Study Guide

The Republic Book II

By Plato

Book II

  • Socrates hopes that the issue of justice has been settled once and for all.
  • No such luck. (Are you surprised?)

Glaucon Describes Justice (Plus: The Story of the Ring)

  • Glaucon jumps in and wants to talk about the good. He outlines three ways in which things can be good:
    1) a good everyone likes simply for its own sake
    2) a good everyone likes both for its own sake and because we get something out of it (like healthy living)
    3) a good everyone likes only because we get something out of it (like wages for work)
  • Socrates agrees with this breakdown, so Glaucon asks him into which category justice would fall.
  • Socrates says justice belongs in the second category—the best one, it seems. Glaucon says he bets most people would put justice in the third category, since it's something they only do because 1) they think they have to and 2) they want to have a good reputation.
  • Glaucon really wants to hear Socrates praise justice entirely for its own sake and not for the sake of its consequences. Even though he believes justice is better than injustice, he's going to play the devil's advocate and defend injustice.
  • Brain bite! Devil's advocate? That's just a fancy way of saying that someone is going to take an extreme opposite opinion in an argument more for the sake of the argument than because that person truly holds those extreme feelings.
  • Glaucon has an agenda. He's going to return to Thrasymachus's line of argumentation and 1) define justice and where it comes from; 2) demonstrate that everyone who acts justly does so "unwillingly, as necessary but not good" (358c); and 3) demonstrate that the unjust are better off than the just. Got all that?
  • Socrates is down.
  • Glaucon explains that justice came to exist not because it's something good to do, but because even though everyone wants to do unjust things, they're terrified of having unjust things done to them. So, in order to protect themselves, people made a kind of social contract or agreement to be just.
  • Glaucon insists, however, that if people weren't afraid of the implications of having injustice done to them, no one would be just.
  • To prove this, Glaucon tells a story about a man who finds a ring and realizes that, depending on which way he turns it, he can become invisible. Glaucon tells how this man, when he realizes he can do whatever he wants without being caught, acts unjustly all the time and lives a very happy and successful life, cutting corners and pretty much just doing whatever he wants.
  • Brain bite: Does this little story sound a bit familiar? As in, Middle Earth familiar? It should: J.R.R. Tolkien got his inspiration for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings from this little story in Plato (we told you this book was important).
  • Glaucon goes on to imagine two men, one very just and one very unjust. He says that the very just man will be miserable, and people will constantly believe him to be unjust, while the unjust man will be adored and admired, and people will constantly believe him to be just. Why? Because the unjust man will always have an advantage: he will do whatever it takes to get ahead, whereas the just man will not.
  • Glaucon says the just man will live a life of torment and poverty ending in crucifixion (pretty bleak), while the unjust man will become ruler of the city, he'll marry a great lady, and he'll have great business opportunities, lots of money, good friends, tons of appealing sacrifices to the gods... you get the idea.

Adeimantus Describes Justice

  • Glaucon's brother, Adeimantus, jumps in and says that Glaucon has missed something crucial.
  • Adeimantus, playing the devil's advocate just like his brother, says that the reason why injustice so often appears to be better than justice is because the nature of justice and injustice are 1) poorly taught by parents and educators and 2) poorly represented in poetry and literature.
  • Justice is poorly taught by parents because even though they tell their children to be just, they defend it only in terms of the good things that come from having a reputation for being just: money, honors, etc.
  • Justice is poorly represented in poetry because poets are always moaning about the trials and tribulations of living a just and virtuous life while also telling stories about bad guys and villains who do well and end up unpunished. In fact, lots of poets even represent the gods themselves as indifferent to justice; all they seem to care about are some good sacrifices.
  • Between justice and status or advantage, how can anyone come to think justice is better? Children end up thinking that gaining an advantage in life is the most important thing, so once they see that if they can get away with injustice they'll do way better, that's what they do. And that's completely reinforced by the poetry they're reading.
  • Adeimantus concludes that the issue here is that justice and goodness are always discussed in terms of 1) what they provide you with in life and 2) how seeming to be just or good, instead of actually being those things, is all that matters.
  • This is why Adeimantus wants Socrates to defend justice on its own terms, not by what you can gain from it. He wants Socrates to explain why it is inherently good for your soul, regardless of whether anyone, god or man, knows or sees how you are acting. No one, until now, he says, has ever talked about this.
  • Well, Socrates is impressed. He thinks these are pretty amazing arguments, and he is almost—almost—at a loss how to respond to such persuasive thinking. But, of course, Socrates doesn't actually believe injustice is better than justice, so it's up to him to find out a convincing argument to explain why.

