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Listers, it would be difficult to exaggerate the place of Plato’s Republic in the West. As Alfred North Whitehead, a twentieth century matematician and philosopher, famously proclaimed, “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”1 Yet, the philosophy of Plato is a unique creature, because “Plato never speaks to us in his own name, for only his dialogues on his characters speak.”2 It could be said “there is then no Platonic teaching; at most there is the teaching of the men who are the chief characters of his dialogues” and chief amongst those characters would be Socrates.3 In fact, “one could say that Plato’s dialogues are as a whole are less the presentation of a teaching than a monument to the life of Socrates—to the core of his life: they all show how Socrates engaged in his most important work, the awakening of his fellow men and the attempting to guide them toward the good life which he himself was living.”4

Most likely written around 380 BC amongst the middle period of Plato’s writings, the Republic, on its face, is about justice. It takes up questions exploring the nature of justice, whether justice is more beneficial to the individual than injustice, and the character and relations of the just man and the just city. On a deeper level, it is also about “the relationship of the philosopher to the political community.”5 In the dialogue the Apology, the political authority of Athens places Socrates on trial, because, among other reasons, the role of the philosopher as exhibited by Socrates—the desire for truth—dissipates the old pagan myths, hollow traditions, and other irrationalities that form the status quo of the city.6 Whereas in the Apology Socrates was sentenced to death, the Republic allows for a “leisurely discussion among cultivated friendly men.”7 In the Republic, Socrates seeks to present a “reformed philosophy” where the philosopher moves from a threat to the city to its “greatest benefactor.”8 However, “careful reading will reveal that this alleged harmony is more of a paradox than a solution, that it covers a host of tensions which come to light in less than perfect cases.”9 In short, the harmony submitted depends on the city listening to the philosopher, crafting its regime based on the insights of the philosopher, and even asking the philosopher to lead as king. The harmony proposed in the Republic is still a threat to the present powers of the city. And insofar as Socrates teaches the young persons of Athens to live the philosophic life, the just life, the good life, the city sees him as corrupting the youth. In fact, “the Republic shows us why Socrates was accused and why there was good reason to accuse him.”10

The dichotomy between Athens and Socrates, between the city and the philosopher, and between comfortable falsehoods and the quest for truth still exists in the modern world. To embrace the truth takes “sacrifice” and “these sacrifices are so great that to many they do not seem worthwhile: one of the most civilized cities which has ever existed thought it better to sacrifice philosophy in the person of Socrates rather than face the alternative he presented.”11 It is still difficult for us to “see the true radicalness of the philosophic life” due to our “prejudices” as persons of the city.12 It may be believed that “hostility to philosophy is the natural condition of man and the city,” and as such, “the Republic is the best antidote to our prejudice.”13 Following Socrates, we must learn how to break free of falsehoods and irrationalities and live the good life.

Book One

Reading Questions

  1. Who is Cephalus? What does he propose justice is? How does Socrates respond? What element of the city, the polis, does Cephalus resemble?

  2. Who is Polemarchus? What element of the polis does Polemarchus resemble? How does he enter the conversation? What is his thesis of justice? What is Socrates’ threefold response to Polemarchus’ thesis on justice? What is the relationship between Cephalus and Polemarchus as analogues of the city?

  3. Who is Thrasymachus? How does he enter the conversation? What element of the polis does he resemble? What is his thesis on justice?

  4. Who is Cleitophon? How does Cleitophon try and modify Thrasymachus’ statement on justice? What is Thrasymachus’ response to Cleitophon?

  5. How does Socrates respond to Thrasymachus? In reponse, why does Thrasymachus claim Socrates does not “even recognize sheep or shepherd”? Why does Thrasymachus believe the unjust man will be profitable and happy and the just man unprofitable and unhappy? How does Socrates address whether a ruler rules for his or her own profit or the profit of his or her own people?

  6. What is Socrates’ threefold response to Thrasymachus’ argument that the unjust man is happier and more advantaged than the just man?

