When read with an eye toward politics, all sorts of bad, misguided lessons are drawn from Plato’s Republic. Readers who develop theories of domination and misogyny or guidelines for actual policies miss the point of the work entirely. Plato does not offer a tale of what political or social organization should be. He instead offers a conceptually simple framework for how to approach the whole of communal life: Act justly, aim for the Good, and practice epistemic humility in both of these endeavors. If this framework were easy to actualize, the rest of the dialogue and, indeed, the subsequent history of philosophy, would be unnecessary.
Several competing definitions of justice are presented in the first few pages of the Republic: deference to elders, the primacy of power, and a friend–enemy distinction, among others. When reading through these exchanges, one must pause to realize that Socrates never actually disagrees with any of these. Each conception of justice contains elements of actual justice and might even be considered just—if only narrowly and incompletely. While it may be an exaggeration to say that Plato preemptively refuted core concepts in modern political thought, it would be foolish to think that Plato did not grapple with the same central claims about the nature of power or political conflict. Ancient thinkers were acutely prescient of modern concerns.
The most direct route to realizing justice is to determine whether something leads to and is in accord with that which is Good. This task of determining what this Good entails is a formidable and, in all likelihood, impossible one. What is good for traits may depend on various conditions of birth, taste, or any number of individuating traits. What is good for states may depend on GDP, resource access, military size, or character of its citizenry. Certainly all of these considerations help to determine what is contextually good, but the Good that concerns Plato, and myself in this essay, is that which provides meaning to every other good thing. The Good as such is an abstract ideal. This Good is indeed what is best in every way for every element of a system, but it is not merely an aggregation of every individual good. Grasping what is Good and how we can get closer to it will require further explanation later. While my account of the Good will be inadequate, we will come to see that an approximation is more than sufficient for political life.
The Republic’s most important aspect for any praxis is Plato’s theory of knowledge and its correspondent epistemic humility. Supplementing the popular Socratic refrain that he knows nothing, Plato demonstrates that one cannot be certain of the veracity of anything. True or false, right or wrong, just or unjust, one cannot determine: In the late hours of the night, one cannot distinguish between the coming dawn or a glowing phone. Despite this limited evaluation, there exist some ways out of this darkness. By comparison with other sources of light, by examining whether the battery dies out over time, and by examining a host of other differences, one might be able to get a pretty good idea of where the light comes from.
What is justice? That is the most pressing question of the Republic and what the characters ask Socrates when they stop him on his walk home to Athens. In discussion, the interlocutors offer up three major concepts of what justice might be. Cephalus, the eldest of the group and head of the household where the discussions take place, offers that justice is speaking the truth to all and paying debts—returning to others what one borrows. Cephalus then decides that he will take leave of the conversation, avoiding the conflict and clearing his mind by going to make sacrifices for the ancient gods. Cephalus passes his spot in the conversation to his son Polemarchus, who explains that justice is giving to each what they are owed. In particular, it is seeing help given to friends and harm to enemies. The next interlocutor, Thrasymachus, argues also that justice is relative—whatever is to the benefit of the stronger is just and the strongest is both the most just and the adjudicator of justice.
Already, before the first book of the Republic has ended, readers have encountered prototypical arguments for traditionalist and pious conservatism, a friend–enemy divide, and a doctrine of effectual truth. Plato has dissected the most basic theories of political power that are possible. Thrasymachus’ argument is particularly interesting. He argues, “each ruling group sets down laws for its own advantage; a democracy sets down democratic laws; a tyranny, tyrannic laws; and the others do the same. And they declare that what they have set down—their own advantage—is just for the ruled, and the man who departs from it they punish as a breaker of the law and a doer of unjust deeds . . . in every city the same thing is just, the advantage of the established ruling body” (338e-339a). Thrasymachus’s argument, which appears the strongest presented in Book I, also seems to be the foremost descriptive analysis of contemporary politics.
If politics can be reduced to legislating personal advantage, one would rightly anticipate the behaviors of political elites to follow. They would likely reshape laws to ensure their positions in office and to enrich themselves, and they would spend large sums of money to control political discourse. Most importantly, each of these would be given a normative justification wherein elite interests are considered good and just.
