What is the value of justice in society? Do people behave justly due to fear of societal punishment? Do powerful people force the weak ones into submission through their enacted laws? How can justice be defined? Plato’s The Republic responds to these interrogatives in a series of books, starting from one to ten. In the books, the knowledge of good oscillates around one question. Are all people open to the knowledge of the value of being just? Plato presents his book in the form of a dialogue involving Socrates, who is his teacher and mentor.
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Socrates provides the sketch of an analogy of how an ideal city of knowledgeable people may appear. He takes this route since an account of a justified city-state will compare closely to an account of a justified individual. Thus, opening curtains for people to interpret and understand how a good city-state can appear ideally makes it possible to open knowledge of good to people such as Adeimantus, who engages in an eloquent speech that praises injustice in book II.
In the book I, Thrasymachus is also equally not open to the knowledge of good. He believes that the mighty people are always right, suggesting that power enables people to colonize the weak. With this accounts of some people in Plato’s The Republic, this paper claims that knowledge of good is not ultimately open to all but to the justified few. It also reveals that the scope of good is limited to knowledge of justice and that it increases the possibilities of political life.
Is Knowledge of the Good ultimately open to all or just to a Few?
In the context of the book The Republic, the question of knowledge of good revolves around what is wise and/or justified. The book defines justice as “speaking the truth and giving back what one takes” (Plato 7). In the house of Cephalus, Socrates engages in a debate involving justice upon being induced to do so by Thereupon. This discussion provides evidence that knowledge of good, or doing what is justified, is not open to all people, but to the few who can subject normalized issues to criticism. At the onset of the debate, Thrasymachus interrupts Socrates by sporadically bursting into the conversation.
He almost engages Socrates in physical battle due to an intense anger on the position held by Socrates about justice. Nevertheless, Socrates calms him down by means of questions and answers. At this early stage, Socrates offers evidence of his knowledge of good by appreciating and accepting other people’s opinions, even though such opinions may contradict his own opinions. Thrasymachus is not aware of this possibility.
Socrates makes Thrasymachus look foolish when he finally sheds light that he needs to respect other people’s ways of thought, thus prompting him to remain quiet for the better part of the debate. Socrates responds with counterarguments. However, both of them seem not satisfied. He proposes that they attempt to discuss justice in the context of an ideal city such as the Greek city, as opposed to individuals. Socrates attempts to instill knowledge of good to the participants of the dialogue through an exploration of the notion of political justice and/or societal justice before exploring the knowledge at an individual level.
In an ideal city that is driven by perspectives of complying with what is good, namely respect for justice as discussed in book II, Glaucon takes the position of Thrasymachus. He glorifies injustice through a mythical narrative of Gyges, as a test for the capacity of Socrates to defend what he thinks is good. In response, Socrates profiles a just city-state (polis) as the one that has political harmony that is maintained through political structures. According to him, justice exists when players in a society such as producers, rulers, and auxiliaries, engage in justified relationships (Plato 234).
Knowledge of good is possessed by those who perform their functions by using their power appropriately to avoid interference with other people’s exercise of their responsibilities. Rulers must ensure that they rule. Auxiliaries need to support the assurance that is given by the leaders while the makers reduce their rate of demonstrating their tactics that nature offers them. In this context, good is a matter of principle for the fulfillment of one’s roles in society without interfering with other people’s roles. However, as reflected by the themes of The Republic, real political systems such as those inspired by perspectives of oligarchy, totalitarianism, and democracy fail to have these ideals, thus implying that the knowledge of good is only limited to just a few people. This claim becomes more evident when Socrates asserts that injustice exists in the entire community, and that analysis of justice is only possible through the imagination of an ideal city-state. Such a city-state has all people possessing the knowledge of good in terms of what each person needs to do as part of his or her societal expectations.
The parallel between just society and the justified individuals provides evidence of the absence of knowledge of good among all people. One of the segments of the spirit characterizes the three different categories of people more when compared to others in the culture discussed in The Republic. These parts are rational, appetitive, and spirit. People who are driven by rational aspects of the soul have the knowledge of good open to them. This aspect “seeks after truth and is responsible for our philosophical inclinations” (Griffith 91). Subscription to truth ensures that people do justice to all other people through their actions and commitments to do what is right.
