On Plato’s Republic, 3

Index to this series

We are reading now Book II of Plato’s Republic, Stephanus pages 357–83, covering:

  1. The conventional arguments in favor of injustice and justice, reviewed by Plato’s brothers Glaucon and Adeimantus respectively.
  2. The beginning of the construction of the city in speech, wherein the advent of justice is to be discerned; the guardians of the city are to be like dogs and to be given a traditional education, although with none of the traditional stories, since they talk about things like parricide and bad luck.

A book next to a dog lying on the beach

Dog with copy of Alain Badiou, Plato’s Republic:
A Dialogue in Sixteen Chapters, with a Prologue and an Epilogue, 2012
Profesörler Sitesi, Altınova, Balıkesir, Turkey, September 2, 2021

I am exercised by how Adeimantus in the first part of the book, and Socrates in the second—each of them criticizes certain teachings in the Iliad, without considering how those teachings are given by one character to another, in contexts that we ought to use in judging them.

In my commentary, I shall quote or mention the work of

  • Alain Badiou (in his “hyper-translation” of the Republic),
  • Brianna Rennix and Nathan J. Robinson (on the Trolley Problem, which I liken to conceiving of a thoroughly unjust person who appears thoroughly just),
  • Geoffrey Chaucer (whose “Monk’s Tale” among the Canterbury Tales has examples of good but unfortunate persons),
  • Homer (whose Iliad I can hardly believe that nobody in the dialogue treats more knowledgeably),
  • Agnes Callard (who argues that for Plato, by nature, we are all neither equal nor unequal, despite Socrates’s apparent assertion of the latter in this reading),
  • Henry David Thoreau (who disagrees with the kind of division of labor that Socrates’s interlocutors allow him to propose),
  • Julian Jaynes (on spiritness or θυμός),
  • Bruno Bettelheim (on the “uses of enchantment,” perhaps even of the violent stories of the Gods in Hesiod that Socrates wants to ban).

My sections are as follows.

Before proceeding, let us recall that the division of the dialogue into ten books is not Plato’s. Unlike Book I, Book II does not end at a clear break in the story. For his 2012 “hyper-translation” into French, which I have in Susan Spitzer’s English translation, Alain Badiou divides as follows the first two books and part of the third:

  • Prologue: The Conversation in the Villa on the Harbor (327a–36b)
  1. Reducing the Sophist to Silence (336b–57a)
  2. The Young People’s Pressing Questions (357a–68d)
  3. The Origins of Society and the State (368d–76c)
  4. The Disciplines of the Mind: Literature and Music (376c–403c)

I am finding Badiou’s translation useful, the way a modern-dress staging of Shakespeare may be useful. Reading Badiou, I can wonder if Plato really had Adeimantus say something; then I go back to Bloom and see that he did. True, Badiou has feminized Adeimantus into Glaucon’s sister Amantha, and he has given her some exchanges with her brother that are not in Plato. You are free to discount Badiou’s practice, though you may then imagine how you would stage the dialogue differently.

At 362d, when Amantha moves to take the floor from Glaucon, Spitzer has Badiou have Socrates say,

If Glaucon’s speech, despite its overwhelming length, omitted some crucial point, go for it, girl! Pull him out of the quagmire!

I don’t think anybody would say this. A speaker would rarely stick an adverbial phrase between subject and verb. However, the speaker could be trying to imitate ponderous written prose. He or she might do this in parody, and I also think the command, “Go for it, girl,” could be used parodically in the 1990s. At least Badiou and Spitzer are raising questions about what is really going on in the Republic.

Book I ends with Socrates’s lament for his gluttony.

  1. First he set out to figure out what justice was.
  2. Then he asked whether justice was vice and ignorance or wisdom and virtue.
  3. Finally he considered whether injustice was more profitable than justice.

With the acquiescence of Thrasymachus, he answered the last question in the negative. Now he doubts this conclusion, since he never answered the first question.

Nonetheless, he seems to have persuaded Thrasymachus, along with everybody else, that it is always better to be just than unjust.

Glaucon on the praise of injustice (357a–62c)

At the beginning of Book II, Glaucon points out that seeming is not being. He accepts the conclusion of Book I, but not the argument. He is thus the opposite of Thrasymachus, whose blushing has shown that he cannot refute Socrates’s argument, though he resists the conclusion.

