Plato’s aim in the Republic

Ashley asked:

What is Plato’s aim in the Republic?

Answer by Caterina Pangallo

To understand this, you have to know something about the political background of Plato.

Greece was composed of a number of small city-states, which had autonomous governments. Some were democratic, others were tyrannies or kingdoms. These states were in constant warfare with each other. In fact, not long before Plato, the Peloponnesian War had ended, leaving Athens destitute. So, due to this constant warring, social conditions in the Greek states deteriorated, because many of them were involved either on the Spartan or Athenian side. Athens suffered catastrophically from bad government, corruption, famines, plagues and so on.

As a result of Plato recognising these ills in society, he set himself the task of analysing the question of ‘what is a state?’ When he considered that the fundamental drive of all people is to live happily and be content and in peace, he realised that all the problems in society come down to one problem. Which is that states exist for the sake of social justice.

So Plato asked himself: How can we form a society in which justice prevails?

This is a big issue. Having been the pupil of Socrates, he makes Socrates speak in the Republic on all these issues with Plato’s two brothers. The idea was to test if it is possible to construct an ideal (just) society. So they start at the bottom with just a few people and figure out what these people need to live and survive in mutual agreement.

Obviously as the numbers increase, the community becomes more complicated. So the next question is, who is going to govern this community? Here the dominant concept of justice comes in.

Then they look look at the various kinds of state in the Greek world. None of them are especially good. And the main reason for this is that their constitutions are full of errors and defects, leading inevitably to injustices.

Now Socrates argues, that in order to have justice for everyone, a state must have one idea of justice that everyone is happy with. Now the problem comes up that most of the people in the state are not well enough educated to be legislators. But someone has to make the laws to ensure that no-one is disadvantaged or preferred, and that self-interest does not interfere with justice for all. Such a person must be educated, of course. But more than this, he or she (Plato admitted women as legislators) must have a special education in justice, which comes from philosophy.

So Plato gave careful directions for choosing rulers and to make sure that once chosen, they would not work for their own advantage. Once they have this knowledge their action must be good and they will pass laws for the people and in their best interest, with justice the most important criterion.

They will in fact be ‘philosopher-kings’. But unlike kings everywhere else, they have no royal privileges! They are in fact slaves to philosophy. They live like monks and have no other interest in life except the happiness of everyone else in the state.

Of course you can see that this state is not a democracy. But Plato and Socrates both believed that democratic governments are too individualistic, too much under the influence of vested interests, and often badly governed because the people at the top are not well educated.

Plato’s philosophy leads to an anti-democratic authoritarian philosophy. It is government for the people, but not by the people. But Plato really believed that this was the only guarantee of justice in a state.

Eventually Plato/ Socrates must address the issue: ‘Can the ideal state be realised? Or is it just a Utopia?’ He says it’s a paradigm, a model for all legislators to consider. It may not be possible to construct this ‘ideal state’ anywhere in the real world. But any existing state would be improved even if they took just one of the principles of this book into their laws.

So that was his final aim. People everywhere live under the umbrella of politics. His worry was that most states are badly governed. He wanted to show a way to do better.

Answer by David Robjant

Controversial, with a blooming variety of view — one of the largest areas of secondary literature in philosophy in any language, with particularly intense contributions in english and german down the centuries, also in french and italian. I have an opinion which went one way on first reading and another way after reading a certain lady, but hopefully you were wanting to form your own view. Here’s a sample culled from some current literature on the subject, available in English.

For various presentations of the ‘ethical’ reading:

J. Annas ‘The Inner City: Ethics without Politics in the Republic’ in Platonic Ethics, Old and New, Ithaca, Cornell University Press 1999

Blossner ‘The City-Soul Analogy’, trans. G.R.F. Ferrari in G.R.F. Ferrari (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Plato’s Republic, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2007

Plato, Republic, trans. Robin Waterfield, World’s Classics Series, Oxford: Oxford University Press 1993. *Waterfield’s introduction*

For three strikingly incompatible versions of the political reading:

K. Popper The Open Society And Its Enemies, Volume 1, The Spell of Plato London, Routledge 1945 & this fifth edition 1966

L. Strauss ‘On Plato’s Republic’ in The City and Man, University of Chicago Press 1978

D.R. Morrison ‘The Utopian Character of Plato’s Ideal City’ in G.R.F. Ferrari (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Plato’s Republic, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2007

For the classic paper saying that Plato had both political and ethical intentions and that as a result he contradicts himself:

B. Williams ‘The Analogy of City and Soul’ in R. Kraut ed. Plato’s Republic, Critical Essays Rowman & Littlefield 1997

Commentary on this paper constitutes a self-propelled sub-genre to itself, but try to bear in mind that there are those listed here for whom William’s idea of Plato’s intentions is entirely misconceived.

