Supplementary Notes on Plato's Republic Books V - VII

Socrates and his friends started out to seek the nature and worth of justice, and this turned into an investigation of what a just polis might be like. Why, in the midst of all of this, does Socrates turn his friends' attention to questions about the nature of knowledge of true things, and about the way to seek that knowledge?

How and why does the discussion about knowledge begin?
1. Socrates and Thrasymachus have asserted, and the others have agreed, that justice is a techne, a craft or skill. A  techne involves some sort of teachable knowledge of how things work and of how to achieve a certain result effectively and reliably (see also the Glossary section of my web notes on Aristotle's Metaphysics A1-2; scroll down to #6). See e.g. 466e and 533b.(The assertion that justice is a techne has not been argued for by any of the characters.) Socrates also suggests that there is a techne of ruling. Even if you do not agree that justice or ruling involves the kind of knowledge that one gets through technai (plural of techne), you might agree that justice or ruling (ruling well, or at least in a way that does not lead to the immediate downfall of one's country) call for some sort of knowledge, or would be best served by some kind of knowledge. Thus this text raises the question of what if any kind of knowledge should be a requisite for political participation and political authority.

2. The "guardians" Socrates has described are supposed to be philosophers, and philosophos (Greek word for 'philosopher') literally means 'lover of wisdom.' Socrates and his friends agree that the philosopher loves knowledge and truth, and that wisdom requires these. Thus Socrates' account of knowledge addresses the education of the guardians. Socrates has also said, and promised to argue, that one of the qualities that makes these guardians fit to rule is their commitment to the search for knowledge: 473d-474b.

3. The initial impetus for the discussion was the question of what justice and injustice are like, 472b-d, and this according to Socrates involves understanding (or at least identifying) "the just itself" - and finding how the just person comes close to and "participates in" the just itself.
     a. What does Socrates mean by 'the just itself'? One way to understand this would be to say that if there are just things, then the just itself is what all the just things have that makes them just. If we say that there can be people who are just, laws that are just, institutions that are just, and so on, then is there something that all these things and people have in common that makes them all merit being called 'just'? Socrates and his friends propose that there is something that all just things have in common that makes them just, and that this something is called 'the just itself.'
     b. Why, though, does he call this 'the just itself'? Consider that each if there are things that are just, each of them has aspects that are not justice: a just person is an animal, a male or a female; he or she has a certain age, height, and weight; etc. A just law may deal with one issue or another; it was passed at a certain date; etc. So 'the just itself' will be part of what the just human and the just law share, not what they do not share. Also, no one is perfect; we will still call a person "just" if he or she fails once or twice to do what is just, but overall tries and succeeds in being just in the vast majority of cases. Even the laws may not be perfect; a law might be just in most circumstances, but because of some special situation may not be just in a particular instance. 'The just itself' is a notion that helps us identify these deviations: they are the situations where the person or law fails to exhibit or "participate in" the just itself.
     c. What then does 'participate in' mean? The Greek word is metechein, which means 'to take part in' or 'to partake of.' Part of the idea seems to be that the just itself is manifested in the things that "participate in" it.
     d. One might object at the outset that Socrates and his friends have not yet identified who and what is really just and why these people and things are to be considered just; they have not yet discovered what justice is. But this objection does not hold; in fact, the search for "the just itself" is their way of seeking what justice really is. By examining all the things that seem just, one can discover whether patterns emerge. One can also discover contradictions or incoherences in one's ideas about what qualities exemplify the just thing or person, and weed those out. By doing this, one can get to the hear of what one means by 'justice,' see what it is that all things called just might have in common that makes them just, and see whether these ideas make sense and truly represent feature of life worth having.
     e. Socrates seems to use the phrases 'the just itself' and 'the form of the just' interchangeably. For more on 'forms,' click here.
     f. One might object that we do not know that all just things actually have something in common that makes them just. One would then have to ask, however, why we refer to all of these things using the same word ('just') if they have nothing in common that makes them just. If the use of the term 'just' is arbitrary, capricious, or a matter of fad, then why bother having a justice system at all? Moreover, the fact that we do not know that all just things do NOT have something in common that makes them just suggests that the question deserves further investigation. More on this (same link as in part (e) above).