Glaucon analyzes good things into three classes:

  1. Enjoyable things, desirable for themselves.
  2. Things desirable for themselves and their consequences, e.g. understanding (or just thinking, φρονεῖν), seeing, and being healthy.
  3. Things desirable only for their consequences, e.g. exercise and medical treatment and making money.

That is the order of Glaucon, though I would present the middle class last. Socrates puts justice in the middle class. Like most people, Thrasymachus puts it in the last class, and Glaucon will try to make the case for doing this. In particular, Glaucon will show

  1. What justice is, and how it arises.
  2. That people practice it unwillingly.
  3. That they are right to be unwilling.

How justice arises

The suffering of injustice is worse than the doing of it is good. Therefore we enter into a compact (ξυνθέσθαι) neither to do nor to suffer injustice. Thus is justice created as a mean between doing wrong with impunity and suffering wrong in impotence.

More precisely, we join the compact, if we cannot by ourselves avoid suffering injustice; otherwise, we do not join.

In the conception of Thrasymachus as I understand it, the powerful man would enter into the compact, while feeling free to break it. Perhaps then he would seem to enter it, without really having done so. Glaucon is going to make a big deal out of the distinction between seeming and being; why not here?

Glaucon’s idea seems to be that, in the state of nature, only injustice exists; we have to create justice. In such a state of nature though, how can one even conceive of entering into a compact? The very idea of a compact involves trusting other people. Keeping one’s word would seem to be a fundamental instance of justice.

Some animals are naturally gregarious. Humans would seem to be examples. Why does Glaucon overlook this?

We are just unwillingly

The legendary ring of Gyges makes you invisible and thus capable of doing injustice with impunity. Who would not take advantage of the opportunity?

Gyges finds his ring on an otherwise naked corpse inside a bronze horse in a cavern that has opened up after a thunderstorm and earthquake. Thus the notion of underground treasures, as in the Tale of Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp, goes back to Plato (if not further).

By experiment, Gyges finds that turning the collet or bezel of the ring makes him invisible. Strictly speaking, he thus learns only that the turning did make him invisible, on the occasions when he tried it. Why should he expect the ring to continue to work this way? He thinks he has discerned the law of the ring. Thus he thinks that the world is governed by laws. Thus he has a sense of justice. Why then should he expect to be able to be unjust with impunity? Glaucon does not say.

People do expect to get away with injustice under certain conditions. Donald Trump is one of them. He thought being President meant not only that he could do whatever he wanted, but that anybody else could too, as long as he gave them a pardon.

If you think it through though, you cannot count on immunity or impunity for your injustice. This would be a contradiction. Either it’s not really injustice that you are doing, or you suffer for doing it.

Often it’s easy to ignore suffering by not thinking about it. One can give in to the temptation of injustice, becoming like the glutton that Socrates disparaged himself for being. But there can be no reason to expect to get away with it.

Injustice is preferable

To see whether injustice or justice is better, we are to think of their most extreme forms. This is like what Socrates will have us do, later in the reading, when we are to look for justice first in the large, in the city rather than the individual.

Meanwhile, we are to engage in a thought experiment, considering a scenario as unlikely as in the Trolley Problem, itself brilliantly skewered by Brianna Rennix and Nathan J. Robinson in “The Trolley Problem Will Tell You Nothing Useful About Morality: It turns us into horrible people, and discourages us from examining the structural factors that determine our choices …” (Current Affairs, November 3, 2017):

For the lucky few who have thus far managed to avoid exposure to the Trolley Problem, here it is: a runaway trolley is hurtling down the track. In the trolley’s path are five workers, who will inevitably be smushed to a gory paste if it continues along its present course. But you, you have the power to change things: you happen to be standing by a switch. If you give the switch a yank, the trolley will veer onto a different track. On this track, there is only one worker. Do you pull the switch and doom the unsuspecting proletarian, or do you refrain from acting and allow five others to die?

Most people announce that they would pull the switch, thus extinguishing one life instead of five. But usually someone in the class will dissent …

It’s very obvious what would happen if any of us ever encountered a “trolley problem” in real life. We would panic, do something rashly, and then watch in horror as one or more persons died a gruesome death before our eyes. We would probably end up with PTSD. Whatever we had ended up doing in the moment, we would probably feel guilty about for the rest of our lives …

Glaucon gives us a similarly gruesome scenario. Let the unjust man seem just; the just, unjust. The just man will suffer all kinds of tortures, up to crucifixion, finally understanding – as Glaucon believes – that seeming just would have been better than being.