  7. What is Socrates’ assessment of his discussion with Thrasymachus at the end of Book One?

Question and Answers

1. Who is Cephalus? What does he propose justice is? How does Socrates respond? What element of the city, the polis, does Cephalus resemble?

Father of Polemarchus, Cephalus submits a theory of justice that appears primarily concerned with his duty toward men and toward the gods—to give both the gods and men what is due to them (330d-331b). As his death approaches, he relies on the poets and their supernatural tales of judgment, punishment, and reward after death (330d-331b; Bloom, 314). The reality of death and possibility of suffering supernatural penalties leads Cephalus to make sacrifices to the gods for his previous unjust acts (330d-b).

Socrates, in response to this very simple form of justice (to give each man what is due to them), responds by noting that there are times in which giving a man that which he is due could be unjust, e.g., giving an insane man his weapon back (331c); thus, justice cannot simply be giving back what one owes to men. Cephalus’ reaction is notable. First, he appears to agree with Socrates’ critique, as he states, “What you say is right” (331d). Yet, for Cephalus to agree with Socrates would mean for Cephalus to question the very principle that is currently animating his life. Note that after Polemarchus, the son of Cephalus, enters the conversation, Cephalus does two notable actions: first, he leaves the conversation all together, and second, he leaves to go tend to his sacrifices (331d). Faced with the prospect of questioning his understanding of justice, an understanding that animates his life, he appears to simple leave and return to his ways.

The text of the Republic is one that arguably invites the reader to contemplate the truth of justice on multiple layers. For example, there is the layer of the dialogue itself, e.g., Socrates and Cephalus discussing justice. Yet, there appears to be another layer, and that layer is one where the interlocutors stand as analogues to the city, the polis, the republic itself. For example, Cephalus, with his wealth, age, and religious piety, represents those factors that, in the absence of true justice, can stand as more easily understood substitutes (Bloom, 312). Therefore, Cephalus stands as a type of “ancestral regime,” and it is fitting he would be the first interlocutor Socrates, who stands for Wisdom or the Philosopher in the polis, must engage. The old unchallenged ways must be set aside first if there is going to be any true discussion on justice. Notice that in the face of even the most basic rational inquiry into the ancestral notion of justice, Cephalus, the analogue for such notions, unravels and leaves to continue on as if the rational inquiry was never presented.14

2. Who is Polemarchus? What element of the polis does Polemarchus resemble? How does he enter the conversation? What is his thesis of justice? What is Socrates’ threefold response to Polemarchus’ thesis on justice? What is the relationship between Cephalus and Polemarchus as analogues of the city?

Polemarchus, whose name means something akin to “warlord,” is the son of Cephalus. Whereas Cephalus represented the ancestral regime, Polemarchus may represent power within the regime. Note it is Polemarchus who compels Socrates, the philosopher, to stay at the festival with them (327b). Polemarchus and Socrates will introduce a dialogue between power and wisdom—between political authority and the philosopher. Wanting to defend his father’s definition of justice (3331d), but faced with the same objection Socrates posed to his father, Polemarchus modifies his father’s theory of justice to be benefiting one’s friends and harming one’s enemies (332a-b; cf. 334b; Bloom 317). Unwittingly, Polemarchus introduces two “great themes” into the Republic: friendship and the good, because, in order to benefit one’s friends, one must know both what a friend is and what is good for them (Bloom, 317).

Socrates’ response can be divided into three distinct parts (Bloom, 319). First, the proposition that one must do good for one’s friends necessitates that one understands what is good in order to give it to the friend (332c-335b). As such, Socrates compares justice in this context to medicine, i.e., the doctor must practice medicine by knowing what good to give his patient. Here, justice becomes an art. However, where the good the art of medicine provides is easily apparent, the health of the body, the dialogue of Polemarchus and Socrates leads into an inquiry into what is the good in the art of justice (Bloom, 319, 322)?