They Imagine a City, or Republic (At Last)

  • Socrates has an idea. He thinks that what's causing the guys all these problems is the fact that they are thinking about justice in terms of individuals, who are small and therefore harder to scrutinize. Socrates imagines that thinking about something bigger, like a city, would make it easier to think about this idea of justice.
  • "If we should watch a city coming into being in speech," Socrates famously says, "would we also see its justice coming into being, and its injustice?" (369a).
  • Adeimantus thinks that's likely, so they decide that's exactly what they're going to do.
  • Socrates believes that a city comes about because people can't survive on their own and need to form communities. The most urgent needs of a city are: 1) food 2) housing, and 3) clothing. In order to have all those things, they decide they will need a minimum of four to five people to be a farmer, builder, shoemaker, weaver, and so on.
  • They then agree that it is easier and more efficient if each person in the city specializes in one thing that they produce for everyone instead of trying to do a little bit of everything just for themselves. They also agree that this means more people will have to be added to the city, since each specialized job requires helpers and specific tools.
  • There will also need to be trade, both within the city and between cities, so merchants and tradesmen will also be necessary, as well as the production of surplus materials in order to trade.
  • Socrates asks where justice fits into this city, and Adeimantus suggests it must have something to do with the way various people relate to one another. Socrates agrees but first wants to think more basically about day-to-day life. The guys paint a picture of a thriving, well-fed city, where people enjoy not only sustenance but a few luxuries as well.
  • These luxuries multiply, so the number of various people necessary to sustain this sophisticated city begins to increase. Now we've got cooks, hairdressers, servants, doctors, and others. The guys imagine that the city will now be too small for all these new people, so they will need more land. How will they get it? They'll have to go to war with other cities.
  • So you guessed it: the city now needs an army, too. Socrates says that warfare is just as much a craft as anything else, so the soldiers must also be specialists.
  • What the guys come to realize is that the single most important thing they need to decide is who will rule the city, since this job will be the most specialized. Socrates calls these rulers guardians.
  • They first conclude that the guardians will need to be active and full of energy, almost like a dog or some other kind of animal. However, they also conclude that the guardians can't be aggressive toward one another either; they need to be restrained and mild to their own people and harsh to their enemies.
  • The gang is at a bit at a loss when they try to find someone who might combine both energy and good sense, until Socrates suggests they return to the image of a dog, since dogs are always friendly toward those they trust and aggressive toward strangers.
  • Socrates takes this a step further and suggests that there is something philosophical about dogs because they base their actions on what they know and do not know: they love and are kind to what they know and are unkind to what they don't know. Socrates says this is how a philosopher should be: he loves learning and doesn't love ignorance.
  • This means, therefore, that the guardian must be a philosopher; he's also got to be energetic, fast, and strong. We've got to applaud Socrates for that big leap from dogs to philosophers.
  • Socrates suggests that they now think about the education of the guardians. He suspects that this line of thinking will definitely relate back to the theme of justice (you know, one of these days).
  • They decide that the first thing that should be taught is the art of speeches; that's more important than either music or athletics.
  • Socrates says that speaking falls into two categories: lies and truths. He says that it's typical to start with the lies (Socrates is essentially talking about what we would call stories), since little children are always first told stories.
  • However, Socrates notes that childhood is a very impressionable period, and he suggests that they might want to be very careful about the kinds of things impressionable children are taught. In fact, he thinks they ought to regulate the kinds of stories mothers tell their children, and he imagines that most of the popular stories told to children in Greece at that time will have to be banned.
  • Wait, what? Banned? Why? Because in most of these stories (that would be, like, every Greek myth ever), the actions of gods and heroes are neither noble nor admirable; they're ridiculous, violent, and mean. If kids think this kind of stuff is heroic, the city will be a disaster. Kids will think it's okay to turn on their fathers, make war for no reason, have sex before marriage...
  • Socrates explains that even if these myths might have a deeper, less offensive meaning, children won't be able to understand that, so no one should tell stories like this. Poets, Socrates says, will be instructed to write and perform stories that make virtue appealing and good.
  • Adeimantus wants a bit more detail. What's the right way, he asks, to represent a god?
  • Socrates says that a god should be represented as completely good, since that should be the definition of a god (or else he wouldn't be a god, right?). On top of that, since gods only produce good and not evil, they are only responsible for good things and shouldn't be portrayed as causing evil things.
  • Socrates goes through a whole list of quotations from Homer and Aeschylus that show gods involved in evil, so those parts will have to be banned.
  • Socrates also says that these stories shouldn't represent the gods always sneaking around and changing form. Since the best things are the things that are most stable (and therefore change the least), the gods definitely wouldn't be constantly changing and sneaking up on us. Socrates worries children will become fearful and cowardly if they think the gods are always hiding and lying in wait.
  • Finally, Socrates says that gods can't be represented as lying, because lying is inherently bad and only acceptable in certain situations, such as: dealing with enemies, helping crazy people, and educating children (as long as the lies are as close to truth as possible). A god wouldn't be afraid of any enemies and is too all knowing to need a story to help him understand the world, so gods just don't need to lie at all.