Addressing Pre-Socratic Problems in Book VI of the Republic

As Socrates defends the idea of philosopher kings, he finds that he must explain the nature of philosophy itself. In order to do this, however, he must also share his conception of ultimate reality. It is unclear to what extent this conception belongs to Socrates or Plato, but it is set forth by Plato's character named Socrates, and it is to this character that I refer when I mention Socrates.

In the Greek philosophical tradition, numerous philosophers had articulated metaphysical theories. Socrates presents his view above and against these previous conceptions. Among the Pre-Socratics, Heraclitus, Parmenides, and Empedocles perhaps present the most important problems for Socrates to address with his theory.

Particularly, Socrates must address the Heraclitan contradictions of change and permanence, unity and plurality, and being and non-being. Socrates resolves these contradictions by postulating the existence of a higher reality. In the intelligible realm, the forms are immutable and truly possess being. Moreover, Socrates is able to allow for both unity and plurality because the forms participate in the prime form of the Good. In the visible realm, things are able to change because they do not possess perfect being, though they participate in the various forms. Hence these two realms allow Socrates to resolve the apparent contradictions highlighted by Heraclitus.

Similarly, Socrates theory includes the force of attraction which was present in Hesiod and later in Empedocles as well. For Hesiod, Eros brings together Chaos. For Empedocles, Love and Strife are the driving forces behind the cosmos. Attraction plays a somewhat different role in Socrates' account. Socrates states that the Good desires what is Good. Similarly, the forms which participate in the Good desire the good insofar as they participate in it. This tendency exists even in humans, which are particular, because humans desire what is good, though the good is often misconceived. 

Socrates addresses many of the problems demonstrated in previous cosmologies and metaphysical theories. He attempts to resolve many of the apparently contradictory features of reality such as change and permanence. He also incorporates the notion of attraction or desire which has its sources in the mytho-poetic tradition. His theory presents a unique solution to metaphysical problems as well as an extensive vision of the true nature of reality.

Gender Equality in Book V of the Republic

In Book V of Plato's Republic, Socrates and Glaucon establish that men and women have different natures. However, they had previously established that different natures must follow different ways of life. Taken together, these two statements imply that men and women should live differently. Yet Socrates had shown that men and women should share the same mode of life. Hence Socrates asks Glaucon, "We've agreed that different natures must follow different ways of life and that the natures of men and women are different. But now we say that those different natures must follow the same way of life. Isn't that the accusation brought against us?" (Grube, 127). Socrates and Glaucon have found an apparent contradiction in their argument, so they set out to find their error.

Subsequently, Socrates points out that they never determined the ways in which men and women are different. After some discussion, Socrates says to Glaucon, "Women share by nature in every way of life just as men do, but in all of them women are weaker than men" (Grube, 129). The difference between men and women, according to Socrates, is not a difference in natures. Rather, the distinction is one of degrees. Men and women are essentially the same, but men tend to be stronger.

Consequently, Socrates concludes that women should have a share in the management of the city because women have the same fundamental nature that men have. In the callipolis, everyone contributes according to his or her nature, and so women and men have corresponding roles in the city. Their natures are essentially the same, so their roles must correspond as well.

Looking back with modern prejudices, Socrates may not go as far as we would wish in defending women's equality. However, Socrates offers a remarkably equitable view when compared with his contemporaries. In the mytho-poetic tradition, the story of Pandora highlights womankind as the source of human troubles. Hesiod treats women as necessary evils needed for the reproduction of the race. Later, following both Socrates and Plato, Aristotle would deny Socrates' assertion that men and women have the same nature. For him, women are by nature inferior to men. Hence Socrates appears progressive when judged by the standards of his own culture. 

Plato and Ethical Theories

Plato argues that justice is intrinsically beneficial to the soul, even in the absence of any external advantages. Plato's conception of justice is eudaimonistic because maintains that justice benefits the soul. This claim stems from an ethical theory that should be distinguished from two other common ways of thinking about ethics. 

