POL B70: Classic Texts of Political Theory I: Professor Lee
Lecture 2: Plato
Readings for this lecture: Plato, The Republic
Book I (complete)
Book II (357a – 376c)
Book III (412b – 417b)
Book IV (complete)
The Republic – An agenda-setting work for classical political theory. The original Greek
title of the work was Politeia, meaning simply a ‘well-ordered’ or ‘well-governed city.’
The Roman philosopher and senator, Cicero, translated Plato’s title into Latin as De Re
Publica (meaning, ‘On the Public Thing’)– hence, the modern English name. Some
ambiguities in later readings of the words, politeia and respublica – often has positive
connotations meaning ‘constitutional government’ to contrast against regimes that are
lawless. Plato’s title, thus, gives us an indication of what we are to find within this work
– a vision of a well-governed lawful city and, more importantly, a vision of the soul of
the person who lives in such a city.
A wide-ranging work – chiefly about politics, but it’s not limited to political theory. Plato
touches upon various areas of study such as epistemology (the philosophical study of
knowledge and belief), ontology (the area of philosophy dealing with being and non-
being), literary theory, education, poetry, music. All of this resolves around the main
task of the Republic: To design an ideal city which embodies the virtue of justice.
But implicitly, also a highly critical and radical work – Plato did not describe any state in
existence (although some important similarities with Sparta, the ‘Lacedaemonian
Constitution’), but by describing his ideal state as the best state, his work implied that
existing forms of government in classical Greece were somehow defective, degenerate,
and unjust – especially the democracy of his native Athens.
Book I of the Republic is notable for several reasons.
Dialogue form: Book I is an excellent example of what is called the
elenchus, or the ‘elenctic method’ – commonly called ‘Socratic method’ after
Plato’s teacher, Socrates. It is a form of inquiry that proceeds by asking a
question and then exploring the different possible ways of answering the question.
Found in earlier Platonic dialogues – e.g., Meno: ‘Can virtue be taught?’
Subject matter: The subject of discussion doesn’t seem to be obviously
about politics, but about ethics, about how we ought to conduct our lives, what
counts as justice.
Preview of the argument
1 What is justice [Gr. dikaiosune]?
Probably the most intriguing and mysterious figure in the early pages of Book I is
Cephalus, who disappears from the Republic only after a few pages. But consider what
I.329c-d: Old age is like a liberating release from ‘a savage and tyrannical
master.’ It brings ‘freedom’ from bodily appetites and desires.
I.330b: We know that Cephalus is wealthy, part of the money-making
class. (Note what Plato has to say later about money-making and
I.330c: He questions why material wealth is thought to be valuable
I.330d-e: His fear of death and possibly of an afterlife compels him to
evaluate his own life, ‘whether he has been unjust to anyone.’
Not only does he introduce the major topic for discussion – the idea of justice – but he
foreshadows what is to come later in the text – the idea of tyranny, the class structure of a
political society, money-making as a way of life, moral conduct, whether we should
evaluate something in terms of its usefulness or on some other criterion.
Socrates the gadfly: It is Cephalus who, by asking whether he has lived a just life, sets up
the major question for discussion, by prompting Socrates to ask what justice is.
Significance of the Socrates’ presence, his execution by the Athenian authorities
(recounted in Plato’s Apology).
But we don’t get far, because all that Socrates really does (I.331c-336a) is criticize some
possible definitions. He doesn’t tell us what justice is; he merely tells us what justice is
not – characteristic of the elenctic method.
Some possible definitions of justice:
I.331c:‘Speaking the truth and paying whatever debts one has incurred’
I.331e:Simonides’ definition: ‘it is just to give to each what is owed to him.’
I.332d:Justice as a ‘craft’ [Gr. techne] of treating friends well and treating
The challenge of Thrasymachus
But it is Thrasymachus, beginning at 336a, who interrupts this whole line of reasoning
and redirects the argument of the Republic. Why does he do this?
Plato uses Thrasymachus (who accuses Socrates of trickery and deceit) to illustrate one
of the shortcomings of Socratic method in approaching the analysis of justice because it
relies uncritically on our own intuitive beliefs, beliefs which may have been
‘programmed’ into us by those who are more powerful than us. Plato’s point is that these
intuitive beliefs about matters of justice can be misleading and inauthentic, manufactured
by those more powerful than us, so we must be willing to contest the foundations of our
moral intuitions and our capacity for moral reasoning – about what we think we believe is
right/wrong, just/unjust. Socratic method doesn’t really get us any closer to the truth.
