics), and the different moral and political customs among the various cultures of the Mediterranean implied that knowledge of physics and ethics was impossible. So, the sophists taught that a life dedicated to the theoretical researches of the philosophers was futile, but a practical life dedicated to financial success through political eloquence was not. The traditional interpretation of Socrates and Plato in relation to the sophists is that they challenged the skepticism of the sophists-Socrates with  his own kind of skepticism and Plato with his confident belief in eternal moral truth.[ix]

What is the main answer to the main question (conclusion) of Book one?

student: No adequate definition of morally right and good conduct (justice) has been given yet by Cephalus, Polemarchus, or Thrasymachus.

Professor: Very good. Book One is an example of an inconclusive Socratic dialogue, which is part of the evidence that Book One is closer to the philosophy  of the historical Socrates than Plato. Many of the other dialogues of Plato end this way, that is, they display the Socratic ignorance that results from the practice of the Socratic method. The typical form of a Socratic philosophical question is “What is X?” Socrates does not know, and he will cross­ examine those who claim to know. However, all Socratic dialogues end in frustration, for nobody’s answers are adequate.

What was Cephalus ‘answer?

student: Morally good conduct is speaking truth and repaying debts.

Professor: Exactly. Where does he say that?

student: On page 5 near the bottom.

Professor: Yes. Notice the letters and numbers in the margins. Those are called Stephanie numbers. Stephanus was a Renaissance translator who numbered each of the pages, sections, and lines of Plato’s dialogues . It is customary to refer to passages in Plato’s dialogues by Stephanie numbers. Cephalus answers Socrates question at page 331, section c, lines 1-3 (331cl-3) .

What did Socrates find wrong with Cephalus ‘answer?

student: He created a hypothetical situation in which telling the truth and repaying debts would not be morally right. If your neighbor asked you to keep his weapons for him, but asked for them back when he was enraged; it would be morally wrong to tell him you still had them and give him the weapons because he may kill someone with them.

Professor: Good. The first reason in support of the main point or conclusion of Book One is that the first definition of “justice” is inadequate . The critical thinking move of Socrates here is called finding a counter-example. When someone makes a general claim, such as “Justice is telling the truth and repaying debts”, if there are cases of telling the truth or repaying debts that we would normally not consider just (counter-examples), then the general claim is false.

The answer to Socrates ‘”what is X?” question takes the form of a definition: A=B, that is, everything in the class of objects represented by A are members in the class of objects represented by B and conversely. So, if there is one member of B that is not in A or one member of A that is not in B, then the definition is inadequate. Just acts are acts of telling the truth and repaying debts, and acts of telling the truth and repaying debts are just acts. But, Socrates noted that he could think of an act of telling the truth and repaying a debt that would not be just. Thus, in this weapons counter-example, a just act would be to not tell the truth and not repay a debt, for that would save a life. So, at most, Cephalus’ definition captures some cases of just acts but not all of them.

What is the second reason Plato offers us in Book One that his discussion partners don’t have an adequate definition of “justice”?

student: Polemarchus’ definition that just conduct is benefitting friends and harming enemies .

Professor: Good. Where is that?

student: 332d5-6.

Professor: Precisely. Notice that this definition is a clarification of  what is owed to a  person, for Polemarchus at 331e4 quoted a definition by an authoritative poet Simonides that justice is giving to each what he is owed, what is proper to him, what is his due. Clarification and precision are qualities of good thinking, especially in ethical decision making.

Does Socrates find a counter-example here?

student: Not really.

Professor : Does he cross-examine Polemarchus with yes or no questions that lead him into contradictions of common sense?

student: Yes

Professor:  How?

student: First, Socrates uses analogies between moral living and medicine, cooking, and navigation. The physician’s craft owes health to patients, cooks owe tasty food to customers, and pilots owe safety to passengers. Polemarchus clarifies the definition of the poet by saying that the just man is best able to benefit friends and harm enemies in times of war, but Socrates draws-out the logical implication that the just man an issue less in peace time, which, of course, contradicts common sense.

Professor: Please continue.

student: Next, Socrates draws analogies between just living and farming and cobbling, which are, he claims, useful crafts in peace time. It is unclear to me how just or moral living is a craft.

