Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Monday, November 14, 2005

The Republic of Plato - Book 4

Discussion questions for November 7:

1. Is the purpose of the State to make its citizens happy? (89/90/105)

2. Does wealth destroy the arts, or make them flourish? (90-91)

3. Are rich and poor always “at war with one another”? (92) If so, why?

4. How much influence does popular culture (movies, novels, music, etc) have on society? (93-94)

5. Are the four values Socrates outlines (wisdom, courage, temperance and justice) viewed the same way today that they were in Plato’s time? (97-104)

6. Does Socrates’ theory of the perfect State translate well into a psychology of the individual? (110-111)


Blogger SMJ said...

Is the purpose of the State to make its citizens happy?

This question has three terms which must be defined before attempting a response. First, we need to know what "state" refers to; second, we need to know who are the "citizens"; and finally, we need to know what is meant by happiness.

In Plato's Republic, "state" refers to the polis or city in which men live. But it also can stand for the political bonds which hold men together. In our own time, it is tempting to think of "state" as a government which rules over the people, but within the context of Athenian democracy there is no separation between the government and its people. Of course, not all people living in Athens could be "citizens." Only "citizens" had a voice in the political affairs of the city. In the time of Plato, citizenship was restricted to men born of Athenian fathers; all others were excluded from attending the "ekklesia" where voting took place on issues of the day. Thus, women, children, slaves, and foreigners were not Athenian citizens.

The final term "happiness" was used by Socrates to refer to a state of mind, similar to what we now mean by "contentment," but not to be confused with "pleasure." In fact, Socrates is careful to link "happiness" with the idea of the "Good." The "Good" refers to perfection itself, a state of moral and aesthetic harmony with the eternal gods or heavenly sphere of existence. Such terms as "beauty," "truth," and "justice," are all contained within the larger conception of the "Good." Another way of referring to the "good" is to say the "well-being" of something.

In Book Four, Socrates makes clear that the polis was not created for the benefit of any single person, but for the benefit of the community as a whole.

[..."our aim in founding the State was not the disproportionate happiness of any one class, but the greatest happiness of the whole"]

With this in mind, the question of whether the purpose of the state is to make men happy can now be addressed.

In Book 2 Socrates described a city of modest scale wherein the needs of justice are met. In the primitive city, no guardians are necessary for no excess wealth is produced. Thus, in the city of moderation, all basic needs for survival are satisfied, but desire for the accumulation of wealth or other luxuries is not encouraged. Glaucon objects that the city of moderation, even if it has justice, has no beauty. It is fit only for pigs. It lacks any consideration for art, culture or the material pleasures that wealth makes possible.

And so, in order to satisfy Glaucon's desire for luxury, Socrates proceeds to a discussion of justice on a larger scale. In the new city of wealth, citizens will be divided according to their biological potential. Those showing a love for wisdom (philo-sophy) will be given a different education than those who lack that ability. In accordance with Socrates dictum that the "better" should rule over the "worse," the city is now divided into three spheres of interest: gold, silver and brass. Socrates believes that dividing the population into three groups reflects the natural differences in people that occur at birth. Those who demonstrate more potential for rational development are considered to be of gold metal, and will be educated as rulers; those who show more spirit (courage and moral superiority) are said to be of silver metal, and will be trained as guardians; finally, those who show a desire for accumulating property are placed with the brass or wage earning class. With this arrangement, people are sorted into the group which most corresponds to their natural tendency, resulting in the greatest happiness for all. Since brass citizens are most concerned with luxury, they will be responsible for producing the wealth of the city; whereas gold citizens seek wisdom and truth and will be entrusted with governing.

Socrates uses the analogy of a pilot who navigates the ship because he alone has the skill to avoid running aground. The story of the gold, silver, and brass metals is used as a foundation myth upon which to build the just city (presumably to get the cooperation of those who are not selected as guardians or rulers). Apparently, it doesn't matter much that the just city (the city of truth) will be established through a myth or "royal lie." I think Plato is saying that if you want a perfectly just city, then here is what is required: philosophy must yield the possibility of truth to the necessity of human nature. Until human nature evolves or can be educated to accept and love philosophy, some compromises will have to be made. So, the foundation myth is one of those bargains we must make with truth in order to obtain the benefits of justice, not justice in the absolute sense, but the greatest amount of justice which is possible for men to acquire.

We recall that the city of moderation which Glaucon rejected as fit only for pigs is the only just city which men can build, and yet men will never live in such a place. Now, we discover that the essential problem of pursuing justice is what to do about wealth and pleasure: i.e., is it possible to have both luxury and justice in the same society? It is possible to see Plato's Republic as a kind of philosophical treatment of the Genesis story of man's fall from grace and his never ending quest for redemption. In Christian theology, we know that not everyone will be saved due to man's failure to obey divine law (the sin of pride). In the just city, happiness requires the rule of truth over freedom, or to put it differently, the realm of justice is made possible only by the authority of reason. Thus, until humans are ruled by philosophy (the philosopher king), justice is not attainable.

In the Republic, Plato seems to be telling us that the desire to have both luxury and justice will lead eventually to tyranny and the politics of eugenics, which are the very opposite of freedom. But what does this imply for our own experiment with democracy? Does every democracy lead necessarily to tyranny or chaos? Can the requirements of both justice and pleasure ever be satisfied? And finally, can human society be considered a rational enterprise? Are people willing to be governed by reason when they are deprived of luxury? These questions, while not explicitly answered in the Republic, inspire us to look further and reflect on what actually is needed for a good life: truth? ...justice? ...pleasure? Or all of these things? And if we discover that justice and pleasure are just not compatible, what then? What are we willing to sacrifice? Is happiness possible without truth or justice? Socrates would say no. The unexamined life is not worth living. But if philosophy leads us to discontent and confusion, what then? Is contentment worth the price of freedom? Or is justice more valuable than life itself?

1/10/2006 12:13 PM  

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