Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Monday, July 20, 2015

PLATO: The Republic (Philosophy of Urban Living)

To better understand what justice is Socrates proposes enlarging the topic the way we would enlarge letters for large print books.  Socrates: “There is, we say, justice of one man, and there is, surely, justice of a whole city too?”  “Certainly,” Adeimantus said.  “Is a city bigger than one man?”  “Yes, it is bigger,” he said.  “So then perhaps there would be more justice in the bigger and it would be easier to observe closely.”  It would be nice if we could jump into the conversation and respond: perhaps it would; perhaps it would not.  We should pause and consider if private justice and public justice are the same thing.  Can we really understand justice for an individual by seeing what it is for a whole city?  Adeimantus agrees that we can.  “What you say seems fine to me,” he said.  So Socrates proceeds by saying “a city, as I believe, comes into being because each of us isn’t self-sufficient but is in need of much.”  This would be another great place to take a detour and consider more deeply the question why are human beings, the highest of all creatures, not self-sufficient?  Is it a good thing or a bad thing that we have to depend on other people?  Aristotle agrees with Socrates.  Man is a social creature.  He would argue that this is a good thing.  Social connections lead to civilization.  And no one can lead the good life separated from civilized amenities and relationships.  Socrates goes on.  “The first and greatest of needs is the provision of food…second is housing and third clothing and such.”  Food, shelter and clothing are the basic minimum needs for every human being.  All creatures need food.  Most creatures need shelter and many creatures (birds, bees, ants) build their own shelters.  But only Man wears clothing.  Why?  Socrates, Plato and Aristotle rejected this line of questioning.  It should have been a warning to later philosophers who wanted to base philosophy on Man in a State of Nature.  But speculating on the Nature of Man in a State of Nature is pointless.  For Socrates, Plato and Aristotle the real State of Nature for Man is best understood as living in cities and villages.  It’s more practical and we make better progress considering how real people actually live.  So Socrates asks “Who would do a finer job, one man practicing many arts, or one man one art?”  “One man, one art,” Adeimantus said.  What’s at stake here is what Adam Smith calls The Division of Labor (Intro GB1, Wealth of Nations GB2).  Specialization produces much more wealth than an economy in which everybody tries to do everything.  Socrates says “each thing becomes more plentiful, finer, and easier, when one man, exempt from other tasks, does one thing according to nature.”  Maybe so, says Karl Marx, but it also may lead to Alienated Labor (GB1).  Division of labor may in fact make things easier and more efficient but does specialization make us better men?  Or does factory work and office work actually stunt those capabilities which make us truly human?  Also, Plato and Aristotle had slaves to perform mundane tasks like cleaning out stables.  In modern societies, with slavery abolished, who will voluntarily do the unpleasant tasks that make civilized life possible?      

Socrates lived in Athens.  In his day Athens was a great city.  In our day it would be considered a middling size town.  But in this reading he anticipates the problems that occur in any large city.  He says “there will also be need of throngs of other men…we’ll get a market and an established currency as a token for exchange…tradesmen…and merchants…and wage earners.”  Aristotle objects at this point.  He says we started out to supply the simple needs of food, shelter and clothing.  Now we’ve introduced money.  And some people in our city aren’t really working at all.  They’re making interest on loans.  It’s unethical (and unnatural) to sit back and get rich by using money to make more money.  Socrates was a city boy, born and raised in Athens.  Clearly the problems of living in urban environments are different from those of a country shepherd.  Naturally the philosophy will be different too.  Socrates’ specialty is the philosophy of urban life. 


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