Now Glaucon makes a specious rhetorical move. The just man has supposedly learned that he only wanted to seem just. The unjust man has all along been trying to be really unjust. Thus the unjust man is the better recipient of praise found in Aeschylus for being something, rather than seeming.

The ideal unjust man seems just and is therefore able to carry out Polemarchus’s notion of justice, which is doing good to friends and harm to enemies. So says Glaucon, ignoring Socrates’s refutation of Polemarchus from Book I. One might take this as evidence that Book I was originally a separate dialogue. In any case, by working with the account of Polemarchus whereby justice is doing good to friends and harm to enemies, Socrates reduced this definition to absurdity in four ways:

  1. Considered as an art distinct from others, justice is reduced to keeping things safe when not in use.
  2. If you know how to keep things safe, you must know also how to steal them; thus justice is a kind of theft.
  3. Since we may be mistaken in our choice of friends and enemies, justice has us being unjust to the just.
  4. Since to harm is to make unjust, justice cannot harm anybody.

Why does Glaucon use none of this to observe that his praise of injustice is undeserved? After all, he says he believes it is undeserved.

Adeimantus on the praise of justice (362c–7e)

Adeimantus adds that even when justice is praised, it is really the reputation of the just person that is praised; thus we are ultimately back to the argument of Thrasymachus.

The poets say the gods favor the just and punish the unjust; but they say nothing to distinguish the being just or unjust from the seeming.

Moderation and justice are generally acknowledged to be difficult. Fortune often does not favor the good. On this point, the Monk’s Tale among Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales would seem to be in agreement; see in particular the Monk’s accounts of Hercules, Zenobia, Alexander, and Caesar.

If we are unjust, supposedly the right prayers can absolve us – although how one can believe this from a thorough reading of the Iliad, I do not know. I take an example from Book VI (in Chapman’s translation in an 1887 edition from Routledge in London), where Athena denies the prayer of Hecuba’s sister:

Then lovely Theano took the veil, and with it she implies
The great Palladium, praying thus: “Goddess of most renown
In all the heaven of Goddesses, great Guardian of our town.
Reverend Minerva, break the lance of Diomed, cease his grace.
Give him to fall in shameful flight, headlong, and on his face.
Before our ports of Ilion, that instantly we may
Twelve unyoked oxen-of-a-year in this thy temple slay
To thy sole honour; take their bloods, and banish our offence;
Accept Troy’s zeal, her wives, and save our infants’ innocence.”

She prayed, but Pallas would not grant …

From Book IX, Adeimantus cites the appeal to Achilles by Phoenix, who says even the gods accept the sacrifices of the sinner, and therefore Achilles should accept Agamemnon’s gifts, proffered in order to draw Achilles back into the battle. Both Shorey and Bloom note that Adeimantus’s quotation is not exactly as we have it in the established text of Homer. However, neither translator points out what would seem to be more important, that Achilles does not accept Phoenix’s argument.

Here is Caroline Alexander’s 2015 translation of lines 496–501 of that book.

Come, Achilles, master your great spirit; you must not keep
your heart without pity. And even the gods themselves can be turned,
although their majesty and honor and strength are even greater;
but with burnt sacrifices and prayers of propitiation
and libation and the savor of burnt offerings men turn them around
by praying, whenever some man has transgressed and strayed.

Adeimantus quotes the latter part of line 497, and then lines 499–501; line 496 will be of use to us later for the command, “master your great spirit,” δάμασον θυμὸν μέγαν.

Phoenix goes on to tell the story of Meleager, who, having been cursed by his mother for killing her brother, too long refused to join the defense of Calydon, even when offered gifts and his mother’s apology. Ajax then points out that Achilles is being offered seven girls for the one that Agamemnon took from him. In lines 644–8, Achilles explains his refusal of the offer:

Ajax, son of Telamon descended from Zeus, leader of the people,
you seem in a way to speak everything after my mind,
but my heart swells with rage when I recall those things –
how in the presence of the Argives he degraded me,
the son of Atreus, as if I were some worthless vagabond.

