The translation is easy to read and it is easy to see exactly where Socrates goes wrong. Sometimes, however, Socrates makes sense, which is why I am not sure the book is a satire. The book contains some eloquent passages and several famous expressions. "the true creator is necessity, who is the mother of our invention." (64) The law of non-contradiction is on page 164. "no politician is honest" (248)
The political philosophy advocated is aristocracy (or monarchy) in which philosophers run the state and everyone has his assigned role. The opposite extreme is called tyranny, in which the worst sort of man, who is furthest from being a true philosopher and who has all the vices that a philosopher lacks, rules the state.
The overall point that Socrates tries to make is that the just man is happy and the unjust man is miserable. The ultimate proof of this assertion rests on a belief that we have immortal souls and that we will be punished in the next life to the extent that we are unjust in this life.
Criticisms of Socrates
The following criticisms of Socrates support the idea that the book might be a satire:
"How characteristic of Socrates! he replied, with a bitter laugh;--that's your ironical style!--Did I not foresee┘have I not already told you, that whatever he was asked he would refuse to answer, and try irony or any other shuffle, in order that he might avoid answering?" (17-18)
"Yes, he replied, and then Socrates will do as he always does--refuse to answer himself, but take and pull to pieces the answer of some one else." (19)
"you fancy that we shall not notice your airy way of proceeding" (180)
"when you talk in this way, a strange feeling passes over the minds of your hearers: They fancy that they are led astray a little at each step in the argument, owing to their own want of skill in asking and answering questions; these littles accumulate, and at the end of the discussion they are found to have sustained a mighty overthrow and all their former notions appear to be turned upside down." (235)
A physician is a ruler, having the human body as his subject. A pilot is a ruler of sailors. No one, in so far as he is a ruler, considers or enjoys what is for his own interest, but is always for what is in the interest of his subject or suitable to his art. (26)
"we are framed by nature to desire both what is beneficial and what is necessary, and cannot help it." (336)
There are three classes of men--lovers of wisdom, lovers of honor, lovers of gain. (369)
His deepest philosophical base is his response to a nonsense question: "Which has a more pure being--that which is concerned with the invariable, the immortal, and the true, and is of such a nature, and is found in such natures; or that which is concerned with and found in the variable and mortal, and is itself variable and mortal?" "Then, in general, those kinds of things which are in the service of the body have less of truth and essence than those which are in the service of the soul" (376)
"God, whether from choice or from necessity, made one bed in nature and one only; two or more such ideal beds neither ever have been nor ever will be made by God. ... Because even if He had made but two, a third would still appear behind them which both of them would have for their ideal, and that would be the ideal bed and not the two others." (390) The maker of a bed makes a particular bed, not the essence of the bed (which is better). Presumably then, Socrates would rather sleep on the essence of a bed than on a particular bed when he wants to get real sleep rather than a poor copy of sleep.
The highest class of men desire justice for its own sake as well as for the sake of its results. The majority of men think justice is a troublesome thing that is pursued for the sake of rewards or reputation, but is itself disagreeable and to be avoided when possible. (47)
"the highest reach of injustice is, to be deemed just when you are not." (51)
He believed justice is easier to see when we look at the big picture (the state). So his procedure is to define the ideal state and then look at the character of the individual citizens in the ideal state to see how justice is made manifest at the low level. His starts off on the wrong foot by assuming the state arises out of the needs of mankind (because no one is self-sufficing). "when these partners and helpers are gathered together in one habitation the body of inhabitants is termed a State." (63) This, of course, confuses the state with society or city or even division of labor or market. The state is an enemy of all these things.
"our aim in founding the State was not the disproportionate happiness of any one class, but the greatest happiness of the whole; we thought that in a State which is ordered with a view to the good of the whole we should be most likely to find justice" (140)
He assumes that workers will be more efficient and will produce better quality goods if they specialize in one trade exclusively. Therefore, in the ideal state everyone will stick to one trade. For example a shoemaker will not be allowed to be a husbandman or a weaver. (71) He does not consider the possibility that people might be more efficient and produce better quality goods if they are engaged in a trade that they prefer. "the original principle which we were always laying down at the foundation of the State, that one man should practice one thing only, the thing to which his nature was best adapted;┘now justice is this principle or a part of it. ... justice was doing one's own business, and not being a busybody (160) "justice will be admitted to be the having and doing what is a man's own and belongs to him" (161) "a State was thought by us to be just when the three classes in the State [trader, auxiliary, and guardian] severally did their own business" (163)
Tradesmen that Socrates admits will be needed in the ideal society are: carpenters, smiths, weavers, shoemakers, and other artisans; husbandmen; neatherds, shepherds, and other herdsmen; retail-traders and salesmen; importers and exporters, who are called merchants; sailors; hirelings (laborers).
