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Topic #C27

Plato, Republic 327a-347a


9 November 2001
Scribes: Ben Gallagher and Lukasz Felczak


These minutes were spoken on 12 November;

for another version, go to the unspoken minutes



Prof. Hutchinson began his lecture by apologizing for tantalizing us with such a small portion of the Republic, adding that the Republic is the largest artifact of Greek philosophy found, as well as the most philosophically important. It inspired many imitations, such as Aristotle’s “On Justice,” and Zeno the Stoic’s rendition (also called Republic).    


         The professor said Zeno’s Republic was as weird as Plato’s, and then gave an example of exactly how strange the Republic was: Plato put forward the idea that the citizens of his city would partake in an annual mating ritual where all offspring in that year would be the daughters and sons of all the participants, and conversely the children would look to all the adults as their father and mothers. Aristotle objected to this scenario, as have many others.


         The Republic also outlines theories of social solidarity and equal treatment for women, but Plato should not be seen as the world’s first great feminist but rather as an equal-opportunity exploiter of everyone for the common good. This is not the modern view that everyone is equal and should have equal rights, but simply that the only locus of interest should be the community. In other words, Plato was a totalitarian. The word “totalitarian” has a bad reputation today, but Plato was not exposed to the awful applications of totalitarianism we have seen throughout history. As well, the Professor pointed out that there are gaps in modern libertarian theory, since a country cannot be run without accepting that environment and social climate are crucial, and that we are essentailly social creatures. Social contract theory simply doesn’t take that into account.


         Zeno’s Republic also contained strange ideas (that cannibalism was OK), but that these, like Plato’s, were intended to provoke discussion and to highlight presuppositions in the audience. Both Republic texts were fantasies, and cannot be said to contain only the serious views of their writers, since the shock value was as important as the attainment of truths about society.


         Prof. Hutchinson feels it is unfortunate we will be exposed only to small pieces of some works this year, but that this does have benefits, since Plato’s work is congenial to excerpting. Furthermore, we should not be discouraged if we do not get the hang of the Republic on our first reading or if we have read it already, because it is a book that is not easily exhaustible and multiple readings will expose new things.


         The main structural device of the first book of the Republic is best understood when compared to the Gorgias. In book 1 there is a lively discussion where ideas are advanced and rejected, and by the end there is a developed thesis. Books 2-9 take a fresh start at examining justice with a more collaborative and less argumentative style.


         The Republic uses a model to analyze justice, but the model goes not from small to large (micro to macro), but from large to small. It also supposes that justice in the soul of the individual has a relationship when applied to a community. A soul is in alignment when its sectors are both persuading and being persuaded, so too a community is in alignment when its proper sectors are persuading and being persuaded. Of course, this alignment is difficult; the best way to bring people to this state of balance is through education and laws, which develop the virtues of justice, wisdom, courage, and temperance. Even still, the people who succeed are a small portion of society, because the majority doesn’t have all 4 virtues in the correct proportion.  The people who do not succeed (the majority) play a subordinate role in society, while the leading roles are kept for the truly successful. There is also a guardian class that keeps the city safe, but they are a middle class, one which doesn’t have the internal balance of virtues necessary to rule.


         However, these classes are not hereditary (which is the main objection to serfdom or other caste systems). A hereditary class system underestimates the beneficial talents of the lower classes, and overestimates the capability of the upper class, to the detriment of society. So while Plato is a totalitarian, he does not support the creation of an aristocracy, but of a meritocracy. The radical class divisions are a result of merit, not of a belief in genealogical superiority.


         The Republic seems similar to communism, it was pointed out. Prof. Hutchinson agreed that the Republic has a focus on the community similar to communism, but that the main objection to communism is that it results in totalitarianism. The Professor stated that communism is in fact better than many systems, but what made it less successful was that it wasted the talents of people who are free. This is not the idea of freedom for all, simply the realization that public interest is best served when certain groups are left alone, for certain purposes.


         Another parallel with the Gorgias is that book 1 of the Republic also has a three-part structure with increasingly strident dissention. First we meet the old man Cephalus, followed by his son Polemarchus, and then finally Thrasymachus, who  enters the discussion like a lion ready to tear apart any opponent. He holds the opinion that everyone serves their own interests, and that is the way life has to be. In reply, Socrates brings forth several profound arguments, one of which is that the function of the human being is virtue, but Plato does not mean us to be satisfied by them. Evidence of this is the last comment at the end of book 1, where the discussion concludes:


“ … and so, Thrasymachus, injustice is never more profitable than justice.”

“ Let that be your banquet, Socrates, at the feast of Bendis.”

“ Given by you, Thrasymachus, after you became gentle and ceased to give me rough treatement. Yet I haven’ t had a fine banquet.  But that’s my fault not yours.  I seem to have behaved like a glutton, snatching at every dish that passes and tasting it before properly savoring its predecessor.  Before finding the answer to our first inquiry about what justice is, I let that go and turned to investigate whether it is a kind of vice or ignorance or a kind of wisdom and virtue.  Then an argument came up about injustice being more profitable than justice, and I couldn’t refrain from abandoning the previous one and following up on that.  Hence the result of the discussion, as far as I’ m concerned, is that I know nothing, for when I don’ t know what justice is, I’ ll hardly know whether it is a kind of virtue or not, or whether a person who has it is happy or unhappy.”


