Reading Questions for the Republic, Book I

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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