It will be useful to note that, in lines 645–6, “mind” and “heart” are respectively θυμός and κραδίη:

πάντά τί μοι κατὰ θυμὸν ἐείσαο μυθήσασθαι·
ἀλλά μοι οἰδάνεται κραδίη χόλῳ ὁππότε κείνων.

Alexander may misinterpret line 648. Where she has “as if I were some worthless vagabond” (ὡς εἴ τιν᾽ ἀτίμητον μετανάστην), Murray in the old Loeb edition has “as though I were alien that had no rights.” Having joined the compact of Greeks at Troy, Achilles has rights, which include a share of the spoils of any Greek raid. Agamemnon has taken Achilles’s rightful share, and paying it back with interest does not atone for the crime. Chapman spells out the problem:

He answered: “Noble Telamon, prince of our soldiers here,
Out of thy heart I know thou speak’st, and as thou hold’st me dear,
But still as often as I think how rudely I was used,
And, like a stranger, for all rites, fit for our good, refused,
My heart doth swell against the man that durst be so profane
To violate his sacred place; not for my private bane,
But since wracked virtue’s general laws he shameless did infringe;

For whose sake I will loose the reins, and give mine anger swinge,
Without my wisdom’s least impeach. He is a fool, and base,
That pities vice-plagued minds, when pain, not love of right, gives place.

In short, Agamemnon

  • has offended not Achilles, but justice;
  • is not repentent, but desperate.

This is an extrapolation from Homer’s original, and one may not accept it. In any case, Agamemnon can offer no amount of material wealth that will propitiate Achilles. He must do something more.

I propose that what Agamemnon must do is not just appear just, but be just. Achilles would still have to judge the reality from the appearance of whatever Agamemnon did. His judgment could be mistaken. Still, the reality is what he is looking for.

Does Plato expect some of his readers to work this out? Does he expect us to notice that Adeimantus offers Phoenix’s words as received theology, without acknowledging that Achilles himself rejects it?

Adeimantus wonders what a young person is to do with teachings such as Phoenix’s. I propose that the young person study the Iliad as a whole; would this have been inconceivable for the average Athenian citizen?

According to Adeimantus, the arguments in support of your being a just person presume that you will seem just as well. Why not just try to seem just then? This may be hard, but “Nothing great is easy.”

Is seeming just, without being so, less hard than seeming so because you are so? In any case, there are “teachers of persuasion” who can teach you to make yourself appear just. As for the gods, the only people who teach their existence are the poets such as Homer; and through figures such as Phoenix, these poets tell you how you can propitiate the gods though appearances.

Thus you are bound to forgive people who do not pursue justice, even if you yourself have a good argument why you should pursue it. Anyway, if a good argument were known, then there would be no need of any exhortations to be just, but people would be moved by the argument and thus become able look after themselves.

It is Socrates’s job now to make that good argument, according to Adeimantus.

The Primitive City (367e–72c)

As large letters are more easily read than small, so justice in the city may be more easily discerned than in the individual.

Socrates can see that the brothers are not convinced by their own arguments; but if they are not convinced by his arguments to Thrasymachus, what more can he do? What he can do is create a city in speech.

He says the city comes into existence because none of us is self-sufficient. Adeimantus accepts this, as he and his brother will accept all of Socrates’s questionable assertions. I think this one is false, because

  • individuals and families are able to survive in isolation, not only like Robinson Crusoe on a tropical island, but like a real family of Old Believers in Siberia written about in Smithsonian magazine in 2013;
  • nonetheless, as far as I know, humans have always been gregarious, like other primates.

Thus, contrary to Socrates’s account, the city would seem not to be a compromise based on our prior failure to achieve the ideal of self-sufficiency. Self-sufficiency was never our ideal, and thus doing without it is no compromise.

Maybe that is not important. Socrates and Adeimantus agree on two propositions:

  1. We differ in aptitude from one another.
  2. Each of us does better to practice one art than many.

While questioning the latter, I agree with the former, even considering it obvious, while noting that, strictly speaking, aptitudes can be recognized only in hindsight, and even then only positively:

  • if you manage to do something, then evidently you were capable of it;
  • if you could not do something, there may be various reasons why.