         The end of this dialogue is made to be unsuccessful, because it is really the prelude to books 2-9. In the first book we go as far as possible with Socratic dialogue, before Plato takes the time to investigate what virtue and justice are. The discussion in these later books is not angry, but leisurely, co-operative, and tolerant; Plato shows that books 2-9 are a superior philosophical model, the modern way to avoid Socratic dead ends. The professor pointed out that this is one of many interpretations, but that the Republic was analyzed this way in the ancient world.  Evidence of this is found in the short Platonic dialogue Clitophon.


Socrates:  We have recently been informed that Clitophon the son of Aristonymous, in discussion with Lysias, has been criticizing the conversations and speeches of Socrates, while greatly praising the instruction of Thrasymachus.

Clitophon:  Whoever told you that, Socrates, misrepresented what I said to Lysias about you.  Though it’ s true that I didn’ t praise you for some things, I did praise you for others.  (406)


 Clitophon:  Listen, then.  Socrates, when I was associating with you I was often struck with amazement by what you said.  You appeared to me to rise above all other men with your magnificent speeches when you reproached mankind and, like a god suspended above the tragic stage, chanted the following refrain:  “O mortals, whither are you borne?  Do you not realize that you are doing none of the things you should?!  You men spare no pains in procuring wealth for yourselves, but you neither see to it that your sons, to whom you are leaving this wealth, should know how to use it justly, nor do you find them teachers of justice (if justice can be taught), nor anybody to exercise and train them adequately (if it is acquired by exercise and training) nor indeed have you started by undergoing such treatment yourselves! … “ (407a-b)


[Clitophon:]  I dare say that I never objected nor, I believe, ever will object to these arguments, nor to many other eloquent ones like them, to the effect that virtue is teachable and that more care should be devoted to one’ s self than to anything else.  I consider them to be extremely beneficial and extremely effective in turning us in the right direction; they can really rouse us as if we’d been sleeping.” (408c)


[Clitophon:]  I came to the conclusion that while you’re better than anyone at turning a man towards the pursuit of virtue, one of two things must be the case: either this is all you can do, nothing more -- as might happen with any other skill … or you don’t wish to share it with me.  … For I will say this, Socrates, that while you’ re worth the world to someone who hasn’ t yet been converted to the pursuit of virtue, to someone who’ s already been converted you rather get in the way of his attaining happiness by reaching the goal of virtue.” (410b-e, tr. Gonzalez, in Plato: Complete Works)


         Clitophon claims there are no answers forthcoming from the Socratic dialogues, which is why he goes to Thrasymachus for knowledge (and thus the dialogue is a preface to the Republic). The majority of scholars feel that Clitophon was written by a follower of Plato, with the aim of presenting the idea that the Republic is an example of a new approach to philosophy. Book 1 invites us to ask what went wrong, books 2-9 show us how to go about things correctly. The other Platonic dialogues are simply preparation for a reading of the Republic.


         The professor then went on to discuss individual arguments in the Republic, one of the more fascinating embodied by the figure of Cephalus. He greets Socrates with respect, and Socrates in turn asks him what it is like to be old. What follows is a focussed attack on pleasure by Plato. Plato, through Cephalus, points out that in old age desires decline and people become more mellow, and furthermore that this is a virtue not a pain.


         The historical Cephalus came from a wealthy family that owned an  arms factory in Pyrrheus, but he says in the dialogue that wealth is an advantage only for paying off debts and making sacrifices, in order to ensure entry into the afterworld with an untroubled conscience. This calls for a comment, and Prof. Hutchinson read a part of a student’s position paper. The student wrote that she felt money and religion are complicated matters, and that Cephalus’s opinion that wealth and religion are linked is contrary to the Christian view that wealth is separate from faith.


         Plato wants Cephalus’s conception of justice to be seen as the shallowest view of justice, and that Polemarchus’s conception (justice is helping your friends and hurting your enemies) is the next shallowest. Xenophon attributes Polemarchus’s view to Socrates but Plato does not, and Prof. Hutchinson sides with Plato. He objects to the second half of the statement, that harming your enemies is necessary. It is not necessary to harm your enemies, simply to leave them alone, said the professor. This is not applied to strangers, so the end result is a 3-part maxim: help your friends, do your duty to strangers, and leave your enemies alone.


         A student then replied that we do not really leave our enemies alone, since we are part of a system that punishes criminals. Prof. Hutchinson replied that he is even against the collective punishing of criminals, but we must keep in mind when discussing justice that we are in the realm of ideals. There is no unified idea of justice, and the process of discussion walks a fine line between being progressive and abandoning reality.


         Thrasymachus then presents the next-shallowest view, that justice is self-expression. The first book concludes with a Socratic conception of justice: quality of the soul stands behind the ability to rule and control others. Plato doesn’t reject this idea entirely, but he doesn’t find it adequate either, which is why a new method of analysis is required (and which leads us to the rest of the Republic).