Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Thursday, July 23, 2015

PLATO: The Republic (Work and Justice)

What is justice?  Ask many people that question and you’ll get many different answers.  Some people say justice is following the law.  Others say justice is all about fairness.  Socrates says “justice is the minding of one’s own business and not being a busybody.”  What does that mean?   Socrates believes we can understand justice more easily by looking at relationships between people.  Robinson Crusoe living alone on an island can be neither a just man nor an unjust man.  That’s why Socrates wants us to consider justice within the context of living in community with others.  He says “a city, as I believe, comes into being because each of us isn’t self-sufficient but is in need of much.”  Aristotle says much the same thing but carries this idea a step further.  In On Happiness (GB1) he says “we define something as self-sufficient not by reference to the ‘self’ alone.  We do not mean a man who lives his life in isolation, but a man who also lives with parents, children, a wife and friends and fellow citizens generally, since man is by nature a social and political being…we define as ‘self-sufficient’ that which taken by itself makes life something desirable and deficient in nothing.”  By this definition Robinson Crusoe was surviving on his little island but it was a life that left much to be desired and was deficient in many things.

What do we need for a happy life?  Aristotle says “we have all but defined happiness as a kind of good life and well-being.”  We can get by (as Robinson Crusoe did) with only basic necessities of food, shelter and clothing.  But a good life needs many more things.  For this reason Socrates says “carpenters, smiths, and many other craftsmen of this sort become partners in our little city, making it into a throng.”  And “we’ll need merchants too…out of this we’ll get a market and an established currency as a token for exchange.”  City life is getting complicated.  No wonder Freud wrote a book called Civilization and Its Discontents (GB1).  The division of labor provides “craftsmen” to provide us with cars, kitchen tables, indoor plumbing, and many other amenities.  We don’t have to have these things to live.  But we need them if we want to live a civilized life.  Here’s the catch.  When we have division of labor and “established currency” (money) some people start getting richer than others.  Much richer.  Is this fair?  Is it “unjust”?  How is it that some people have so much and others so little?  Here’s one way.  In The Spirit of Capitalism (GB4) Max Weber tells us it was the Puritans who first “set the clean and solid comfort of the middle-class home as an ideal…the religious valuation of restless, continuous, systematic work in a worldly calling, as the highest means to asceticism… we have here called the spirit of capitalism.  When the limitation of consumption is combined with this release of acquisitive activity, the inevitable practical result is obvious: accumulation of capital through ascetic compulsion to save.”  Weber is saying when people work hard, don’t spend much and save what they earn, after twenty or thirty years they get rich.  But not everyone wants money and “the clean and solid comfort of a middle-class home.” Some people get bored with that lifestyle and want adventure instead.  Other people like to be in charge.  Socrates thinks these three types of people form three natural “classes.”  Most people do in fact want comfort and a nice home.  These folks Socrates calls the money-making class.  Society is best served by letting them make money.  People who want adventure become policemen and soldiers and help protect the wealth created by money-makers.  The “guardian class” are people who manage society and keep things running smoothly.  In a healthy body all the organs work together to make it function properly.  Socrates thinks it’s the same in a healthy city.  Everyone has a job to do.  A healthy city functions properly when everyone does his own job.  A carpenter shouldn’t direct foreign policy and an army general shouldn’t be making shoes.  Everyone has his own work to do and a city is healthiest when everyone does their own job properly.  For Socrates that’s justice.           


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