Republic Slow Reading project, day 1

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.

20 thoughts on “Republic Slow Reading project, day 1

  1. so far so good I think, but I don’t really get the forced part. was it a jest because they knew each other? or was he just a bully and asked hard knowing his father wanted to see Socrates? concerning Cephalus conversation of old age, money, and justice. These seem like common (surface) humble answers That may be prone to middle or wealthy people of good nature. I don’t know if hes genuine or just hasn’t thought about it. Certiantly holiness and virure would be a nurse to conscience in any age but he also acknowledged the benefit of wealth is not having to deceive or to defraud, so his conscience may be clean just because he never had too to get by but his true charater was never tested. Also Yes some people complain because they are complainers, but even kind men can turn bitter from pain and physical ailment. Then Soc. makes the good point I think that Cep’s definition of virtue wasn’t complete but may need redefining. And about Cep’s Grandfather, it seems he may have been the kind of bad company that praised wealth, while his dad was probably spoiled, incompetent or for what ever reason less able then Ceps granddad, while Cep himself was indefrent to money but did what he thought was the responsibe and thrifty thing to do with his inheritance but didn’t emphasize it. If im off track let me know, this will be fun

    • Well, I don’t think we can exactly call him indifferent. we know from his conversation with Socrates that Cephalus cared enough about money to make back half of what his dad squandered. We also know that he sees the benefit of having some saved up beyond bare need — to afford sacrifices, pay back debts and recompense for swindles and to “buy” sweet dreams. Money looks like one of those things that is passed like torches from generation to generation, but not apparently the wisdom of how or how not to spend it — his two ancestors and he couldn’t be farther apart, it seems

  2. It was left hanging as to whether money brings happiness to old age. There are many unhappy old rich people.

  3. Good observations, Billy. Yes, it was left hanging. It *seems* to Cephalus that money is an aid to happiness of a kind (or at least an easy conscience). But does this seeming have more to do with Cephalus’ situation/disposition rather than some inherent effect of wealth on happiness? If wealth is only effective for increasing happiness *if* one has the right attitude toward money, then could Cephalus *bequeath* that attitude also to his son (through education perhaps) along with the money, so that the money would not only be possessed but enjoyed? Is this another torch to be passed?

  4. Just a thought spurred by Billy Herman and The Epistemologist’s comments above. Can we think of the inheritance of wealth as an analogy for the inheritance of virtue or maybe just notions about virtue?

    By the way the Greek word for an “estate” such as which passes through inheritance is “ousia” which also means “substance” or “being.” An example of the effect this meaning of ousia has had for English is our term “a man of substance” to designate a wealthy man. Perhaps we inherit the “being” of our parents in ways that are more than just money…

  5. Cephalus says that the withering loss of his sexual desire has increased his love of good conversation. And he asks Socrates to visit him often so that he can indulge this mature desire. But Cephalus quits the conversation at the first impasse demonstrating that his love of discourse is not akin to the “savage master” of his youthful appetites. Cephalus has become a devotee of the peaceful, easy life, and as such is not going to be either a fitting or willing participant in the search for justice.

    But let’s pretend for a moment and presume that Cephalus’ experience as an erotic man had provided him with the guidence that Socrates claimed to have received from his own erotic nature (see the Jan. 4 post on this site “Anatomy of Platonic Eros”). But let’s go much further than Socrates ever did and presume that the peace and rest of Cephalus’ last days were hard won and achieved only after a long life dedicated to the pursuit of truth and justice. Let’s presume that Cephalus found some answers that he could rest with. In other words, let’s presume that Cephalus had not inherited any of his wealth, but earned it. Would this make him a fitting participant in the search that is to follow? If fitting, do you suppose he would be willing?

    Implicit, I think, in Cleitophon’s question (see: “A Few Quotes on the Issue of Questions” posted on this site on Jan. 16th) is the issue of whether desire or eros ultimately aims at something like rest or peace; and this seems to square with my own inner reflections. But, If this is so, why do Cephalus’ friends of the same age bemoan the loss of their youthful desires (329a)? Why is Viagra such a best seller? What is it about being settled that isn’t satisfying? Or, as the poet James Wright put it: “In the autumn of my blood where the apples / Purse their wild lips and smirk knowingly / That my love is dead.”

    • What a comment!

      Your alternative Cephalus is interesting. I guess based on Socrates’ observation that those who earn their own money think too much of it (and are overly fond of it as a type of proud father) implies that the revised Cephalus wouldn’t be a fit dialogue partner. Socrates suggests that the one who has inherited his wealth is at an advantage, since his love of money is not excessive. Of course, this conflicts with the example of Cephalus’ father, who inherited his wealth and thought so little of it that he squandered it. So do we have too vicious extremes that flank a virtuous mean — either (1) passively inheriting a traditional teaching about justice errs one way or (2) manufacturing one’s own notion of justice errs in the other way. So what shape would the mean take between these two extremes?

      Your question about eros is also interesting and I am not sure how to answer it. We aim at rest and yet it does seems like desire desires more desire! I once heard boredom defined (by Tolstoy I think) as “the desire for desires.” That seems right too. In 329d, Cephalus mentions being “moderate and contented” as a way to make old age “moderately onerous.” Just thinking out loud here but are there two conceptions of *moderation* possible? One is Cephalus’ version such that moderation means *less* desire. Another version is that moderation is more like giving desire a proper aim between its two opposite vices and not to slacken it at all. In this latter version, I can even imagine that desire can be increased as it is “moderated.” Yes/no/possibly?

      • Isn’t it also interesting that Cephalus’ friends complain of being “deprived” of something important in losing their various lusts? Desire itself has a component of “deprivation” — it’s as if they are saying they are deprived of deprivation!

