“The Republic Book II” by Plato (Notes)

“The Republic Book II” by Plato


Socrates teaches the basis of good government: "I'll fuckin' flatten a young buck!"
Socrates teaches the basis of good government: “I’ll fuckin’ flatten a young buck!”


Glaucon, Socrates’s friend, wants to know what justice is. Nobody’s happy with how that chat with Thrasymachus ended. He continues the discussion:

G: Isn’t there something we like for its own sake and not just for the things they bring? And there’s also a group of things we like for their own sake but for the consequences they bring? Like health, knowledge, sight, etc. We like them but also what they give to us beyond themselves. There’s also another group that we actually don’t like in and of themselves but we like what they bring us, like exercise, medicine and most ways of making money.

S: That’s right.

G: Which class is justice in?

S: The highest class. The one we like for its own sake, as well as for the consequences they bring.

G: Most people don’t agree with you. They think that justice is just something painful or annoying that you have to deal with in order to get the right results.

S: That was more or less what Thrasymachus was saying.

G: I know, but I don’t buy it. But I’ll repeat his argument and I want you to set me, him and his argument to right.

S: Got it.

G: OK. THEY are saying this, not me (Glaucon)…. Doing injustice is good and suffering injustice is bad. But suffering it is worse than the good that doing it is. When people have done and suffered it, they agree that injustice must be avoided by passing laws. The laws are a compromise between the good of doing injustice and getting away with it and receiving injustice and not being able to do anything about it. That’s the nature and origins of justice. To go on further about this let’s tell the story of the Ring of Gyges…

RING OF GYGES: Gyges was a shepherd who was tending to his sheep when an earthquake split the earth. He crawled into the opening and found a brass horse with a dead man inside wearing a gold ring. He later realized it was an invisibility ring. He was able to use the ring to seduce the queen and help her kill the king and become king himself.

G: Imagine if you had two of those rings. A just man would have one and an unjust man would wear the other. A perfectly unjust man could do as he pleased without ever damaging his reputation because he is safe in being unjust and would appear exactly as the just man appears. If we make them perfectly just and perfectly unjust, we can see how they would behave in their extremes. The perfectly unjust man is so good at what he does that he appears to be perfectly just because if he didn’t he’d get spotted for being unjust. And the perfectly just man appears perfectly unjust because he doesn’t want to be seen as attention- or praise-seeking, which is an unjust behavior. The just man will be chased and tortured for seeming to be completely unjust, while the unjust man will be promoted to highest levels of power, enjoying all sorts of material wealth as well as physical well-being. His material wealth will allow him to make all sorts of sacrifices to the gods making him very popular with them. The unjust man will have nothing to sacrifice to the gods and they will be pissed off at him for giving them nothing. Even the gods will praise injustice over justice.

Glaucon’s brother, Adeimantus, interjects before Socrates has a chance to respond to Glaucon.

A: Another side to this argument is that parents are always telling their kids about justice being good and injustice being bad, not for themselves but for their consequences. Being seen to be just will get you much further ahead in life than being seen to be unjust. They even tell you that these have their consequences with the gods in how they view the just man versus the unjust man. All the great poets and prose writers tell of all the benefits of justice but annoying to perform and the pleasures of but a bigger downside of injustice. They say even the gods make just men miserable and bestow honors and a wonderful life to unjust men. They say that appearances are much more important than actually being. Persuasion and force allow the unjust to succeed in life. If there are no gods, or there are gods but they don’t give a shit about humans, what good does justice do us if it just makes our lives harder and with less reward? People only praise justice and talk against injustice when referring to the honor and glory of the just and the ignominy of injustice.

Socrates finally responds to all of this.

