Expression of Socratic wisdom.
We do not know, neither the Sophists, nor the Poets, nor the Orators, nor the Artists, nor I, what is the true, the good and the beautiful. But there is this difference between us, that, although these people know nothing, they all believe that they know something. Whereas I, while I know nothing, am at least not in doubt about it. So that the whole superiority in wisdom which the Oracle attributes to me, reduces to nothing more than that I am fully convinced that I am ignorant of the greatest things.
Apology of Socrates
Well known text by Plato concerning the role of philosophy in governing.
Unless the philosophers rule as kings or those now called kings and chiefs genuinely and adequately philosophize, and political power and philosophy coincide in the same place, while the many natures now making their way to either apart from the other are by necessity excluded, there is no rest from ills for the cities, my dear Glaucon, nor I think for human kind, nor will the regime we have now described in speech ever come forth from nature, insofar as possible, and see the light of day of the sun. This is what for so long was causing my hesitation to speak: seeking how very paradoxical it would be to say. For it is hard to see that in no other city would there be private or public happiness.
The Republic, 473 d
How ought we interpret this? I want to suggest that it ought not be taken to mean that a philosopher ought be directly involved in governing, in the form of holding office, but rather that philosophy ought influence the basic laws from behind the scenes, so to speak. This is how we might view the foundation of the United States. To say that the philosopher must rule, then, seems to mean that he ought help society understand how we arrive at those moral judgments that in turn drive policy making. Above all else, however, he is to shed light on the role that the serious pursuit of justice and goodness play in Western and American civilization and to get the moral judgments right on all levels of anlaysis.
Here, Thrasymachus states his definition of justice. I argue that this definition is thematic for the entire history of Western political philosophy, and that we cannot understand what the framers of the American constitution were aiming at without assuming they accepted Thrasymachus’ insight and then responding to it in the form of “checks and balances”.
Now listen, he said, “I say that the just is nothing other than the advantage of the stronger.
The Republic, 338c
Here Plato is responding to Thrasymachus’ deinfition of justice. He seems to be responding to Thrasymachus’ radical relativism by saying that even the bad have to live according to some standard. Political philosophy, then, begins with the clarification of the standards upon which we agree to live together. It is important to note that these standards do not directly seek to realize a deep moral-spiritual good, but are the foundations for such pursuits.
But gratify me this much more and tell me: do you believe that either a city, or an army, or pirates, or robbers, or any other tribe which has some common unjust enterprise would be able to accomplish anything, if its members acted unjustly to one another?”
“Surely not,” he said.
“And what if they didn’t act unjustly? Wouldn’t they be more able
to accomplish something?”
“Certainly,” he said.
“For surely, Thrasymachus, it’s injustice that produces factions,
hatreds, and quarrels among themselves, and justice that produces
unanimity and friendship. Isn’t it so?”
The Republic, 351c338c
In this discussion, which follows a few pages after the remarks above, Thrasymachus argues that self-interest is the sole motive on the part of the strong. I want to argue that in Republic I, we see Plato being silent about what motivates, and leaving all reference to motivations to Thrasymachus. I take Plato to thus esoterically be alluding to the ever-present motives of the most powerful types among us. The good political philosopher must take these motives into account, which is precisely, I argue, what the founders of the United States do. Only when the issue of the motives of the good person – the one who cares about the good and just for their own sake and for the good they bring us – does Plato himself speak. Plato refers to good as the “best type” below.
“Tell me, Socrates, do you have a wet-nurse?”
“Why this?” I said. “Shouldn’t you answer instead of asking such things?”
“Because,” he said, “you know she neglects your sniveling nose and doesn’t give it the wiping you need, since it’s her fault you do not even recognize sheep or shepherd.”
“Because of what, in particular?” I said.
“Because you suppose shepherds or cowherds consider the good of the sheep or the cows and fatten them and take care of them looking to something other than their masters’ good and their own; and so you also believe that the rulers in the cities, those who truly rule, think about the ruled differently from the way a man would regard sheep, and that night and day they consider anything else than how they will benefit themselves. And you are so far off about the just and justice, and the unjust and injustice, that you are unaware that justice and the just are really someone else’s good, the advantage of the man who is stronger and rules, and a personal harm to the man who obeys and serves.
“Therefore, Thrasymachus, it is plain by now that no art or kind of rule provides for its own benefit, but, as we have been saying all along, it provides for and commands the one who is ruled, considering his advantage — that of the weaker — and not that of the stronger. It is for just this reason, my dear Thrasymachus, that 1 said a moment ago that no one willingly chooses to rule and get mixed up in straightening out other people’s troubles; but he asks for wages, because the man who is to do anything fine by art never does what is best for himself nor does he command it, insofar as he is commanding by art, but rather what is best for the man who is ruled. It is for just this reason, as it seems, that there must be wages for those who are going to be willing to rule — either money, or honor, or a penalty if he should not rule.”
“What do you mean by that, Socrates?” said Glaucon. “The first two kinds of wages I know, but I don’t understand what penalty you mean and how you can say it is a kind of wage.”
“Then you don’t understand the wages of the best men,” I said, “on account of which the most decent men rule, when they are willing to rule. Or don’t you know that love of honor and love of money are said to be, and are, reproaches?”
