Felt Absence and the Quest for Virtue

In Book II of the Republic, Socrates lays out a strategy for determining the meaning of dikaiosyne, a word translated almost universally in Plato translations as “justice,” and just as universally in New Testament translations as “righteousness”. His strategy is peculiar to say the least: let’s make the soul large to our view by creating a city in speech; let’s look for the three (other) virtues of wisdom, courage and moderation; whatever virtue is left over must be justice. How can we take this method of discovery seriously? Questions abound:

Why does Socrates assume that the list of four virtues is exhaustive? In the dialogue Protagoras, for instance, piety is listed as a fifth distinct virtue; if we were to follow Socrates’ strategy, won’t our residuum include both justice and piety, each needing to be discriminated from the other? Why is it presumed easier to find the virtues of moderation, courage and wisdom than it is to find justice? Haven’t we just increased the field of our search by at least a factor of four? Is the transform from soul to city back to soul licit? Is the justice that we find guiding the proper functioning of a city identical or only analogous to justice in the soul?

The surplus of questions point to another, more pointed question: Is the strategy just a clumsy plot device of Plato designed to move the conversation to his political interests -or- is there a genuine teaching at play here? After much reflection, I am convinced that the latter is the case, that the strategy of Socrates is designed to teach us how to approach the reading of the dialogue as a *whole*. My strategy for reading the Republic begins by taking seriously this strategy of Socrates for uncovering the meaning of justice. In doing so, I am taking to heart the advice of Thomas Kuhn:

“When reading the works of an important thinker, look first for the apparent absurdities in the text and ask how a sensible person could have written them. When you find an answer… when those passages make sense, then you may find that more central passages, ones you previously thought you understood, have changed their meaning.” — THE ESSENTIAL TENSION, p. xii

A central feature of the Socratic strategy is attention directed toward what is left over, toward what still has not been accounted for, toward what is not yet present to our understanding. What remains after we have inventoried the known is what must be as yet unknown, what is known only as unknown. There is what I shall call a “felt absence” that governs the search. The Republic, I argue, is haunted through and through with felt absence. Any adequate interpretation of the Republic as a whole must make allowance for the fact that the telos of the search is what tends to escape thematization, that what is unsaid takes precedence over what is said. At every level of the quest, some form of the question “what’s missing” predominates and lifts the inquiry to a more comprehensive level of inquiry.


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