The Republic

Summary and Analysis of Book II

Buy Study Guide

"The Individual, the State, and Education"

Summary: Book II

Thrasymachus, Polymarchus, and the others having gone on to enjoy the festival, Socrates, Glaucon, and Adeimantus are left alone to continue the debate on justice. Glaucon, eager to hear Socrates demonstrate that justice is worthy of pursuit as both an end and as a means to an end, offers to play devil's advocate and oppose his friend in order to resolve the debate once and for all. Socrates cheerfully accepts Glaucon's proposition.

Glaucon's first assertion, according to the popular definition, is that justice is a legally enforced compromise between doing injustice to others and having injustice done unto oneself. He relates an allegory of a shepherd who discovers a magic ring. The ring grants its wearer invisibility. Once the shepherd recognizes its powers, he seduces the queen of the kingdom and overthrows the ruler.

After his allegory, Glaucon proposes an experiment in which two men, one perfectly just and the other perfectly unjust, are, in public, perceived antithetically. Then, speaking for the first time, Adeimantus supplies a rich litany of poetic and other sources that seem to confirm the superiority of injustice, although, like his brother, he believes but cannot prove the opposite. Socrates accepts the challenge humbly, as usual.

Socrates commences his refutation. Here, he suggests a new method: they will examine the role of justice in the State, then in the individual. First, however, they must undertake the construction of a viable State, i.e., the Republic.

The first task is to identify the fundamental needs of man: food, shelter, clothing; and to assure they are sufficiently provided. Next is the division of labor, or the structure by which these necessities are to be provided, along with a rudimentary system of trade to satisfy the needs the State cannot satisfy itself. Finally, Socrates arrives at the nature of the relations between men, where he finds his question once again.

A brief digression occurs when Glaucon objects to the austerity of Socrates' State. Socrates considers a more luxurious State, but it is summarily dismissed‹as a result of excess and greed, war is inevitable. From war, the dialogue telescopes more closely on the security of the State, its guardians, and their education. Socrates' prohibits what he terms, "bad fiction," that is, poetry and literature of dubious moral value, from the early education of the guardians. He also establishes certain principles pertaining to the gods: first, "that God is not the author of all things, but of good only;" and, second, that "he is one and the same immutably fixed in his own proper image." Book Two concludes with Socrates' further explication of the State's theology and later the ratification of its principles into law.

Analysis: Book II

The dialogue of the second book is more an intellectual exercise than the previous book, since Glaucon takes a position contrary to his own (in fact, it is Thrasymachus') for the sake of argument, and so that they might arrive at a more satisfying conclusion. Therefore, he poses the allegory of the shepherd. The allegory suggests that, magically freed of legal/social responsibility (invisibility), any man would act unjustly and seek power.

Adeimantus' injection of poetry from Aeschylus, Hesiod, and Homer as endorsing the rewards and relative ease of injustice over justice complements his brother's legalistic argument. He is drawing on their shared cultural tradition, in which he can find no convincing example of justice pursued as an end in itself and not merely as a means, in this life or the next, to an end. The deceptive, disappointing worth of poetry is a theme to be explored in depth later (the final conclusion occurs in Book X). What he wants from Socrates is "the essential good and evil which justice and injustice work in the possessors of them."

Socrates' method of approach consists first of the construction of a State in which justice will be tried against injustice, and, second, of the trial of the just individual. The first part is a massive undertaking, and the proper origin of the Republic‹a state that arises "out of the needs of mankind." The assumption (and it is one) is extremely important; it shall be the foundation of the Republic.

In order to ensure the basic needs of man, Socrates would assign each man in his burgeoning State a single occupation that suits his natural inclination, instead of leave every man to work separately for his every need. Furthermore, these occupations would be done at the right time in order to avoid waste.

The division in the education of the guardians of the State, between music and gymnastics, was traditional even in classical antiquity. It probably represents the archaic notion of the mind/body schism. Noteworthy is Socrates' prohibition on fiction, or at least on poorly composed fiction. He feels that in their formative years, the guardians should not be exposed to misleading or pernicious fictions. Although he provisionally accepts fiction with an explicit moral, he condemns all poetry and literature, even parts of Homer and Hesiod, that depicts an undesirable or fallacious story. Socrates believes that in youth the guardians should be protected as much as possible from untruths they cannot evaluate critically for themselves. The problem with this position seems to be its one-sidedness. Working to curb lies and harmful fictions is admirable, but complete eradication is impossible, right? Normally, we think of fiction as conveying new information before it can be digested rationally and evaluated morally. It thus seems more realistic to debunk "bad fiction" for the young guardians, explain its failings to them, and, therefore, cancel its circulation while making it identifiable in the future. However, the painstakingly precise and rigid education process will, Plato believes, once and for all eliminate the need for fiction.

Socrates' spiritual principles conflict to some extent with the religious beliefs of his time. He suggests a transcendent God who scarcely resembles Zeus or any other Olympian. Instead, his God is the origin of all things, complete, immutable, perfect, and good. The argument for God as good only does not hold up unless we read Socrates' good as potentially good, or perfect, as we shall later read justice. This accepted, it is easier to understand how Socrates can separate God from evil; his position is that evil appears only in the manifest, in the limited sense, and certainly not in the ideal, where we find God. That these principles are made law is nothing less than revolutionary; it discredits nearly all of Classical Greek mythology and folklore. But that, as we know, is hardly the realm of pure reason and truth; and if it is not beyond reproach, it cannot possibly be permitted to shore the State's theology, nor serve as the origin of its laws.