Then Again





Republic: Book One



Plato (ca. 428 BC- 347BC) lived in the period after Athens's defeat in the Peloponnesian War and the resulting struggles over the nature of the Athenian government.  His thought was also shaped by his mentor, Socrates, who was executed by the democratic government of Athens in 399 BC.

The Republic is one of two extended discussions of politics.  The essay, which takes the form of a conversation at a dinner party, addresses the question, "What is justice?"

Accordingly we went with Polemarchus to his house; and there we found his brothers Lysias and Euthydemus, and with them Thrasymachus the Chalcedonian, Charmantides the Paeanian, and Cleitophon the son of Aristonymus.  There too was Cephalus the father of Polemarchus, whom I had not seen for a long time, and I thought him very much aged.  He was seated on a cushioned chair, and had a garland on his head, for he had been sacrificing in the court; and there were some other chairs in the room arranged in a semicircle, upon which we sat down by him.  He saluted me eagerly, and then he said:--

You don't come to see me, Socrates, as often as you ought:  If I were still able to go and see you I would not ask you to come to me.  But at my age I can hardly get to the city, and therefore you should come oftener to the Piraeus.  For let me tell you, that the more the pleasures of the body fade away, the greater to me is the pleasure and charm of conversation. Do not then deny my request, but make our house your resort and keep company with these young men; we are old friends, and you will be quite at home with us.  

I replied:  There is nothing which for my part I like better, Cephalus, than conversing with aged men; for I regard them as travellers who have gone a journey which I too may have to go, and of whom I ought to inquire, whether the way is smooth and easy, or rugged and difficult.  And this is a question which I should like to ask of you who have arrived at that time which the poets call the 'threshold of old age'--Is life harder towards the end, or what report do you give of it? 

* * *  

'Hope,' he says, 'cherishes the soul of him who lives in justice and holiness, and is the nurse of his age and the companion of his journey;-- hope which is mightiest to sway the restless soul of man.'  

How admirable are his words!  And the great blessing of riches, I do not say to every man, but to a good man, is, that he has had no occasion to deceive or to defraud others, either intentionally or unintentionally; and when he departs to the world below he is not in any apprehension about offerings due to the gods or debts which he owes to men.  Now to this peace of mind the possession of wealth greatly contributes; and therefore I say, that, setting one thing against another, of the many advantages which wealth has to give, to a man of sense this is in my opinion the greatest.

Well said, Cephalus, I [Socrates] replied; but as concerning justice, what is it?--to speak the truth and to pay your debts--no more than this?  And even to this are there not exceptions?  Suppose that a friend when in his right mind has deposited arms with me and he asks for them when he is not in his right mind, ought I to give them back to him?  No one would say that I ought or that I should be right in doing so, any more than they would say that I ought always to speak the truth to one who is in his condition.  

You are quite right, he replied.  

But then, I said, speaking the truth and paying your debts is not a correct definition of justice.  

Quite correct, Socrates, if Simonides is to be believed, said Polemarchus interposing.  

I fear, said Cephalus, that I must go now, for I have to look after the sacrifices, and I hand over the argument to Polemarchus and the company.

 * * *

Is not Polemarchus your heir? I said.  

To be sure, he answered, and went away laughing to the sacrifices.  

Tell me then, O thou heir of the argument, what did Simonides say, and according to you truly say, about justice?  

He said that the repayment of a debt is just, and in saying so he appears to me to be right.  

I should be sorry to doubt the word of such a wise and inspired man, but his meaning, though probably clear to you, is the reverse of clear to me. For he certainly does not mean, as we were just now saying, that I ought to return a deposit of arms or of anything else to one who asks for it when he is not in his right senses; and yet a deposit cannot be denied to be a debt.  


Then when the person who asks me is not in his right mind I am by no means to make the return?

Certainly not.  

When Simonides said that the repayment of a debt was justice, he did not mean to include that case?

 * *  *

Yes, I said; but if this definition of justice also breaks down, what other can be offered?

Several times in the course of the discussion Thrasymachus had made an attempt to get the argument into his own hands, and had been put down by the rest of the company, who wanted to hear the end.  But when Polemarchus and I had done speaking and there was a pause, he could no longer hold his peace; and, gathering himself up, he came at us like a wild beast, seeking to devour us.  We were quite panic-stricken at the sight of him.  

He roared out to the whole company:  What folly, Socrates, has taken possession of you all?  And why, sillybillies, do you knock under to one another?  I say that if you want really to know what justice is, you should not only ask but answer, and you should not seek honour to yourself from the refutation of an opponent, but have your own answer; for there is many a one who can ask and cannot answer.  And now I will not have you say that justice is duty or advantage or profit or gain or interest, for this sort of nonsense will not do for me; I must have clearness and accuracy.  

I was panic-stricken at his words, and could not look at him without trembling.  Indeed I believe that if I had not fixed my eye upon him, I should have been struck dumb; but when I saw his fury rising, I looked at him first, and was therefore able to reply to him.  

Thrasymachus, I said, with a quiver, don't be hard upon us.  Polemarchus and I may have been guilty of a little mistake in the argument, but I can assure you that the error was not intentional.  If we were seeking for a piece of gold, you would not imagine that we were 'knocking under to one another,' and so losing our chance of finding it.  And why, when we are seeking for justice, a thing more precious than many pieces of gold, do you say that we are weakly yielding to one another and not doing our utmost to get at the truth?  Nay, my good friend, we are most willing and anxious to do so, but the fact is that we cannot.  And if so, you people who know all things should pity us and not be angry with us.  

How characteristic of Socrates! he replied, with a bitter laugh;--that's your ironical style!  Did I not foresee--have I not already told you, that whatever he was asked he would refuse to answer, and try irony or any other shuffle, in order that he might avoid answering?

 *  *  *  

Let me first understand you, I replied.  Justice, as you say, is the interest of the stronger.  What, Thrasymachus, is the meaning of this?  You cannot mean to say that because Polydamas, the pancratiast, is stronger than we are, and finds the eating of beef conducive to his bodily strength, that to eat beef is therefore equally for our good who are weaker than he is, and right and just for us?

That's abominable of you, Socrates; you take the words in the sense which is most damaging to the argument.  

Not at all, my good sir, I said; I am trying to understand them; and I wish that you would be a little clearer.  

Well, he said, have you never heard that forms of government differ; there are tyrannies, and there are democracies, and there are aristocracies?  

Yes, I know.  

And the government is the ruling power in each state?  


And the different forms of government make laws democratical, aristocratical, tyrannical, with a view to their several interests; and these laws, which are made by them for their own interests, are the justice which they deliver to their subjects, and him who transgresses them they punish as a breaker of the law, and unjust.  And that is what I mean when I say that in all states there is the same principle of justice, which is the interest of the government; and as the government must be supposed to have power, the only reasonable conclusion is, that everywhere there is one principle of justice, which is the interest of the stronger.  

From: The Republic (with commentary by the translator) by Plato. Translated by Benjamin Jowett.  Project Gutenberg Release #1497 (October 1998)

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