Socrates About Building a City

Subject: Philosophy
Pages: 8
Words: 1932
Reading time:
7 min

Plato’s Republic revolves around a simple question whether its better to be just than unjust. Socrates, in responding to this question, sketches the account of a good city on the grounds that a good city would be just and that defining justice as a virtue of a city would help to define justice as a virtue of a human being. Through Books Five to Seven, Socrates outlines the controversial features of the good city he has sketched. In the words of Socrates, a just city and the just human being as he has sketched them are in fact good and are in principle possible. Thus, we find that the main thesis of Plato’s Republic is a contribution to the field of ethics: a discussion of what the virtue justice is and why a person should be just. It is not an issue of political science.

Yet because Socrates expands his discussion of personal justice to include descriptions of justice in the city and the arrangement of good and bad cities, Plato’s Republic seems to involve political science as well. The account of the city of Socrates is also an account of how knowledge can rule, detailing on what knowledge and its objects are. Thesis: Socrates sketches his ideal city to prove his stand that being just is better than to be unjust and hence, his outline is more a theoretical one but one that is based on valid concepts of political science.

Socrates description of the features of a good city in answering the question whether it’s better to be just or unjust seems to be an indirect approach. But then, Socrates is forced to take this indirect approach due to his inability to take more direct routes. Socrates could have answered it directly assuming on widely accepted notions of justice. But Socrates cannot do so because he does not find ordinary conceptions of justice adequate. Defining justice is, on his own terms would have to be based on actions which is again non-specific. Socrates will not attempt to define justice through a list of prescribed and proscribed actions. This is well indicated in Book One when Cephalus characterizes justice as keeping promises and returning what is owed. Socrates objects by citing a case in which returning what is owed would not be just.

This objection shows that there are bound to be exceptions in all lists of actions and Socrates cannot define justice based on a list of actions. Socrates, in accepting the challenge of Glaucon and Adeimantus has to construct an account of justice and an account of happiness at the same time, and he has to show that being just leads to greater happiness than being unjust. As assumptions cannot be had at this stage, Socrates is forced to take an indirect method of answering the question and in so doing, he sketches his ideal city . Thus, his purpose of creating the concept of the ideal city is purely theoretical.

Socrates equates personal justice and personal happiness with civic justice and civic happiness. In so doing, Socrates depends in some measure on an analogy between a city and a person. The new state sketched by Socrates is called the Kallipolis. It is the fair and noble city. Socrates in trying to link person to the city decides to project the individual soul onto the large screen of the state where its justice and injustice can presumably be seen in enlarged format. This introduced the political dimension into the discussion. However, the enlarged format chosen by Socrates is questionable.

There are two reasons for the foundation of the Kallipolis: its a striking model or metaphor of the state as a projection of the individual soul and secondly, its the attempt to discover justice and injustice in the evolution of society are related in their objective but are very dissimilar as methods. The state might not prove to be an adequate representation of the human soul writ large. Moreover, this model of inquiry is static in nature and will not suit the purpose of Socrates who is trying to find the moment when justice is produced in a state as it develops. Socrates questions Adeimantus” “Were we to discover the city as it came into being in discourse, would we then be able to observe its justice and injustice in their genesis?” Adeimantus’ response is only ‘perhaps’. In the end, neither Adeimantus nor Glaukon is able to discover the moment either justice or injustice enters Socrates’ emerging city . Thus, the city of Socrates cannot be a reality.

Socrates brings three cities into existence. First is the healthy city which is the expression of fundamental human needs. The city that evolves from this city is the product of the desire for gain and self-aggrandizement. This city has musicians, actors, beauticians, barbers and with the new regime doctors. Socrates third city is Kallipolis, the city of the Republic . This is a city ruled by philosophers. The city ruled by the philosopher is only a matter of chance because a ruler needs to have not only theoretical knowledge; he must also have practical knowledge. For the philosopher to live in the city, he needs virtues other than those that are the consequences of his full dedication to philosophy. According to Christopher A. Colmo, to live in the city, the philosopher needs a kind of courage that belongs to true justice.

