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Examination And Defense Of Justice In Plato’s Republic

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The majority of Plato’s Republic comprises a search for, examination, and defense of justice. Glaucon wants Socrates to defend the principle that justice is good for its own sake. To better understand what justice is, they create a “city in speech” which will serve as a metaphor for justice in the soul. The basic principle of the city is that each man should practice only one art, because in this system, everything is “more plentiful, finer, and easier”. This seems reasonable – When things are plentiful, finer, and easier, the city will prosper. Each member of the society produces enough of his good not only for himself but for all the others in the city who are, in exchange, providing for his own needs in other areas. Justice lies in the simplicity of each member of the city doing his job for the other citizens. On the other hand, Socrates’s “one man, one art” is troubling because it does not seem to match with empirical evidence or intuition. Adeimantus agrees that different men are predisposed toward different tasks. But Socrates pushes the point and asks “And what about this? Who would do a finer job, one man practicing many arts, or one man one art?”, prompting Adeimantus to concede the fully developed version of Socrates’s proposal. “So, on this basis each thing becomes more plentiful, finer, and easier, when one man, exempt from other tasks, does one thing according to nature and at the crucial moment.” It is one thing to say that people are naturally inclined to perform one job over another, but another to say that people are naturally inclined to perform a particular task — that each person finds their perfect art in a particular vocation because it would make him unhappy or it would be unnatural to do anything else. Perhaps Socrates might say that the city is more just if one man practice one art, and so each citizen should do so from their debt of justice to their fellow citizens, but that is a different argument which does not match Socrates’ assertion of practicing art by nature.

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The idea that one man ought to practice one art only because he is, by nature, inclined to do so is not well defended. In fact, it appears unnatural to practice only one art because it removes one from the natural diversity of occupations that would permit him to explore complementary strengths, shore up weaknesses, and achieve a sort of balance of the soul. For example, arts consisting mostly of manual labor might improve a man in some ways, but it would also preclude a life of contemplation – Plato’s ultimate good. Whereas the life of the philosopher might help a man glean deep insights into justice, but supplementing his philosophy with active work might round out the philosopher’s wisdom. This idea is well established in philosophy and many early philosophers like Cicero and Cato talked about the virtue gained from simple work like farming. The city quickly develops a new problem. If it is not simply based on necessity, it threatens to grow out of control, the quest to fulfill the demands of justice and to exploit the nature of the professions leads to the addition of auxiliary “arts” not absolutely necessary for the city’s existence, but required for efficiency, like shepherds, sailors, and merchants. Socrates’ city seems to need more than its initial few arts. If justice is found through efficiency and the exclusive and reciprocal practice of single arts, it tends to expand and grow as new arts are added. Socrates’s proposition of “one man, one art” was meant to fulfill the dictates of justice to which citizens are subject in the “healthy” city of necessity, it causes the city to outgrow itself because it subjects the nature of the man to the nature of his profession, forcing him to constantly produce food, shoes, or other goods. To combat this bloating tendency, the debaters settle on a regime of moderation. This city will be more luxurious than the city of necessity, but more disciplined than the bloated and unhealthy city. Its political system features strong, spirited soldiers called guardians and the ruler, the philosopher-king. The guardians will be trained through an education system designed to raise them into justice, live and eat in common, practice gymnastics together, listen to the same music, and have relations with the same women. They will be denied money, possessions, and all private property. “And thus,” Socrates says, “they would save themselves as well as save the city.” But the same problem besets the guardians, at least, as beset the original city’s inhabitants. Although their education is supposed to teach them justice, their natures end up being forced into the unnatural mold of the new profession — that of guardians — that Socrates and the others have devised for them. Aristotle’s famous critique of the Republic picks up on this.

The philosopher king also creates a problem within the “one man, one art” framework. By definition the philosopher king practices not one, but two arts. In the just city, he is required to transcend everyday life, rising above its obligations, duties, and demands, in order to establish justice in his soul. He only returns to the worldly milieu grudgingly when it is his turn to undertake, for a time at least, the distasteful task of ruling; ordered as it is, the city is not so much just as it is the best situation for the philosopher who is seeking justice for himself. This raises questions about Socrates’ interlocutors and to readers of the Republic. Are they, like the guardians and the philosophers of a city that was apparently never meant to be, really made more just by participating in the dialogue or by reading it? Does the Socratic way of life, in other words, make them persons who will have the potential and the ability to elevate politics? Or is Socrates guilty of the famous charge of corrupting the youth? It is important to note that the city as Socrates describes it is not necessarily a blueprint for a real life city, but rather a metaphor for the soul. Since it need not be implemented in the real world, the philosopher king need not really exist except for his analog in the soul. But since this metaphorical city was contrived with the purpose of showing what justice in the city looks like, it makes sense to ask the question: Could the city of the Republic also be saved, not just the dialogue’s insight about the importance of education? If so, then the necessary reconsideration would need to begin with the foundational proposition of “one man, one art.” Adeimantus grants this proposition fairly quickly and without much argument. It is interesting to consider a city with a different founding principle or a different methodology to make a city which is both just and practically achievable. Shouldn’t the nature of a city follow from the nature of man rather than the other way around? Shouldn’t the situation that best cultivates justice and equanimity within individual souls be the starting point for the collective of individuals, not just the ending point for the fortunate few guardians of the city? In any case, the city of utmost necessity and all the cities that follow fall short in this regard in subjecting the nature of man to the nature of his occupation.

Justice in the soul, it seems, is not simplicity. Perhaps if he were pressed, Socrates would have acknowledged that such a diversity is a good — even a natural — thing. After all, his vision of education presupposes just such a balance between music and gymnastics for the guardians. Why would it be any different for the inhabitants of the original city? This is the underlying principle of justice that leads Adeimantus to agree that each inhabitant of the city of utmost necessity must put his work at the disposal of all in common. The farmer has the basic need of a house, the housebuilder of clothing, etc. But need the farmer, in justice, submit to the onerous demand that he provide all the food? Need the housebuilder build all the houses? In short, the answer is no; it does not follow that the farmer provide all the food because not only is the housebuilder capable of balancing his main occupation with secondary occupations, but it might also be beneficial for the housebuilder as a human being to foster this diversity among his occupations for the justice and equanimity of soul that it will bring him. It seems that justice in the human soul is not simple, but complex. Socrates might note that such a city, where people have more responsibility for their own basic needs, would be less likely to expand so rapidly into the luxurious city because the nature of the profession is secondary to the nature of the individual, but recall his reluctance to leave what he called the “true” city. Indeed, if justice can be readily perceived — and learned from — in this first city, then what need have Socrates and his interlocutors — and Plato’s readers — of the city of sows and the city conceived to moderate that city’s excesses?

01 February 2021

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