Plato’s Republic, Book I (Part IV): Thrasymachus

Socrates’s infamous exchange with Thrasymachus occurs in two parts. In the first part, Thrasymachus lashes out at Socrates claiming that justice is the advantage of the stronger, and also that injustice is more profitable than justice. In the second part, after Socrates has successfully tamed the tyrant, Thrasymachus placates Socrates with a “banquet” of words (354a). This exchange ends Book I, yet the interlocutors are still left wondering about the nature of justice –what is the just?

At the outset of the exchange, Socrates twice says that he is “frightened” of Thrasymachus and he compares him to a “wild beast” because Thrasymachus discourteously enters the discussion. Throughout Book I, Thrasymachus was being forcibly restrained until he could contain himself no longer. Angrily, Thrasymachus demands that Socrates answer his own questions, while Socrates hides under the veil of ignorance by claiming he does not know anything. Socrates turns the conversation back on Thrasymachus by asking questions.

Thrasymachus demands that Socrates pay a fine for his learning (a common practice for the Sophists). Socrates amusingly says he will pay Thrasymachus when he gets some money, but Glaucon reassures Thrasymachus that they all will pay for Socrates. The debt of the philosopher is paid by his friends.

Fittingly, the most savage man present gives the most savage opinion of justice. Thrasymachus claims that justice is the advantage of the stronger -that is good, only for the receiver and bad for the giver. He is the blushing tyrant, proved wrong in his own Unjust Speech, while the Just Speech triumphs, unlike in Aristophanes’s The Clouds which lampoons Socrates for teaching his students about the superiority of the Unjust Speech. At any rate, one could make the claim that Cephalus is the oligarch, Polemarchus is the democrat, and Thrasymachus is the tyrant. However, we encounter a problem -why would the tyrant attempt to teach others about the practice of tyranny? Socrates ultimately succeeds in taming Thrasymachus, and Plato makes it clear that we should not behave toward Thrasymachus the same way he behaves toward Socrates. Polemarchus comes to the defense of Socrates and Cleitophon briefly comes to the defense of Thrasymachus.

When the question comes up whether or not the ruler can set down any fallible laws or unjust laws, Thrasymachus claims that any ruler who establishes fallible or unjust laws is not a ruler in the true sense. Justice, for Thrasymachus, demands complete obedience to the infallible laws of the ruler. In comparing Thrasymachus’s thesis to doctors and sailors, Socrates demonstrates that the doctor doesn’t heal for the doctor’s sake, but for the health of the body. Therefore, the ruler rules for the advantage of the city, not the advantage of the ruler. In considering this explanation, Socrates agrees that the just is somewhat of advantage, but is unsure of whether it is the advantage of the stronger.

Thrasymachus fires back. He claims that injustice, ultimately, is preferable than justice. Injustice is more masterful, freer, and mightier. Thrasymachus not only claims that justice is the advantage of the stronger, but also he claims that the life of the unjust man is stronger than of the just man, an ontological claim.

Socrates begins his refutation of Thrasymachus by equating virtue with justice, to which Thrasymachus agrees, and he asks if the unjust man is prudent and good, if the unmusical man is musical, the unwise man wise, unmedical man medical, and so on. Thrasymachus dragged his feet at these assertions and produced a “wonderful quantity of sweat, for it was summer” –he sweats because of the heat and not because of the argument (per Leo Strauss). Thrasymachus also “blushes” (350d), which Leo Strauss claims is also due to the warm summer weather. Socrates and Thrasymachus come to a conclusion that justice is virtue and wisdom, and injustice is both vice and lack of learning. Next, they must consider whether or not injustice is also mighty, as Thrasymachus had originally claimed. Thrasymachus sarcastically and spitefully says he will just simply nod his head in agreement with Socrates, in mindless complicity, because that is clearly what Socrates wishes.

Socrates considers the unjust city that enslaves other cities (an accusation leveled against Athens during the Peloponnesian War, per Thucydides), and also other unjust groups, such as bands of robbers, or pirates –would they be able to exist together if the men acted unjustly toward one another? It comes to light that injustice is a kind of power that disrupts harmony and makes it impossible to accomplish anything. The same problem becomes apparent within the individual soul of an unjust man.

Now that the pious aristocrat, the war-loving democrat, and the abusive tyrant have all been tamed, Book I of the Republic is concluded.

For this reading I used Allan Bloom’s essential translation of Plato’s Republic, as well as Leo Strauss’s The City and Man and his lectures.

