© 1996 Bernard SUZANNE Last updated November 21, 1998
Plato and his dialogues : Home - Biography - Works and links to them - History of interpretation - New hypotheses - Map of dialogues : table version or non tabular version. Tools : Index of persons and locations - Detailed and synoptic chronologies - Maps of Ancient Greek World. Site information : About the author.

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Warlords or Perfect Guardians
(the conversation with Polemarchus, Republic I)

February 23, 1997

This page is part of the "e-mail archives" section of a site, Plato and his dialogues, dedicated to developing a new interpretation of Plato's dialogues. The "e-mail archives" section includes HTML edited versions of posts that I submitted on various e-mail discussion lists about Plato and ancient philosophy.

To: plato-republic <plato-republic@freelance.com>
Date : February 23, 1997, 06:59:41
Subject : Warlord or perfect guardian (331c-336a) (part 1)

The same way I proposed a deeper reading of the discussion with Cephalus-logos (1), I'd like to offer now a similar reading of the discussion with Polemarchus-thumos.

The thumos is that part of the soul in between the logos and the epithumiai, in between the call toward the invisible, the divine, and the needs of the body and its passions and desires, that has to make choices in favor of one or the other, and thus lead the soul as a whole to war or peace. It is thus fitting that the first qualification that Socrates gives Polemarchus at 331e is "ho tou logou klèronomos", which is appropriately translated "the heir of the speech" (Shorey: "the inheritor of the argument"), but might also be translated, based on the litteral meaning of klèro-nomos, "the one who decides the lot assigned to the logos, to reason". And this is a perfect definition of the thumos!

But that is not all. The counterpart of the thumos in the analogy of the city is the "guardians" (phulakes). Well! The central part of the discussion with Polemarchus deals with the fact that justice has to do with "guarding" (phulattein: 7 occurrences of phulattein/phulax in a few lines between 333d and 334a) something. And at what is almost the exact middle of the discussion, we find the expression "ho autos phulax agathos" (334a), "the good guardian himself", which could be read as an analogical description of the good thumos. But this good guardian, who is shown to be the same that could be a good thief, soon turns into an "autolukon" (334b1), overtly an allusion by Socrates to Odysseus' grandfather by his mother as depicted by Homer, but in a deeper reading, based on the litteral meaning of the name, a "wolf against himself", again an apt depiction of what a deficient thumos might become to the soul he is a part of.

And this marks the point where Polemarchus starts doubting of himself. Indeed, this whole discussion is a sort of synopsis of how the logos (here Socrates taking over the role that Cephalus is unable to assume in his own "soul") should deal with the thumos to induce it to side with him. And the fact is, at the end, Polemarchus declares he is ready to "koinônein tès machès (associate in the fight)" (335e) with Socrates! (notice the verb used, "koinônien", which will show up again later in the Republic, along with the name "koinônia", to describe the goal of justice in the soul). And it is this alliance that so disturbs Thrasymachus-epithumiai and leads him to enter the fight.

By the way, the "koinônia" was already at the center of the discussion with Polemarachus, and it is it which led to the role od justice as "guardian". The purpose of justice in time of peace (Polemarchus' first take on the role of justice was that it is useful in war, 332e) seems to be that it helps to guard money in associations. In fact, the discussion leads to this definition backwards: Polemarchus first introduces the idea of associations (333a), then is led to limit it to associations about money (333b), and eventually to the sole role of "guardian" (333c). To talk about associations, Polemarchus uses the word "xumbolaia", and it is Socrates who immediately translates it to "koinônèmata". Here again, a deeper reading in light of what is to come shows that this business about "xumbolaia" (the attic form for "sumbolaia", root of the word "symbol") might be a "symbol" of a true definiton of justice, at least from the standpoint of the middle part of the soul Polemarchus stands for: if we remembe the ambiguity on the word ousia when talking about Cephalus' wealth, we may take the "money" mentioned here as a "symbol" of that "ousia", that "being", that the thumos should "guard" in the "koinônia" of the parts of the soul with one another.

To be continued...

