Being one who loves to question the world around me in an effort to learn about its workings, Plato’s Republic seemed like the perfect book to start the book club with. For now, I’ll just be giving my thoughts on some of the topics of discussion from Book 1. I may very well be expanding on them in follow-up posts.
Why We Should Ask Questions
In one of the first exchanges of the book, Socrates explains to Cephalus why it is that he is asking questions, saying “I regard [aged men] as travelers who have gone a journey which I too may have to go, and of whom I ought to inquire whether the way is smooth and easy or rugged and difficult.” By saying that, he effectively describes why it is that he asks anyone questions: everyone goes through life and experiences it differently, so Socrates wants to learn what they know because they are sure to have knowledge he may never again have the opportunity to acquire.
This is something that seems to becoming less and less common in society. More and more people are passive and accepting of the way things are, either unwilling or just negligent of the fact that there is an over abundance of questions to be asked and things to be questioned. We respect opinions simply because someone has them, too afraid or just too careless to ask about them, learn more about what they are and why.
But in my opinion, things need to be questioned. You achieve nothing by accepting things for what they are. To question them is to seek knowledge and truth, and to passively accept them is to disregard their value and importance. We live in a world plagued with political corruption, regardless of where you live. There are always things that deserved to be questioned further, things that have an important impact on your life.
The Woes of Being Old
Cephalus discusses how he often finds aged men to complain about what it is to be old, that “life is no longer life.” Socrates asks if Cephalus believes this to be at all attributed that he, Cephalus, is rich. Cephalus says that that is an understandable question, but the answer is most definitely “no.” In order for that to be the case, every man that has aged and is in possession of riches must be happy, to which Cephalus explains is most definitely not his findings. Instead, he believes that most of the “evils” men complain about in their old age are results of having never lived properly in the first place.
I see this in my own personal life. My parents are at an age where they are looking back on their lives, wondering if they have lived a fulfilling one so far. They look at what they have accomplished and aren’t sure if it is what they wanted when they planned their life. I can only hope that, as they grow older and reflect on their lives, they see the bigger picture and are happy with what they have done.
Reflecting on Life Near Death
Cephalus cites a famous response of Sophocles’ to explain what becoming an aged man is actually like. When asked if he is still the same man he once was, Sophocles answers, “I feel as if I had escaped from a mad and furious master.”
As young men, we are foolish and naive, angry at the world, sure that we are always right. But as we grow older, hit those iconic milestones in life like our “mid-life crisis”, we begin to see how wrong we were about everything. We were close minded and self-centered, and as we approach death, we look back on our lives and are filled with regrets, desperately wishing we could have lived differently, a more fulfilled life.
But those are the ones who are unhappy at the conclusion of their life. Those who lived with an open mind, were happy with the world and were not filled with complaints of everything that surrounded them, those are the ones who die happily without regrets.
Unlike my parents, my grandparents are at a point where they are ready to die. That’s not to say that they are looking forward to it, but they are more than happy with the lives they have lived. They raised their kids, laughed plenty and have wonderful memories of happiness. I’m sure this is not the case with every older person, but it is nice to see that it is not an impossibility.
Additionally, it is not just older people who must face death. Death is far from uncommon in this world, with causes ranging from sickness and disease to accidents and murder. People of all ages die for various reasons. You never know when your time will come to an end, so it is important to live every day with the expectation that you will die tomorrow, so that you can be sure you are living a fulfilling life and are truly happy.
Justice is Virtually Useless
As the conversation regarding justice begins, Socrates follows a logical progression to get Polemarchus to agree that “justice is useful when money is useless.” Furthermore, Socrates makes the observation that rarely is justice actually useful, then.
He breaks it down into simple examples such as: if you want to buy a boat, you will want to share the transaction with a shipwright. Why? Because in selling a boat to you, your money has influence and power over them.
When you have an interest and desire something, you want to get the most out of someone else while giving the least you can. This is easier when you are not dealing with someone who is just, someone who is always thinking of things as fair and in balance. But when you want to protect something that is yours altogether, there is no one better to trust than that person who is just.
The problem with this idea is that, nowadays, everyone is out for themselves. Everyone has an agenda and has something they try to gain, completely willing to use those around them to acquire it.
In America, especially, the far majority of people want to be at the top. They want to be rich and live a “worry-free” life. However, not everyone can be at the top. It’s simple logic: if everyone is at the top, it’s no longer the top; the average just moves higher, and everyone is back at the middle. In order for people to be at the top, there must be people at the bottom, usually far outnumbering those at the top. So it has become our way of life, here in America, to look out for ourselves and not hesitate to step on whoever we need to in order to rise in the social hierarchy. Justice is a rare commodity in this country.
