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On Polemarchus: Commentary on the Republic of Plato, 331d-336a (part 4)

part 1 | part 2 | part 3 | part 4

Notes on 332d-333c

Socrates’ questions about medicine and cooking – where each art gives “benefits” that are both “owed and fitting” – lead Polemarchus to assert, perhaps more exuberantly than he did before, that justice must be an art which gives “benefits and harms to friends and enemies” (332d).

In response to hearing this, Socrates does something most curious: he seems to repeat the answer Polemarchus gives in his own question – “Does he [Simonides] mean that justice is doing good to friends and harm to enemies?”

Polemarchus assents, but we need to wonder: Did Socrates really repeat himself? It looks like there is a dramatic difference between the two questions, as the conception of “art” “giving benefits or harms” is not concerned with the question of an actual person “doing” something for friends or against enemies. That more general question about “doing” hints that there justice may be more universal than some other arts – if a region has no clay, can there be pottery there? And yet, while lawmaking may be an art whose concern is justice, it would seem all people have lawmakers of a sort, as if justice were a concern intrinsic to being human, beyond time and place. Socrates from 332e – 333b brings up the examples of those who practice the arts (a doctor, a pilot, a farmer, a shoemaker) and his point is probably related to the fact that justice is something beyond war and peace.

To elaborate on that last sentence: Polemarchus, after going through the doctor/pilot examples, and asserting that each is someone to be trusted with health or piloting, is asked about the just man, whom he then asserts to be trustworthy in war. Then Socrates asks him about the farmer and the shoemaker and allows him to assert ridiculously that each only produces in peace for the sake of “acquiring” fruits or shoes, as if farming had nothing to do with taking care of the earth, or shoemaking nothing to do with taking care of special needs – Polemarchus, insisting that “benefits or harms” are what “art” gives, misplaces what is truly universal about art, which we discussed last time: there is a chasing after perfection inherent in art.

Socrates presses Polemarchus on the significance of justice in peacetime, to hear Polemarchus say that it is “contracts,” specifically “partnerships” (which Bloom says has military implications for Polemarchus, whose name means “chieftain” or “leader in war”) that make the just man sought after.

It is that issue of contracts that I want to spend some time discussing. Modern constitutionalism is predicated on a pseudo-myth: once, we were in a “state of nature,” where all men were at perpetual war with each other. We contracted out of that violent state, which in degrees may or may not have been so violent, and formed a more formal social bond in order to have people who may have injured us punished with violence. I don’t care about the difference between Hobbes and Locke – my point is simple: the state is the institution that has the monopoly on violence, and this comes about because of a “contract.”

To push matters even further, we know that the protection of private property, that commercial enterprises, are what the modern state considers its fundamental objective. Security for all is granted through the state’s protecting property rights: if the government starts taking over land, it is a very clear sign it is tyrannical, and an outward physical sign that warns us about other freedoms that are greater which it might encroach on next (this discussion is more complete in Montesquieu, note the discussion of civil and political law).

So Polemarchus is giving voice to all of modern life in saying “contracts.” He does so in a peculiar way, though – note that “partnerships,” having a more military application, ties in with his want to have a just man with him in battle. He is someone who probably wants to be part of something where people can indeed get rich, but more importantly, stand by each other.

What criticism can we level at this right-winger that I’d like to take out for a beer? Well, we know his conception of justice to be dismissive of the universal in the proper sense: Socrates asks him whether he wants someone who is just, someone trustworthy in contracts, to advise him when playing draughts (leisure), or housebuilding (necessity), or finally in harp playing (music, which is a complete liberal education for the Greeks). Of course Polemarchus doesn’t see the relevance of “justice” to any of these endeavors, which unfortunately constitute the whole of life.

