Francesco_Primaticcio socrates


1-2. We come now to the arguments, the logoi, that form the broad middle ring encircling the center. Just as the question concerning the connection of justice to happiness is answered by bringing to light the human soul in its mythical shape, so the soul itself, that is, its formal “constitution,” is discovered by raising and taking down cities. This is done “in speech” (logoi) and not, to use a pervasive Greek opposition, “in deed” (ergoi, e.g., 382e8, 383a5, 498e4; cf. Laws 778b). Let us first follow how these cities are constructed in argument.

At the beginning of the enterprise Socrates says: “Come then, let us make a city from the beginning in argument” (logoi, 369c9; cf. also 369a5, 472e1, 592a11). The object is to find the nature of justice by looking at the largest context to which it is applicable—hence the city founded in speech will have to be just. Socrates and his interlocutors first found a community of craftsmen, workers collected to ply their own trades so as to supply each other’s wants, making the city as a whole, as opposed to its citizens, self-sufficient (369b). In this city, the full political weight of the Greek name for craftsmen, “demiourgoi” (370d6), “public workers,” is realized. This city is, as we shall see, the most liberal model from which to read off the definition of justice that runs through the Republic, but just as Socrates is about to articulate that definition, Glaucon stops him. Here, he says, we have a city of pigs (372d4). He means that the citizens’ whole being, like that of pigs, is absorbed in consuming and providing for consumption—there is no place or leisure for honor and nobility.(cf. Aristotle, Politics 1291a18) Socrates, though still maintaining that this is the “true”and “healthy” city (372e6), yields to Glaucon, and, giving up once and for all that self-sufficiency definitive of the natural city (Politics 1253a2), changes the “first city” (373c5; Politics 1291a17) by the addition of luxury and that soldier element which will procure wealth and maintain safety. He assents to the construction of this “fevered” city because, in it, one might see “how justice and injustice grow up in cities” (372e5); this city, then, will somehow contain the seeds of injustice also. He describes the natures and the training of the soldiers or “guardians,” a subject to which we must return. At the end of this long argument (375-414) Socrates again reorganizes the city, this time by dividing the “guardians” into guardians proper, older men who rule, and their “auxiliaries and helpers” (414b5), the younger fighting men. This third, tripartite, city suffices for reading off the similar constitution of the soul and for showing conclusively that, as in the city, so in the soul, justice must be profitable. Socrates now considers the positive half of his task finished and is about to go on to investigate how injustice comes about in cities and souls (445-449, Book IV). He is interrupted. Three whole books (V-VII) intervene, in which a fourth and very different city is founded. Not until Book VIII does he return to the argument. In Glaucon’s figure, “like a wrestler he assumes again the same position” (544b5) and goes on to account in order for the four degenerate cities (544-592). When this argument, the complement to the genesis of cities, is finished, Glaucon once again refers to “the city that we have just been founding and that is preserved in speech only, for I do not think that it is anywhere on earth” (592a10).


Plato and pupils1. Now, what is the meaning of the claim that the genesis of the city, or the city itself, is only “in speech?” It means, of course, first of all that no actual city of living men comes into being while they speak or as a consequence of their discourse. But that is mere fact. What is more interesting is that no such city can come to be now or later, by the design and intent of the argument itself. These word constructions are not “constitutions,” the practical patterns for working cities such as Plato and his pupils were invited to write for Greek cities, nor are they even a model for such patterns—they are instead contrivances for a different purpose and intended to reveal themselves as such.[1] The dialogue conveys this first of all in one astounding fact: No human being is ever born into any of the three cities—they cannot regenerate themselves; they are unnatural. The first city is constituted by the collection, the second by the addition, the third by the division of adults who are all of one and the same generation; the institution of each city is simply the rearrangement of ready­ made human material. This is reflected in the actual physical settlement of the third city, which is, at first, said to begin with the separate encampment of the guardians, who found, as it were, a separate city (415d8, Critias 110c6, Politics 1264a25 ff.); hence, the guardians’ progeny will be born, quite literally, outside of the civilian city. Furthermore, this same third city is later said to be settled by the expulsion of all souls over ten years old (540e5), a contradiction that reflects the two irreconcilable geneses of the just city; in the books relevant in the present context the city is understood as a re-constitution of available communities, while after the central books it is a radically new institution demanding a radical change in the character of citizens, to be achieved only by a lengthy process of education; it is a city essentially of children.

