Republic Book II: Glaucon’s Question

Draft in progress:

1984 Plato class paper

The quest for justice in Plato’s Republic is originated for the sake of Glaucon. Glaucon is the cause of their taking up the question of the comparative happiness of the just and unjust man. Socrates draws Glaucon into the discussion of Book I by saying that the good are not willing to rule for the sake of money or honor. He then addresses the question of the choice of the just or unjust life directly to Glaucon. Socrates asks him which speech he chooses as truer in his opinion, the speech of Thrasymachus, who asserts that the life of the unjust man is stronger, or the speech of the of the just man (347 e3). Glaucon chooses the life of the just man as being more “profitable.” He admits, though, that his choice is not made on the basis of knowledge. He thus persuades Socrates, or is persuaded to persuade Socrates, to defend justice against the unjust speech. Glaucon, who is “always most courageous in everything,” is the reason that Book I turns out to be only a prelude. Book II opens with Glaucon asking Socrates if he wants to have truly. or only apparently persuaded them by the arguments of Book I. The reason that Glaucon is not yet persuaded may be that while justice has been shown to be stronger than injustice both in speech (351a- 352b) and in deed (350 d3 and 350 e6, and 354 a3-4), it has not been shown to be more profitable than injustice. The reason may also be, as Socrates states at the conclusion of Book I, that they have left behind the question of what justice is to pursue the question of whether or not justice is vice and lack of learning or virtue and wisdom (354b).

In order to be truly persuaded that justice is to be chosen over injustice, Glaucon desires “to hear what each is and what power it has all alone by itself when it is in the soul- dismissing its wages and consequences” (358 b5). For this reason, says Glaucon, he will restore the argument of Thrasymachus for injustice. He thinks that Thrasymachus has been charmed more quickly than he ought have been. And so Glaucon will restore the argument of Thrasymachus in its strongest form.

The question is that of one’s true good or self interest. If one truly seeks his own advantage, will he choose to be just or to be unjust? The question does not even arise until after the innocence of Cephalus has disappeared. Justice becomes questionable in this way, regarding self interest, due to the emergence of philosophy. But there are men as Thrasymachus, who do not themselves go beyond the definition of justice as obedience to law, to whom justice appears highly questionable, and in fact false, or dis advantageous. Thrasymachus argued that obedience to law is obedience to the advantage of the stronger, and so one should choose disobedience, and especially choose to be the one who is obeyed, i.e., to be the ruler, and reap all that advantage for oneself. But Glaucon is the first to appeal explicitly from this conventional thesis regarding the nature of justice to the nature of one’s true advantage. This appeal to nature was left implicit in Book I because none of the three men questioned by Socrates see things in terms of the distinction between nature and convention. It is in this way that with the question of Glaucon, philosophy enters into their dialogue.

As Leo Strauss explains in The City and Man (p. 86), Thrasymachus was prevented from returning to nature due to his concern with his art. He is a sophist and teacher of rhetoric. He teaches men to speak “well” as a means to getting their advantage from political life. The activity of the Sophists is the “application to politics of what has come to be known as ‘pre-Socratic philosophy.” Bloom, Interpretive Essay, p. 338). The study of nature as pursued by the natural philosophers undermines the cosmic support of the laws of the city by undermining the poetic account of the “first things,” or the causes of things. The natural philosophers investigate nature and find that it is not the gods that are the causes of what comes to be. That there is no divine providence implies that one will not be struck by a thunderbolt of Zeus to balance the advantage one would gain from unjustly getting the better of someone. If one is enlightened regarding this, and applies the insight to political action, he sees that he could liberate his baser appetites without fear of the gods, and it appears that it is to his true advantage to take more than his fair share and get the better of other men. When the appetites are liberated from the yolk of ancestral custom, these enter into the sphere of political action. Rhetoric as persuasive speaking is well suited to their ends.

From the undermining of the ancestors, there are two roads open to the vigorous soul who seeks his true advantage. If the great soul thinks that injustice is advantageous to men,he will head toward tyranny. If he still inclines toward justice, he will incline toward philosophy Strauss referring to Xenophon, writes that we cannot exclude the possibility that Socrates descended to Piraeus in order to cure Glaucon of his extreme political ambition , as a favor to his brother Plato (The City and Man, p. 65).

