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The title of Plato’s work The Republic is a literal translation of the Greek title Politeia (Πολιτεία), which simply referred to the affairs of the city state, and not to a republic in any modern sense. The main theme is justice, both the just state and the just human being, and what an ideal state would be like, one ruled by (not surprisingly) autocratic philosophers —“philosopher kings,” in the ringing phrase that has been famous ever since. The Republic is the longest and the best known dialog of the Platonic corpus, and a cornerstone of political philosophy in subsequent centuries.
The tiny fragment from the beginning given here does not represent the ingenuity or majesty of the full text, but is presented for comparison with the passage from Charmides (link) to provide a further illustration of the way in which Socrates reasoned: by pulling his interlocutors into making or assenting to definitions of philosophical terms and then showing that they couldn’t possibly mean what they had just said because the definitions didn’t really make sense. (The humorist Will Cuppy once remarked that most people don’t mean much of anything when they talk; they are just talking. Socrates would have agreed, but unlike Cuppy, he found it troubling.)
In the Charmides Socrates discourses with an intellectually awkward young man who is unsure of himself and eager to get away from the discussion. As the Republic opens, in contrast, Socrates visits Cephalus, the elderly father of his friend Polemarchus.
Plato probably wrote The Republic in about 360 BC, roughly 20 years later than Charmides, but the character of Socrates seems to be a bit younger here. In any case, Cephalus strikes him as having one foot in the grave, and Socrates bluntly asks him what it feels like to be so damned old. (On his 90th birthday I asked my father the same question. His answer: “If I were twenty years younger, I’d say I had the flu.”)
Cephalus reports that old age has its advantages (apparently including the loss of his once intense and distracting interest in sex), and concedes that his being wealthy makes old age more comfortable than it is for some people.
Unlike Charmides, Cephalus can’t be conversationally bullied; indeed he can scarcely be shut up. But when Socrates eventually tries to involve him in defining justice, Cephalus decides to make a quick exit, confidently toddling off to perform some more religious duties and leaving his son to deal with the argumentative philosopher. Socrates doesn’t try to stop him.
The contrast between Plato’s presentation of Socrates’ encounters with young Charmides and with old Cephalus is a credit to Plato as a writer with a twinkle in his eye. But common to the two texts is Socrates’ approach to argument. As the Republic progresses, the issue of justice is explored in detail. Whatever you think justice is, Socrates can convince you, if you read the whole work, that you haven’t thought deeply enough about it. And you will probably have to concede that he is right in that. But we also see Socrates in this passage asking astute and even daring questions not in order to argue, but in order simply to learn, for he was very aware that his own knowledge was always incomplete.
As with Charmides, this dialog, although written by Plato, is presented as though spoken by Socrates in the first person. I have converted the text to a theatrical format to avoid all the “I saids” and “he saids,” and have divided the text into arbitrary “Part” numbers. I have also done a small amount of light editing —especially of punctuation— to make Jowett’s XIXth-century translation read more fluently for a XXIst-century audience.
The action begins with Socrates and his brother Glaucon returning home from a religious festival when they are forcibly stopped by his friend Polemarchus, who playfully (?) threatens violence if Socrates won’t stop by his house for a visit. (You have probably known people like that.)
At Polemarchus’ house Socrates unexpectedly encounters Polemarchus’ old father, Cephalus. (Some other ancient sources suggest that Cephalus didn’t actually like Socrates very well, but here he welcomes him warmly. If he dislikes the philosopher, he covers it up well.)
Socrates (addressing the reader): I went down yesterday to Piraeus [a port, now part of Athens] with Glaucon the son of Ariston, that I might offer up my prayers to the goddess [Artemis] and also because I wanted to see in what manner they would celebrate the festival, which was a new thing. I was delighted with the procession of the inhabitants [of Piraeus]; but that of the Thracians was equally, if not more, beautiful.
When we had finished our prayers and viewed the spectacle, we turned [homeward] in the direction of the city [of Athens]; and at that instant Polemarchus the son of Cephalus chanced to catch sight of us from a distance as we were starting on our way home, and told his servant to run and bid us wait for him. The servant took hold of me by the cloak behind.
Servant: Polemarchus desires you to wait.
Socrates (turning around): And where is your master?
Servant: There he is, coming after you, if you will only wait.
Glaucon: Certainly we will.
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Polemarchus: I perceive, Socrates, that you and your companion [Glaucon] are already on your way [back] to the city.
