CUP (2023) p/b 202pp £22.99 (ISBN 9781108970471)
The Introduction to this new ‘Green and Yellow’ from Cambridge is in five sections. In the first (Plato’s Republic, or What is Justice? – the Republic’s title is of course περὶ δικαιοσύνης) S. discusses the question of whether Book One was conceived as a ‘stand-alone work that ended … in aporia, that is, without arriving at a satisfactory answer to the question that the dialogue hoped to address’, or alternatively that the Republic was conceived as a whole and was written at one time, probably in the 370s BC (there are variations on these approaches, all considered by S.): S. on balance favours the second, pointing out that because of the because of the nature of the discussion reported in Βook Οne, that book will ‘exhibit a different stylistic character from that seen in the remaining books’. In the second section (Book One, or what Justice is Not), S. introduces us to the person of Thrasymachus, who ‘is convinced that, so far from being advantageous, acting justly is a hindrance to an individual’s success and happiness’. The long remainder of Republic involves Socrates in not only defining justice, but in explaining what justice is good for and how it benefits its possessor.
In section 3, Plato provides details of the dialogue’s setting, which is, we learn, at the house of Cephalus in the Piraeus: the time is Thargelion (i.e. May/June), with the rites of the Bendidia in progress; the year may be 413 BC (though 429 BC has also been proposed). S. argues that the combination of an unaccustomed location and an unfamiliar celebration is Plato’s way of announcing that we are in novel territory for both Plato and Socrates. Hence, ultimately, ‘we shall be presented with a blueprint for a society which (inter alia) is governed by philosophers’, and the enquiry, which begins with an investigation of justice ‘becomes by degrees an investigation into the character of human society as a whole’.
In section 4 we are introduced to the dramatis personae: Cephalus, a wealthy man of advancing years, summed up by S. as ‘the model for members of the productive class in Socrates’ Callipolis , the ideal community’ (constructed later in the dialogue); Polemarchus, son of Cephalus, who is receptive to instruction in philosophy, but has not yet developed the intellectual skills to defend his views; and Adeimantus and Glaucon, brothers of Plato, of whom only Glaucon makes any significant contribution in this Book, though both come to the front in Book Two as they reformulate the theme initiated by Thrasymachus. The other participants are of course Socrates (of whom no more need be said here) and Thrasymachus, a rhetorician from Chalcedon (roughly, Istanbul), with whom, however, no specific doctrines can be identified. (Might we get a hint concerning the perhaps surprising choice by Plato of Thrasymachus to play such an abrupt and important role in Book 1 by considering the etymology of his name?).
Thrasymachus enters—or rather interrupts—the dialogue by making three assertions (not actually set out totidem verbis by S.): (i) justice is nothing other the advantage of the stronger; (ii) justice lies in obeying the laws of the ruler, and (a bit later) (iii) justice is really someone else’s good, the advantage of the man who is stronger and rules: thus subverting what might be normally thought to be how justice should be described or defined. We have, of course, no way of knowing whether the foregoing resembles the thinking of the historical Thrasymachus.
At this point we can no longer defer consideration of the dilemma faced by the commentator, analogous to that faced by, say, a commentator on Thucydides: how to balance appraisal of the text in the standard way (via elucidation and illustration) with analysis of the issues being discussed (how valid or invalid are the arguments which are being put forward?). After all, ‘The discussion is about no everyday matter. but about how we should live our lives’ (352D). When David Wiggins in Ethics (2006) turns to the argument of Adeimantus and Glaucon in Book Two, he devotes fifteen pages to its consideration: S. makes no similar effort; rather, he quotes (349a) Socrates saying to Thrasymachus, ‘I must not shy away from engaging with and scrutinizing your argument, so long as I am correct in assuming that you are saying just what you think’. S., to repeat, is a commentator on a text, not a professional philosopher (the late John Austin would have dealt with Thrasymachus in the robustly decisive fashion for which he was well known). As it is—Introduction, p. 30—the (opposed) respective positions of Thrasymachus and Socrates are well set out, and further eminently clear and detailed elucidation is to be found in the commentary (pp.127-8). S. also points out that Thrasymachus, unlike Socrates, does not speak in deontological terms.
Section 5 is devoted to The Transmission of Plato’s Text. Luckily for us, the text as we have it presents few textual problems, and it is presented here with no more than a brief apparatus criticus.
The Commentary does not assume any great knowledge of Greek among its readers, and any and all potential grammatical or syntactical problems are handled with admirable clarity—and on occasion appropriately illustrated: noteworthy too (p.130) is that we find Plato adducing the Laws to explain what justice is: what the rulers have enacted in their own interest is called ‘just’, and what violates those laws is ‘unjust’; he notes the ambiguity in Thrasymachus’ notion of superiority; is it domination of the weak by the strong, or the expert’s mastery of a field of endeavour? (p.134). On p.145 S. tackles the tricky question of whether justice is conducive to the happiness or the wretchedness of the agent and later does notably well at elucidating a ‘weak and unconvincing’ argument at 349b (p.169); and the same is true on pp.176-7, where Socrates seeks to secure the agreement of Thrasymachus to the argument that the unjust person has less power than the just, and in so doing eventually foreshadows the analogy drawn between the individual and the state which will be fundamental to the argument in subsequent books of the Republic. Indeed, a feature of the Commentary is S.’s looking forward to later developments—which of course may or may not be immediately relevant to a student whose concern is more literary than philosophical.
There is an Index of Works cited, as well as a General Index and an Index of Greek words.