Elucidating The Topic of Justice in The Republic by Plato

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Words: 2000 |

Pages: 4.5|

10 min read

Published: Jun 29, 2018

Words: 2000|Pages: 4.5|10 min read

Published: Jun 29, 2018

In his text, The Republic, Plato takes on the monumental task of elucidating the topic of justice through the discourse of Socrates with his auditors. Adding to the challenge of this task is Socrates' faithfulness to arguments made with reason, and not rhetoric. He thus avoids, and even criticizes, the type of arguments and claims that are made by poets serving primarily to manipulate their audience. To perhaps lessen the difficulty of his task, Socrates applies several strategies in discussing justice: a lie, an allegory, and a myth. I will thus aim to unpack each of these strategies, as well as to magnify the light that they shine on the topic of justice. Through this unpacking, I also hope to show a potential inconsistency in Socrates' criticism of poetry and fiction as rhetorical, and thus straying from the path of reason that he values, and claims to follow. In the end, however, Socrates takes an argument of moderation, abandoning the attainability of the just city and recognizing that injustice will always exist. Socrates therefore identifies limits in the nature of humans that call for this abandoning, but which also call for the application of such strategies that will appeal to human nature, and at the very least progress the city slightly further in the direction of justice.

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Plato's first explicative strategy is the Noble Lie, which stems from his discussion with Glaucon regarding the appointment of guardians and rulers of the just city. Hesitantly, Socrates asks Glaucon if they could "somehow contrive one of those lies that come into being in case of need..., some one noble lie to persuade, in the best case, even the rulers, but if not them, the rest of the city" (Bloom, 93). Such a white lie, which Socrates acknowledges would require "a great deal of persuasion," "would be good for making (the city's citizens) care more for the city and one another," and thus sustain the just city (Bloom, 93, 94). In application then, the strategy would call for assuring all citizens that they are brothers birthed from the same mother earth, but that "the god, in fashioning (those) who are competent to rule, mixed gold in at their birth" (Bloom, 94). Similarly, mixed in the births of auxiliaries was silver, while farmers and other craftsmen received iron and bronze. Though typically bronze will beget bronze, and gold gold, there is a degree of randomness to this process. Socrates, however, insists that each must perform a life task characteristic of their metallic composition, writing that the parents of each child should "assign the proper value to its nature" and direct their child towards an appropriate profession.

The function of the Noble Lie is then to promote and maintain a social order in which those capable of guardianship are the rulers and those destined for craftsmanship do not impracticably seek positions higher than their nature. As Allan Bloom writes in his Interpretive Essay, "The noble lie was intended to make both warriors and artisans love the city, to assure that the ruled would be obedient to the rulers, and, particularly, to prevent the rulers from abusing their charge" (Bloom, 367). Similarly, "The noble lie is designed to give men grounds for resisting, in the name of the common good, their powerful desires" (Bloom, 368). Bloom identifies this "powerful desire" as the explanation for Socrates' application of a noble lie, writing, "the character of men's desires would make it impossible for a rational teaching to be the public teaching" (Bloom, 367). Thus Socrates sees reason in telling the lie since it will account for the character of men which makes completely rational teaching impractical. Socrates certainly does not underestimate this "character" as he applies a second strategy, the Image of the Cave, which will also shed light on justice while further commenting on the populace's inattentiveness to rational teaching.

The Image of the Cave, which stems from Socrates' divided line, is an allegory used to illustrate the path of the soul. As Bloom interprets, "The divided line described the soul's progress from its lowest level of cognition, imagination, to trust, thought, and finally intellection, its highest level" (Bloom, 403). Similarly, the philosopher is he who progresses toward intellection, or in the allegory of the cave, toward the light of the sun. To be liberated, however, the philosopher must re-orient his soul, and thus reject the notion that education is the result of putting "into the soul knowledge that isn't in it, as though...putting sight into blind eyes" (Bloom, 197). Socrates therefore argues that the "power is in the soul of each, and that the instrument with which each learns...must be turned around from that which is coming into being together with the whole soul until it is able to endure looking at that which is and the brightest part of that which is" (Bloom, 197). The enlightenment that comes from this liberation, however, does not initiate a life of ease for the newly made philosopher according to Socrates. Instead, says Socrates to Glaucon, "our job as to compel the best natures to go to the study which we were saying before is the greatest, to see the good and to go up that ascent; and...not to permit remain there" (Bloom, 198). The liberated must then take on a responsibility for the common good, returning to the cave, learning its effectiveness, and then liberating the others who are cast under the spell of the poets' images and rhetoric.