The alternative is to tell people that they just didn’t try hard enough, if they couldn’t do something that others can do. To say that we all have the same capabilities is to suggest that we are all interchangeable. The people who enter into a social contract may all thereby be equal; this does not make them the same.

In “The Real College Scandal” (The Point, August 15, 2021), Agnes Callard points out that, later in the Republic (Book III in fact), when Socrates wants citizens taught that their different jobs correspond to inherent differences in their souls, this teaching is called a lie, albeit a “noble” one.

I believe that Plato’s phrase “noble lie” is an attempt to describe something we might nowadays call “the ideology of the elite” – the story that elite people tell themselves, and one another, in order to justify their elevated social position. In Plato’s case, the privileges that get justified in this way are not wealth (the rulers in his city are kept poor, and even prevented from owning property) nor ruling (which Plato sees as a burden and a chore), but the gift of education itself, and that of the philosophical life that, we will later learn, the rulers will get to spend most of their lives living.

According to Callard, Leo Strauss thinks Plato does adhere to “the ideology of the elite”; Callard does not think so, since Socrates has explicitly called that ideology a lie.

The core idea of the liberal Enlightenment is that human beings are, by nature, equal. Plato would have dismissed this as a myth. And yet Strauss goes wrong in ascribing to Plato the idea that human beings are, by nature, unequal. Plato thought that was a myth too.

How can someone believe that both natural equality and natural inequality are myths? By allotting most of the explanatory work to chance.

… Plato’s view seemed to be that philosophers arise because occasionally a human being – for no reason, following no plan, and certainly not because he was secretly marked out as One of the Special Ones from birth – manages by sheer luck to find his way to the lone worthwhile life.

This should be understood as the reason why we have universities:

There’s nothing in your DNA that makes you a philosopher, nor is there some regimen you can run through to transform yourself into one. The closest we have come to devising a system for attuning a person to the intellectual life is to surround her with others aiming at the same thing for as long as the relevant parties can continue to afford it, and hope for the best.

Thus Callard, quite sensibly in my view. Meanwhile, Badiou has Socrates question both propositions above by saying:

Underlying the division of labor, which has been in existence for several thousand years, there are two beliefs, which are as dubious as they are deeply ingrained. The first is that nature didn’t give all people the same abilities. One person, it’s said, is naturally good at one kind of work and another person is good at a different one. The second is that it’s preferable for someone who has mastered a particular skill to devote himself to it full-time rather than spread himself thin, doing several different ones at the price of being less efficient at each of them. You can guess the obvious conclusion all by yourself.

Such skepticism is plausible. Plato presumably has a reason for not being clear about whether Socrates actually has this skepticism; however, Socrates may well share the thoughts of Henry David Thoreau on the division of labor, here in the essay called “Huckleberries” (Collected Essays and Poems, Library of America, 2001):

It is true, we have as good a right to make berries private property, as to make wild grass and trees such – it is not worse than a thousand other practices which custom has sanctioned – but that is the worst of it, for it suggests how bad the rest are, and to what result our civilization and division of labor naturally tend, to make all things venal.

A., a professional huckleberry picker, has hired B.’s field, and, we will suppose, is now gathering the crop, with a patent huckleberry horse rake.

C., a professed cook, is superintending the boiling of a pudding made of some of the berries.

While Professor D. – for whom the pudding is intended, sits in his library writing a book – a work on the Vaccinieae of course.

And now the result of this downward course will be seen in that work – which should be the ultimate fruit of the huckleberry field. It will be worthless. It will have none of the spirit of the huckleberry in it, and the reading of it will be a weariness of the flesh.

I believe in a different kind of division of labor – that Professor D. should be encouraged to divide himself freely between his library and the huckleberry field.

Vaccinieae is the tribe of the genus Gaylussacia, which includes the huckleberries.

Socrates introduces to his city a market and a currency. Bloom says this is the first example of something established by convention, not nature.

There will be people whose minds are not up to joining in partnership, but whose bodies can do useful labor. Socrates says they will work for wages; he does not seem to mention slavery.

Badiou reverses the order in which wages and currency are introduced.

Where is justice in all of this? Adeimantus cannot conceive, “unless it’s somewhere in some need these men have of one another.”

These men will eat wheat bread and barley cakes, drink wine, and sing of the gods.

