On Plato’s Republic, parts I-IV
Nathan Robinson asks, “Can philosophy be justified in a time of crisis?” He elaborates:
One of the most important, but least asked, philosophical questions is: which philosophical questions are worth asking and which are a waste of time? I think, as I argue in my (non-existent) academic paper “Can Philosophy Be Justified In A Time Of Crisis?”
Every area of thought, then, has some implicit hierarchy of what constitutes a useful addition to the sum of human knowledge. What’s strange to me, though, is that even though every field quite clearly distinguishes between thoughts that are worth having and thoughts that aren’t, there’s often little inquiry into how those notions of “the thoughts worth having” are built and whether they are sound.
Yeah, I know.
I’m going to deal with this seriously and under the assumption of good faith, so let’s be uncharitable at first. Robinson has gotcha’d the field of philosophy with a bunch of classic questions from the field of philosophy, which is hilarious, and I couldn’t help but wonder if I was being trolled. I’m pretty hot headed, so far be it for me to accuse anyone of being comically arrogant. Let me offer a life hack instead. Since these questions are hard, reading a few books is often faster than reinventing epistemology, making philosophy, at the very least, a good way to avoid embarrassing yourself. There, done.
This style isn’t unique to Robinson, he doesn’t deserve special blame, he’s just loud and sometimes I read him. Feel free to hunt down the same sentiment [literally anywhere], or tell me that I’m wrong because some sadsack humanities puppet gets 1000 words on “critical thinking” sandwiched between the culture war and the Gell-Man ammunition. At that point you may as well give up. Equally bad arguments: “to debate the value of philosophy is philosophy,” which is true, but fighting fire with fire is less desirable than not having a fire in the first place. “Science wouldn’t exist without philosophy,” which is also true, but one-and-dones are just that. Chemistry also needed baths of hazardous chemicals but I don’t see anyone volunteering to chug Hg when they pop an aspirin. Robinson et al. deserve a serious answer from someone without mercury poisoning.
As a line of last resort, you have “ethics,” which is wrong. Current Affairs et al. aren’t against practical philosophy, they’re against hyphenated philosophy, which is a distinction everyone but philosophy professors understand. You can tell that they don’t understand it because their justifications are always in favor of philosophy’s import for “ethics” and “also ethics,” without considering the relationship of “even more ethics” to the ontological status of sets.
A crude human caricature (Ivory, 2011) sneers that “philosophy is its own justification,” but this is not philosophically or historically true. Philosophy books traditionally went out of their way to justify the practice, and the traditional response is the correct one. It’s also a long one, I’m going to take my time narrating how it comes to be before explaining why it comes to be that, so this part holds much tighter to Plato than others. For the purposes of this article, Plato and Socrates are identical thinkers. I’m contractually obligated to point out that this is academically unjustifiable, but I’m not an academic nor a philosopher. Ok.
First, why do you care about anything?
So you go down to some Mediterranean port city for a vacay, because the job is hard and there’s a banging festival and one day you’ll die like a shivering cur.
Lolling in the sun and mangling a fruitbooze, you seize upon a sympathetic listener and confess a certain dissatisfaction with the earth. They have very little in the way of practical advice, and like a philosopher they insist on a single point: What, exactly, do you think “good” is, and why do you think you deserve it?
You’re no fool. You may be middle-class-management now, but in college you were a radical, i.e. you slammed a verse and Mom got you Orientalism for Christmas. Thinking about ‘the good’ is impractical, and besides it’s naive to think about non-subjective forms of the Good, and besides it’s an ivory tower preoccupation, and besides everyone already knows it, and besides it’s culturally determined, and besides it’s merely a sign, and besides it should be determined scientifically, plus, like, axioms and Godel? It’s far more useful to think about the practical, useful, calculable things. “You just mixed up several stereotypes.” I did not.
Unpopular opinion, but consider that you might be Thrasymachus.
Here are the Republic’s characters: Glaucon, Adeimantus, Polemarchus, whom I will refer to as “the youths,” Thrasymachus, who is just Thrasymachus, and Cephalus, whose section got cut from the essay. It starts with Socrates and some youths being interrupted by another bunch of youths, who want him to travel back to their house. It’s written in the first person, so “I” in quotations is Socrates.
