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AS/POLS 2900.6A
  Perspectives on Politics

The Question of the Good Life and the City of Words

By the end of Book I of the Republic, Thrasymachus has been pretty much silenced. Later in the work he will raise his voice a few times again, but only to agree, more wholeheartedly, with Socrates. But although Thrasymachus has been equalled, if not beaten at his own game, the company of discussants is not satisfied with Socrates’ answer so far. Thrasymachus’ problem (at least Socrates’ version of it) still stands.

At this point Adeimantus and Glaucon (the names of two of Plato’s actual brothers) raise the issue again, and in a new, clearer form. Glaucon agrees with Thrasymachus that there does indeed seem to be something unnatural about justice, although he will not state, like Thrasymachus, that justice is the interest of the stronger.  According to Glaucon, in a state of nature men inflict and suffer injustice without restraint. That is simply how human beings are, according to the view he is putting forward. States and common laws exist due to an agreement among those who are relatively weak. It is they who contract with one another not to do injustice or allow it to be done. Glaucon is here offering the inverse of Thrasymachus’ argument, by claiming, although he does not put it explicitly in these terms, that justice is the interest of the weak. He is saying that justice is a convention and therefore unnatural. Its existence does not benefit the relatively few strong individuals. It benefits the relatively many weak, who would not practice justice if they could get away with ignoring it. According to Glaucon, human nature tends strongly, if not exclusively, towards a desire for self-aggrandizement that really knows no inherent limits.  For him, the strong individual has no obligation to uphold the law of the community, and he will grant that if justice is good at all, it is only good instrumentally, as a means to something else. The apparently inevitable conclusion is that the best man (and the one who lives best) would be the one who appears to be just, but manages to practice injustice when it suits his purposes.

Glaucon is actually rather coy about all of this. He presents this argument as not being his own opinion, but a view that is commonly, but powerfully held. He would like, he says, to see this view knocked down, and he offers a sort of test which, if Socrates could satisfy it, would prove to his or anyone’s satisfaction that justice is preferable to injustice. Glaucon proposes a sharp contrast between two different men: on the one hand we have the just man, but a just man who appears to be unjust. This man will be very likely to suffer harm from his fellows. In direct contrast, we have an unjust man who appears just. This man will be much more likely to prosper and be rewarded by his fellows. Glaucon’s test is a very tall order. Socrates must show that the second man (the unjust man who appears just) does not live well and that the first man (the just man who appears unjust) does live well. In the process Socrates must also supply a  positive definition of justice that will resist scrutiny.

You might want to notice that here, among other things, we are getting our first major hint that the Republic, is an expanded and revised version of the Apology. Socrates himself is exactly such a man: one who is just, but appears unjust. He is being tacitly asked to defend himself, and to defend the philosophic life, the pursuit of virtue as knowledge, all over again.

The problem being posed is a very tall order, and you should remember that the rest of the Republic is a detour and device to answer this question, as well as Thrasymachus’ position. Plato will answer this question by showing (or claiming to show) that justice is not arbitrary and conventional; that it is not something external to nature and based upon force and constraint. Instead, Plato will show (or claim to) that justice is actually the right condition of the human soul or psyche and that it is something demanded by the very nature of human beings. In fact Plato will in a sense deduce or derive a just state from a theory of the nature of the soul. Such a theory would be able to identify the constituent elements in the soul and identify the proper relation among these elements. Later on, in fact, one of the ways we can examine in order to offer criticisms of Plato will not be to question his political prescriptions directly, but to question the view of human nature, the nature of the soul, from which his politics is derived, and by which it is defended.

Plato, however, does not move directly into offering this theory of the nature of the soul. Instead, in sections 368-9, he suggests that we will be able to see things more clearly if we first examine them on a macro-level, on a large scale. Perhaps, Socrates suggests, by constructing a just city from its birth or origins we will be able to see what justice is more clearly. So first, he suggests, we should look for the nature and structure of justice inside the model of a city, and only afterwards try to see the same nature and structure in an individual and ask whether it necessarily brings with it well-being and happiness. Through much of the rest of the book, Glaucon and Adeimantus will be pushing Socrates to show how this model city, or “city of words” is a real possibility. Although this question is very important to Plato, it is equally important to his strategy to first lay out the nature of justice, and to some extent to keep separate the question of justice in the individual and in the city. Even if the city of words is not strictly a real possibility, or only a very distant possibility, we are still supposed to learn something about the nature and value of lesser cities and about the nature and value of  justice for the individual political actor.

The first step in constructing an “ideal” city is to look to its origins. At this point Socrates seems to agree with Glaucon that the city, and therefore its rules and its justice, have their origin in weakness. That is, he begins from the postulate that individuals on their own are weak, they lack self-sufficiency.  The needs of the body for food, shelter, pleasure and security, those needs corresponding to the part of the soul Plato calls the "appetitive", are not met spontaneously by nature. Moreover, says Socrates, individuals are born with different talents. It would make sense that each person should specialize in that role for which he or she is best suited. Some will be farmers, and some artisans. There will be a basic and rudimentary division of labour of some kind. The need that all have will give rise to the need for each one pursuing  one occupation and this will in turn improve production in both volume and quality.

