Plato's Republic: A View of Society Constructed by Socrates

In this article we will discuss a work of writing that is considered by many to be the first true political science text in western civilization. Plato's Republic (the actual title is simply Republic, Plato is merely the author) is primarily a dialogue between Socrates and several other Greek political theorists, philosophers, sophists, and friend, and it is split into 10 smaller books that each deal with different issues and ideas. The goal, in the beginning, is to define "justice", but over the course of the 10 books comprising Republic, the goal changes, over time they could be said to be trying to define and codify what could only be thought of as an idea of a utopia, a perfect society. This article will examine the first book primarily, and will publish articles examining each of the next books to compare and contrast how both The Republic and the United States of America function, analyze the differences, and perhaps learn how we can better run our society (or critique a perceived failing of The Republic.)

A bust of Socrates. Credit: Wikipedia
The first thing to examine is the conversations between Socrates, Cephalus, and Polemarchus. Cephalus is a rich elder whom Socrates is familiar with, and Polemarchus is the son of Cephalus, and their conversation revolves firstly around a definition of "justice". What is justice? What is a just act? Cephalus suggests it is obeying legal obligations and honesty, while Socrates offers a counter to this definition - if one were to borrow weapons from a friend, while the friend was of sound mind, but later on the friend requests his weaponry back while he is mad, it would be unjust and irresponsible to return weapons to him while he is in this state, even though he legally owns the weapons.

This is similar in fact, to many discussions about gun rights in America. In Socrates' view, people who are emotionally or mentally unstable have no business possessing weapons even if they legally own them or should have them; to give an unsafe person a weapon, especially one of modern build which is infinitely more dangerous than a weapon of Socrates' time, would be irresponsible and unjust, according to Socrates. For this reason and ones we will go over later in this essay, it seems that Socrates would be on the side of strict gun control - even disagreeing with the initial, original sentiment of the second amendment to the United States Constitution.

Cephalus concedes the point and leaves his son, Polemarchus, to take up the argument with Socrates, and Polemarchus suggests that justice is doing harm to enemies, while helping your friends. Through much dialogue, Socrates posits the problem that those who seem to be our friends are only appearing to be so, and those who seem to be enemies are only enemies in appearance - our distinction between friend and foe is not a reliable one, nor is it universally applicable or objective. Therefore you will, inevitably, end up doing harm to one who is actually your ally, and helping one who does not have your best interest at heart, thus falling into inconsistency - by obeying this definition of justice, you have actually committed an unjust act.

Socrates goes further into the problems with Polemarchus' definition, in ways that are applicable to our society today, in fact. One of his main arguments in rejection of Polemarchus' views is one of analogies, where he asks, "Does a doctor prescribe poison for a patient, or does he rather give him medicine and set his bones?" and "Do the best horse trainers beat their horses for disobeying, or teach them carefully and instruct them for their safety, and reward their good behaviors?" He suggests that harming others for being your "enemy" is not justice at all, and there must be a better medicine for injustice than "beat it to death". (Interestingly, this predates both Christianity and Islam, which both advocate for their deity prescribing an "infinite death" for disobedience.)

Socrates' point here is that harming others for doing you harm is no justice at all - almost supporting an interpretation the golden rule that many secular ethicists so positively adore, "do unto others as you would have them do unto you". In other words, do not commit harm only for the sake of it, especially not in retribution.

Does the United States follow such an initial Socratic view of justice? I would suggest we do not. The goal of prison and other punitive actions administered by courts is twofold in this nation:

  1. Dissuade others from committing similar actions in society;
  2. Punish and harm those who have committed said actions to begin with.

Other goals that are occasionally relevant are rectifying the situation to the victim (for example, returning stolen property), or reforming the criminals that are in penitentiaries. This reform does not happen in any meaningful sense - if it is possible at all. Theoretically, it should be, since the brain is malleable and able to change even when you are an adult (this is known as "neuroplasticity", broadly speaking), but whatever we are doing right now does not rehabilitate criminals reliably across the nation.

Another definition of justice is offered, one which many will likely connect with on some level - this definition is given by Thrasymachus, an irreverent and angry young sophist who flings himself at Socrates, shouting angrily about how foolish and offensive Socrates has been this entire time. His entire definition of justice, as he originally puts it, is "That which is the advantage to the stronger." In other words, might makes right, and it is the duty of the weaker to do as the stronger says. Socrates rather handily points out that leaders and strong men are not infallible, to which Thrasymachus agrees, and that the leaders may create laws which seem to benefit themselves - but actually do not benefit themselves at all. The weaker subjects of the society would be required to follow this law, which is just for them to do, and then the leaders would have accidentally created a society that harms themselves - a contradiction of Thrasymachus' own definition of justice.

