After learning about Socrates and philosophy, Plato, Socrates and other philosophers devoted their life to finding the truth and discovering our world. After reading the Republic, it seems that the ideal city- how it’s supposed to run, how everyone is supposed to stay in their place and how everyone is then good if they will only be their one thing for the rest of their life and how this then creates justice- is the truth that Socrates has found through his study and life as a philosopher. But I think that if you have found the truth, it should be undisputable, it should be a fact of life and become unchallengeable. But Socrates’ “truth” was and still is very arguable and disputable. I don’t think the ideal city is the truth because Aristophanes, among others, was able to write a play criticizing Socrates and Socratic thinking. If his type of thinking can be so criticized and debated, what differentiates philosophy from regular political debate? If the ideal city is not truth because it can be argued against or tweaked, then it is just another idea for governing similar to democracy, socialism, or communism, except Socrates would have much, much more control over his citizens than any of the other political theories and seems to be the most extreme of all of them with the least amount of freedom. If you are able to agree or disagree with the ideal city and the way its run, then you automatically make it just a concept of justice of Socrates, which ultimately just fulfills Thrasymachus’ definition of justice as ‘whatever is in the interest of the larger party’. While I understand Socratic thinking, and I see how the ideal city can create justice, but I don’t think there should be such control over people and do not see that much control as just. If I can come up with this thinking, than the ideal city must not be the truth. A truth, to my perception, is finding that the sun illuminates the earth during the day. No one can adequately disagree with that statement because it is true. There is no other alternative or explanation as to what illuminates the earth during the day. But when it comes to justice and the debate over the definition of justice, everybody’s definition can be debated as the definition, which makes them all untrue. The definition that is closest to truth is Thrasymachus’ definition because it seems to be the least debatable of all of the definitions given. If Socrates never reached his goal of finding the truth or if none of the other philosophers reached their goal as well, and given that there are still flaws in Socratic thinking, what was the point of Socrates dying to uphold his ideas and why do we still study them?
After reading the Republic and learning it in class and then reading the Clouds and its criticism of Socratic thinking, I realized that a lot of his perfect city is, I believe, grossly unrealistic. First, I think that the fundamental idea of the city, that everyone has one given task or role that they do and then contently and happily do only that one role or stay in their place for the rest of their life. I think this ideal is so pointless because it goes against fundamental human nature and evolutionary survival nature. To me, it seems very natural that humans always strive for more and have achieved a consumerist society like we have. Always striving for more, always wanting more is how one survives. A lion cannot be content with just one kill for a few days or else it starves along with its pack, so an innate need and drive for more food. If a lion is more adept and hunting than normal, the lion will keep hunting because of this drive, because of the possibility that there will at some point be a lack of food, thus the lion must stockpile when he can, and being that he is more adept at hunting, he will then deplete his food source, causing the lack of food, which perpetuates his stockpiling behavior. Humans have taken this drive, this behavior and translated it to unnecessary desires as we have deemed those desires necessary to our survival. More money means more food, thus better survival, so we create a drive for money. Technology is supposed to make us more productive in our lives and nice furniture is supposed to make our living spaces more restful, both translating to a higher ability for survival so we then create a need for them and then we buy them to excess. I think this drive that we have within would be a fatal flaw to Socrates’ ideal city, as I don’t think he could be able to get this drive out of us through education. I think this drive would cause people to move between their stations and be discontent with their given station and realize that maybe they would be better off if they were in a different job. The ‘Myth of the Metals’, while maybe keeping them in their place for the time being would not keep a person happy with their allotted place. A person can very well be adept at something but not enjoy it, and if this task that they are good at is chosen as their place, then they will become unhappy, which will translate as a poor state of survival, and try to relieve that discontent in some manner or other that will then create injustice. If a cobbler hates making shoes, he will start to wonder if he would be happier as a tailor. Knowing what you are doing does not make the task any more enjoyable or make the person any happier. Believing he has a soul of bronze does not keep this thought from happening. And if that thought appears the action to appease that though will eventually follow as the drive will somehow manifest itself in the citizens of the city at some point, making this ideal city unsustainable and unrealistic.