A similar pattern of inquiry arises in Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian War. Thucydides begins his account of the war with an account of the low origins of man, low rather than high or near to the gods (I. 1-10) and follows the undermining of the poetic account by natural philosophy (I. 22-23). From this beginning, Thucydides presents the progress of the city of Athens toward tyranny (from I. 72), through Perikles and Cleon to the desire for empire, the Melian dialogue and Alcibiades. But another progression is toward philosophy, in men as Demosthenes who chooses the private life, and Diodotus. Diodotus is shown defending the just action against a speech of Cleon before the Athenian council. His defense is entirely on the basis of the self interest of Athens.

This pattern is important to the question of Glaucon because Like Athens, Thrasymachus mistakes his own advantage. The city is called the greatest sophist (429a), and as Strauss writes, Thrasymachus plays the part of the city (The City and Man, p. 78; Republic 377 d-e; Bloom, “Interpretive Essay,” p. 307, 326, 377). The thesis of the city is that whatever it legislates is right and just. But if the city has a true good, such as the common good, then it’s laws ought aim at this good, which may be by nature right. When a city declares a mistake to be true regarding its own advantage, as Cleon does in arguing that for the advantage of Athens they ought disregard justice and put to the sword many of the revolted Mytileneans, the error regarding its own advantage requires a Diodotus to set aright.

Common opinion supposes, along with the natural philosophers, that one’s advantage is such that to do things just is in itself not in its own interest. In order for Glaucon to see, if it is true,that justice is good for man, a vision of the nature of man must come to light according to which it is good for a man to be just rather than unjust. The question depends upon the nature of man and his place in relation to thew city, to the community and the common good, and on the character of nature as a whole (Bloom, p. 338).

According to Aristotle, in his Ethics, a kind of justice in man is “complete virtue our excellence, not in an unqualified sense, but in relation to our fellow men” (1129 b26-28). The question of whether or not justice is to one’s own advantage implies the question of whether or not there is a harmony or agreement between the private good of an individual and the common good of the community. Only to the extent that the public good is synonymous with the private good- as when honorable men pursue civic honors for serving the city- will justice be profitable and one’s own good.

Glaucon attempts to clarify the question by distinguishing 3 kinds of good things and asking to which kind justice belongs: 1) Goods chosen for their own sake, as are harmless pleasures; 2) goods chosen both for themselves and their consequences, as are thought and sight and being healthy, and 3) things like exercise, and medical treatments, which are themselves a drudgery, but undergone for the sake of what comes of them. We say that knowledge is sought “for its own sake,” though it is hard to think of examples that are not also good for their consequences.

When asked, Socrates states his opinion, that justice is of the second kind, a thing to be chosen both for itself and for its consequences. But, Glaucon tells Socrates, it is the opinion of the many that justice is of the second kind, a thing good only for its consequences. Adeimantus later adds to the speech of Glaucon, telling how this is also the opinion of the fathers and the poets, that justice is a form of drudgery. Glaucon asks Socrates to show not his own opinion, that justice is good for both itself and its consequences, but that justice is of the first kind of good things chosen for themselves, like harmless pleasures. He asks to hear justice praised apart from any of its consequences, so that the opinion that justice is good only for its consequences will be shown false. Even thought Socrates’ opinion is that justice belongs to the second kind of good thing, Glaucon expects that he is most likely to hear the argument for choosing justice over injustice as he wants to hear it, from Socrates. If the justice of a man is inseparable from his public action, or his action toward the common good, this will be a difficult task (Strauss, The City and Man, p. 94 top). But in order to hear this, Glaucon will undertake the restoration of the argument of Thrasymachus for injustice. [Note 2]

Glaucon outlines his presentation in three parts. He will first explain what kind of thing justice is and what its origin is. Then from this account, he will show that all who practice justice do so unwillingly,as a necessary drudgery. Third he will show that it is fitting that men only do justice unwillingly, because the life of the unjust man is better than the life of the just man.

