HOW much of Socrates' teaching is contained in Plato's expositions of it is difficult to say, since very definite developments evidently took place in Plato's views. The series of dialogues in which Socrates takes the leading part are the foundation of all idealistic philosophy, and as literary masterpieces remain unmatched. Of all Plato's works The Republic is undoubtedly the one which has had the widest influence. In it Socrates is engaged in a disputation of which the object is to discover the meaning of justice, and this leads to the description of the building up of that ideal commonwealth from which the dialogue derives its title.
[HOW THE ARGUMENT AROSE - FROM THE REPUBLIC]
I HAD gone with Glaucon to attend the celebration of the festival of Bendis--the Thracian Artemis--a picturesque affair, and we were just leaving when Polemarchus insisted on carrying us off by main force to the house of his father, Cephalus. There we found a small company assembled. The old gentleman received us with hearty geniality; he is ageing, but would not see any hardship in that, if you take age good-humouredly. Of course, he owned that being wealthy makes a difference, but not all the difference. The best of wealth is that you need not do things which anger the gods and entail punishment in the hereafter; there is no occasion for you to lie, or be in debt to gods or men. And this consciousness of your own justice is a great consolation.
"But," said I, "what is justice? Is it always to speak the truth, and always to let a man have his property? There are circumstances----"
"I must go," said he. "Polemarchus shall do the arguing."
This set us discussing the nature of justice. Glaucon took up the cudgels, after a preliminary skirmish with Thrasymachus.
Assuming justice to be desirable--is it so for itself and by itself, or only for its results; or both? The world at large puts it in the second category as an inconvenient necessity. To suffer injustice is an evil, and to protect themselves from that the weak combine to prevent injustice from being done. But if anyone had the ring of Gyges which made him invisible, so that he could go his own way without let or hindrance, he would get all the pleasures he could out of life without troubling about the justice of it.
Again, imagine, on the one hand, your really consummate rogue who gets credit for all the virtues and is surrounded by all the material factors of happiness; and, on the other hand, a man of utter rectitude, on whom circumstances combine to fix the stigma of iniquity. He will be rejected, scourged, crucified; while the other is enjoying wealth, honour, everything and can afford to make his peace with the gods into the bargain.
Then Adeimantus took the field in support of his brother.
"The poets,' he said, "hold forth about the rewards of virtue here and hereafter. But we see the unrighteous prospering mightily; and the religious mendicants come to rich folks and offer to sell them indulgences on easy terms. A keen-witted lad is bound to argue that it is only the appearance of justice that is needed for prosperity; while the gods can be reconciled cheaply. This dwelling on the temporal rewards of justice is fatal. What we expect of you is to show us the inherent value of justice--justice itself, not the appearance of it."
"Well argued," said I, "especially as you reject your own conclusion. I can but try, though the task be hard. But my weak sight may enable me to read large characters better than small. The general may throw light upon the particular. Justice is the virtue of the state as well as of the individual; finding it in the state, the greater, may help us to find it in the individual, the less."
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