Professor: You are getting ahead of the steps in our reading guideline, but you have detected an assumption that will require some evaluation later. Analysis (interpretation) and evaluation are two separate critical thinking moves, and it is okay to notice assumptions right away, but let’s postpone the evaluation of this assumption until we finish analyzing Book One.

student: Then Polemarchus blurts out that the craft of just conduct, like other crafts, helps people in matters of contracts between people, or dealings with people. Socrates continues to seek clarification by contrasting the crafts of playing checkers or building to the craft of morally good conduct until Polemarchus finally commits himself to money matters as the specific dealing in which the· just person is best equipped to practice his craft.

Professor: Please continue with your summary of the argument . You’re doing very well.

student: Socrates presses him to be even more specific, and Polemarchus asserts that justice helps one keep money safe, that is, justice is useful in money matters when money is not being used (333dl), which again leads to the conclusion that justice is not very important, which again contradicts common sense.

Why does Socrates keep pressing him so hard?

Professor: He is testing the adequacy of Polemarchus ‘answers in search of the knowledge of just and moral conduct. He does seem to be somewhat cold and insensitive, and some scholars have noted this tone of harshness in Socrates.[x] The Greeks were not noted for their kindness; it was the later philosophy of Jesus that put an emphasis on loving kindness. Socrates was seeking intellectual consistency, clarity, and comprehensiveness, not warm personal relations. However, he was executed, in part, for this goal.

Instead of quitting on the same point already made earlier, Socrates moves on to another weak point in Polemarchus’ conception of justice. Socrates draw further analogies between just living as keeping money safe and boxing and guarding a camp. Those who are capable of protecting something are capable of stealing it. So, Socrates infers, that ultimately giving to people what is owed them leads to the absurdity that justice is the craft of thieving (334b4). Polemarchus won’t abandon his definition, though.

What is Socrates’ support for the premise that those capable of protecting something are capable of stealing it?

student: The support is not explicit, but if I were to fill it in for him I would say he probably assumes that a good defender is knowledgeable in the moves of the offense.

Professor: Very good. We sometimes have to speculate about a writer’s rationale for a statement . There is a principle called the principle of charity that should guide us doing so. The principle states that when interpreting a writer, we should try to be as fair and honest as possible about presenting their views in the way in which they really hold them.

Would someone pick up the thread of the argument at this point?

student: Regarding Polemarchus’ conception of justice as benefiting friends and harming enemies, Socrates gets Polemarchus to admit that we can make mistakes about who our friends or enemies are. So, it is possible that we might harm friends and benefit an enemy, which would be unjust. Of course, Polemarchus won’t accept this either, and so he qualifies his definitions by saying that it is just to benefit those we know are just and to harm those we know are wrong doers.

Professor: Yes, but then Socrates raise as searching questions about whether it is ever right to harm anyone for any reason? His argument runs like this. Harming someone, whether horse, dog, or human, makes them worse, for it destroys something in them. Justice cannot make someone worse, for it is an excellence of conduct, and no excellence of conduct can make anyone worse. Thus, justice cannot harm anyone, even known wrong doers. Moreover, since justice, according to Socrates’ assumptions through this passage in Book One, is a craft, and no craft harms anyone, then justice does not harm anyone.

What crafts does Socrates cite as examples of crafts that do not harm anyone?

student:  Musicianship and horsemanship.

Professor : Exactly. At this point, Polemarchus accepts Socrates’ refutation of his interpretation of Simonides’ saying and agrees with Socrates that just and moral people never harm anyone, whether friend or enemy.

Before passing onto Thrasymachus’ bombastic interruption of the dialogue with Socrates, I would like to say a few things about two forms of reasoning that Socrates employed with Polemarchus: reasoning from analogy and reductio ad absurdum.

Reasoning from analogy is inductive reasoning in which one concludes that something we don’t know very well probably has a property because it is like something else that we know fairly well and has that same property.

The structure of an inductive argument from analogy looks like this.

Premise One: A is like B because X similarity.

Premise Two: B has Y attribute.

Conclusion: Therefore, A probably has Y attribute.

The “Y” attribute is the attribute the arguer is trying to apply to “A”, the subject under discussion.

This kind of reasoning is used extensively by Socrates because in matters like ethics, where there is so much controversy inferences based on comparisons to things we know fairly well are as about as good as we can do.