The study of nature of the natural philosophers looks to the coming to be of things the find the causes of the things which come into being, arise and pass away. Similarly, Glaucon supposes, for his unjust speech, that the nature of justice can be understood by examining and finding its origin. [Note 1] From this origin, according to the unjust speech, doing injustice and thus getting the better of those in the community is by nature good for the individual, and suffering injustice is naturally bad. Men emerge from the state of nature into civil society when the weak, to whom it seems profitable, make a contract to neither do nor suffer injustice. They “begin to set down their own laws and compacts and to name what the law commands lawful and just.” According to the weak men, justice appears as it did to Thrasymachus, to be what the law names as just. But in reality or truth, justice is, in its genesis and its being, “a mean between what is best- doing injustice without paying the penalty-and what is worst- suffering injustice without being able to avenge oneself.” Justice here precedes contract and law, and as a mean, it might be mistaken in legislation (Struass, The City and Man, p. 92 top). The mean between doing and suffering injustice would be “by nature,” as opposed to being something made. But the man who is strong and able to do more injustice than he suffers will neither observe the mean nor obey the contract. He will risk revenge and suffering injustice in order to seek the extreme of doing injustice. The man who is “truly a man,” as is the courageous Athenian Glaucon, will, in choosing the honor which goes with being able to consider oneself truly a man, choose injustice. Justice, or the mean is honored only by weak men due to weakness.

Leo Strauss indicates that The Republic is the only dialogue in which Socrates even dreams of “investigating the coming into being of the beings which participate in these virtues” (The City and Man, p. 92). The reason for this procedure- which will be taken up later in Book II, in founding the best city, is “perhaps” that “there is a particularly close connection between justice and the city, and while there is surely an idea of justice, there is perhaps no idea of the city (Ibid., p.92). The procedure of emphasizing the coming into being of the city in speech is imposed on Socrates by Glaucon here at the start of Book II. By this procedure, Socrates “compels us to raise the question of” whether or not the city is a natural being (Ibid., p. 93).

Glaucon no longer sees the founders as motivated by weakness when when he himself along with Adeimantus becomes a founder. Strauss indicates, “at the moment they begin to act as founders, they take the side of justice (CM, p. 93).” In the founding, we see the second picture of the origin of the city described.It is the true and healthy city in which justice is harmlessly pleasant as if it were a good of the first kind. In presenting this picture, Socrates in some sense satisfies the desire of Glaucon to see justice praised as a thing good in itself, though justice is shown in the city and not in the soul alone (Ibid., p. 94 top). Justice as this kind of good thing is shown to Glaucon so that his spiritedness, in the guise of the desire for luxury, rebels against it. The true city has its origin not in the fear of the weak men nor in the desire of the strong men to take advantage of them, but in the basic human needs. The bodily appetites, as distinct from desires for unnecessary things and the desire to have more, are the fundamental appetite.

The comedy of the best city originates in Socrates’taking the city to be of the same form as a man, and so to be natural. Glaucon’s thesis, the thesis of the unjust speech, is a comedy because it is impossible, and it is impossible because it is against nature. It is against nature to treat the city a natural, and in this- that the city is unnatural- the unjust speech is right- that is, accurate, or true. Yet, if man must come into cities in order to attain self-sufficiency, fulfilling natural needs, then the thesis of the unjust speech is wrong or false,in supposing that man is not by nature a political animal. Though the city be unnatural, man may by nature need a city. At the same time, though,the conclusion that the best city is impossible and comical because it is patterned after the soul of man implies that the Republic is serious as an account of the soul, or the nature of man. Socrates himself may have no problem living in a regime with any of the three waves introduced in Book V. He could wrestle naked without desire. The best city is perhaps an image of the soul as it ascends toward the love of wisdom.

But to return to the speech of Glaucon, the connection between the view of nature of the natural philosophers and the view of nature implied by the unjust speech is that the things which it supposes to be good all seek objects or goals which come into being and pass away. Such objects are scarce,and so competition for them will not be avoided. The private good of the individual cannot coincide with the common good if natural philosophy is right about the limits of nature. Natural philosophy is confined to the same ignorance as are all the men in Plato’s cave. But if the nature of advantage is as the unjust speech supposes, then injustice might be truly good by nature.

