How Does Plato Teach the Reader About Justice Through Socratic Dialogue?
Socrates was perhaps one of the western world’s greatest teachers. However, he left no original works or manuals on his teaching methods for readers to study today. What we know about his life, philosophies, and, most importantly, his technique, researchers have gathered from the works of his students. (Kraut 2015) Most notable among his pupils is undoubtedly the equally renowned philosopher Plato, who wrote about Socrates’ mentorship in his collection of books Republic. The narrative of Republic consists of numerous discussions between Socrates and his pupils, a group of wealthy, upper-class men who spend their days in debate aimed at uncovering universal and absolute truths.
In the first several books of Republic, the discussions are centered on pinpointing the true nature of justice and of a just man. In true Socratic fashion, Socrates refrains from simply telling his disciples his definition of justice, but opts instead for a more elenctic method—one that involves thought-provoking and insistent questioning and consequent reformulation of theories until a definite definition of a value has been reached, in this case, justice. (Plato 2004)
His system is to first ask the crowd of eager students which of them would like to venture his (for no woman would have been allowed to discuss such matters) definition for the topic of discussion. Once a suggestion has been made, Socrates praises the student for his wisdom. For example, in Book Two of Republic, a student named Glaucon proposes a rather complex and indirect path by which he and Socrates shall discover the true meaning of justice and asks his teacher if his plan is a good one, to which Socrates responds, “I want it most of all. Indeed what subject could a person with any sense enjoy talking and hearing about more often?” (Plato 2004) In doing so, Socrates encourages and rewards his students for their courage in initiating a challenging discussion. Once the thesis has been introduced and applauded for its merits, Socrates begins an attack consisting of questions focused on the minutia of the theory. From his seemingly irrelevant questions, Socrates slowly leads the champion of the concept to discover contradictions and fallacies that negate the idea entirely. Never does he simply give the answer to his students, nor does he introduce any original ideas.
The genius of the Socratic Method is that it compels the student, and consequently the reader as well, to come to his (or in the case of the reader, her) own conclusions regarding the accuracy of the various definitions of justice. Were Socrates, for example, once a student introduces his definition, to agree immediately and wholeheartedly without any following discussion, both the student and the reader would walk away with a definition of justice but no explanation for how that definition was reached. Furthermore, this untested and unquestioned definition of justice would be less than satisfactory, but more completely inadequate for both the casual reader and especially for the serious philosopher. Luckily for the multitude of readers of Republic, Socrates did question the hypotheses and led his students and readers to determine for themselves the true meaning of justice. Socrates and his Method have had almost worldwide impact on politics, philosophies, and religion since its publication. In fact, Professor Forrest E. Baird said, “There are few books in Western civilization that have had the impact of Plato’ Republic—aside from the Bible, perhaps none.” (Baird 2011)
Baird, Forrest E. 2011. From Plato to Derrida. Upper Sadde River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall.
Kraut, Richard. 2015. Socrates: Greek Philosopher. August 7. Accessed September 2, 2015. http://www.britannica.com/biography/Socrates.
Plato, and C.D.C. Reeve. 2004. Republic. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.