Socrates seems to be quite happy with this city, and willing to stop with it. Although life in it is relatively simple, happiness is abundant and there seems to be  an absence of any form of domination. It will, says Socrates, have neither justice nor injustice. It is a place where contentment is possible and it is untroubled by internal power struggles or by war with its neighbours. It can by and large avoid war because, being “poor”, it is no prize worth an effort of conquest.

But there is a problem here, or actually two problems: first, why go any further than this city? And in fact it is Glaucon’s  extreme dissatisfaction with this city that is necessary in order to get Socrates to elaborate further. Glaucon is dissatisfied unless there is luxury and great variety. For him, but not for Socrates, this is not a genuine human community, but as he says a “city of sows”. This seeming gentle anarchy really does offend Glaucon who wants  there to be hierarchy and rulers and separate statuses with different degrees of nobility and the lack of it. But is there really any reason to go beyond the city that Glaucon despises?

A second problem has to do with the fact that Socrates, at the very beginning, has already assumed that on the basis of varying natural talents, people have to be assigned different and exclusive roles. Now this might be necessary for the sake of absolutely maximum efficiency, but is it necessary? Especially for a city that lives in peace with its neighbours and is not driven to pursue ever more in the way of material goods? Maximum efficiency is one thing, but allowing each person to do several or many different things could still easily mean that things are being done well enough. Maximum efficiency does not automatically trump adequacy. The argument in fact seems to be that only where person does one thing exclusively, does he do that thing supremely well. It is only the specialist who can find fame or glory. But this is a different argument, and it is not based upon an origin of  an exclusive division of labour in need. It seems to beg the question that there is an already existing need for self-aggrandizement, for the feeling that my dignity or achievement is higher or better than yours, that my value depends on your relative lack of value. The fact of the matter is that the person who does a number of things might still be able to do them pretty well, and have a better time of it in the bargain. So why is there this insistence on exclusive specialization even from the very beginning? This insistence has everything to do with the establishment, by Plato, of justice as requiring a hierarchical form. We will come back to this question after looking at the Myth of the Metals.

This question of exclusive specialization cannot really be dealt with more until the city of words has been developed further. Socrates proceeds, then, to develop a luxurious or “feverish” city that is devoted to the limitless acquisition of wealth. Such a city will necessarily be involved more or less continuously with war, and this gives rise to the need for a new specialty, the need for guardians. But in order to fulfill their function, that is to protect their city, they must somehow be able to combine two contradictory qualities: they must be both fierce and gentle, and they therefore must know what is to be feared and what is not to be feared.

The need for a group of armed and organized guardians – warriors, whatever else they are – creates the need for an exquisite care for the education of this group. (So it becomes clear from very near the start that natural talent by itself is not sufficient to explain the abilities and potentials of individuals.) This careful education focussed on the guardians, and which occupies much of the detail of Books III & IV, will also require, according to Plato, a careful, rigorous and systematic censorship. This censorship will begin from the earliest age and will be maintained throughout the guardians’ life. It will have the aim of conveying the belief that there are fundamental, objective, unchangeable values and that death is a far less terrible thing than the dishonour that would follow from flouting or abandoning these values.

It is crucial that this elite group of warriors, if they are to protect the city and its laws, have no exclusive private interests, either as individuals or as a group. The interests of each one of them must accord with the interest of all the rest of them and, just as importantly, with the city as a whole.  Plato will therefore assign to the guardians a set of communistic institutions. None will own any private property beyond the clothing on their backs and perhaps their weapons. They will live together in barracks and share their meals at common tables. There will be no families or knowledge of who one’s biological parents are. Children born to members of the group, and young children imported as promising from the other classes, will be raised communally. These guardians will be selected for their natural talents from among all the classes of the city. [So please don’t complain about Plato that he does not allow people to “improve” their position or station in life in accordance with their ability. The fact that he doesn’t give the market the job of assigning people to their “rank” doesn’t mean he doesn’t support the notion of a “career open to talent”, “or equality of opportunity”.] But the guardians will also be bred at special festivals where matings will supposedly be arranged by lottery, but will be secretly rigged by the rulers in order to produce the best combinations.

It is important to note that Plato’s “communism” is very different from modern  or post-Christian forms of communism. Plato’s scheme is not aimed at pleasure, self-development or at the elimination of hierarchy. It is instead aimed at ensuring the highest possible degree of unity in the ruling group. This group, it is hoped, will have the solidarity of a single family. It is aimed at ensuring that the rulers, not being bound by laws or constitutions or restrained by other groups, will have as their exclusive aim and function, the good of the whole city.

Of these guardians, a few older ones who have been tested throughout their entire lives and who have demonstrated their worthiness, will become the rulers. These are the least “self”-ish. They will be the ones who identify most completely with the whole. So, we have a three class system:

  1. Producers
  2. Auxiliaries (guardians)
  3. Rulers (guardians)

Sometimes there is a bit of confusion because Socrates will refer to either group 1. or group 2. As guardians, and sometimes he refers to both groups together as the guardians. But the context usually makes it pretty clear which he is describing at any given moment.

With this the outlines of the city of words (sometimes called the ideal city) is pretty well complete. It is at this point that Adeimantus breaks in to the discussion with the objection that Socrates has not made the guardians happy (419e) and Socrates responds by saying the aim is not to make one group very happy, but to ensure the happiness of the whole (420b; also 421b). In doing so, Socrates gives us a hint as to how to find the essential definition of justice in this model.

On what justice turns out to be we will see next time.

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