The city of Pigs, too is in the cave. But in order to restore the appetites to their natural and thus moderate limits,the excess passion must be freed from its imprisonment in the appetites, to ascend.

The second part of the presentation of Glaucon is to show that no one does justice willingly, but only from an incapacity to do injustice. This may be the opposite of the claim of Socrates in the Apology that no one does harm willingly, but only from an ignorance of their true advantage. The claim of Glaucon is that if two men, one just and one unjust,are given the license to pursue the objects of their natural desire, both will choose injustice. In order to show this, Glaucon is “compelled to use fiction based on myth.” (CM, p. 88). In order to see either perfect justice or perfect injustice, no examples from the imperfect world will do. For this reason it is only those who take their bearings by virtue who have use for the imagination and poetry, although it is only those who claim that virtue goes with justice rather than injustice who have the need to seek out “imaginary republics” (Machiavelli, The Prince, XV).

Glaucon recounts the tale of Gyges and the ring of invisibility in order to give both kinds of men the license needed to make the experiment. Gyges was a shepherd who stands in relation to his flock and the king as Thrasymachus, as rhetorician, stands between the rulers and the people. The license given by the invisibility in the tale is like the license given men from the combination of natural philosophy and the art of If there are no gods, or if they do not punish injustice, and if one can make oneself free of the bad reputation for injustice by persuading men that one is not unjust, one could avoid these consequences of injustice. Being unjust, one’s true being would be invisible. Glaucon holds that both the just and the unjust man would do as Gyges does in the tale- he committed adultery with the Queen and killed the king, usurping the throne. According to the unjust speech, anyone who who would do otherwise would be foolish, i.e., ignorant of the nature of things, and hence of his true advantage.

In the third part of the speech of Glaucon presenting the restored argument for injustice, he tries to show that the judgment about the life of these two cannot be made unless the just and the unjust men are set in opposition, each perfect in his own pursuit of justice or injustice. According to the account, the perfect unjust man is like a clever craftsman. He knows the limitations of his art, and does not attempt what is impossible. He will “attempt unjust deeds and get away with them. He will not get caught because “the extreme of injustice is to seem to be just when one is not” (361 b3). Perfect injustice remind us of the perfect artisan in Book I only here the perfection includes mistakes. “If he should trip up in any way, he is competent to set himself aright” (361 a3). The most important difference between this man and Thrasymachus may be that this man preserves his great reputation for justice. That he can “set himself aright” if he should “trip up” is repeated, but with the word “competent” replaced by “power” (361 b1). It may be that power is his art. If any of his unjust deeds come to light, he is “capable of both speaking persuasively” and of “using force.”

The just man set in contrast to this perfect unjust man is not a man of either courage or knowledge. He is a man “simple and noble,” who wishes to be rather than to seem “good.” All appearance of justice must be taken away. If he received rewards, Glaucon would not be able to tell whether or not he is just for for justice itself or for the rewards. He must be “stripped of everything except justice,” and made to have the greatest reputation for injustice He is to go on like this unchanged until death, being just but appearing unjust. These are the extremes of justice and injustice. Only at these two extremes can the judgement be made between the two regarding happiness. The just man will be whipped and racked and have his eyes burned out. In the end he will be crucified, and then he will know that one should wish to seem, rather than to be just. What Aeschylus said about the good man, Glaucon says is most true for the unjust man, that he “pursues a thing dependent on truth and does not live in the light of opinion.” wishing rather to be unjust than to seem unjust.

The crimes described above, in the example of the invisible man, rape and taking what belongs to others, are legitimized in the example of perfect injustice, becoming “marriages and “contracts.” In contests both public and private, he wins and gets the better of his enemies (who are all citizen and non-citizen competitors) as Thrasymachus wanted. In getting the better, he is wealthy and does good to friends and harm to enemies, as Polemarchus conceived justice to be. And like Cephalus, “to the gods he makes sacrifices and sets up votive offerings, adequate and magnificent, and cares for the gods and those human beings he wants to care for far better than the just man (362c). Each definition of justice from Book I can be fulfilled by the unjust man, if only he appear to be just. Whether or not he truly helps friends, gets the better of anything, and truly sacrifices, or repays what is owed, is another question, which depends upon the nature of advantage (Strauss, The City and Man, p. 67-68 on Socratic restoration).

