“[H]ow it would come into being, if it ever were to come into being, you have, in my opinion, Socrates, stated well” (The Republic, 510a). The possibility of the Republic coming into being is the issue which sets the earlier Dialogues apart from The Republic. Although Socrates does “[state] it well,” The Republic as a possible state appears, in light of his earlier writings and in light of political realities, to be merely a mirage. Socrates, in the Apology, states that “the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being” (Apology , 92). For Socrates, knowledge of how a man should live his life is the defining characteristic of a life that is worth living, because without that knowledge, man cannot know how to act.
In the Dialogues, Socrates uses dialectic to teach the people he speaks with about the good, as well as to learn something about the good himself. He questions all types of individuals, in the Euthyphro, Socrates converses with the son of a landowner who claims to have the gift of divination, in the Laches Socrates converses with warriors and fathers, and in the Gorgias Socrates converses with several rhetoricians. All the men he speaks with are not only distinct from one another in profession, but also in socio-economic class as well as in age. Socrates’ willingness to converse with these men as well as his statement that “the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being” (Apology , 92) brings the reader to the conclusion that all men are capable of leading the examined life.
Dialectic is used in the early Dialogues. However, by the time that The Republic is written, Socrates has transgressed into giving speeches. There are long passages of his speech every few pages in The Republic, where by contrast, in the Dialogues; he only gives a few speeches. In the Dialogues, Socrates seeks to gain knowledge of the good, but in The Republic he speaks as someone who already knows the good, or at least how that good is best to be produced in the city. In Socrates’ model of the city in The Republic, it is only the philosophers who are able to contemplate questions of the good, which contradicts Socrates’ statement in the Apology that all men should seek to gain knowledge of the good. In the Republic, all citizens who are not of the ruling class are to be indoctrinated to their respective positions so that there will be political stability within the Republic. Socrates plans to tell the citizens, “the god, in fashioning those of you competent to rule, mixed in gold at their birth; this is why they are most honored; in auxiliaries, silver; and iron and bronze the farmers and the craftsmen”(The Republic, III 415a). When Adeimantus enquires about the happiness accorded to these men being placed in their hierarchical positions, Socrates states that, “… in founding the city we are not looking to the exceptional happiness of any one group among us, but as far as possible, that of the city as a whole” (Republic, IV 420b). In The Republic, as opposed to in the Dialogues, Socrates is concerned with the city not with the individual. He is no longer concerned with each man leading the examined life, but instead with producing a city in which the city has “exceptional happiness.”
The value in The Republic which is placed on the happiness of the city is sorely misplaced; some argue that the city with the greatest happiness will contain men who are the most happy, however if this is his goal, then Socrates could still approach the construction of the city from the point of producing the best individuals (which is the course taken in the Dialogues), and thus would not be advocating aristocratic rule, but democratic rule.
Socrates argues later in Book IV that the happiness of the individual is to be accounted for by ensuring that each citizen “[is] brought to that which naturally suits him—one man, one job—so that each man, practicing his own, which is one, will not become many but one; and thus, you see, the whole city will naturally grow to be one and not many” (The Republic, IV 423d)2E Socrates aims to unify the city by placing each man in the job which naturally suits him and thereby placing him into the caste which he belongs. This contrasts sharply with the goals of the earlier Dialogues in which Socrates attempts through dialectic with men of many different professions, classes, and ages to gain a better understanding of the good—attempting to lead all these men to the examined life. Socrates in the Dialogues and in The Republic presents two opposed conceptions of the individual, the first conception is a cynical one in which it is only the men who “[appear] hard to bewitch and graceful in everything, a good guardian of himself and the music, proving to possess rhythm and harmony on all these occasions” that “must be appointed ruler and guardian of the city” (The Republic, III 413e); the second is an optimistic conception of the citizens of the city, that they are able to lead examined lives and thus they must have some knowledge of the good.
