Plato’s “Republic” Raises the Question What is Justice Analysis

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Book 1 of Plato’s Republic explores the concept of justice and examines four different perspectives. The first view suggests that justice entails speaking the truth and fulfilling one’s obligations. The second perspective argues that justice involves assisting friends and harming enemies. The third viewpoint posits that justice serves the interests of the powerful. Lastly, there is the belief that injustice is more financially beneficial than justice.

The book starts with the explanation that during that time, numerous Athenians are celebrating the arrival of a new goddess in the city of Piraeus. On their way back from the festivities, Socrates and his companion, Glaucon, are spotted by Polemarchus. Polemarchus insists that they join him and his friends at his home for a conversation, and Socrates agrees, unable to resist discussing philosophy with a group of noble young individuals.

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Cephalus, the father of Polemarchus, is present. Socrates notices his advanced age and wants to inquire about the difficulties of growing old. Cephalus shares that he is happy to have left behind the all-consuming bodily pleasures and is now content. He further adds that his ability to enjoy old age is dependent on his good character. Socrates then questions whether Cephalus believes that his ease in enduring old age stems from his wealth. Is acquiring wealth the most important aspect of life? Socrates, who chooses to be poor, suggests that people like Cephalus often overlook the circumstances enabling their way of life. Cephalus acknowledges that his wealth allows him to lead a balanced life. He does not need to deceive others or be indebted to any god or individual. Socrates proceeds to ask if Cephalus means that justice solely involves truthfulness and fulfilling one’s debts. Cephalus confirms this as his stance. Thanks to his wealth, he can die with satisfaction, having fulfilled his responsibility of providing for his family after death. Hence, for Cephalus, justice aligns with self-interest and corresponds with the city’s laws and traditional religious beliefs.

According to Socrates, Cephalus’ notion of justice is flawed because it does not account for situations where truth-telling or debt repayment may not be appropriate.

Suddenly, Cephalus abruptly announces his departure, explaining that he still has debts to pay to the gods. He declines engaging in a philosophical debate due to the potential risks it poses to his own beliefs.

Socrates employs a casual tone and simple language that belies the complex and elevated ideas he presents. This tactic engages young men in conversation by feigning ignorance and allows Socrates to reveal their lack of true knowledge. Moreover, the casual tone aligns with truth and wisdom.

After Cephalus departs, the conversation takes a more serious and intricate turn. Polemarchus continues his father’s argument, although he diverges from his father’s focus on justice in religious matters. Polemarchus relies on sources other than gods or laws to support his views. He cites a line from a poet that suggests justice is about “giving every man his due.” Socrates expresses uncertainty about the poet’s meaning and asks for clarification on what is considered due and to whom it is owed. While Socrates understands the functions of fields like medicine and cooking, he is unsure about the function of justice. Polemarchus proposes that justice entails benefiting friends and harming enemies. Socrates challenges this assertion by asking Polemarchus to expound on how exactly justice can be both helpful and harmful. Through a series of leading questions – such as whether a just person is more useful than a farmer in crop production or a builder in constructing houses – Socrates guides Polemarchus to the conclusion that justice must be useless. Socrates then suggests that, based on Polemarchus’ argument, justice appears to be a craft practiced by those who are adept at safeguarding unused possessions like money and property, which ironically positions them to be the most skilled thieves. In this view, justice seems to serve the interests of one’s friends.

Polemarchus disagrees with Socrates’ conclusion. Socrates suggests that maybe Polemarchus’ issue is a lack of understanding of the meaning of “friend.” Polemarchus responds by stating that friends are individuals whom we perceive as good and beneficial to us. Socrates questions whether it is possible for us to be mistaken about identifying our friends and enemies. If this is the case, we may end up helping or harming the wrong people, which would not be just. Therefore, there is a contradiction since justice can both assist and harm friends. In response, Polemarchus declares that a friend is someone who is good.

Socrates argues that it cannot be considered just to harm anyone, as justice is believed to be a virtue of character. According to Socrates, neither human nor horse excellence is achieved through destructive means. The function of justice is to improve human nature and is a form of goodness that does not partake in anything harmful. Socrates employs his Socratic method, a technique of questioning and answering, to ascertain the definition of justice. Through this method, Socrates and his interlocutor reach a better understanding by refining their definitions together. However, the flaw of this method is that it assumes Socrates will find the correct answer, which may not always be the case, as seen in the question of justice. While Socrates successfully challenges Thrasymachus’ belief that justice is determined by the stronger, he does not arrive at a definitive conclusion regarding justice.

Thrasymachus accuses Socrates and Polemarchus of engaging in nonsensical questioning and answering. Thrasymachus questions why Socrates doesn’t simply state his beliefs directly. Thrasymachus prefers to give uninterrupted lengthy speeches and views any other teaching method as a sign of weakness. Socrates admits to feeling fear and trepidation in response to Thrasymachus’ outburst. Socrates then convinces Thrasymachus to share his perspective on justice, but only after Thrasymachus demands payment for his knowledge. The young men provide the necessary funds.

According to Thrasymachus, justice is defined as the advantage of the “stronger”. In normal circumstances, robbery and violence are deemed as acts of “injustice”. However, when rulers engage in these actions on a large scale, they are considered as acts of justice, serving the interest of the stronger, which is the rulers themselves. Consequently, when considering ordinary citizens, the just man always fares worse than an unjust man in every situation. It is evident that the rulers themselves do not adhere to the principles they impose on their citizens, hence they can be labeled as “unjust”. Both Socrates and Thrasymachus concur that the stronger are those who rule and establish laws, and being just is advantageous. Nevertheless, they hold differing opinions on who benefits from being just. Does it benefit the just man himself or does it benefit the ruler who determines what is just or unjust? Socrates asserts that if the weak can successfully prevent the strong from taking what they desire or prevent someone from becoming a tyrant, then they themselves are considered strong.

