On What To Make of The Republic, Book 1

An excerpt from Dallas Willard’s History of Ethics to 1900  syllabus;
Spring 2011, University of Southern California, Philosophy 442.


The first Book of The Republic (Steph. 327-354) usually strikes the contemporary student as quite puzzling. A number of personalities are introduced whom we today rarely have any sense at all of their significance. They all meant something to the Athenian reader, at least, because of the actually history of Athens. And they represent positions on the primary issue of The Republic--Who is the really good person (like Socrates)? And Which is the really good city (like Socrates wanted Athens to be)? The arguments Socrates brings to bear against those positions seem thin and forced, at least in some cases, and the connection of the end of Book I (Thrasymachus shown wrong about whether the just or unjust person is better off) with the beginning of Book II (the Gyges myth) is not transparent. Book I actually constitutes one of the "search" dialogues, which seem to not get us anywhere. (See Socrates' admission at 354c.) But this is so only for the superficial or uninformed reader. Any one will be greatly helped with Book I by reading H. W. B. Joseph's treatment on it in his collection, Ancient and Modern Philosophy, and perhaps the first fifty pages of Julia Annas' An Introduction to Plato's Republic. Chapter I of A. E. Taylor, Plato: The Man And His Work, is also extremely helpful in setting the real life context of Plato's work.

There are three sources of "moral enlightment," as we might say, that are firmly (if not brutally) set aside in The Republic Book I.

A. Cephalus represents the successful, socially respected individual, who actually thinks there is some connection between wealth and doing the right thing (being "just'). (330d-331b) The most useful purpose of wealth, he says, is that it helps you avoid intentional wrongdoing. (331b)
Here the dialogue takes philosophical flight as Socrates replies: "Beautifully put, Cephalus. But speaking of justice (dikaiosune), do you really think it's as simple as telling the truth and returning what you receive, or are both these acts sometimes just and sometimes unjust?" And he goes on to mention the case of returning a weapon to a friend who has gone mad. "No one would say you ought to return it,...or tell him the whole truth either." (331c) The phrase "speaking of justice" signals that we are not going to deal with justice itself, with what justice is.
Two thing immediately emerge here that are central to Plato's understanding of thought:

  1. With reference to things that are sometimes one way and sometimes another, Plato's view is that they fall within the domain of mere opinion, guesses and illusion. If the things mentioned are sometimes just and sometimes not, that just means we haven't got to justice itself, which will (like all "forms" or essences) always be what it ever is, and always not be what it ever is not. If Cephalus and his kin manage to "do the right thing" it is only by chance.
  2.  You can't say what something is by giving a list. This is a standard point in Plato's "logic." "So telling the truth and returning what you receive isn't the definition of justice," Socrates points out. (331d) No, nor is any mere list. With lists, as well as things that vary, you are still in the realm of opinion (doxa), where you may or may not happen to be right, but have no idea of what you are really dealing with.


That concludes Cephalus, the successful, respected and morally complacent individual, to whom many others still in the cave nevertheless look to for moral guidance. (What a day Plato would have had with TV interviews and radio "talk shows"! Also: remember out saying, "If you're so smart, why aincha rich?")

B. Polemarchus represents divine inspiration mediated through cultural authority. In short, religion. He introduces the word of "the wise and godlike Simonides" (331e), an inspired poet, to the effect "That it's just to give 'each his due'." (Ibid.) But this requires clarification of what "due" is, and to whom, and under what conditions. (332-336a) In particular, "due" seems to mean that it is just to harm one's enemies as well as help one's friends. But justice, Socrates argues, cannot harm. For to harm is to make unjust (less well off). (335a-336a) Nothing produces its opposite.

C. Thrasymachus cleverness and power. The just is whatever one can get away with. And the just person is the one who can get away with the most, be most powerful. (336b and following) This is the "boss," and politically the "ruler." Justice is actually what most people (stupid idiots) call "injustice." This is the person who is really well off, the only sense of "really good" that matters. (See 344c-d and 345a-b) So Socrates sets out to show that the unjust life is not superior to the just. (347e) This leads to a discussion of skill, function, virtue and soul with which Book I concludes. Socrates attempts to prove that the unjust person (the one who can get away with anything) is not better off, "as a human being," than the just one.

Some criticisms of Plato's ethical theory:

  1. The Psychological theory (or theory of soul) upon which the ethical theory is based is drawn from some highly abstract concepts and arguments, which leave the question of exactly how, e.g., reason relates to passion, quite unclear. (See how Aristotle will improve on this matter.) Where is the will in Plato's theory?
  2. This first criticism is reflected in obscurity about how the Knower-Kings and their fellow citizens among the police and workers actually relate to one another. In the abstract it all seems right. It might even be possible to work it out in some consistent detail. But clearly the other classes cannot understand the rationale for the knowers' edicts, and it is difficult to see how the requisite social authority would function.
  3. Sachs' criticism in "A Fallacy in Plato's Republic?" (Philosophical Review, 1963) has been echoed by many others and seems difficult to turn aside. Sachs holds that the "vulgar" or ordinary conception of justice is more closely tied to the standard, common sense list of just acts than Plato allows. Couldn't the person who is "just" in Plato's special sense of having a "balanced" soul engage in extensive wrong‑doing and remain just ("balanced")? (Plato might well reply that the "vulgar" conception is no conception at all, but a vague and incoherent notion, and hence can't be used as a basis of criticism of his views.)
  4. One might reasonably doubt, on empirical grounds, that the just person, especially as Plato defines him or her, will be better off than the unjust; will be more benefited (in the terms spelled out at the end of book one and in book ten) than the unjust. This would not refute, however, his main argument that the person who has justice and nothing else is better-off as a human being than one who lacks justice but has everything else. Just as a flute player as a flute player is not better off if they make a lot of money.
  5. The theory of knowledge and being he maintains is not, in its totality, really required by his basic theory of justice, and has many points that are difficult to defend: e.g. the idea that there must be 'forms' if there is to be knowledge of the sort required for justice and the building of the just 'state'. This is not, as it stands, a criticism of the tenability of Plato's theory, but it does bring out why it is vary hard to make Plato a competitor in the current thought world, which is nominalist and phenomenalistic to the core.


For further critical issues see: T. Irwin, Plato's Moral Theory, chap. VIII; and J. Annas, An Introduction to Plato's Republic, Chap. XIII.

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