18 January 2006

Pleonexia in Republic I

I think the faulty translations cited in my previous post show that this passage has been misconstrued. (Jowett may have it right, but he hasn't rendered it in such as way as to make it clear what the right way of taking it is.)

We naturally take Plato's discussion of pleonexia to be about competition: to have pleonexia is to get the better of someone else. It means winning out, getting one's way, and prevailing. Pleonexia, in this sense, is libido dominandi.

But Plato, rather, pretty clearly takes it to be, after all, about coincidence or disparity in judgment, which may or may not carry with it any imposing of one's will . This is clear from the general principle he gives, on the basis of an induction, at 350a:

Do you think it's the same for every branch of knowledge and ignorance? Do you think there is ever any knowledgeable person who would deliberately choose, either in action or in speech, to do more than another knowledgeable person would do? Wouldn't he do the same as someone like himself would do in the same situation? (Griffith)
Notice that Plato explains the coincidence of judgment first in terms of the persons involved ('do more than another knowledgeable person') and then in terms of the actions of such persons ('do the same as someone like himself would do'). Notice, too, that he explains each of these using a counterfactual: Does a knowledgeable person do the same as another knowledgeable person would do, sc. in his circumstances? To show pleonexia with respect to someone, on this way of looking at things, is to judge that you should do something that, in some way, in its result, goes beyond what that other person would judge that you should do.

Thus, for an unjust person a)ciou=n tou= dikai/ou pleonektei=n is to judge that he should get something which, in its result, is more than a just person would judge that he (the unjust man) should get in those circumstances; and for him a)ciou=n th=j dikai/aj pra/cewj pleonektei=n is to judge that what he should get is more than what a just person would judge that he (the unjust man) should get.

Thus the correct translation of:

ti/ de\ dh\ o( a)/dikoj; a)=ra a)cioi= tou= dikai/ou pleonektei=n kai\ th=j dikai/aj pra/cewj;

would be something like:

"And what about an unjust man? Doesn't he claim that he should get more than a just person would claim for him, and isn't what he claims he should get more than what he justly should get?(or: 'more than what a just person would claim he should get')"

(I take pra/cij to be schematic: it stands for whatever sort of action is indicated by the context; in this case, getting.)


porphyrios said...

well, to my point of view this translation is... unjust, its pleonexia being to expand into an interpretation.

Martin S. Harbsmeier said...

Dear Michael,

I am not quite convinced of your rendering of pleonektein with the genitive. The mentioning of pleonektein twn echtrwn in the description of the perfect unjust person in 361b7 ("getting more than one's enemies", not "more than what they would judge that you should have", which would be absurd) seems to me to exclude this possibility.

I find it more likely that we ought to take pleonektein literally, meaning getting/having more than or getting/having an advantage over somebody (in the material/quantitative sense, which is what Thrasymachus believes to be the constituent of the best life) and I propose to solve the problem of the difficult construction of pleonektein c. acc. rei by regarding the just act as an agent which may or may not produce the advantages in question. The meaning thus becomes: doesn't the unjust man claim that he has the advantage of the unjust man and that his (unjust) acts have the advantage over just acts?


Michael Pakaluk said...

Dear Porphyrios,

Point taken. However, ethelein pleon echein is an incomplete expression. Since it contains a relative (pleon), it requires some comparison class to complete it. The difference, then, between "wish to have more [than the other guy]" and "wish to have more [than a just person would wish]" is not a difference between a translation and a paraphrase (or interpretation), but a difference between two ways of supplying some implicit comparison. (I can't say that it is safer, or more accurate, to aim to substitute a single word, such as 'overreach', for the single word, pleonektein.)

Dear Martin,

Thank you for your thoughtful comment.

I can't say I'm entirely confident in what I've proposed.

You cite 362b7 (note) to good effect. It's clear that my account of pleonektein would not be serviceable for the entire Rep.. My question was how it should be understood in the context of the curious argument at 348b-350c. --But perhaps you would object that it is illicit to ascribe special senses to (ordinary) words for particular arguments.

