Summary of Book 2 of the Republic

by Jonathan McIntosh

Glaucon, unimpressed with the ease with which the wild Thrasymachus has been tamed by Socrates in book one, wants to know what justice and injustice are, in and of themselves, and what their intrinsic effects are on the soul that possess them. When Socrates says that justice is a good that is desired both for its own sake and for its benefits, Glaucon counters that most people think that it desired only for its benefits. The common view is that doing injustice is good and suffering injustice is bad. Because the costs of suffering injustice are greater than the benefits of inflicting it on others, however, people are led to make an agreement with each other not to do injustice, and this is the political origins of justice. Give people the opportunity, however, to do injustice without suffering it, and they will do injustice, as the story of the Ring of Gyges illustrates. A shepherd finds a ring that makes him invisible, so that when he goes to serve as a messenger to the king, he decides instead to seduce the queen, kill the king, and rule in his stead. This is what everyone would do in the same situation, meaning that no one really believes that justice is choice-worthy for its own sake. To truly defend justice as something good in itself, therefore, Glaucon challenges Socrates to show how the just man who suffers all the reputation and consequences of injustice is still better off than the unjust man who enjoys all the benefits of being reputed to be just.

Socrates responds that just as the same message written in small letters from a distance is easier read if it is written elsewhere in large letters, so justice and injustice in the soul might be better seen if we were to read them “writ large” in a whole city. More specifically, he says that if we were able to watch a city coming into existence, we would see justice itself coming into being. The origin of the city lies in the individual person’s lack of self-sufficiency: human beings have many needs that no one individual is able to conveniently provide for himself. This leads to a division of labor in which each person does a single task that he is best suited for. Socrates then takes inventory of all the kinds of occupations that the city will need: in addition to farmers, homebuilders, and weavers, there will be carpenters, metal workers, cowherds, shepherds, importers, merchants, and sailors. All of the trading going on will further require a marketplace and some form of money. Adeimantus points out that the merchants will be weaklings who aren’t fit to do anything else, and as for the laborer who sells his labor for wages, Socrates says that his intellectual deficiencies will prevent him from being a citizen of the city.

Socrates describes this initial, moderate city as a “healthy city” and as “the true city” (373a), but when Glaucon complains that it contains only necessities and no luxuries, Socrates agrees to enlarge it into a “feverish” city, adding all sorts of other dainties and the occupations necessary to provide them. The addition of luxuries means that the city’s land will no longer be sufficient to provide for the now enlarged population and its demands, requiring it to seize the land of its neighbors and so leading to war. If there is to be war, then on the earlier principle of one-man/one-job, the city must now be enlarged further still by adding a whole military class to fight the city’s battles. These warriors must have a warrior nature, being strong in body and courageous and spirited in soul, but also philosophical, being able to wisely discriminate friend from foe, being gentle towards the one and fierce towards the other.

This leads into a lengthy discussion of the warrior or guardian class’s education, involving physical training for the body and music and poetry for the soul. The stories the guardian-children are told will be tightly censored, with gods and heroes never being portrayed in a negative or immoral light. The gods are to be portrayed only as they are, namely as causing only the good and not responsible for evil, suffering, deception, or falsehood, and because already perfect, not ever changing in form.

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