The Feverish City (372c–6c)

Glaucon wants relishes at the feast just described, and Socrates proposes salt, olives, cheese, onions, greens, figs, pulses, myrtleberries, and acorns. Glaucon calls the result a city of pigs – or sows, as Bloom has it. Glaucon wants a fevered city, says Socrates, with lots of frills:

painting and embroidery must also be set in motion, and gold, ivory, and everything of the sort (πάντα τὰ τοιαῦτα) must be obtained.

Painting and embroidery would seem then to be decoration; but what were the songs of the gods mentioned earlier?

Meat-eating will be introduced. The citizens will want so much stuff, they will have to go to war to get it. Glaucon agrees.

We are looking for justice in the city, the better to understand it in the individual. Thrasymachus agreed in Book I that the just man never tried to get the better of another just man. By the same logic that made Thrasymachus blush in the second reading, two cities cannot go to war unless at least one of them is unjust.

Glaucon does think that the citizens ought to be able to defend themselves. Socrates reminds him of the agreement made with Adeimantus: “one man, one art.” Glaucon agrees that “the struggle for victory in war” is “a matter for art.”

Again this would seem to be too simple, as Badiou recognizes by embellishing his translation here.

According to the principle of one-man-one-art, there shall be professional guardians of the city. They shall be brave and therefore spirited – and in having this agreed to, Socrates alludes to the tripartite division of the soul that he will expound later.

Bloom says of spirit or spiritedness, “Its use should be carefully watched.” He proposes also the alternative translation “heart,” presumably because of the anatomical implications of the original θυμός.

His θυμός is what Achilles is soothing, again in Book IX of the Iliad, before the arrival (along with Odysseus) of Phoenix and Ajax, whose rejected appeals we have already looked at. Achilles is playing a harp, and, in line 189,

τῇ ὅ γε θυμὸν ἔτερπεν, ἄειδε δ᾽ ἄρα κλέα ἀνδρῶν.

In the translations of Lattimore and Alexander:

With this he was pleasuring his heart, and singing of men’s fame.

With this he was delighting his spirit and singing of the glorious deeds of men.

We saw that Alexander translates θυμός as “mind” in line 645; Chapman does the same when he turns line 189 into a couplet:

To it he sung the glorious deeds, of great Heroes dead,
And his true mind, that practise faild, sweet contemplation fed.

In The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977; page 262), Julian Jaynes describes θυμός as referring to

a mass of internal sensations in response to environmental crises. It was, I suggest, a pattern of stimulation familiar to modern physiology, the so-called stress or emergency response of the sympathetic nervous system and its liberation of adrenalin and noradrenalin from the adrenal glands …

Homer’s verse about Achilles is echoed in the first line of Congreve’s Mourning Bride, “Musick has Charms to sooth a savage Breast.”

The guardians of the city in speech should be like dogs: gentle with the known, hostile to the unknown. This is called being philosophical. It’s quite incredible that Socrates’s audience do not object here.

The Education of the Guardians (376c–83c)

It is agreed that how the guardians are to be raised and educated is relevant to how justice and injustice arise.

Music for the soul is to preceed gymnastic for the body. This is music in a broad sense, including speech. What children hear is to be carefully regulated. We are not poets, but we shall give the poets a model (Bloom), a pattern (Shorey), or a type (τύπος). There will be two official types of stories:

  1. The god is the cause, only of good things.
  2. The gods do not change shape or lie to us.

There are various peculiarities in this section, starting with the vacillation between one god and many gods.

We set out to talk about the education of the guardians, but end up with the education of everybody.

In the beginning (376e), Socrates says of education, “Isn’t it difficult to find a better one than that discovered over a great expanse of time?” We end up throwing out a lot of traditional stories, such as the following.

  1. In Hesiod, Uranus imprisoned his children within their mother Gaea, who then induced her son Cronus to castrate his father. Cronus went on to devour his own children, till his wife Rhea gave birth secretly to Zeus and helped him overthrow his father.
  2. In Homer, Zeus has two jars of dooms, good and bad, from which he metes out the quality of your life.