Second, Socrates challenges the ability of man to know who his true friends are (334e; Bloom, 323). As Socrates states, “all human beings who make mistakes—it will turn out to be just to harm friends, for their friends are bad; and just to help enemies, for they are good” (334e). In response, Polemarchus attempts to pivot to those who appear to be friends (334e; Bloom, 323). Socrates shows this still leads to injustices, as a man, thinking he is doing good for a friend, could be committing an injustice (Bloom, 323). Polemarchus appears to conflate that which is truly the good with simply that which is one’s own, e.g., friends, family, nation, etc. (Bloom, 323).

Third, Socrates addresses whether a just man could do harm to another (335b-336a; Bloom, 324). Socrates’ thesis seems to be a completely “unpolitical view,” given the impractibility of claming a just man can never harm anyone. On the other hand, for Polemarchus, the proposition that justice is benefiting your friends and harming your enemies appears very practicable given the realities of the polis, and seems to further imply that benefiting your friends is naturally tethered to harming your enemies given the scarcity of resoruces (Bloom, 324). These contrasting views between Socrates and Polemarchus, between wisdom and power, seems to demonstrate that Socrates holds knowledge as the highest good, whereas Polemarchus holds the city as the highest good (Bloom, 324). Socrates, as the philosopher, is attempting to lead political auhtority to see there is something greater than the polis.

Returning to Socrates’ notion that the just man can do not harm, it appears Socrates’ understanding of “harming,” coupled with an understanding that knowledge is the highest good, means making another unjust and is not necessarily inconsistent with lying, stealing, or evening killing an enemy, as Polemarchus would hold, as long as one is not made unjust by doing it (335c; Bloom, 325). Even with Socrates’ questions to Polemarchus, one is left to ponder whether Socrates actually ever condemns Polemarchus’ view of justice as a whole. In fact, it appears Polemarchus’ view of justice can be read as a “necessary political definition of justice,” as it articulates the spirit of citizenship in almost all regimes—-to benefit and protect one’s own (friends, family, nation) and to harm the enemies of all that one holds dear (Bloom, 318). Moreover, there is a good argument that later in the Republic Socrates will incorporate Polemarchus’ politically necessary definition of just into his own city-in-speech (See Bloom, 318).

Lastly, the relationship between Cephalus—as the ancestral regime—as the father of Polemarchus—power in the regime—is worthy of attention. In short, there may be a connection between Cephalus being those ancestral substitutes for justice that must be dissipated to have a proper rational inquiry of justice, and Polemarchus, who introduces the lowest understanding of justice necessary for political life.

3. Who is Thrasymachus? How does he enter the conversation? What element of the polis does he resemble? What is his thesis on justice?

Thrasymachus, a sophist, bursts into the conversation, and, as Socrates remarks, Thrasymachus was “hunched up like a wild beast, he flung himself at us as if to tear us to pieces” (335b). Like Polemarchus, Thrasymachus arguably serves as an analogue of power, but unlike Polemarchus who demonstrated power in dialogue with the philosopher, Thrasymachus seems to represent the power of the polis unwilling to dialogue with the philosopher—it is politically charged rhetoric disregarding the dialetic of the philosopher (See Bloom, 326). Thrasymarchus declares, “I say that the just is nothing other than the advantage of the stronger” (337c). As Thrasymarchus makes clear, the “stronger” are those who rule the city, the polis, and they rule it for their own advantage. Thrasymachus, as an analogue of the power of the polis, seems to submit a theory of justice in which there is no higher authority than the will of those who rule the city and those who rule the city do so for their own good. There is no common good of the polis under Thrasymachus (See Bloom, 327.). Justice is the advantage of those who rule. Insofar as Thrasymachus and Socrates represent the authority of the polis clashing with the philosopher, the rhetoric between them in many ways echoes the trial of Socrates found in the Apology (Bloom, 326).

4. Who is Cleitophon? How does Cleitophon try and modify Thrasymachus’ statement on justice? What is Thrasymachus’ response to Cleitophon?

