Plato’s Republic: Books 1 and 2

Plato’s Republic: Books 1 and 2

The Republic, by Plato

Written by:

Brant McKinney, Samantha Moore, Elizabeth Pease, and Lauren Peake

The Republic begins with our main character Socrates being accompanied by Plato’s brother Glaucon to the Athenian Harbor. There they are invited back to what reminds me of a French style salon with Polemarchus, of whose house they are at, Adeimantus, Thrasymachus and Cephalus, Polemarchus’ father.

The story then quickly divulges into a conversation about weather, age and justice, the latter of which most of these two books are about. Cephalus is asked by Socrates how age has affected him and his life, some of the things Socrates asks him have to do with Cephalus’ younger libido and whether his accrual of wealth can be seen as a good or bad thing. Cephalus replies to the comment on his sexual desires by saying, “[W]hen the passions relax their hold, then, as Sophocles says, ‘we are freed from the grasp not of one mad master only, but of many’ (Plato).” Cephalus sees old age not as something that has hindered his life, but that has opened him up to new experiences and ways of looking at the world.

In response to Socrates claiming that Cephalus will do well in old age due to his wealth instead of his lifestyle, Cephalus responds by saying wealth allows a person to live without fear of not being able to sacrifice enough to the Gods or by being in anyone’s debts. Included below as an embedded link to the picture is a video of how comedian John Mulaney gave his university $120,000 which makes me think about debt and how I too would love not to be in debt to anyone.

Cephalus thus concludes that through this, one may achieve the good life and achieve justice. Socrates responds to this by giving an analogy that teaches the lesson, it is ok not to return something you borrowed. Essentially, the analogy says what if a reasonable sound person was to lend you a weapon of some sort and then later in an altered and dangerous state of mind, where to request for it back? One would probably not return the dangerous weapon for fear of their or someone else’s safety and thus it is ok not to repay all debts, though I would argue that this is not necessarily a debt because nothing is said about the person wanting to be given a dangerous weapon by the person who later turned crazy. But Cephalus, running away like a kid at recess, turns to “tend to the sacrifices” when his argument is found flawed. To which Socrates then turns to Cephalus’ son Polemarchus and says,” Tell me then, O thou heir of the argument, (and Cephalus’ riches) what did Simonides say…about justice (Plato)?” I can only imagine how Polemarchus must have felt being roped into his father’s argument, maybe something like the picture below.

Our party participants then divulge into a conversation about what justice is and how it may be defined. Included below is a wonderful crash course video that talks about some of the things I am also about to touch on.

Polemarchus then responds by saying justice is, “[G]iving everyone what is due and proper to him (Plato).” To which Socrates gives the same response to Cephalus’ definition of justice and denounces it. Polemarchus then says justice is given what is appropriate to a person and arguing that a just act would be doing good to one’s friends and harm to their enemies, a definition Socrates again refuses (I’m starting to see a pattern).

Socrates proceeds by arguing through analogies in which different people do “good” or “bad” things but justice in these cases are not apparent. I agree with his next assessment that our friends can do plenty of bad things and be bad people and that our enemies can be the best of men thus saying we can do good to bad men and bad to good men. Socrates concludes this section with saying that doing evil to an already evil person is not justice.

At this point in the conversation, Polemarchus seems to be objecting Socrates’ argument and Thrasymachus joins in on their discussion. He thinks that Socrates’ questions are becoming tedious and if Socrates is a professional teacher of argument then he should provide some sort of answer as opposed to asking questions. Socrates says he doesn’t know what justice is but would like to know what Thrasymachus’ definition of justice is.

Thrasymachus describes justice as whatever is in the interest of the stronger party. Hence, justice is enacted through power by those in power. He further argues that people in power make the laws that the weaker party, in this case subjects, are supposed to obey. Ultimately, for Thrasymachus justiceis the obedience of these laws made by rulers that serve the interests of the ruling class. Socrates interjects and proposes that rulers can pass bad laws in the sense that the laws do not serve the interests of the rulers. However, Thrasymachus responds that rulers can make mistakes, but it is their might that make them correct. Socrates refutes this argument by asserting that a ruler’s chief interests should be the interests of his subjects. He offers the example of a physician, whose primary concern should definitely be the welfare of his patient.

Socrates and Thrasymachus continue to argue about the characteristics of a good ruler. Thrasymachus argues that most people are only good in appearance, for example doing the right thing only when they are ignorant, stupid, or acting out of fear of punishment. On the contrary, strong men have the courage to do wrong, as they can out-think the simple people they preside over. Thrasymachus believes that injustice is the best course of action because an unjust man is able to take advantage of his fellows. He can rob the public, juggle books in a position of trust, and cheat on his taxes. Hmm, does that ring a bell?