Socrates acknowledges that Hesiod’s stories could be true; but they should be learnable only with difficulty, as by an expensive sacrifice. It’s not clear whether such a sacrifice would be within the means of Cephalus. In any case, the young are not supposed learn such stories, which therefore (378d)

must not be accepted in the city, whether they are made with a hidden sense or without a hidden sense. A young thing cannot judge what is hidden sense (Bloom);

we must not admit into our city either wrought in allegory or without allegory. For the young are not able to distinguish what is and what is not allegory (Shorey).

Such claims deserve a lot more discussion, but all Adeimantus asks – and quite rightly, as far as it goes – is what tales are to be allowed. Socrates avoids the question, as we noted, saying that only the types of stories will be specified.

Socrates displays the well-meaning but misguided attitude that Bruno Bettelheim criticizes in The Uses of Enchantment. The following is from the Introduction (though left out of the pdf excerpt that I found online):

the prevalent parental belief is that a child must be diverted from what troubles him most: his formless, nameless anxieties, and his chaotic, angry, and even violent fantasies. Many parents believe that only conscious reality or pleasant and wish-fulfilling images should be presented to the child – that he should be exposed only to the sunny side of things. But such one-sided fare nourishes the mind only in a one-sided way, and real life is not all sunny.

Children may not be able to explain the concept of “hidden sense” or allegory (ὑπόνοια), but they can make use of it to come to terms with life. In “Return to Narnia,” I suggested that children (such as I once was) could understand stories that adults found implausible or even immoral.

I don’t believe in telling mathematical falsehoods at any level, though it may be all right to ask students to accept some theorems without proof.

As for Zeus’s two jars, Achilles refers to them in Book XXIV of the Iliad, when he recommends equanimity to Priam, who has come to petition for the body of Hector, whom Achilles has killed. Achilles observes that both his own father and Priam have been served from the jar of evil. Thus Achilles is able to have compassion, with the help of the story of the urns. Here are lines 518–51, in Samuel Butler’s prose version:

Unhappy man, you have indeed been greatly daring; how could you venture to come alone to the ships of the Achaeans, and enter the presence of him who has slain so many of your brave sons? You must have iron courage: sit now upon this seat, and for all our grief we will hide our sorrows in our hearts, for weeping will not avail us. The immortals know no care, yet the lot they spin for man is full of sorrow; on the floor of Jove’s palace there stand two urns, the one filled with evil gifts, and the other with good ones. He for whom Jove the lord of thunder mixes the gifts he sends, will meet now with good and now with evil fortune; but he to whom Jove sends none but evil gifts will be pointed at by the finger of scorn, the hand of famine will pursue him to the ends of the world, and he will go up and down the face of the earth, respected neither by gods nor men. Even so did it befall Peleus; the gods endowed him with all good things from his birth upwards, for he reigned over the Myrmidons excelling all men in prosperity and wealth, and mortal though he was they gave him a goddess for his bride. But even on him too did heaven send misfortune, for there is no race of royal children born to him in his house, save one son who is doomed to die all untimely; nor may I take care of him now that he is growing old, for I must stay here at Troy to be the bane of you and your children. And you too, O Priam, I have heard that you were aforetime happy. They say that in wealth and plenitude of offspring you surpassed all that is in Lesbos, the realm of Makar to the northward, Phrygia that is more inland, and those that dwell upon the great Hellespont; but from the day when the dwellers in heaven sent this evil upon you, war and slaughter have been about your city continually. Bear up against it, and let there be some intervals in your sorrow. Mourn as you may for your brave son, you will take nothing by it. You cannot raise him from the dead, ere you do so yet another sorrow shall befall you.

Is Plato so unmoved by these words that he has Socrates ignore them, or is the educated reader supposed to see how dangerously gullible the brothers of Plato are?

It is said at the beginning (377a) that the first stories told to children are, strictly speaking, false. The beginning being the most important part of a work, we must take care which stories are told; but their being literally false is not the main problem. At the end (382a), it is said that gods and humans hate the “true lie” or “veritable lie” (τό ὡς ἀληθῶς ψεῦδος), of which the “lie in speeches” or “falsehood in words” (τό ἐν τοῖς λόγοις [ψεῦδος], 382b) is an image. In another allusion to the discussion with Polemarchus, Socrates allows that humans may have use for the spoken lie, as with friends who have gone mad or with enemies. This would seem to make perfect sense, a sense in which gods too have use for lies. Adeimantus misses this. Since he thinks gods neither fear enemies nor are friends of the mad, he allows Socrates to assert that the gods have no use for lies at all.

