Plato’s Republic: Book I

In Book I of Plato’s Republic sets the stage for the course the rest of the Books as it introduces the main themes, mainly, what is justice? Upon Socrates’ returning from a religious festival he is greeted by Adeimantus (a brother of Plato) and Polemarchus (a young nobleman) who insist he make a detour to the home of Polemarchus. There Polemarchus’ father, Cephalus, is introduced and the philosophical debate ensues. Cephalus is the first to attempt to define justice, which is in his eyes a very honorable concept as he describes it as: telling the truth and paying one’s debts. Shortly after Socrates’ rebuttal, Cephalus resigns from the debate leaving it to his son to carry on the argument. Polemarchus defines justice as being good to one’s friends and doing harm to one’s enemies. Socrates goes on to point out the flaws in this definition as we are not necessarily friends with just and moral people nor are we necessarily enemies with the unjust.  Polemarchus eventually succumbs to Socrates’ argument and agrees with his denouncing of the definition. It is then when Thrasymachus jumps into the conversation stating that justice is what is advantageous to the stronger. The real debate begins here, following the Socratic method, as Socrates attempts to defend justice and show that injustice cannot be a virtue. Thrasymachus uses rulers as an example of his view as he says that the strongest and most just rulers act in accordance to what is beneficial to them as individuals. Socrates counters this point in saying that the most just rulers are those who act in the interests of their subjects.

Much discussion ensues but I want to focus on Socrates’ image of a just ruler for (as is described in the later books) they are in essence philosophers. I found this interesting for Plato chose Socrates as his protagonist, a man who was tried and found guilty essentially for spreading philosophic ideas (corrupting the youth).  After Athens’ defeat in the Pelopponesian war, democracy fell and 30 tyrants were placed in power (as discussed in lecture). Socrates refused the will of the 30 (as he wouldn’t arrest and innocent man), which was the beginning of his image as dangerous to the rule of the tyrants. In addition philosophy was deemed a dangerous practice for it allowed for the spread of radical ideas, ones which had the potential to work against the rule of the 30. Socrates, a vocal philosopher, was thusly executed for he was too dangerous to let live. I see Plato’s description of the ideal ruler as tribute to the importance and influence of philosophy for only through the reason and wisdom of such a ruler, kallipolis (the perfect city) is theoretically able to exist. In addition Thrasymachus’ idea of a just ruler is precisely the form of governance seen with the 30 tyrants. One can see perhaps that Plato’s (in the book Socrates’) description of a just ruler as paying tribute to Socrates and his refuting of Thrasymachus’ view is criticizing the practices of the tyrants.

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  1. I really like your second paragraph here! It makes sense that we can think of Socrates as an example of someone who would be a just ruler, were he ever to rule in a state. Plato certainly seems to have viewed him that way.

    Just one small correction, though (and I may not have made this as clear in the lecture as I should have!): Socrates was actually put on trial and executed, not by the 30 tyrants, but by the reinstated democracy after the 30 were overthrown. Why? The charges were impiety (not believing in the same gods as the city approves, or worshipping new gods), and corruption of the youth. Many later commentators think the latter was the most important, and that it may have had to do with the perception that Socrates was not a friend to democracy. The democracy had only recently been reinstated, and there was a lot of concern that there could be another uprising against it. Socrates was friends with someone who was a traitor to the democracy and went over to the side of Sparta (more like an oligarchy), he wasn’t punished by the 30, even when he refused their orders, like those who were friends to democracy were; and he didn’t leave town like other democrats did. Plus, he just kept walking around questioning whether people really knew what they thought they knew, and showing that they don’t. That means he was showing that a lot of respected people don’t actually have the knowledge they claim; should they really be able to govern? These are some things that lead later commentators to wonder if maybe he was tried and executed out of fear that he was a rabble-rouser against the democracy.

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