Sunday, June 19, 2011

Socrates and Parenting

I'm trying to read Plato's Republic.  I'm determined to get through it as best I can even if I know I am not understanding all its implications.  From a sheer reading point of view, it is not as fearsome as you might think by hearing about its place in the Western canon.   As CS Lewis has remarked, the book itself is more accessible than many of the scholarly tomes written about it; and in addition, I have a feeling that a sincere amateur would have just as much chance of getting a gem or two out of the reading as many professors well-informed about the context and controversies.    I  feel rather like Glaucon, considering questions thoughtfully but not able to draw out the argument without help; but after all, Socrates seemed to enjoy hanging around with that type of person, so perhaps he wouldn't mind me reading his dialogues, even if in translation.   So with that out of the way, let me go on. 

In Book I, Socrates deals with a kind of modern sophist called Thrasymachus.   Thrasymachus sounds like a hard-headed realist type, or perhaps an old-school Klingon, who has heard that Socrates is wily and is determined not to be verbally run around (but in that case, probably should not have start arguing with Socrates with Plato as listener in the first place).   He  makes a crude case that justice is what is good for the stronger, and that worldly goods end up in the hands of those who are strong and unscrupulous, not with those who are weak and naive enough to believe in things like justice.   He gets what he deserves --a sort of bull-baiting dialogue where he goes from snorting and stamping and rushing into a kind of muttering reflexive "I suppose it must be true if you say so, Socrates."   He's glad to escape back into his routed-bull shelter. 

In Book II, following the initial verbal skirmish with the ancient-Greek Klingon type,  the dialogue takes a deeper tone.  Socrates's friend Glaucon, for the sake of finding truth, takes Thrasymachus's argument and puts it into a more thoughtful frame.  His brother Adeimantus brings out the strongest view of the case in even deeper and subtler terms.   Basically, they are on Socrates' "side" in thinking that to be just is better than to be unjust, but they want to bring out the full difficulty of the issue, in less comic-book tones than Thrasymachus has been able to do.

For this reason, Glaucon makes a case that it would seem to be better to have the appearance of being just and in fact BE unjust, than to in truth be a just man. When you are unjust, he says,  you have nothing to hinder you from grabbing all the good things for yourself.   Which would seem better on the surface than being just and having to deny yourself good things for the sake of justice.

He says that of course it is better to SEEM just, because then you are honored and trusted.   But if an unjust man could manage to convince everyone that he was really just, he would be in the best condition possible.  Whereas it seems that if you were truly just but didn't have the reputation that comes with justice, you would be far worse off.    In essence, it would seem you wouldn't have anything -- you wouldn't have the good things you collected by your injustice, plus you wouldn't have the respect and trust that goes with the reputation of justice.

Basically, Glaucon wants Socrates to tell him whether this justice inside a man is really worth having, or if justice is really only valuable because of the good things you get as a result.  He believes that it is worth having for itself, that to be just is better than to be unjust, but he can't quite figure out the argument in its favor, whereas he can easily argue the opposing position, that it is better to get the goods that come with injustice AND the goods that come with the appearance of justice -- so, bluntly stated, it is better to BE unjust and LOOK just, than to BE just and LOOK unjust.

To answer this, Socrates decides to go on a seeming rabbit trail about cities and thus, I am assuming, we will talk about his notion of the Republic.   His logic is that if something is true for a larger thing (like a polis or city) it will also perhaps be true of the smaller thing (the individual person).  I haven't read any further yet so I don't know how this works out.

But I was struck by Glaucon's argument which seems to be essentially how many people would argue nowadays and think they were espousing a traditional, virtuous position when really, as is apparent in the context, it's just a subtler presentation of Thrasymachus' sledgehammer "might makes right" approach. 

Here's Glaucon presenting the case: 

They say that to do injustice is, by nature, good; to suffer injustice, evil; but that the evil is greater than the good. And so when men have both done and suffered injustice and have had experience of both, not being able to avoid the one and obtain the other, they think that they had better agree among themselves to have neither; hence there arise laws and mutual covenants; and that which is ordained by law is termed by them lawful and just. This they affirm to be the origin and nature of justice; --it is a mean or compromise, between the best of all, which is to do injustice and not be punished, and the worst of all, which is to suffer injustice without the power of retaliation; and justice, being at a middle point between the two, is tolerated not as a good, but as the lesser evil, and honoured by reason of the inability of men to do injustice. For no man who is worthy to be called a man would ever submit to such an agreement if he were able to resist; he would be mad if he did. Such is the received account, Socrates, of the nature and origin of justice.

