Plato’s Republic (reading one)

"Plato," by Mitch Francis

"Plato," by Mitch Francis
“Plato,” by Mitch Francis

Plato in Raphael’s 1509 painting, The School of Athens

The Republic is widely hailed as Plato’s magnum opus (which is Latin for ‘great work’). Dating from between 380 and 360 BCE, it is the work of the mature, “individuated” Plato — a Plato more the master of his own thought than the disciple of Socrates. In fact, scholars generally divide Plato’s dialogues into what we’ll just break into two groups:

  • In the early period, probably spanning 399-387 BCE, the Socrates we meet fairly and closely represents the historical Socrates. Hence these are often simply called “Socratic dialogues.”
  • In middle and later periods, running from about 386-347 BCE, the dialogues champion Plato’s own, evolved views, which do not always agree with those of the historical Socrates.

Hence, it’s important to take care to distinguish these: the distinction of periods helps but does not eliminate the need for subtlety in discerning not the voice of a single character, Socrates, but a range of voices.

*see p. 124 of his “Socrates and the Early Dialogues.” Cambridge Companion to Plato. Ed. Richard Kraut. Cambridge University Press, 2006. 121-169.

The Republic‘s ancient subtitle, “Concerning Justice,” is an accurate clue as to its central theme. The Socrates we encounter in Book I is very much involved in elenchus, primarily interrogating views of justice. But beginning in Book II, Socrates waxes as exploratory as he has been critical; and at times, he even seems to rely on somewhat tenuous postulates and speculations. And yet there are deep, subtle arguments, artfully presented to deliver an impact that unfolds over time. We don’t understand The Republic by grasping the literal meaning of the words in its text; it requires a more subtle attentiveness. Contemporary scholar Terry Penner* classifies Book I as “Socratic” and the others “Platonic.” See whether you can detect differences that might ground such a distinction.

It has to be admitted that the subtitle, “Concerning Justice,” misrepresents the scope of this work: It is not only immensely bolder and thus more exciting reading than most political treatises; it treats wide-ranging issues from the structure of the soul to the nature of the good community, from education of the youth to the highest ordering principles of the cosmos, from the value of art and music to the allure of selfishness.

see W.K.C. Guthrie’s A History of Greek Philosophy, vol. 4, 10 n. 4

The opening scene is the house of Cephalus, which is just off the Piraeus (the harbor area in the “Athens metro”); and the whole dialogue is narrated by Socrates the day after it actually took place to Timaeus, Hermocrates, Critias, and a less person, all introduced in the Timaeus. The “voices” in his account include his own, and those of Glaucon and Adeimantus (brothers, and perhaps Plato’s older siblings), Polemarchus (Cephalus’ son), Cephalus, Thrasymachus (the Chalcedonian), Cleitophon (son of Aristonymus), and others listening in.

Jump to

Book I

Socrates is descending as the book begins. Significant? Keep this in mind as the plot unfolds… Also, “the goddess” he was honoring would have been Bendis, a Tracian divinity of moon and magic. While the Greeks associated her with Artemis, she was foreign. BendisArtemis Bendis, molded terracotta figurine, (Tanagra?) ca. 350 BC, (Louvre)

327 Socrates I went down yesterday to the Piraeus with Glaucon, the son of Ariston, that I might offer up my prayers to the goddess…. When we had finished our prayers and viewed the spectacle, we turned in the direction of the city; and at that instant Polemarchus, the son of Cephalus, chanced to catch sight of us from a distance as we were starting on our way home….

Polemarchus said to me:

Polemarchus I perceive, Socrates, that you and your companion are already on your way to the city…. But do you see, he rejoined, how many we are? … And are you stronger than all these? for if not, you will have to remain where you are….

Socrates Accordingly we went with Polemarchus to his house; and there we found … Cephalus, the father of Polemarchus, whom I had not seen for a long time, and I thought him very much aged…. He saluted me eagerly, and then he said:

Cephalus You don’t come to see me, Socrates, as often as you ought…. For, let me tell you that the more the pleasures of the body fade away, the greater to me are the pleasure and charm of conversation….

… [Y]ou, who have arrived at that time which the poets call the “threshold of old age”: Is life harder toward the end?

