RP 2 Revised and Expanded
“How does Plato teach the reader about justice through Socratic dialogue?”
Through dialogue, Plato succeeds in depicting both his philosophical questions and thoughts about knowledge in an eclectic fashion. Even though the voice of Plato is principally Socrates himself, the text is itself a conversation between multiple individuals, who, by human nature, think differently, and hence room for discussion between them exists. This leads the reader to sense that all conclusions arrived at in “Republic” are collaborative, which makes them have more weight than conclusions arrived at only from a single viewpoint; they are ultimately presented as the work of more than one rationale, and thus appear to be reliable. Moreover, because dialogue feels natural to the reader, he is easily immersed in the text, and is then taught about “justice” while feeling participant, as a listener, of the complex, philosophical conversation that Plato sets forth.
Plato teaches about justice through dialogue, beginning with the first conversation between Socrates and Cephalus. Socrates listens to Cephalus affirming that he defined justice as “paying whatever debts one has incurred (Plato 5),” and then immediately challenges such statement. He points out that it would not be reasonable for a man to return borrowed weapons to his “mad friend,” as such action would be dangerous, and thus states that to “repay what one has borrowed is not the definition of justice (Plato 5).” It is clear then, that a conclusion was drawn from two conflicting ideas between two individuals; the reader begins to learn about justice after witnessing evidence that is discussable. I for instance, agreed with Cephalus’ first definition of justice; I envisioned a person paying back a loan (what Cephalus sets forth as a “debt”) and thought about it as an action that resembles the essence of justice, which I could then apply to a larger set of conditions. If a person always pays his or her debts, then there will never be an ‘unbalance’ of scales; all individuals will be ever settled, thwarting the possibility of any disputes to arise, and thus ‘justice’ would prevail. However, as much as I agreed with Cephalus’ description, I was then immediately compelled to agree with Socrates’ counterargument: if paying a debt involves returning a weapon to a “mad” individual, who could use it for unethical ends, would it be ‘just’ to return it? The initial statement then, which I agreed with, was immediately challenged by another derived from a different person, which I agreed with as well. Hence, as a reader, I jump in consensus from one speaker to another, and I’m ultimately led to agree, just like both of them do, with the concluding statement (paying debts is not the definition of justice). It is through engaging dialogue then, which includes statements that are discussable, approached by more than one perspective, and then agreed upon, that the reader begins to learn about justice.
Soon after, Polymarchus claims “justice” to be “treating friends well and enemies badly (Plato 7).” Socrates however, then asks Polymarchus if he agrees with the statement that “the function of a good person isn’t to harm, but that of his opposite” (Plato 12), to which Polymarchus replies: “Apparently” (12). Socrates proceeds to ask if he agrees that “a just person is a good person” (12), to which he replies: “Of course” (12). And then, utilizing the character’s affirmative replies, Socrates explains: “so it isn’t the function of a just person to harm a friend or anyone else (Plato 12).” Through a series of questions then, Socrates leads both Polymarchus and the reader to unravel how the initial definition of “justice” (Polymarchus’) is not accurate. As a reader, I agreed with the initial idea of treating my “friends” well (as they treat me well in return), and also with the idea of treating my enemies badly (as they treat me badly in return, or treated me badly since the beginning) being ‘just’ behavior. However, just like Polymarchus, I responded affirmatively to Socrates’ rhetorical questions, which made me contradict myself in my own reasoning; if the ‘just’ person is ‘good’, and the ‘good’ person does no harm, then the initial claim (justice is treating friends well and enemies badly) is discredited. In this case then, it is rhetorical dialogue that makes it difficult for the me to challenge Socrates’ ultimate conclusion, now that I ‘agreed’ with his process to arrive to it. The reader is thus once again presented the opinion of a different individual, and then led to unravel, along with the individual himself, the flaws of such opinion. Even though Socrates is the one guiding the reasoning, his peers end up agreeing with him, and at the same time invite the reader to do so as well. Plato effectively establishes different, even contrary, courses of thought within each scenario he describes then, making the reader be attentive to understand each. Such attentiveness makes the reader become a passive participant (because he or she is only able to listen to the conversation) of an intellectually bold lesson on the definition of “justice.”
Thrasymachus then explains that to him, “justice” is “nothing other than what is advantageous for the stronger (Plato 14).” After an exchange of arguments and counter-arguments between Thrasymachus and Socrates, the claim is devaluated when it is agreed by both of them that “what is advantageous for the stronger is no more just than what is not advantageous (Plato 17).” Plato leaves room for the reader to first analyze the initial claim, perhaps agree with it, but then identify the flaws in such stereotypical definitions of “justice”.
From only these three different discussions Plato is able, perhaps not to define what “justice” is, but to at least teach the reader three different ideas of what “justice” is not. It becomes evident, that it is by depicting an array of different approaches to the idea of “justice”, and by establishing a natural connection between the characters’ conversation and the reader, both possible because of dialogue, that the reader is taught about “justice.”
I have neither received nor given unauthorized assistance during the completion of this work.