After talking about the Allegory Of the Cave, it seems, from my understanding, that Socrates’ opinion of the world around us is that it is all just a concept that we turn it into. A pencil is only a pencil because that’s what we say it is, otherwise it would just be a combination of wood and lead. So far, from my understanding, everything in our world does not actually exist or is just an attempt to create something that cannot exist. This concept and understanding has mad me wonder what the point of learning this and understanding the forms is? For a quick summary of the Allegory of the Cave, a prisoner who sees a shadow of a dog on the cave wall all his life is dragged up the cave to view the fire and the puppet of the dog and then ragged out of the cave to see a real dog and see the sun and then sent back down to rule over the other prisoners. My question is; why does the prisoner need to understand that the shadows aren’t the truth in order to rule the other prisoners? Why does viewing the sun and the fire and the actual dog make him any more qualified to rule then any of the other prisoners? I understand the forms now more than an average person. I know they exist and I know they tell us that everything is merely a concept and everything is just what we make it. Essentially, I am further up the cave than the other prisoners. I know there is a fire and a puppet so to speak. Although I recognize there is much more study to be done and I am not a philosopher, knowing the forms and understanding they exist has changed absolutely nothing about the way I see the world. A chair is still a chair, a chalkboard is still a chalkboard and I feel no more qualified to rule anything than the average person. So if this bit knowledge has changed nothing about me, what is the point of learning? And what is the point of fully learning it? The prisoners seem perfectly content to stare at the shadows without knowing of the sun and the real dog as people seem perfectly content to call a pen a pen instead of realizing it’s just an imitation of their concept of a pen that can’t actually be. Why does fully realizing this concept make a person a more qualified ruler? Even if you fully understood the forms and the form of the good, it does not change anything in the physical space around you. Nothing will actually change. The shadows are still on the wall, the imitation of the pen will still exist in the physical universe and the perfect pen will not and cannot, so what’s the point of being unsatisfied when nothing can be changed? And what does the knowledge of the forms change about the way someone rule that makes them a better leader?
Most people would agree that as capitalism has grown, so has the emphasis on material possessions. More and more technology is spewing out everyday, and people are encouraged to buy the newest smartphone, or the even newer smartwatch. There is so much emphasis on making money to buy these gadgets, that society is slowly eliminating the genuine joys in life. Rather than enjoying something for its consequence and for the sake of doing it, people are increasingly enjoying things only for their consequences, not for the sake of doing it.
Of course, this relates to the “three types of good” mentioned in Book II of Plato’s Republic. While in conversation with Socrates, Glaucon talks of three types of goods:
1. That which we like for its own sake, such as joy
2. That which we like for its own sake and its consequences
3. That which we like for its consequences, but not for its own sake
As aforementioned, I believe that society is losing touch with the second good listed (which Socrates calls the finest good), and is now becoming overwhelmed by the third good listed. Back in Socrates time, it was enjoyable to gain knowledge, as were the consequences of having knowledge. Even today, in less fortunate countries, kids enjoy going to school for the sake of going as well as for its consequences. Nowadays, in our consumerist culture, people see education as a burden, but carry it through in order to land a higher paying job. The higher paying job then leads to the ability to buy more material objects.
I’ve fallen victim to this, for occasionally when I play a gig for money, I see it as more of a burden with payoff and less of a joy with payoff. Because materialism has driven society to crave money, people don’t do tasks for the desire of doing the tasks. They do it for the money. The money then buys items, such as the smartwatch, which are designed to speed up the tasks. Why would one need to speed up a task if the task itself was enjoyable? Certainly, this doesn’t apply to every individual or circumstance, I just find it unfortunate that tasks that were once gratifying for their own sake are becoming burdensome.
When Thrasymachus had given his definition of justice by claiming that it is used only for to benefit a stronger party, it threw me off guard. What confused me even more was why he had said it so furiously. At first, it kind of made him seem quite stupid to me. Maybe it is due to the reason that I have read far to the part when Socrates gives his definition of justice, but why Thrasymachus defines justice as being so horrid and chaotic made me wonder why he would think such a thing.
However, giving it more thought made me realize possibilities of why Thrasymachus had stated his definition with such anger. He was describing it through the views of others.
Most people are born with a generous amount of greed and selfishness, which alters their definition of justice, mistaking that it means to please only themselves and/or their loved ones. This is why people would easily take advantage over others who are weaker, and why Thrasymachus describes justice as the benefit of the stronger party.
For example if there was an apocalypse, and people had to steal food to survive. If two families had found that there was only one loaf of bread left in the market, I’m sure the first thought that they would make wouldn’t be to split it. They’re greed would make them want to take the whole load for themselves.
The phrase, “it had to be done,” seems to be said frequently when one family benefits. This scenario seems to correlate a lot with Thrasymachu’s definition.
Speaking of movies, these scenarios happen in movies all the time. The funny thing is that not only the characters in the scene feel like they have benefitted, but the audience watching the movie feel satisfied as well. All we think about is/are the main character(s), and we love the main character(s). We don’t care at all what the other party feels or what they have to go through. If the main characters win, we feel that justice has been made.
Not only in movies, but we see and experience it everywhere! This includes things such as advertising. If a company who is showing off their product to sell has lots of money, they have a higher chance of making much more revenue than other companies who have less money. Even if the product of the richer company is not as good in quality than the poorer company.
Sure, Socrates’ definition of justice is the ideal kind of justice that we would all want in an ideal nation. However, I feel that Thrasymachus’ definition fits more in the real world, and how people think today. It looks like greed causes people to want to beat everyone else in life.
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?
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.
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.
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.