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. According to us, it is in fact “just” that do these things.
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.
Plato has an expansive definition of justice. We tend to think of punishing right and wrong. But we can go further–justice “happens” when all is rightly ordered, when we can say that peace has been established. A just man will have rightly ordered loves and affections. A just state will not really even need laws, for just people govern themselves.
Understanding Plato involves entering into a pre-modern understanding of the world. We in the modern world usually tend to think that governments and societies are for us to mold and shape according to our needs and desires. The world comes to us as series of malleable situations. What matters most is that we agree on how to mold the clay of our society.
Ancient/medieval societies differed in their perception of the universe. They believed that human society should be ordered around a pre-existing and hierarchical reality. Life meant living into an already existing reality. Perhaps some of you may have said to your children, “The men of our family don’t act like this.” In other words, you expect your children to live into a reality, a habit or pattern, that predates them that they are not free to alter. This is a modified form of the pre-modern view–modified because the Johnson family still created this reality. For the Egyptians, Aztecs, Medievals, many Greeks and Romans, and so on, the structure of their society came from God/the gods.
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.