According to Thrasymachus, the act of being just entails following the regulations set forth by those in power. He further argues that rulers establish laws with the intention of enhancing their authority and wealth. Consequently, individuals who abide by these laws are rendered feeble and impotent when compared to their rulers. Socrates subsequently convinces Thrasymachus to concede that rulers may occasionally err in their judgments, suggesting that the advantages enjoyed by rulers can be thwarted by compliance with their commands. Thrasymachus qualifies his assertions by asserting that those rulers who make mistakes cannot rightfully be classified as rulers.

Thrasymachus asserts that rulers should be guided by knowledge, much to the satisfaction of Socrates. For rulers to truly be considered as such, they must fulfill their proper function. However, Socrates questions what exactly this function entails. Is it akin to the functions of other useful professions? Doctors cater to the needs of the sick, ship captains serve sailors, and horse trainers tend to horses. Socrates suggests that mastering the skill of serving well is the specialized knowledge of each profession. Rulers must possess the ability to serve the best interests of the state. Hence, like other professionals, rulers do not pursue their own advantage but rather the advantage of those in need of their assistance. Incensed by Socrates’ refutation of his definition, Thrasymachus insults him and proceeds to deliver a speech in an attempt to utilize persuasive rhetoric and win over the admiration of the young men. However, despite Socrates’ weak argument against him, Thrasymachus’ speech does not aid his cause. He thoughtlessly draws a comparison between shepherds who fatten sheep for personal consumption and rulers who fatten people for the same selfish purpose. Furthermore, he introduces the notion that the greatest happiness belongs to wrongdoers (such as tyrants) instead of those who have been wronged.

Socrates asserts that true rulers do not willingly govern and draws a parallel between rulers and other professionals. He argues that their ultimate goal is to ensure the well-being of the state, but they are obliged to take on leadership roles in order to avoid being governed by individuals of lesser ability. Socrates questions the desire for rulership, pondering whether it is preferable to be provided for or to provide for others. He contends that, considering the demanding and unappreciated nature of leadership, rulers, like other professionals, deserve financial compensation for their services. Thus, Socrates’ reasoning establishes leadership as a profession that necessitates unique skills and expertise. Representing Plato’s perspective, Socrates utilizes analogies (linking rulers to professionals) in an attempt to convince young men to adopt his viewpoints. Nonetheless, despite its persuasiveness, the young men can still maintain a critical mindset as comparisons between dissimilar entities can be misleading, biased, and capable of leading one to embrace false truths.

Socrates is currently searching for the worth of justice, without having defined it yet. He does this in order to maintain the interest of his students, knowing that lengthy discussions can become tiresome. To begin his argument against Thrasymachus’ claim that being unjust is wise and good, Socrates likens the art of living well to the art of a musician. A musician possesses knowledge of music, making them superior to someone without musical knowledge. However, the musician does not desire superiority or victory over others who share their knowledge; rather, their goal is to surpass those without musical knowledge. Socrates applies the same principle to the just man, who seeks to outdo the unjust man but not those who are also just. Conversely, the unjust man strives to be superior to both similar and dissimilar individuals. Their selfishness drives them to seek their own advantage exclusively. Socrates asserts that individuals who are good and wise do not seek to dominate or outshine those who are similar to them. Thrasymachus agrees with Socrates, thus conceding that an unjust person cannot be considered good and wise. The argument may seem peculiar, but it leads to a satisfying conclusion.

Socrates proceeds to rebut Thrasymachus’ argument that injustice equates to power. Socrates argues that injustice cannot be power because there is no loyalty among the unjust and no honor among thieves. Thrasymachus is forced to concede this point, as he previously stated that unjust individuals are selfish and unlikely to collaborate for common objectives. The perpetual discord and animosity among the unjust ultimately leads to chaos, which contradicts the notion of achieving goals through cooperation.

The next argument to refute is Thrasymachus’ claim that those who are unjust are happier than those who are just. In previous discussions, Socrates has established that justice is a virtue, a quality of excellence possessed by humans. Now, Socrates must demonstrate that performing actions with excellence brings happiness. Socrates uses the example of eyes, stating that their excellence lies in the ability to see, and similarly, the excellence of ears lies in the ability to hear. Just like all other things, excelling in one’s function leads to blessings and happiness. Thrasymachus agrees with Socrates thus far. However, Socrates reminds Thrasymachus that he had previously acknowledged that justice is an excellent trait of character. Therefore, it logically follows that the just person is also the happy person.

Socrates concludes that, despite all arguments presented by Thrasymachus, injustice will never be more profitable than justice. However, Socrates acknowledges that his refutation of Thrasymachus’ claims is incomplete as he has not yet addressed the fundamental question of the nature of justice. He asserts that justice is a virtue of human character and a source of happiness, but understanding these concepts merely marks the starting point. The true inquiry lies in determining what constitutes a just life. Consequently, Socrates determines that further investigation is necessary. It is important to note that Plato’s focus is not on the morality of living justly, but rather on whether this just way of life ultimately leads to greater happiness. (Bibliography: Republic by Plato)

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