Socrates I replied: There is nothing which for my part I like better, Cephalus, than conversing with aged men; for I regard them as travellers who have gone a journey which I too may have to go, and of whom I ought to inquire whether the way is smooth and easy or rugged and difficult. And this is a question which I should like to ask of you, who have arrived at that time which the poets call the “threshold of old age”: Is life harder toward the end, or what report do you give of it?

[T]hese regrets… are to be attributed to the same cause, which is not old age, but men’s characters.

Cephalus I will tell you, Socrates, he said, what my own feeling is. Men of my age flock together; we are birds of a feather, as the old proverb says; and at our meetings the tale of my acquaintance commonly is: I cannot eat, I cannot drink; the pleasures of youth and love are fled away; there was a good time once, but now that is gone, and life is no longer life. Some complain of the slights which are put upon them by relations, and they will tell you sadly of how many evils their old age is the cause. But to me, Socrates, these complainers seem to blame that which is not really in fault. For if old age were the cause, I too, being old, and every other old man would have felt as they do…. The truth is, Socrates, that these regrets, and also the complaints about relations, are to be attributed to the same cause, which is not old age, but men’s characters and tempers; for he who is of a calm and happy nature will hardly feel the pressure of age, but to him who is of an opposite disposition youth and age are equally a burden.

Socrates I listened in admiration, and wanting to draw him out, that he might go on – Yes, Cephalus, I said; but I rather suspect that people in general are not convinced by you when you speak thus; they think that old age sits lightly upon you, not because of your happy disposition, but because you are rich, and wealth is well known to be a great comforter.

330 Cephalus …. [L]et me tell you, Socrates, that when a man thinks himself to be near death, fears and cares enter into his mind which he never had before; the tales of a world below and the punishment which is exacted there of deeds done here were once a laughing matter to him, but now he is tormented with the thought that they may be true: either from the weakness of age, or because he is now drawing nearer to that other place, he has a clearer view of these things; suspicions and alarms crowd thickly upon him, and he begins to reflect and consider what wrongs he has done to others. And when he finds that the sum of his transgressions is great he will many a time like a child start up in his sleep for fear, and he is filled with dark forebodings. But to him who is conscious of no sin, sweet hope… is the kind nurse of his age…. [T]he great blessing of riches… to a good man, is, that he has had no occasion to deceive or to defraud others, either intentionally or unintentionally; and when he departs to the world below he is not in any apprehension about offerings due to the gods or debts which he owes to men. Now to this peace of mind the possession of wealth greatly contributes….

Cephalus excuses himself to make sacrifices, and his son, Polemarchus, takes up the discussion with Socrates, who is eliciting an account of Justice.

Socrates Tell me then, O thou heir of the argument, what did Simonides say, and according to you, truly say, about justice?

Polemarchus He said that the repayment of a debt is just, and in saying so he appears to me to be right.

Even in this apparently light example Socrates begins to drive the “Wedge of the Good” between power (as represented by a weapon) and ignorance (as represented by insanity). Later in Book III, he argues that wealth (economic power) would undermine the wisdom of the rulers, that economic power must not count as political power in a good community.

Socrates I shall be sorry to doubt the word of such a wise and inspired man, but his meaning, though probably clear to you, is the reverse of clear to me. For he certainly does not mean, as we were just now saying, that I ought to return a deposit of arms [i.e., weapons] or of anything else to one who asks for it when he is not in his right senses [e.g., when he’s “gone mad”]; and yet a deposit cannot be denied to be a debt.

Polemarchus True.

Socrates Then when the person who asks me is not in his right mind I am by no means to make the return?

Polemarchus Certainly not.

Socrates When Simonides said that the repayment of a debt was justice, he did not mean to include that case?

Polemarchus Certainly not; for he thinks that a friend ought always to do good to a friend, and never evil…. Socrates, … justice is the art which gives good to friends and evil to enemies….

Socrates But see the consequence: Many a man who is ignorant of human nature has friends who are bad friends, and in that case he ought to do harm to them; and he has good enemies whom he ought to benefit; but, if so, we shall be saying the very opposite of that which we affirmed to be the meaning of Simonides….

Polemarchus Very true, he said…. We should rather say that he is a friend who is, as well as seems, good; and that he who seems only and is not good, only seems to be and is not a friend; and of an enemy the same may be said….

