Republic Slow Reading project, day 2

We are continuing our Slow Reading for Book I of the Republic. Yesterday, we considered the opening scenes up to and including Socrates’ dialogue with Cephalus. If you are just joining us, be sure to read the introductory post on Slow Reading and yesterday’s discussion.

Today’s text is 331d-336a, which consists of Socrates’ conversation with Cephalus’ son Polemarchus. The same ground rules apply as yesterday’s discussion: read slowly, observe every detail, and concentrate on this passage without anticipating the later dialogue. (It is OK to bring in texts occurring before however.)


1. Notice that Polemarchus “inherits” Cephalus’ definition of justice. We discussed the theme of inheritance a lot yesterday in the comments.

2. I forgot to mention yesterday but the word for justice in Greek, dikaiosyne, has a wider meaning than our English word justice. (It is the word usually translated as “righteousness” in the New Testament for instance.) Uprightness, fair dealing, moral probity, sense of equity — all of these notions are implicit in the Greek word.

3. In our Cephalus discussion, there was a connection made between wealth and wisdom. Perhaps we can make the same connection when the Polemarchus dialogue turns to safeguarding money.

4. The line at 334a is puzzling: “A just person has turned out then, it seems, to be a kind of thief.” Any speculation on this conclusion and the argument that led up to it?

5. Socrates applies the term for craft or skill (techne) to the practice of justice. How is justice like a skill? How not?

6. Finally, what happened to the part of Socrates’ version of Cephalus’ definition of justice about “speaking the truth”? (see 331c) Why was it dropped from the Polemarchus discussion? Is it still part of a full understanding of justice?

I think I will end my notes there. Be sure to monitor the comments. And please comment — it is a just thing to do! Remember, “friends owe it to their friends to do good for them…”

10 thoughts on “Republic Slow Reading project, day 2

  1. As a first comment, let’s review the evolution of the definition of justice in this part:

    1. Cephalus hands to Polemarchus the idea that justice is “speaking the truth and paying whatever debts one has incurred” (331c)
    2. Polemarchus revises the definition with the help of the poet Simonides to “it is just to give to give to each what is owed” (331e) and what is owed is “benefits to friends and harm to enemies” (332d)
    3. Finally, Socrates and Polemarchus agree that justice can only be a benefit, never harm. (335d-e)

    Does it not seem that the second definition is the traditional one and that the third one is a radical upsetting of the traditional understanding? If one came to the latter understanding through an argument, what would deciding to live according to it require?

  2. Socrates lets Polemarchus know that there is no such thing as absolute justice. What is justice to me might be (or seem to be) injustice to you. My favorite Bible parable about this is in Matthew chapter 20 about the laborers in the vineyard. And we face the question of justice as we argue about government entitlements which take from the rich and give to the poor (Robin Hood’s way).

    I struggle with Socrates’ statements about “if the just man is good at keeping money, he is good at stealing it.” and “the just man has turned out to be a thief”. If a policeman knows all about crime he would be a great criminal. But if he became a criminal he would no longer be a just man? If a just man became a thief he would no longer be a just man.

    Another point: does a just man repay a debt? Only if the one owed is in his right senses! Who determines whether one is “in his right senses”?

    • Billy, I don’t know where Socrates says there is no such thing as absolute justice. Do you have a specific text in mind?

      I think the issue with the just man being a good thief is the question of whether justice is a *power.* If it is a power, like an ability to shoot a gun or not, then anyone who has this power can/will choose where and when to use it. If justice is a power, which like a gun can be used for good or bad purposes, then to “teach justice” is also to “arm” the bad character. But I think the point is that justice is NOT like that. That the just man is NOT a thief — that would be absurd. Justice is not a type of power that I can use for good or ill, depending on my pleasure. The just person, being just, will do good. If I “teach” my child “justice” and my child becomes a thief, then he didn’t really “learn” justice. Justice is not beholden to the just person; the just person is beholden to justice. Whatever adequate conception of justice is reached it will have to account for that.

      Your last point about who determines: the one who (justly) determines is the one who has knowledge of the difference between good/bad sense. Lacking that knowledge, justice is difficult to practice in a situation when such discrimination becomes necessary. The just person must defer to the one who possesses the relevant knowledge. Who determines if a bucket of paint is one color rather than another — it is certainly not the blind man. Perhaps one who has a particular virtue is “sighted” in a way that the one who lacks it is not.

      • Socrates does not say it. I am inferring it from all of the times Socrates refutes Polemarchus. Each time Polemarchus says something would be “justice” Socrates shows that Polem. is wrong. At some point poor Polemarchus becomes so exasperated that he says “I do not know what I did say” (somewhere just after 334a). I am saying that there is no such thing as absolute justice and that Socrates’ refutations back me up.

        Rambling thoughts:
        Maybe I am confusing pragmatic real world justice with ideal justice. I am thinking of the kind of justice where the one with power decides what justice is. “The one with the gold makes the rules”.

        I do not think of justice as a power. Maybe I think of it as justice is the fair use of power to bring about righteousness.

        If I don’t want to pay back a debt I simply say the one I owe is “not in his right mind”.

        Thanks for doing this slow read. It is fun!

    • Billy,
      Let’s ask ourselves whether Socrates is really after a definition in asking the question or rather something else. If “absolute justice” implies that there is a perfect verbal formulation, then maybe you are right, but I don’t see that it necessarily follows. I think that Socrates is not interested in a definition as much as he is interested in the *attempt* at a definition. In order to generate a definition out of our understanding of justice, we have to have some form of access to that understanding, however hazy and unclear. Justice is already *understood* before it is *known*. We couldn’t even ask the question about justice if we didn’t have an understanding, and our definition is an attempt to express that understanding. To notice the defect in definition must also derived from that understanding. So what we are trying to do is make that understanding clear to ourselves, whether or not that clarity is achievable in speech. Definitions are the means, not the end of the inquiry. This is at the root of what I am calling “defective reading.”

      Re “real world justice”: wait until you hear Thrasymachus!

      Re justice and power: Correct — justice is not a power. If it were it would lead to the absurdity of the just thief.

      Re not paying back: If you use the “not in his right mind” excuse for not paying back a debt to someone who is in his right mind, then you are being unjust. Do you not agree that this is the case?

      • Re not paying back: yes, I agree.

        can’t wait for Thrasymachus!

        I’ll have to try to digest your “definition” thought.

      • I wrote a post on Jan. 17th called “On Defective Reading” that relates somewhat to my definition comment, if that helps.

      • Yes!! yes!! yes!! I jump with joy….. I wish I had these words In a previous discussion. Soc. by the way is an interesting character. I like how approaches the point of view from his companions and breaks down their definitions first then moves on. im anxious to see where he will go.

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