lecture twenty-five plato, republic lecturer: wu shiyu

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  • Lecture Twenty-Five Plato, Republic Lecturer: Wu Shiyu

  • Outline I. This lecture continues the theme of government and justice, especially the moral values that are essential to a good government. The model of Socrates, who insisted that terms be defined, can guide us through the great books. What do we really mean about the nobility of dying for ones country? How can nobility be defined?

  • A. Socrates, through Plato, would say that nobility is related to justice and to defining the concept of justice. Justice is one of a number of essential qualities, or virtues, that every individual should have. Socrates explored these qualities in his discussion of the immortal soul in the Phaedo. B. These qualities are found in a variety of cultures and are reflected in such diverse literature as the Bhagavad Gita and in Confucius.

  • C. These qualities include wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation. 1. Courage is, of course, essential for those who go to war. 2. An individual must have the wisdom to understand the difference between courage exercised in a just war and courage exercised in an unjust war. Without the wisdom to understand that a nation is fighting for justice, courage is nothing more than brutality.

  • 3. Moderation links the virtues. When any qualityeven courageis carried too far, it becomes unjust. 4. Courage, moderation, and wisdomworking togetherproduce true justice. That is the theme of Platos Republic.

  • II. Platos Republic, which is a magisterial discussion of what makes a good state, was probably composed during the 380s B.C. A. Plato was a pupil of Socrates and paid his teacher the greatest of compliments by putting all his own ideas into the mouth of Socrates, thereby indicating that none of his thinking would have existed without Socrates.

  • B. Although Plato is called a philosopher, he was an intellectual. Philosophers, such as Confucius and Socrates, live their wisdom; intellectuals talk about ideas and try, from time to time, to put them into action.

  • Plato, for example, went to Sicily and tried to help educate the young tyrant Dionysius. This attempt was a failure. Platos contribution, in addition to his writings, was to create in Athens a university where lectures were held and young people were trained. Through this university, the ideas of Socrates were institutionalized.

  • C. Alfred North Whitehead said, All philosophy is but a series of footnotes to Plato.

  • III. The greatest of Platos works is the Republic. A. Like The Divine Comedy, Platos Republic is a difficult book to read. B. Like The Divine Comedy, it summarizes the values of a civilization at its apex. That civilization is the world of the polis, the city-state of classical Greece.

  • IV. Platos Republic is concerned with how to create a constitution that ensures justice for all citizens. Plato puts this discussion into the form of dialogues.

  • A. When the Republic begins, Socrates is returning from a religious festival in honor of the goddess Artemis. He stops to visit his friend Cephalus, who wonders about the afterlife, whether he has an immortal soul, what will happen to his soul, and whether good and bad behavior will have consequences. The two then begin to discuss justice.

  • B. The discussion starts with the conventional definition of justice, that is, rewarding friends and punishing enemies. Socrates, in the dialogues of Plato, often begins with a statement that everyone can accept.

  • C. Socrates then asks how a just man can do unjust things, even to his enemies. Socrates shows that the original definition is wrong. No good man would do harm to another.

  • D. One of the participants in the dialogue is Thrasymachus, a Sophist. 1. The true Sophist in Athens educated their students to argue either side of an issue. 2. To argue either side of a case successfully, an individual must be believe that the position is true. Therefore, the Sophist does not believe in absolute values. 3. For the Sophist, unlike for Socrates, truth is whatever is expedient at the moment.

  • E. Thrasymachus argues that justice is power. Justice is what the powerful can get away with, and laws are what the powerful put in place to serve their own interests; thus, no such quality as justice can exist. 1. This idea was accepted in Athens. Athenian foreign policy during the war with Sparta rested on the belief that might makes right.

  • 2. For example, in 416 B.C., Athens had demanded that the neutral nation of Melos join the Athenian coalition. When Melos refused, Athens launched a preemptive attack, captured it, put its men to death, and sold its women and children into slavery. Athenians justified the destruction of Melos by claiming that Athens had power and that Melos could choose to join Athens and live or resist and die. When Melos appealed to the Athenian idea of justice, the Athenians said that justice did not exist.

  • F. Socrates attempts to help Thrasymachus understand that if justice is whatever the strong can do, unjust acts will make weaker people hate them. Eventually, the weaker groups will band together and overthrow those in power. Therefore, it is expedient for those in positions of power to act justly.

  • G. Socrates says that to define justice, the idea should be examined in a larger unit, such as the state, or polis. 1. Machiavelli was the first to use the term state (il stato) in its modern sense as a political unit separate from the people. 2. As a true democracy, the Athenian government cannot be separated from the idea of the people.

  • H. Socrates said that the city is a collection of individuals, each of whom has certain qualities that reflect absolute values. In the transcendent world, absolute wisdom, courage, and moderation exist. These qualities, working together, will create true justice.

  • I. Socrates next asks how to bring these qualities together in the proper blend to make the polis just. 1. Each person has a characteristic virtue, such as courage, moderation, or wisdom. 2. A community in which every individual is able to exercise his or her characteristic virtue intelligently in the service of the polis will be a just polis that exists for the good of all. 3. The state exists to serve the people, but the people must understand how the right kind of service is rendered.

  • J. Education is the means to bring about morality and to achieve the ideal government. Children must be examined at the earliest possible age to determine the qualities that they possess. They can then be educated. True education brings forth and cultivates the appropriate virtue of each citizen, educating each to suitable work in life.

  • The strongest quality that most people possess is moderation. Those who possess moderation will form the basis of a community. They should be taught reading and writing, and they must understand that they should do whatever they do best and not aspire to other roles. The people who are warriors at heart should be soldiers. They must be taught poetry to awaken the soul and gymnastics to train their bodies.

  • 3. A few people have the ability to lead. These guardians should have a long and elaborate education. Mathematics is an essential subject for these leaders, because they must keep their eyes fixed on absolute truth and justice. Numbers and geometry are ways to perfection.

  • K. Thus, the ideal republic rests on absolute values: absolute truth and absolute right and wrong. Absolute wisdom and absolute ignorance exist, as do absolute justice and injustice, absolute courage and cowardice, absolute moderation and intemperance.

  • L. Plato concludes his magnificent work on justice with the myth of Er, who could be Everyman. 1. Er was killed in battle but was found alive 10 days later. 2. He explained that his soul had left his body and gone to heaven, where he saw the afterlife and the souls of those who had done evil cast into the deepest pit, from which they would never be free. He saw others who could be redeemed. After paying their penalties, these souls came before the Fates, received a new life, drank from the River of Forgetfulness, and returned to this world.

  • 3. These souls made a choice through their free will about how to live their lives. 4. Socrates ends his treatment of a just city with the belief in the immortality of the soul as the foundation of everything.