  6. I just read the passage leading up to the Cephalus dialogue again. Following my own advice of trying to imagine vividly the sensory aspects, I was struck by a kind of dream-like quality to the opening: the strange locale, the mixes of people (some of whom I imagined for some reason as grotesque) and different languages, the processions, the anticipation of torches, Cephalus in his wreath upon a cushioned chair… As I say, it has a dream-like quality when I think about it, but this could just be me.

    And isn’t it interesting, if we consider the etymologies of the names as significant, that Socrates and Glaucon are led into the “House of the Head”?

  7. The speculations about inheriting wealth as akin to receiving the wisdom of our parents reminds me of a line from Goethe’s Faust: “What you have as heritage take now as task, and thus you will make it your own.” Is this the mean between extremes?

  8. Another theme in this reading is old age. Socrates asks Cephalus what old age is like, whether it is a difficult time. Socrates refers to what the “poets” call the “threshold of old age” — the threshold at issue is the threshold between death and life. Socrates and Cephalus are thus talking about the *end* of life. But there are two ways to think about the “end of life” — either as the time just before death OR the goal of life (i.e. what is life for?). So Socrates question about the end in Cephalus’ sense is also a question to us about the end/goal of our life.

  9. Whitehead used to quote/misquote Plato that “the world is the victory of persuasion over force.” Whether a misquote or not, since reading it I have been interested in the dichotomy of persuasion and force as two different ways of moving others. The persuasion/force dichotomy occurs in 327c. What is the moral difference between persuasion and force as means of shaping another’s actions. What is our responsibility to listen or not listen to someone trying to persuade us of something that we don’t (yet) desire?

    • I think the Polemarchus question, “Do you see how many we are?”, is a key line in this section. Force must try to prove its preeminence specifically through its impact on human sight and touch (e.g. “The slave caught hold of my cloak from behind”). With the intimidating sight of the many, no rational justification for action seems necessary. With his question, Polemarchus suggests force is intrinsically justified and it is through sight that one comes to this knowledge. Persuasion, by contrast, is action motivated by awareness of reasons for movement. To be persuaded requires reception and reflection on what is unseen as justification for action. Polemarchus sums it up nicely when he states: “Well, we won’t listen, you’d better make up your mind on that”. The “We” can never listen.

  10. Tillman,
    Thanks for your comment. I can’t do much to improve on that.
    Simone Weil in her seminal essay, “The Iliad: the Poem of Force”, defines force as “that which makes a thing of anybody who comes under its sway. When exercised to the full, it makes a thing of man in the most literal sense, for it makes him a corpse.” I suspect Polemarchus is being playful with Socrates, but the scene still touches on the theme of force as the “final reason” to justify a course of affairs. Persuasion, at least in the form of “giving reasons,” at least has the merit of treating the other as a seat of decision rationally oriented to the good, as you suggest. Kant’s formulation of the Categorical Imperative also comes to mind: “Act so that you treat humanity, never as a means only, but always at the same time as an end.” This also seems germane to the force/persuasion difference.

    But you are the student of rhetoric — does it seem to you that there are forms of persuasion more akin morally to force?

    • Great question. I do think there are forms of persuasion more akin morally to force. Your excellent post some time ago discussing the doxa of 24 hour “news” points in this direction. I don’t think, however, that the answer to the problem of morally abhorrent persuasion is to somehow escape the power of influence which comes with speech. The right direction is, perhaps, to imitate Socrates who embraced the responsibility it places upon all of us and used this power for good.

      • Tillman, Can we define more precisely when persuasion crosses the line into force? My post “What grounds opinion?” points to different (defective) ways that opinion is settled. Can persuasion that relies solely on the baser forms of settling opinion be classified justly as “violent”? (I’m really not sure of myself here — just thinking out loud.) Shouldn’t *good* persuasion aim at clearing the way for a person to make (and abide with) a better choice in full freedom? Persuasion that recognizes its other as a free person, imbued with the powers of reflection and deliberation, would on this reading be classified as “good”. Persuasion that tries to outflank reflection and deliberation would be “bad.” You are the rhetoric expert — is there anything viable in this line of thinking?

  11. I agree in principle with your division. I would make, however, one qualification.There tends to be a bias against any persuasion which aims to increase the “speed” at which decision-making occurs. I would argue that reflective decision-making does not necessarily mean “slow” decision-making. Short moral maxims, succinct lines of poetry, even the hated “slogans”, which permit parsimonious storage of rich symbolic networks of meaning may be more persuasive in influencing moral action than an extended treatise. In sum: Persuasion aimed at increasing the storage of moral heuristics is not, in itself, “violent”. Thanks for the question.

    • Tillman, I like your phrase “the storage of moral heuristics.” I agree with not limiting decision to the slow-twitch, reflective kind. But the basis of decision, even the fast-twitch version, must yet be answerable to the reflective version, yes? Should responsible rhetoric which produces an effect in another be able to give reasons, even if only post hoc?

      • Yes, I agree. The responsible rhetorician who intends to persuade in this way should understand the philosophic problematic the moral heuristics condense and should be able to give reasons for the elements in his message. What I think is key is that the condensing process essential to heuristic processing decreases storage, retrieval, and processing demands on the side of the decision-making subject. I believe this permits flexible, “everyday” moral decision-making across a wide range of contexts and situations.

      • Come to think of it, this is very much along the lines of Lonergan’s “common sense” applied to the persuasion context. Persuasion aimed at fast moral decision-making would involve something like increasing the moral “common sense” (in Lonergan’s very particular sense) of a particular person or group.

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