Changing Priorities, Part I
In Plato’s Republic, Socrates dialogues with several younger men about the nature of justice. Early on in the dialogue, Glaucon and his peers lay out a forceful argument that justice is not a virtue. Instead, justice is a utilitarian consideration. We submit to the demands of justice only because the consequences for not doing so are worse. What would be best would be the ability to practice injustice without consequences. This way, all of one’s wants and needs would be met, albeit at the expense of others, all of whom would have to be powerless to resist or retaliate. Since it isn’t possible to practice injustice without consequences, we accept the demands of justice, chiefly defined by the laws put into place by the ruling class, because this is the only means by which we thwart injustice, or at least gain reparations when subjected to injustice.
Socrates has no easy answer to this formulation. His earlier assertion that the just man is the happier man regardless of the consequences of his commitment to justice has not been refuted. It has been rejected as not convincing enough when compared to the utilitarian conception of justice. Socrates demurs from further argumentation and instead engages his students with an exercise in creative storytelling. Socrates invites them to “make a city in speech” (Book II, 369c) as a way of determining what is justice. What follows is a discussion in the theoretical and the imaginative. The conclusions reached are neither prescriptive nor proscriptive. They are descriptive, and Socrates trusts that his students’ own good sense will help guide them, if not to the correct answers then at least away from the incorrect ones.
Books III and IV focus mostly on the guardians, that aristocratic class of warriors who serve the kings by defending the city against both lawlessness and foreign powers. Much of the discussion relates to the necessity that the guardians be both courageous and moderate, with emphasis on moderation. The students understand that the guardians are a threat to justice unless their courage is guided away from self-interest toward service to the city. Not only must the guardians’ needs be met, but their wants must be regulated not by outside force but by inner conviction formed by proper environment and education.
In Book IV, Glaucon grows impatient with all the talk of moderation. He wants to find justice rather than yet more reasons to set limits. He asks Socrates, “How could we find justice so we won’t have to bother about moderation any further?” (Book IV, 430d). As the discussion continues into Book V, it becomes clear that without moderation there can be no justice. Those who accept no limits to their behavior do not act justly. Those who do not moderate their desires will not experience justice. Instead, these immoderate persons perceive limitations on their behavior as unjust. Their rallying cry is, “That’s not fair!”
As the new school year begins, we approach a time of increased moderation. During the summer, I can stay up late, sleep in, binge watch the British sitcoms of the 1970s, et cetera, all without any serious consequences. The time I spend during the school year as a teacher is more or less on hold during the summer. Now, with August right around the corner, my priorities must shift. The hierarchy of tasks changes from Vacation to Vocation.
Think of this hierarchy as a sequence of events assignment in literature or history. Given a list of things, put them in the proper order, with the first thing first. Here’s my list in alphabetical order: Family, Friends, God, Me, Work.
I dislike sequence of events assignments for one reason: get the first item wrong, and odds are good that everything that follows is wrong. For example, here’s the proper order for the items listed above:
If I leave out God or put God at the bottom of the list, everything ends up wrong. Socrates touches on this point in Book II during the discussion about regulating the stories told to the children of the guardian class. He says, “…we must supervise the makers of tales [about gods and heroes]; and if they make a fine tale, it must be approved, but if it’s not, it must be rejected” (Book II, 377c). Children will be told only the approved stories in order “to shape their souls with tales” (Ibid.). Socrates understands that there is a necessary link between having a correct idea of the divine and having a correct idea of justice. If the stories children hear teach them that the gods are deceitful, greedy, and violent, then children either may think it’s okay to be deceitful, greedy, and violent, or else children may think that the gods should be ignored, resulting in a sort of practical atheism.
Either result is disastrous both for the individual and the republic, which is a form of government that requires belief in an objective reality in which human rights are grounded and that therefore imposes necessary limits on both human behavior and governmental authority. Without that belief, the results are either the anarchy of a mob or the tyranny of an oligarchy or an autocrat. Regardless, justice becomes impossible because whatever justice is, it cannot be merely what a majority can force a minority to do, nor can justice be whatever the police state dictates.
In my next post, I’ll look at the list above from the perspective of a student, attempting to suss out some of the implications related to what it means to be a successful student.
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The Knights of the Mightier Pen gather in the hallowed halls of the Regis School in Houston, Texas, to share their tales and poems.