In the full text, a figure named Thrasymachus takes the lead at this point, arguing against Socrates, claiming that what is often called injustice is in fact the best path. We rejoin the discussion just before a frustrated Thrasymachus departs, and Glaucon takes over the argument.

Socrates And instead of saying simply as we did at first, that it is just to do good to our friends and harm to our enemies, we should further say: It is just to do good to our friends when they are good, and harm to our enemies when they are evil?

Polemarchus Yes, that appears to me to be the truth.

Socrates But ought the just to injure anyone at all?…. [W]ill not men who are injured be deteriorated in that which is the proper virtue of man?…. And that human virtue is justice?… And can the just by justice make men unjust, or speaking generally, can the good by virtue make them bad?

Polemarchus Assuredly not….

Socrates Then if a man says that justice consists in the repayment of debts, and that good is the debt which a just man owes to his friends, and evil the debt which he owes to his enemies – to say this is not wise; for it is not true, if, as has been clearly shown, the injuring of another can be in no case just…. [B]ut if this definition of justice also breaks down, what other can be offered? 336b Several times in the course of the discussion Thrasymachus had made an attempt to get the argument into his own hands, and … when … there was a pause, he could no longer hold his peace….

The appearance of the “might makes right” theory of what “real” justice is.

338c Thrasymachus Listen, … he said; I proclaim that justice is nothing else than the interest of the stronger. And now why do you not praise me? But of course you won’t.

A ‘pancratiast‘ is a skilled boxer or wrestler.

Socrates Let me first understand you, I replied. Justice, as you say, is the interest of the stronger. What, Thrasymachus, is the meaning of this? You cannot mean to say that because Polydamas, the pancratiast, is stronger than we are, and finds the eating of beef conducive to his bodily strength, that to eat beef is therefore equally for our good who are weaker than he is, and right and just for us?

Is Socrates being a jerk? Or is this way of testing words constructive?

Thrasymachus That’s abominable of you, Socrates; you take the words in the sense which is most damaging to the argument.

Socrates Not at all, my good sir, I said; I am trying to understand them; and I wish that you would be a little clearer.

Thrasymachus Well, he said, have you never heard that forms of government differ – there are tyrannies, and there are democracies, and there are aristocracies?

Socrates Yes, I know.

Thrasymachus And the government is the ruling power in each State?

Socrates Certainly.

Thrasymachus And the different forms of government make laws democratical, aristocratical, tyrannical, with a view to their several interests; and these laws, which are made by them for their own interests, are the justice which they deliver to their subjects, and him who transgresses them they punish as a breaker of the law, and unjust. And that is what I mean when I say that in all States there is the same principle of justice, which is the interest of the government; and as the government must be supposed to have power, the only reasonable conclusion is that everywhere there is one principle of justice, which is the interest of the stronger.

Socrates Now I understand you, I said; and whether you are right or not I will try to discover…..

Thrasymachus Proceed.

Socrates I will; and first tell me, Do you admit that it is just for subjects to obey their rulers?

Thrasymachus I do.

Socrates But are the rulers of States absolutely infallible, or are they sometimes liable to err?

Thrasymachus To be sure, he replied, they are liable to err.

Socrates Then in making their laws…. [w]hen they make them rightly, they make them agreeably to their interest; when they are mistaken, contrary to their interest; you admit that?

Thrasymachus Yes.

Socrates …. Then you must also have acknowledged justice not to be for the interest of the stronger, when the rulers unintentionally command things to be done which are to their own injury. For if, as you say, justice is the obedience which the subject renders to their commands, in that case, O wisest of men, is there any escape from the conclusion that the weaker are commanded to do, not what is for the interest, but what is for the injury of the stronger?

Polemarchus Nothing can be clearer, Socrates, said Polemarchus.

Cleitophon Yes, said Cleitophon, interposing, if you are allowed to be his witness.

Polemarchus But there is no need of any witness, said Polemarchus, for Thrasymachus himself acknowledges that [a] rulers may sometime command what is not for their own interest, and that for subjects to obey them is justice.

Thrasymachus Yes, Polemarchus – Thrasymachus said that [~a:] for subjects to do what was commanded by their rulers is just.

See the contradiction?