4. The characters agree that it would be all right if one could not prove that the just-polis-in-logos (theory/speech) could really exist. They also agree that praxis (practice) grasps truth less well than lexis (speaking) does, 473a. Interestingly, they reach this conclusion through an analogy to painting: excellence in painting a beautiful person in a picture does not imply or call for proof that such a beautiful person exists. The word 'beautiful' translates kalos, and kalos can also mean 'noble, high-minded.'

5. This leads to a discussion of what it is that philosophers love, namely the whole of wisdom and truth (475b) and the sight of truth (475e, where 'sight' refers to 'insight' or 'seeing with the mind's eye' rather than to physical vision). Socrates proposes that the things that knowledge (as opposed to opinion) is "set over" (i.e. the things that knowledge refers to or is knowledge "of" - 479e-480a) are "the things themselves": the beautiful/noble itself, the just itself, the good itself, etc. These "things themselves" are things that always remain the same (484c, 485b): the just itself does not ever cease to be the way it is; it is some stable underlying feature of the universe that makes just things just.
      In contrast, the particular things that are said to be just might appear to be just in one way and not in another, or might change from being just to being unjust (a person who had been just might commit an unjust act for one reason or another, or might even cease acting just altogether, for example). Thus the apparently just things exhibit "being" as well as "not being," for they are just in one way or at one time and are not just in another way or at another time. According to Socrates, this implies that what is "set over" these things is opinion, which is intermediate between knowledge and ignorance. The idea seems to be that knowledge enables one to state what really is, and ignorance brings one to say that things are not the way they really are, or to state what "is not" - for example, if you were ignorant of geography you might say that Nigeria was in Asia, but that would be stating what is not: Nigeria is not in Asia, but rather is in Africa. (Or you might say that Nigeria was in Africa, but it would be a lucky guess, and you would not know that you were stating what really is.) Opinion is in between knowledge and ignorance, in that with opinion you state things that may be part of the truth, but not the whole truth; you identify aspects of what really is, but not the whole of it; and by stating just some aspects of what really is, you distort it and say something of what is not. Also, opinion is not as well-grounded as knowledge, so in having opinion you do not have the full grasp of what is. Thus having an opinion about what is just means having partial awareness of how things are, but not having a full understanding - and perhaps missing something crucial.
      According to Socrates, philosophers "embrace the thing itself," 480a, which seems to imply that they have some knowledge. Perhaps it would be more judicious to say that philosophers seek to embrace the thing itself?

Why is a discussion of the nature of knowledge in the Republic at all?
1. In their discussion of the knowledge philosophers have or seek, the characters have focused so far on knowledge of beauty/nobility, justice, moderation, and the like (501b). That is, the knowledge that the characters have been considering so far is knowledge of moral and aesthetic matters. One might think then that this is knowledge of what ought to be, but it has also been described as knowledge of what is, for the beautiful/noble itself, the just itself, etc. have been described as "real being" and "things themselves that never change." Somehow, then, this part of what is also (according to Socrates' proposals) tells us what ought to be, or describes a direction for our efforts. The guardians, Socrates says, must know what is good in order to guard it (506a).

