13 January 2006

A Small Question about Republic I

I'm back, refreshed, and ready to blog.

I begin with a small question about book I of the Republic, which I've been studying, looking at the Tom Griffith translation as I go along. (By the way--what are your thoughts about this translation? I have some comments about passages in book I, which maybe I'll share later.)

My question concerns 336a. I don't have any commentaries to hand, and so do not know what the standard answer to this question is. Does anyone know?

After dismissing the proposed definition, "justice is helping friends and harming enemies", Socrates asks (in the Griffith translation): "Do you know...who I think was responsible for the saying that it is just to treat one's friends well, and one's enemies badly?" And then he supplies the answer: "I think it was Periander, or Perdiccas, or Xerxes, or Ismenias, the Theban, or some other rich man who thought he had great power." (To which Polemarchus replies: ) )Alhqe/stata le/geij.)

I've always passed over this without much thought. But now I wonder:

1. (Of course) Is there any logic to Socrates' list of names?

2. Xerxes is mentioned by Callicles in the Gorgias as a 'strong man' who thinks he should get a larger share than others (483e): So does Plato think "helping friends and harming enemies" is similar to the definition that Thrasymachus is about to give, "the advantage of the stronger"? Yet how are they similar?

3. Why does it seem obvious to Polemarchus that Socrates' account of the provenance of the saying is correct? What has led him to think this? (Is it that they both suppose that only someone who thought he was immune from being harmed would think that the didn't need to view justice as some kind of universal reciprocity--and that the remarks here tie in, then, to the social contract theory that Glaucon will put forward in book II?)

4. What is the force of "thought he had great power" (me/ga oi)ome/nou du/nasqai), i.e. thought he did, when he really didn't? That is, what is the relationship between someone's being mistaken about what counts as power, and his being disposed to think he should help friends and harm enemies. (Again, the concern about merely apparent power echoes the Gorgias.)


Jimmy Doyle said...

1. Don’t know.

2. The definitions “helping friends and harming enemies” and “the advantage of the stronger” tend to converge in the case of someone who has a lot of ‘friends.’ If we idealise a bit by assuming that friendship is transitive and symmetrical, the first definition simply ensures cohesion among large political groupings: it amounts to loyalty to (eg) one’s own polis and a willingness to defend it against anyone who seeks to harm its interests. (Perhaps this is part of the significance of Meno’s Persian connections: to show that issues of allegiance may well not be so clear-cut, eg when our idealising assumptions don’t apply.) Larger poleis stand to gain more by the resulting cohesion, so the conception of justice will tend to work in favour of the stronger; hence convergence with the second definition. (Consider the way Athens would use “helping friends” as an ideological prop for the Delian League.) Yet the spirits animating the two accounts are not the same at all. “Helping firnds and harming enemies” was a perfectly respectable conception with wide currency (see eg Mary Whitlock’s book on the role of the conception in Sophocles) and was not associated with Thrasymachean cynicism.

3. Don’t know, unless Polemarchus had in mind the sort of convergence I mention under (2).

4. It’s the belief that one has power that matters in terms of being motivated to advocate the view. If “helping friends…” will in fact work to the advantage of the more powerful, then anyone who knows this and believes they are powerful is pro tanto motivated to promote “helping friends.” I assume that Socrates emphasises the case of someone who thinks they have great power because he still holds to the Gorgias view that most tyrants don’t have power at all (because (1) power is good for its possessor but doing what seems good to you is not good for you if you lack intelligence (noun me ekhein), as most tyrants do; and (2) power consists in doing what you really want, but everyone really wants their real good, but tyrants characteristically don’t attain their real good by doing what they do). I here presuppose (i) that Socrates is sincere in his Gorgias view, ie that K McTighe, R Weiss et al are mistaken to suppose that he’s making it all up for Polus’s benefit; and (ii) that nothing in the Republic indicates that Plato has changed his view in this regard since writing the Gorgias.

Fellow Clarkie said...

Hello Prof. Pakaluk,

If you want to stop those annoying spam-comments, I would suggest the following:

1. Sign in to your 'dashboard'.
2. Click on your blog name as usual.
3. Click on 'settings'.
4. Then on 'comments'.
5. Scroll down to where it says 'word verification for comments'.

Hopefully that will rid you of the problem.


Michael Pakaluk said...

Fellow Clarkie,

Thanks for that recommendation. I'd known about that but have been loathe to impose such an inconvenience upon readers unless it were strictly necessary--which I suppose it is.


Jimmy Doyle said...

Look, my comment may have been "annoying" to those who interpret the Gorgias or the Republic differently. But it wasn't "spam."

Michael Pakaluk said...


Thanks for your comments--very much. I plan to respond.

I don't think anyone was suggesting that your comments were spam. Allow me to explain. Two or three times a day a solicitation gets posted, as a comment, on an archived page of this blog. Readers don't see them, because the 'Recent Comments' hack shows only comments added to the current page.

These solicitations, which plant links to a site that is selling something, are posted in large quantity by computers on blogs all over the world. The reason is that popular search programs such as Google will show a site based on the number of links to it. Thus, links to a site that are planted on blogs such as mine increase the likelihood that that site will show up quickly when a relevant word is searched.

Yesterday a solicitation was actually posed to the "A Small Question" post. I removed it quickly and permanently. You must have missed it--it didn't appear for long. I'm sure 'Fellow Clarkie' was referring to that!

But that's the last straw. I've activated the spam filter function.


Anonymous said...


That's OK. I was only joking. I didn't really think you were classifying my comment as spam.