Socrates Yes, Cleitophon, but … admitting both these propositions [implies] that justice is the injury quite as much as the interest of the stronger.

Cleitophon But, said Cleitophon, he meant by the interest of the stronger what the stronger thought to be his interest – this was what the weaker had to do; and this was affirmed by him to be justice.

Polemarchus Those were not his words, rejoined Polemarchus.

Socrates Never mind, I replied, if he now says that they are, let us accept his statement. Tell me, Thrasymachus, I said, did you mean by justice what the stronger thought to be his interest, whether really so or not?

Thrasymachus Certainly not, he said. Do you suppose that I call him who is mistaken the stronger at the time when he is mistaken?

Thrasymachus attempts to argue in this interlude roughly that in so far as the ruler is the ruler, the ruler is correct: “No … ruler errs at the time when he is what his implies…” But Socrates gains Thrasymachus’ assent each step along the path to a conflicting conclusion: that the aim of any art is the improvement of that to which it pertains – so “there is no one in any rule who, in so far as he is a ruler, considers or enjoins what is for his own interest, but always what is for the interest of his subject.” Thrasymachus’ irritability mounts as he is thwarted.

343 Socrates When we had got to this point in the argument, and everyone saw that the definition of justice had been completely upset, Thrasymachus, instead of replying to me, said:

Thrasymachus Tell me, Socrates, have you got a nurse?

Socrates Why do you ask such a question, I said, when you ought rather to be answering?

Thrasymachus Because she leaves you to snivel, and never wipes your nose: she has not even taught you to know the shepherd from the sheep.

Socrates What makes you say that? I replied.

Does this description of the success of large-scale injustice remind you of any specific politicians?

[Y]ou fancy that the shepherd… tends the sheep… with a view… not to the good of himself… and… that… true rulers, never think of their subjects as sheep.

343b Thrasymachus Because you fancy that the shepherd or neatherd fattens or tends the sheep or oxen with a view to their own good and not to the good of himself or his master; and you further imagine that the rulers of States, if they are true rulers, never think of their subjects as sheep, and that they are not studying their own advantage day and night. Oh, no; and so entirely astray are you in your ideas about the just and unjust as not even to know… most foolish Socrates, that the just is always a loser in comparison with the unjust. First of all, in private contracts: wherever the unjust is the partner of the just you will find that, when the partnership is dissolved, the unjust man has always more and the just less. Secondly, in their dealings with the State: when there is an income-tax, the just man will pay more and the unjust less on the same amount of income; and when there is anything to be received the one gains nothing and the other much. Observe also what happens when they take an office; there is the just man neglecting his affairs and perhaps suffering other losses, and getting nothing out of the public, because he is just; moreover he is hated by his friends and acquaintances for refusing to serve them in unlawful ways. But all this is reversed in the case of the unjust man. I am speaking, as before, of injustice on a large scale in which the advantage of the unjust is most apparent; and my meaning will be most clearly seen if we turn to that highest form of injustice in which the criminal is the happiest of men, and the sufferers or those who refuse to do injustice are the most miserable – that is to say tyranny, which by fraud and force takes away the property of others, not little by little but wholesale; comprehending in one, things sacred as well as profane, private and public; for which acts of wrong, if he were detected perpetrating any one of them singly, he would be punished and incur great disgrace – they who do such wrong in particular cases are called robbers of temples, and man-stealers and burglars and swindlers and thieves. But when a man besides taking away the money of the citizens has made slaves of them, then, instead of these names of reproach, he is termed happy and blessed, not only by the citizens but by all who hear of his having achieved the consummation of injustice. For mankind censure injustice, fearing that they may be the victims of it and not because they shrink from committing it. And thus, as I have shown, Socrates, injustice, when on a sufficient scale, has more strength and freedom and mastery than justice; and, as I said at first, justice is the interest of the stronger, whereas injustice is a man’s own profit and interest.

[T]he criminal is the happiest of men…. [I]njustice, when on a sufficient scale, has more strength and freedom and mastery than justice.