Thrasymachus deduces that the good life is the tyrant’s life. He advocates that justice is the advantage of the stronger. Socrates states that Thrasymachus is wrong for three reasons: the unjust man is more knowledgeable than the just one, that injustice is a form of strength, and that injustice brings happiness. Socrates refutes Thrasymachus’ definition of justice, stating that “no knowledge considers or prescribes for the advantage of the stronger, but for that of the weaker, which it rules” (Book 1, pg. 17, line 342d)

First, he uses the analogy of the flute player and the physician. Socrates, states that the ignorant man is the one who always attempts home-remedies and similarly, the man ignorant of music who attempts to outdo the musician. Secondly, Socrates tells Thrasymachus that even thieves have to trust one another, shown by their fair division of their stolen goods. Even thieves practice a sort of justice, without it they would fall into chaos. Socrates shows that unjust men, at whatever level they practice injustice, deteriorate from an assumed strength into weakness. Thirdly, Socrates uses yet another analogy of the pruning hook, the eye, the ear and the soul. All of which possess several essences, which can be called their virtues. For example, the ear hears, the eye sees and the hook cuts. Just as all of these virtues allow a person to live a harmonious life, the soul cannot live without its accompanying virtue of justice. Socrates states that “the unjust man enjoys life better than the just” (Book 2, pg. 35, line 362c)

Socrates adds that those with bad souls will rule poorly, on the contrary those with good souls will rule well. The just man is happy and the unjust unhappy because injustice is always inferior. Thrasymachus leaves the conversation, still insisting his definition of justice is correct, even though Socrates still doesn’t specifically know what justice is.

Classification of goods

 Class IClass IIClass III
Description“Harmless pleasures and enjoyment”Undesirable and to be avoided, but at times necessary and beneficial nonethelessDesirable in an of itself, but also desired for the favorable outcome
Productivity StatusUnyielding, temporaryFavorable in outcome onlyFruitful, “the highest order”
ExamplesJoy, delightCaring for the sick, profit-driven endeavors,Knowledge, sight, health, justice

In Book II, the philosophers engage in a debate as to where justice should be placed. Glaucon maintains that justice belongs in Class II and exists merely as a result of the larger evil that would reign free if justice were not there to create some sort of order. Socrates, on the other hand, argues that justice should be placed in Class III. The disagreement between the two gentlemen is about the inherent value of justice itself. Glaucon then requests that Socrates convince him of the inherent value of justice for justice sake. Glaucon maintains his position that justice only has value because people do not want to be treated unjustly not because justice is a good.

 He maintains his position that justice is only valued because people want to avoid the consequences of injustice by telling the story of the Ring of Gyges. To quickly summarize this story, a farmer comes across a ring making him invisible; he then uses his newfound abilities to seduce the queen of his kingdom, kill the king, and take over his kingdom. This highlights that when placed in a situation where there are no consequences for your actions (i.e.: you have the ring from Lord of the Rings), people will do unjust things to gain power.

Glaucon claims “no one is just of his own will but only from constraint” and that the story of the Ring of Gyges illustrates this fact. It would be far better for the individual to be unjust than just. Glaucon then goes on to argue that the truly better life is one where an individual is purely perceived as being just but is actually unjust. The just individual who is perceived as unjust will have to endure great suffering and cannot possibly be happy. Before Socrates can begin to argue against Glaucon’s claim, Adeimantus interrupts their conversation. He wants Socrates to prove to him that justice by itself can bring happiness to an individual and how injustice by itself harms an individual. To begin to address Adeimantus’s question Socrates discusses the political metaphor of a state.

As the conversation surrounding justice progresses, Socrates creates a depiction of justice on the state level due to the fact that the larger scale will allow for examples of justice to be more easily detected. He first notes that a state is a product of necessity, as no man can single handedly provide for himself. The illustration is of a basic state, where people specialize in tasks such as art, medicine, or farming. Socrates notes that there is a stark division of labor in which citizens must only perform the duty to which he is most inclined. The exchange of the respective products from each profession necessitates justice, so that transactions are fair and right.

Now that the state at the rudimentary level has been examined, Socrates then talks about human desire for opulence and splendor, thereby leading to the luxury state. Bakeries, incense, couches and other luxury items obtained through wealth, in addition to borders and land, necessitate a new role in society: warriors. These guardians are needed to protect wealth as well as the state. So, where does justice come into play? Justice is what keeps man from succumbing to his nature of evil and ensuring the fairness of transactions and interactions amongst citizens.

It is fascinating to see how justice as a contested subject in ancient times and still remains somewhat elusive, despite the fact that it is a so-called pillar of American society today, whose founding was largely influenced by ancient Greek philosophers. It is particularly interesting given the current political climate, given who decides if law and order should trump justice. The concept of citizens getting what they deserve, through sheer merit, the legal system, laws, etc. is tricky, especially when people in charge of doling out justice do not follow the proper procedures or have pure motives. Continuity and change over time are important to understand the past as well as the present.


Brant McKinney

Brant McKinney is a senior at Virginia tech studying political science with a minor in philosophy. He specializes in environmental politics, policy, and philosophy and hopes to go to graduate school for urban planning next fall.

Samantha Moore

Samantha Moore is a junior at Virginia Tech studying political science with a minor in Spanish. She is in the legal studies concentration and plans to work in the defense industry.

Elizabeth Pease

Liz Pease is a senior at Virginia Tech majoring in Political Science. She will be commissioning in the Marine Corps this upcoming spring and hopes to use her degree in the private sector when she retires.

Lauren Peake

Lauren Peake is a senior at Virginia Tech majoring in International Relations and French. She does not know what she will do after graduation but hopes to work for the French Embassy.