For attempts along various lines to integrate political and ethical objectives:

J. Lear ‘Inside and Outside in the Republic’ in R. Kraut ed. Plato’s Republic, Critical Essays Rowman & Littlefield 1997

M. Lane Plato’s Progeny; How Plato and Socrates Still Captivate the Modern Mind. London: Duckworth 2001

Plato The Republic, trans. D. Lee, London: Penguin 2007 *Lane’s Introduction* xxxvii

C. Rowe ‘The Republic in Plato’s Political Thought’ in G.R.F. Ferrari (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Plato’s Republic, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2007

If you are lazy and uninterested in the question, Plato’s Progeny may help cover some of the ground on Strauss and Popper — and Lane is certainly one of the more accessible undergraduate-aimed writers on this list — although there’s a certain degree of fun to be had out of Popper’s bile if you are in the mood (which I’m not). But the thing is that Lane, like Popper and Strauss, is starting from an interest in Politics and then turning to Plato in that spirit which may, some on this list will argue, be an entirely mistaken approach.

Your predicament as an undergraduate may be related to where you encounter the Republic physically (US or UK), and where on the curriculum (ancient phil or politics). If you encounter it in the course of an introduction to political philosophy in the UK, the di are cast a little early. If you get the chance however, enjoy the blooming confusion above — something of value in all.

Nature of scientific explanation

Duder asked:

Why ask why?

Answer by Helier Robinson

Asking why is requesting an explanation. Explanations are causal: to describe causes is to explain their effects. Even the most primitive human societies seek explanations; their explanations are what we call myths. Past systems of explanation were metaphysics and theology. Our everyday explanations are common sensical. Scientific explanation is theoretical science, which explains empirical science. In all these kinds of explanation imperceptible causes are invoked in order to explain perceptible events, and the description of the causes is speculative.

As David Hume pointed out, we cannot perceive causes, we can only perceive correlations; consequently he claimed that it is vain to speculate. But he was wrong. All of theoretical science is speculative, but it is speculation closely tied to empirical science and to reason (mathematics). If you ask a theoretical physicist what it is that theoretical physics describes, he/she will tell you that it describes the underlying causes of empirical phenomena, thereby explaining these phenomena. The word ‘underlying’ is metaphorical: the ground here is a bit shaky as far as common sense is concerned; but what is meant by ‘underlying’ is ‘imperceptible’. ‘Empirical’ means known through the senses, or perceptible, and ‘theoretical’ means non-empirical, or imperceptible. Nothing theoretical is ever empirical, although many people wrongly believe otherwise.

Consider a bacterium seen through a microscope: does the microscope enlarge the bacterium, or does it enlarge an optical image of the bacterium? It enlarges an image, of course. Bacteria are theoretical, imperceptible. Similarly with viruses, and electron microscopes, and with molecules and atoms, and scanning tunneling microscopes. The same is true of telescopes, including radio telescopes. Measurement is another misunderstood process. All measurements are empirical, but what they measure is usually theoretical. Consider measuring a temperature, for example: your thermometer reading is empirical but the thing measured is average kinetic energy of molecules, which is theoretical, imperceptible.

Does time exist?

Gary asked:

Does Time exist? I am reading several works by Craig Callender on the question of time. I am comparing them to scientific assumptions about space/time and find many assumptions made that do not hold up under Nisha Shah definition description of Truth. (ref: Philosophical Review Oct 2003. I try to view the subject from a 3rd person position of argument looking for dialogue vs debate. I have no formal training in the area of philosophy, and have only 2 years of college work.Callender’s work is The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Time.

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

There is a story I’ve told many times in my classes. It’s a true story, so you may as well hear it too.