“I do indeed,” he said.
“For this reason, therefore,” I said, “the good aren’t willing to rule for the sake of money or honor. For they don’t wish openly to exact wages for ruling and get called hirelings, nor on their own secretly to take a profit from their ruling and get called thieves. Nor, again, will they rule for the sake of honor. For they are not lovers of honor. Hence, necessity and a penalty must be there in addition for them, if they are going to be willing to rule— it is likely that this is the source of its being held to be shameful to seek to rule and not to await necessity— and the greatest of penalties is being ruled by a worse man if one is not willing to rule oneself. It is because they fear this, in my view, that decent men rule, when they do rule; and at that time they proceed to enter on rule, not as though they were going to something good, or as though they were going to be well off in it; but they enter on it as a necessity and because they have no one better than or like themselves to whom to turn it over. For it is likely that if a city of good men came to be, there would be a fight over not ruling, just as there is now over ruling; and there it would become manifest that a true ruler really does not naturally consider his own advantage but rather that of the one who is ruled.
The Republic, 346e –3473
Here, Plato discusses the Idea of the Good. With this idea, Plato gives language to point to the highest moral-spiritual object of human striving. There is no concept to speak of, but rather a pure idea of reason articulated by the most adept of philosophers. This object is a quasi-religious one, and some scholars argue that Plato’s Idea of the Good is an archaic reference to a monotheist notion of one God.
“So these aren’t the greatest,” he said, “but there is something yet greater than justice and the other things we went through?”
“There is both something greater,” I said, “and also even for these very virtues it won’t do to look at a sketch, as we did a while ago, but their most perfect elaboration must not be stinted. Or isn’t it ridiculous to make every effort so that other things of little worth be as precise and pure as can be, while not deeming the greatest things worth the greatest precision?”
“That’s a very worthy thought,” he said. “However, as to what you mean by the greatest study and what it concerns, do you think anyone is going to let you go without asking what it is?”
“Certainly not,” I said. “Just ask. At all events, it’s not a few times already that you have heard it; but now you are either not thinking or have it in mind to get hold of me again and cause me trouble. I suppose it’s rather the latter, since you have many times heard that the idea of the good is the greatest study and that it’s by availing oneself of it along with just things and the rest that they become useful and beneficial. And now you know pretty certainly that I’m going to say this and, besides this, that we don’t have sufficient knowledge of it.And, if we don’t know it and should have ever so much knowledge of the rest without this, you know that it’s no profit to us, just as there would be none in possessing something in the absence of the good.
“And what about this? Isn’t it clear that many men would choose to do, possess, and enjoy the reputation for things that are opined to be just and fair, even if they aren’t, while, when it comes to good things, no one is satisfied with what is opined to be so but each seeks the things that are, and from here on out everyone despises the opinion?”
“Quite so,” he said.
“Now this is what every soul pursues and for the sake of which it does everything. The soul divines that it is something but is at a loss e about it and unable to get a sufficient grasp of just what it is, or to have a stable trust such as it has about the rest. And because this is so, the soul loses any profit there might have been in the rest. Will we say that even those best men in the city, into whose hands we put everything, must be thus in the dark about a thing of this kind and importance?”
At all events, this is the way the phenomena look to me: in the knowable the last thing to be seen, and that with considerable effort, is the idea of the good; but once seen, it must be concluded that this is in fact the cause of all that is right and fair in everything — in the visible it gave birth to light and its sovereign; in the intelligible, itself sovereign, it provided truth and intelligence — and that the man who is going to act prudently in private or in public must see it. ”
“I, too, join you in supposing that,” he said, “at least in the way I can.” “Come, then,” I said, “and join me in supposing this, too, and don’t be surprised that the men who get to that point aren’t willing to mind the business of human beings, but rather that their souls are always eager to spend their time above. Surely that’s likely, if indeed this, too, follows the image of which I told before.”
“Of course it’s likely,” he said.
“And what about this? Do you suppose it is anything surprising, ” I said, “if a man, come from acts of divine contemplation to the human evils, is graceless and looks quite ridiculous when — with his sight still dim and before he has gotten sufficiently accustomed to the surrounding darkness — he is compelled in courts or elsewhere to contest about the shadows of the just or the representations of which they are the shadows, and to dispute about the way these things are understood by men who have never seen justice itself? ”
“And what about this? Isn’t it likely,” I said, “and necessary, as a consequence of what was said before, that those who are without education and experience of truth would never be adequate stewards of a city, nor would those who have been allowed to spend their time in education continuously to the end — the former because they don’t have any single goal in life at which they must aim in doing everything they do in private or in public, the latter because they won’t be willing to act, believing they have emigrated to a colony on the Isles of the Blessed^ while they are still alive?”
“True,” he said.
“Then our job as founders,” I said, “is to compel the best natures to go to the study which we were saying before is the greatest, to see the good and to go up that ascent; and, when they have gone up and seen sufficiently, not to permit them what is now permitted.”
“To remain there, ” I said, “and not be willing to go down again among those prisoners or share their labors and honors, whether they be slighter or more serious.”