This week we will be conducting a Slow Reading of Book I of the Republic. Today’s short text consists of the opening of the dialogue and Socrates’ conversation with Cephalus (opening to 331d). (If you haven’t ready Saturday’s post on Slow Reading and the nature of this project, start there.) Here are a couple of ground rules:
A. Let’s stay focused on just this part of the larger dialogue. Please, those of you who have read the entire dialogue, don’t make connections with anything beyond Book I for now. I will post something on Saturday in which we can look together at some of those kind of connections together. But for now, let’s try to consider Book I alone, as if it were its own dialogue.
B. Read slowly. Try to incorporate every detail into your experience of the text. Try to see, hear and smell what is going on.
C. Please comment in order to contribute. Make sure that you check the comments later on, since that is where the life of this Slow Reading will be conducted. Feel free to comment in response to other commenters as we go along. Don’t just think you are talking to me.
Each day, I will give a few notes and observations to help you with your reading. They are not interpretations exactly, just pointers, notes, provocations and hints. Feel free to totally disregard them! In several places, I include questions. You don’t have to answer those either. I have no fixed answer in mind myself — questions just arise for me as I read slowly — as they should for you.
1. Notice that the entire dialogue is in the first person, with Socrates as the one recounting what happened. It is easy to forget later that we are listening to Socrates’ version. I wonder how other versions would have differed? If Plato wrote as an omniscient narrator, would that change the dialogue?
2. The dialogue takes place at the Piraeus, the port city of Athens, which is about 7 miles distant. Athens was a great naval power in the Mediterranean and the Piraeus was the launching pad for its empire-building. High walls protected the road from Athens to Piraeus which made Athens practically invulnerable against siege by land armies. This fed Athens’ inflated self-image about it own power and role in the world. Such hubris eventually led to its devastating defeat during the Peloponnesian War, in which it was the chief aggressor and antagonist.
3. Piraeus, common to other port cities, became a mixing ground for various cultures. There is a resonance in the name (at least for me) to the Greek word peras, which means “limit.” A limit is a liminal place that is in contact with whatever alien other (an unlimited perhaps?) is outside of it. So it is a place of confusion, one might say — a confusion of cultures and languages and varying ideas of how one ought live.
4. The dialogue takes place during the festival of Bendis, a Thracian deity that was associated by Athenians to the goddess Artemis — more mixing and confusion! (Why a foreign goddess?) Artemis, as you can easily look up, was the daughter of Zeus, sister of Apollo, was associated with hunting and virginity. She was also notably the patroness of midwives — I say notably because Socrates’ mother, Phaenarerte, was a midwife. Socrates (in other dialogues such as the Theaetetus) claimed to have inherited her midwifery skill — in helping bring living ideas to birth in young men.
5. Socrates is traveling with Glaucon (the name means “gleaming” — root of the medical condition called glaucoma, literally “shining eyes”) who, along with another character Adeimantus, is Plato’s brother — Plato and the two brothers are sons of Ariston (“best”).
6. Socrates is on his way to “pray to the goddess” — Bendis perhaps? Why?
7. Socrates and Glaucon are “forced” back to the house of Cephalus (“head”), a well-to-do merchant, a metic (which means a foreigner living in an ancient Greek city who had some of the privileges of citizenship). He is stopped first by a slave, then by his master Polemarchus (“warlord”), who is the son of Cephalus. What might be the significance of this business of “forcing” Socrates back to Cephalus’ house?
8. Socrates is enticed by the nighttime, horseback torch-races that are apparently part of the festival. “Passing the torch” is a metaphor for something, perhaps? Do we see any torch-passing later?
9. There are a whole host of notorious figures present at the ensuing conversation at Cephalus’ house: in addition to those already named, Lysias, Euthydemus, Thrasymachus, Charmantides and Cleitophon. Only Thrasymachus and Cleitophon will have speaking roles in the dialogue. It is interesting that Plato records the names of the silent participants as well. Are we readers akin to them? Is *silent participation* still a participation?
10. The Republic has the subtitle “On justice” and justice is a theme that emerges casually in Socrates’ conversation with Cephalus. How does the conversation arrive at the theme of justice? What is the significance of the other themes of the conversation leading up to justice? Do they have anything to do with justice?
11. What is the real value of wealth for Cephalus? What is the significance of the notion that he is a kind of mean between his father and grandfather?
12. Are pleasures and desires really curses as Cephalus hints they are?
13. What can we say in favor of Cephalus’ “definition” of justice? What against?
That’s enough to get you reading and thinking. Please comment and share your questions, answers or observations.