A reductio ad absurdum argument is an argument that reduces another argument to an absurdity. In other words, if one can demonstrate that a false statement follows from the original assertion, then the original assertion is false. Nothing false follows from a true statement . Aristotle said somewhere that every statement is really a collection of several statements. This means that one can deduce with certainty what else has to be true if the original statement is true, and if those other statements are not true, then the original statement must be false. This form of reasoning is valid deductive reasoning, for the conclusion must follow given the premises.

Are there any key terms or assumptions in the dialogue so far that we need to note? In other words, are all the central concepts and underlying beliefs or values clear so far?

student: The concept of justice is unclear .

Professor: Yes, besides that though?

student: The assumption that just conduct is a craft is a big assumption . I don’t normally think of a morally good person as someone who practices a craft.

Professor :Yes, that is a major assumption so far that we will need to evaluate next class period.

Are there any other beliefs or values  that underlie  Socrates’ philosophizing thus far?

student: Yes, he seems to presuppose that is okay if not desirable to question traditional  beliefs.

Professor: Okay, let’s note that as an assumption that we will need to critique next time, too.

Who would like to take up the explication of the speeches of Thrasymachus the sophist?

student: I will. Thrasymachus castigates Socrates for only asking questions, which is easier than offering views of his own.

Professor: Yes, Thrasymachus was very distressed by Socrates’ usual irony, as he put it. Socrates was famous for his ironic statement that he did not know the nature of some moral concept, like morally right conduct, and then proceed to draw out numerous consequences and presuppositions from the statements of  others.

student: Socrates will not be ridiculed into making speeches, and after Plato ‘s brother Glaucon offered to pay Thrasymachus for his speech, Thrasymachus states his belief about the proper definition of “dikaiosyne .” Justice is the advantage of the stronger (338cl- 2). Thrasymachus is noticeably irritated by Socrates’ query about whether or not the strength here is physical strength. The strength he has in mind is political strength, and so justice is the advantage of the government in power. In other words, governments make laws to their own advantage, and just conduct is obedience to laws.

Professor: Then Socrates observes that rulers make mistakes, and thus they sometimes make laws that are not to their own advantage. This point would seem to have decisively refuted Thrasymachus, but Thrasymachus petulantly counters that a craftsman never makes a mistake when practicing his craft but only when he forgets his skill  340e-4). Socrates acquiesces and shifts to another line of reasoning   in  which  he  secures   Thrasymachus’ assent  to   the proposition that  the  purpose of a craft  is to   secure what  is advantageous  (34ld7) and  to the  proposition  that  a  craft  is practiced for the advantage of its object  of concern   (342b5). Socrates adroitly argues from the analogy between the art of the ruler and the art of the horse trainer, physician and sea captain  to the conclusion that the   ruler serves the interest of the subject, for the horse is weaker than the horse  trainer,  the patient is weaker than the physician ·and the sailors are weaker than the sea captain. In other words, Socrates shows that justice is the exact opposite of what Thrasymachus says it is since all crafts serve the interests of the weaker, and justice is a craft (“techne”), it follows that justice serves the interests of the weaker (343al-2) .

What was Thrasymachus trying to do?

student: He was trying to show everybody his wisdom.

Professor :What was Socrates’attitude towards him?

student: He seemed humble and sincerely willing to learn.

Professor: Was Socrates’refutation of Thrasymachus meant by Plato to be another reason to support the main conclusion of Book One that there is no adequate conception of just living?

student: Yes.

Professor: Are there any key terms we need clarified?

student: Yes, I’m not really sure what “the weaker” means.

Professor: Good. Any others?

student: Yes, I would like some clarification of what is involved in a craft.

Professor :Good point. Socrates’premise about justice is a craft needs further support too, which we will also examine when we evaluate what he means by a craft . We’ll come back to the concept of a craft next class period when we evaluate Book One.

Now, there is an abrupt change in the theme of Book One from 343a to the end of Book One when Thrasymachus berates Socrates for being naive about justice.The shift is from the nature of justice to the question of whether or not the just or the unjust life is the best life of the citizen. This is a major question in ethics, a major branch of philosophy, and a major question in life.

Thrasymachus uses a counter-analogy to cast doubt on Socrates’ analogy between doctors and rulers by noting that cowherders and sheepherders don’t care about the interests of the sheep or cows-­ they only care about the money they can make from them.  Counter­ analogies are strong ways of casting doubt on somebody’s analogy. They take the     farm  of comparing the  subject under discussion (ruling) and comparing it to  something else (sheepherding and cowherding) that leads to the opposite conclusion of the original argument (Ruling is not to the advantage of the weaker.) Use this method of reasoning when you want to show that somebody’s premise or  conclusion  is weak.

