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Wednesday, 6 April 2016

A Short Exegesis on Plato. Plato’s Republic Book II: When Physis and Nomos Fail



This is an essay original written for a Political Theory class, and though it is formal, as far as blog posts go, it is something I hope some of you may find interesting. If there are any Plato enthusiasts forgive any obvious ignorance, this essay was a product of my first reading of Plato's Republic and by no means am I familiar with his Oeuvre however, it did receive an excellent mark from a scholar who's primary focus is Plato. 


Tension governs the second book of Plato’s Republic, tension between the natural, metaphysical, and social world, which each lay claim to being the chief stimulus of justice. The book focuses primarily on the way the individual responds to both exogenous and endogenous factors influencing them toward both justice and injustice. Glaucon and Adeimantus present these arguments, each man embodying a different insufficient cause for justice: Glaucon represents the nature of the individual and man as a whole, and Adeimantus bases his own arguments upon a traditional customary interpretation, which states that of the external reputation and benefits propel just behavior.
Socrates however, cannot establish a satisfactory argument in response to his two interlocutors, so he includes them in the construction of an analogy: the Just City. Socrates goes through the city and establishes the basic components required to make the city function in an orderly way, but Glaucon confronts him because his city does provide for a decent lifestyle for its inhabitants. This leads to the construction of a more complex city, the City in Fever as Socrates calls it, an inchoate representation of the soul. He then goes on to suggest that such a city is needs to both expand and protect itself and in so doing introduces the class of Guardians.
In order to educate the Guardians, Socrates insists that the poetic understanding is not adequate because it portrays the gods as capricious and their priests as facilitators of subornation, and therefore not sufficient role models for the Guardians. In so doing, he invalidates the poetic understanding justice as a means to govern the soul.
With these causes placed in doubt Socrates initiates the search for the cause of the just soul. Each argument, one based on Nomos the other Physis, fails. This leaves the source of justice as something intrinsic. Socrates therefore begins to establish justice’s origins as something internal and independent.
The first of the arguments presented to Socrates is an expansion of that offered by Thraysmachus. Glaucon believing that Socrates was ineffective in refuting Thrasymachus’s assertion that justice was to the advantage of the stronger asks for a more definitive response.[i] He sets out to prove three different statements: first the definition of justice; second that “all who practice [justice] do so unwillingly, as necessary but not good;” third, that unjust men live an unfulfilling life in contrast with just men.[ii]
 Glaucon insists that it is man’s natural condition to behave in an unjust fashion because this behavior provides him with the greatest rewards. He states his positon explicitly in the passage “give each, the just man and the unjust, license to do whatever he wants. . . . We would catch the just man red-handed going the same way as the unjust man out of a desire to get the better; this is what any naturally pursues as good, while it is law [nomos] which by force perverts it to honor equality.”[iii]
In addition, he contends that any man who could resist those temptations would be supernatural.[iv] In corollary, he states that the truly just individual would find his peers would mock him who clandestinely.[v] However, Glaucon recognizes that such a society of unjust men acting to exploit one another would cause immeasurable chaos. This alternative must be the veneer of justice, as an adaptation to society.