Furthermore, Polemarchus asserts that justice is merely about money, since contracts are pretty much only about that. This leads to an issue very, very relevant to us in this day and age of “enlightened self-interest.” Many people hold that the free market adapts based on human need, and that from our selfishness, great goods for everyone are created. Others hold that since the market does not distribute the many goods created presently fairly, there needs to be a redistribution. Both sides take human selfishness for granted as either 1) a force for good or 2) something that needs to be placated instantly if there is to be justice, for others are enjoying their selfish desires to an incredible degree. (I realize #2 is a bit unfair, but my point is that the dynamic involved has less to do with “charity” or an “equality in virtue” and more to do with pure power).

Now what is key is that justice in both cases is peripheral. I’m serious about that, even in the case of poverty advocates – their argument is that to take care of the necessities is justice, but strictly speaking, the taking care of necessities is actually prior to justice in our order. After all, life, liberty and property come first. That may sound like a too-fine distinction, since I’m not accusing them of anything now, just a conflation of words. But I am actually accusing all of us of something, in that justice is peripheral to our personal security. Our belief, consistent throughout, is that if there is provision, justice may come about, as if it were something extraneous to the actual, real good of having stuff.

Socrates, in response to this sort of logic, brings up two points with Polemarchus – would he want someone just when buying horses? Would he want someone just when buying ships? Or would he want to forge partnerships with those who know horses and know ships?

The metaphor is obvious: horses are the symbol of the aristocracy, those who comprise the cavalry and allow an army even of the masses a superior element in land battles. Ships aren’t just the power which comprise a navy, but also invoke the metaphor of the “ship of state.” If you place your trust in market forces, even if you plan to redistribute what is given by those forces, you miss that the accumulation of wealth empowers some in the meantime (or, in a place governed by populist suspicion, the lack of wealth inspires demagogues). Either way, the market’s distribution/lack of distribution is not prior to a more fundamental force, a more fundamental question: who rules when all is said and done? That question can come up militarily, in being threatened externally, but again it can come up in the mere attempting of people to make money and ignore government. The power of art will not allow justice be a concern of wealth only.

A Final Note To Wrap This Up

I think the highest points have already been reached in these lectures. That does not mean that working to 336a is a waste. It isn’t: one can clearly see the problem of the Good, the Just, the Divine and the Earthly make itself known yet again. When Socrates says that the just man does no harm (335 e), he means it: it is the point of convergence between the Good and the Just, and the point from which, since just men do have to do harm in the reality of enforcing justice, the divergence between the good and the just will start.

The issue of knowing evil to be able to do good is related to that, but also not related: most of the issues that occur from 333d-336a have to do with our inability to separate “art” from “justice.” We make so many mistakes regarding “art” – we think of it as power; we think of it threatened by political power; we think it justice; we think it characteristic of injustice; we see it connected with the base; we see it connected with the divine. Polemarchus gets into the issue of “justice must be contingent of knowledge of injustice” when thinking that justice must be a useless art, for it must involve mere protection of things lying around. To posit justice as anything more than trustworthiness would have it make claims on other arts. And I think what is hilarious is how even letting things lie around requires an enormous knowledge of art: to be just actually requires one have the skill, or make a substantial attempt, to protect another.

I think I have provided plenty to go through these passages up to 336a: there are all sorts of issues at stake, and the truth is, the discussion with Polemarchus is a rich mini-dialogue within the greater dramatic work worth looking at on its own. Perhaps later I will finish this commentary. But right now, there are other things to attend to.

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1 Comment

  1. I feel much better today, thank you. I didn’t realize that I left my phone off all day after seeing the doctor. I probably wouldn’t have answered it though, I was knocked out all day.

    I am sitting at work blankly staring at the screen. I don’t feel like working today at all. So much on my mind and mostly because I cannot concentrate on anything for more than a moment. Ughh!

    It’s 11 a.m. and I only have a few hours left in the day. A rather unproductive, unless you count getting to work, day.

    The format is fine, the post is too long though. Cut it out! You can’t see the hand gestures as I say that.

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