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 good. But take the consolations of wealth away and see whether the right character ensures the same peaceful acceptance of old age.
Cephalus argues that finding old age as a "good thing" will depend on whether you have the disposition of those who have "order and peace with themselves". And he identifies this disposition with the inclination not to tell lies or deceive and the willingness to fulfill obligations to gods and men. He believes that a life which manifests these disposition is the life of a just person, of a person conscious of having lived "free from injustice". It is unclear whether Cephalus takes it that being conscious of having lived free from injustices is simply that one has not cheated or told lies and having fulfilled the obligations to gods and man. Because of the living of a just life is merely to follow these guidelines then it is not implied if these virtues are attributed to a specific personality, or of an orderly and peaceful character. If his argument is not correctly linked then there is no reason to correlate living justly with the possession of a certain character; the just character. It could turn out that the benefits of just conduct are the possession of a particular sort of character.
Socrates remarks that telling the truth and returning what is borrowed cannot be the definition of justice (as outlined by Cephalus), he claims that instances of the types of action Cephalus thinks of as just, can in different circumstances be identified as cases of unjust. Socrates launches into a description of the act of giving a borrowed weapon back to a friend who while being out of his sense, asks to reclaim it. Socrates claims that everyone would acknowledge that one should not return the weapon- it would be unjust to do so. And so we conclude based on Socrates? argument that the just action is not merely a good or beneficial action: it is an action whose goodness is that which specifically belongs to justice. But this is in contrary view to Cephalus, he is convinced that people for whom there is order and peace lead the life of justice and avoid injustices. According to Cephalus, not returning the weapon to an enraged friend is an action in which one does not like to see any harm coming to people or because he cannot tolerate any harm. But if these are motives in avoiding injustice, there may be circumstances in which that person may be forced to act unjustly. And most obvious is that even if just people do have gentle and orderly personalities as suggested by Cephalus, it is not obvious that their justice is due to that personality or rather the other the other way around. Cephalus? account of what makes his life a good and just one does not show that he avoids injustice because he understand the harm of being unjust. And so paradoxically a life lived in accordance with justice may not in fact be life lived from injustice.
As Cephalus departs from the argumentative scene and hands over the argument to Polemarchus whose view is that justice is to "render to each his due". Polemarchus claims that justice consists of benefitting one?s friends and harming one?s enemies. Polemarchus narrows his distinction to friends and enemies. If justice depends on whether one is a friend or an enemy than it is uncertain how that distinction will be made. The judgement whether someone has acted justly will depend on whether he is classified as a friend of foe. Polemarchus? attitude to justice, unlike his father?s, does not recognize any quality inherent in justice. Polemarchus sees justice as a product of the distinction with regard our interaction of that dealings as with friends or enemies. If returning something borrowed is harmful then its being a just act depends on whether the lender is friend or not. However, Polemarchus? view does not distinguish acting justly from acting in accordance with what is socially expected, as the treatment of an individual depends upon the nature of their relationship with those in position.
Polemarchus is unable to explain that there are specific characteristics to justice which distinct it from other virtues. He is able to show that helping friends and harming enemies achieve some good, but he can?t show why such actions belong to the just man. Nor can Polemarchus say how to help the friend and harm the enemy according to the just way and he therefore cannot say how the just way of helping friends differs from the non-just way.
Polemarchus has difficulty in defining th measure of justice. It is first suggested as wars and alliance and alter as deals of financial agreements. Socrates refutes Polemarchus? argument by saying that one can rely on the just when money and everything else is not in use.
Polemarchus? failure to identify any specific aims of justice has the further consequence that he can?t declare unjustifiable acts such a theft or perjury. His reference to benefitting friends and harming enemies suggests that he thinks of justice as a virtue confined by social aims. Justice may be thought of as an aspect which is to benefit the agent. But just acts which harm friends or benefit enemies are ultimately not beneficial to the mediator and therefore cannot be virtuous. Socrates? dialectic is to undermine Polemarchus? belief that th goodness of justice is to be understood in terms of its social realms. This belief is undermined because if virtue is a human quality and justice is a part of virtue, then justice in that view does not limit the type of character involved in such behavior. And if justice is a virtue and its goal is something good, then we should be able to correlate a relation between the acts of goodness and justice and such is not the case with the Polemarchian view.
As portrayed by Plato, Thrasymachus is presented as having a consistent and coherent attitude to justice. Thrasymachus suggests that the true nature of a just conduct can only be grasped from the perspective of power. According to Thrasymachus, to seek a moral understanding of justice is pointless. The confrontation between Socrates and Thrasymachus and the clash that erupts as a result of their extreme views is between that of two conceptions of political power.
The characteristic of just actions, as defined by Thrasymachus is defined as doing the good of another as seen from the perspective of power. Thrasymachus further defines justice in his long speech that the good reasons people have for praising justice and condemning injustice have nothing to do with their believing that it is the ends of justice that are desirable. Thrasymachus further exploits justice by his statement that "justice is nothing but the advantage of the stronger", but he does not define what the advantage is per se.
Thrasymachus? definition does not illustrate justice as a moral quality, it is the advantage to only those who are at the position of power; justice converted into political power by the pollis of Thrasymachus. To Thrasymachus, justice is the advantage of the stronger because it places the seemingly just man in a strong position of control. Thrasymachus? explication of justice is in view to promote the interests of those in power in every case. He introduces a criterion of justice:
Justice is really the good of another, the advantage of the more powerful and the ruler, but the personal harm of those who obey and render service. Injustice is the opposite and rules over those who are truly simple and just, and those over whom it rules do what is of advantage to him who is more powerful, and by rendering him service they make him happier, but themselves not at all.
Thrasymachus claims justice as the "good of another" as an extension of "the advantage of the stronger". A ruler acts in accordance with the laws of a pollis only to promote his own advantage whereas injustice is what is profitable and advantageous to oneself. But if we analyze Thrasymachus? speeches he seems to suggest that injustice is what advantages a person and makes him stronger and so it is difficult to see why he defines justice as the advantage of the stronger. But from the fact that justice may advantage someone else-the stronger, it does not follow to say that it damages the other, perhaps it advantages both.
Thrasymachus? second speech states justice as "doing the good of another". People who consistently pursue their own advantage and are completely unjust are the strong and happy ones as it is the injustice that makes them happy. They know how to use the just person for their own advantage, they are the ruler of the just person. Rulers are a paradigm case of those in control. The essence of ruling is, therefore, to be unjust and that is why a tyrant is a perfect ruler. He always knows what is to his advantage and how to acquire it. Thrasymachus? view of justice is appealing but therein lies a moral danger and this is refuted by Socrates.
Out of the confrontation with Cephalus, Polemarchus, and Thrasymachus, Socrates emerges as a reflective individual searching for the rational foundation of morality and human excellence. The views presented by the three men are invalid and limited as they present a biased understanding of justice and require a re-examination of the terminology. The nature in which the faulty arguments are presented, leave the reader longing to search for the rational foundations of morality and human virtue.