Thrasymachus, though, seems to concede the argument to Socrates. Justice may be to somebody else’s advantage, but injustice is to one’s own advantage. “…(T]he just is everywhere at a disadvantage to the unjust.” (343d4) The unjust person makes more money than the just in everyday contracts, the unjust person pays fewer taxes, and the unjust person takes advantage of public office when he is in it.

Socrates recapitulates the argument before launching into the new question, and he adds one more argument in defense of his counter­ argument that justice is not to the advantage of the stronger. Thrasymachus won’t accept   Socrates’ assertion  that  no  one  is willing to rule. (345e3) Then, Socrates offers an interesting argument that if rulers ruled willingly, they would not ask for pay, but they do. So, rulers do not rule willingly.

Notice the form of this argument. If W stands for the statement “Rulers rule willingly” and P stands for the statement “Rulers would not ask for pay,” then the logical structure of the argument would be:

If W, then P.

P is false.

Therefore, W is false.

Socrates claims that this conclusion follows necessarily from the premises. In other words, he thinks that this is a logically valid deductive argument. A  logically valid deductive argument is a deductive argument in which,  if the  premises are true,  the conclusion must be true. We will evaluate this claim next time. This particular argument form has the Latin name: Modus Tollens, the denying mode of the hypothetical  syllogism. A hypothetical syllogism is a deductive argument form that is composed of two premises, one of which is an  “If-then” statement (hypothetical statement), and one conclusion. The analysis of arguments into their logical structure is one of the activities studied in another branch of philosophy-logic.

As you will recall from page 31, critical thinking skills involve analysis, interpretation, evaluation, inference, explanation, and self-monitoring skills. In order to justify one’s analysis, interpretation, and so on, one needs to offer a supporting argument. Identifying, analyzing, evaluating, and constructing arguments is a crucial skill in critical thinking. An argument is a set of at least two propositions (statements that are either true or false), one of which {the premise) is claimed to provide support for the other proposition (the conclusion).

Please turn to A.3 in the Reading Guideline. There are two kinds of arguments: deductive  and  inductive. The  pivotal  concept  in  a deductive argument is deductive support, and the pivotal concept in an inductive argument is probable support. When someone offers a deductive argument, they think they have proven their conclusion beyond a shadow of a doubt . But when someone gives an inductive argument, they  think they have  proven their   conclusion either beyond a reasonable doubt or by the preponderance of the evidence. I am using legal language here because it will not only help you understand these two kinds of arguments, but it may help you when you sit on a jury someday.

The science of logic has been very important in the development of European and American law and science . So a knowledge will not only help you in critically analyzing and evaluating arguments, but it will give you an appreciation for the structure and spirit of science and law.

Socrates digresses to discuss the good man’s motives for ruling.


Does the good man rule for the money?

student: No.

Professor: Why not?

student: The love of money is shameful.

Professor: Where is that said?

student: 347bl-2.

Professor: Good. Why do you think the love of money was shameful in ancient Greece? It surely isn’t today.

student: The love of money sounds selfish and low-minded.

Professor: Elaborate, please.

student: Money is paper or metal and is used to purchase things for oneself . The love of money is not as high-minded as justice and service to others, for its focus is on material things and the self.

Professor: Yes.Why does the good man rule, according to Socrates.

student: The good man rules because it is demeaning to be ruled by somebody worse than you are.

Professor: Worse in what way?

student: Character.

Professor :Where is that?

student: 347c6.

Professor: Why do you think Socrates said this?

Student: Because character was more important than money?

Professor :I think you’re right .At 347e3-4 Socrates plainly states his conviction that the just life is to be preferred to the unjust life. Is Socrates linking character with justice?

student: Yes.

Professor: In what way?

student: A just person has a good character, and a person with a good character is a just person.

Professor: That makes sense. Socrates now begins to praise the just life through his cross-examination of Thrasymachus. What is the first main point that is made?

student: At 349cl-6, Socrates gets Thrasymachus to agree that the just man tries to outdo, or do better than, the unjust man, but does not try to do better than the just man. And the unjust man tries to outdo, or do better than, both the just and the unjust man.