I agree that pleonektein should be taken literally as 'getting/having more'. But what I dispute is whether this must mean 'more than someone else', or whether it could mean, also or sometimes, 'more than X would have had/gotten if X had acted otherwise.'

For instance, consider the three comparisons, between a just and an unjust person, that Thrasymachus makes at 343d2ff (ending in fact with his introduction of the term pleonektein at 344a1). Thrasymachus maintains that in each case 'a just man has less than an unjust man' (343d2). (This is probably our best source for understanding such phrases as ethelein pleon echein.) (i) In contractual endeavors, when the business relationship is ended, a just man comes away with less than an unjust man. (ii) In contributions to public works, the just man ends up with less at the end of the day. (iii) An unjust man will end up with more profit than a just man after a term of service in public office.

Only in (i) is it plausible to think of this comparison as meaning that the unjust person has more at the expense of the just person (i.e. the hypothetical just person who is being thought about and compared). At least in cases (ii) and (iii), it seems more natural to interpret Thrasymachus as saying that the just person comes away with less than if he himself had acted unjustly. Similarly, then, to say that an unjust person pleonektei tou dikaiou would mean that he aims to end up with more than a just person would have had in those circumstances.

Two problems, I think, remain outstanding about the curious argument at 348b-350c. First, why does Plato introduce actions as objects of pleonektein at all? Wouldn't the argument go through equally well if he had spoken only of persons? (I suspect the answer has something to do with Plato's wanting to assimilate dikaiosune to a techne.) Second, given that he does use both persons and actions as objects of that verb (and in close proximity, and both in the genitive), how does this require us to read pleonektein?

Yes, some word such as 'overreach' or 'outdo' is the natural first choice. But once a just action becomes (equally) the object of that verb, then aren't we are bound to put aside the natural meaning and look for something else?


Martin Harbsmeier said...

Dear Michael,

it seems that a misunderstanding has occured. I completely agree with you that pleonektein with the genitive in all occurences that have been mentioned so far doesn't mean "x has/gets more at the expense of y", and that the essence of Socrates' elenchus at the point in question is to establish the (Thrasymachean) comparative claim that the a person will be better off in any given circumstance when acting unjust instead of just. The examples you cite (343d2ff) seem to bring this point out very clearly. Moreover, these practical examples appear to me to make it even clearer that we ought to substitute "the unjust act" as the logical subject of the second part of the comparison in pleonektein ths adikias praxews, i. e. the unjust person will be better off than the just person i) in general and ii) by acting unjust instead of (the just person's) acting just. As to the interesting questioning why Plato thought it necessary to expand the comparison to person + act, I haven't got any answer yet. I'm not quite sure about the implications of your suggestion that it has something to do with Plato's/Socrates' attempt to assimilate dikaiosune to techne (this techne thus being the individual's ability to establish the specific mental state which is defined as justice in B. 4?). The question might also be related to last year's Sachs/Grote-discussion of the relationship between agent-orientated and act-orientated ethics in the Republic.


porphyrios said...

Dear Michael,

the interpretation lies in two points, not in the paraphrase (if a paraphrase is an expansion of the only possible interpretation of an expression and it makes it clearer, it may be the perfect translation, no matter the number of words used).

one point i see is the explicit attribution to the just person of the nomos of what is due. that's not explicit in the text, nor it is suggested nor it is the point at issue in the discussion.

the other point is the elimination of the praxis as action in your translation, which to me is not necessary, since a comparison among actions - as among subjects - is perfectly reasonable. It's an interpretation again, and it obliterates the symmetry subject/actions which is present in the greek text.


Michael Pakaluk said...

Dear Porphyrios,

Your remarks have merit. I'll have to think more about this.

Dear Martin,

Yes, I did misunderstand you, I'm afraid. Thanks for the clarification.