On the one hand, eudaimonism is distinct from egoism insofar as the two theories disagree about what truly is advantageous. For the eudaimonist, a thing is ethically good if it benefits the soul. Additionally, the soul is often thought to be social, so eudaimonistic goods often involve concern for others. For the egoist, something is good if it benefits the self. In this view, someone is acting well when he does what is to his own advantage, regardless of concern for others. Hence one of the main differences between the two theories is the extent to which one is communitarian and the other is individualistic.

On the other hand, eudaimonism differs from deontology insofar as the former concerns advantage and the latter excludes it. The eudaimonist thinks that something must benefit the soul in order to be good. The deontologist regards advantage as a mere contingency, and bases moral judgments on their adherence to universal principles. For the deontologist, an action is good, even if it makes one worse off, if it is the sort of action which is good. Deontological theories have different criterion for determining what sort of action is good, but most include universality and non-contradiction as standards. Thus eudaimonism and deontology are distinct in that one considers advantage and the other does not.

Plato is a eudaimonist because he argues that justice benefits the soul. Thrasymachus is an egoist who thinks that everyone should do what is to their own advantage, without regard for the disadvantage of others. In the Republic, the modern deontology is suspiciously missing. Hence one should not expect to find claims that something is good in and of itself, but rather every ethical claim will refer to some benefit for some party.

Moral Crisis in Plato's Day

Why might Plato go to such lengths to show that justice is beneficial in itself? The answer may lie in the historical circumstances of his lifetime. Plato was probably born in 428 B.C. and died in 348 (Grube, viii). During his lifetime, Athens was fighting in the Peloponnesian War against Sparta. In 416, Athens seized the neutral island of Melos, demanding that the Melians pay tribute to Athens. When the Melians refused to submit, Athans ravaged the island. Such brutalities may have motivated Plato to think about ethics.

Indeed, Thucydides portrays an imperialistic and unjust Athens in his History of the Peloponnesian War. The Melian dialogue in the History contrasts the demands of expediency and justice. On the one side, the Athenians assert that the Melians should join them because it will benefit Athens, and Athens is the stronger of the two nations. On the other side, the Melians argue that it is unjust for the stronger to force the weaker to do whatever it desires. The Melians determine that it would be better to die free than to live in submission to Athens, much as Athenians chose when Persia invaded Greece. In the end, Athens destroys Melos.

Consequently, Athens was experiencing real ethical dilemmas and tensions during Plato's lifetime. For someone who thinks that virtue is good of its own accord, incidents such as the destruction of Melos would be deeply problematic. Plato's thesis in the Republic concerns the inherent goodness of doing virtue, and so it seems to be the case that Plato would have found Athen's imperialistic conquests to be unethical. Perhaps it was in an attempt to persuade other Athenians to the true path that Plato wrote the Republic.

Two Views of Human Nature in Plato's Republic, Book II

In Book II of Plato's Republic, Glaucon and Socrates present two contrasting conceptions of human nature. For Glaucon, mankind inherently tends toward evil. Everyone would commit crimes if they could do so without any consequences. For Socrates, however, humankind is merely corruptible. Without external evil influences, each a person would choose what is right. These two views become apparent in the story of the ring of Gyges and in the discussion of the guardians' education.

Glaucon tells the story of the ring of Gyges in order to show that everyone would commit atrocities if they could do so with impunity. Glaucon says, "Let's suppose, then, that there were two such rings, one worn by a just and the other by an unjust person. Now, no one, it seems, would be so incorruptible that he would stay on the path of justice" (Grube, 36). Glaucon thinks that humans choose to act ethically only because they fear the consequences of acting immorally. In this view, man is naturally inclined to do evil.

