Reading Questions for the Republic, Book I

March 16, 2015

Let me start with some background information about the setting of this dialogue. The Republic occurs in the port town of Piraeus. This was the port for the city of Athens, and it had a whole slew of cultural connotations. First, like many port cities, Piraeus was a bustling and disorderly place. It had a high concentration of non-citizens (resident aliens), criminals, and so forth. Second, after the defeat of Athens in the Peloponnesian War (in 404), Sparta installed a government known as the “Thirty Tyrants.” During this time, Piraeus became a hotbed of democratic resistance to this government. If we keep in mind that Socrates will, later in the Republic, designate democracy as the second worst type of regime, we might try to think about what Plato is doing in setting this dialogue in this location.

Next, the Republic takes place in around 422; this is during the so-called Peace of Nicias (a brief suspension of hostilities during the Peloponnesian War). Plato wrote the dialogue around 375 (so about 50 years later). Most of the characters in the dialogue were historical figures. Cephalus, the first participant in the dialogue with Socrates, was a wealthy businessman. Later on, the Thirty Tyrants confiscated his wealth, and they also executed his son, Polemarchus (Socrates’ second interlocutor). Thrasymachus, Socrates’ main opponent in Book 1, was also a historical figure. He was a well-known sophist (alas, his writings have been lost). Adiemantus and Glaucon—the main figures after Book 1 ends—were Plato’s brothers. This provides another set of questions for you to consider: do Cephalus’ and Polemarchus’ fates shed light on their respective definitions of justice?

OK, now onto the proper discussion questions:

  • Note the first encounter between Socrates and those who wish him to stay in Piraeus for the evening’s festival: What language do Socrates and his friends use when discussing whether he will stay?
  • What is Cephalus’ definition of justice? What is wrong with this definition?
  • What is Cephalus like as a character? What are his limitations?
  • Polemarchus soon steps in to take over his father’s argument. What is Polemarchus’ definition?
  • Is Polemarchus’ definition a genuine definition in the Socratic sense? A more general question: what is the difference between a Socratic definition and a dictionary defintion?
  • How does Socrates go about refuting Polemarchus’ definition (he offers three critiques)? Now, generalize for a moment: what is the overall lesson that one can learn from Socrates’ refutation?
  • What is Thrasymachus like as a character?
  • What is Thrasymachus’ first definition of justice? In what ways does it differ from the other accounts we have seen so far? In what sense is Thrasymachus’ definition of justice challenging to Socrates’ method of philosophy? (Hint: to my mind, it is a profound challenge to Socratic philosophy; if Thrasymachus is right, then Socrates’ whole method is flawed from the start).
  • How does Socrates first criticize Thrasymachus’ definition? How does Thrasymachus modify his definition to meet the critique?
  • How does Socrates’ refute Thrasymachus’ modification?
  • After this second set of criticisms, Thrasymachus launches into a new speech where he compares a politician to a shepherd. What is the significance of Thrasymachus’ analogy?
  • With this new speech, the dialogue takes an unexpected turn. We now no longer are talking about the definition of justice (here I think Thrasymachus and Socrates have reached a stalemate), but instead the question of whether a just life or an unjust life is happier and more profitable. What is Thrasymachus’ position on this question?
  • How does Socrates try to refute Thrasymachus’ claims about whether justice or injustice is more profitable? Again Socrates has two responses. Be ready to identify both of them.
  • What are the flaws with Socrates’ refutations of Thrasymachus’ position? What general lessons can we learn from this discussion so far?
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At the risk of running afoul of British authorities…

March 14, 2015

One curious difficulty that emerges when teaching Plato’s “Apology” is that students often have a difficult time understanding how Socrates could be put on trial for things like corrupting the youth and impiety. At least according to the social studies textbooks students read in 8th grade, the U.S. (and “western societies” in general) have realized that freedom of speech is an essential value, and we have declared that religious worship is an individual matter. The government should not coerce speech, nor should it dictate which God or gods one worships (or does not worship, as the case may be). So Socrates’ trial seems to be an anachronism, perhaps an historical curiosity, but also one with rather few contemporary implications.

In class, I tried to refute this assumption by presenting Socrates’ position in different terms. Socrates isn’t interested in what we call freedom of speech or freedom of religion; he is, I argued, offering a meditation on the fraught relation between politics and philosophy, or between the appearances that sway public opinion, and the philosopher’s orientation toward a truth that transcends such appearances and opinions.

However, I leave this aside for now so as to focus on this contemporary concern about impiety and corruption of the youth. The British government has now published its final version of what it calls the “Prevent” program, which is a counter-terrorism policy designed to prevent youths from being drawn into terrorist networks. The premise of this program is that people are first drawn into “extremist” networks by being exposed to:

vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual tolerance of different faiths and beliefs. We also include in our definition of extremism calls for the death of members of the armed forces.