Socrates: You are not far wrong.
Polemarchus: But do you see how many we are?
Socrates: Of course.
Polemarchus [teasing?]: And are you stronger than all these? For if not, you will have to remain where you are.
Socrates [chuckling?]: May there not be the alternative, so that we may persuade you to let us go?
Polemarchus: But can you persuade us, if we refuse to listen to you?
Glaucon: Certainly not.
Polemarchus: Then we are not going to listen; of that you may be assured.
Adeimantus: Has no one told you of the torch race on horseback in honor of the goddess which will take place in the evening?
Socrates: With horses! That is a novelty! Will horsemen carry torches and pass them one to another during the race?
Polemarchus: Yes, and not only that, but a festival will he celebrated at night, which you certainly ought to see. Let us rise soon after supper and see this festival; there will be a gathering of young men, and we will have a good talk. Stay then, and do not be perverse.
Glaucon: I suppose, since you insist, that we must.
Socrates: Very well.
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Socrates (addressing the reader): Accordingly we went with Polemarchus to his house; and there we found his brothers Lysias and Euthydemus, and with them Thrasymachus the Chalcedonian, Charmantides the Paeanian, and Cleitophon the son of Aristonymus. There too was Cephalus the father of Polemarchus, whom I had not seen for a long time, and I thought him very much aged. He was seated on a cushioned chair, and had a garland on his head, for he had been sacrificing in the court; and there were some other chairs in the room arranged in a semicircle, upon which we sat down by him. He saluted me eagerly.
Cephalus: You don't come to see me, Socrates, as often as you ought. If I were still able to go and see you I would not ask you to come to me. But at my age I can hardly get to the city, and therefore you should come oftener to Piraeus. For let me tell you, that the more the pleasures of the body fade away, the greater to me is the pleasure and charm of conversation. Do not, then, deny my request, but make our house your resort and keep company with these young men; we are old friends, and you will be quite at home with us.
Socrates: There is nothing which for my part I like better, Cephalus, than conversing with aged men; for I regard them as travellers who have gone a journey which I too may have to go, and of whom I ought to inquire, whether the way is smooth and easy, or rugged and difficult. And this is a question which I should like to ask of you who have arrived at that time which the poets call the “threshold of old age”: Is life harder towards the end, or what report do you give of it?
Cephalus: I will tell you, Socrates, what my own feeling is. Men of my age flock together; we are birds of a feather, as the old proverb says; and at our meetings the complaint of my acquaintances commonly is, “I cannot eat, I cannot drink; the pleasures of youth and love are fled away; there was a good time once, but now that is gone, and life is no longer life.” Some complain of the slights which are put upon them by relations, and they will tell you sadly of how many evils their old age is the cause.
But to me, Socrates, these complainers seem to blame that which is not really in fault. For if old age were the cause, I too being old, and every other old man, would have felt as they do. But this is not my own experience, nor that of others whom I have known.
How well I remember the aged poet Sophocles. He was asked, “How does love suit with age, Sophocles? Are you still the man you were?” He replied, “Peace! Most gladly have I escaped the thing of which you speak; I feel as if I had escaped from a mad and furious master.”
His words have often occurred to my mind since, and they seem as good to me now as at the time when he uttered them. For certainly old age has a great sense of calm and freedom; when the passions relax their hold, then, as Sophocles says, we are freed from the grasp not of one mad master only, but of many.
The truth is, Socrates, that these regrets, and also the complaints about relations, are to be attributed to the same cause, which is not old age, but men’s characters and tempers; for he who is of a calm and happy nature will hardly feel the pressure of age, but to him who is of an opposite disposition youth and age are equally a burden.
Socrates (listening in admiration and wanting to draw him out): Yes, Cephalus. But I rather suspect that people in general are not convinced by you when you speak thus. They think that old age sits lightly upon you, not because of your happy disposition, but because you are rich, and wealth is well known to be a great comforter.
Cephalus: You are right; they are not convinced. And there is something in what they say. Not, however, so much as they imagine. I might answer them as Themistocles answered the Seriphian who was abusing him and was saying that he was famous, not for his own merits but because he was an Athenian: “If you had been a native of my country or I of yours, neither of us would have been famous.” And to those who are not rich and are impatient of old age, the same reply may be made, for to the good poor man old age cannot be a light burden, nor can a bad rich man ever have peace with himself.