Cleitophon, a politician of Athens and friend of Thrasymachus, attempts to state that Thrasymachus meant, “what seems to the stronger to be the advantage of the stronger, whether it is advantageous or not” (Emphasis added; 340b). Thrasymachus rejects Cleitophon’s argument by holding to the untenable position that rulers, as craftsmen, do not make mistakes as to their advantage, and if they did make a mistake then they are not truly a craftsmen (340c-e, 341a). The untenable nature of this claim shows Thrasymachus as the sophist making a rhetortical point rather than one engaged in a true dialectic with Socrates the philosopher. Moreover, “to the extent that in this drama Thrasymachus plays the role of the city, he echoes the city’s insistence that it knows the truth” (Bloom, 330).

5. How does Socrates respond to Thrasymachus? In reponse, why does Thrasymachus claim Socrates does not “even recognize sheep or shepherd”? Why does Thrasymachus believe the unjust man will be profitable and happy and the just man unprofitable and unhappy? How does Socrates address whether a ruler rules for his or her own profit or the profit of his or her own people?

In retort, Socrates compares the art of justice to the art of medicine. Just as the doctor, to practice his art well, must care for the good of his patient, so too does the ruler, who practices the art of justice care for the good of his citizens (342c-e). Thrasymachus rejoins, in a belligerent manner, that Socrates cannot “even recognize sheep or shepherd” (342a). Thrasymachus continues, “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” (343b). He goes on to explain how the unjust man will always profit over the just man (334c-e). Then, due to these advantages, Thrasymachus declares that those who turn to injustice will be happy and those who remain just will be unhappy or “most wretched” (344a).

In the wake of Thrasymachus’ claim that injustice brings more profit and happiness than justice, Socrates is left to now not only continue his search for the meaning of justice but now also show that it is more profitable and brings a man more happiness than injustice (345a)—-this dual inquiry into the nature of justice will animate much of the Republic. In response, Socrates returns again to comparing the art of justice to other arts. He notes that each art provides a particular benefit by which the art is distinguished from other arts (346a). The doctor is distinct from the ship captain or pilot as the art of medicine brings health and the art of sailing brings safe passage. He further notes that there is a wage-earners art that brings wages that, according to its particular benefit, is distinct from the other arts (346a). However, Socrates notes that the doctor, the captain, and even the ruler are all paid for their art; thus, Socrates notes that all these craftsmen draw from an additional art that is common to them all—-the wage-earner’s art in order to bring the benefit of wages to the craftsman (346b). Socrates then concludes that the fact each craftsman must separately engage in the wage-earner’s art is further evidence that each craft, including ruling, is done for the benefit of the other. If it was not, then they would have no right to seek wages for their craft, as it would benefit themselves and not the other (347e; cf. Bloom, 333 who notes this unviveral wage-earner’s art arguably introduces economics as an architectonic art, like justice).

6. What is Socrates’ threefold response to Thrasymachus’ argument that the unjust man is happier and more advantaged than the just man?

First, Socrates sets out to show that claiming injustice to be a virtue by which one can gain an advantage over others is contrary to the virtue of wisdom (350c-d; Bloom, 336). Yet, Socrates appears to be attempting to discuss whether or not justice is truly advantageous without having first discerned a true definition of justice; thus, there arises a legitimate question here regarding Socrates’ intent. Is Socrates still engaged in a true dialectic or, faced with the belligerent city seen analagously in Thrasymachus, has he shifted to a bit of rhetoric designed to ultimately discredit Thrasymachus as unwise before his audience (Bloom, 336)?

Second, Socrates having made Thrasymachus agree that justice is a virtue and an aspect of wisdom, attempts to show that justice is “mightier than injustice,” because it allows groups of persons to accomplish their tasks (351a). For example, Socrates asks, “do you believe that either a city, or any 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 toward one another?” (351c). Even with a band of robbers it is justice, not injustice, that allows them to accomplish their unjust task, because, as Socrates notes, if the robbers were unjust toward one another they would accomplish nothing (351a-352c). While Socrates’ does demonstrate the necessity of justice, justice itself, could be read as little more than honor amongst thieves (Bloom, 336).