This description sounds plucked out of contemporary discourse, not from an ancient work of philosophy. Thrasymachus observes, as would many twentieth-century critical theorists, that normative rules are established based on group interests. The elite of any society will dictate norms that only serve to further entrench their interests. Such an argument could easily be found in the pages of Jacobin criticizing Citizens United, or in the Federalist decrying the editorial stances of major media outlets. In all the years since Socrates’s execution, it seems that political life has hardly advanced beyond these concepts. Why is so much money spent on political advertising, on protracted court battles, and on influencing political discourse via blogs, magazines, and think tanks? It all goes to redoubling the norms of the ruling elite, and in turn inculcating future elites into the same system of belief. Why is much effort made to influence the beliefs of college students and even those too young to vote? It all enables the orientation of their politics and their dedication to power brokers rather than inquiry. This is justice for Thrasymachus. This is justice for contemporary politics as partisan judgements, and support for each party’s elite benefactors–beneficiaries, are given a moral façade.
It seems difficult to imagine any other way. Indeed, the other ideas of justice appear to be a shadow of Thrasymachus’s justice. Cephalus is concerned with familial status; Polemarchus is concerned with one’s status united with their compatriots contra their opponents; Thrasymachus is concerned with power qua power, status for its own sake. Are they mistaken? No. Are they correct? Not exactly.
As Book I of the Republic ends, Socrates is able to poke holes in each concept of justice but is incapable of providing a positive, concrete description of it. This is in no small part due to an inability to define what any good is that justice ought to ensure or maximize—let alone Good as an ultimate good. As does Socrates, we will now turn our attention to what exactly the Good is.
Socrates’s explanation depends on the comparison of an individual to a political community—stipulating that what is good or just in one ought to be comparably so in the other. In American political life, this correlation between individual goods and communal goods seems natura. After all, it is a core belief in our received traditions that the aggregation of disparate individual interests will produce the best national outcome—be this in economics, amongst factions, or in elections. But, while the ideas of Rousseau, Locke, Smith, and many others who inspired the American Revolution and modern life would insist that common good could be found in the summation of individuals’ goods, Socrates recognizes that the good of each is necessary for the other and cannot be observed or understood separately.
The bulk of what remains in the Republic consists of various discussions of how to promote, inculcate, and maintain the communal Good in the example of a partially just city. Socrates may or may not endorse a few means of doing so—class segregation, communal child-rearing, prohibition of poetry, and many other polemical and/or noxious ideas. Let us ignore all of these. Such a discussion is outside the context of this essay and, indeed, beside the point. What we should be curious about is how we know what is Good.
Socrates tells two tales to help explain the way in which we understand the Good: the Allegory of the Cave and Analogy of the Divided Line. In both of these, the Good is what gives meaning to everything else. Indeed, this Good is the referent for every other goodness in the world. It is the concept that actualizes the good that is present in happiness, love, or beauty. Without a Good that is truly superlative and beyond every other sense of good, these lesser things would not make sense as comparable insofar as they are good. The concept of overarching Good provides the common quality of goodness. The metaphysics this relies upon is truly the core of the Republic and is prior to any political question within the book—so too should it be for contemporary life.
What Socrates demonstrates over the course of the Republic is that no political action can make sense outside of its relationship to greater concepts and, particularly, the abstract concept of the Good. Tax cuts, budget surpluses, democratic participation, and any other metric one wishes to use, are meaningless without some concept of the good to which they aim. Subsequently, no particular good makes much sense without an overarching concept of what Good we ought to strive for. In contemporary politics, there is no sense of a proximal good or a teleological good. That is to say, we have scant awareness of what good policies do and even less of what greater good all of the government’s policies are seeking.
From the left, one might seek to enact policies that provide more government oversight in social relations so as to ensure that an individual is able to live in accordance with their personal identity or decisions they make—government for the sake of protecting individual liberty. From the right, the inverse would be expected to occur. A reduction in government authority would be sought to provide more decisions that the individual could make—government to the extent that it does not infringe on individual liberty. In either instance, there is a complete abnegation of the responsibility to decide what is actually good—this is a decision left to every individual.
