Saturday, February 11, 2012

Republic 1 and 2 - Plato

Back to Plato! The Republic is basically a long conversation, or series of conversations mostly having to do with the nature of justice. This leads to a broader discussion of government, or how to order a society.
The first book largely deals with whether justice is a virtue or not. On the face of it, this seems like a preposterous question since we use 'justice' and 'virtue' as nearly interchangeable terms. But the question does become interesting once it is dug into. Restated, who makes out better, the just man or the unjust one? Can you lead a more successful life by cheating?
In the second book Socrates is asked for a definition of 'justice'. He decides to look for justice at the very creation of the state. This then springboards into a discussion of what an ideal state would look like. After a short detour into how to train the guardians, he talks about how to teach the children of the state.
One of the difficulties that I've had reading Plato is that I find it far to easy to argue with him. For instance when justice is defined as 'repaying your debts', Socrates says:
Suppose that a friend when in his right mind has deposited arms with me and he asks for them when he is not in his right mind, ought I to give them back to him? No one would say that I ought or that I should be right in doing so, any more than they would say that I ought always to speak the truth to one who is in his condition.

This is certainly true but also incomplete. Paying debts is certainly just but in the case there is another thing to consider; whether or not repaying the debt at one limited time would be in the best interest of your friend. Time and again it seems that Socrates will use a specific to disprove a general.
I've come to see this as limited thinking on my part though. If we want a complete definition of justice then we have to acknowledge the limitations of a general rule. We have to understand the various tiers of concerns that come into play. We must work harder at it and frankly, that work is its own reward. Or as Stan said here:
the dialogues are best read as a training ground for philosophic thought, rather than a source for statements of Platonic dogma.
So the challenge becomes not to nitpick but to figure out what the better answers would be. And what the better questions would be too!

In the second book Socrates tackles a problem in a way that I greatly respect. When answering a question about the state he doesn't look to adjust what has been built organically, he instead says 'what would the ideal look like' and then goes from there. Too often I think that we take the current state for granted and simply try to tweak. The Platonic system offers a way to look at the perfect and compare.
I was a bit frustrated by the cut off in this reading assignment because I started to get caught up in the piece right near the end. When I have time I will definitely move on and read more about the ideal states. We cover books 6 and 7 during year four but none of the rest.

What did the rest of you think?

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