Socrates, however, thinks that humans are good so long as they are not exposed to evil influences. Concerning myths about the gods doing immoral things, he says, "The young can't distinguish what is allegorical from what isn't, and the opinions they absorb at that age are hard to erase and apt to become unalterable. For these reasons, then, we should probably take the utmost care to insure that the first stories they hear about virtue are the best ones for them to hear" (Grube, 54). For Socrates, humankind has the capacity for corruption, but it is possible that this capacity never actualizes. If people are not exposed to wrongheaded thinking or to immoral myths, then they may do what is right. In this view, humans are neither inclined to good or evil. Instead, their environment influences them.

Thus Glaucon and Socrates hold distinctly different views of human nature. One posits that man is naturally inclined to act unethically. In this conception, people only ever act virtuously because they fear the consequences of acting immorally. The other maintains that people have the capacity for both good and evil. In this conception, environmental or circumstantial influences play a significant role in forming a virtuous agent. These views entail certain consequences for political philosophy, and Plato's kallipolis presupposes Socrates' view. If Glaucon's conception is correct, then Plato's just city will never be more than a utopian dream.

Wandering Wisdom: The Necessity of Methodology in Philosophical Inquiry

Book I of Plato's Republic consists of the investigation of various definitions of justice. In these discussions, other questions arise, such as whether or not justice is a virtue and whether or not justice is advantageous. However, the investigations do not provide satisfactory answers. Hence Book I lays the groundwork for a more direct and systematic approach to the subject. 

First, Polemarchus states that "it is just to give to each what is owed to him" (Grube, 6). This amounts to doing good to one's friends and harm to one's enemies. Socrates then goes on to show that this allows robbing one's enemies to aid one's friends, making justice into a kind of robbery-craft. Polemarchus, however, rejects this conclusion, saying that this is not what he meant. At this point, the conversation moves to a discussion of friendship. Socrates asks whether a friend is someone who is perceived to benefit oneself or someone who really does benefit oneself. This, taken with the preceding definition of justice, implies that justice necessitates the injury of unjust men, but injury is unjust.

Next, Thrasymachus attempts to make Socrates give a definition of justice, but Socrates insists that he does not know what it is. Thrasymachus, however, thinks that he himself has found a good definition. He proudly states that "justice is nothing other than the advantage of the stronger" (Grube, 14). Worded differently, justice is the advantage of the established rule (Grube, 15). Socrates then asks if rulers can err. Thrasymachus agrees that they can. But this raises the question of whether or not subjects should obey their rulers when their rulers make laws that are not to their own advantage. Is it just to obey a ruler when has ordered something which is not to his advantage? If it is, then Thrasymachus cannot have meant that justice is the advantage of the established rule. Next, Socrates questions whether rulers really should seek their own advantage, given that most experts seek the advantage of their subject. This contradicts the original definition of justice, and the conversation moves to a discussion of whether or not justice is advantageous.

At the end of Book I, Socrates laments that no investigation was successfully concluded. Because of haphazard methodology, Socrates must conclude that he knows nothing from the discussion. Each inquiry turned to the investigation of some other question before satisfactorily answering the original question. This winding misadventure provides an initial exploration of the philosophical landscape, nonetheless. Yet it points to the need for a better route.

The Sophists

Although the sophists did not form a single philosophical school, they did have commonalities among themselves. They were itinerant teachers who charged for their teachings. Most of them taught rhetoric, and they seemed to have been particularly interested in argumentation. In Athens, where citizens actively deliberated in the Assembly and in courts, rhetorical skills would have meant increased political influence. This could explain the demand for such instructors in cities like Athens.

For instance, Protagoras thought about the nature of argumentation and logic. Diogenes Laertius records that "Protagoras was the first to declare that there are two mutually opposed arguments on any subject" (Curd, 146). If it is possible to say A, then it is also possible to say not-A. Of course, these two statements contradict each other, but that can in fact be helpful in developing an argument. For a rhetorician, it could be useful to know both sides of an argument. Practically, this could prepare him for counter-arguments, but it could also contribute to his own argument. However, in unscrupulous hands, a subtle argument from a contradiction could be used to prove anything. But these were the sorts of teaching that the sophists could sell.