Without any guidance for individuals on how to direct their lives to any sort of good, everyone struggles to find their own, an endeavor that, while difficult for a society, is nearly impossible to succeed in alone. Instead, people will seek satiation passions or easy, ephemeral goods to occupy their thirsting for greater virtues or pleasures. It is no wonder so many feel a void of purpose and meaning in a society that tells you that neither exists besides what you may conjure up for yourself. As such, American politics is largely a procedural arrangement for figuring out the best way to leave people to their own devices, leaving them disheartened in a chaotic world. Such a society can only be disheartening and chaotic.
Now, to be fair, it is not easy to decide what things are good for a political community or to develop a concept of what the metaphysical Good is. Socrates does not seem to have ever come close to doing either. But Socrates does have a method for helping to discern the solution to these problems in what could be described as a dialectic, or more simply comparative, approach to discovering what is just or good. By comparing different good governments or good goals, or even the bad examples of either, we might be able to recognize what unifies them in being good. In this effort, “I know it when I see it” might actually be a sufficient test of whether something is good. With other reference points, relative goodness and other characteristics can be determined. After a few instances, a vector of social good might even be constructed. Similarly, it helps to understand the deficiencies in goodness.
While there might not be anyone today who can match Socrates’s wisdom, there is the benefit of many years and regimes-worth of evidence to help in this new endeavor of “comparative goodness studies.” Yet this is not an endeavor widely undertaken in journalism or academia, where efficiency, individualization, and personal decision-making are the subjects of analysis. By analyzing historical case study after historical case study, political theorists ought to be able to come up with some concept of what is good; instead, the question is continually punted. Again, politics is now a constant methodological conflict: we debate how to increase the range of personal decisions but without any determination of which types of decisions might be preferable—which might be good.
Perhaps the most admirable characteristic of Socrates is his great epistemic humility. His refrain, “I only know that I know nothing,” or his willingness to treat interlocutors as far more intelligent than he, may sound goofy or half-hearted, even dishonest. But a key component of both the aforementioned stories is that, in the dark abyss of ignorance, it is almost impossible to separate up from down and real light from artificial. Since Socrates did not know if anything was true or not, there was always a possibility that some underlying piece of information was inaccurate or an argument was not as logically sound as it could be. However, without analysis and comparison of every idea, it would be impossible to evaluate any idea. At the discussion’s end, perhaps neither the Republic or any set of interlocutors can come to an agreement about what is true or just, but they should have a slightly better idea. Eventually, a multitude of marginal improvements develop into significant ones.
None of Socrates’s companions provide a perfect description of justice, but in totality we can understand some aspects of justice. We have some sense that communal good contributes to individual good; and, sometimes, individual good can strengthen the common good. But, outside some niche circles, there is little effort in truly understanding what is just or good in American political life—let alone what is the Good. By shirking authority or influence in helping to discern these concepts, the political apparatus instead defaults to maximizing types of individual liberty. This leaves the challenge of deciding how to use that liberty for good to the individual without providing any assistance. Without external guidance, everyone flails in the darkness.
It ought to be the role of political communities, and of all the commentators, theorists, and politicians therewithin, to help understand and shed a little light on what is good and just. Most attempts will be unsatisfactory, but there should be iterative improvements alongside the countless new political theories seeking renewal of justice. With time and a stronger framework for society, we should be able to more adequately guide in the direction of justice and deepen our cultural appreciation and desire for it. Missing the mark and not quite venturing toward the Good can be fixed, and any attempt to seek it would be an improvement to avoiding it. But, a failure to desire the Good degrades quality of life for the community and every individual—leaving both stagnant and incapable of becoming any closer to goodness or justice.
To varying extents Socrates’s interlocutors provide concepts of justice. While Thrasymachus’s definition is both accurate and appealing, it is incomplete and self-defeating without a greater Good for it to be directed towards. I do not anticipate that much agreement will easily be found on what is good for American political life, nor do I anticipate a discovery of the metaphysical Good. Yet, without the effort to understand, we only risk growing further from it. As long as there is no Good in American society, there will not be any justice.