Unfortunately, the appetitive aspect of the soul guides some classes of people in society more than the rational aspect. For instance, The Republic reveals that the productive class may practice injustice due to high appetites for luxury, money, and pleasure (Sachs 51). Therefore, knowledge of good becomes hidden from people in this class.
Plato explains the hidden nature of knowledge of good to some people through three main allegories, namely the allegory of the cave, the sun, and the line. He claims that the entire world has two subdivisions. The first division is the visible world. It constitutes the world, which people grasp in their senses. People see this world physically. The second division involves the intelligible world, which can only be grasped through the mind. This world is made up of forms that are abstract in nature.
They include goodness, which does not change. To this extent, Plato recognized forms as “the objects of knowledge, because they possess the unchanging internal truth that the mind, as opposed to the senses, must apprehend” (Griffith 119). Therefore, the knowledge of good is only open to those who use the mind and not senses to inform their actions. Put differently, knowledge of the good is not ultimately open to all, but just to a few.
The Scope of Knowledge of Good and its effect on the Possibilities of Political Life
Based on Plato’s assertions in The Republic, the scope of knowledge of good is limited to doing justice. As such, political systems should function to foster justice. Knowledge of good is limited to a few who can use their minds to grasp forms that enhance doing justice to all. Such people include the philosophers. Thus, through philosophical tools of minds to access the knowledge of good, rulers can increase their possibilities of political life if they become philosophical kings. Such rulers understand different forms, especially good, which Plato claims “is the source of all other forms and of knowledge, truth, and beauty” (Griffith 171). People who are successful in their political life strive to do what is good for all. This endeavor is impossible without knowledge of what is good.
The above assertion suggests that knowledge of good is inseparable from the possibilities of political life. Plato fails to describe this relationship directly. However, “he attributes it to the intelligible realm” (Sachs 74). Using the cave parable, he depicts a spirit of a theorist going through a number of phases (best described by a line) in the noticeable dominion until it gets to the comprehensible empire where it finally acquires the form of decency. Through this allegory, Plato makes it clear that knowledge of good is not a province of all politicians. People seeking to increase their political life possibilities must not focus on instilling knowledge in their souls. They should instill the appropriate desires in the soul so that they can acquire the knowledge of goodness using rational aspect of the soul. Such people are also just.
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As revealed before, the scope of the knowledge of the good is limited to philosophers. They are the only class of people who have access to knowledge of good, which make them just. In this sense, the knowledge of good influences the possibilities of political life in that politicians who are guided by philosophical principles aim at fulfilling the desires of rational aspects of their souls by only doing what is just. This claim opposes the tyrant politician whose action is mainly guided by non-rational appetites (Griffith 163). By sketching the portrait of a tyrant, Plato demonstrates that the scope of knowledge of good for justice affects the possibilities of the political life. In book IX, he provides proof that injustice tortures the psyche of a tyrant politician.
Plato makes the point that knowledge of good impacts the probabilities of political life by providing the tools that are required to enable one do what he or she wants. However, this move is impossible for people who are not philosophers since they have divided souls and/or are ruled by the spirit and their appetite. Divided souls hinder people from doing what they want. Thus, people cannot seek money and honor while doing what they want.
The “Ability to do what is honorable or make money is not as flexible as the ability to do what is best” (Sachs 106). However, under certain appropriate circumstances, people can do what is honorable consistently. This strategy fails to work when people are divided in terms of what is honorable. Therefore, only one standard is available for people with knowledge of good to claim and/or defend as honorable. Such people have higher possibilities of succeeding in their political life.