Now that those who practise justice do so involuntarily and because they have not the power to be unjust will best appear if we imagine something of this kind: having given both to the just and the unjust power to do what they will, let us watch and see whither desire will lead them; then we shall discover in the very act the just and unjust man to be proceeding along the same road, following their interest, which all natures deem to be their good, and are only diverted into the path of justice by the force of law.
Adeimantus deepens it even more by bringing in the religious perspective:

There is another side to Glaucon's argument about the praise and censure of justice and injustice, which is equally required in order to bring out what I believe to be his meaning. Parents and tutors are always telling their sons and their wards that they are to be just; but why? not for the sake of justice, but for the sake of character and reputation; in the hope of obtaining for him who is reputed just some of those offices, marriages, and the like which Glaucon has enumerated among the advantages accruing to the unjust from the reputation of justice. More, however, is made of appearances by this class of persons than by the others; for they throw in the good opinion of the gods, and will tell you of a shower of benefits which the heavens, as they say, rain upon the pious; and this accords with the testimony of the noble Hesiod and Homer, the first of whom says, that the gods make the oaks of the just--

So honestly -- don't we tend to tell our children that they should be just because it will bring rewards? And perhaps this is not altogether illegitimate --because many Old Testament passages speak in the same terms.   Even Jesus isn't opposed to declaring frankly that there are rewards for righteousness properly understood.

However, Glaucon's description of the just man who does not get any temporal benefits from justice could ery well be a description of Job, and later Jesus.   So plainly the Bible deals with this question seriously.   So while the idea that "justice will be rewarded"  (either by men, or by "the gods") is certainly an associative cause/effect in normal situations, it's not enough to make a case for justice (or righteousness) in itself.  Or so it would seem from what Glaucon and Adeimantus are saying, and from the direction of Socrates' reply -- where he acknowledges they have made a strong case, and turns to an extended analogy in order to reply.

The other reason we tell our children to be just is that we would want the same to be done to us.  This is what Glaucon says -- that the best would be to be unjust and get away with it, and the worst is to have injustice done to us without recourse, so people make a sort of contract for the "mean", which means that we can't get away with everything but neither can anyone else.

Again, this seems legitimate to an extent.    After all, Jesus said to "do unto others as you would have them do unto you."  But it doesn't address the deeper issue, which Jesus also brought out many times.   Is there something more to justice than just hedging our bets?  

Anyway, I am interested now in seeing how Socrates moves from these questions to the political/social one and in turn, how he applies that back to the individual case of the just man.


  1. I enjoy reading your thoughts on this. It's been so long since I read it - but I seem to recall being taught that the republic was exactly an analogy to the soul of the just man . . .

  2. Jessica, that is good to hear! It certainly seemed somewhat that way from the way the conversation went.

  3. Ok, Willa... I'm totally excited. Do you know what book I cracked open today? Plato's REpublic. I plan to read along with you... despite the other pile of things I need to do. Why? BEcause It can be done, because I want to do this.
    After studying philosophy and thinking it was 'difficult' to read Plato himself, and just getting by with commentaries and other books, I'm enjoying the fact I'm reading PLATO by myself. No paper to write, no test, no chance to mess up or to impress anyone with conclusions. REAL READING, and with a great partner at hand.
    So far I read the summary of all the books, and part of book 1, but I liked what I read about Socrates vision on leaders, they won't be surrounded by luxury or entertainment, to avoid corruption of morals... ha!

  4. Silvia, I'm glad you are reading too! REAL reading, as you say! I think Brandy mentioned that she had cracked open The Republic as well. One thing I am really, really noticing is that a lot of what Charlotte Mason writes about is in the context of Plato's Republic. She doesn't often mention it, but a lot of the themes are similar. She must have been an amazing reader -- she seems to be deeply familiar with the poets and philosophers of her own time and also have a grounding in the writings of the past. I love the fact that she can take these types of books and apply them to real life with teaching children.

  5. Wow... it is really hard for me not to see this woman as a total heroine for me. What I admire the most is that such an educated and well read person, as you said, and the lack of pretensions and closeness to children she had...
    Do you know Nancy at Sage Parnassus? She read this book,, which I'll buy one day! and she was writing about a part in which Mason was answering to some boys who wanted a nice couch in the dean or something... the fact is that Nancy said she'd like to read a biography that did not portray her as a 'saint', and I got curious and told her if she knew of one of these scholars with no family to homeschool, ha ha ha, seriously, one of these people that is close to the resources, and who has the desire and ability to maybe write about the 'real' CM, if there is such a woman, for I'm afraid in such a wonderful human being, her faults will be buried with her, and her great influence and wisdom is what luckily for us, we have gotten through time.
    I also wonder why she is not more known? But it may very well be that the one who doesn't know about her being known is me! It was from your lips I heard she wasn't a floating in the history of education and thought type of figure, but that she is well rooted and grounded in our Western tradition, which would make sense.
    I thought it was a 'figure of relevance' for just a bunch of cult type mommas, ha ha ha. Until I got into the sect, ahem, club... anyway, at this point I'm not embarrassed about declaring I'm a fervent admirer and follower aspirant.
    And now... to read!


I would love to hear your thoughts on this!