Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Monday, October 31, 2005

The Republic of Plato - Book 1

Discussion questions for October 17:

What is justice?

Should we try and define justice, or just give examples to show what it looks like? In other words, is justice something that can be rationally explored, or does it need to be grasped intuitively?


Blogger SMJ said...

Most people reading Plato are quite aware that they are being manipulated. We feel that each one of us could give better answers to Socrates than the poor victims Plato has provided. But that is beside the point. Each character in a Platonic dialogue represents a single point of view, one path among many possible paths that could be taken in the quest for truth. It may not be the best answer available, but it reflects one of the possible answers to a deep philosophical question. It is important to realize that none of the answers are random, and all are equally significant, even though it appears that no possible answer can give an adequate response to the question.

Book 1 of The Republic does not begin with a philosophical question, but with Socrates asking how Cephalus feels about coming to the end of his life. Cephalus, who is certainly no philosopher but a wealthy, retired merchant, starts by describing to Socrates what old age is like, and ends by being drawn into a discourse on justice. Cephalus attributes his happy outlook to a life of being honest and giving to others what is due to them. But Socrates mentions that since Cephalus is wealthy, perhaps wealth contributes to his peace of mind. Cephalus replies that a man of good character will always bear the problems of old age better than a dishonest man, regardless of money. Socrates proceeds to demonstrate that honesty and giving a man his due are not always enough. Justice sometimes requires a man to withhold the truth, or to refuse giving a man his property if he is drunk or unstable. At this point, Cephalus begs off from the discussion and goes to make sacrifices to the Gods. We conclude from his departure that neither wealth nor serenity are sufficient for an understanding of justice.

The dialogue, which began with a conversation about old age, moves to a consideration of a good life; Socrates then modifies the question to examine goodness itself, which is understood to mean a form of justice.

Once Cephalus departs, Polemarchus, his son, takes up the discussion. He says that justice relates to doing good to one's friends and harm to one's enemies. But Socrates is unpersuaded. He quickly refutes the notion that justice means doing harm to anyone-- friends or enemies, then demonstrates that justice cannot simply mean doing good to one's friends. There are complications, such as the difficulty of identifying one's friends, and the problem of knowing what is the right thing to do in a given situation; for human fallibility often leads to mistakes.

Again, Polemarchus is worn down by Socrates' objections, and ends by contradicting himself. The statement that justice is about helping friends and harming enemies is shown to be untenable.

It is here that Thrasymachus joins the discussion. Thrasymachus, a sophist (teacher of rhetoric) has been listening to the discussion and is already angry. He believes that Socrates avoids defining justice, while, at the same time, attacking Polemachus for his own definition. Thrasymachus proposes a different understanding of justice—i.e., that justice is simply the will (or advantage) of the stronger. It is the view of Thrasymachus that men always pursue their own interest. Those who are stronger subdue those who are weaker, and the strongest of all establishes himself as the ruler. Thrasymachus' belief that justice is the will or interest of the stronger rests upon several philosophical assumptions:
1. There is no divine law from which we derive our notions of justice; nor is there any universal, abstract idea of justice to which everyone defers.
2. Men always seek their own advantage.
3. Justice is but the progeny of law, and law is derived from the governing authority. Thus, whatever the ruling tyrant says or demands is lawful and just.

Essentially, this is the doctrine of "might makes right." What is right can only mean what is lawful; and what is lawful is whatever the law giver or tyrant says it is. Under this doctrine, the expression "unjust law" is an oxymoron. Since there is no appeal to a higher standard of justice, superior force alone determines right.

Another way of stating this position is that all morality is relative (or situational) and has no ultimate authority other than what is made necessary (or convenient) by a particular set of circumstances. This is the core of the relativist position in ethics. How will Socrates respond?

