Plato's Republic Book 1

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  • Created on: 19-01-14 11:23

Characters and Setting of Plato's Republic


  • Cephalus - conservative, voice of traddition
  • Polemarchus (his son) - very similar to his father in approach
  • Thrasymachus - sophist, antagonist. Sets up the need for Socrates to work out the nature of Justice and to overcome his prototype Marxist view that justice is to the intersts of the strong.
  • Socrates - a fictionalised version of Plato's teacher.
  • Glaucon and Adeimantus - brothers and "yes man" type protagonists to be persuaded by Socrates.

The dramatic date of the dialogue is supposed to be 420 B.C, when Socrates would be about fifty. This means that it is written retrospectively and the audience knows all about the Peloponnesian Wars and the 30 Tyrants.

Moral Conservatives (e.g. Cephalus) in 5th Century Athens harked back to the golden age of Homer. 480-380 BC Sophists came to the fore and have a tendency towards moral relativism as they travelled and saw the differences betwen Athens and other Hellenic States. Believed success was linked to rhetoric.

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A War Like No Other - Victor Davis Hanson

'Contemporary America is often now seen through the lens of ancient Athens, botha as a centre of culture and as an unpredictable imperial power that can arbitrarily impose democracy on friends and enemies alike.'

'So great were the dividends of envy, fear, and legitimate grievances against the ancient world's first democracy that the victorious Peloponnesians who oversaw the destruction of the Long Walls of Athens ...did so the music and applause.' In short Athens was arrgoant, exapansionist, the seat of an empire, morraly imperialistic and their hubris resulted in their defeat in the Peloponnesian war and resulted in the tyrannical rule of Sparta and the 30 Tyrants etc.

Thomas Paine: 'What Athens was in miniature, America will be in magnitude'

Plato was born into a relatively aristocratic faminly in around 430 BC and so lived through a period of war and political strife. This, combined with his deep-seated anger at the treatment of Socrates is arguably a motivating factor behind his search for the true meaning of justice in The Republic and a conception of a state where such travesties would not occur.

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Book 1 327a-336a (Not in AQA SPEC)

Cephalus suggests that old age brings desire for intellectual and rational pleasures and blunts physical pleasures (later Guardians are described like this 485d/e) and Sophocles is quoted as being glad to have escaped the 'fierce and frenzied master' of lust. Wisdom comes with how you approach a matter - do you grumble or do you look for the positives? A pre-cursor to self-mastery.

Cephalus suggests that justice is 'not-being indebted' (stems from discussion of how wealth cushoins you but is not sufficent to be at peace with himself) however they quickly agree that 'doing right' justice (dikaiosune) isn't exemplified by returning a borrowed weapon to a mad friend.

Socrates asks the question with which the whole of the book is preoccupied - what is justice?

Cephalus bequeaths the argument to his son Polemarchus who follows Simonides in thinking that justice is actually giving people their due - which after much debating proposes as: 'it is just to do good to one's friend if he is good, and to harm one's enemy if he is evil' but Socrates disproves this by asserting that 'It is never right to harm anyone at any time'

Another pre-cursor to a later part of the spec is the relationship between whether a friend is defined as someone who both seems and is an honest man. The distinction between seeming and being re-appears in Glaucon's description of a tortured man (361b-362a)

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Problems of Translation

Throughout 'The Republic' Socrates continually draws analogies from various human occupations to the just man. To describe all such occupations the Greeks had a single word - 'Techne' for which there is no equivalent in English that will bring out the variety of its meaning. It may be said to cover any skilled activity with its rules of operation, the knowledge of which is accquired by training. Whether or how far the analogy from skilled activity of this kind, from craft or profession or science, to morals and politics is a sound one, is one of the fundamental questions which the reader must constantly ask himself.

The Greek word translated as 'doing right' is dikaiosune which is commonly translated as justice. However Cross and Woozley say that it is 'a thoroughly unsuitable word  to use as a translation of the Greek word.' Dikaiosune has a less legal and more moral meaning than 'justice'; it is in fact the most general Greek word for morality, both as a personal quality and as issuing in right action.

Greek arete, is tradditionally translated as 'virtue'. But the Greek word has a wider connotation than the rather moralistic sense in which 'virtue' is used today in English. It and the corresponding epithet agathos convey a sense of excellence and effectiveness irrespective of the sphere in which it is exercised.

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Book 1 336b - 339e

Thrasymachus grows frustrated with Socrates continual questioning and Socrates in a classic statement displaying Socratic ignorance responds by saying 'I neither know nor profess to know anything' (337e)

Thrasymachus insits on Socrates himself defining justice and qualifies this by refusing to allow Socrates to use the terms 'duty, or expediency, or advantage, or profit, or interest.' (336d) Thrasymachus insits on being paid ('you must pay the fee for learning.' 337d) to define justice. Thrasymachus defines justice using exactly the terms he forbade Socrates from using: 'justice or right is simply what is in the interest of the stronger party' (338c) - something which Socrates is quick to point out (339a).