This alternative is a basic social contract theory. Specifically he relies upon the proposition that “the bad in suffering injustice far exceeds the good in doing it; so that, when they do injustice to one another and suffer it and taste of both, it seems profitable . . . to set down a compact among themselves neither to do injustice nor to suffer it.”[vi] Glaucon continues to describe the just behavior as a mean, between the worst outcomes, suffering injustice, and the best thing, which is doing injustice.[vii]
To buttress the theory that no man is just at a naturally, he refers to the Tale of the Ring of Gyges. Gyges with the ring on his finger he turns the collet inward, and turns away from the nomos, and toward his nature abjuring himself of obligations pressed upon him by his position in the community; Gyges, upon recognizing the ring’s power, immediately proceeds to do harm, taking what the desires and making himself king therefore increasing worldly position.[viii]
Relating the analogy back to the physical world, Glaucon states that to prove justice is truly better it must be just independent of appearances, and therefore stripping the external benefits of justice is necessary. He suggests that a perfectly unjust man will be so skilled in his unjust arts that he has the means of appearing just and in fact he has tools to enhance his “reputation for justice.”[ix] Even if such an unjust man is uncovered, he has the tools to repair his state. One of these tools is rhetoric, which if the meaning once extrapolated serves as a form of invisibility for those skilled in the art of Sophistry. This likewise establishes that justice is accessible only to the individual himself. The seeming can never with certainty be said to match the being; instead, our perception of other is always conjecture. Glaucon challenges Socrates to show that justice leads to a better life for the man assailed by exterior hardships, that despite all his suffering, the truly just man will live a happier life.[x]
Before Socrates can offer an effective rebuttal, Adeimantus intercedes in support of justice, but supposes that all just conduct is a derivative of the desire for rewards and reputation. Adeimantus suggests that the true reason that men are just is that their family bids them toward justice, for the purposes of reputation and reward, and that men are afraid of the wrath of the gods.[xi]
Adeimantus states that the families refer to the conventional knowledge of the poets, who say that the gods reward those who behave in a noble fashion for their conduct. He cites Hesiod and Homer as common purveyors of the idea that the just will be rewarded by the gods, and because a man’s peers and the gods could reward the just man then the unjust man’s monopoly reputation and reward is broken.[xii] In this way, he shifts the source of just conduct from nature and onto the external world composed of the community, family, and the gods. He notes that, “the wages of the gods [extend] yet further. . . . For they say that a holy and oath-keeping man leaves his children’s children and a whole tribe behind him. So in these . . . ways extol justice.”[xiii] He explains that the unjust reside in Hades and are punished there. “Thus, those penalties that Glaucon described as the lot of the just men who are reputed to be unjust, these people say are the lot of the unjust.”[xiv]
A problem arises out of this however; because the poets offer the unjust, an escape from their punishment as man can turn aside the god’s displeasure simply through the offering of lavish gifts. This is precisely the relationship between Cephalus and the gods observed in the first book.[xv] Adeimantus claims that the poets are happy to honour the unjust who have built up worldly things and to bypass the unfortunate or impoverished. “Most wonderful of all these speeches are those given about gods and virtue. They say that the gods, after all, allot misfortune and a bad life to many good men too, and an opposite fate to opposite men.”[xvi] Adeimantus notes that the gods do not offer or provide good or bad things in relation to the behavior of the men who receive blessings. The priests (who are blessed) offer their services to the rich both as a means of harming their enemies and as bridge to forgiveness. Through the correct sacrifices and propitiations, the priests can in turn void the injustice of the rich man.[xvii]