From Plato’s perspective, an ideal ruler is the one who respects what is good for citizens. Socrates establishes his position on totalitarianism. He states, “Isn’t the first step towards agreement for us to ask ourselves what we can say is the greatest good in the organizations of a city…that good aiming at which the legislator must set down laws” (Plato 141). Here, the problem with totalitarianism is that politicians aim at unification of all cities. They fail to honor individual citizens’ interests. A ruler with higher possibilities of political life should benefit those who are ruled. Can he then disregard individual citizens’ good? From Plato’s claims in 430d-432a, citizens would agree on a ruler who respects what is good for each one of them. Such an agreement forms moderation for a city (430d) emanating from the existence of justice in the city (433b) (Plato 111-112).
Socrates proposes an ideal city, which ensures good for all citizens, as it does not have wars or class distinctions. He calls this city ‘healthy city’. Nevertheless, Glaucon rejects it referring to it as the ‘capital of pigs’ (369b-372e) (46-49). This observation suggests rulers creating a ‘healthy city’ are more embraced by citizens as they focus on what is good to them. Such a city is utopian. However, is it possible to create a city that delivers what is good for all? Is this outcome consistent with human nature? Nevertheless, such a city would do justice to all. Thus, its rulers have access to the knowledge of good. Hence, they have better possibilities in their political life.
Although The Republic offers important points on how people with access to knowledge of good can increase their possibilities of political life by doing justice to all people, questions arise in terms of the sustainability of various political systems. In book III, Socrates revealed that wealth could not enhance the capacity for navigating a ship since the concentration of a captain would be mainly on increasing wealth while disregarding the need to increase wisdom together with honor. “The injustice of economic disparity divides the rich and the poor, thus creating an environment for criminals and beggars to emerge” (Griffith 161).
People who have the knowledge of good rule out Socrates’ ideal city-state. Thus, such a challenge cannot occur. Nevertheless, can they realize this city? Since perfect political systems such as the one created by rulers of Socrates’ ideal city-state are hard to create in practice, the question of whether knowledge of good is open to any person at all, but not a few, becomes relevant.
Socrates established the connection between knowledge of good and the possibilities in political life by discussing four systems of power: Oligarchy, democracy, tyranny, and Timocracy. These systems of power emerge from human “tendency to be corrupted by power” (Sachs 115). Socrates said that philosopher-kings rule well because they are less likely to be corrupt apart from having knowledge of good. Thus, philosopher-kings rule a good city-state.
Such people rule not to gain individually, but to ensure enjoyment and good for polis (city-state). In a polis that is ruled by a philosopher-king, slaves and discrimination do not exist. Since both “women and men are taught exactly the same things, they can engage in equal activities for the good of the society” (451e) (Plato 130). Since a politician having this knowledge such as a philosopher-king stands better chances of ruling, it is not surprising that the modern-day leadership regimes advocate for the application of human rights principles without discrimination. Perhaps, Plato had foreseen the emergence of feminist movements, which have won the fight for equal engagement of women and men in politics and other societal sectors despite being rejected by totalitarian and authoritarian regimes.
In The Republic, Socrates’ dialogue reveals the character of justified people and city-states (polis). It establishes justice as constituting the greatest good in the society. Plato claims that all rulers should have knowledge of this good. Nevertheless, he confirms that the whole community is full of power-corrupted people who seek to satisfy their pleasure and appetite for wealth. He certainly believes that knowledge of good is not open to all, but only a few.
According to Socrates, these few people comprise the philosophers who can rule not simply to benefit themselves, but in the benefit of all citizens. In an ideal city-state, which is ruled by philosopher-kings, there is no gender discrimination, economic discrimination, or war. Rulers do not unify polis. Instead, they value the good for individual citizens. Citizens agree that such rulers should be in power as they use the power to benefit them (citizens). Consequently, possession of knowledge of good (justice) by few (philosopher-kings) increases their possibilities in political life. Real political systems do not operate in an ideal city-state that Socrates proposes, thus leaving the dilemma of whether people with knowledge of good exist in a real city-state.
Griffith, Tom. Plato: The Republic, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Print.
Plato. The Republic of Plato. Trans. Allan Bloom. New York: Basic Books, 1991. Print.
Sachs, Joe. Plato: Republic, Newburyport: Focus Publishing, 2007. Print.