Book 1 in Plato’s Republic is all about justice as Socrates attempts to get his companions to come up with a definition of justice that he can’t poke holes in. Each time someone suggests what justice is, Socrates comes up with a situation in which that definition is clearly unjust. For example, Socrates introduces the situation in which the neighbor who loaned you a weapon goes crazy and asks for the weapon back, asking the company what is the right action when you know the madman will put others in danger? This argument defeats Cephalus’ claim that justice means honoring your legal obligations and being honest with others and Polemarchus’ claim that justice means helping your friends and harming your enemies since your friends, like your neighbor, are not always on the side of the just. Confronted with these two traditional ideas of justice, Thrasymachus enters the conversation to present a new idea that was taking hold, that justice was just a tool that helps the strong who are willing to flout the rules to rise and keeps the weaker who follow the laws of justice powerless. Although Socrates argues against this by pointing out first that Thrasymachus is promoting injustice, then argues that injustice cannot be a virtue and that justice is good for the soul, this argument sets up the need to defend and define justice more precisely.
Book 2 examines the question of the value of justice more specifically by attempting to place it in its proper place in the good hierarchy. This conversation starts when the younger men in the group, specifically Glaucon, ask Socrates to prove that justice belongs in the highest class of ‘goods’ that people can experience. The discussion introduces justice as the basest form of good, something more in the nature of a necessary evil instead of something we do for our own betterment According to Glaucon, anybody who could get away with acting in an unjust way would do so. The only thing that keeps us acting justly is the fear of others acting unjustly against us. In making this argument, Glaucon seems to be supporting something close to the stance that Thrasymachus takes with one small but significant difference. Instead of suggesting that people should simply be unjust, Glaucon is saying that people are just because they fear social censorship but it makes more sense for them to act unjustly because the unjust is more pleasant. The challenge thrown out by Glaucon and his brother Adeimantus causes Socrates to create a metaphorical city to explore how justice is applied at the city / political level first to see if he can bring it down to the personal / individual level. He starts the city with the foundational principle that people need to do what best suits them for the basic necessities of life. From there, he tracks the development of the luxurious city that needs teachers and artists, which also then needs guardians and leaders. Since the guardians are the ones that have the right to use force, he starts with them, discussing how they need to be trained to value justice.
So in Book 1, we are introduced to the idea that justice is only an advantage for the stronger and in Book 2, we get the idea that it is part of a base social contract that ends with a positive afterlife. Then Plato gets into the project of outlining his perfect city. This starts in book 2 as he lays out the specific instruction the guardians should get, emphasizing that they should first be selected by personality and then trained with a careful blend of physical, intellectual and artistic selections. To ensure everyone is educated to their best possible selves, Plato suggests that all art should be severely restricted to only what is considered good for the society – poems that praise the gods and stories that praise heroes, plus anything necessary for them to complete their specific vocations. The reason it is so important to restrict the types of stories and poems that can be told is because the current (to Plato) stories being told were encouraging the idea that it was good to be unjust as that would lead to a pleasurable life while it was bad to be just as that would lead to a wretched life. Instead, he talked about how a city in which all the arts were focused on teaching people to value just actions would produce a just populace. There needs to be a careful balance between all the different elements of training for all people, since the rulers are trained up from the guardian class when they’ve proven to have the right qualities and skills. Socrates also spends a great deal of time talking about the importance of the absence of sexual love in order to push people to understand the higher forms of meaning inherent in the world around them.
In expanding his discussion into Book 4, when Adeimanthus interrupts to comment that it doesn’t sound all that wonderful to be the ruler of the city, we get a clearer image of what Plato had in mind. By the end of Book 4, we find Plato has divided the society into three segments which also corresponds to the three essential elements of the individual – the worker, the protector and the thinker or ruler. All people are given the same things in terms of home, food, clothing and opportunity which was guaranteed by separating the children from the parents soon after their birth so that they could all be raised in the same way. All children, boys and girls, had the same treatment and education from their caregivers that way and were given equal opportunity to prove what they were capable of. Only those children who completed a rigorous education process that included military service, mastery of abstract thought and adherence to the values of the community were able to reach the ranks of rulers by the time they were in their 50s. Plato suggests rulers raised in this way would be perfect leaders because they wouldn’t have to prove that they were better than anyone else through their possessions and would have their primary interest in the welfare of the society as a whole rather than just in their own welfare and benefit.
- Plato. The Republic. (May 18, 2002). Print.