The Republic - Book 1 - Theme of Justice

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The subject matter of the "Republic" is the nature of justice and its relation to human existence. Book I of the "republic" contains a critical examination of the nature and virtue of justice. Socrates engages in a dialectic with Thrasymachus, Polemarchus, and Cephalus, a method which leads to the asking and answering of questions which directs to a logical refutation and thus leading to a convincing argument of the true nature of justice. And that is the main function of Book I, to clear the ground of mistaken or inadequate accounts of justice in order to make room for the new theory. Socrates attempts to show that certain beliefs and attitudes of justice and its nature are inadequate or inconsistent, and present a way in which those views about justice are to be overcome.

Traditionally justice was regarded as one of the cardinal virtues; to avoid injustices and to deal equitable with both equals and inferiors was seen as what was expected of the good man, but it was not clear how the benefits of justice were to be reaped. Socrates wants to persuade from his audience to adopt a way of estimating the benefits of this virtue. From his perspective, it is the quality of the mind, the psyche organization which enables a person to act virtuously. It is this opposition between the two types of assessment of virtue that is the major theme explored in Socrates' examination of the various positions towards justice. Thus the role of Book I is to turn the minds from the customary evaluation of justice towards this new vision. Through the discourse between Cephalus, Polemarchus and Thrasymachus, Socaretes' thoughts and actions towards justice are exemplified. Though their views are different and even opposed, the way all three discourse about justice and power reveal that they assume the relation between the two to be separate. They find it impossible to understand the idea that being just is an exercise of power and that true human power must include the ability to act justly. And that is exactly what Socrates seeks to refute.

The Socratic dialogue begins of Socrates recounting a conversation he had with a number of people at the house of Cephalus. Returning to Athens from Piraeus, where they had been attending a religious festival, Socrates and Glaucon are intercepted by Cephalus, who playfully forces them to come to his father's house. Socrates begins by asking the old man what advice he has to give the youth. Cephalus regards his reliance on wealth as a condition which enables the good person to lead a life of justice. Socrates, which recognizes that justice is an attribute of the good person, still sees Cephalus' view as only possible with sufficient material wealth. Cephalus is not a reflective person, it is obviously suggested when he states that a person can satisfy the requirements of a just and good life by possessing the right disposition and equipped with adequate wealth. But that is all that his life experiences have shown him and unlike Socrates, Cephalus is not a man for whom unexamined life is not worth living. Therefore Socrates' response to Cephalus is not a direct confrontation. Socrates comments that the value of talking to old men is that they may teach us something about the life they have traversed. They may tell us the benefits of old age, however, Plato exploits Cephalus' account of old age to suggest that old age is not a source of wisdom. The wisdom and goodness which enables Cephalus to see his age as a beneficial state need not come with old age. To most men, as Cephalus recognizes, old age is a source of misery and resentment. Only those who have order and peace with themselves can "accept old age with equanimity."

And so it turns out that neither youth nor old age are conditions which enable people to perceive the just way to live; its character and a right disposition. Cephalus supposes that material possession is responsible for the correct perception of what makes a life...
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