S: Justice is spoken about at the individual level and at the state level. The larger the subject, the more apparent the amount of justice is. It’s easier to talk about justice at the level of the state because it’s more magnified. If you talk about the creation of the state, you can see where justice and injustice come about in the state. The state comes about because of human needs. You’ve got people supplying and demanding goods and services and everybody is in one place and we call that place the “state”. Of all the necessities we have food, shelter and clothing. So the city starts off with different types farmers, then moves to builders and then to clothes makers. You can get by in this with a small number of people. They all produce a surplus – beyond what they need personally – and exchange it for their other needs. This makes their lives easier because each one of them produces with economies of scale – it’s easier for him to provide 5 of one product than everybody making their own. Also, he becomes an expert at his technique – when to do which stage of production, etc.

A: Sounds good.

S: Some people are more inclined towards one type of work than another. This will allow people to enjoy their work more because it suits their personalities. Also, people who build the tools for the farmers, builders and clothes makers will make production faster, easier and more reliable. This expands our city. But at some point the expansion will require more people to import supplies from outside the city. This requires more production of goods to trade with foreigners in compensation for the goods/supplies to be brought in. You need merchants to perform this trade. If you’re going over the sea, you’ll need sailors to ship everything. With all of this trading going on, you’ll need a place to do all the trading. You’ll need a market place. At the market place, you’ll need money. The farmers and clothes makers will be so busy in their fields and workshops that they won’t have time to sell their stuff in the market. They’ll need salesmen to do that for them. For all the building going on, you’ll need hired hands to do all the extra labor needing doing. But where do justice and injustice fit into all of this?

A: In the citizens’ dealings with each other.

S: Their lives will be pretty nice. All the necessities of life are taken care of and then some benefits beyond necessities as well. They have more than enough to get by but not going way into the area of decadence. They will be able to pass down the same quality of life on to their children.

A: Sounds like a city of pigs.

S: It’s not too much. It’s a comfortable life, not luxurious. These are the conditions in which justice is possible I’ll tell you what a real city of pigs would look like. This is my whole point. A real city of pigs is where injustice grows. This is where luxuries go crazy. Not just nice furniture, but perfumes, cakes, courtesans of almost every imaginable variety. Painters, embroiderers will be working everything you can think of. They’ll be looking for increasingly more gold and ivory and on and on. To do this, the borders will need to be expanded because the healthy state’s size just isn’t enough. The city will grow to accommodate all the expanded desires of the city. All sorts of ways of making ordinary goods more and more luxurious. The city will be so wealthy that we will get more and more servants. Tutors, nurses, maids, barbers, confectioners, cooks, etc. Since the city will be growing fat, we’ll need more doctors. And since the amount we eat and wear will be growing, the amount of land needed to grow food and house production will have to expand. We’ll look to our neighbors to take some of their land and they’ll probably do the same to us. This will probably lead us to war. The causes of these wars will be from the causes of our evils because we only go to war to feed the evil desires. If we win, we’ll probably need more and more – so much so that we’ll need a professional army. This will do all the invading and the prevention of invaders in our city.

A: Can we defend ourselves?

S: Not if we believe in the division of labor. Remember, if one person is really good at something, he must specialize in the subject to improve expertise and gain economies of scale. War is a sort of art, isn’t it?

A: Yes.

S: We’ve got to train these armies to make them the best. The higher up the hierarchy of the subject – in this case the army – the more training and intelligence and natural skill in the matter is required. We have to be able to determine who will be the most able to defend the city. A guardian is like a well-bred dog – quick to recognize and catch up with the threat and then when he has caught up with it, he has to be able to fight it and win. That’s just the physical side of the guardian. A brave and indomitable spirit is also required. They also have to be dangerous to their enemies and good to their friends. So, he has to be gentle but have a great spirit. Sounds impossible, doesn’t it?

A: Yes.

S: These opposite traits do coexist in animals, like the dog. The dog is nice to owners and friends and rough with strangers. A guardian besides needing to be of a spirited nature would have to be like a philosopher. Why would a dog be mean to a stranger even though he’s never met him and therefore doesn’t know if the stranger means him harm or good? And why would a dog be nice to an acquaintance even though he may not have ever done anything deserving of his affection? The dog is a true philosopher because he is friends with people he knows and enemies with people he doesn’t know. His whole attitude is based on knowing and not knowing somebody. Likes and dislikes are based on a test of knowledge and the love of learning is the love of wisdom, which is philosophy. So, the best guardian will have to combine philosophy, spirit, speed and strength. Now that we know who the guardians should be, how would you educate one? We have to know that to know how justice and injustice are grown in states.

