Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Friday, July 17, 2015

PLATO: The Republic (Justice, Socrates and Job)

Socrates and his young students are deep into a discussion about the nature of justice.  Naturally they also have to consider the nature of injustice.  One of the young students named Glaucon poses this dilemma for consideration: “the extreme of injustice is to seem to be just when one is not.”  In other words the worst situation is when a bad man seems to be good.  This is Machiavelli’s advice in The Prince (GB3).  A prince “must know how to take up evil, should it become necessary.  A prince, therefore, should take great care never to say a single thing that is not infused with these five qualities; he should appear (when seen and heard) to be all compassion, all faithfulness, all integrity, all kindness, all religion…men in general judge more according to their eyes than their hands…everyone sees what you appear to be, few touch what you are…” The reverse is also true; the extreme of injustice is when a good man seems to be bad.  We have such a situation in the book of Job (GB4): “There was a man in the land of Uz, whose name was Job; and that man was perfect and upright, and one that feared God, and eschewed evil.”  And this wasn’t just a sham like Machiavelli’s prince who could put on a show of virtue and then take it off whenever he wanted.  Job was the real deal.  He was truly a “perfect and upright” man.  We know this because we read “the Lord said unto Satan, Hast thou considered my servant Job, that there is none like him in the earth, a perfect and upright man, one that feareth God, and escheweth evil?  Then Satan answered the Lord, and said, Doth Job fear God for nought?  Hast not thou made an hedge about him, and about his house, and about all that he hath on every side? Thou hast blessed the work of his hands, and his substance is increased in the land.  But put forth thine hand now and touch all that he hath, and he will curse thee to thy face.”

These are the two types of men Glaucon has in mind.  Machiavelli’s Prince is the man who may gain profit from injustice.  He can be evil and yet appears to be good and as a result he reaps the benefits of ruling a whole nation.  Job is the man who suffers because of his justice.  He really is good but even his friends believe he must have done some evil to have such misfortunes happen to him.  Another one of Socrates’ young students, Adeimantus, sums up these two examples with a question.  “Of what profit is justice in itself to the man who possesses it…you have spent your whole life considering nothing but this.  So, don’t only show us by the argument that justice is stronger than injustice, but show what each in itself does to the man who has it (whether it is noticed by gods and human beings or not) that makes the one good and the other bad.”  This is essentially the same argument Satan is using with the Lord.  What Adeimantus and Satan want to know is this.  What good does Job gain from being a just man?  He’s plagued by disaster and disease.  He’s lost his wealth, his health, and his children.  His closest friends insist he must have committed some terrible sin (or injustice in Greek terms).  Even his wife says to him “Dost thou still retain thine integrity? curse God, and die.”  But throughout the whole ordeal Job remains true to what he is: a truly just man.  His friends are no help.  What would Socrates say to Job?

We’ll never know and that’s a shame.  Socrates and Job are two of the wisest men in all of Western literature.  But their wisdom begins from different starting points.  So we shouldn’t be surprised if they come to different conclusions.  Socrates is a philosopher.  He wants to think for himself and come to rational conclusions.  Job is a religious man.  He looks to God for answers and builds his conclusions on a foundation of faith.  These are two very different men with very different approaches to wisdom.  But they have this much in common.  They both disapprove of men like Machiavelli who would use wisdom (or magic golden rings) to get earthly rewards.  Machiavelli, for his part, would respond that Socrates and Job would not make good princes.


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