344d Socrates Thrasymachus, when he had thus spoken, having, like a bathman, deluged our ears with his words, had a mind to go away. But the company would not let him; they insisted that he should remain and defend his position; and I myself added my own humble request that he would not leave us. Thrasymachus, I said to him, excellent man, how suggestive are your remarks! And are you going to run away before you have fairly taught or learned whether they are true or not? …. [F]riend, do not keep your knowledge to yourself; we are a large party; and any benefit which you confer upon us will be amply rewarded. For my own part I openly declare that I am not convinced, and that I do not believe injustice to be more gainful than justice, even if uncontrolled and allowed to have free play. For, granting that there may be an unjust man who is able to commit injustice either by fraud or force, still this does not convince me of the superior advantage of injustice, and there may be others who are in the same predicament with myself. Perhaps we may be wrong; if so, you in your wisdom should convince us that we are mistaken in preferring justice to injustice.

Thrasymachus And how am I to convince you, he said, if you are not already convinced by what I have just said; what more can I do for you? Would you have me put the proof bodily into your souls?

Socrates Heaven forbid! I said; I would only ask you to be consistent; or, if you change, change openly and let there be no deception.

Socrates argues that rulers, properly speaking, rule for the good of the community in so far as they are rulers. Because they are not serving their own interests, they draw a compensating wage: “good men … must be induced to serve from the fear of punishment… Now the worst part of the punishment is that he who refuses to rule is liable to be ruled by one who is worse than himself.”

Socrates So far am I from agreeing with Thrasymachus that justice is the interest of the stronger. This latter question need not be further discussed at present; but when Thrasymachus says that the life of the unjust is more advantageous than that of the just, his new statement appears to me to be of a far more serious character. Which of us has spoken truly? And which sort of life, Glaucon, do you prefer?

Glaucon I for my part deem the life of the just to be the more advantageous, he answered.

Socrates Did you hear all the advantages of the unjust which Thrasymachus was rehearsing?

Glaucon Yes, I heard him, he replied, but he has not convinced me.

Socrates Then shall we try to find some way of convincing him, if we can, that he is saying what is not true?

Glaucon Most certainly, he replied….

Note the meaning of the word ‘justice’ for Thrasymachus. As he confirms for Socrates just below, he’s praising as “just” what has been called unjust…

Socrates Well, then, Thrasymachus, I said…. I suppose that you would call justice virtue and injustice vice?

Thrasymachus What a charming notion! … I affirm … [t]he opposite, he replied.

Socrates Now, I said, you are on more substantial and almost unanswerable ground; for if the injustice which you were maintaining to be profitable had been admitted by you as by others to be vice and deformity, an answer might have been given to you on received principles; but now I perceive that you will call injustice honourable and strong, and to the unjust you will attribute all the qualities which were attributed by us before to the just, seeing that you do not hesitate to rank injustice with wisdom and virtue.

Thrasymachus You have guessed most infallibly, he replied….

This discussion continues until a frustrated Thrasymachus quits. The “moves” Socrates makes anticipate the fuller argumentation in the rest of The Republic.

Socrates …. [T]he result of the whole discussion has been that I know nothing at all. For I know not what justice is, and therefore I am not likely to know whether it is or is not a virtue, nor can I say whether the just man is happy or unhappy.

Book II

“The Immoralist’s Challenge”

357 Socrates With these words I was thinking that I had made an end of the discussion; but the end, in truth, proved to be only a beginning. For Glaucon, who is always the most pugnacious of men, was dissatisfied at Thrasymachus’s retirement; he wanted to have the battle out. So he said to me:

Glaucon Socrates, do you wish really to persuade us, or only to seem to have persuaded us, that to be just is always better than to be unjust?

Socrates I should wish really to persuade you, I replied, if I could.

Glaucon Then you certainly have not succeeded. Let me ask you now: How would you arrange goods – are there not some which we welcome for their own sakes, and independently of their consequences, as, for example, harmless pleasures and enjoyments, which delight us at the time, although nothing follows from them?

Socrates I agree in thinking that there is such a class, I replied.

Glaucon Is there not also a second class of goods, such as knowledge, sight, health, which are desirable not only in themselves, but also for their results?

Socrates Certainly, I said.

Glaucon And would you not recognize a third class, such as gymnastic, and the care of the sick, and the physician’s art; also the various ways of money-making – these do us good but we regard them as disagreeable; and no one would choose them for their own sakes, but only for the sake of some reward or result which flows from them?

Socrates There is, I said, this third class also. But why do you ask?