Now the re-constitution that brings about the third or guardian city in the early books is secured by the circulation of one noble lie, the “Phoenician myth,” or “our trick,” which will persuade “especially the rulers themselves, and if not them, the rest of the city” (414cl). To be sure, Socrates later admits, the founding generation itself can never be brought to believe the story, but he dismisses this crucial difficulty by high-handedly treating these citizens as the creatures of this argument that they indeed are: “Let this matter be left to rumor to carry about as best it can, while we arm our Earthborn and lead them forth, under the leadership of their rulers” (415d6). Suppose then that the founding was somehow accomplished and that the myth was somehow in practice accepted. The citizens would now believe that their youth and education was a dream; that they were really formed like metals in the womb of the earth, their mother, who sent them up fully formed, so that they had never been children; and that they are therefore all brothers, though of different metals. Those who have an admixture of gold must rule and those of silver must assist, for, as an oracle foretells, the city will fall when a man of brass or iron rules. The purity of the metals must be carefully preserved, and if a gold or silver parent has a child with an admixture of brass or iron, he must consent to see it put into a lower class. (For the earth as the common mother of citizens, see Menexenus 237c, 239a.)

greek_acropolisThe “lie” in this myth is not that men are of different metals or that the city cannot survive the wrong kind of ruler—all that is true—but rather the claim that the citizens have no proper natural birth and no privacy, that is, no secrecy of soul. Under their flattering epithet “earth-born” (415d7), which intimates that they are Giants, or that they were molded by a god, are hidden the claims that they are natural ######## who have a mother but no father and that their soul can be accurately assayed like any ore. So too, the continuation of the city depends on the citizens’ belief that each generation is newly mined, like a public treasure,[2] from the earthly element on which the city rests.

But the curious character of this “needful lie” (414b9) is that it catches up, so to speak, with its perpetrators: The myth must not only somehow be believed at the outset if the city is to be founded, but it ought in fact not to be a lie at all, if the city is to breed true. For if men are not born from a common parent at the right time and with pure souls easily assayed, the guardians cannot control the new generation and ensure the stability of the city. Its first birth will refute its foundations.

2. The community (koinonia) of women and children, the “source of the greatest good to the city” (464b5), is intended to achieve exactly this community of birth. All children born in the same year are to be ignorant of their parents and are to be called brothers and sisters, although the ignorance will eventually lead to incest (461e2; Politics 1262a35). These children of the city will be tested and assayed all the time, but one of the conditions for stability is beyond the guardians’ control: the timing of the mating. For as Glaucon wisely observes, the best are drawn by necessity to have intercourse with the best, but this necessity is “not geometric but erotic “(458d5). Yet, the guardians’ control of breeding is to be precisely “geometric.” The Phoenician myth, in accordance with Phoenician greed (436a2), makes of men a Plutonic treasure to be dug up and refined at will; the scientific counterpart of the myth is to consider them a crop to be sown and harvested in accordance with the heavenly motions.

Baldassarre_Peruzzi_-_Apollo_and_the_Muses_-_WGA17365The geometry of these motions, as they affect breeding, is, however, not known to the rulers. In Book VIII, Socrates has just resumed the discussion of the degenerate cities when he stops himself and prays to the Muses to tell him “how discord first arose,” an allusion to the Iliad (I, 6) and the fall of the city of Troy. The Muses’ response is a mathematical myth. A city so constituted as his, they say, can hardly be moved (546al), but since everything that has a genesis also has a degeneration, the city will not last forever. Note that in the order of argument, the decline, in fact, follows immediately upon the beginning, with no account of the city’s life and history intervening at all. This end must come (and may, as Aristotle points out, come on the day after the city’s birth, Politics 1316a17) because the rulers’ reasoning, or rather their “calculating power, mixed with sense” (b1) as it is, will not be able to apprehend the “geometric number” that governs births. The Muses recite this fabulous number, which in fact no one has ever practically understood. Thus, the generation of rulers is corrupted, and as a final consequence of their baser metal they neglect the study of music and themselves lose the power of testing souls. This is the genetic revolution initiating the declining succession of Hesiod’s ages from gold down to iron, a revolution radically different from the political revolutions the city undergoes thereafter (Politics 1316a14 ff.).