Socrates: May I ask, Cephalus, whether your fortune was for the most part inherited or acquired by you?
Cephalus: Acquired, Socrates! Do you want to know how much I acquired? In the art of making money I have been midway between my father and grandfather: for my grandfather, whose name I bear, doubled and trebled the value of his patrimony, that which he inherited being much what I possess now. But my father Lysanias reduced the property below what it is at present. And I shall be satisfied if I leave to these my sons not less but a little more than I received.
Socrates: That was why I asked you the question, because I see that you are indifferent about money, which is a characteristic rather of those who have inherited their fortunes than of those who have acquired them. The makers of fortunes have a second love of money as a creation of their own, resembling the affection of authors for their own poems, or of parents for their children, besides that natural love of it for the sake of use and profit which is common to them and all men. And hence they are very bad company, for they can talk about nothing but the praises of wealth.
Cephalus: That is true.
Socrates: Yes, that is very true. But may I ask another question? What do you consider to be the greatest blessing which you have reaped from your wealth?
Cephalus: One of which I could not expect easily to convince others. For let me tell you, Socrates, that when a man thinks himself to be near death, fears and cares enter into his mind which he never had before; the tales of a world [of the dead] below and the punishment which is exacted there of deeds done here that were once a laughing matter to him; but now he is tormented with the thought that they may be true. Either from the weakness of age, or because he is now drawing nearer to that other place, he has a clearer view of these things; suspicions and alarms crowd thickly upon him, and he begins to reflect and consider what wrongs he has done to others. And when he finds that the sum of his transgressions is great he will oftentimes, like a child, start up in his sleep for fear, and he is filled with dark forebodings. But to him who is conscious of no sin, sweet hope, as Pindar charmingly says, is the kind nurse of his age:
Hope cherishes the soul of him who lives in justice and holiness and is the nurse of his age and the companion of his journey, hope which is mightiest to sway the restless soul of man.
How admirable are his words! And the great blessing of riches —I do not say to every man, but to a good man— is that he has had no occasion to deceive or to defraud others, either intentionally or unintentionally; and when he departs to the world below he is not in any apprehension about offerings due to the gods or debts which he owes to men. Now to this peace of mind the possession of wealth greatly contributes; and therefore I say that, setting one thing against another, of the many advantages which wealth has to give, to a man of sense this is in my opinion the greatest.
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Socrates: Well said, Cephalus!
But as concerning justice, what is it? Is it to speak the truth and to pay your debts? No more than this? And even to this are there not exceptions?! Suppose that a friend when in his right mind has deposited arms with me and he asks for them when he is not in his right mind. Ought I to give them back to him? No one would say that I ought or that I should be right in doing so, any more than they would say that I ought always to speak the truth to one who is in his condition.
Cephalus: You are quite right.
Socrates (triumphant?): But then, speaking the truth and paying your debts is not a correct definition of justice.
Polemarchus (interposing): Quite correct, Socrates, if Simonides is to be believed.
Cephalus: I fear that I must go now, for I have to look after the sacrifices, and I hand over the argument to Polemarchus and the company.
Socrates: Is not Polemarchus your heir?
Cephalus: To be sure. (He goes away, chuckling, to the sacrifices.)
Socrates (to Polemarchus): Tell me then, O thou heir of the argument, what did Simonides say, and according to you truly say, about justice?
Polemarchus: He said that the repayment of a debt is just, and in saying so he appears to me to be right.
Socrates: I should be sorry to doubt the word of such a wise and inspired man, but his meaning, though probably clear to you, is the reverse of clear to me. For he certainly does not mean, as we were just now saying, that I ought to return a deposit of arms or of anything else to one who asks for it when he is not in his right senses; and yet a deposit cannot be denied to be a debt.
Socrates: Then when the person who asks me is not in his right mind, I am by no means to make the return?
Polemarchus: Certainly not.
Socrates: When Simonides said that the repayment of a debt was justice, he did not mean to include that case?
Polemarchus: Certainly not, for he thinks that a friend ought always to do good to a friend and never evil.
Socrates: You mean that the return of a deposit of gold which is to the injury of the receiver, if the two parties are friends, is not the repayment of a debt? Is that what you would imagine him to say?
Socrates: And are enemies also to receive what we owe them?
Obviously at this point the Socratic discussion is off and running, with Socrates methodically pushing his interlocutors into definitions that they are unable to defend and forcing them to doubt themselves and consider the world more deeply.
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