When Galileo was studying the law of free fall, he laid down a plank on the banks of Arno River to give himself a sloping path for cannon balls. Then he rolled dozens of them down the plank, big ones and little ones, and timed their acceleration.

How did he time them? He had no clock!

He solved this problem by filling a keg with water. The keg had a tap, and under it he put an empty water urn.

Then he placed one boy at the top of the plank, another at the bottom. The first cried ‘run!’ when he let go of a cannon ball, the second boy cried ‘stop!’ when the ball arrived at the bottom. On the ‘run’ command, Galileo opened the tap, on the ‘stop’ command he closed it.

The outcome was that the urn always had a measurable quantity of water in it. Since the volume of water corresponds to the time it took for the balls to run a certain distance, you obtain the result:

Time = x amount of water = x distance.

So you can now choose between water and distance as a correlate of time.

But water and distance being correlates, carries an intriguing implication.

If you pursue your research further along this line, you will discover, without fail, that all ways of ascertaining the ‘whatness’ of Time involve studying its correlates. Without those correlates Time cannot be studied.

Eg. the speed of light is correlated to time in a circular way: the speed is the distance travelled by light in 1 second in a vacuum. Therefore 1 second is the time required by light to cover that distance.

Or: 1 second is defined as 900 billion oscillations of a Caesium atom. How do we know? Because it takes a caesium atom 900 billion oscillations to mark out 1 second.

So time, if it exists, is hiding itself well.

But I think it is safe to conclude that time is nothing other than its correlates.

‘In itself’ time does not exist. If there were no correlates, we could not speak of time, we would not have the word in the dictionary.

But we have it in the dictionary because its correlates can always be compared to each other. So: Time is the result of a comparison between two or more correlates. Time by itself is not a possible conception. Hence Time does not exist independently. And this has to be the final answer.

Do criminals ‘deserve’ to be punished?

Yuri asked:

There’s a question that’s bothering me for some time. If a person does a crime couldn’t one say that he’s just a ‘product’ of his mind, his neurological processes in his brain? That in fact, he can’t be guilty because he’s just acting this way because he just can act this way in a certain situation? He would then be a ‘product’ of his past, his experiences, his fears, his aggressions and so on?

Wouldn’t this mean that the concept of ‘guilt’ in jurisprudence would become obsolete? And prisons would just have the aim of resocialization? And when resocialization is achieved, presumably, he should leave prison? And years behind bars wouldn’t really make sense then.

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

I’m sorry to say but your train of thought here is complete nonsense.

As a philosopher I can see straight through it as a conception which relies on the possibility of ‘objective’ facts, and of physical things in the world influencing your thoughts and decisions, without considering that those things are as dead as a doornail.

It is true that this is a fashionable attitude today. It doesn’t make it any more ‘true’ or, for that matter, ‘rational’.

You are supposing that you and I are ‘victims’ of processes. What are these processes? Do you know? Probably not. You are relying on other people’s opinions, and they may not know either.

In the main, they are chemical or electrochemical processes and the assumption (better: presumption) is that none of us can do anything about them.

But the next time you pour hot water into your cup, consider how much of that process depends on your freely willed action. It will not happen by itself.

So why do you suppose that chemicals in your body or brain can act by themselves? Do you think this is a rational belief?

The chemistry in your body and your brain is active because there are living organisms doing the same as you, with your cup of coffee.

The point is: in this symbiosis between you and your organs, it is not clear cut whether the organs act first and you follow, or whether you act first and they follow. Sometimes it’s one way, sometimes the other way. So don’t fool yourself that you are not 100% responsible for what you think, desire and do. In almost every situation where you are not being coerced, you are acting on your own behalf.

So the only thing you know for sure, from your own experience, is that you are an autonomous agent capable of making free decisions, having spontaneous impulses, perhaps the talent for writing poetry or music, or for designing bridges or exploring parts of the world.

The impediments on exercising that freedom are mostly social constraints. Physical or mental disability also plays a role, but across the 6 billion people on earth they are a tiny minority.

One last thought.

Once upon a time, religion had all the answers. Why don’t we believe them any more? Because we started thinking and found they were only pretending to know. We discovered that ‘knowledge is power’. The churches wanted to keep the people ignorant so that we would not know how they deceived us all and kept us in economic and intellectual chains.

