Context

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 161

The Republic of Plato, perhaps the greatest single treatise written on political philosophy, has strongly influenced Western thought concerning questions of justice, rule, obedience, and the good life. The work is undoubtedly the best general introduction to Plato’s philosophy. It contains not only his ideas on the state and human nature but also his theory of forms, his theory of knowledge, and his views of the role of music and poetry in society. Plato presents a penetrating analysis of each of the important philosophical questions. Socrates and his illustrious student Plato force the reader, by their dialectical technique of question and answer, of definition and exception, to take an active part in the philosophical enterprise.

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The work is divided into ten books, or chapters, written as a dialogue with Socrates as the main character. One cannot fail to catch the magnificence of Plato’s literary and philosophical style, for all the available translations contain passages of great force and beauty.

Justice

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 921

The opening book of the Republic is concerned with the question, “What is justice?” Invited by Polemarchus to the home of his father, Cephalus, Socrates and others (among them Glaucon, Adeimantus, and Thrasymachus) begin, in an easy fashion, the search for an answer. First Cephalus and then his son Polemarchus defend the idea that justice is the restoration of what one has received from another. Socrates asks if this definition would apply in a situation in which weapons borrowed from a friend were demanded by him when quite obviously he was no longer of sound mind. It is a homely example of the type that Socrates loved to give; and as usual, when examined, it raises important considerations. Justice, among other things, involves not only property but also conditions, such as a sound mind, which cannot be merely assumed.

The next definition is that justice is doing good to friends and harm to enemies. However, knowledge is needed in order to be able to judge who one’s friends and enemies are. The definition is then modified: Do good to the just and harm to the unjust. Socrates brings up an objection that is a central feature of many of his discussions of the good life. He argues that doing harm to the unjust makes them worse than they are. He holds that it can never be just to make people worse than they are by doing harm to them.

The most serious discussion of this book, which sets the tone for the remainder of the Republic, occurs next. Thrasymachus, who had been sitting by listening to the argument with ill-concealed distaste, impetuously breaks in and takes it up. He presents a position that has since been stated many times: Because the stronger party makes the laws, justice is that which is to the advantage or interest of the stronger party. Socrates attacks this definition: He points out that people do not always know what their interest is or wherein it lies. When the stronger party errs in judgment, then what? Thrasymachus replies that rulers are not rulers when they err. Note that in admitting this, Thrasymachus has already moved away from his original position and toward that of Socrates, which is that might alone does not make right; might together with some kind of knowledge capable of preventing errors makes right. Socrates presses his advantage further. Whenever we consider an art and its practice, be it medicine, piloting a ship, or ruling, it is practiced not for the sake of the art or its practitioner but for those who are to receive its benefits, be they patients, passengers, or the ruled.

Thrasymachus angrily declares that anyone but a philosopher could see that society “honors” the powerful person over the powerless. Corrupt people with impunity...

(The entire section contains 6793 words.)

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