Human generation is thus an impenetrable mystery, and the city founders on the rock of the fact of bisexual generation. The human being, considered as that unstable union of body and soul, does not run true to type as does a plant (and, as Aristotle [Politics 1262a] observes, where a child does resemble its parent in looks, that very fact immediately destroys the founding illusion of common birth). If it is the nature of each kind to generate its like, human nature is unnatural; dwarf peas always bear dwarf peas, but golden parents may bear brass children. This is the insuperable problem that is again attacked in the Statesman. In this dialogue, the Golden Age, the age of the direct divine rule of Cronos, is mockingly characterized by the fact that men grow directly from the earth and have no human birth (271), while in the Human Age, the proper mixing of human bents (tropoi) by mating is the specifically human object of the political art (310). Later on, Socrates quotes an old phrase[3] to contrast the city with non-human nature: “You do not think,” he says “that constitutions come out of ‘an oak or a rock’ and not out of the characters of those in the city” (544d8)? Very nearly the same figure is used by Vergil for the human race of the Golden Age of Saturn; they are sprung from “trunks of trees or a rugged oak” (Aeneid VIII, 315): the Golden Age is the age when men spring up “naturally,” like vegetables, and ripen to ineducable childhood.

The dialogue itself tacitly underscores the impossibility of genetic control, both at the very beginning and at the end. For of those said to be present in Cephalus’s house, five are full brothers, two of them, Glaucon and Adeimantus, sons of Ariston, and the three others, Polemarchus, Lysias, and Euthydemus, the host’s sons. The conversation itself will show how the sons of the “Best”—Socrates often alludes to the meaning of the father’s name (e.g., 327a1, 368a4)—differ profoundly, and something similar was known of Polemarchus and Lysias (Phaedrus 257b). The Myth of Er, moreover, which concludes the conversation, shows why generation is intractable; human natures are determined not on the hither side of life by other humans, but in the “divine place” beyond by each soul for itself (617d6). The coming to be of the city is, therefore, not in accord with the coming to be of human beings.

The enigma of regeneration is, however, only secondary to the paradox of the city’s foundation itself. For it seems that only those will be content to accept this constitution who have accepted the “dye” of its laws (430a3). The just city can only be realized by its own children; to begin it must already have begun. We see why the act of settlement itself is so curiously and doubly contrived: At one time it seems to amount to the separation of those adults who might be fit to govern and who establish the ideal city by leaving the real city. But at another time, the new city results from the removal of all adults whatsoever who by this act appear to found a city of children. This is what is meant by claiming that the three cities that have been constructed are cities in speech only.



3. The degenerate cities that are symmetrical with these three cities are, on the other hand, all too realizable—indeed, they exist. Socrates underscores this by mentioning, in this context alone, actual Greek cities, namely Crete and Sparta, the timocracies, the first of the less-than-just cities (544c3). Yet here too, in a different way, the argument is remote from the deed.

The argument to which Socrates returns in the eighth book had been merely initiated at the end of the fourth. Of the five “bents” (tropoi) of the soul, one alone is good while the other four illustrate the multifariousness of evil; to these latter correspond four cities. The interlocutors have “so far ascended in argument” (445c5) as to stand on a look-out tower whence to view the manyness of vice. This discussion of vice, when picked up three books later (544), continues to rise until, having traversed timocracy, oligarchy, and democracy, the interlocutors finally look down on the sinkhole of tyranny and the abyss of the tyrant’s misery, which is 729 days, that is, two years of continual travel, beneath them (587e). This is what characterizes all serious discussions of vice: They must certainly not bring about that of which they speak, but rather become more detached the closer they come to the truth, just as the best judge of criminals should have the least experience of crime.(409a) The effect of this “remoteness” on the argument itself is that the degeneration of cities is presented as an inevitable, irresistible, downward progression (which Aristotle finds implausible, Politics 1316a20 ff.), not, indeed, of the natures but of the nurturers of successive generations. Here the argument represents, as it were, its own impotence—the situation is in actual fact desperate (Seventh Letter 325d ff.); in a few years a fierce battle between the democratic faction and not one but Thirty Tyrants will be raging about the sanctuary of the very goddess whose feast is now being celebrated (Xenophon, Hellenica II, 4, 11), and the tyranny will have destroyed the host’s family; while yet a few years later a temporarily restored democracy will have murdered Socrates (399 B.C.).


