Republic By Plato Summary and Analysis Book I: Section II

Summary

Upon Cephalus' excusing himself from the conversation, Socrates funnily remarks that, since Polemarchus stands to inherit Cephalus' money, it follows logically that he has inherited the debate: What constitutes justice and how may it be defined?

Polemarchus essentially recapitulates his father's remarks in the previous friendly conversation: Justice, he says, is exemplified in "giving everyone what is due and proper to him." But Socrates is adamant in his refusal of the validity of such a definition, and he returns to his analogy of the friend and the sword. Surely, he says, this cannot be said to constitute justice.

Polemarchus agrees and then argues that justice may be defined as giving everyone what is "appropriate" to him and that it would be unjust to return a sword to a friend who is in a crazed condition. Then Polemarchus argues that it is appropriate to do good for one's friends and to do harm to one's enemies, and thus is justice attained.

But Socrates refuses this definition, too: By a series of analogies, he tries to illuminate the argument by showing that many classes of men engaged in various occupations might be said to be better, in given conditions, at doing good for friends and at harming enemies; in other words, there may be said to be infinite ways of accomplishing a "good" or a "bad," but all of these instances argued cannot be said to exemplify the accomplishment of justice. It is not the just man who is in any given instance best able to accomplish a given benefit or a harm. Justice, in fact, appears in these instances to be of no value.

And, Socrates continues, it is a given that the possibility exists that our friends may be in fact bad, or unjust, men; and it can be that our enemies may be good men, no matter the reason that we have incurred their enmity. Thus it is that, according to Polemarchus' definition of justice, in our ignorance we may do good to bad men and harm to good men, and surely this is not the achievement of justice.

And so Polemarchus agrees to another re-definition: Justice may be defined as doing good for friends who are in fact good men and in punishing those who are in fact bad men.

But again, Socrates demurs: He argues that returning evil for evil does not constitute justice. Analogically, he argues that if we harm a horse, we make that horse a worse horse; if we harm a dog, we simply achieve a worse dog. If we agree that a good man is a just man, then a worse (unjust) man cannot be said to have been made better if we do evil to him; such a course would only serve to make him more unjust. Thus Socrates argues that we cannot achieve justice by doing evil to men who are already evil, and unjust. And Polemarchus concurs with this conclusion.

Analysis

As the argument grows more complex, so do the methods of argument in the dialogue grow more intricate. In arguing things apparently far removed from the point of the argument (justice, the just man), Socrates is attempting to elucidate the point of the argument by arguing similar instances; that is, he is arguing analogies. Socrates descries a single like aspect in the series of analogies he argues: a horse, a dog, a horseman, a musician — all may be said individually to possess a distinct essence or virtue or quality. Thus if we do injury to a given thing's essence, we may be said to do injury to the virtue of a given thing or being. We have agreed that the virtue of a human being is justice, or his sense of justice. It follows, then, that if we do evil to another human being, we are perpetuating an injustice; we cannot achieve justice by committing unjust acts.

As we have said, Socrates is citing analogies in his argument in order to clarify the point of the debate; analogies are permitted in argument if they do in fact clarify the point of the debate. Analogies cannot be used as proof; and we must always determine the worth of a given analogy by demonstrating its similarities to the point of a given argument. If the analogy is shown to be similar in significant aspects to the point of the argument, it is said to be a valid analogy. If the analogy is determined to be entirely dissimilar, it is a false analogy and may be dismissed from the argument.

As Socrates argues his series of analogies, he is trying to establish argumentative premises; he is citing particular instances in order to establish a general valid premise (a universal truth, sometimes called a categorical assertion). If he (or any thinker) can establish a categorical assertion, then he may proceed to deduce truths about particular instances of a given category. The premise that Socrates seeks to establish is a workable definition of justice, the just man.

Thus far in the dialogue, we have been unable to arrive at a conclusion of what justice is, but we have determined several instances of what it is not. This is useful: Argumentatively we may determine what a given thing is by determining, through a process of elimination, what it is not.

Glossary

draughts a board game like checkers.

Homer semilegendary Greek epic poet of the eighth century B.C.: the Iliad and the Odyssey are both attributed to him.

Odysseus the hero of the Odyssey, a king of Ithaca and one of the Greek leaders in the Trojan War: Latin name Ulysses.

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