[Adiemantus adds that all who praise justice do so as a drudgery good for its consequences. What Socrates and Socratic philosophy is about to do is of the greatest significance, and is unprecedented, or has never been done before- to show that justice either is or is necessary to the health of the soul. Adeimantus concludes:

…of all who claim to be praisers of justice,…there is not one who has ever blamed injustice or praised justice other than for the reputation, honors and gifts that come from them. But as to what each itself does with its own power when it is in the soul of a man who posses it and is not noticed by gods and men, no one has ever, in poetry and prose adequately developed the argument that the one is the greatest of evils that a soul can have in it, and justice the greatest good.”

(366 e)

Since all the goods attainable by justice seem also attainable by the one who only appears just- assuming that such sacrifices satisfy the divine- Adiemantus draws the Machiavellian conclusion that one must draw a shadow painting of virtue all around himself, while himself trailing behind as a wily fox.

At the founding of the city in speech, Socrates states: “A city, I believe, comes into being because each of us isn’t sufficient, but is in need of much” (364b1). This refers first to bodily necessities. But the founding of the city in speech is also the founding of a group of men who are together seeking to know the nature of man. Socrates says, “Let us make a city in speech from the beginning. Our need, it seems, will make it” (369 c9). If this need is natural to man, then it will be in this city- the community of the dialogue- that the good of the individuals will be identical or nearly identical with the common good.


Note 1 [2022 The question may be enlivened for us by a story. After reading The Republic, I met a preacher at the Diag of the University of Michigan, whose mission it was to preach there to the intellectuals. I asked, if men choose to follow Jesus or the Lord only for the sake of their eternal reward and to avoid eternal punishment, for their own sake rather than for others, is this salvation? Will we be saved as such, acting from fear for pleasure and to avoid pains? His answer is that the Promise and the fear of Hell is how men first think to turn toward the Lord, But the question remains.]

In stating the question of justice, Plato’s Socrates addresses the principles of modern political theory with remarkable thoroughness, making clear how in political philosophy as well, all is footnotes to Plato. Contract theory and the return to the original, pre-political condition both appear, if the viciousness of the animal apparent in Hobbes, and the cruelty, in Machiavelli, is veiled, leaving an original condition more akin to Eden and Rousseau. But it is governments, not our political nature or justice itself, that is a contract.

Note 2: Strauss addresses the question of the origins of civil society in relation to the question of justice in Natural Right and History. pp. 89-97, and in The City and Man, pp. 91-96. On page 96 of Natural Right and History Strauss states: “One inquires into the origins of civil society, or right and wrong, in order to find out whether or not these are based on nature or merely on convention.” But it seems rather, from Strauss’ account here, that all one can discover by examining the origins is that of right which is based upon convention, and if one wants to know about what is right by nature, one examines the end and not the origin (or perhaps the end as cause, the end as origin). It looks as if the examination of the origin is entirely to clear away the convention which hides nature. Strauss presents natural right as based upon a hierarchy of desires, i.e., on a hierarchic nature of man. The highest, philosophy, was not there in the beginning, but presupposes the arts (p. 97); hence, if philosophy is the best life, the origin is imperfect. This seems to be some time after the beginning. The distinction between the good and the ancestral is made by seeing that the origin of man is low but this does not help to distinguish between the conventionalism of natural philosophy and the natural right of philosophy which considers the nature of man and the health of the soul.

It may be that the distinction between perfect and imperfect origins ought be added to the question of the harmonious or disharmonious origins. Eden and Atlantis are both harmonious but low origins, low by comparison with philosophy and the Kingdom or city of God, beyond or at the end of time. It was said that if the origins were harmonious, justice is available in the cosmos. Both convention and natural philosophy look to the origins, from which we have fallen or risen up, while Socratic philosophy and the New Testament look to the end.

Coming soon: On Republic Book I: The class notes from Irving Wasserman, 1981; 1983

* Thrasymachus argument is the principle of the three bad forms of regime in Aristotle, seeking the advantage of the ruling body.

*All the things sought by those who seek justice- the three definitions of Book I , are fulfilled by the unjust man who only seems to be just.

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