Plato’s Republic, Book I (Part II): Cephalus

Adeimantus and Polemarchus persuade Glaucon, and also thereby Socrates, to remain in the Piraeus, at the house of Cephalus (father of Polemarchus). Cephalus is the wealthy, old metic from Syracuse. A “metic” was a stranger to Athens, not a citizen but one who pays taxes and is not granted civil rights. At any rate, upon arrival at Cephalus’s home, they find another group of foreigners, most of whom remain silent throughout the dialogue, excluding a rhetorician named Thrasymachus. Among the others was Lysias, a classical Athens orator who later played a significant role in the overthrow of the Thirty Tyrants, and also Cleitophon, for whom there is a 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, or the most natural authority. Cephalus is the center of the discussion, but he leaves the dialogue after it has only just begun, in order to continue making sacrifices and pray to the god. Cephalus does not return in the dialogue.

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 begins by disagreeing with his older contemporaries, but he agrees with the poet Sophocles when he claims that old age is preferred because it frees one from the enslaving passions of youth -drinking, sex, and the pleasures of the body. Old age is preferred because it enforces moderation. Cephalus claims that the character of human beings is the just cause of difficulties in age or in youth. If men are orderly and content within themselves, old age is only moderately troublesome. This causes Socrates to be “full of wonder”.

Socrates counters Cephalus by suggesting that many people, or the masses, no doubt claim Cephalus’s ease with old age is not due to character, but rather to his wealth, or his great “substance.” Cephalus agrees, but he also notes that a decent man cannot bear old age in poverty nor in great wealth. We then discover that Cephalus was a moneymaker. He inherited money 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 a most worthwhile endeavor for the just and holy man because it makes him not cheat or lie, but also it reassures 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 (recall Socrates’s final words about owing a debt to Ascelpius in Plato’s Phaedo). 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, an older man begins to wonder at 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 then demands them back when he is insane -this is, no doubt, an unjust act (i.e. paying a debt of weaponry to an insane man -justice requires a certain degree of common mental health). Before Cephalus can respond, Polemarchus interrupts and defends this first definition of justice. Cephalus departs, laughing while he goes to attend to the sacrifices. Now that Cephalus has left, Polemarchus becomes the heir to the argument. Cephalus does not return.

The conversation on justice begins with piety for the old order, as evidenced by Cephalus, and it turns into a conversation on the passing of age and wealth. In summary: Socrates asks Cephalus about old age, and then about wealth in the passing of age, and lastly about the greatest good of possessing wealth. This leads Socrates to ask Cephalus about his understanding of justice -which, to Socrates, must be good not simply for the giver, but also for the receiver. 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 he 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).

For this reading I used Allan Bloom’s essential translation of Plato’s Republic, as well as Leo Strauss’s The City and Man and his lectures.

Plato’s Republic, Book I: Introduction (Part I)

Plato’s Politeia, or “regime,” later translated and romanized by Cicero and the Romans as “Res Publica” or The Republic, is a narrated dialogue. It is narrated by Socrates in the first-person as he speaks to an unnamed individual (or individuals). Socrates recalls the events the day after they occurred and shortly before the events of the Timaeus dialogue.

As with the totality of the Platonic corpus, nothing in the Republic is erroneously placed. Every character and conversation has an important piece of the meaning of the dialogue. As has been noted by Leo Strauss, the Platonic dialogue imitates the ‘manyness and multiplicity of being,’ or the complexity and heterogeneity of life, and thus the Platonic dialogue forms a cosmos unto itself with the purpose of helping humans by providing a grounding from which to articulate the great mysteries of life. Each dialogue deals with one particular truth, and it reveals a certain part of the mystery. Nowhere in Plato do we find the Platonic “doctrine” or “treatise,” as we would with other modern writers, such as Kant. The Platonic dialogue is a different kind of truth-telling that masks the opinions of the author. The Republic, the most famous political work of all time, is identified through its title by the author, Plato, as being about the “regime,” and its theme is explicitly pertaining to justice.

The Republic begins as a descent, or a “downgoing.” Socrates recalls his descent from the city of Athens down to the port of Athens, the Piraeus, which is the seat of the Athenian navy as well as all things foreign and diverse in the democracy. Socrates ventures down to the Piraeus with Glaucon, a brother of Plato and one who Xenophon said was cured by Socrates of his extreme political ambition. Socrates intended to pray to the goddess in the Piraeus and also to observe the festival of Bendis, a novel foreign religious ceremony that was being held for the first time in Athens.