To: plato-republic <plato-republic@freelance.com>
Date : February 23, 1997, 08:22:26
Subject : Warlord or perfect guardian (331c-336a) (part 2)

Let us now take a look at the whole of the discussion with Polemarchus and see how it is structured. It is the examination of a definition of justice stating that it constists in " rendering to each his due (to ta opheilomena ekastô apodidonai)" (331e). Thus, the discussion will unfold in two parts: what is due (till 333e) and to whom (from 334c) around a central section on the good guardian opposed to the "autolukon".

The first part (what is due) starts by trying to pinpoint the specific role of justice in deciding "what is due". It seems to wander into the "craft analogy", but there is another reading of this section: it tries to throw a bridge with the discussion with Polus in the Gorgias (Polus, who, in that dialogue, plays the same part--the thumos--as Polemarchus here). The examples taken, medicine and cookery, are meant to elicit in the reader who has already gone through the Gorgias (in my "mapping" of the dialogues, same central position two tetralogies earlier, with the Apology in between), the categorization that was drawn there: true and false preventive and curative "technai" relative to body and soul. There, justice is to the soul what medicine is to the body, while cookery is the flattering counterpart of medicine for the care of the body. So, when Polemarchus, after being reminded of medicine and cookery, is asked about justice, had he "read" the Gorgias, he should know what to answer. But Polemarchus seems not to realize that there is a problem on the "what is due" and keeps focusing on the "to whom": what is due is obviously (to him) good or evil, and, as if good and evil were obvious to all, he replaces the opposition body-soul (and its transposition in the soul, logos-epithumiai, which should be is sole concern as thumos) by the opposition friend-foe.

To be fair to Polemarchus, we may notice that, in the Gorgias, when Socrates starts his "theory of flattery" (462e-466a), he doesn't do it for Polus alone (the thumos), but turns in fact toward Gorgias-logos to do so: such a "theory" needs the participation of the logos for understanding. But here, with Polemarchus, Cephalus the logos is gone and the thumos is left alone, unable to grasp what Socrates is driving at.

But then, we may ask, what is the purpose of all this? Why is Plato attempting a "rerun" of a past discussion (indeed, all of Republic book I looks like a rerun of the Gorgias and the comparisons between both are frequent, especially between Callicles and Thrasymachus)? If, as has been said already numerous times, Plato is indeed "staging" these discussions, what is he after?...

Well! The fact is, he is not staging a rerun, even less a regression! In fact he is preparing a step forward in the definition of justice. And the "craft analogy" is not there to be taken seriously, at least not at the "first degree", but quite the contrary, to open a question to be answered later. When, in the Gorgias, Socrates was putting justice on a par with medicine, he was indeed looking at justice in a very limited way, indeed in the way his interlocutors, rhetors, look at it: the justice that can compare to medicine, at least at first look, is the "judicial" justice, the justice of the courts whose purpose is indeed to "cure" the evils of the soul. But justice as understood by Socrates is quite something else! And that something else, though it still has to do with the "health" of the soul, can no longer be put on a par with other crafts, because, unlike all other crafts, including medicine, it no longer has to do with something "external" to the craftsman that the craftsman has to "make", but with the craftsman himself in the "making" of his own soul (2)! And thus, as was hinted at already in the Charmides, it is something added to any other craft to determine the reason why the craftsman should go about doing what he does from his own standpoint, that is, with regard to his own good. Even the physician doesn't cure himself, except in rare cases, because his own illness most often puts him in a state that disables him for his work as physician.

So, by having Polemarchus not "replaying" the Gorgias, Plato can have Socrates show us that, so long as we look at justice as a craft among others and search for its specific purpose, we find that it is useless! Yet, by having Polemarchus focus more on the "to whom" than on the "what", on the friend and foe dialectic more than on the good and evil, Plato can keep Socrates dealing with the "relational" dimension of justice while he is seeking its specific purpose, thus affording several layers of meaning to the discussion, as I showed in the first part of this series. He can at the same time lead us to the conclusion that the kind of justice Polemarchus is talking about is useless for all practical purposes, and hint at the idea that justice properly understood has to do with "guarding" the "ousia" of the soul. He can also move the "warlord", the "principle of fight", from a "polemical", warlike view of justice to a more peaceful one.