Socrates is able to refute Thrasymachus in the following manner:

First, Socrates gets Thrasymachus to agree that it is right (i.e., good or "just") to obey all laws. Thrasymachus must agree because he has already stated that the weaker must obey the will of the stronger, and whatever the ruler says has the force of law. This social arrangement (otherwise known as the master-slave relationship) leads to a principle of justice in which obedience to law is equivalent to justice.

Next, Socrates is able to show that rulers, being human, after all, and not divine, sometimes make mistakes. They misunderstand or fail to identify where their interest lies. They, in fact, decide something or create a law which does not serve their own advantage, even though they believe that it does. When this occurs, the subject, by obeying the law (which expresses the will of the sovereign) actually promotes the interest of the weaker. Thus justice, which is supposed to serve the interest of the stronger, now serves the interest of the weaker.

Yet justice, according to Thrasymachus, cannot serve both the interest of the strong and the weak, so his definition of justice must be irrational. Thus, Socrates answers Thrasymachus.

Now, Clitophon, who has been listening to the discussion all along, tries to help Thrasymachus in his dispute with Socrates. Cleitophon believes that he has identified the flaw in Thrasymachus' argument. Instead of saying that justice is the will or interest of the stronger, Cleitophon says that justice is whatever the strong "believes" to be in his interest, whether it actually is or not. In other words, Cleitophon has eliminated any possibility of error on the part of the ruler.

Notice that law (or justice) is now based entirely on a belief rather than knowledge. Whatever a ruler "thinks" is good becomes good in actuality simply because thinking makes it so. This argument, of course, is logically circular. It is like saying A = B, therefore B = A. Papal infallibility and the divine right of kings rests upon similar dubious foundations.

Cleitophon's restatement of Thrasymachus represents a more radical form of the relativist position. Using logic alone, Cleitophon cannot be refuted, just as radical relativism (which rejects the possibility of universals) cannot be refuted.

Fortunately for Socrates, he is not called upon to do so. Thrasymachus rejects Cleitophon's advice. Although Thrasymachus is unable to defeat Socrates, he is unwilling to abandon his love of knowledge because it would undermine his own credibility as a sophist. Cleitophon's position leads only to metaphysical skepticism, for if merely changing one's mind makes everything good or just, then nothing is. If nothing can be proven to be untrue, then it is impossible to speak authoritatively on anything. Hence, teaching becomes a waste of time, and Thrasymachus would quickly be out of a job. Thrasymachus, however, does not choose to go down that road.

Instead, he changes his position. Whereas he earlier stated that justice is the will of the stronger; now he argues that injustice is superior to justice. We will explore this idea further in Book 2.

10/31/2005 9:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This question goes to the very heart of the Great Books discussion concept; indeed, it goes to the very heart of Western Civilization. It’s not just justice, but the idea of questioning any notion (i.e. what is truth?) that’s at stake. This is the foundation of what might be called “the Western mind”: the belief that concepts can be discussed, analyzed and ultimately understood better, through the process of reasonable examination. It’s an unapologetically rational approach to life. It’s not the only approach one can take, but it’s the one in which Socrates seems to have an unshakeable faith. Using reason alone, we can discuss things together and come to know the world around us better. This is Socrates’ belief. It’s easy to say, but hard to do. Through Plato’s pen, Socrates does it brilliantly.
Justice is harder to define than most people think. Cephalus gives what sounds like a pretty good definition: “to speak the truth and pay your debts.” Polemarchus says that “justice is the art which gives good to friends and evil to enemies.” Thrasymachus believes that “justice is nothing else than the interest of the stronger.” Socrates is not satisfied with any of these definitions and pushes them to try harder. So we begin down the long, hard road of learning. One of the things that makes the conversation more compelling is that Socrates says he does not know the answer either. Those involved in the discussion (and the reader) seem to be on a journey of discovery right alongside the master himself. Welcome to Socrates’ world.

1/05/2006 3:33 PM  
Blogger gravity said...