When hurrying back to town Socrates and Glaucon are stopped by a son of Cephalus named Polemarchus, the “warlord” who orders his slave boy to command Socrates and Glaucon to wait by grabbing hold of Socrates’s cloak. The scene sets up an imitation of the future discussion on the nature of justice in which, appropriately, the warlord employs the use of arms, not letters, to compel people, while Socrates responds skeptically. Socrates asks the boy about Polemarchus’s whereabouts, while Glaucon is easily swayed. A moment later Polemarchus arrives with Adeimantus, Glaucon’s brother, and also Niceratus, and several unnamed other men from the festival of Bendis. Polemarchus notes that Socrates and Glaucon are outnumbered and he compels them to prove stronger or else stay. He is concerned with the power of number, force, and the majority rule. Socrates, the philosopher, offers an alternative: instead Polemarchus could try to persuade Socrates and Glaucon to stay. The conversation on justice is involuntary. Polemarchus claims that they will not listen to persuasion, and Glaucon submits. Before Socrates can submit to force, Adeimantus, the most important man in the group, offers a persuasive alternative -the spectacle of a torch-race on horseback which is novel because of the horse-race and not the goddess. Polemarchus promises another sight before and after dinner. Ultimately, Glaucon makes the decision (his third decision) to stay with Polemarchus and Socrates has no choice but to abide by the decision of the overwhelming majority. The conversation on justice begins in a democratic process that emerges from the initial tyrannical impulses of Polemarchus. Thus the conversation on justice is owed to a mix of persuasion (Adeimantus) and compulsion (Polemarchus). Perhaps Justice, as duty or obligation, is a similar mixture of reason and coercion.

Though the promises of sight seeing and dinner are alluring, they do not come to pass and the conversation on Justice leads the men from the afternoon into the early morning, with the sun setting into darkness at some point during the conversation, perhaps at the beginning of the fifth book. Devoid of food and sightly pleasures, The Republic proves to be an act of moderation, of self-control in the example of Socrates. Perhaps The Republic presents the cure for any political ambition, extreme or otherwise.

It is important to note the context of this risky conversation. The problems of the regime are exposed at Cephalus’s home which is located in the Piraeus. Ten men are about to gather at the home of a foreigner, five Athenians, four metics, and one foreign teacher of rhetoric. Here in the Piraeus, the memory of old Athens is faint. It is far from the ancient Marathon fighters, and instead it embraces the sensation of new and strange things, such as the Festival of Bendis. Socrates, Glaucon, and Adeimantus prove to be concerned about this new political reality and they offer a desire to restore political health to the city. Harsh criticisms of the democratic regime are made in the dialogue, without objection, and others in the room express interest in reform. This conversation can be taken as a prelude to the age of The Thirty Tyrants, or “The Thirty From the Piraeus,” in which a group of men tried to regain control and restore virtue to Athens by extreme authoritarian measures. The Thirty ruled for thirteen months after defeat of Athens by Sparta in the Peloponnesian War. Some of the men present for the dialogue in The Republic become victims of The Thirty. In this way, the dialogue mirrors other Platonic dialogues: Socrates speaks to generals who are defeated or are about to be defeated in the Laches; Socrates discusses moderation with future tyrants in the Charmides; and so on. In The Republic, Socrates speaks to a group of future victims of unjust men attempting reinstate justice. Some of The Thirty were followers of Socrates, like the cruel Critias, while some men in the dialogue, like Lysias, managed to escape The Thirty. However, Polemarchus (the man who is most responsible for the dialogue) ultimately fell victim to The Thirty.

For this reading I used Allan Bloom’s essential translation of Plato’s Republic, as well as Leo Strauss’s The City and Man and his lectures.

Thoughts on Plato’s Statesman

Plato’s Statesman is a somewhat unremarkable dialogue. Unlike its parallel dialogues with the explicit subject matter of political philosophy, such as the Republic or the Laws, the Statesman fails to cover the ground necessary to fully examine the topic, and its main subject matter may more appropriately be called political science.

The dialogue picks up from where the Sophist leaves off. Socrates and the geometer, Theodorus, are discussing their arrangement. Theodorus mistakenly accounts for three character types in question as equal -the philosopher, statesman, and sophist. Recall the Eleatic stranger failed to complete the understanding of the sophist in the Sophist.

In this dialogue, the Eleatic stranger engages with Theaetetus’s young gymnastic companion, a “young Socrates.” However, the Eleatic stranger fails to address the question of what is the statesman, and instead he continues to dissect the statesman into categories and endless dichotomies and distinctions. The Eleatic stranger, unfortunately, leans closer to identifying with a sophist rather than a philosopher, as Theodorus initially thought him to be.

For this reading I used Seth Bernardete’s translation of Plato’s Statesman.