Glaucon Because I want to know in which of the three classes you would place justice?

358 Socrates In the highest class, I replied – among those goods which he who would be happy desires both for their own sake and for the sake of their results.

Glaucon Then the many are of another mind; they think that justice is to be reckoned in the troublesome class, among goods which are to be pursued for the sake of rewards and of reputation, but in themselves are disagreeable and rather to be avoided.

Socrates I know, I said, that this is their manner of thinking, and that this was the thesis which Thrasymachus was maintaining just now, when he censured justice and praised injustice. But I am too stupid to be convinced by him.

Glaucon I wish, he said, that you would hear me as well as him, and then I shall see whether you and I agree. For Thrasymachus seems to me, like a snake, to have been charmed by your voice sooner than he ought to have been; but to my mind the nature of justice and injustice has not yet been made clear. Setting aside their rewards and results, I want to know what they are in themselves, and how they [justice and injustice] inwardly work in the soul. If you please, then, I will revive the argument of Thrasymachus. And first [1] I will speak of the nature and origin of justice according to the common view of them. Secondly, [2] I will show that all men who practise justice do so against their will, of necessity, but not as a good. And thirdly, [3] I will argue that there is reason in this view, for the life of the unjust is after all better far than the life of the just – if what they say is true, Socrates, since I myself am not of their opinion…. I want to hear justice praised in respect of itself; then I shall be satisfied, and you are the person from whom I think that I am most likely to hear this; and therefore I will praise the unjust life to the utmost of my power, and my manner of speaking will indicate the manner in which I desire to hear you too praising justice and censuring injustice. Will you say whether you approve of my proposal?

Glaucon has just laid out his plan as devil’s advocate. He utilizes the appearance/reality distinction in his account of how it is that common conceptions of justice (“so-called justice”) seem both correct and contrary to the “might makes right” doctrine (“real justice”). The contrariness is mere appearance: The word ‘justice’ refers to a (sometimes more, sometimes less stable) compromise between would-be mighty individuals. “Good behavior”, obeying the law, and cooperation are surface-veneer which help “save the appearance” of justice – they mask rather than constitute true justice.

Socrates will have to overcome these challenges in defending his own account of justice. Here are the phases in Glaucon’s argument:

  1. Glaucon proposes a way in which justice might plausibly have arisen as a fear-based truce, for which ‘justice’ is a nice name;
  2. Glaucon tries to show that people don’t really want what we call ‘justice’.
  3. He argues that reason agrees that injustice is better.

(The [bolded numbering] in the text is mine. ~BL)

Socrates Indeed I do; nor can I imagine any theme about which a man of sense would oftener wish to converse.

Glaucon I am delighted, he replied, to hear you say so, and shall begin by speaking, as I proposed, of the nature and origin of justice.

Glaucon’s challenge:
phase one

Do you agree that justice is merely a fear-based truce?

Glaucon They say that to do injustice is, by nature, good; to suffer injustice, evil; but that the evil is greater than the good. And so when men have both done and suffered injustice and have had experience of both, not being able to avoid the one and obtain the other, they think that they had better agree among themselves to have neither; hence there arise laws and mutual covenants; and that which is ordained by law is termed by them lawful and just. This they affirm to be the origin and nature of justice; it is a mean or compromise, between the best of all, which is to do injustice and not be punished, and the worst of all, which is to suffer injustice without the power of retaliation; and justice, being at a middle point between the two, is tolerated not as a good, but as the lesser evil, and honoured by reason of the inability of men to do injustice…. Such is the received account, Socrates, of the nature and origin of justice.

Glaucon’s challenge:
phase two

Glaucon Now … imagine something of this kind: having given both to the just and the unjust power to do what they will, let us watch and see whither desire will lead them; then we shall discover in the very act the just and unjust man to be proceeding along the same road, following their interest, which all natures deem to be their good, and are only diverted into the path of justice by the force of law. The liberty which we are supposing may be most completely given to them in the form of such a power as is said to have been possessed by Gyges… According to the tradition, Gyges was a shepherd in the service of the King of Lydia; there was a great storm, and an earthquake made an opening in the earth at the place where he was feeding his flock. Amazed at the sight, he descended into the opening, where, among other marvels, he beheld a hollow brazen horse, having doors, at which he, stooping and looking in, saw a dead body of stature, as appeared to him, more than human and having nothing on but a gold ring; this he took from the finger of the dead and reascended. Now the shepherds met together, according to custom, that they might send their monthly report about the flocks to the King; into their assembly he came having the ring on his finger, and as he was sitting among them he chanced to turn the collet of the ring inside his hand, when