Gorgias warns about the power of words in his Praise of Helen. He says that logos is a powerful master, and argues that Paris could have overpowered her with his words. He asks, "What, then, keeps us from supposing that Helen too, against her will, came under the influence of logoi just as if she had been taken by the force of might men?" (Curd, 149). Because everyone must judge words for himself, and judgment is fallible, for someone to persuade with misleading words. Gorgias himself wrote an argument which supposedly proves that nothing exists. Because it seems obvious that Gorgias must have at least thought himself to exist, his argument is most likely an exercise in rhetorical skill. He demonstrates the power of words by proving something obviously false.

Such approaches are certainly different from those taken by previous philosophers, but they do present a problem for philosophers. Philosophers construct arguments using words, but words can charm and mislead. If a philosopher creates an argument from an equivocation, it may not be immediately obvious how he is able to prove an apparent false conclusion. If a philosopher writes so beautifully that the meaning of the words is overshadowed by their aesthetic properties, he can lead you anywhere.

Thus the sophists present a concern that philosophers must take into account. In the pursuit of truth, it is important to use words carefully. Protagoras writes that "A person is the measure of all things - of things that are, that they are, and of things that are not, that they are not" (Curd, 146). Unfortunately, as Gorgias states, man is fallible. We must use reason, but should also recognize that we may judge that things are not as the truly are. The sophists show us a need for epistemic humility and for the wise use of words.

The Atomists

Democritus and Leucippus, the fifth century atomists, argued that reality consists of indivisible microscopic particles called atoms. Leucippus was the first to make atoms first principles (Curd, 111). Their theory attempts to reconcile the rules of reality established by Parmenides and Xenophanes while explaining such apparent features as change and plurality.

In order to do this, Democritus and Leucippus treat atoms as what-is and void as what-is-not, which is no less than what is (Curd, 113). Void is the emptiness between atoms, and it functions as actualized non-being. Although the void is the absence of what is, it is nonetheless real. Hence they say that it is nothing less than what is. This does not seem a sufficient explanation of the void, however, because it attributes being to non-being.

Even so, they do explain "coming-to-be and perishing by means of separation and combination, alteration by means of arrangement and position" (Curd, 111). Atoms are all the same substance, but they differ in shape, arrangement, and position. This allows them constitute the plurality of things in the visible world while also being a unity. Nothing new truly comes into being or perishes, but rather matter changes form. This is not unlike the law of the conservation of energy in modern science, but the details are different. The atomists think that change comes from different arrangements of atoms as the atoms move through the void. Regardless, it is impressive that they posited a law of material conservation so early in the history of scientific inquiry.

Democritus and Leucippus provide a materialist explanation of reality in accord with Parmenides arguments. They posit the void in the place of what-is-not, which seems to present a contradiction by giving being to non-being. However, they do establish a law of material conservation that has some similarities with the law of the conservation of energy. Moreover, if they could articulate their concept of the void more fully, it is possible that their theory could explain change and plurality from the atomic first principle. Thus they increase our understanding of reality, though their theory needs refinement.

The Metaphysical Mind of Anaxagoras

Anaxagoras draws on the metaphysics of Parmenides in his theory of reality. He maintains the idea that what-is cannot not be, as well as the idea that all things are present in the whole. Hence he argues that all things have existed and continue to exist together, and that visible reality is merely the combination of these ingredients. Like Empedocles, he envisions a dissociating force, though everything has a share in everything else. He also employs the argument used by Parmenides and Empedocles which reasons that nothing can be added to the whole because the whole already contains everything which is, and nothing comes from what is not.

