Republic Outline I--Beg. of Book I
Prof. Bill Long 9/1/05
The Republic is Plato's famous attempt to pose and answer the question of what justice is and where it might be found in the kallipolis, or the "beautiful city." Along the way Plato also expresses his opinions about education, the nature of various political systems, and the place of art, poetry and virtue in the kallipolis. His primary concern in the Republic is to try to rebut what he considers to be a very dangerous definition of justice advanced by Thrasymachus in Book I--that justice is simply the advantage of the stronger--and replace it with one that is more to his liking. By the time Plato gets to the middle of Book IV, he has advanced his own definition.
My method in class (I hope) and these notes is to introduce the Republic as a philosophical, jurisprudential and literary gem. Thus, my concern will be to teach you to read this classic very closely, even going line by line and pausing frequently to see if you understand what is being said. Classic texts often derive their reputation from the denseness of their poetry or prose; we do most justice to the Republic by trying to understand every turn of argument along the way. Sometimes, I am convinced, Plato either loses his way or doesn't really make convincing arguments. But we should weigh them and become satisfied in our own minds about the weight of the arguments.
Two other quick preliminary points: (1) Plato uses the dialogue form in which to write, but the Republic is probably the central transitional work where he begins to change from genuine dialogue to monologue with a few verbal adornments thrown in by those talking to Socrates. (2) And, that is the second point--Plato puts his words in his teacher Socrates' mouth. Socrates was born around 470 B.C. and was executed in Athens in 399 B.C. Therefore the "literary time" of most of the dialogues is in the last few decades of the 5th century, while the actual time of composition was probabaly forty years later (Plato lived from about 428-348 B.C.). Let's follow the flow of argument closely.*
[*This summary of the argument will also raise questions along the way as to whether we think that Plato's/Socrates' argument is convincing, what it actually means, whether it is relevant, etc. Thus, I am trying to create a "dialogue" between you and the text through this summary.]
Book I, Beginnings
327a-328b. A preliminary section which describes Socrates ("S") coming back with Glaucon from a festival to the goddess. They meet up with friends and exchange light talk. Then S decides to go to the home of Polemarchus where he finds five or six other male friends. This introductory scene shows Socrates as a religious man (which heightens the irony of the atheism charge against him), and it sets the context for the conversation that will now take place in Polemarchus' house.
328b-c. S begins a conversation with Cephalus ("C"), described as the "old father" of Polemarchus. They appear to know each other and they take a moment to become reacquainted. What role does C play in this section? Why, since he departs so soon, does Plato even present him?
329a-d. They speak about old age. Some contend that old age is painful because one no longer experiences the pleasures of youth, but C is quick to add, quoting Sophocles, that he is glad finally to be rid of youthful lusts. Note how poets and dramatists are quoted here--it is almost as if they are inspired oracles, whose words are true or authoritative. Old age brings "peace and freedom" from desires (329c). Old age is only moderatly onerous to those who are moderate and content.
329c-331b. S turns the conversation to the subject of wealth. C is in a mean position between his grandfather and father. S asks him what the greatest good he has received from being wealthy. C responds that the value of wealth is it "saves us from having to cheat or deceive someone against our will and from having to depart for that other place in fear." Wealth, in short, helps one be a just person.
331c-d. S responds in a way that at first appears pretty abrupt. He assumes that C is advancing a definition of justice here in a few words, and S then states this definition in his own words: justice is "speaking the truth and paying whatever debts are owed." Is this a fair summary of C's definition of justice? Once S has given a definition (S's specialty is to subject definitions of phenomena to critical scrutiny--the so-called "Socratic method"), he is in his element and begins to probe the meaning of the definition. He does so by asking whether you ought to return a gun to a madman if it belongs to him. Because the answer (no) immediately shows a weakness in the definition, the definition cannot be correct (331d). Instead of staying around to enter more deeply into the discussion, however, the aged C just laughs and departs. His son, Polemarchus, heir to everything C had, will now be heir to C's argument.
So what do you think about C? Is he an admirable person? A person that you can just dismiss because he is old and you can't expect an old man to be interested in a dialogue about the nature of justice? Or is he a negative and unattractive character? All of this so far just gets us warmed up on the subject of what justice might be. It is placed in the attractive format of a conversation. You have interpersonal dynamics at play as well as thesis statements and defenses. Plato has drawn us in to the dialogue.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long