To prevent exposure to such extremist beliefs, “All relevant curriculum areas will need to be engaged, with a single contact point for delivery of Prevent-related activity.” So here we have a call for a curriculum review to prevent students from being exposed to anti-democratic ideas or ideas that challenge individual liberties, and compliance with these principles will be “monitored centrally via the Home Office and through appropriate inspection regimes in each sector.”

I hope the themes of the “Apology” are apparent here. The Prevent guidelines are more or less explicitly concerned with the corruption of the youth, and they have set up certain values (“democracy,” “individual liberty,” and so on) have effectively been set up as gods, such that any challenging of those attitudes becomes an act of impiety.

It is not too much of a stretch to say that these guidelines, if taken literally, would mean the end of political philosophy. Historically speaking, almost no philosophers defend democracy or individual liberty (Plato, as we’ll see, detested such ideas). Even those who defend some notion of democracy often have bad things to say about it. But of course, not to worry: It seems quite unlikely that the overseers of the Prevent guidelines will use them to prevent the teaching of Plato. Rather, it seems much more likely that these guidelines will be used (and abused) to target other groups. I’ll leave it to you all to figure out who these other groups might be….


Nihilism as a Basis for Society

March 9, 2015

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It seems to me as though most people begin life with a sense of happiness that encourages an achievement of his/her hopes and dreams. For example, small children wake up at the crack of dawn every day excited about the new things that they are going to discover. Life is pleasure. As children grow older, this excitement to wake up and experience the world diminishes. They fake sickness to stay home from school and instead immerse themselves in material pleasures such as television and video games. The more that they are forced to experience the agony of being involved in things that they don’t want to do, the more they dislike life itself and escape in materialistic pleasures. In this way, the society we live in promotes nihilism.

I myself have been told many times that it doesn’t matter if I want to do something because it has to get done whether I like it or not. So, in order to force myself to endure this agony I will promise myself some sort of materialistic reward once I reach the light at the end of the tunnel. For example, recently I had a big paper due that I hadn’t started at all and had procrastinated until the last moment. I encouraged myself to write this paper by rewarding myself with a cookie after I finished each section of the paper. This reward of food offered an escape from the agony of writing the paper and helped me get through the tasks of the day by indulging in materialistic pleasures.

These materialistic rewards aren’t just seen in college life, but are also seen in everyday jobs throughout society. Many people grudgingly force themselves to go to work every day while  disliking many aspects of what they do. But, they keep working in the hopes of having a wealthy retirement or a nice vacation to distract them from the lives that they live and the world itself. From a very young age, people have been shown that they must do what they don’t want to do and that this can be made up for with rewards and materialism. For this reason, we now see the epidemic of material consumerism that creates the platform for today’s society.

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Plato’s Forms in Response to Bonnie Honig

March 9, 2015

Socrates’ Antigone has been the subject of countless debates over the the course of nearly two and a half millennia. Who performed the first burial? How do we make sense of Antigone’s dirge? What, if anything, do the characters symbolize? In 2009, a profound political theorist by the name of Bonnie Honig approached the last question in this article. In summary, she interprets this play as Creon representing democratic values, while Antigone represents that of the aristocracy. Honig asserts that Creon’s emphasis on total equality and the replaceability of individuals is demonstrative of democracy. On the complete opposite side of the spectrum, Antigone believes her brother is utterly unique, prompting her to wail in excess at his death; Honig takes this as an example of her Homeric/aristocratic values.

Naturally, at the end of the play, just about everybody Creon loved has killed themselves, leaving him to feel mournful, for he seems to realize that his wife and son were utterly unique to him. All the while he mourns in silence. Creon mourns these losses and decides to bury all those who he swore not to bury, in respect for the dead (an Homeric/aristocratic act). However, at the same time, his mourning is subdued and not outward (a democratic response to death). Honig assesses this to mean that Creon has become a combination of both himself and Antigone.  This poses the problem I will attempt to address.

For now, let’s briefly set this aside and think about Plato’s Forms.

Plato believed that everything existed in both a physical and metaphysical sense. The physical world is constantly changing, but in the metaphysical world, everything is constant and unchanging. A good explanation of Plato’s Forms can be found here. What we see are not physical objects, but rather “Forms” of the object. Why is a rotting apple still an apple? Because its Form is still an apple. A rotting apple still holds the same “apple-ness” as that of a perfectly ripe one because it still holds the Form of an apple.

But how does this relate to Honig’s analysis?

As stated before, Honig suggests that by the time Antigone draws to a close, Creon is the embodiment of both Homeric/aristocratic values and democracy. In other words, Creon has “Creon-ness” and “Antigone-ness.” According to the Theory of the Forms, one’s Form exists only as one’s self. Creon should theoretically exist as Creon, not Creon and Antigone. Therefore, Honig’s reading of Antigone does not adhere to the Theory of the Forms; by these standards, Plato would deem her reading incorrect. Of course, it was Plato, not Socrates who came up with the Forms, so Honig’s reading can still be considered a plausible analysis.