Adeimantus asks how this capacity to sway the gods and how these poetic stories, as well as the father's instructions, to avoid a poor reputation, harm the boys who desire to grow up as just men. This is because they are not getting a true cause for justice, but rather an impoverished reasoning devoid of inner motivation. To Adeimantus the current justification for just conduct is insufficient, and leaves only confusion, he argues that to young men, “the seeming overpowers even the truth.”[xviii]
This argument places doubt upon the gods, and suggests that the nomos is failing the mass of people conflicted about justice. If Adeimantus is representative of the bronze souled, and in turn the appetites, then the Grecians are in crisis. Adeimantus says, “But surely it isn’t possible to get away from the gods. . . . But, if there are no gods, or if they have no care for human things, why should we care at all about getting away?”[xix] Afterward Adeimantus suggests that through the poets we know that if the gods are real we can manipulate them through sacrifices too. Adeimantus suggests that only those with a divine or godly nature can deny the advantages of injustice, and that injustice is beyond anyone to avoid.
At this junction Socrates is left perplexed; he has no adequate or immediate response to the arguments proposed by Glaucon and Adeimantus, and so he turns to the construction of the city in speech as a way to determine what makes justice desirable. He relies on the city, as being an amalgamation of men, who are in themselves not self-sufficient, but the city will be, and in this way not only can he provide an outline of self-sufficient city but a self-sufficient soul in turn and potentially derive justice from it.
In this way, Socrates and Adiemantus begin establishing a city that is small and harmonious with no greater parts than are necessary, and where a bucolic existence perpetuates itself eternally.[xx] Glaucon however, sees such a city as inadequate, and suggests that such men would live like pigs.[xxi] What Glaucon means is not only are they living only for the sake of sustenance, but also that such an existence brings them no closer to defining justice because it leaves men leading lives, which are meaningless, devoid of any form of purpose. They have no temptations, desires, appetites, or excitements through which their nature maybe tested. This is important not only because such a base city would be inhospitable in terms of leisure and pleasure, but also because no true person lives a live free from those desires and pleasures. The hedonistic and erotic impulses reside in all souls, therefore the soul represented by such a city is incomplete, and not an appropriate response to the accusation that injustice is beneficial. Socrates acquiesces to Glaucon’s demands, and they establish the Feverish City. In this way, the city has to get bigger, more complex, and harder to govern, more real.
Socrates asserted prior that it is easiest and best for men to specialize because each has his own nature, and that he is best “minding his own business for himself.”[xxii] However, in order to do their own jobs effectively and work within the city, it is necessary for men to know their place. In order for a man to know his place, he must in turn know himself, and be able to govern himself. To govern yourself a level of security is necessary, and this entails the introduction of a new element to both the soul and the city the thymos and the Guardians.

The Guardians bring the soul to a more complete state; they also increase the complexity of the soul and the city, because the Guardians though superficially similar to the bronze souled in the city in reality, are entirely different, in both their nature, and their purpose. “To each one of the others we assigned one thing, the one for which his nature fitted him . . . thus doing a fine job.”[xxiii] The Guardians represent in part the volatility of the soul. Thymos and the and the Guardians place the soul and city at risk of harming itself, and Plato will spend the rest of the book outlining the means through which the Guardians will submit to the requirements of the city rather than endanger it. To describe the ideal Guardian, Socrates pulls from the definition of justice proffered by Polemarchus, “gentle to their own and cruel to enemies.”[xxiv] This form of justice is sufficient for the Guardians because the city as it stands is yet to be complete and the Guardians are simply another component.
This raises a contradiction, because “a gentle nature is opposed to a spirited one.”[xxv] However, upon examination of “noble dogs” conceivably the best bred, most intelligent, and most amiable to training,. Socrates and Glaucon conclude that in fact, a dog who is spirited could potentially know strangers, and be obedient toward what is familiar. This entails that the dog must in turn be capable of discrimination and knowing what is unknown and known to him, and therefore such a spirited nature does not reside in opposition to friends or philosophy.[xxvi] By introducing philosophy here, Socrates does something else: he sets the Guardians, imperfect and driven by spirit as they are, apart from the rest of the residents in the city, the capacity to philosophize must be part of their soul, and this love of learning, places them closer to the form of the good.

The Guardians who do not know the good, but can know the familiar and the just from the bad and the foreign are in essence a bridge between the bronze souled, and the yet to come gold souled who will be the natural governors of city and the soul. Because the gold souled, the philosophers, have the capacity for calculation and knowing and therefore may direct the soul and the city toward the good.
In order to bring the thymos and in turn the Guardians into line with their respective habitations Socrates and his interlocutors examine education. Specifically, they examine those lessons provided by the poets and curate them because those who are young are most malleable. The society will tutor the malleable young in the “fine tales” as a means to instill good prior to exposition to the truth in the actual world.[xxvii] W
hen introducing the Guardians to education Socrates makes the implicit assumption that the tales will affect the souls. In this way, the prior tales were inadequate because they provide no orientation or proscription. To Socrates the poets tell tales that are “a bad representation of what gods and heroes
are like.”[xxviii] He goes on to describe how the biggest of lies, the origin of the Greek deities, was not a fine lie. “[The story] how Uranus did what Hesiod says he did. . . . And Cronos deeds and his sufferings at the hand of his son, not even if they were true would I suppose they should be so easily told to thoughtless young things.”[xxix]


The danger of the tales is they do not provide a moral or ethical compass. The poets propagate no specific value system, yet a specific group of values, a fixed belief in justice of a specific nature is a necessary foundation upon which the individual can gauge their beliefs and relate their own acts augmenting their ability to govern their actions through an internalized group of lessons.  I argue Plato saw immense capacity for human rationalization, and is himself trying to buttress the soul against its capacity to reason on erroneously. By instilling the right lessons early on then they will become a referent.
The education of the Guardians leads the way toward a deeper problem. Socrates and his interlocutors create a void. Before the close of the book, the conversation leads to the nature of the gods and whether the gods capacity for change. In the dialogue on education Socrates suggests that it must not be admitted or said that the “gods make war on the gods” or that the Guardians of the city make war on it and they must consider it “most shameful to be easily angry with one another.”[xxx] Socrates concludes that a god must be good and he cannot act contradictory to his own nature, as the poets maintain. Therefore, the god “is not the cause of everything; rather it is the cause of things that are in a good way, while it is not responsible for the bad things.” Therefore, the god is not the cause of bad things.[xxxi]
With this in mind, I ask what does this mean for the soul? I contend that first it places the onus for bad things strictly on the components of the soul and the city, but it also establishes two connected premises: first that the most just are least altered by external things, and secondly that no one willingly makes himself worse. Socrates and Adeimantus say as much, “does anyone, either god or human being, willingly make himself worse in any way at all?”[xxxii] This statement is contingent on the soul knowing itself and through contemplation being able to act toward its own interest.

By establishing self-knowledge as an aspiration, Socrates implicitly suggests that such a goal is tenable. Plato suggests that both man and god are foolish to alter themselves and that it will necessarily take them away from their art and their nature
In book II, Adiemantus and Glaucon give extensive monologues articulating their doubts about the desirability of justice. Each man gives his account in a different fashion; one says that nature is not just, and the other says that external relationships expressed through both the gods and man are insufficient to motivate the individual toward a just life. Though Socrates does not offer an immediate answer to the brothers, he builds an analogy to explore the soul and from here, he begins the process of introducing various elements to the city. By bringing in the thymos and the Guardians, he must make them submit to the needs to soul in its entirety, and not permit spirit alone to motivate them. In doing so Socrates further questions the education offered by the poets and leaves a void. A fault in the soul does not cause the absence, but rather the insufficiency of nomos and physis as a cause catalyst for just conduct. It is in this way Plato states an ethical axiom that to discover true justice we must find its origin in the soul not the external or natural forces of the world, and that true good, and the knowing of it can only be uncovered through the soul acting in a harmonious and philosophical fashion.




[i]Plato, the Republic, Trans. Allan Bloom (Basic Books, 1968), 35 357b.
[ii] Plato, the Republic, 357b.
[iii] Ibid., 359c.
[iv] Ibid., 359b.
[v] Ibid., 360d.
[vi] Ibid., 358e-359a.
[vii] Ibid., 359b.
[viii] Ibid., 360a.
[ix] Ibid., 361a-b.
[x] Ibid., 361b-d.
[xi] Ibid., 362d-363a.
[xii] Ibid., 363a, 363c-e.
[xiii] Ibid., 363c-e.
[xiv] Ibid., 363e.
[xv] Ibid., 330e, 331d.
[xvi] Ibid., 364b.
[xvii] Ibid., 364d.
[xviii] Ibid., 365c.
[xix] Ibid., 365e.
[xx] Ibid., 372a-d.
[xxi] Ibid., 372d.
[xxii] Ibid., 370a-b
[xxiii] Ibid., 374c
[xxiv] Ibid., 375b-c.
[xxv] Ibid., 375d.
[xxvi] Ibid., 375e.
[xxvii] Ibid., 376e-377b.
[xxviii] Ibid., 377e.
[xxix] Ibid., 377e.
[xxx] Ibid., 378c.
[xxxi] Ibid., 379a-c.
[xxxii] Ibid., 381c.