Polemarchus said, “Socrates, I guess you two are hurrying to get away to town.”
“That’s not a bad guess,” I said.
“Well,” he said, “do you see how many of us there are?”
“Of course. ”
“Well, then,” he said, “either prove stronger than these men or stay here.”
“Isn’t there still one other possibility . . . ,” I said, “our persuading you that you must let us go?”
“Could you really persuade,” he said, “if we don’t listen?”
“There’s no way,” said Glaucon.
“Well, then, think it over, bearing in mind we won’t listen.”
This is a joke, but remember it for later parts. They begin discussing justice, a few definitions are offered, Socrates smacks them down, and finally the real game begins. Thrasymachus (literally “rash in battle”) launches into the debate via moral outrage:
“You know very well that it is easier to ask questions than answer them. Give an answer yourself, and tell us what you say the Just is.”
Socrates has no definition, so he prods Thras into revealing his. The offering: “Justice is the advantage of the stronger.” Say it: “Duh.” Socrates points out that the stronger can order the weaker to harm him (this will be important), meaning it is his thought of his advantage, which confuses the entire issue.
Thrasymachus is implicitly defining justice as utility and expediency. For more or less this reason, he redefines justice when Socrates pushes him: “justice” means following the laws, which sounds different, except that the lawmakers are merely the strongest around. They wrangle over what that means, with Thrasymachus making increasingly legalistic turns – it’s descriptive, “justice” is following the laws some stronger lays down. Socrates points out that rulers also make mistakes, and Thrasymachus then clarifies in, perhaps, the most important line in the dialogue:
“Do you suppose that I call a man who makes mistakes ‘stronger’ at the moment when he is making mistakes?”
“I did suppose you to mean this,” I said, “when you agreed that the rulers are not infallible but also make mistakes in some things.”
“That’s because you’re a sycophant in arguments, Socrates,” he said. “[…] The man who makes mistakes makes them on account of a failure in knowledge and is in that respect no craftsman. So no craftsman, wiseman, or ruler makes mistakes at the moment that he is ruling, although anyone would say that the doctor made a mistake and the ruler made a mistake. […] But what follows is the most precise way: the ruler, insofar as he is a ruler, does not make mistakes; and not making mistakes, he sets down what is best for himself. And this must be done by the man who is ruled. So I say the Just is exactly what I have been saying from the beginning, to do the advantage of the stronger.
“All right, Thrasymachus,” I said, “so in your opinion I play the sycophant?”
“You most certainly do,” he said.
“Do you suppose I ask as I asked because I am plotting to do harm to you in the argument?”
“I don’t suppose,” he said, “I know it well. But it won’t profit you. You won’t get away with doing harm unnoticed and, failing to get away unnoticed, you won’t be able to overpower me in the argument.”
Socrates, naturally, eviscerates him.
There’s a lot to address here, but let’s stick with the point that gets the least attention but should get the most. Socrates wins the debate by tricking Thrasymachus in a few ways (too long to go into), which is “unfair” but by Thrasymachus’s own argument, Socrates is just and Thrasymachus is unjust. It doesn’t matter how or why Socrates won, only that he did. Definitional: He’s the stronger, Thrasymachus is the weaker, where Justice=advantage of Stronger, the Stronger’s view of justice = what it is. Socrates claims his justice is to his advantage, and thus it is so.
“You disgust me, Socrates. Your trick is to take hold of the argument at the point where you can do it the most harm.”
Technically the entire exchange is paradoxical. Socrates’ definition is true only if it is not true (because Thras’s is true), so the the Socratic naive justice is correct, not because it actually is, but because he’s the stronger, and thus his definition is wrong. Ok. He knows it, grows red with embarrassment or wrath or both, and no one is satisfied by Socrates.
This defeats neither of their arguments (the exchange is a paradox only if Socrates disagrees with Thrasymachus, which-), but it does open up a reading: whether you buy Thrasmyachus’s argument or Socrates’ argument, you still need to pay attention to the ensuing discussion. It’s predicated on that exact clash, with Socrates implicitly assuming the Thrasymachus position.