[I]nstantly he became invisible…

instantly he became invisible to the rest of the company and they began to speak of him as if he were no longer present. He was astonished at this, and again touching the ring he turned the collet outward and reappeared; he made several trials of the ring, and always with the same result…. Whereupon he contrived to be chosen one of the messengers who were sent to the court; where as soon as he arrived he seduced the Queen, and with her help conspired against the King and slew him and took the kingdom. []

Once the power of the ring removes fear of being caught, would even the “just person” have to give in and be unjust? If you say Yes, you probably believe “psychological egoism,” the view that people can’t help being self-serving. That’s a claim about what causes behavior. “Ethical egoism” is not about what does cause behavior, but about what should: it’s the view that the proper thing to do is … whatever the ring lets you get away with! Is one or the other form of egoism in play here? Or is it both?

Suppose now that there were two such magic rings, and the just put on one of them and the unjust the other; no man can be imagined to be of such an iron nature that he would stand fast in justice. No man would keep his hands off what was not his own when he could safely take what he liked out of the market, or go into houses and lie with anyone at his pleasure, or kill or release from prison whom he would, and in all respects be like a god among men. Then the actions of the just would be as the actions of the unjust; they would both come at last to the same point. And this we may truly affirm to be a great proof that a man is just, not willingly or because he thinks that justice is any good to him individually, but of necessity, for wherever anyone thinks that he can safely be unjust, there he is unjust. For

[A]ll men believe in their hearts that injustice is far more profitable to the individual than justice.

all men believe in their hearts that injustice is far more profitable to the individual than justice, and he who argues as I have been supposing, will say that they are right. If you could imagine anyone obtaining this power of becoming invisible, and never doing any wrong or touching what was another’s, he would be thought by the lookers-on to be a most wretched idiot, although they would praise him to one another’s faces, and keep up appearances with one another from a fear that they too might suffer injustice. Enough of this.

Glaucon Now, if we are to form a real judgment of the life of the just and unjust, we must isolate them; there is no other way; and how is the isolation to be effected? I answer: ….in the perfectly unjust man we must assume the most perfect injustice; there is to be no deduction, but we must allow him, while doing the most unjust acts, to have acquired the greatest reputation for justice. If he have taken a false step he must be able to recover himself…. And at his side let us place the just man in his nobleness and simplicity, wishing, as Aeschylus says, “to be and not to seem good.” There must be no seeming, for

[I]f he seem to be just he will be honoured and rewarded, and then we shall not know whether he is just for the sake of justice or for the sake of honour and rewards.

if he seem to be just he will be honoured and rewarded, and then we shall not know whether he is just for the sake of justice or for the sake of honour and rewards; therefore, let him be clothed in justice only, and have no other covering; and he must be imagined in a state of life the opposite of the former. Let him be the best of men, and let him be thought the worst; then he will have been put to the proof; and we shall see whether he will be affected by the fear of infamy and its consequences. And let him continue thus to the hour of death; being just and seeming to be unjust. When both have reached the uttermost extreme, the one of justice and the other of injustice, let judgment be given which of them is the happier of the two.… And now that we know what they are like there is no difficulty in tracing out the sort of life which awaits either of them. This I will proceed to describe; but as you may think the description a little too coarse, I ask you to suppose, Socrates, that the words which follow are not mine. Let me put them into the mouths of the eulogists of injustice: They will tell you that the just man who is thought unjust will be scourged, racked, bound – will have his eyes burnt out; and, at last, after suffering every kind of evil, he will be impaled. Then he will understand that he ought to seem only, and not to be, just….

Glaucon’s challenge:
sealing phase three

Glaucon In the first place, he is thought just, and therefore bears rule in the city; he can marry whom he will…; also he can trade and deal where he likes, and always to his own advantage, because he has no misgivings about injustice; and at every contest, whether in public or private, he gets the better of his antagonists, and gains at their expense, and is rich, and out of his gains he can benefit his friends, and harm his enemies; moreover, he can offer sacrifices, and dedicate gifts to the gods abundantly and magnificently, and can honour the gods or any man whom he wants to honour in a far better style than the just, and therefore he is likely to be dearer than they are to the gods. And thus, Socrates, gods and men are said to unite in making the life of the unjust better than the life of the just.