Yet, when we reach the end of the first part, justice has become so "peaceful" that it borders on immobilism and uselessness! Justice cannot even serve as a "shield" (an allusion to Cephalus' business!) to protect the soul against the cravings of its own epithumiai or as a lyre to make it "mousikon" and attune it under the leadership of a "musical" logos (333d). And to make things even worse, at the same time Socrates introduces the mention of the "good guardian", he introduces a principle already stated in the Hippias minor, that it is the same craft, whatever the craft, that allows the one who is best at it to both do good and evil with it in its field as he wills (and the will is the business of the thumos!)

At this point, Plato has gotten rid of some weed, but there remains to sow the wheat! Yet, this won't come right away, because there are more weeds to get rid of.

To be continued...

To: plato-republic <plato-republic@freelance.com>
Date : February 23, 1997, 12:20:15
Subject : Warlord or perfect guardian (331c-336a) (part 3)

At the end of the first part of the discussion with Polemarchus, we don't know any more what justice is useful for, and besides, we are told that, if we keep seeking along these lines, we won't be able to decide whether the justice we come up with will turn us into a perfect guardian or a wolf turned against himself!

Yet, Polemarchus still stands by his definition (334b), though he is no longer quite sure what he meant and calls upon Zeus to come to his help ("Ou ma ton Di' ", that is, "No, by Zeus!"). And Socrates will not give the answers yet. Rather, he moves now to the other part of the definition that has just been restated by Polemarchus: after the "what is owed", the "to whom is it owed".

But, in much the same way the inquiry about the "what is owed" led us to considerations about the "agent", the one who does or doesn't do what justice requires, and is a "guardian" or a "wolf" to himself, the inquiry about the "patient", the one we owe something to, will bring us back to the "what is owed", good and evil, and, in a subtle way, to the "agent" again, but only if we read carefully the text at a deeper level.

In line with the conversation in the Gorgias already mentioned, in order to bring us back to the "patient" (as understood by Polemarchus, that is friend or foe), Socrates introduces the distinction between appearence and reality, which was key to the opposition between medicine and cookery, and all other oppositions in the theory of flattery (such as justice opposed to rhetoric). But there, it no longer serves to distinguish the crafts, but the "targets" of these crafts. What if we are mistaken in deciding who is friend and who is foe?...

In doing this, Socrates slowly moves us toward the knowledge of man, if not yet of self. Those who "dièmartèkasin tôn anthrôpôn", who "completely miss the mark about men" (334d) may actually harm those who in fact are their friends, mistaking them for ennemies. And this whole section is a veiled allusion to Socrates' own trial where Athens thought it was getting rid of a foe while actually killing its best friend (and, going back to the first part, read along the same lines, we might say that, by the definition of justice it was leading to, justice had nothing to do with Socrates' case, precisely because he was *using* the gift of the gods, far from keeping it unused!...)

Now, Polemarchus can accept the conclusion this leads to, because it doesn't seem to contradict his original definition: it only requires that we add true friends and true foes to what was already said.

This being done, Socrates seems to go back to the "what": even assuming someone is our true ennemy, "is if of a just man to damage anyone whatsoever among men?" (335b). And the discussion proceeds to talk about "aretèn" (excellence, "virtue") in horses and dogs before talking about "tèn anthrôpeian aretèn (human "virtue")" (335c). But horses should remind us of the winged chariot used as an image of the soul in the Phaedrus, where one of the two horses stands for the thumos; and dogs will be used later in the Republic (see 375a, sq) as an image of guardians. So, looking at it this way, we should start wondering if there is not another reading of that whole discussion about "damaging" a man where the "damaged" person is not the foe we are doing evil to, but the very soul that is doing evil to him!