Essentially, this can be broken down into a long syllogism in the following manner:

  1. Some people in society are stronger than others, defined as "leaders".
  2. Justice is whatever the strong do, which is to their own advantage.
  3. Justice for the followers or "weak" men, consists of obeying the stronger.
  4. The leaders sometimes make mistakes.
  5. The leaders may make laws, mistakenly, which hinder their interests, rather than provide advantage.
  6. Thus, the leaders acted justly and injustly at the same time - doing what they thought was advantageous but being mistaken.
  7. The followers of the society have behaved justly, by following the laws set before them.
  8. Therefore it is possible for justice to be maintained, yet the leaders be disadvantaged.
This is a rough draft of what is essentially being said. Thrasymachus poses the first through third propositions, while the rest, and the conclusion, are drawn by Socrates in the discussion.

What seems apparent is that none of these definitions are logically valid - "advantage of the stronger" falls into contradiction; "obeying legal responsibilities and being honest" requires you to do things which most humans agree would be unjust or immoral (and the implicit assumption is that justice is moral); and "harm your enemies, help your friends" also falls into contradiction because we do not always know who our enemies and friends truly are, and we are prone to make mistakes. So what is justice?

What is justice indeed.

The discussion continues, and Thrasymachus makes the argument that acting "justly" is actually a benefit to others, the leaders that profit from your just behavior, rather than yourself, and it is more profitable for yourself to act unjustly. Socrates demolishes this too by suggesting that Thrasymachus is promoting injustice as a virtue, and justice as a lack of virtue, which is contradictory in Socrates' mind because the wise man does not seek to compete with others in his same art - for example, a medical professional doesn't compete with other medical professionals, he is merely trying to provide the best service he can to those that require him, but if he were unjust he would try to scam his patients, and sabotage - or at least outdo - the others who practice the art of medicine. (In The Republic, every profession is referred to either as an art or a craft - including ruling a city, being a doctor, or any other occupation.)

Socrates and the others around him agree that injustice and wisdom are contradictory, and injustice is not a virtue since virtues should compliment, rather than fight, each other. Socrates argues that those who practice an art or possess knowledge do not wish to do better than their art, but to do better than the opposite - a medical practitioner doesn't wish to do better than a medical action, he wishes to do better than that which is not medical. This is drawn from a long, multi-page chain of questions and arguments which we will not go into detail with here - the point is that a preliminary idea of justice is "something which is congruent with wisdom, and helps others work together towards a common goal."

This plays into the later books when justice receives a more concrete definition - the first book is arguably one of the more difficult and abstract books, since the arguments are attempting to go from first-principles to a definition of justice (as well as several other virtues and principles in later books.) However, does the United States' cultural idea of justice represent this? What does the United States think of the word "justice"? We could look at definitions from a dictionary, perhaps:

  1. Just behaviour or treatment. ‘a concern for justice, peace, and genuine respect for people’
  2. The quality of being fair and reasonable. ‘the justice of his case’
  3. The administration of the law or authority in maintaining this. ‘a tragic miscarriage of justice’
  4. A judge or magistrate, in particular a judge of the Supreme Court of a country or state.

The first definition is circular and merely shows you how to use the word properly - it offers no meaning for the word, but implies it is related to peace and respect. The second and third definitions are similar to Cephalus' definition of justice, "fulfilling legal obligations and being honest". The final definition is a noun, for example, when we refer to a judge on the Supreme Court in the United States, we refer to them as a Justice of the Supreme Court - this is a title rather than a meaning for the word in a philosophical or societal sense.

I would argue that the United States idea of justice is that of Cephalus. We consider justice to be fluid and changing with the law, and if something is legal, we consider it just - but we have seen the laws applied in ways we consider immoral or unfair, or misused against those who may have not committed a great wrongdoing. In some instances we see those who have committed a horrible act get off with little legal repercussions - for example the case of Brock Turner, the man who attempted to rape a 22 year old woman at Stanford University and got a mere 6 months in jail and 3 years probation (although it is worthwhile to note that he has registered as a sex offender for the rest of his life, which carries with it many penalties and problems he will carry for the rest of his life.) In many people's eyes, this was unjust - he should have been punished even more, yet the legal obligations have been fulfilled.

We operate according to Cephalus' definition of justice, yet we are unfulfilled and unhappy. I believe it is possible to have a cultural shift in the United States such that we change our view of justice and what behaving justly means, and we will probe deeper into this topic in later articles examining the further books of The Republic by Plato.


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