Socrates I was going to say something in answer to Glaucon, when Adeimantus, his brother, interposed….

Glaucon’s brother summarizes the challenge facing Socrates.

Adeimantus On what principle, then, shall we any longer choose justice rather than the worst injustice?…. I speak in this vehement manner, as I must frankly confess to you, because I want to hear from you the opposite side; and I would ask you to show not only the superiority which justice has over injustice, but what effect they have on the possessor of them which makes the one to be a good and the other an evil to him…. Now as you have admitted that justice is one of that highest class of goods which are desired, indeed, for their results, but in a far greater degree for their own sakes – like sight or hearing or knowledge or health, or any other real and natural and not merely conventional good – I would ask you in your praise of justice to regard one point only: I mean the essential good and evil which justice and injustice work in the possessors of them…. And therefore, I say, not only prove to us that justice is better than injustice, but show what they either of them do to the possessor of them, which makes the one to be a good and the other an evil, whether seen or unseen by gods and men.

Socrates accepts the challenge.

368a Socrates I had always admired the genius of Glaucon and Adeimantus, but on hearing these words I was quite delighted, and said…. there is something truly divine in being able to argue as you have done for the superiority of injustice, and remaining unconvinced by your own arguments. And I do believe that you are not convinced – this I infer from your general character, for had I judged only from your speeches I should have mistrusted you. But now, the greater my confidence in you, the greater is my difficulty in knowing what to say. For I am in a strait between two; on the one hand I feel that I am unequal to the task…. And yet I cannot refuse to help, while breath and speech remain to me; I am afraid that there would be an impiety in being present when justice is evil spoken of and not lifting up a hand in her defence. And therefore I had best give such help as I can.

Notice Plato’s reason for starting the analysis of justice by turning away from individuals to investigate the just community: He proposes that the justice of the city (as might be expressed, “Austin is more just than Houston”) is in essentials the same as the justice of the individual (as might be expressed, “Socrates was a just human being”). They are each instances of Justice, which Plato s as “the Form” they share. The highest levels of thinking reach toward these essences or Forms.

Although Plato has more support to offer, it is worth raising the legitimacy question in a preliminary way: How plausible is this theory of Forms? On the one hand, it seems reasonable to think that triangles share something in common, and that studying larger triangles, or equilateral ones, will lead to many insights also applicable to smaller triangles, or isosceles ones. Plato’s account of why this “works” is also plausible: They are each instances of the same form, the Triangle, the geometrical nature of which is expressed by a form-ula, or rule:

A triangle is any polygon bounded by only three straight line segments.

Geometrical investigation produces further “triangle truths,” such as that the sum of any triangle’s interior angles totals 180°.

On the other hand, it’s worth asking whether there is also a single form of the Just in virtue of relation to which all instances of justice are grouped together. In what follows, Plato proposes and hones a conception of the Just. See whether you think his account is successful enough to support the response to Glaucon’s challenge.

Socrates ….I told them … we are no great wits, [hence] I think that we had better adopt a method which I may illustrate thus; suppose that a short-sighted person had been asked by someone to read small letters from a distance; and it occurred to someone else that they might be found in another place which was larger and in which the letters were larger – if they were the same and he could read the larger letters first, and then proceed to the lesser – this would have been thought a rare piece of good-fortune.

Adeimantus Very true, said Adeimantus; but how does the illustration apply to our inquiry?

368e Socrates I will tell you, I replied; justice, which is the subject of our inquiry, is, as you know, sometimes spoken of as the virtue of an individual, and sometimes as the virtue of a State.

Adeimantus True, he replied.

Socrates And is not a State larger than an individual?

Adeimantus It is.

Socrates Then in the larger the quantity of justice is likely to be larger and more easily discernible. I propose therefore that we inquire into the nature of justice and injustice, first as they appear in the State, and secondly in the individual, proceeding from the greater to the lesser and comparing them.

Adeimantus That, he said, is an excellent proposal.