2. In Book VI Socrates presents the famous analogy between the good itself and the sun - the good itself (that which all good things have in common that makes them good) is to the realm of understanding as the sun is to the visible realm; the sun causes sight and makes visible things visible (or seen), and the good causes understanding (noesis) and makes understandable things understandable (or understood), 508-509. That is, things are illuminated by truth, Socrates says, and what gives truth to the things known and the power to know to the knower is the good. Socrates goes on to suggest that the sun may be in some way a cause of seasons, life, etc. (509c); one might ask whether the influence of good has a comparable extension.
     a. These points are never explained, and the question of whether the good is really like the sun in this way is not explored. Therefore it is important to look at the assumptions underlying the analogy between sun and good. The account Socrates gives ties all knowledge to good, makes all knowledge reflect good. This means not merely that knowledge is a good thing, but also that all known things are known as what they are known as (and known at all) because of good. What does this mean? Consider that all colored things have the color they do partly because of the light source under which they are viewed. That is, a yellow thing and a white thing look different under white light, but the same under yellow light. If we follow Socrates' analogy, the good will "color" or give some form and content to our knowledge. This suggests that all of the knowledge that the philosopher will seek will be relevant toward choosing what is best. Even knowledge of things that don't seem immediately related to the question of what is best might in fact be relevant.

But this does not yet explain the reasoning behind the claim that the good informs or makes all knowledge. Is it that
(1) There must be something purposive or directive or goal-like to the cosmos, because otherwise all attempts to find direction and appropriate goals will have to rely on something arbitrary or random (such as whim or prejudice)?
Or is it that
(2) We identify things in a way that reflects our priorities? For example, we may make a distinction between frogs and toads or not, depending on what we are interested in doing with regard to these animals. If we are studying biology, we will make the distinction; if we are simply watching them hop around while we wait for a bus, we may not. If the way we identify things reflects our priorities, it will reflect our beliefs, desires, and opinions.
      Now, if we are going to be able to tell what the things we identify really are so as to have knowledge of them (or if we are to tell whether what we say is is what is), we need to go beyond our beliefs, desires, and opinions. our beliefs may be incorrect or unfounded, our desires might be unrealistic or might blind us ti some aspects of what is, our opinions might reflect prejudices or presuppositions. Today in science we tend to think that this means putting aside desires and so on, but in fact certain unquestioned purposes, utilities, and suppositions remain to direct or form our scientific inquiry.
     So here we might say: the divisions and categories we had made for purposes of inquiry or everyday life reflected our priorities. If we are to come to have knowledge of the things we identify, we must scrutinize the criteria we used for identifying things. Without some purpose we would not make identifications at all, so in order to find the true way things are and the truthful way of identifying what is we must find what is really good. That is, if our purposes do not reflect what is truly good, and if the good itself is present in the universe in a way that orders the universe, then we will fail to understand what really is. Only if we can align our purposes and priorities with the good itself will we be able to tell how things really are. (At least, this is what Socrates' claims suggest; I am neither endorsing nor condemning them here.)
     This assumes, of course, that some way(s) of identifying things is/are right, and that there is a real way that things are. It also assumes that through words we can identify the real natures of things. If these assumptions seem odd (and they are not argued for), consider these issues: If justice is to be expressed in law, and if standards of justice are to be communicated, words had better be able to convey what is real and true. Moreover, if there is no "good itself," then our notions of good and of justice are just feelings or beliefs or prejudices, our ways of identifying things are arbitrary, and there is no way of holding any standard of good or justice. Feelings change, and we cannot know that we share one another's feelings; beliefs change; prejudices are capricious and unfounded. Thus if we develop notions of good and of justice that are based on feelings, beliefs, and prejudices, and we try to enforce obedience to these notions in a society, we are fostering tyranny and opposing justice. If we decide that there are to be no standards, we have anarchy and  no way of holding the society together except by force - which is what one forms a society in order to escape. Thus Socrates implies that knowledge, and before it the search for knowledge, are the only alternatives to this choice between tyranny and anarchy.

The Republic as a whole, in exploring what happens when people who do not yet know what justice is try to develop a political framework based on what seems good to them now, shows the necessity of a different kind of search for knowledge. It also helps us to begin that search - not by doing what the characters do, but by interrogating their choices and the beliefs we have concerning the matters of which they speak.

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