Professor: Excellent. Grube, our translator, translates the Greek term “pleonekteo” into the English phrase “overreach”. Better yet, the Greek word means “to gain some advantage over another. ” What, then, does this mean with reference to the just and unjust  man?

student: The just man tries to gain an advantage over the unjust man because the just man does not want the unjust man to be victorious. But the just man will not try to gain an advantage over another just man, for all that matters is that the right thing be done. on the other hand, the unjust man only cares for himself, and so he tries “to gain the upper hand” with everybody, just or unjust.

Prof essor: Precisely. The Greek word “pleonekteo” also means “to take more than a fair share of something. Therefore, the just man does not try to take more than a fair share of something, but the unjust man does.

Next, Socrates has Thrasymachus generalize this specific point about grasping for power over somebody. “The just man does not try to get the better of one like him but of one unlike him, whereas the unjust man overreaches the like and the unlike.” (349cl0-ll)

Then, Socrates has Thrasymachus agree that just people are more like experts than unjust ones because experts do not try to outdo other experts, while non-experts do. This sets up the conclusion that the just person resembles the good and wise, while the unjust person resembles the bad and ignorant since experts have knowledge and knowledge is good, and the non-experts do not have knowledge and are not good. Since knowledge and goodness are virtues, and ignorance and badness are vices, justice is virtue and injustice is vice. (350d3-4)

Socrates sets out to demonstrate the opposite of Thrasymachus’ position,  i.e., justice  is stronger than  injustice . This  is a powerful form of argumentation which lawyers, and scholars use quite regularly. How does he begin his demonstration?

(Notice that philosophy is like mathematics; they both attempt to demonstrate the truth of propositions .)

student: He shows that justice causes friendship, while injustice causes fights.

Professor: How does this prove that justice is stronger than injustice?

student: One can accomplish more when one is on friendly terms with people than one can when one is fighting with them.

Professor: Yes, people work together when they are on friendly terms, for they are of one purpose, but don’t work together when they are fighting, for they are at cross-purposes. (Notice at 35le5 that the just person can even be at odds with oneself . This is important for later when, in Book Four, Plato gives us his own unique conception of justice as an inner harmony of parts.)

Socrates even forces Thrasymachus into an unflattering conclusion that the unjust person is an enemy of the gods. Does anybody see how he got there?

student: The gods are just, and the unjust person is an enemy of justice.

Professor: Yes, those are the premises, or support, for that conclusion. The final section of Book One is dedicated to the question of whether the just life is better than the unjust life.

What is the central concept around which Socrates’ argument turns?

student: Function.

Professor: Excellent.Function (“ergon”) in the Greek means “work.” A thing’s “ergon” is what a thing does, as distinguished from other things. Socrates clarifies what he means by “ergon” through analogies to eyes, ears, and knives by saying that seeing, hearing, and cutting are their respective functions. In general, “…the function of each thing is to do that which it alone can perform, or perform better than anything else could.

How does Socrates apply this conception of “ergon” to the question under discussion?

student: The function of the soul is life.

Professor: Yes, and because everything has its own characteristic excellence, life has its own characteristic excellence, namely, justice. The word in Greek for “excellence” is “arete”. A thing’s excellence is the perfection of its function.

How is justice the excellence of the  soul?

student: I don’t know.

Professor: I don’t see where Plato provides support for this assumption. We will have to come back to this point next time when we evaluate his arguments.

He goes on to say that the just person lives well, which entails that he will be happy and the unjust person unhappy. And if the just person is happy and the unjust person unhappy, then justice is better than injustice.

Book One ends with Socrates’ characteristic ignorance. He still does not know what justice is, and he has acted like a glutton in his “feast of words” and been distracted from the original question of the dialogue to discuss another question. If he does not know what justice is, he cannot really know that the just life is superior to the unjust life. If this is true, then why did he allow the discussion to be diverted to another question? We will take this question up next time.

How does Book One on just conduct connect to citizenship, the theme of the Republic?

Student: A good citizen is a person who is just in his or her conduct.

Professor: I agree. The focus of Book One is on just conduct, and so just conduct has got to be central to citizenship. Plato doesn’t talk in terms of personal responsibility, but do you think he would say that a citizen has a moral responsibility to be a just person?

Student: Yes.

Professor: Why?

student: He thinks that crafts, like the art of ruling, are for the benefit of the people and that just people accomplish more than unjust people, which implies taking responsibility.