Socrates asks whether rulers may make mistakes and it is agreed that they can. Thus Socrates concludes that rulers may promulate lawss that turn out not to be in their own interest. However it is always 'right' for subjects to obey rulers' laws and that must include these 'faulty' laws - therefore the subjects must obey laws that are not in the interest of the stronger party. (338e-339e) 'Then according to your argument it is right not only to do what is in the interest of the stronger party but also the opposite.' (339d)

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Book 1 340a-347b

Celeitophon suggests that perhaps Thrasymachus only meant by 'the interest of the stronger party', that which they thought to be in their interest. (340b) However Thrasymachus rejects this  and espouses the incredibly radical doctrine that 'no skilled craftsman ever makes a mistake' (340e) Thus a ruler qua ruler cannot make a mistake or else he is not a ruler. It is perhaps suprising, therefore, that he did previously allow that rulers aren't infallible.

From 341c-342e Socrates disproves this using the following argument:

  • A ship's captain is in command, isn't he?
  • A doctor too is in charge of his own work isn't he? He rules and controls his subject matter, as all forms of professional skill will do and so he may be considered the stronger party.
  • Isn't the interest of medecing to loof after the 'interests of the body' and more specificaly the body of the patient - the weaker party.
  • thus Socrates has elegantly shown that the stronger party (the holder of professional and scientific expertise) studies and enforces the interest of the weaker party.
  • A sea captain is the same: he is in control (as we have agreed) but his orders are in the interest of the crew.
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Evaluation of the Doctor-Patient Analogy

  • This could be criticsed as an essentially altruistic argument as the professional may concede his subject matter to be his patients and their health, but he still carrries out his profession in his own interest - e.g. for a salary. The American health-care system is a particularly good illustration of this.
    • A doctor that is mercenary about his patients isn't a doctor qua a doctor e.g. he does not comply with the Hippocratic Oath and he is not 'faultless and flawless and right'
  • Professions like medecine and shipping are in fact checked up on and supervised by bodies such as The General Medical Council and the Merchant Shipping Convention 1976. The need for which reflects that doctors and captains aren't 'faultless and flawless' and so by the stringent conditions laid out by Thrasymachus can't be doctors or ship's captains.
  • Thrasymachus argues that shepards and herdsmen don't fatten up their stock for the good of the animals but for their own profits. 'The rulers of states, if they are truly such, feel twards their subjects as one might towards sheep, and think nothing day and night but how they can make a profit out of them.' (343b)
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The Shepherd and the Sheep Analogy

To avoid a formal defeat in argument Thrasymachus interrupts it with a restatement of his main position. Rather confusingly he maintains that political power is merely the exploitation of one class by another, that ordinary morality is simply the behaviour imposed by exploiter on the exploited and that the pursuit of self-interest is both natural and right, the course which pays best. By imperceptably changing the argument Tharsymachus is arguing that it is not the unjust who rule over the simple and just, who sever the interset of the ruler because he is stronger.

  • 'the just man always comes off worse than the unjust' (343d) - link to the Prisoner's Dilemna and the unenlightened egoist.
  • 'when there are taxes to be paid the unjust man will pay less on the same income' - Amazon and global tax havens
  • 'his honesty will prevent him appropriating public funds' (343e) - MPs expenses scandal.
  • 'Tyranny is not a matter of minor theft and violence, but of wholesale plunder' (possibly Plato is thinking of the Treasury of Delos here) but we do not decry tyrants as evil theives but rather we call them 'happy and fortunate' (344a-b) Echoes of Marxism/Repressive Desublimination etc. The most robust construct is to take over all citizens.
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Socrates' Counter-Argument to the Shepherd Analogy

Socrates denies the messy reality that a shepherd could be both a good shepherd and a business man and instead argues that 'the shepherd's skill is devoted solely to the welfare of the flock' (345d) and as such they like rulers 'expect to be paid for them, which shows that they don't expect any benefit for themselves but only for their subjects.' (345e)

For Socrates, because justice and ruling is 'studying the interest of the weaker party and not the stronger' if a man does 'his job properly, he never does or orders what is best for himself but only what is best forhis subjects. That is why, if a man is to consent to exercise authority, you must pay him, either in cash or honours.' (347a)

Socrates then goes on to argue that because 'to be over-ambitious or mercenary is...something discreditable' (347b), 'good men will not consent ot govern for cash or honours' (347b) and therefore in order to persuade good men to rul they must be threatened with punnishment as 'in a city of good men there might well be as much competition to avoid power as there now is to get it' (347d)

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