Plato’s Republic – Book I: Garbage People

I figured since I teach the Republic every year I’ll write something about it. I’m convinced that the book is about the role of media (“poetry”) as much as it’s about politics and ethics, and about images much more than Forms, so what I’ll do is write one post for each of the ten Books of the Republic, focusing on what I think is the central image of each. Maybe I’ll write one a week. Maybe not.

The central image of Book I is the background story to the conversation that leads to the creation of the “city in speech” in the first place. I’ll be quoting from the Allan Bloom translation, which you have to like even if you don’t like Allan Bloom. Socrates narrates:

I went down to the Piraeus yesterday with Glaucon, son of Ariston, to pray to the goddess; and, at the same time, I wanted to observe how they would put on the festival, since they were now holding it for the first time. Now, in my opinion, the procession of the native inhabitants was fine; but the one the Thracians conducted was no less fitting a show. After we had prayed and looked on, we went off toward town.

Catching sight of us from afar as we were pressing homewards, Polemarchus, son of Cephalus, ordered his slave boy to run after us and order us to wait for him. The boy took hold of my cloak from behind and said, “Polemarchus orders you to wait.” And I turned around and asked him where his master was. “He is coming up behind,” he said, “just wait.”

“Of course we’ll wait,” said Glaucon.

A moment later Polemarchus came along with Adeimantus, Glaucon’s brother, Niceratus, son of Nicias, and some others—apparently from the procession. Polemarchus said, “Socrates, I guess you two are hurrying to get away to town.”

“That’s not a bad guess,” I said.

“Well, ” he said, “do you see how many of us there are? “

“Of course.”

“Well, then,” he said, “either prove stronger than these men or stay here.”

“Isn’t there still one other possibility . . . ,” I said, “our persuading you that you must let us go?”

“Could you really persuade,” he said, “if we don’t listen?”

“There’s no way,” said Glaucon.

“Well, then, think it over, bearing in mind we won’t listen.”

Then Adeimantus said, “Is it possible you don’t know that at sunset there will be a torch race on horseback for the goddess?”

“On horseback?” I said. “That is novel. Will they hold torches and pass them to one another while racing the horses, or what do you mean?”

“That’s it,” said Polemarchus, “and, besides, they’ll put on an all- night festival that will be worth seeing. We’ll get up after dinner and go to see it; there we’ll be together with many of the young men and we’ll talk. So stay and do as I tell you.”

And Glaucon said, “It seems we must stay.”

“Well, if it is so resolved,” I said, “that’s how we must act.”

Slumming

This opening story isn’t something to be glossed over. I’m convinced that no great writer uses extra words, and I’m also convinced that Plato is the greatest of writers. So every detail in this little setup story is worth our attention.

I propose that this scenario is the prototypical context, in Plato’s mind, for any true discussion of justice, whether political or personal/ethical. What is the scenario? Socrates and Glaucon had gone down to the Piraeus, a port town near Athens. The word “down” is important – in fact, it’s the first word (or part of a word) in the whole Republic.

The discussion of justice doesn’t take place in Athens, but in a place of trade and festival and debauchery. You don’t discuss justice as a philosopher only, but as a citizen in a city that is interested in things that you don’t care about, that are beneath you. If you’re really going to get a handle on what justice is about, you need to get off your high horse and descend to where the people, the demos (most precisely translated as “garbage people”) are.

What’s going on at the Piraeus? We’re given three details by Socrates: he went to pray, to check out the festival, and to compare the parade done by the natives to that of the foreigners. What are the elements of the city important to the lower classes? Religion, partying, and nationality. If you want to talk justice, you need to know about such things, participate in them to some degree, and even appreciate them (Socrates calls the processions “fine”).

But you can’t stay there. The discussion doesn’t happen during the festival, but afterward as the two friends are attempting to return to Athens. During their ascent, they are interrupted.

Force

Nobody bothers you when you’re doing what they’re doing, even if you’re the most annoying philosopher in history. But the minute you stop and try to get back on your high Athenian horse, your garbage friends stand in your way.

Polemarchus, a guy that lives in garbage-people-land, not Athens as Socrates and Glaucon do, sends (orders) his slave to stop Socrates. The slave runs up and grabs Socrates’s cloak, and says that Polemarchus orders him to wait for him.

As if that wasn’t enough force for you, when Socrates says he just wants to go home to Athens, Polemarchus counts the number of thugs he has at his disposal, and challenges Socrates (I suppose playfully?) to a gang fight. Either Socrates and Glaucon beat up Polemarchus and all his friends, or they do what he says.

So we move from a symbol for the demos in the festival to a symbol for the government in Polemarchus. Force and power rule the day. Even when Socrates offers to talk some sense into them to let him go, Polemarchus insists (twice) that nobody will listen to him. This isn’t because Polemarchus is a tyrannical figure – if anything, tyranny is represented by Thrasymachus later in Book I. It’s just because that’s the way governance works.

Sure, the whole thing is sarcastic fun between old friends. But we, the reader, know more than any character in the dialogue. We know that the awkward tension between Socrates and the city ends in his execution. The close reader feels a sadness in the tone of every scene of the Republic.

Resolution

The result is that Socrates agrees to stay, and the stage is set for the discussion on justice that takes 300 freaking pages to define one word, and they end up being 300 of the best pages ever written if you ask me (look Plato nerds, I know the Republic is a “basic” dialogue to like but just because you’re sick of it doesn’t mean it’s not great).

There’s a little pun that Socrates makes before they go to Polemarchus’s house about “if it’s so resolved,” solidifying the symbolism of governance. But before that, Adeimantus gives us another symbol to chew on: the horse race, at sunset, in honor of the goddess, where they’ll pass torches to one another.

Come on. Animal passion mastered so that even in the increasing darkness of sunset, light can be given and received, all in the name of the divine. They never make it to the horse race, as far as we know. All we get to watch is Socrates and his friends pass their light and confusion back and forth.

The “resolution” pun that concludes this scene shows that the rule of law isn’t itself a philosophical endeavor. The city doesn’t exist by persuasion. Its laws are enforced by…force. But once the laws are there, Socrates can safely do some philosophy, at least under the guise of religion or culture. Yes, Socrates did end up being killed by the city, but without the laws and their enforcement, there is no city at all, and therefore no philosophy.

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