When Socrates describes the living situation of the guardian classes in the ideal city, he is clear that private property will be sharply limited, and when he discusses the kinds of regulations the rulers need to have in place for the whole city, he is clear that the producers will have enough private property to make the regulation of wealth and poverty a concern. But confusion about scope of communal living arrangements is possible, due to the backhanded way in which Socrates introduces this controversial proposal. Aristotle has criticized the Republic in the beginning of Book 2 of his Politics. Alluding to the philosopher kings, he dismissingly claims that Socrates “has filled out the argument with extraneous discourses, particularly concerning the sort of education the guardians should have”. He further regards the governing body of the city to be extraneous to the city because its regime does not emerge as a necessary and organic part of the city due to Socrates initial presupposition in building it.

In the ideal city of Socrates, his citizens hold everything in “common” (Koina), making their ‘partnership’ complete. The sharing includes women, children and property. Aristotle points out to the practical difficulties that arise in Socrates’ proposals for eliminating the sub-political partnership of the household through the community of women, children and property in pursuit of unity . He remarks that the inhabitants of Socrates city will suspect whose children are whose and he argues that people tend to care less for what is not exclusively their own because they do not have the requisite affection for it. He also points out that the divide between the lowest class and the guardians and auxiliaries will produce two cities in opposition to one another. Socrates proposals either deny or over-extend the natural self-love and affection that is the basis of any political community and which can be instilled mainly through partnership of household. Aristotle says: “the source and springs of affection, political order and justice are in the household”. Even if Socrates proposals were possible, they would undermine his presupposed goal of unity.

Socrates also considers the nature of the city as a multitude. He remarks that communism of women and children and property will bind the city together and make it one, thus achieving the greatest good of the city. Socrates describes such a city as being bound by “the community of pleasure and pain” making the city like a single organism, all its members feeling pain and pleasure at the same time towards the same things and having same ownership of the same things. This is not possible points out Aristotle who says:

“Now the city is made up not only of a number of human beings, but also of human beings differing in kind: a city does not arise from persons who are similar”.

According to Socrates, “a city, as I believe, comes into being because each of us isn’t self-sufficient but is in need of much”. The most basic city will be made up of four or five artisans: a farmer, a house builder, a weaver, a shoemaker and perhaps another artisan concerned with the needs of the body. The city Adeimantus and Socrates found is based upon exchange and they agree “each of us is naturally not quite like anyone else, but rather differs in his nature, different men are apt fro the accomplishment of different jobs.” they should adopt the principle of “one man, one art” . In the luxury city, there are no rulers, but his new city will need warriors to seize a piece of their neighbors’ land. Aristotle points out that n a city where the citizens are essentially equal in nature, how will there be a warrior class. Further, this will lead to the rise of the ruling warrior class in the city contrary to Socrates vision of the luxury city having warriors but no ruling body.

Socrates says seven times that the philosophers in the ideal city will have to be compelled to rule and do their part in sustaining the perfectly just city. It is possible to understand this compulsion as the constraint of justice: the philosophers rule because it is just for them to rule. But Socrates’ own way of characterizing the compulsion suggests an alternative picture, according to which the compulsion is a law that requires those who are educated to be philosophers to rule . Moreover, this alternative picture seems required by Socrates’ insistence that the philosophers are the best rulers because they prefer not to rule even while they are ruling. On this picture, the philosophers’ knowledge of justice alone does not motivate them to rule; rather, their knowledge of justice motivates them to follow the law, which justly compels them to rule. Socrates’ account of how philosophers would be educated in the ideal city suggests that the ability to give knowledgeable answers requires an enormous amount of largely mathematical learning in advance of the questions themselves.

However, Socrates does not actually say in the Republic that knowledge of the forms freely motivates positive actions on behalf of other people. Socrates specification of mathematical knowledge for philosopher kings also implies that the philosophers’ knowledge gives them motivations to do what is required by justice, and the non-philosophers are not similarly motivated. This gap suggests some rather unpalatable conclusions about the character of non-philosophers’ lives even in the ideal city, and it also sits poorly with Socrates’ evident desire to take the philosophers’ justice as a paradigm that can be usefully approximated by non-philosophers.

Thus, Socrates cannot be really serious about building this city as there are practical limitations. It can only be good for theoretical explanations. With respect to political science, Socrates’ concept of the city leads to important discussions such as the relevance of knowledge and philosophy to rulers, the importance of spatiality, the concept of the warrior class, etc.