Thrasymachus says " that justice is simply the will (or advantage) of the stronger" i read this and instantaneously seen irrationality,lawlessness and nontruth (falsehood). Socrates was right to correct him. however Thrasymachus was right in this assumption "Men always seek their own advantage" this by nature is true,mankind is advantageous for the mere sake of advantage which contradicts law/order/truth/justice. THIS IS WHY mankind is imperfect/fallible/hypocrites/liars/confused/wayward in their decision making processes. However even though man is & always will be imperfect(in the sense that he does make mistakes)he can improve on truth/perfection/justice/order. ONE MAIN KEY is to be of one mind (nonwayward)to see & understand truth and stay true to IT. we have a habit of straying fron truth when are caught in a bind,trials & tribulations, and advantageousness due to pride,greed,fear etc. Stay true to truth to the end (its that simple). this exercise needs to be used daily (being equivalent in importance to that of food or liquids)to weed out former bad habits of bad judgement,lies,ignorances,vanities etc.. As one does this daily ones mind revived,reborn,refreshed. one can "see the light more clearly", see what IS REAL and not be in doubt all the time or think their right all the time in their own stubborness & conceit. CASE IN POINT- many alcoholics will say they arent alcoholics. why? cause that would be to say that they have a serious problem. well, that problem would mean that they should have to give the drink up. which in turn means they must defend their booze so they say "no, im not a drunk"

6/11/2010 1:58 PM  
Blogger gravity said...

Socrates is right-Thrasymachus is wrong,obviously. truth and justice is not based on whomever is in power. truth/justice is based on the metaphysical realm in which all mankind is endowed with.plainly put-truth resides within all mankind. however, even though truth/justice can be sought out from within, one must discard conceit and obstinancy and be openminded & willing to the truth presented from ones innersource.PRIDE & STUBBORNESS ARE THE ENEMIES OF TRUTH. As one exercises daily searching out truth & replacing old habits of lies with TRUTH. one becomes more aware of the world around him in a more enlightened/awakened state of mind & body. mankind is so full of lies he doesnt even recognise how much of a liar he is. thats how powerful lying and truth is!! from the smallest lies of a person body weight to financial income and so on. all these little lies control a person & how they live. it boxes mankind in like an inmate and devours them. true freedom is to get rid of the lying,seek truth, follow truth, be faithful to truth by obedience AND eliminating daily all the lies & hypocrisies! this brings a supernatural,devine form of enlightement/clarity. one will begin to feel weights being lifted,their eyes become more vivid (their minds eyes & physical eyes) and they have a greater sense of peace,love,joy....this is factual.

6/11/2010 2:24 PM  
Anonymous gravity said...

truth is metaphysical.truth comes from within,but mankind is rebellious and advantageous by nature. why? "advantage" itself is what propels a man to break from reasoning/truth/justice but furthermore it is PRIDE/CONCEIT that initiates the advantageosness! see, man knows generally what is right & wrong/truth & lie but when pride steps in, he seperates from TRUTH and takes the destructive route. However,at the time he sees not the destruction but what "APPEARS" to be production/advantage.EX:adultery,drugs,theft etc.. whenever one goes against TRUTH he has chosen the path of destruction. If one chooses to be a great judge,more aware of whats real/true to himself,more enlightened he must first seek truth from within,secondly by seeking truth- truth will let him know he is a liar by nature so he must acknowledge & accept the truth that he has been a liar,thirdly stop lying little by little. From the small lies to the big ones;they're all lies. secondly fill in the habitual lying voids wth truth. its ok to be silent,it isnt necessary to devulge everyone with every personal thing. but not only verbally but more importantly one must govern his own MIND/thoughts and stop lying to himself mentally. if one does this small step-by-step process he will feel weights removed,be more clear in mind and sight both physically & mentally. daily is key for lies are always creeping in,pride is always at the door waiting. this is true freedom,peace,love,joy

6/11/2010 3:01 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home