If the claims of both texts are to be believed, the arguments of the Dialogues are the more forceful. This is because in the Apology, Socrates makes the argument that the only life worth leading is the life which seeks the good, and within the Republic, the only class which is able to lead the examined life is the guardians. This leads the reader to question the truth of the assumption that the ‘most happy’ city is one in which each man had been fitted into his respective niche and left there to perfect that art until his death. Although this may be a type of happy life, it is not the same kind of happiness that can be reached through seeking knowledge of the good2E Therefore, either the claim that only the examined life is worth leading, or the claim that the happiest city is achieved through assigned roles, must fail. Since it is impossible for an individual to lead a meaningful life without seeking the good (if they happened to lead their life according to the good it would be purely accidental and therefore without value) and it is impossible for a meaningless life to be a happy one, then it must follow that the happiest city is not produced by creating roles for individuals and preventing them from considering other alternatives. Thus although the Republic is “stated well,” (The Republic, 510a) it cannot actually produce the results that Socrates claims it will.
The counter argument of The Republic to this rationale is that the philosophers are the only people who are capable of leading examined lives, and therefore there is nothing lost in preventing others from seeking knowledge of the good. The proof of the citizen’s inability to seek the good is their acceptance of the laws. Socrates believes that history cannot be relied on as a foundation for society, and that each individual must begin their life by trying to determine for himself what the good is. He argues that,
2E..in one part of it, a soul, using as images, the things that were previously imitated, is compelled to investigate on the basis of hypotheses and makes its way not to a beginning but to an end; while in the other part it makes its way to a beginning that is free from hypotheses; starting out from a hypotheses and without the images used in the other part, by means of forms themselves it makes its inquiry through them.
(The Republic, VI, 510b).
Thus, a true dialectic rejects the images, the traditions and laws of the city, and subjects them to examination in order to obtain knowledge of the good. This belief that the laws should be abandoned is another break with his earlier writings. In Crito, Socrates allows the laws to make the argument for him to stay and accept the punishment set out for him by the courts. In their argument, the laws assert that “the law that orders the judgments reached in trials be authoritative” (Crito, 109)—even if they are wrong—because they maintain political order. In the Republic, the laws are replaced by the caste system and the policy of indoctrinating each man to his position within the city. This system is the new machine of political order; the laws are replaced by education. The difference between these two mechanisms is that when the assembly creates laws there is the possibility that they will be unjust since the assembly does not know the good. However, in the Republic, the guardians know the good and since they are the ones who establish what the citizens will be taught—there is no possibility that the citizens will be taught anything other than the good. In light of this, the Republic seems to be the better system because it educates all citizens to act according to the good. However, the argument in the Crito that the laws, and thus Socrates, fail to make is that although the laws are not infallible, they are self correcting.
Although in adopting the laws and traditions of a city, which are a compilation of the citizens’ knowledge of the good, an individual might be accepting false conceptions of the good, the mechanism of democracy is formulated to rectify this. The ability of the laws to serve as a historical record, as well as their ability to demand respect, results in a progression toward the good as well as in political stability. The democratic process allows for the positive effects of questioning the laws (thus leading citizens as Socrates does in his early writing to lead the examined life), but prevents the negative effect of political instability or prolonged rule of the unjust. Although it is possible for an unjust law to be passed, it is (through Socrates’ assertion that through questioning we will be led to knowledge of the good which will produce a greater knowledge of justice) certain that the unjust law will be eliminated eventually. Unjust laws also produce a greater knowledge of justice for a greater number of people than a just law which is accepted without thought. By allowing for the rule of the unjust, the unjust comes to be questioned and recognized; by learning what is unjust a clearer picture of the just is produced. If the just is merely dictated by education—as Socrates advocates in the Republic—then the citizens, although leading their lives according to the good, may have no idea what the good is.
In The Republic, Socrates claims that the happiest city is produced through placing men into the positions they are naturally suited to and educating them to live according to the good. However, this system will merely produce men, who although good at their jobs, will have meaningless lives and no ability to distinguish the good for themselves. The problem which Socrates seeks to safeguard the city against through this construction is the rule of the unjust. However, the rule of the unjust in turn translates into knowledge of the just. Therefore, although the Republic is “stated well” it is not the best system of governance for the city because the problems it rectifies for the city as a whole are not outweighed by the cost to the individual.