Edited Sunday, September 11, 2022. I add the following notes. The Protagoras looks at things desirable for their consequences. Socrates argues that the notion of “being overcome by pleasure” (ὑπὸ τῶν ἡδονῶν ἡττᾶσθαι 352e) is incoherent, at least on a principle of hedonism. Socrates does propose an alternative (354e-5a):

But it is still quite possible to retract, if you can somehow contrive to say that the good is different from pleasure, or the bad from pain.

If the good is the same as pleasure, then one needs a way to compare pleasures. This would be the art of measurement (ἡ μετρητικὴ τέχνη 356d), also called a science (ἐπιστήμη 357b). In Book II of the Republic, Glaucon would seem to refer to this art when he says (358e, in Shorey’s translation),

By nature, they say, to commit injustice is a good and to suffer it is an evil, but that the excess of evil in being wronged is greater than the excess of good in doing wrong.

In the Protagoras, Socrates concludes (357e),

Accordingly “to be overcome by pleasure” means just this—ignorance in the highest degree (ἀμαθία ἡ μεγίστη), which Protagoras here and Prodicus and Hippias profess to cure.

The sophists agree to this (358a), as well as to the further conclusions (358c–d),

this yielding to oneself is nothing but ignorance, and mastery of oneself is as certainly wisdom … no one willingly goes after evil or what he thinks to be evil; it is not in human nature (ἐν ἀνθρώπου φύσει), apparently, to do so.

I don’t think Socrates accepts the hedonistic principle, but he accepts the conclusions that he derives from it, and hedonists should do the same.

The proposition that the good is pleasure would seem to illustrate the paradox of analysis. Either the proposition is false, but useful, for giving you an excuse for ignoring the good in the pursuit of pleasure; or it is true, but useless, for leaving you to do whatever you were doing in the first place. In the article “Analysis” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (March 19, 1994), in the section called “Modern Conceptions of Analysis, outside Analytic Philosophy,” Michael Beaney tells us,

Phenomenology is not the only source of analytic methodologies outside those of the analytic tradition. Mention might be made here, too, of R. G. Collingwood … In his Essay on Philosophical Method (1933), for example, he criticizes Moorean philosophy, and develops his own response to what is essentially the paradox of analysis (concerning how an analysis can be both correct and informative), which he recognizes as having its root in Meno’s paradox.

James Connelly and Guiseppina D’Oro summarize Beaney’s work on Collingwood on page xxx of the Editors’ Introduction to the revised, 2005 edition of An Essay on Philosophical Method:

A further merit of Collingwood’s methodological approach, according to Michael Beaney, is that it avoids the so-called ‘paradox of analysis’, a problem which he identified several years before the phrase was coined. The paradox is that either the analysandum is the same in meaning as the analysans or it is different. In the first case the analysis is true but trivial; in the second it is interesting and informative but false. From this it would seem to follow that an analysis cannot be both correct and informative. Collingwood’s solution lay in his conception of the scale of forms of progressively more adequate and comprehensive knowledge.

I’m afraid I cannot say much more about the scale of forms than in that summary.

Socrates’s criticism of Homer may belie a idea that Callard attributes to Strauss in the essay I quoted. The idea is that Plato could address his intended audience only obliquely, by “writing between the lines.” In words of Strauss that Callard quotes,

For philosophic readers [Plato] would do almost more than enough by drawing their attention to the fact that he did not object to telling lies which were noble, or tales which were merely similar to truth.

Reading Plato may indeed be like being a guardian, which requires a suitable disposition and proper training. The Republic itself may tell us this. But does the dialogue contain any hint that reading Homer has the same requirements? Scholars seem to recognize that Plato admired Homer, even though Socrates banished Homer from the city. However, does Plato admire the Iliad for what it tells us about justice and the potential nobility of one’s nominal enemy?

One Comment

  1. Alexandre Borovik
    Posted September 6, 2021 at 12:41 am | Permalink | Reply

    Dear David,

    I love the dog. Anna, noticing by chance the dog on the screen of my computer, said: “It looks like a Turkish dog”.

    With best wishes Sasha _____________________________________________ Views expressed are my own and do not necessarily represent position of any other person, corporation, organisation, or institution.

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