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The Republic | Book 2 | Summary



Despite the inconclusive end of the previous book, Glaucon and Adeimantus, Plato's brothers, are eager to pursue the quest for the true nature of justice. Glaucon takes the lead, first discoursing on justice as a mean or compromise, whereby men agree laws must intervene in order to prevent the excessive doing or suffering of evil. Glaucon follows up this analysis by asserting those who practice justice do so involuntarily, conforming to just behavior only because they do not want to risk punishment for injustice. He illustrates this viewpoint vividly with an extended myth: the story of Gyges, who found a ring that could make him invisible. With the aid of this ring, he seduced the queen, slew the king, and took over the kingdom. Glaucon suggests the theme, or inner truth, of this tale is everyone will practice injustice if he thinks it is safe to do.

Glaucon's brother, Adeimantus, then joins in, saying practicing justice has more to do with a person's reputation than with reality. Socrates, claims Adeimantus, has the responsibility of showing not only justice is intrinsically better than injustice but also of sorting out the matter of reputation and the blurring—often through deception—of appearance and reality.

After some gently teasing praise of Glaucon and Adeimantus, Socrates proposes they focus on the nature of justice in the state or city as opposed to the individual. He reasons since the state is larger than the individual, civic justice will be more easily distinguished than justice within a single, individual soul. With the consent of his interlocutors, he then leads them step-by-step in the detailed construction of an ideal state.

Socrates's discussion ranges widely, from economics to education and the arts to territory and warfare. The political and economic structure of the ideal city is notable for its division of labor. Shoemakers, for example, will make only shoes, and they will not be allowed to be farmers or weavers or builders. As Socrates says, "One man cannot practise many arts with success." Another noteworthy feature of the ideal state is its provision for a special class of guardians: citizens whose talents and temperament qualify them for positions of civil and military authority. Guardians will be trusted with the overall safety and civic order of the state. A good guardian will unite philosophy and spirit, swiftness and strength. His education will consist of "music" for the soul and "gymnastic" for the body.

As he expands in detail on the guardians' educational curriculum, Socrates makes clear censorship of the Greek literary heritage will be necessary. This will be required because the guardians should not be exposed to tales of disputes, violence, and immorality among the gods and heroes. Traditional tales are rife with such "lies," says Socrates, and he offers a number of examples, such as the battles of the gods in Homer. According to Socrates, it is most important the tales the young hear are "models of virtuous thoughts."

Socrates then elicits agreement from Adeimantus with the proposition God is not to be considered the creator of all things, but of good only. (This contradicts the famous statement in Homer's Iliad that Zeus, the king of the gods, presides over two casks, one of good and one of evil lots. The image reflects the idea human life is a mixture of good and evil.) With a similar rationale Socrates rules out the idea gods might be capable of disguising themselves or telling untruths. In his peroration, or closing speech, at the end of Book 2, Socrates says the instruction of the young in the ideal state must exclude all such portrayals of the gods.


Structurally Book 2 is closely linked to Books 1 and 3 of the dialogue. In one sense it represents a continuation of the quest in Book 1 for the true nature of justice. Glaucon and Adeimantus, who are usually civil participants compared to Thrasymachus, are almost cynical in their outlook on this subject. Glaucon argues the only reason people are just is they are afraid of being caught if they act unjustly. Adeimantus adds an appearance of being just is often at odds with the reality of injustice.

Socrates then abruptly shifts the ground. His game-changing suggestion is the group should seek to discover the nature of justice first in the ideal state, and only then in the individual. Socrates's rationale seems appealing and acceptable: he argues because the state is necessarily larger than the individual, justice in the state will be more noticeable and identifiable. Glaucon and Adeimantus agreeing with Socrates's proposal has a far-reaching effect on the course of the Republic as a whole. For the remainder of the dialogue the discussion will focus at least as much on polities of various sorts as on individuals.

Book 2 is also closely linked to Book 3. Thus Socrates's discussion of building an ideal state from scratch does not get too far before he finds it necessary to discuss the education of the guardians—authority figures who will take their place as the best and the brightest in the new community. Education will necessarily be of two sorts: mousikē (or music) and gymnastikē (or the gymnastic). By "music" the ancient Greeks meant literature and philosophy as well as harmony and song. But here, Socrates says, the ideal state will require censorship. No lies, violent behavior, quarrels, or other unjust actions should be attributed to gods or heroes, who must be models of good speech and behavior. Book 3, following smoothly from Book 2, will expand considerably on this subject and will present the first phase of an elaborate case for the banishment of much traditional poetry from the ideal state (the second phase will be presented in Book 10).

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