Friends Do Good, Enemies Do Evil
During their discussion, in an attempt to define friends and enemies to ease their efforts in discovering what justice is, Socrates mentions the idea that friends do what is good for someone and enemies do bad. However, he immediately follows up with a question that beckons further clarification: what is considered the good thing to do if a friend is not in the right state of mind? What if doing what a friend asks of you while they are in a poor state of mind leads to consequences that would be considered “evil” while they are in the right state of mind? Are you considered a friend or an enemy if you go through with the favor?
This is a concept very much applicable to the modern world. If you go out to a party, and your friends condone your reckless behavior when you’re drunk, does that make them your friends? Can you consider them to be if they are indulging in behavior that is detrimental to you?
Going back to an earlier thought: everyone has their own agenda. Many people you consider to be your “friends” are people that probably have something they can get out of you, something that will benefit them. Likewise, you probably have some that you use as well. But where do the true friends lie? I think you need to first find the overlap: you need to find people who you have benefits of have a relationship with, and those who benefit from having a relationship with you. Now, that is just the starting point. The true friends are the ones who you are not in a relationship for that primary reason of getting something out of them. You are friends with these people because you trust them and they trust you, because they are just and consider you to be, too.
Asking Questions Without Knowing the Answers
As the exchange with Polemarchus comes to a close, Thrasymachus lets loose his built up anger and frustration, demanding that if Socrates has questions, he ought to have the answers to them as well instead of basking in the glory of being able to stump others.
However, Socrates explains that he is not asking questions to prove others wrong, to make fools of them, but both he and Polemarchus had the best of intentions to come to an appropriate definition for justice.
This is something that personally resonates with me. I, too, attempt to ask questions with the hope of learning the way people think and justify their conclusions. My follow-up questions are always for further clarification, but are almost always as taken as hostility and attacks. It’s been my experience that people simply do not have their beliefs and judgement questioned, but that is what I think is necessary to grow as individuals. Hence, I make this blog a public display of my thoughts on various topics.
Justice Is Good For The Power
Thrasymachus argues that “justice…is the interest of the stronger.” Socrates argues back and forth to further that definition, eventually concluding that the definition cannot be used because of the fact that the stronger are not the same populations, and their interests are not necessarily always the same.
I bring this up because Socrates eventually concludes that Thrasymachus is wrong, that justice is not what is in the interest of the stronger. However, that seems to be the case with modern day politics; the laws that go into effect are very often made in the best interest of those with “power.” Politicians support laws that either lobbyists pay them to or are necessary to win a future election. Laws rarely seem to be written on the grounds of justice anymore.
So while I do definitely agree with Socrates and his logic, I find it interesting that we can not only come to the logical conclusion that justice is not the interest of the stronger, but we can also prove that, in the world we live in, “justice” is exactly that.
Why Do Good Men Take Office?
One of the last things Socrates and Thrasymachus discuss is why different people take political office. Unjust men will seek office because they see that there is personal gain to be had. However, just men would not want to seek office for that reason, as it would no longer make them just. So why do they do it?
Socrates hypothesizes that they do it because they are compelled to. How are they compelled? They feel it is necessary for them to take office because there is work to be done and they cannot trust anyone else to do it properly. In effect, they do it because they are afraid of a lesser man doing it incorrectly.
In a perfect world, this is the way politics would operate. Politicians would only exist to solve the problems we face and never seek personal gain. When the problems are rid of, as Socrates says, politicians would leave office, as the work they set out to do originally has been completed. But unfortunately, this is not the way the world operates. Because of that, because there are those who will put their interests not only before, but also over, the interests of the greater population, many of the problems we face — poverty, hunger, social inequality — are consistently perpetuated, and make it that much more difficult to make the world the perfection we know it can be.
Overall, I was very much engrossed in Book 1. Being as this is my first time reading Plato’s Republic, the twists and turns in the conversations are wonderful to me. I can follow the logic easily, but Socrates brings up seemingly unrelated points and manages to tie them all together to address his original questions, which is something amazing in my eyes.
The topics of conversation stay relatively consistent, but the strong points made in the book are not always what Socrates and his companions are discussing. The important thing to walk away with is that this is a philosophical work: there is no right or wrong answer. There is truth in everything everyone says. You just need to ask the right questions to find it.