On Polemarchus: Commentary on the Republic of Plato, 331d-336a (part 1)

Thank you to everyone who wished me a happy birthday! I was going to title this post “life in hell,” because things are really blah – I have good friends in Jersey, but life is nowhere near what I want it to be – but now instead I’m going to write another commentary on a text which may or may not be original. Last time was Macbeth; this time, I want to do just a section of the Republic that gets a lot of attention and very little correct interpretation.

All quotes are from the Bloom translation: The Republic of Plato, 2nd Edition. tr. Allan Bloom.

part 1 | part 2 | part 3 | part 4

On Cephalus

Polemarchus is the inheritor of Cephalus’ “argument.” Cephalus did not mean to argue with Socrates about justice – he says that the reason why he listens to speeches is because his body is gone, and that the mind grows as the body dies out (328d). Cephalus’ assertion is in direct contrast to the reason why Socrates says he likes to listen to speech: Socrates wants to learn, and there does not seem to be a sharp mind/body dualism in Socrates’ thought that the mind must expand as the body wears out.

However, Cephalus is not merely old and a sensualist who would be purely sensual if he still could be one. There is something about him that we can say makes him characteristic or even representative about divinity. That Socrates takes his thought and puts it under rigorous examination is not just a way of expelling the elder from the room, it is a way of getting piety out of the room, too. For piety does not exist to be questioned: it is a limit which is not to be challenged, but rather held in awe.

Now what is key about Cephalus is he does not say things like “I hate questions because God told me that questions suck.” Rather, he professes those who are “orderly and content with themselves” (329d) can have a good time in old age. Yet, despite saying something that one might take to be characteristic of the classical use of reason – i.e. reason can be used to moderate oneself while living well – he is still dismissed from the conversation.

To make a longer story short, he is dismissed because he asserts the “right thing for the wrong reason,” what Eliot once said was “the greatest treason.” Someone like Cephalus need not be persuaded of anything, because in one sense, he’s right, and in the sense he is wrong, he cannot be persuaded. In a sense, this is what being divine is: God isn’t right because he strives to know all and works for Truth, He’s right just because… well, He’s right! Machiavelli will use this sort of joke all throughout the Discourses, as those who are beyond persuasion or even force are indeed beyond the human, and political questions cannot be addressed by them.

Now Socrates does not dispense of Cephalus as Machiavelli might (note the section on the Discourses where Machiavelli talks admiringly of Lorenzaccio, except for one deed he didn’t dare to do). Any of you who’ve been to revivalist Bible studies (I used to hang with Adventists. Don’t ask. The girl was crazy and thought the Pope was demonic) know exactly why Socrates’ questioning drives Cephalus away: people who have ‘Greater Things To Attend To’ have no time for idle questions that might require more than two seconds worth of thought. The rigor Socrates asks the questions with drives Cephalus from the room.

Cephalus had described his relation to justice as primarily being one of fear (330d-331a) – he’s scared about what the next life will bring, if there is one, and he thinks that matters of injustice are matters of debt (note to all of you serious about justice: Can an injustice ever be remedied? If I ever become notable as a philosopher, it will be because my answer is an unqualified “no”), of either speech or items. One thing about divinity is that in terms of reason, it reaches down: it strives to communicate with you at a level you understand on key issues of teaching; its authority is where it works to inspire awe. So it should be no surprise that whatever Cephalus “understands” about justice he understands through “analogy” with money. Truth be told, it is not analogy: it is the exact same logic used again, as if logic was a “one size fits all” method.

Now Socrates’ question takes what is more objective in Cephalus’ fears, and drops the question of his psychology out of it. He hones in on the “business logic,” and asks whether “speaking the truth and giving back what one takes” is all there is to justice, and then he asserts the answer as “no.” The full significance of that question will be my post for next time.


  1. Hello, my name is Michael – and you have here, a “virgin” of sorts . . . this is the first time I have ever responded to a blog entry – so forgive me if I miss any protocols or niceties of the form.

    I enjoyed your commentary on Cephalus – a figure I am looking into, in various ways and for various reasons. More of which perhaps, anon.

    At this moment, though, a comment, since you have clearly thought a great deal about the opening of the Republic, its arguments and dramatic context: Doesn’t it strike you as interesting that the two topics that Socrates explicitly takes up with Cephalus are, sex and money? The conversation begins with Socrates wondering about Cephalus’ ability to (or interest in) having sexual relations with women at his age . . . it shifts focus when money replaces sex as the driver of passions . . . and culminates when Cephalus is made to concede that it may be easier to be just when one has lots of wealth – therefore, no need to cheat or steal. And on the back of that argument, enters Polemarchus, to whom Cephalus “hands” the argument because he is evidently tired, following which Socrates introduces the definition of justice that ultimately, is resuscitated at the end of the Republic as perhaps the closest definition to the “truth” that one can access: Justice consists in helping one’s friends and harming one’s enemies.

    Now even in this short span of a few paragraphs of text, there is far too much to unpack in a lifetime of study, or at least the part of a lifetime one could these days devote to it. And I know I have made short shrift of the argument and left out much, and perhaps emphasized the parts that “speak” to me (but isn’t that waht argument, per se, is all about?)

    That said, I return to my original point, relative to what you have set out to do on this blog: Isn’t it interesting that the two topics that introduce the most critical topic – Justice – are sex and money . . . the two things that seemingly obsess us most as 21st century Americans, the things that drive our politics, our culture, our media . . . in fact, I think our contemporary society as a whole?

    All to the main point of your blog: There is much we can learn about where we are from reading old books, and thinking through how they relate to our present situation.

    Thanks for making the conversation possible.

  2. The way Machiavelli speaks of God is very interesting. He says that “God isn’t right because he strives to know all and works for Truth, He’s right just because.” I love this quote, even though Machiavelli, himself, was concerned only with power and not with doing what was right.

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