You’re wondering why this follows from the question of philosophy. It’s because Thrasymachus is making a case against philosophy that’s just close enough to be the exact same thing as modern attacks: his core point, though it’s never phrased this way, is that Socrates assumes that justice is “Justice.” It’s a Platonic Form, something Real that can be discovered, rather than a descriptor we give to contingent, socially controlled behavior. Aware of it or not, “What is justice?” means “What do we right now describe as justice?” to which one may as well respond: “I dunno, isn’t that ethnography or something?” Justice in the context of 5th century Greece, justice in 19th century Senegal, neither Capital-J-Justice. It’s a linguistic artifact, huh, words are confusing.
Since he redefines power as “making no mistakes,” the question doubles back to expediency: how can philosophy help you achieve that goal, i.e. have power to do […]. What useful knowledge does it offer, why does it insist on asking about abstract justiceses rather than focusing on the here and now? Metaphysics has no point if everything is just appearance and ideology. That Thras’s souls slides towards dominance and pleasure is merely one intuition among others. One could also, like, feed orphans and puppies or something I guess.
You can rephrase the debate in a single question, which they do: is it better to appear just or to be just? Thrasymachus says “appear,” which is perfectly consistent. If there is, in fact, no justice at all, then there’s no real reason to do anything besides your petty inclinations. Virtue is not real, the Good is not real, Justice is not real, morality is absolutely not real. You can whimper and whine, but the grovelling get the wall, too.
Socrates says “be.”
The first few books of the Republic don’t even try to counter Thrasymachus. They spill ink entrenching his position and weakening Socrates’, which sounds weird only if you think that winning is a live possibility without understanding the rules. “What rules? Win what?” Actually my point.
Anyone who pretends to know definitively “what Plato thought” can be safely ignored, but make sure to ignore people who think that that’s the point first. Plato is about how to think, not what to think, and here is his lesson: Philosophy is often glossed as “footnotes to the Republic,” which is a perfectly serviceable definition. Less often do the glossers mention that the Republic is mostly a response to Thrasymachus. Responding to Thrasymachus takes a dialogue about “Justice” that turns into a dialogue about the soul that turns into a dialogue about politics that turns into a dialogue about epistemology that turns into a dialogue about ontology that all revolves around the value of philosophy. The question Robinson et al. want to ask is why?
On a narrative level, the answer is easy. Thrasymachus glows red and shuts up, but the other participants (Glaucon, Adeimantus, Polemarchus) immediately resume the line of questioning:
Now, when I had said this, I thought I was freed from argument. But after all, as it seems, it was only a prelude. For Glaucon is always most courageous in everything, and so now he didn’t accept Thrasymachus’ giving up but said, “Socrates, do you want to seem to have persuaded us, or truly to persuade us, that it is in every way better to be just than unjust?”
“I would choose to persuade you truly,” I said, “if it were up to me. ”
“Well, then,” he said, “you’re not doing what you want. Tell me, is there in your opinion a kind of good that we would choose to have not because we desire its consequences, but because we delight in it for its own sake-such as enjoyment and all the pleasures which are harmless and leave no after effects other than the enjoyment in having them?”
“In my opinion, at least,” I said, “there is a good of this kind.”
“And what about this? Is there a kind we like both for its own sake and for what comes out of it, such as thinking and seeing and being healthy? Surely we delight in such things on both accounts.”
“Yes,” I said.
“And do you see a third form of good, which includes gymnastic exercise, medical treatment when sick as well as the practice of medicine, and the rest of the activities from which money is made? We would say that they are drudgery but beneficial to us; and we would not choose to have them for themselves but for the sake of the wages and whatever else comes out of them.”
“Yes, there is also this third,” I said, “but what of it?”
“In which of them,” he said, “would you include justice?”
“I, for my part, suppose,” I said, “that it belongs in the finest kind, which the man who is going to be blessed should like both for itself and for what comes out of it.”
