We started off the year by reading some excerpts from St. Augustine’s City of God to examine how we are defined by our loves. This “definition” holds true for civilizations, states, and individuals.
Plato grew up in Athens and experienced the decline and fall of Athens as a result of the Peloponnesian War. Not only did they lose the war, the character of their democratic practice changed, and not long after their defeat they execute Socrates (Plato’s mentor) for impiety. All of this must have shaken Plato to his core, and he uses this psychological disruption to examine what went wrong. Clearly Athens’ foundation must have been faulty for it to crumble so quickly under stress. What purpose should government’s serve? How should they best accomplish this? These questions drove Plato’s thoughts throughout the Republic.
We will look at the early books of The Republic next week.
Socrates begins the dialog by assuming that people and governments naturally desire justice. But his companions immediately challenge this and make the following arguments:
- People give lip service to justice, but really what everybody wants is to practice injustice to their own advantage and get away with it, and they want their country to do the same.
- Even if people seek justice, it will only be for show. People will pursue it for a good reputation, or as a bargaining chip on future actions.
Thus, people don’t want justice, so it cannot form the foundation of any state. It won’t work, because it won’t be built for those who live in it. The most we can hope for is to limit the desire and practice of injustice.
Before we think these arguments harsh, let us examine them.
As to point 1, who among us has not gone to the grey areas of not being courteous in traffic, or dropped something and not picked it up, because “we were in a hurry.” We expect to get away with these actions — we justify them by our own self-interest.
As to point 2, some research has shown that when people perform a moral act, they then feel entitled to do an immoral one in exchange. The moral act “paid” for the transgression. The fact that many of these “exchanges” involve “small” sins is beside the point. I recall a recent example in my own life where, when driving I let a couple into my lane, but then the light went yellow before I could cross the intersection. I remember distinctly thinking to myself (as I went through the intersection on yellow-red) that, given my kindness, I “deserved” to go through the light. Perhaps I am not alone.
Socrates counters that even our bad actions are often an attempt to seek justice, however skewed that version of justice might be. So I “deserved” to cross the intersection, or we believe that “being in a hurry” makes it just that I run the light, or what have you. So justice remains a central concern. We can’t escape it, as our sins bear witness to it. But at this point the dialog shifts. Socrates supposes that, as a state is larger than an individual, we will see justice writ larger if we look at the state instead of individuals. So the key to understanding justice lies in understanding the state. If we want to understand the state, we must imagine a world where no state exists that we might see how it should be built from the ground up. When we see the state in this way, we will see the true nature of justice.
Next week we will continue to explore these themes, and our journey will lead us into all sorts of interesting places, such as art, music, and education.