The Republic Summary and Analysis

Book I

Buy Study Guide

"Of Wealth, Justice, Moderation, and Their Opposites"

Summary: Book I

Though the dialogue is retold by the narrator, Socrates, one day after it has occurred, the actual events unfold in house of Cephalus at the Piraeus on the festival day of the goddess Bendis (Artemis). Once Polemarchus and several other men catch up to Socrates and Glaucon after the celebratory procession, Polemarchus, desirous of Socrates' delightful conversation, compels him to join their company at his home. There Socrates encounters Polemarchus' father, Cephalus, an old man, and the two men speak candidly about aging.

Socrates finds Cephalus' thoughts on the subject admirable, for Cephalus criticizes others of his age who foolishly lament the loss of youthful vigor, and holds instead that the dissipation of the passions late in life is pleasantly tranquilizing and liberating. Socrates, curious as to whether Cephalus' attitude might be related to his personal wealth, questions the old man accordingly. Cephalus is then forced to admit that wealth affords comfort to its possessor, but offers true peace only to him who is of a good nature.

From wealth and its merits and demerits, Socrates steers the conversation onto a new topic: justice. But Cephalus, who does not appear up to the task, exits abruptly, leaving Polemarchus to continue the argument. Polemarchus initially posits justice as giving a man that which he deserves. Through a series of very clever manipulations, however, Socrates befuddles Polemarchus and concludes before his auditors that the just man is a thief.

Thrasymachus, silent until now, suddenly bursts into the debate, angry with Polemarchus for yielding too easily but even more so with Socrates for his "ironic style." After his accusations have been answered, Thrasymachus poses his own definition of justice: the interest of the stronger. Both terms of this definition are quickly brought into question, and, enraged, Thrasymachus unleashes a long diatribe, asserting that injustice benefits the ruler absolutely. Socrates, composed as ever, refutes him, offering true rule as just rule, for it is conducive to harmony, unity, and strength.

The dialogue concludes with Socrates' examination of the comparative advantages of justice and injustice. By the end, Thrasymachus and the other auditors are satisfied that the just man is happy, and the unjust is not. However, in a brilliant twist, Socrates dolefully admits to them that in spite of all the conversation, he still knows nothing about the nature of justice, but only something of its relation to virtue and not vice, wisdom and not ignorance, and of its utility over injustice. Presumably, the characters now return to the banquet from which they came, completing the circle.

Analysis: Book I

At the beginning of Book I, we are introduced to the narrator, Socrates, and his audience of peers. We are made aware, however, of Socrates' special charm and intellectual gifts through the insistence of Polemarchus and the other men for the pleasure of his company. The tone is casual and language and modes of expression rather simple, as is commonly the case in Plato's dialogues. However, Plato's unaffected style serves at least two purposes. For one it belies the complexity and elevation of the ideas, thus it is in accord with Socrates' characteristic irony itself, which draws the "fool" in by feigned ignorance, only so that the master can show that he does not know what he thinks he knows. And second, the plainness of style complements truth and wisdom, the aim of all the dialogues, which by nature are aphoristic.

In Socrates' conversation with Cephalus, the proper approach to aging and the state of old age is addressed. Although other men Cephalus' age commonly complain that for them, "life is no longer life," Cephalus feels that they misattribute discomfort and unhappiness resulting from their defective characters to advanced age. Building on a statement by Sophocles, Cephalus concludes, "he who is of a calm and happy nature will hardly feel the pressure of age." Socrates' inquiry as to whether Cephalus' happiness owes to the comfort of wealth demands a qualification of this position‹that while a man's nature ultimately determines his peace of mind in old age, wealth is also an undeniably important factor.

The passage concerning justice illustrates Socrates' dexterous intellect and his dogged skepticism. Playful and humorous at times, the conversation ends, at several points, in absurd--and apparently inexorable--conclusions such as that the just man is a thief. What is at work here is another type of irony, in which Socrates and his auditors accept as a temporary resolution what the dialogue's audience, i.e. the reader, cannot. Here, Plato grants the reader space to think for himself. A central problem with Polemarchus' definition (borrowed from Simonides)‹a form of conventional morality‹of justice, "doing good to your friends and harm to your enemies," is the vulnerability of its individual terms. Not surprisingly, Socrates probes each one, exposing any and all weaknesses or limitations in pursuit of Truth.

It is precisely this meticulousness that leads Thrasymachus to accuse Socrates of never answering questions. Socrates' response (another question) clarifies his epistemology: "how can anyone answer who knows, and says that he knows, just nothingŠ?" What Socrates' knows is incommunicable other than to say that he knows nothing. His philosophical speculations embody a process rather than a philosophy. That is, Socrates' method is in accord with the nature of inquiry and of intellectual exploration itself: he is his style. And, acutely aware of this fact, Socrates repels every temptation toward dogma, characterized by Thrasymachus' complaints.

The second definition of justice, obedience to the interest of the stronger, is Thrasymachus' veiled justification for tyranny (might is right), and is foreshadowed in his indecorous demand for payment. He is portrayed in sharp contrast to Socrates, who suggests that the stronger may not always know his own interest; therefore, at times, it is necessary for the weaker to disobey him. Socrates then successfully upsets the definition by demonstrating that, insofar as his role is an art, a ruler acts in the best interest of his subjects, as exemplified by the physician for his patients and the captain for his crew.

Still unresolved, the debate moves into a second stage, where tyranny, or perfect injustice, and benevolent rule, or perfect justice, are evaluated against one another. Again, through a series of examples, Socrates prevails--the unjust man's pride and ambition are shown to be weaknesses, since he is incapable of singular as well as common action, while on the other hand the just man is humble, wise, and strong.

For his own pleasure, Socrates carries the debate into a final stage, in order to prove that the aim of a man's life should be justice not injustice. Socrates uses the analogy of the soul, considering its proper functions and its end. If the souls' end is life, Socrates says, and its excellence, or perfect execution of that end, is the fulfillment of life, then justice is the excellence of the soul because, as he had revealed earlier, the just man enjoys better quality of life. Although it would seem that Socrates' conclusion, that he still knows nothing about the nature of justice, is merely facetious, it is not. In the course of the dialogue, the philosophers have studied justice's manifestations only when, in truth, it is an abstract concept, an ideal, or a form, and according to Plato, belongs to a category or realm outside and beyond definition. Therefore, justice is unknowable as such.