Since Glaucon is demanding that Socrates prove justice to be a terminal value, Socrates has to prove that they exist, that they can be compared (if they aren’t objective), and what they are. “Well, that’s only set up by Glaucon, it’s not realistic,” which is wrong. Tell me: how do you argue for a moral good without any of that? “It’s nice.” I don’t realy believe in objective good and evil, but the possibility of objective good is vastly greater than the possibility of objective niceness.
On a metalevel, the answer is the same reason that no one knows what Plato really thinks. He wrote dialogues, each with different interlocutors, different themes, different arguments. There is no manifesto, you lack all charts and diagrams, absent re: careful essays, his hidden doctrines are plainly not hidden, why aren’t you reading the Seventh Letter esoterically you coward, excuse me. He contradicts himself dialogue to dialogue, partner to partner, which is intentional and important. The Platonic style is to follow the thought of the other and work back from there.
The generic Platonic set up: Socrates addresses some elite, often credentialed Athenian on the subject of their credentials and/or interests. To Euthyphro, a priest taking his father to a court of law, you ask about justice and the gods. To Theatetus and Theodorus, mathematicians noted for their work on irrational numbers, you interrogate knowledge and its limits. To Lysis, an exceptionally bangable and greased-up youth, you discourse on love and friendship. On a meta-level, this may be an accident (they’re the best educated in a topic with social cache) or it may be an integral component (because Plato is extremely political). Depends on the interlocutor (the best way to judge is how heavily he utilizes myths).
Those interlocutors require different kinds of arguments (and thus receive different kinds of conclusions).
The Republic is about “justice,” but it’s really about terminal values, which means it’s really about philosophy, and the interlocutors are the wrong people to determine this. The Youths are Athenian youths, meaning hot-blooded and political, more interested in discussing the city more than the spirit. Accordingly, Socrates drops into a grand metaphor. Model the soul as a city, which we know can be more or less disordered, better or worse, wealthy or poor. Ignore “the good soul,” which we have meager if any opinions about. Everyone has strong opinions about what a good city looks like.
Socrates has one, and it’s almost instantly rejected. The City of Pigs, which I’ve brought up and will continue to bring up, is a pleasant little villa where everyone lives moderately and works diligently, occasionally breaking to enjoy a celebration of the gods. It’s abstemious, harmonious and, you know, boring. You can tell because the youths say so: people need couches and sauces for a good life.
Socrates: Oh, you meant a festering soul, my bad.
This complicates things. Now the Republic has luxuries, but with luxuries come wars, inequality, and discord. To return a war-time city to a place of harmony requires something vastly different.
The soul has parts, which sounds weird but is very obvious. Sometimes you want to do something (appetite), but you know it’s morally wrong (reason), so you fight with yourself (will, thumos). A city has parts, too, in roughly the same way (rulers, elites, and workers), but we didn’t need to bother with those in the city of pigs. Now we do. A city with luxuries means a city that gets ransacked, which means hierarchies develop between soldier and citizen.
Socrates focuses on the behavior of the warrior class – the elites, called auxiliaries or guardians. The elite need to make the city function, which means they need to be disciplined, which means they need education. None of the interlocutors know what the good is yet, nor what Justice is, but they do know practicality.
The most notorious section of the Republic concerns this very problem: Socrates bans the poets Hesiod and Homer for telling bad lies about the gods and the nature of the good. Truth is important, but pragmatism is even more important. The Iliad’s Gods are particularly cruel and flighty, Homer is terribly persuasive, the Guardians might get ideas. In other words: they would not be able to control themselves but, by Thrasymachus’s definition of power and justice above, they then couldn’t be elite. Introduce new variables, old habits have to go. City of Pigs won’t work, so now you get the second Republic. In Kuhnian terms, the former paradigm could not accommodate new observations (sauces), so you rearrange the system ground up.
This first turn, the movement towards practicality, requires the rest of the dialogue. Suddenly, you’re not dealing with two or three questions. You’re dealing with twenty or thirty. You have to introduce a ridiculously complex hierarchy to function, but at least we have couches.
We’re still talking about justice. Is it the same one we started with?
Let’s pretend that I didn’t just answer Robinson’s question.
Plato’s complexity gets lost in the public sphere. I blame someone, probably academics and journalists. “Philosophy is a public good, read Plato.” So they hand you a cartoon with a quotable or two: “The Forms are zany, but check out this thing about democracy and haven’t you seen the Matrix?” Granted, everyone is always stupider than you.
Dialogues start with a question, they quickly veer away, occasionally into several different metaphors that tuck into one another like matryoshka dolls. The Republic follows other dialogues in this pattern: adopt the stance of your opponent and radicalize it for your own purposes. This would be why Thrasymachus calls him a sycophant (the word συκοφάντης meant someone who brings false suits or otherwise perverts a legal system to their end), why no one really knows what Plato himself thinks, and also why I can tell you that most readings of the Republic are bad. The metaphors are investigated is detail, with minor changes resulting in the need to rework the entirety of the dialogue’s theme, for more or less the same reason that paradigms require a reworking of all previous solutions. But no matter where they go, the opening echoes across the dialogue. Lose sight of the original point of contention or who you’re addressing and you’ll get caught in the minutae, which is 100% intentional on Plato’s part and 100% why people get confused by the Republic’s political sections.
Thrasymachus is making an argument against philosophy, let’s tune it to the modern soul: the moment you’re using words, you’ve left the realm of pure thought those distinguished fellows of the Thinkery so adore. “Justice” has no clear referent, how do you know that you’re not just talking about the Man’s Justice? One needs a value to declare an argument “good” or “bad,” but it’s more than likely that any values will have come from the same system you were questioning. Everything is a tautology with extra steps, enjoy.
Worse, all words have some social connotation, but not all words are equal. Some words have a kind of gravitas that confuses good citizens, the little flair we reserve for Notably Important Things, such as Justice, Virtue, Jesus Christ, Thicc. Justice is the exact kind of word that would be the target for social conditioning, or: were justice merely the will of the stronger, the stronger would definitely pretty it up before others.
City of Pigs->Feverish City looks like a concession to the other interlocutors, but it’s Thrasymachus to the core. He’s the one who brought up justice as law in the first place, and the Feverish City’s extensive laws are our model. Since “model” here is “model of justice,” that makes the rules of the strong and, by implication, following the rules of the strong a definition of justice. It’s more than possible that Justice has changed from city to city, meaning there’s no “objective” form outside of a political context, i.e. Thrasymachus. Thrasymachus is also the one who first defines “knowledge” as something synonymous with power which certainly sounds a whole lot like the philosopher king.
“Radicalize it.” Despite throwing out the poets for lying, Socrates allows for the rulers to lie at their own discretion:
Further, truth must be taken seriously too. For if what we were just saying was correct, and a lie is really useless to gods and useful to human beings as a form of remedy, it’s plain that anything of the sort must be assigned to doctors while private men must not put their hands to it.”
“Yes,” he said, “it is plain.”
“Then, it’s appropriate for the rulers, if for anyone at all, to lie for the benefit of the city in cases involving enemies or citizens, while all the rest must not put their hands to anything of the sort.”
If the Thrasymachus position were real, then you’d be able to see it from a model. Luckily, we have just such a model: the feverish city. Despite the metaphorical nature of the Republic, the political philosophy behind it isn’t magical. Socrates and the youths are treating it like a real city, meaning necessities in it should look something like necessities in our world. That doesn’t mean it’s the only city, merely that its unique circumstances should predict certain responses.
Do we need to add in a series of values, myths, customs, in order to make it work? If so, then that would be relatively strong evidence that justice has, in practice, been the will of the stronger. I suspect it would look a lot like obvious and easy moral sentiments, the kind followed and left without question, the kind of truths that one desperately clings to. You’d want your people to believe that it was the truth and thus, critically, care about the “truth.” For instance, this is how you determine who should rule:
[SOC]: “Don’t you too believe that human beings are unwillingly deprived of good things and willingly of bad ones? Or isn’t being deceived about the truth bad, and to have the truth good? Or isn’t it your opinion that to opine the things that are, is to have the truth?”
“What you say is correct,” he said, “and in my opinion men are unwillingly deprived of true opinion.”
“Now then, as I said a while ago, we must look for some men who are the best guardians of their conviction that they must do what on each occasion seems best for the city. So we must watch them straight from childhood by setting them at tasks in which a man would most likely forget and be deceived out of such a conviction. And the man who has a memory and is hard to deceive must be chosen, and the one who’s not must be rejected, mustn’t he?”
It’s at this exact moment in the dialogue that Plato rolls out the Noble Lie. “If they are real,” they are definitely real.
Idiots with columns are going to claim – with special reference to Wolfowitz, i.e. Strauss the infinitely lesser – that the Noble Lie is a tactic elites use to elicit political responses in the demos, and they then get to debate the relative merits of misleading the demos. “Very effective,” but “sounds undemocratic”, etc. This is pleasant for elites who need the daily tuppence to remind them who they are, so it certainly sounds reasonable from the perspective of a raging narcissist. It’s also dead wrong:
I’ll attempt to persuade first the rulers and the soldiers, then the rest of the city, that the rearing and education we gave them were like dreams; they only thought they were undergoing all that was happening to them, while, in truth, at that time they were under the earth within, being fashioned and reared themselves and their arms and other tools being crafted.
The noble lies (plural) are (1) that the citizens sprang from the earth as brothers, and (2) that their souls contain different metals. These are meant for the elite, not the commoners, to ensure that they don’t abuse their positions. The city’s population is divided into gold souls (rulers), silver souls (guardians), bronze and iron souls (workers), with the guardians under special scrutiny.
The first lie is meant to persuade them that, despite their social status, they have common bonds with the lower classes. Here’s how it comes about:
“I shall try to tell you,” [Socrates] said. “Surely the most terrible and shameful thing of all is for shepherds to rear dogs as auxiliaries for the flocks in such a way that due to licentiousness, hunger or some other bad habit, they themselves undertake to do harm to the sheep and instead of dogs become like wolves.”
“Terrible,” he said. “Of course.”
“Mustn’t we in every way guard against the auxiliaries doing anything like that to the citizens, since they are stronger than they, becoming like savage masters instead of well-meaning allies?”
“Yes,” he said, “we must.”
The second lie, the one about different metals in the soul, is even more explicit. It ensures that they remain in poverty so as not to be corrupted and abusive, and also protects against nepotism:
They’ll go regularly to mess together like soldiers in a camp and live a life in common. We’ll tell them that gold and silver of a divine sort from the gods they have in their soul always and have no further need of the human sort; nor is it holy to pollute the possession of the former sort by mixing it with the possession of the mortal sort because many unholy things have been done for the sake of the of the many, while theirs is untainted. But for them alone of those in the city it is not lawful to handle and to touch gold and silver, nor to go under the same roof with it, nor to hang it on their persons, nor to drink from silver or gold. And thus they would save themselves as well as save the city. [But] Whenever they’ll possess private land, houses, and currency, they’ll be householders and farmers instead of guardians, and they’ll become masters and enemies instead of allies of the other citizens; hating and being hated, plotting and being plotted against, they’ll lead their whole lives far more afraid of the enemies within than those without. Then they themselves as well as the rest of the city are already rushing toward a destruction that lies very near. So, for all these reasons,” I said, “let’s say that the guardians must be provided with houses and the rest in this way, and we shall set this down as a law, shall we not?”
Don’t get me wrong, Plato was not an egalitarian, but that’s kind of the point. If you aren’t an egalitarian, then you’re hyper-vigilant about the elite. Let me bring back a point I made earlier: the Platonic dialogue is Socrates interrogating the elite, never the commoner, and now we’ve seen that the Socratic position is that elites are the targets of the noble lie.
“But this is still the model, right?” No. Consider the following hyper-condensed argument:
(1) Socrates and the Youths agree that the aristocrats do not care about the plebs and will use their position to their advantage.
(2) They agree that this isn’t ideal, considering “gutting the poor for money” is widely considered a bad thing.
(3) Hence, the noble lie is necessary for the aristocrats to care about the poor.
(4) Socrates is not merely describing the upper classes, he’s talking to the upper classes. Glaucon, Polemarchus, et al. are all elite Athenians.
(5) But by (1), they shouldn’t intuitively care about the poor, because (4) they’re all aristocrats. Unless:
(A) Their conception of the nobility is incorrect. Or,
(B) They’re already under the noble lie.
Just joking, you don’t get a choice, option (C) is the correct one: both.
Some will bring up [whispers and the faint sound of wind], they’ll be wrong. Strauss was a wonder, half his students are tyrants, they’ve read themselves blind. The noble lie is impossible to apply to the commoner class, because they will forget it. Remember how you chose the guardians? Fidelity to the “truth,” a good memory, and the inability to change their mind.
One could well ask why our culture has adapted the Noble Lie the way we have, the easiest answer is illiteracy, the second-easiest answer is narcissism, but that would be a very different piece than the one I’m choosing to write. “The plebs need elite control, and the elites will do what’s best,” certainly sounds like something a poorly-lied to Guardian would say, but that’s just me. As a side note, this is the strongest possible argument against currently lying nobles. If these idiots can’t even read their own Elite Literature, there’s no way in hell I’m trusting them to determine mine.
Because these are dialogues, reading Plato isn’t quite the same as reading a treatise. There’s a narrative arc to the philosophy, miss it and lose out on what he’s saying. This means paying attention to how the dialogue’s interlocutors (and Socrates) behave and speak, how their thoughts align with previous actions, and who these people are (for almost all were real people), are all important. I point this out so that you understand why the timing of certain lines is so critical for understanding:
Up until the noble lie no one could define Justice. Now that it’s been unfurled, as though he needed it beforehand, Socrates strikes ahead. Injustice is defined, where “those three” are parts of the soul, analogous to the Republic’s three classes:
Mustn’t it, in its turn, be a certain faction among those three – a meddling, interference, and rebellion of a part of the soul against the whole.
While justice is the opposite. It’s non-interference, letting all parts perform their task without meddling. Note: Socrates was famous for his meddling.
If the original problem was that “justice” can’t be defined without reference to some “law” (noble lie), which traps all thought within a social context, then this looks like a wholesale admission of the charges. Socrates gives no definition until the city provided him with one, and, further, the definition he gives just so happens to conform to the noble lie that the interlocutors have already accepted, i.e. it’s real and the Athenian elite in the discussion have adopted the noble lie. All of the pragmatic political science fits neatly into the Thrasymachus model: what we call justice is custom, law and good are descriptively the same and normatively don’t exist, quelque chose quelque chose biopower. Guess it’s time to pack it up and go home, it’s just words debated in a particular context.
“I knew that philosophy was worthless.”
This may or may not be true, but we just proved the opposite.
top image from Dogtooth by Yorgos Lanthimos
1. This is a joke worth pointing out: Thrasymachus boasts “You won’t get away with doing harm unnoticed,” then in response to Glaucon Socrates immediately describes the Ring of Gyges.
More generally, and less of a joke: the idea of “escaping” is central to the Republic, and it’s one of the themes that echoes all across it. Part of this comes from the death of Socrates, but not all of it. It normally, but not always, comes from some pun on the Greek λανθάνω. These will make more sense later, and I’ll bring them up then, but if you’ve read the dialogue and need examples: λήθη (forgetfulness, one of the rivers of Hades) comes from λανθάνω, and thus ἀλήθεια (truth, uncoveredness) pairs with recollection. See also: the Cave. ^
2. Side note, but since I’ve brought it up already: another way (both could be right) to understand the transition from City of Pigs to Feverish City is as Plato’s transition from Socrates-Scholar to Plato, a kind of recognition that he’s shifting focus in the wake of the trial and moving into the later philosophy. Note the resonance to “escaping” in Footnote 1, i.e. that Socrates did not whereas Plato might now hide certain things. ^
3. “Answered the question.” The reason practical philosophy requires hyphenated philosophy is that grounding it requires ontology, epistemology, and metaethics. “Can’t you science it?” You need those to science, ontology (to know what exists to studying and how it does that existing), metaethics (to know what the value of a given study is and what values can even be under study), and epistemology (to know how you know any of that, and thus where questioning leaves off). ^