After Adeimantus and Polemarchus persuade Glaucon, and also thereby Socrates, to stay in the Piraeus, the group of men remains goes to the house of Cephalus, the old, wealthy metic from Syracuse who is the father of Polemarchus. A metic was a stranger to Athens, not a citizen, but one who pays taxes but is without civil rights. Upon arrival they find a group of other foreigners, most of whom remain silent throughout the dialogue, excluding Thrasymachus, the rhetorician. Among them was Lysias, a classic Athens orator who played a significant role in the overthrow of the Thirty Tyrants, and also Cleitophon, for whom there is a named and short Socratic dialogue in which the teaching of virtue by Socrates is compared to that of Thrasymachus.
Socrates notes that Cephalus is very old, seated on a cushion stool, having only just made sacrifices. He is crowned in a wreath. The group goes to sit in a circle around Cephalus. Cephalus represents the old order, the most natural authority. Cephalus is the center of the discussion, but he leaves the dialogue after it has only just begun, to make sacrifices and pray to the god. He does not return.
The unplanned discussion of justice begins with a question from Socrates to Cephalus: ‘Is it a hard time of life’ when one embarks on the threshold of old age? Cephalus disagrees with his older contemporaries, but agrees with the poet Sophocles, by claiming that old age is preferred because it frees one from the enslaving passions of youth -drinking bouts, sex, and the pleasures of the body. Old age is preferred as it enforces moderation. Cephalus claims that the character of human beings that is the just cause of difficulties in age or in youth. If men are orderly and content with themselves, even old age is only moderately troublesome. This causes Socrates to be “full of wonder”.
Socrates counters that the many, or the masses, no doubt claim Cephalus’s ease with old age is not due to character, but rather to his wealth, his great substance. Cephalus agrees, but he also notes that the decent man cannot bear old age in poverty, and also not in great wealth. We then discover that Cephalus was a moneymaker, he inherited from his father also. Socrates notes that men who inherit money, tend not to value it, but men who earn their money tend to value it twice as much, speaking nothing else but of wealth. Socrates asks Cephalus what the greatest good might be from possessing wealth. Cephalus sees the possession of money as most worthwhile for the just and holy man, as it makes him not cheat or lie, but also it ensures a man that he is not departing this world with fear, of either owing a sacrifice to a god or money to another human being. Note that Cephalus answers Socrates’s question with a response that includes an implicit definition of what is just and holy. Socrates only considers the former in the remaining course of the discussion. Cephalus predicates his response on the experience of being close to death, and since all men respond to fear and care, one begins to wonder at the prospects of the stories the poets tell of Hades.
Socrates asks about this simple definition of justice: is it only to tell the truth and to give back what one is owed? Take the example of borrowing weapons from a friend who demands them back when he is mad -this, no doubt, an unjust act. Before Cephalus can respond, Polemarchus interrupts and defends this first definition of justice. Cephalus departs, laughing, and goes to attend to the sacrifices. Polemarchus becomes the heir to the argument, and Cephalus does not return.
The conversation on justice begins with piety for the old order, as evidenced by Cephalus, and turns to a conversation on the passing of age and wealth. In summary: Socrates asks Cephalus about the passing of age, then about wealth in the passing of age, and lastly what the greatest good of possessing wealth is, before Socrates engages Cephalus on his understanding of justice -which to Socrates must be good not just for the giver, but also the reciiever -therefore telling the truth and paying one’s debts is an insufficient definition of justice, but Cephalus cannot engage the young men on this point, so leaves in laughter and piety (recall the laughter of Zarathustra as he departs from the old priest in the opening lines of Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra).