Plato's Republic by Plato

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Book 1 Summary and Analysis

1. Introduction: Cephalus and the Conventional View of Justice (327–331d)

While walking back to town with Glaucon, Socrates is invited to spend the evening at Polemarchus’ house. Upon arrival, Socrates and Polemarchus’ father, Cephalus, discuss the changes that occur with age. Cephalus says he is happy to be free of the passions of youth, adding that age is an easy burden to bear for those who are “sensible and good-tempered” (329d). With prodding from Socrates, Cephalus goes on to say that he is happy that he is well-off, insofar as it has made it easier for him to avoid wrongdoing. This knowledge gives him peace, because he is unafraid of what his judgment will be in the world of the dead.

Socrates then asks Cephalus if it is sufficient to say that one has lived justly merely if one has been truthful and returned what one has borrowed. When Cephalus agrees, Socrates presents the question of returning a weapon to a man gone mad. Since obeying Cephalus’ definition of justice would produce a bad result, Socrates finds Cephalus’ definition insufficient.

Polemarchus interrupts, saying his father’s definition is correct. Cephalus takes this opportunity to depart, leaving his son to continue the argument.

In this section, justice, the main topic of The Republic, is introduced casually by Cephalus. Socrates will later find justice valuable in the individual insofar as it enables him to control his passions, as Cephalus has done, and praise justice for its value in the afterlife, as Cephalus now does. But while Cephalus’ life epitomizes that of a just man in normal society, Socrates finds that he has not really reflected on justice.

Notice the references to sayings of the poets. In a society in which books were an oddity, poetry was a major part of a young man’s education. Most revered of the poets was Homer, author of The Iliad and The Odyssey, who was referred to simply as “the poet.” His Iliad served the Greeks as a combination of the Bible and the works of Shakespeare.

Socrates’ “kidnapping” to Polemarchus’ house foreshadows the debate that will later take place between Socrates and Thrasy¬machus. Superior force convinces Socrates to accompany Polemarchus’ party, but Socrates offers debate as a method of ensuring his escape.

2. The Conventional View of Justice Continued: Polemarchus (331e–336a)

Elaborating on his father’s position, Polemarchus asserts that “it is just to give to each what is owed,” shortly amending himself to say it is just to do good to one’s friends and evil to one’s enemies (331e). Socrates then compares justice to a variety of skills, asking Polemarchus if his definition holds true in different situations, such as war, peace, and misinformation. By eliminating what it is not, Socrates makes Polemarchus concede that his definition is not only incorrect, but that following it would foster injustice.

In this passage, Socrates briefly introduces the difference between seeming and being, a distinction that will re-emerge when he presents the argument in favor of philosophers as good rulers. Most of this part of the dialogue consists of similes comparing the proper practice of various skills to the proper practice of justice. The failings of Polemarchus’ definition of justice are brought out in this classic example of the Socratic method, which results in convincing Polemarchus himself that he is wrong.

3. Thrasymachus: Justice as the Interest of the Stronger (336b–342e)

Thrasymachus impatiently interrupts Socrates and Pole¬marchus, demanding that Socrates stop asking questions and explain his own views on justice. Thrasymachus then challenges Socrates to hear him out. After being assured his payment for teaching, Thrasymachus states that “the just is nothing other than the advantage of the stronger” (338c). He uses the example of two governments that give different laws because they are ruled in different ways, but that are similar in that...

(The entire section is 1,072 words.)