I shall leave it to you to make the necessary extrapolation upon your own situation and on your own opinions.

Ask yourself where they came from, ask yourself if they are rational, and ask yourself who benefits if you hold those opinions.

I cannot see you benefitting! But I can see you as a future slave of powers who want you to believe the ideas you put into your question.

I think it would be a good idea to do focus on what you can can do to avoid this fate.

What is the soul made of?

Rachel asked:

What is the soul made of?

Answer by Helier Robinson

Traditionally the soul is a substance, in Aristotle’s sense of the word: that is, a substance is that which is always a subject, never a predicate. In a proposition such as ‘Socrates is mortal’ Socrates, as a person, is a subject and mortality is a predicate. But Socrates is never a predicate, hence is a substance. Aristotle said that a human being consists of two substances, a body and a soul. He did this to get around the problem (widely ignored today) that, logically, one thing cannot both change with time and also remain one: if it changes then the earlier and the later are necessarily two.

Aristotle’s approach seems to cure the problem, but in fact does not: Aristotle thought that the soul gave a person his/her identity (oneness) by never changing, while the body changed. Theologians liked this because if the soul is unchanging then it must be immortal, thus proving life after death. A second point is that if a philosopher finds it necessary to talk about things which are real but which cannot be perceived, then he has to make some basic assumption about this imperceptible reality. The assumption is always that this reality is rational, in two ways: it is rational in that it is consistent — it contains no contradictions — and it is rational in that it contains necessities corresponding to the logical necessities in the theory, and these real, imperceptible necessities are causal necessities.

However there are two senses of ‘rational’: logic, and mathematics. Plato chose mathematical rationality, but his student Aristotle did not like mathematics and was, besides, the inventor of logic. It was a subject-predicate logic. That is, all logical inferences were between categorical propositions, which are propositions composed of a subject and a predicate of that subject. Aristotle’s famous example of a valid argument is ‘All men are mortal, Socrates is a man, therefore Socrates is mortal.’ So for Aristotle the imperceptible reality consisted of substances (corresponding to subjects) and attributes (corresponding to predicates). Speculation concerning imperceptible reality was, of course, called metaphysics, and most contemporary philosophers will have nothing to with it, on the Popperian grounds that it is in principle unfalsifiable.

But that does not stop investigation into the nature of imperceptible reality; only now it is called theoretical science. (Theoretical means non-empirical, which means imperceptible.) As an activity it is far more successful than metaphysics, primarily because it is grounded on empirical science. However, it also differs from metaphysics in that the rationality assumed for it is not Aristotelean logic, but mathematics. And mathematics has no concepts of substances and attributes. Instead, if you want to confine it to one concept, the subject matter of mathematics is structure. Consequently in modern science there is no such thing as a soul; the concept of souls is as obsolete as the concepts of phlogiston and the electromagnetic ether. You can, if you wish, distinguish mind (consciousness) from body, but mind is an structure emergent out of brain, and as such can only be immortal if the brain is immortal.

Question about same sex marriage

Judy asked:

I’m supposed to provide the hidden premise and counterexample for this statement:

Gay marriage should not be legalized because the definition of ‘marriage’ has always been understood to be a sacred union between a man and a woman.

This is my answer:

Hidden Premise: gay marriage is defined as marriage between same sex couples


Hidden Premise: Legalized marriage must follow the definition of marriage.

Counterexample: Some states recognized same sex marriages even though the definition of marriage is the same for all states.

Are my answers valid?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

Not really. You missed the central issue altogether. Legal marriage is a social construct, originating in the dim history of mankind, that provides a male exclusive sexual access to a female for the sake of obliging that person to acknowledge the children of this union as his offspring, for whose nurture and welfare he is accordingly responsible.

The ‘sacred union’ is a subtext, arising from the religious foundation of society. Historically most societies lacked a police force or other means of ensuring that the marriage contract is not infringed. Accordingly religion functioned as a moral enforcer, which works as long as fear of the gods remains effective.

You should take note that divorce laws were historically grounded in the same principle. A man could be empowered to seek legal divorce if his marriage remained barren.