A: Let’s see how it should be done.

S: We’ll begin with gymnastic for the body and music/literature for the soul. But should the literature be fiction and non-fiction?

A: Yes.

S: OK. Should we begin with fiction? That is, tell them fables and parables to guide them morally without really being true? We have to start with this before they are old enough to work out.

A: Sure.

S: Who should be telling these stories? Could anybody come up with a story to feed these kids’ minds that could lead them down the wrong path?

A: ?

S: At such a young age, the character of the person is definitely not yet formed. We should make sure that they are not exposed to the wrong things that their character later in life is ruined not only by the malicious but by the well-meaning but still misguided idiots. We have to create a list of authorized stories to be told by nurses and mothers in order to mold their minds. Most of the ones we use now will have to go.

A: Which ones are those?

S: Pretty much anything by Homer and Hesiod and others. The famous ones. They are based on lies. Not only lies but bad lies. This is when the stories of heroes and gods bear no relation to what they are actually like. For example, the story of Uranus and Cronus. Cronus wasn’t necessarily a good dude, but what he did didn’t necessitate the retaliation of Uranus on him. That sort of thing would teach kids that they can be cruel to their parents and elders. Not only will he be doing that, but he can claim that the greatest of the gods did that, so it must be a good thing.

A: You’re right.

S: We also can’t tell the stories of the gods plotting and fighting against each other. First of all, they’re not true. Second of all, they set a bad example. Third of all, even if they are allegorical, children don’t have the ability to distinguish the literal from the allegorical and they could be damaged by the stories. They should be told stories praising virtues.

A: OK, but where are the stories that actually do that?

S: Well, we’ll leave that to the poets to write. We’ll give them the specs of the stories and poems and they’ll hammer them out.

A: Gods are supposed to be represented as good, not hurtful and evil. What’s good is the source of well-being. Good is the only cause of other good things.

S: If God is good and only good, then he’s not the one creating all the evil in the world. The evils come from somewhere else. And seeing how much evil there is in the world, there are a lot of sources of evil and they aren’t from god. We shouldn’t be telling kids the stories that tell of the caprices of the gods and their wickedness. That will lead the young to believe that if the gods are fickle or evil, then it must be right to be fickle and evil.

A: Absolutely.

S: So, one rule is: With respect to the gods, poets and writers may only say that the gods are the causes of only good things, not all things.

S: Next rule. Let’s start with a question: Is god the type of entity that will change his shape to appear different to people and trick us into thinking he’s something else? Or is he constant in his own, proper image.

A: I’m not sure.

S: Things either change on their own, or by something else, right? The best things are least likely to change or be changed. The strong body is least affected by drink and food. A strong plant will withstand a very strong wind or heat.

A: Right.

S: Same is true with inanimate objects. Good houses and furniture take a pretty good beating by the environment but aren’t changed or ruined. Everything of a good quality is less likely to endure change from outside. If god is the greatest of all good, then wouldn’t he be the absolutely least likely to be changed?

A: That’s right.

S: But since the change won’t happen from outside, how about from within? Would a good thing become better or worse in its transformation? It has to be for the worse because the absolutely best thing can’t get any better. So, why would he change for the worse? He wouldn’t. He wouldn’t be willing to change, so he’ll remain in his same natural form.

A: Correct.

S: So, the second rule is: The poets may not refer to the gods as shape-shifting. They may only refer to them as constant – good. Because to change shape would be lying to people about who they are. Lying is un-virtuous.

A: Right.

S: All those stories that Homer and Aeschylus told of the gods appearing in dreams or altering their appearances are bullshit. They’ll fuck up the little kids’ minds.

Video Summary of Text:

Video of My Thoughts on the Text:

Leave a Reply