However, Anaxagoras provides us with a novel contribution to this basic metaphysical theory. Aristotle writes concerning Anaxagoras, "When someone said that Nous is present - in nature just as it is in animals - as the cause of the kosmos and of all its order, he appeared as a sober man among the random chatterers who preceded him" (Curd, 107). Anaxagoras thinks that Mind is fundamental aspect of reality. He argues, "The other things have a share of everything, but Nous is unlimited and self-ruling and has been mixed with no thing, but is alone itself by itself. For if it were not by itself, but had been mixed with anything else, then it would partake of all things" (Curd, 104). Because everything shares in everything else, if Mind shared in something, then it would share in everything else as well. However, Simplicius reports that "In everything there is a share of everything except Nous (Mind), but there are some things in which Nous, too, is present" (Curd, 104). This seems to lead to a contradiction, but it is apparent that nous is a thing which exists in some creatures.

Unfortunately, I can find in Anaxagoras no resources for resolving such a contradiction. Perhaps later philosophers will find a solution, but Anaxagoras himself does not seem to explicitly resolve it. Or, it may be the case that our sources have not accurately recorded his reasoning. Whatever the case may be, Anaxagoras argument for Nous as something present in reality provides a new and interesting dimension for metaphysical inquiry. Other philosophers presented seemingly intelligent beings such as Love and Hate in their cosmologies, but Anaxagoras is the first of the Presocratics that we have seen to present Mind itself as a feature of reality.


Empedocles' Historically Conscious Cosmology

In many ways, Empedocles synthesizes the thought of the previous Presocratic philosophers, as well as various ideas from the mythopoetic tradition. He attempts to present a theory that will reconcile various conflicting but convincing explanations of the cosmos. Thus he writes with a self-consciousness of his place within an ongoing search for true understanding.

Drawing on the mythopoetic tradition, Empedocles postulates that the cosmos is held in harmony by Love. Hesiod in his cosmology had previously written that Eros unites Chaos. Now Empedocles states, "And these never cease continually interchanging, at one time all coming together into one by Love and at another each being borne apart by the hatred of Strife" (Curd, 83). Empedocles thinks that there are two forces in the world: one that unites and one that divides. He also argues that these two forces are necessary. Using language like that of Parmenides, he says, "For they are as they were previously and will be, and never...will endless time be empty of both of these" (Curd, 83). Hence Love and Strife are eternal drives that are ungenerated and imperishable in Empedocles' theory.

Moreover, Empedocles incorporates the material monism of Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes in his theory. He explains, "For at one time they grew to be only one out of many, but at another they grew apart to be many out of one: fire and water and earth and the immense height of air, and deadly Strife apart from them, equal in all directions and Love among them, equal in length and breadth" (Curd, 84). Thales had thought that all of the material world consisted of water. Similarly, Anaximander thought that it was boundless matter. Anaximenes in turn believed that air was the substance of the material world. However, unlike them, Empedocles argues that these elements are like roots in the cycle of Love and Strife, the combination of which causes all material things appear.

Additionally, Empedocles wants to resolve the apparent contradictions raised by Heraclitus. Heraclitus had stated that unchanging change is a feature of reality, that out of unity comes plurality, and that, just as we do and do not step into the same river, we both are and are not. Empedocles says of Love and Strife that "they never cease interchanging continually, in this way they are always unchanging in a cycle" (Curd, 83). He thinks that there is an unchanging tension between the unifying and dividing forces that causes continual change. He also addresses a necessity pointed out by Parmenides, who claimed that what-is cannot increase or decrease. Empedocles says, "None of the whole is either empty or overfull" (Curd, 82). It seems likely that he thinks that his cosmological cycle is whole. This seems to follow from the notion that the the tension of Love and Strife is ungenerated and imperishable. Although this tension causes change, the cycle is itself whole and unchanging. Hence the underlying cause, the cycle, does not increase or decrease as it undergoes its continual revolutions.

Empedocles draws on the ideas of his time to formulate an extensive theory to explain the cosmos. He seems to be aware of the necessities and problems presented by other philosophers before and contemporaneous with him. He attempts to resolve apparent contradictions while also keeping with established theories. Empedocles builds on the best ideas of his time to create something new and original. It will be interesting to see how his ideas ultimately contribute to the ongoing search for truth in Presocratic philosophy.