Obviously all these issues arose in male dominated societies. Love played little or no role in it. Marriages tended to be arranged by parents or authorities.

In societies with a measure of liberality, love itself may come to be institutionalised. E.g. in the 18-19th centuries, marriages increasingly became love matches. The ceremonial (religious) aspect remained largely unchanged, until in the second half of the 20th century, ‘free’ (civil) marriages increased and divorce laws changed to account for incompatibilities between the partners.

From all this you can see that homosexual marriages do not offend against any sacred principles except in societies that uphold the sanctity of marriage officially. They offend of course against the older principle that the purpose of marriage is to produce legitimate offspring. But in the modern world this principle has also become irrelevant.

So ‘love match’ is the one principle left. Under those criteria any society that does not prohibit extramarital sexual relations, and is not dominated by religious doctrines, has no leg to stand on if it prohibits a love match, irrespective of the sex of the partners.

Is there a legitimate debate over climate change?

Steve asked:

In the scientific debate over anthropogenic climate change, there are two opposing views. Advocates and deniers with attitude polarisation occurring on both sides. How do I decide which group are ‘victims’ of confirmation bias and where do I place my confidence?

Answer by Shaun Williamson

There is no scientific debate over climate change. The vast majority of the world’s climate scientists are on the advocates side. The oil and coal industry may try to persuade you that there still is a debate but there isn’t.

There are some things you need to keep in mind about this.

1. This isn’t just a fun debate, if we get it wrong then we may make the planet uninhabitable. It might be best to err on the side of caution.

2. Just as the tobacco industry was prepared to swear to Congress that they didn’t think smoking caused cancer (even though later evidence showed that they didn’t believe this), so the oil and coal industry are prepared to spend vast sums of money to bribe politicians not to do anything about climate change and they will do anything to persuade you that this is still an open debate.

If you really need to know the truth then become a climate scientist. If you just want to be a reasonable human being then err on the side of caution and go with the vast majority of the world’s qualified climate scientists.

Answer by Craig Skinner

You say two opposing views in the SCIENTIFIC debate. This is a bit like claiming two opposing views in the scientific debate about evolution.There aren’t. Rather there is an overwhelming PRO consensus and a fringe CON view. And I suspect such is the case with climate change, albeit the scientific PRO view is less overwhelming than with evolution.

The opposing views occur in political or popular debate, although here protagonists typically try to represent slight contrary evidence as an opposing scientific view, such is the prestige of science.

How to decide which groups are victims of confirmation bias?

The latter is a hard-wired feature of normal human cognition, presumably because it was a mindset of survival value in our ancestors. We are all ‘victims’. The brain is a belief organ. It looks for patterns, gives them meaning and forms beliefs. Then we subconsciously seek out confirmatory evidence to reinforce them.

Science is the best tool we have devised to determine whether our beliefs match reality. It systematically deals with confirmation bias, particularly by recognizing the power of refutation (note the asymmetry between confirmation and refutation – many ‘confirmatory’ instances merely give further support to a view; a single refuting instance falsifies the view). So, testing against the empirical world systematically roots out error (refutation) while ‘confirmation’ never quite reaches certainty (although doubtless many scientific views are in fact true).

I say science does this rather than scientists. The latter are as prone to confirmation bias as anybody else, but at least are signed up to a method of dealing with it.

So where do you place your confidence? You have two choices:

1. Gather and assess the evidence yourself. This is fine for limited areas where you have expertise or are willing to work to acquire it.

2. Accept the assessment made by people you trust to make a fair job of collecting and interpreting the evidence.

Not politicians, who are in the business of persuasion and mostly cast around for selective evidence to support pre-existent views.

Although Individual scientists may be cranks with idiosyncratic views (but are occasionally right), a scientific consensus is a reasonable basis for provisional belief and, importantly, for action.

On a practical level, scientists only occasionally write a consensus view which is a page-turner (eg Steve Jones, Sagan, Dawkins, Rees). This job is usually better done by science writers (eg Gribbin, Singh, Matt Ridley)

‘A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence’. Such was the dictum of the greatest English-speaking (Scottish) philosopher David Hume. A sound maxim, even, in suggesting degrees of belief, foreshadowing the Bayesian approach of prior probability adjusted to posterior probability by new evidence.