1. The facts of the host family’s condition and politics determine the conversation in yet another and pervasive way. The family ran a prosperous business in manufacturing and selling shields, and both Polemarchus and Lysias are known to have been democrats, though, we may suppose, of a decent and moderate sort. This is the clue to the peculiar treatment of the virtue that later gave the subtitle “On Justice” to the dialogue. It is not usually Socrates’ way to inquire whether a thing is profitable or unprofitable before having inquired “what it is” (e.g., Republic 354c, Meno 71b); but this is just what happens with respect to justice in the latter books of the Republic. From the second book to the end the question is: Is justice profitable? The knowledge of what justice is, is assumed. As Socrates, somewhat to Glaucon’s annoyance, insists (432e8), when they come to find justice in the city they have constructed, they find there nothing more than they had put in; the city is just because they have made it that way (433a1, 443b7). The working definition, which is not the result but the assumption of the argument, is that justice is “doing one’s own business and not meddling” (433a8), a definition they have heard from many others and have themselves often given.

ring of gygesJustice so conceived is, to begin with, simply the opposite of the literal understanding of the names for various degrees of wrong-doing. There is polypragmoneuein (433a9, 443d2, 444b2), literally “much-doing” or being a meddling busybody, and panta poiein (596c2), “doing everything” or being a jack-of-all-trades-Socrates’ favorite description of the sophists’ easy expertise (cf. 397, 596; cf. Sophist 233d9). And worst of all, there is panourgein (409c5), “being up to anything” or simple shameless wickedness, the behavior of the man who takes full advantage of the impunity given by Adeimantus’s Ring of Gyges, the wily Odyssean wisdom of the man of “many bents” (Lesser Hippias 365e2; cf. Phaedrus 271c2). Positively, justice is acting in accordance with that conveniently ambiguous phrase eu prattein, either “doing right” or ”being well,” with which the Republic ends (463e4, 519e2, 62ld2; cf. Politics 1323b31).

From this point of view, the simply just city is, as Socrates himself says, he first, the self-sufficient city of demiurges or craftsmen who both know how to do their own business and do it (372e6, 428b12). In them, virtue “is indeed “wisdom,” in the good old-fashioned sense in which sophia means what in English used to be meant by “cunning,” namely craft and skill, and areté means the power to do work, the “virtue” of an agent (cf. 350c4, 353el; cf. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1141a9).

We may well ask how a view so practical, almost banal, comes to underlie the dialogue. It is necessary here to recall that justice in the city is exposed by finding and analyzing out the other virtues and considering the remainder (427e13). Thus, wisdom is found to be the rulers’ virtue, courage that of the warriors, temperance the agreement of all on who shall rule (432a). Justice is then found in each class as a remainder: as that virtue by which the class does its own work and nothing else. Now clearly in this context temperance is somewhat redundant. In fact, when Socrates turns from the city to the soul he makes no distinction between justice and temperance (443d4; cf. Laws 696d11, where temperance is called a mere “appendage,” and Charmides 161b6, where Critias very knowingly, as he thinks, proposes the present definition of justice as a definition of temperance). We may, therefore, say that justice, precisely because it is the one virtue that all three classes possess, stands out as a unique and special virtue for the craftsmen, “the popular and citizen virtue” (Phaedo 82a11), the practical virtue of non-rulers. (In fact, it is pointed out in the Statesman [307e] that rulers who possess this virtue too literally endanger the city.) It is the virtue by reason of which each performs “that to which his own nature is most fitted” (Republic 433a5), by which, we might say, a human being is ever at his best. In some cases, this means quite simply quietly “minding one’s own business,” as must the lover of wisdom, for instance, in a city not fitted to his nature (496d6, Gorgias 526c4). Justice might, therefore, be termed the private-public virtue, which turns particular natures to the general account (423d). This is why its presence is the greatest good and its absence the greatest ruin to cities (443c4-444b8)—it allows the city to assimilate even those men who are by nature private. (Hegel, in his interpretation of the Republic, which is in this point the opposite of Aristotle’s, understands and appreciates justice in precisely such terms, namely as the integration of the particular as particular, the confirmation of the individual in the whole, “the being-for-itself of each part;” History of Philosophy, Pt. I, ch. 3).