Professor Yes.  Benefiting  others cooperating    with others for  a common without taking personal responsibility community.

That ends our analysis of Book One. Apply the questions in the critical reading guideline on pages 43-45 to the arguments, assumptions, and central concepts of Book One for next time.

See you then.



[i] Allan Bloom translates “politeia” as regime or government, and he interprets “0”or “the”, as ideal; so, for Bloom, Plato ‘s Republic is about the ideal government. Another dialogue of Plato’s, the Timaeus, opens with a summary of the Republic in which Socrates describes what he calls his ideal society. Another dialogue, the Critias, contains a description of a supposedly ancient city that was like the city in the Republic. So, from the Timaeus and the Critias, we see the source of the traditional picture of the Republic as a vision of the ideal society.

[ii] “. . . [R]ight or wrong, good or bad, conduct is what Plato is talking about.” R.C. Cross and A.D. Woozley in Plato’s Republic: A Philosophical Commentary (NY: Macmillan, 1964), vi. “I shall use “justice” and “just” merely as counters for “dikaiosyne” and “dikaios”, whose sense is so much broader: they could be used to cover all social conduct which is morally right.” Gregory Vlastos, “Justice and Happiness in the Republic,” Plato: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Gregory Vlastos, (NY: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1971),  66.

[iii] “Hence it is evident that the state is a creation of nature, and that man is by nature a political animal.” Aristotle,  The Politics, translated and edited by W. D. Ross, (Oxford: Oxford University  Press,  1925), 1129.

[iv] Cross and Woozley confirm this wider interpretation . “. . .'[J]ustice’hs to be understood in a fundamentally moral, not a legal, sense, and in an unrestricted moral context .” Ibid., vi.

[v] Frederick Coppleston presents a summary of the Socratic problem in the 1950s. A History of Philosophy: Greece and Rome, (Westminster, Maryland: The Newman Press, 1957), 99-104. A recent work by famed Plato scholar Gregory Vlastos, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Princeton University and the University of California at Berkeley, supports the traditional view. He argues that Plato is scrutinizing philosophical ideas through Socratic methods and theories, but shifts to his own more didactic methods when he develops his own theories . Gregory Vlastos, Socrates : Ironist and Moral Philosopher, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991), 50.

[vi] Desmond Lee, former President of Hughes College, Cambridge University, makes this point in the introduction to his translation of the Republic. Plato, Republic. translated by Desmond Lee, (Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, Inc., 1974), 19.

[vii] Ryle, Plato ‘s Progress, 249.

[viii]This chart has been culled from Desmond Lee ‘s excellent overview of the historical context of Plato’s life in his introduction to his Penguin translation and supplemented with information in Robert Lamm, Neal Cross, Dale Davis, The Humanities in Western Culture, (Dubuque, Iowa: Wm.c. Brown Publishers, 1988), 58-62.

 [ix] For further discussion of the relation of Socrates to the sophists see W.K.C. Gutherie, The Greek Philosophers : from Thales to Aristotle, (NY: Harper & Row Publishers, 1960), 63-80. Arieti,  in his recent book, Interpreting Plato: the Dialogues as Drama, argues that the dialogues are an advertisement to the parents of the young men and women of Greece of the kind of instruction available at the Academy [7]. This interpretation is consistent with the traditional interpretation of the contest between Socrates and the sophists, and it adds further insight into the competitivene ss we observe between Thrasymachus and Socrates in Book One.

[x] Gregory Vlastos makes this point in an essay entitled “The Philosophy of Socrates.”

Also available are “Plato’s Republic in the Core Curriculum,” “Learning Goals and Teaching Methods for Exploring the Republic,” “Writing Exercises and the Republic,” and “The Philosopher as Citizen.”

This is republished from Plato’s Republic and the Core Curriculum: Critical Thinking, Moral Education, and Citizenship. Jon Avery. Lamar, Texas: University of Lamar Press, 1990.

Jon Avery

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Dr. Jon Avery is a retired lecturer in philosophy and religious studies from Bluegrass Community and Technical College in Lexington, Kentucky and a former secretary-treasurer of the American Association of the Advancement of Core Curriculum. He is also a co-author of Towards a Spiritual Humanism (1991) and a co-editor of Ways of Knowing: Selected Readings (Kendall Hunt 2000).