Third, Socrates appears to make a teleological argument regarding the nature of justice as a virtue (352a-354a). For Socrates, each thing has a particular end, a telos, that it is assigned to accomplish. Socrates gives the example of cutting a vine (353a). One could use a dagger for such a task, but to accomplish the task well, using a pruning knife would be best, because the pruning knife is designed to accomplish that particular task. Similarly, one could use a pruning knife for many things, but it would best be used for pruning. Thus, Socrates asks Thrasymachus, “does there seem to you also to be a virtue for each thing to which some work is assigned?” (352b) For example, Socrates speaks of the virtue of the eyes would be to see, the virtue of the ears would be to hear, and so forth. He then inquires, “Could eyes ever do a fine job of their work if they did not have their proper virtue but, instead of virtue, vice”? (353c) Virtue here is the means, the strength, to accomplish the particular task or telos; thus, a vice, would be a corruption of that virtue and would impede the telos. In the eyes, that could mean blindness or in the ears deafness (353c-d). Here, Socrates leads Thrasymachus into an understanding, or at least an acquiessences, that the soul too has a task—-to live, and just like the eyes, ears, and all other things, it needs its virtue to accomplish that task, end, or telos (353d-e). As Thrasymachus has already agreed that justice is a virtue, Socrates points out that justice then, as a virtue, is necessary for the soul to live and live well. Injustice, a vice, could only hurt the task of the soul—not benefit it. Therefore, the souls that has virtue, justice included, would live well. Socrates then states, “And the man who lives well is blessed and happy, and the man who does not is the opposite” (354a). Socrates concludes, “Then, my blessed Thrasymachus, injustice is never more profitable than justice” (354a).

7. What is Socrates’ assessment of his discussion with Thrasymachus at the end of Book One?

At the end of Book One, Socrates compares himself to gluttons who, instead of proceeding orderly, “grab at whatever is set before them to get a taste of it, before they have in proper measure enjoyed what went before” (354b). Here, Socrates seemingly admits that the conversation has become disordered, as it were, by discussing whether justice is a virtue or whether it is more advantageous than injustice without first having defined justice (354b-c). The admission of Socrates lends to the reading that his handling of Thrasymachus was more rhetoric than true dialectic and was meant more to disarm Thrasymachus, who represents the polis, than to pursue truth together. Similarly to how Cephalus, as the ancestral regime, had to be set aside to allow for rational inquiry, Socrates had to placate Thrasymachus, the dangerous authority of the city, in order to return to a true dialetic on justice. As further evidence of this view, even though Socrates concludes at the end of Book One, “injustice is never more profitable than justice,” Book Two will begin by resurrecting Thrasymachus’ exact argument; but now, with Thrasymachus disarmed and placated, it can be discussed within a proper dialetic. The success Socrates enjoys in the Republic and the conversations that follow stand in contrast to his defense in the Apology, where the authorities of the regime sentence him to death (See Bloom, 326).


  1. Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology (1929), Pt. II, ch. 1, sec. 1. ↩︎

  2. History of Political Philosophy, Third Edition, eds. Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey, Plato, 33. ↩︎

  3. Strauss, 33. ↩︎

  4. Strauss, 33. ↩︎

  5. The Republic of Plato, Second Edition, Allan Bloom, 307; all quotes from the Republic are taken from Bloom’s translation; citation to “Bloom” refers to his interpretive essay. ↩︎

  6. cf. Bloom, 308. ↩︎

  7. Bloom, 308. ↩︎

  8. Bloom, 309. ↩︎

  9. Bloom, 309. ↩︎

  10. Bloom, 309. ↩︎

  11. Bloom, 310. ↩︎

  12. Bloom, 310. ↩︎

  13. Bloom, 310. ↩︎

  14. It is also notable that Socrates sets aside any consideration of what is due the gods, thus, the rest of the conversation on justice remains within the realm of the natural not the supernatural (Bloom, 314). In contrast, however, even though Socrates appears to deunk the religious myth of Cephalus at the beginning of the Republic, Sorates himself submits a religious myth at the end of the Republic. There are serious considerations about whether the Republic is then bookended in religious myth, and whether or not Socrates can actually answer the question of why justice is better than injustice without appealing to the supernatural. ↩︎