This virtue, understood not as a relation toward others but as decently self-serving self-respect, is therefore quite naturally discussed in these terms under the roof of the kind of people who would constitute the multitude, the merchant and artisan class, of the third city. This class would supply young warriors like the sons of Ariston with their armor and would occasionally send a philosophically disposed son like Polemarchus (cf. Phaedrus 257b4) up into the ruling class. Socrates is speaking that saving “dialect of democracy” (Fifth Letter 321d), which many people think they know but very few really master.



2. But Socrates never allows us to forget that this third city is a dialogical phantom and that the justice in it is, for all its apparent practicality, a mere “idol” (443c4). For the true virtue lies not in deeds concerned with the outside but in the inner disposition of the “classes” (gene, d3) of the soul and their ordering. We shall see that in the case of the true ruler, that is, of one so “constituted” as to be able first of all to rule himself, the distinction between “his own affairs” and “others’ business” vanishes. For him, that which is most common is also most his own “and with his private affairs he will preserve the common business” (497a5). In him, “doing his own business” will be turned into “knowing himself,” which means “looking… at myself, whether I happen to be some beast more complicated than Typhon [Cerberus’s father, Theogony 311] or a gentler and simpler animal” (Phaedrus 230a; cf. Timaeus 72a5). True justice is concerned with that in man which is “truly about himself and his own business” (443d1; cf. Alcibiades Major 130eff.); the true ruler knows not only that he should do his own business but what it is. In Aristotelian terms, the practical or moral virtue turns into an intellectual one, in comparison with which the old justice is “somehow near to the body” (518d10). This individual character of justice is one of the reasons why, as we shall see below, the soul is the one single subject of the dialectical method in the Republic.

3. The “inversion” of justice in the case of the true ruler, in the philosopher king, leads to a curious suspension of the main argument in the central three books. If justice can only with difficulty be proved to be profitable for the guardian rulers, because of the hard life they lead (419a, 465e4), for the philosopher kings this proof is altogether impossible. For those who already consider themselves to be living in the Isles of the Blessed (519c5), the descent into the city to take office cannot be made to seem like happiness (519d8), nor can it possibly improve the tone of their souls. They must be made to enter politics “forcibly” (520e2); in fact, their reluctance is a guarantee of their suitability (e4). Glaucon sees immediately that the main object of the city constructions that constitute the outer rings of the argument, namely that justice brings happiness—an argument still staunchly maintained for the warriors (466b)—has been lost; he wants to know if the philosopher-rulers are not being treated unjustly (519d8). Socrates’ answer is an evasion (cf. Politics 1264bl6); it is not their happiness but that of the whole city which is to be considered. When all is said and done, the true rulers of the Republic enter politics only out of pity, gratitude, and simple decency (516c, 520a-e).

This is the second essay in this series. The other essays may be found here: I, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, and X. We highly recommend Eva Brann’s The Music of the Republic: Essays on Socrates’ Conversations and Plato’s Writings.This essay originally appeared in the St. John’s Review (Volume 39, Number 1 and 2, 1989 – 1990) and is republished here with gracious permission of the author. Miss Brann welcomes questions/comments via mail: Dr. Eva Brann, St. John’s College, 60 College Avenue, Annapolis, MD, 21401-1655 (she does not use computers).


[1] E.g., Plutarch, Against Colotes, 1126c-d.

[2] Hippolytus’s wish that human generation could be circumvented and children’s seed could be temple treasure to be bought for “gold, silver, or a weight of brass” (Euripides, Hippolytus 621).

[3] The old saying is used by Socrates in a similar way in the Apology (34d5). He too, he says, quoting Homer, has a family and is not sprung “from oak or rock,” that is, he too has a private genesis. The original meaning of the phrase, which occurs in the Odyssey (XIX, 163), was evidently no longer known to the scholiast on 544d8.

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