Just an individual in a Just society

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On several occasions recently I have watched a group of people struggle to grasp the logic behind Socrates’ plan for the ideal city, as stated in Plato’s “The Republic”. I have been thinking about why it is difficult for people, including myself, to understand where Socrates is coming from when he tries to explain his reasoning for the just city. I think that the underlying concept of what success, justice, greatness etc. is and where it truly comes from is different in our minds and the mind of Socrates. Whether the difference lies in the society that Socrates was a part of, or Socrates himself, I don’t know. I do believe that what makes it hard for some people to understand why in the world Socrates would believe the things that he did that would make a better and more just society is the fact that we are focusing on such different things.

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First of all, the society that we live in today places its focus on the individual, not the city, state, or country. We tend to place significance in a person’s achievements and success. The people that I have talked to about things that we feel are greater than the shallow achievements of a person, still usually speak of the potential for an individual. Socrates more often spoke of the potential of a just city, versus the potential for a just individual. I believe that this is the difference that makes it hard to relate to Socrates when he is talking about the ideal society. We are used to the focus being on an individual’s greatness, while Socrates is giving us his plan to form a society that is great.

The concept of “everything in its right place” is one of the most important elements of Socrates’ ideal city, and happens to be one of the ideas that spark the most discomfort among readers of “The Republic”. In this situation, Socrates explains that the ideal city would benefit from every person doing the job that they are most fit to do. This means, for example, that a person with steady hands (among other features) would be a surgeon, because that is what the city needs. Socrates explains that the city will benefit most from every individual doing what their natural skills enable them to do best. Most people find some conflict with this and I think it is because we live in a society where the individual is revered as being able to do whatever they want. “The American Dream”, for example, represents the idea that anybody can become anything that they want in this country, regardless of background, race, gender, sexuality, skills, knowledge, or experience. Obviously skills, knowledge, and experience would need to be acquired before the greatness of the individual could be achieved, but the underlying idea that appeals to people in “The American Dream” is that you are not destined to one career path, status, or lifestyle.

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My experience, and seemingly others experience as well, has been a sort of conflict of interests. I have been more focused on being a just individual, while Socrates looks for justice in a society. He does explain how he believes a person can have a just soul, but this is mainly a factor in his ideal city. He believes that a society consisting of just individuals will be the foundation of the just city. However, part of being a just individual to Socrates means knowing your place in society, and being content with that. I think that most individuals in today’s society, however, are not ready to give up their aspirations and submit themselves to the construction of a just city.

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2 Responses to Just an individual in a Just society

  1. jgraef2 says:

    I think that part of our difficulty of understanding Socrates’ ideal society that he describes stems from our firm plantation in capitalism. In my experience the emphasis on the individual comes from our capitalistic society and “the american dream” where the goal of every individual is to do better in life than their parent or just to be as successful as possible. Capitalism is ingrained in us from the start and other societies that we know of that are not capitalistic are either socialist or communist. Both of which squander the emphasis on the individual. However, what I think is difficult to grasp about Socrates’ philosophy is that his philosophy does not necessarily inhibit the individual from becoming rich, it just seems to set guidelines for how the individual is able to do that as opposed to our known society where it is more of a free for all and the individual is encouraged to become wealthy in any way they can that is not always constructive to society as a whole.

  2. sarahbrgr says:

    It’s definitely an interesting point you bring up. By today’s standards, I don’t think we could ever have a just, Socratic society. Like you said, in Socrates’ ideal city, everybody would do what they are meant to do and nothing else. If that idea was imposed on today’s society, it wouldn’t go over well to say the least. People want to do what they want to do. They want what’s best for themselves rather than the country as a whole. Even then, people don’t necessarily want what’s best for themselves, they want what will make them the happiest. This could be having no job at all, or it could be pursuing a career in a high paying field among many other things. If people couldn’t do what they wanted to do and instead had to do what was best for society, we’d be left with a lot of angry people, and that itself could lead to a downfall of society. The appetitive part of the soul will always exist, so it would be basically impossible for Socrates’ “just” society to prevail.

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