2 This is reflected in Thrasymachus’ definition of justice:
I.338c: ‘I say justice is nothing other than the advantage of the stronger
I.338e-339a: ‘This, then, is what I say justice is, the same in all cities, the
advantage of the established rule. Since the established rule is
surely stronger, anyone who reasons correctly will conclude that
the just is the same everywhere, namely, the advantage of the
Notice what is going on in Thrasymachus’ definition.
1. For Thrasymachus, there is no such thing as an ‘unjust’ law or ‘unlawful’ law;
all laws enacted by those in positions of power are, by definition, necessarily
just. (cp. St. Augustine – ‘an unjust law is no law at all.’)
2. What we call ‘justice’ is uniformly the same everywhere, but not because he
thinks everybody shares the same moral ideas about what is just or unjust.
Rather, he simply thinks that the understanding of what is just or unjust, or
lawful and unlawful, is always shaped by those who are in power. There is,
thus, no independent standard to evaluate or measure justice.
3. He makes the critical assumption that rulers always favor their own interest,
rather than the interest of the ruled.
Plato first challenges Thrasymachus’ claim that rulers favor their own interest. The very
idea of ruling, according to Plato, involves the opposite relation: Rulers must favor the
advantage of those who are ruled, not those of the rulers. Why?
Craft-analogy: Plato suggests that ‘ruling’ is a kind of craft (techne). Craftsmen are not
motivated by self-interest; they generally seek the advantage of their crafts and not of
themselves (e.g., doctors and medicine). So if ruling is also a kind of craft, then the ruler
must not be seeking his own advantage (as Thrasymachus claims) but the good of those
they rule over – just as a ship captain seeks not his own good but the good of his ship and
its sailors. Similarly,
I.342e: ‘No one in any position of rule, insofar as he is a ruler, seeks or
orders what is advantageous to himself, but what is advantageous to his subjects;
the ones of whom he is himself the craftsmen.’
Thrasymachus must be wrong, then, to say that justice is the advantage of the ruler,
because the purpose of ruling is to favor and care for the subject. But Thrasymachus is
still unconvinced about the merits of justice and tries to renew his objection with two
3 Is injustice more profitable than justice? (I.343b ff.)
Thrasymachus: Injustice is more useful and profitable than justice because it leads to
more rewards. ‘A just man always gets less than an unjust one’ because the more
powerful unjust man will always ‘outdo’ [‘outdoing’ Gr. pleonexia] the less powerful just
man – so why not lead a life of injustice? Justice is simply ‘high-minded simplicity.’ In
fact, the only reason people aren’t completely unjust to themselves and others is that they
are afraid of suffering injustice themselves.
Socrates: I.350a – in general, a clever person will not try to outdo a non-clever
person, whereas a non-clever person tries to outdo everybody. So, if an unjust person is
like the latter (as Th. claims), then a just person must be like the former. Justice must be
a kind of virtue.
Is justice a virtue? (I.349a)
The ‘Functions’ Argument: Certain virtues are necessary for a thing to perform its
designated function. E.g., the virtue of sight is necessary for the eyes to perform the
function of seeing, or the virtue of sharpness is necessary for a knife to perform the
function of pruning.
Similarly, certain virtues are necessary for a soul to perform its function – functions like
ruling, deliberating (I.353d). If deprived of these virtues, a soul cannot perform its
functions well. Since justice is one of those virtues of the soul, justice is necessary for
the soul to live well and be happy. Socrates concludes then that a just person is a happy
Why Book I is ultimately a failure
I.354c:‘The result of the discussion is that I know nothing, for what I don’t know what
justice is, I’ll hardly know whether it is a kind of virtue or not, or whether a
person who has it is happy or unhappy.’ – sets the discussion to follow in the rest
of the Republic.
Plato’s voice now begins to come through (via Socrates) – by trying to develop a
concrete theory of justice, but more importantly, how justice ought to be the guiding ideal
in the political life of the polis, or city-state. The style of argument shifts away from
elenchus to dialectic.
Justice as a kind of good
Justice is a good, but what kind of good? Three possibilities (II.357-358):
(a) Intrinsic good -- something that is valued in itself ‘for its own sake,’
irrespective of the outcome. Even if there are bad consequences attached to an
intrinsic good, the existence of the good itself is enough to justify valuing it.
(b) Instrumental good – something that is valued not for itself, but for the positive
consequences that result from it – e.g., physical training because it produces good
4 (c) Combination of (a) and (b) – e.g., ‘seeing and being healthy’
Plato’s claim is that justice is a type of good in category (c)
We should value justice because it is intrinsically valuable;
But also because justice is attached to certain desirable r