When Glaucon receives Socrates' description of the Image of the Cave, however, and the resulting call for the liberated philosopher to return to the cave in the aid of others, he protests. Glaucon, perhaps demonstrating his own "powerful desire," would thus prefer to remain in the enlightened world of the good, or the sun in the allegory of the cave, but Socrates insists otherwise. Socrates thus argues that Glaucon must return to the cave in the name of the common good, and thus resist the lure of tyrannical ruling. Perhaps unconvinced by the effectiveness of his argument to Glaucon, however, Socrates also presents him with the Myth of Er, a story of a soldier who died in war, but returned to life twelve days later with a valuable recollection of the rebirth process. The story stems from a discussion between Glaucon and Socrates on the immortality of the soul, and the importance of the soul in the discourse of philosophy. As Bloom interprets, "This discussion then serves two purposes: to cause the unphilosophic man to be concerned about justice for fear of what will happen to him in another world, and to turn philosophic men to the study of the soul" (Bloom, 435). Thus there is also an intent here to instill fear in Glaucon, as well as others in Socrates' audience, of the path of injustice. The call for such fear is then reinforced in the Myth of Er, which Socrates describes for Glaucon.

For individuals such as Glaucon, the myth of Er presents two messages. The first message is an emphasis on avoiding injustice with faithful consistency, and prudence, since those who commit injustices will ultimately receive judgement, and penalty. As Socrates argues, "For all the unjust deeds they had done anyone and all the men to whom they had done injustice, they had paid the penalty for every one in turn, ten times over for each" (Bloom, 298). Socrates' second message emphasizes the importance of the education given to, and provided by, a philosopher. Thus each must seek the "knowledge to distinguish the good and the bad life, and so everywhere and always to choose the better from among those that are possible" (Bloom, 301). Thus when the soul's lot arises, "he will know how always to choose the life between such extremes and flee the excesses in either direction in this life, so far as is possible, and in all of the next life. For in this way a human being becomes happiest" (Bloom, 301). Socrates' second message is then not only to promote philosophic education, but also to promote moderation in individuals as a result of such education.

The question then arises, Was Socrates' application of the Noble Lie, the Image of the Cave, and the Myth of Er, the most reasonable approach to elucidating justice? Socrates seems to tolerate poetry and rhetoric only if its pursuit is virtuous, and indeed Socrates' pursuit in The Republic is virtuous. The Noble Lie, however, is still a lie. Similarly, Athenians do not actually live in a cave, rather this is an allegory. And finally, the Myth of Er seeks to convince its audience of the importance of living a just life by instilling fear, rather than applying reason. The Noble Lie, for example, seeks to persuade citizens to be obedient to the city and their brothers by claiming that all have mixed in at their birth a combination of metals corresponding to different levels of the hierarchy that will exist in the just city. Such a lie is comparable to the opinions spread by the poets, then, and that are allegorized in the Image of the Cave. As Bloom interprets, "These opinions are not accurate reflections of nature but are adapted to serve the needs of the city. They are designed to make a man love his city" (Bloom, 404). The same might be say about the Noble Lie. In The Image of the Cave, in turn, "Socrates formulates his account of the good in such a way as to appeal to Glaucon's interest and passion," rather than avoiding emotive language and appeals to passion. The myth of Er, finally, again evokes fear as a means of persuading Glaucon of the importance of the path of justice. In one passage of his description of the myth, Socrates writes of "fierce men, looking fiery through and through, standing by and observing the sound, who took hold of some and led them away, who bound Ardiaeus and others hands, feet, and head, threw them down and stripped off their skin" (Bloom, 299). From these arguments it appears that Socrates does not fully heed his own call for reason. Bloom, however, offers an explanation for Socrates' application of these somewhat less-reasonable strategies

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Socrates' justification for such strategies, as interpreted by Bloom, speaks to the limits of human nature. As Bloom notes, "At the beginning of the dialogue, Glaucon and Adeimantus set the severest standards for political justice." Socrates thus "leads them first to the fulfillment of their wishes, and then beyond, to a fulfillment that does not depend on the transformation of human nature." That is, "the striving for the perfectly just city puts unreasonable and despotic demands on ordinary men, and it abuses and misuses the best men" (Bloom, 410). Socrates thus observes these shortcomings and sees the need to apply strategies so that his explanations of justice and the just city may be more affectively received. In the end, however, even with such strategies, to attain the just city is impossible as injustice always exists. As Bloom writes, "Socrates constructs his utopia to point up the dangers of what we would call utopianism; as such it is the greatest critique of political idealism ever written" (Bloom, 410). "The proper spirit of reform, then, is moderation" according to Bloom, moderation of desires, passions, and even the pursuit of the just city (Bloom, 410). Socrates' three strategies, then, also promote this moderation. The Noble Lie promotes the moderation of the pursuit of political power. The Image of the Cave promotes moderation of the passion to pursue tyranny, and abandon those still living in the cave. And finally, the Myth of Er promotes moderation in individuals when the soul's lot is drawn and a new life is to be chosen. Thus in the end, Socrates' three strategies here discussed align with his call for moderation; and in fact, by heeding this call, he assures Glaucon that they shall both "fare well" (Bloom, 303).

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Elucidating the Topic of Justice in The Republic by Plato. (2018, April 21). GradesFixer. Retrieved June 23, 2024, from
“Elucidating the Topic of Justice in The Republic by Plato.” GradesFixer, 21 Apr. 2018,
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