On Polemarchus: Commentary on the Republic of Plato, 331d-336a (part 2)

Aside: A commentary on Federalist 51 is up at “The Irate Nation,” if you’re curious.

On Polemarchus: Commentary on the Republic of Plato, 331d-336a (part 2)

part 1 | part 2 | part 3 | part 4


“But as to this very thing, justice, shall we so simply assert that it is the truth and giving back what a man has taken from another, or is to do these very things sometimes just and sometimes unjust? Take this case as an example of what I mean: everyone would surely say that if a man takes weapons from a friend when the latter is of sound mind, and the friend demands them back when he is mad, one shouldn’t give back such things, and the man who gave them back would not be just, and moreover, one should not be willing to tell someone in this state the whole truth.”

– Socrates contra Cephalus, Republic 331c

Socrates is able to dismiss Cephalus, I assume, because of the rigor of the questioning alone. If that assumption is true, then why does he pick this particular example to both end his time with piety and begin a discussion one might characterize as philosophic?

The key issue is that of insanity. The easiest way to discuss the issue is outside of the quote, so let’s just skip to the end and work backwards. If there is a city in speech, that means people can discuss what justice is, and that a diversity of opinions can be comprehended in the unity that is Thought. That fundamental Platonic teaching is implicit in the Meno: that people have opinions – just that mere fact – means there is such a thing as Truth, otherwise, where do opinions get any validity from? But it also means that Truth isn’t as simple as “God told me this, and yeah it sort of makes sense, but we’re all going to live by it anyway because it was Revealed.” And it also doesn’t mean that every opinion is correct, either. In fact, what it means is that every opinion of a certain sort can contribute to helping us reach at the Truth – the number of opinions about Justice help us think through the problem and arrive at some halfway decent conclusions about Justice – and that some opinions may not contribute that much.

In fact, some opinions might not contribute at all: they might distract from the ability of people to employ logos (both “speech” and “reason”). So the question of “insanity” is the question of “Who can engage in the conversation we are about to have about Justice, truly?”

Now Socrates takes the case of the madman and the weapons and divides it into three problems: firstly, one ought not to give back the weapon, secondly, it would be unjust to do so, and thirdly, the truth would be dangerous in this case. We move from self-preservation to the literal fact of justice to the problem of justice in the abstract: “I can’t discuss the issue of whether this is just or unjust with you because you’re bonkers.” That trifold distinction is mirrored, not unsurprisingly, in the tripartite soul of book 4: appetitive, spirited and rational all follow directly from it.

Of course, this only sets up the problem. There isn’t an answer given yet about who should be excluded or included in the conversation. One might be tempted to say that since Cephalus exited, “insanity” and “piety” might be closely related. There is a joke about that, but the joke goes two ways – Socrates in the Apology has a daimonion, after all; the greatest uses of reason approach the divine. A better thought, if one wants to take a preliminary lesson from our considerations so far, is this: To what degree is not thinking through the issue of justice an insanity? The “business logic” of Cephalus alone would give the insane man his weapon back.


Polemarchus enters the conversation formally at 331d, saying that Simonides – a poet who advises the tyrant Hiero in Xenophon, and who is best known for those immortal lines which mark Thermopylae as the resting place of the Spartan dead – holds that “it is just to give to each what is owed” (331e). He asserts that the poet spoke a “fine thing” in saying this, to use Bloom’s phrase – I think the word is probably “kalos,” (“he spoke nobly?” I’m not sure, I’m sight translating) which is “noble” or “beautiful.” What is “noble” or “beautiful,” of course, may stand out among us, but is not necessarily “good.”

It is here that the real intellectual substance of these lectures can begin in earnest, working from the implied problem of divinity and justice in the last lecture. Simonides is described by Socrates as being “wise” (that is “sophos” in the Greek!) and “divine” – and yet, Socrates professes not to understand Simonides. As alluded to last time, the way divinity works in terms of wisdom can be a bit problematic: the conclusion may be the wisest thing ever, but the means, well. Socrates presses Polemarchus to undo the “business logic,” where giving someone what they are owed is justice simply.

At 332a, the modification of the “give to people what they’re owed” conception of justice begins. Friendship is brought forth as the way of dealing with the problem of not giving back something owed to an insane man. Friends look out for each other’s good, and it is a beautiful thought indeed which solves the particular problem that drove Cephalus from the room.

But only that particular problem is solved, though, for things get a lot more complicated if people aren’t friends. Perhaps people have enemies (332b), and enemies are also “owed” something: if friends are to be helped because others can conceive of a higher good for those they love, then enemies must be hurt because others can conceive of a greater harm that can be done.

Now before you fall asleep, remember: “Helping friends and harming enemies” is pretty much the conception of justice we use every single waking moment of our lives. To bring this into question really does approach eternality: it is very difficult to conceive of others being beyond this conception. It is far easier to conceive of the way things actually work: there are many who struggle just to be moral, and then there are a few who engage in the question of “what is morality” at the highest level, and I mean a high level. The sort of discussion that characterizes the final chapter of Pocock’s “The Machiavellian Moment,” where Pocock argues that classical republicanism with its “fixed” idea of civilizations starting ideally, falling into decay, and having itself no ability to account for progress is only being transcended now, would not be admitted, as it purposely seeks to drown discussion about virtues with history. (You may characterize me as being unfair here, but Pocock says this pretty explicitly. He can’t belong at the conversation because he sees it as a relic of the past only. The real conversation for him would be right now, situated with the “recent” as opposed to the “long dead and gone”). To speak more broadly, historicism is the attempt to bring science to bear on these sorts of discussions: we want to know at an empirical level what these words mean, where these questions came from. If we don’t attempt that science, then interpretations, like the sort I’m doing, are suspect: what I’m doing is no different than a Biblical fundamentalist asserting that God is speaking to him in every word of the Bible as he reads.

I don’t really have a defense against historicism: I just think in the end that I want wisdom, and I’m not going to get it by being clever and asking questions purely about method. At some point, I just have to assume that being human makes me able to relate to other people who were presumably human, and that, for example, “helping friends and harming enemies” could be the most natural, primal and perhaps even comprehensive conception we can have of justice that is practical, absent our being divine. I’m ranting like crazy right now because this is huge: those of you who know the fate of Polemarchus, who was reputed to have philosophic potential, but was killed resisting the Thirty Tyrants, know that merely having thoughts has consequences, especially in an age where the “tyranny of the majority” is embraced in the way we conduct ourselves politically.

At 332c, the “wise” and “divine” Simonides is accused of making a riddle by Socrates: Socrates makes a distinction between “fitting” and “owed,” and says that Simonides conflates the two. The difference between the two terms is that of nature and convention: what is fitting is presumably correct by, or in accordance with, nature; what is owed is a matter of how humans have constructed society and what obligations they have entered into. How could someone “wise” and “divine” have conflated these two?

The answer has to be that to speak of “natural justice” and “conventional justice” is nonsense: either something is just, or it isn’t. Simonides’ maxim as interpreted by Polemarchus is a perfectly feasible way to live. Unfortunately, the inability to make the separation, an inability caused by the fact that “conventional justice” points to “natural justice” ironically enough, means that questions about justice come to an end pretty soon, and the ability to reconcile one’s conception of justice with another’s, even if both have a grasp on what is true, is forfeit.

My lecture next time will take up the question of “what is fitting” and the darkness which underlies it: Socrates has implied that “what is fitting” for an enemy is not going to be “turn the other cheek.” Part of a natural justice might be a natural motive for war. The issues of healing and war, philosophy and politics, will be what we attempt to tease out of the text as we work through the lists Socrates questions Polemarchus with next time.

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