Plato's Republic, the Search for Justice and Goodness

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Plato's Republic – The Search for Justice and Goodness

Plato's Republic is often read as a political work, as a statement of some sort on government, society, and law. This is certainly not a rash reading of the dialogue; it is called the Republic, and over half of it is devoted to the construction of a city through speech, a city complete with a government structure, a military, an economic system, and laws. However, I believe that to read the Republic as a political statement is inaccurate. Although Socrates and his companions construct a city out of speech as they attempt to define justice, the dialogue repeatedly frames justice as something that cannot be established through a fixed system of morality, let alone through a rigid system of law or government. The Republic is not primarily a political work, but instead a kind of invitation, bidding individuals to search for justice and goodness through their own efforts, rather than through any recipe or blueprint.

In the Republic, one encounters much that might justify reading the work as a blueprint for justice or a recipe for moral goodness. Socrates speaks of the Good--a supreme, constant source from which everything meaningful descends. One might easily imagine, then, that because Socrates discusses an absolute, unchanging Good, he might also propose an absolute, unchanging code for adhering to it. However, the "city" that Socrates and his companions establish through dialectic is exceedingly problematic as a blueprint for a moral system; it does not allow for the possibility of choice, that element which makes a moral system both necessary and applicable. Nevertheless, Plato's Republic is not simply an insufficient exposition of a moral system. Rather, it is not a p...

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... and of no other" (9.592B). In the end, it is not the "city of speech" that is most important, but one's participation in the speech itself: in dialectic, in argument, in education.

NOTES

[1] Plato, the Republic, translated by Allan Bloom (New York: Basic Books, 1991).

[2] That justice is intrinsically desirable Socrates illustrates in Book IX in his analysis of the different types of rulers and their levels of happiness and fulfillment. That justice is desirable for its consequences is engaged in Book II. In addition, in Book X a new light is shed on both of these claims: the ability to act justly may ultimately determine not only the kind of life that we live, but also what may happen to us after death, when we choose the new life that we shall enter. At that point, both the intrinsically desirable and the consequently desirable are no longer separate.

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