And indeed, if we look at the Greek text, starting with that "is it of a just man to damage anyone whatsoever among men? (Estin ara dikaiou andros blaptein kai ontinoun anthrôpôn;)", which doesn't exclude the "agent" from the "anyone whatsoever among men", we find out that Socrates never talks about acting, never uses expressions that would separate the doer from the victim, but rather talks about "blaptomenoi hippoi (damaged horses)", "kunes blaptomenoi (damaged dogs)", "anthrôpous blaptomenous (damaged men)", that is, of a resulting state, never telling us whom, of the agent or victim, incurs that "damaged" state! And when he comes to the conclusion, wondering if a "virtue" can produce an effect contrary to itself, if, "by music, musicians (hoi mousikoi) can make non-musicians (amousous poiein)", or "by horsemanship, horsemen (hoi hippikoi) [can make men] ignorant of horsemanship (aphippous)", or "by justice, just (hoi dikaioi) [can make] unjust (adikous)", or, to sum it up, "by virtue (aretè), good (hoi agathoi) [can make] bad (kakous)" (335c-d), all terms, both for agents and patients are plural and all expressions can be understood of the same person being both the agent and the victim.

So, we may read here a piece of sophistry when we hear Socrates say that by harming someone else we make him more unjust, while we know that, in other places, and later in the Republic among other, he says that punishment is for the purpose of "healing" the unjust person and make her more just. Or we may find a deeper meaning to all this when coming back for a second, or third, reading, and realise that there is a way of understanding it as true, namely that "damaging" even a foe, that is, doing evil to anybody, hurts, not him, or at most his body, not his soul, but my soul.

And, in the middle of this discussion, we find a statement that is key to the whole Republic (which is only a long development of it), and in fact to the whole of the dialogues: that "justice is the human virtue (hè dikaiosunè anthrôpeia aretè)" (335c)...

...But which justice?... We still have nine and a half books to find out!...

(1) See the set of posts titled "The Discussion with Cephalus". (back)

(2) The following post, sent a few days earlier, is relevant to explaining better my understanding of the "craft analogy":

To: plato-republic <plato-republic@freelance.com>
Date : February 18, 1997, 21:44:34
Subject : Re: 332c-334b analogy

> How appropriate is Socrates' comparison of justice (or, of Polemarchus' justice) to crafts?

My understanding of the "craft analogy" used by Plato/Socrates is that he wants to eventually make us understand that each one of us is ultimately craftsman of his own self, of his own soul. And like any craftsman, we can succeed and be good craftsmen only if we know what we are about to craft: hence the "know thyself"! To make a good bed, the carpenter must look at the "idea" of bed; to make a good soul, I must look at the "idea" of man...

So, if, as I said in earlier posts, "justice" as understood by Plato/Socrates is indeed the ultimate "idea" of man, the goal that will make one soul what it should be to be a "good" soul of man, there is nothing more important for us than to understand what justice is. And the craft analogy holds to the end, not only (in fact not at all) with Polemarchus' notion of justice, but especially (in fact only) with Plato/Socrates' "idea" of justice.

It is even true that, as with any craft, it is the one who might best be able to build a "good" soul who could most successfully build an evil soul, but the problem is, why in hell should he do it to himself?!... It is one thing for a good physician to put his science to evil use to kill artfully somebody else, but why should anybody want to kill, not his body (I know some people commit suicide), but his own self, if he knew what it really takes to be a man; why would he want not to do what it takes to be happy if he knew what produces true happiness for man? Nobody does willingly evil to himself: this is another key tenet of Plato/Socrates. And I am only the craftsman of my soul, not of someone else's... I can hurt someone else's body, not his soul!... And in fact, in hurting someone else's body, I most often hurt not his but my soul. That's what means the central statement of the Republic (and of the Gorgias before) that is is better to suffer injustice that to commit is. (back)

Plato and his dialogues : Home - Biography - Works and links to them - History of interpretation - New hypotheses - Map of dialogues : table version or non tabular version. Tools : Index of persons and locations - Detailed and synoptic chronologies - Maps of Ancient Greek World. Site information : About the author.

First published February 23, 1997 ; Last updated November 21, 1998
© 1996 Bernard SUZANNE (click on name to send your comments via e-mail)
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