He gives an excellent description of a market economy (63-70). Unfortunately, he mislabels it as a state.
As the market society becomes more prosperous the people will want luxuries. Socrates assumes that the city will not be able to produce all the luxuries and that, rather than trading with other cities to get luxuries, they will have to go to war. (70) He offers no explanation why the importers and exporters must fail to bring luxuries to the city. So there need to be soldiers, and they must be dedicated to the art of war so they will be good at it. Now we really have a state.
"your dog is a true philosopher." (74) "Why, because he distinguishes the face of a friend and of an enemy only by the criterion of knowing and not knowing. And must not an animal be a lover of learning who determines what he likes and dislikes by the test of knowledge and ignorance? ... And is not the love of learning the love of wisdom, which is philosophy?" (74-75) This sounds like a joke.
Socrates assumes society must be planned. He does not consider the possibility of spontaneous order.
We learn from the poets that the gods can be appeased by sacrifices, soothing entreaties, and by offerings so they will not punish us in the afterlife for our misdeeds. So the smart thing to do is to reap the rewards of injustice in this life and to appease the gods so we won't be punished in the next life. (58-59) Socrates believed the poets were wrong. He had a low opinion of them and would ban then from his state.
He would forbid poets and story-tellers from saying that wicked men are often happy and the good miserable or that injustice is profitable when undetected. (99) He regards legislating and making war to be noble professions compared to writing poetry. "hymns to the gods and praise of famous men are the only poetry which ought to be admitted into our State." (406)
"the first thing will be to establish a censorship of the writers of fiction ... we will desire mothers and nurses to tell their children the authorized ones only ... most of those which are now in use must be discarded." (76-77) "the battles of the gods in Homer--these tales must not be admitted into our State" (79)
"Neither ought our guardians to be given to laughter." (93)
Pantomimic gentlemen will be sent away to another city. (108)
Musical harmonies expressive of sorrow must be banished. (109) Only the Dorian and Phrygian harmonies may be used. (110) "music and gymnastic be preserved in their original form, and no innovation made." "any musical innovation is full of danger to the whole State, and ought to be prohibited." (146)
Socrates was no Hillary Clinton crying for universal health care. He thought physicians made up new names for diseases to fit the demand for illness created by people who have too much free time. In his state the people will be kept busy so they won't have leisure to spend in continually being ill. (121-122) In Socrates state there will be no drug rehabs or Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Physicians will refuse to treat useless people. (124)
"in youth good men often appear to be simple, and are easily practiced upon by the dishonest, because they have no examples of what evil is in their own souls." ... Therefore, I said, the judge should not be young" (126) "the elder must rule .. the best of these must rule" (130)
The state will see to the education of the guardians and select only the best at each age level to go on to higher levels of training. "They are to be told that their youth was a dream" (134) "if any one at all is to have the privilege of lying, the rulers of the State should be the persons" (93) "none of them should have any property of his own beyond what is absolutely necessary" (137) They shall get a fixed rate of pay, they will go to mess and live together like soldiers and they alone of all the citizens may not touch or handle silver or gold. (137)
Wives of the guardians receive the same training, for which they are required to strip like the men. The wives share in the toils of war. The wives are in common and their children are to be common. "no parent is to know his own child, nor any child his parent." (193) Not only will the women enjoy the benefits of day-care for their children, they will also enjoy night-care. The offspring of the good parents will be taken by the proper officers of the State and deposited with certain nurses. The offspring of the inferior parents will be put away in some mysterious, unknown place. (198) A woman at twenty years of age may begin to bear children to the State, and continue to bear them until forty. (198) The State will enforce its eugenic regulations by performing abortions on women who conceive embryos outside the regulations (it takes a village). (199)
"Now that which is of divine birth has a period which is contained in a perfect number." (317) "Now this number  represents a geometrical figure which has control over the good and evil of births." (318) The king will live with 729 times more pleasure than the tyrant. (380)
"he is always stirring up some war or other, in order that the people may require a leader." (349)
Year Read: 1999
Libertarian Essays by Roy Halliday
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