On Polemarchus: Commentary on the Republic of Plato, 331d-336a (part 3)

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“It seems that Simonides made a riddle, after the fashion of poets, when he said what the just is. For it looks as if he thought that it is just to give to everyone what is fitting, and to this he gave the name ‘what is owed.'”

– Socrates, at Republic 332c

I stated last time that “what is fitting” might refer back to the idea behind a “natural justice,” and “what is owed” might refer to the conventions we set up amongst ourselves, the artifice which would constitute an injustice if broken.

I want to back away from the “nature/convention” distinction for now, though, and take what the text gives us. The word for “fitting” in the Greek is used metaphorically: the literal meaning is “to be present, to arrive.” In this sense, what is “fitting” is what literally “meets” you, as if there is a convergence where a belonging occurs. The word for “owe” pretty much means “owe” – it is “owe” consistently in all the examples the Liddell-Scott Lexicon is giving me, except for this really curious example from Homer, where Thetis in Book 1 of the Illiad is telling Achilles that he should be sitting by the ships instead of asking her for a favor which will kill him (Illiad 1.415). There, the word is used – see also 1.353 of the Illiad – to mean “one ought to bestow something upon me,” and what is peculiar about the use in Thetis’ speech is that she emphasizes that he “ought” to have been sitting down beside the ships, not asking for glory and death.

The point, if I’m right about any of this, I’m just playing with the Lexicon, is that there is a “coming towards” in “what is fitting,” a motion. There is “rest” of a sorts in “what is owed:” one party does not move in order to receive. Now to further complicate things, the immediate context of the words seems to indicate that in “what is fitting” are included harms and helps for another, and in “what is owed” only helps, perhaps, for Socrates does not allow “what is owed” to name the justice in involved in “harming enemies.”

I know that’s a lot, so let me just put forth what’s on the table again: there is a potential “nature versus convention” distinction between these terms, there is absolutely a “two bodies in motion” versus “one body in motion” distinction, and finally, maybe even a “harms/helps” versus “just helps” distinction. It’s a lot that Socrates has said, and we need to move ahead in the text to start sorting things out.


Socrates goes on to ask Polemarchus questions as if Polemarchus were Simonides. He asks the first two questions about “medicine” and “cooking” as if “medicine” and “cooking” gave something to someone, and says the “giving” is of a character both “owed and fitting,” i.e. 332d:

“The art called cooking gives what that is owed and fitting to which things?”

“Seasonings to meats.”

Now medicine gave “drugs, foods and drinks to bodies,” according to Polemarchus, and cooking gives “seasonings to meats,” also according to Polemarchus? Something about the analogy isn’t quite right, and the difference is in the goal: medicine exists to help people: cooking, esp. as Polemarchus understands it, is a form of butchery where something awful that has been done is covered up. To equate the two by a mindless use of logic, as Polemarchus is doing using Simonides’ ideas literally, is terribly problematic for a discussion about justice. But the reasoning about justice isn’t as simple as “cooking is bad,” “medicine is good.” Both in terms of human existence aid us.

The complication comes from the fact that nature/convention, motion/rest, and harms/helps all have something to do with justice. There is no automatic “this category is good” and “this category is bad.” A natural justice may underlie all our human conventions: but if we don’t know exactly what that natural justice is, should we overthrow the whole order? My anarchist friends even would be hesitant with the words “we don’t know what is perfectly just,” as well they should be – it seems like it is an injustice to overthrow an imperfect order in the hopes of something that might be perfect but might also be improperly conceived. There is something about justice as it relates to humans, then, which embraces imperfection. Part of that “something” is that we learn a lot about justice through injustice – it is the feeling of anger where our first sentiments about justice are roused, and we move on to reasoning about what is best for ourselves and others and trying to explain why we feel the way we do.

But another part of that “something” is that justice is almost exclusively a human concern, and yes, that sounds dark and strange and it should, for love of justice is most certainly divine, and many of us worship or understand worship of a God who demands we do justice and that the problems of this life will be nothing compared to the fullness of Justice in all its glory in the next.

I think that’s why if “fitting” has overtones of “natural justice,” it also contains something awfully dark in it, and that “owed,” with the implication of “oaths” and “being respected by another” is a perfectly human longing for perfect justice that Socrates – who will say later that justice involves doing no harm – sees as characteristic of the conventional. Plato’s short dialogue the “Lovers,” or “On Philosophy,” contains the suggestion, pointed out by Christopher Bruell, that the arts (“techne:” the signification is so general that by “arts” I mean all technology), which I think we can safely say lead to the idea that “all is convention” if leaned upon exclusively, are really emergent from passion, the passion that we all have to be effective, to have our wishes come true (hence the main interlocutor of the “Lovers” keeps thinking “noble” = “good” = “useful” and keeps getting into trouble, poor man).

I have not discussed the ideas of motion and rest, and I apologize for being so ambiguous about the “darkness” that may underlie “justice.” I don’t understand it much myself – I wish most men would hold that justice was divine, quite frankly, for I long for the day when the Torah is written on men’s hearts, and I know this world would be a better place then. But Socrates is challenging that, implying that wisdom has to be flighty, has to go off in other directions. For wisdom starts with justice, starts with happiness, and ends up grappling with the cosmos in order to get something that makes sense. And maybe the darkness that I am seeing in justice being a more earthly concern is really the darkness from wisdom being a heavenly concern.

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