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Commentaires aux dialogues de Platon

Roslyn Weiss, Philosophers in Plato’s Republic: Plato’s Two Paradigms

Francisco Gonzalez
Référence(s) :

Roslyn Weiss, Philosophers in Plato’s Republic: Plato’s Two Paradigms. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2012. Pp. xi + 226

Texte intégral

1Given how much has already been written on Plato’s Republic, it is certainly uncommon to find a book that offers a radically novel way of looking at this important and influential text. Yet the study by Roslyn Weiss does precisely that. Indeed, so novel is her argument that most readers will, like myself, misunderstand the book’s title at first glance. When we read that the book will discuss “Plato’s Two Paradigms” and then discover on the very first page that the two paradigms in question are “two distinct and irreconcilable portrayals of the philosopher” (1), we are liable to think that we have before us an examination of the oft-noted tension between the portrayal of the philosopher who will rule the ideal city and the portrayal of the philosopher who is constructing the ideal city in speech, i.e., Socrates, the most obvious difference between the two being that the former must possess knowledge in the strongest sense of the word (i.e., knowledge of the forms and of the good itself) whereas the latter repeatedly denies, both here and elsewhere, having such knowledge. But this expectation is soon disappointed when we learn that for Weiss Socrates constitutes a third paradigm of the philosopher left entirely outside the discussion of the Republic (9-10). So while the kind of philosopher that is Socrates will be the object of some of the book’s most insightful observations, he is not one of the two philosophers between which the book seeks to demonstrate an irreconcilable contradiction. These are instead what Weiss calls the ‘natural philosopher’ described in Books 5-6 and the philosopher ‘by design’ described in Books 6-7.

2Since I assume, or rather know based on the previous literature on the dialogue, that I am far from being alone in never having so much as suspected that in the latter part of Book 6 Socrates is shifting from describing one kind of philosopher to describing a radically different and even incompatible kind of philosopher, Weiss’s thesis is novel indeed. But we do not recognize how radical the thesis is until we note that this second kind of philosopher represents for Weiss a complete distortion and perversion of what the true philosopher should be (as captured in the first paradigm). So on this reading, we have at the very heart of the dialogue, when it comes to describing the education of those supposed to rule the ideal state, the substitution of the true philosopher described until then with a complete imposter: a philosopher who, according to Weiss, completely lacks a philosophical nature, has no interest in the Good or the other forms, and cares nothing for justice.

  • 1 We are told from the outset that true justice for Plato, far from being a healthy condition of the (...)

3It is precisely with the notion of justice that Weiss’s interpretation makes it most daring move. The ‘justice’ she sees as being exhibited by the ‘natural’ philosopher and as lacked completely by the philosopher ‘by design’ consists in caring for others, a justice that therefore makes the philosopher want to rule the city as a way of benefitting her fellow citizens. But the account of justice in Book 4 of course defines it not as a caring for others but as an internal order in one’s own soul that is profitable for oneself.1 That is because, according to Weiss, if Book 7 offers us a distorted conception of philosophy, Book 4 offers us a correspondingly distorted conception of justice. To say that the reading of the Republic as a whole that thus emerges is unorthodox would be an understatement (and while Weiss focuses on the two paradigms of philosophy, given the wide-reaching consequences of her thesis, she cannot help but say at least something about all the major parts of the dialogue).

  • 2 She tells us in note 1, p. 1, that metaphysics will receive scant attention and the question of whe (...)
  • 3 On p. 7 Weiss surprisingly, and perhaps in an effort to make her reading more palatable, describes (...)

4It is therefore strange that Weiss should describe her aim in the book as ‘modest’ (1). Presumably she means only that she does not attempt to provide an account of the overall unity and purpose of the Republic.2 But one must wonder if her claims are so radical as to make such an account impossible. For in the end what Weiss leaves us with is a Republic that not only tells us very little about justice or philosophy, but that devotes most of its length to defending argumentatively what are completely3 and intentionally distorted conceptions of both. Weiss’ only explanation, repeated throughout the book (and starting on p. 3), is that these are the conceptions that appeal to Glaucon and Adeimantus and therefore alone can win them over. But this explanation forgets that it is Plato who chooses the interlocutors and makes them what they are. Furthermore, if Socrates must adjust what he says to the kind of person he is speaking with, that is quite different from pandering to the interlocutor by saying only what he wants to hear, even when this has nothing to do with the truth. Indeed, the Republic cannot help but appear on Weiss’ reading as a monumental piece of sophistic rhetoric.

  • 4 I wrote a much shorter review of this book for Philosophical Review in which limitations of space p (...)

5For most of the review that follows,4 however, I will leave this general point aside and focus on Weiss’ particular theses and arguments. Given how radical her reading is, there really are in the end only two possibilities: either she has seen what most others have not seen or she is seeing something that is simply not there.

6Let us begin with the central argument of the book: the irreconcilable paradigms of the philosopher in Books 5-6 and in Books 6-7. The following are the differences Weiss sees between the two:

  1. The philosophers of 5-6 escape corruption and become rulers by chance (32), whereas those of 6-7 are deliberately ‘designed’ to be philosophers and rulers.

  2. The philosophers of 5-6 have a philosophical nature, whereas those of 6-7 are nonphilosophic by nature (40, 50, 67).

  3. While the philosophers of 5-6 have no love of hunting or war (since they are uninterested in the world of flux or change, 15), those of 6-7 are ‘mongrel philosopher-warriors’ (51-53).

  4. As a result of 2), while the philosophers of 5-6 are by nature lovers of truth, justice, moderation, and wisdom, the philosophers of 6-7 are none of this (45, 53, 65, 71-72). In them, eros is replaced by coercion (70).

  5. While the philosophers of 5-6 “show no signs of reluctance or aversion to ruling” but mind their own business only because they are not allowed to rule (27), the philosophers of 6-7 do not want to rule and have to be compelled to do so.

  6. Specifically, and most importantly for Weiss, the philosophers of 5-6 are concerned with justice, whereas those of 6-7 do not care for justice (113-115)

7Before considering these supposed differences and seeing if they hold up to a careful examination of the text, we must first ask where in the text we find a distinction between two different types of philosophers, or rather, where exactly the text transitions from describing the one to describing the other. Again, most readers have probably never even noticed such a transition. So where exactly does Weiss locate it? The answer is 502e. Here Socrates suggests that they still need to address ‘what concerns the rulers as it were from the beginning’. But why, Weiss asks (p. 42), does Socrates say they have yet to address what concerns the rulers if Socrates has already described the philosopher in Book 5 and the beginning of Book 6? Weiss’s answer, and it is the answer on which her entire reading rests, is that Socrates is now turning to a completely different kind of philosopher.

  • 5 This is completely clear in the text. At 502c Socrates finally concludes that the proposal of philo (...)

8Not only, however, is this answer not necessary, but there is a much better one near at hand. Up until 502e Socrates has been talking only about the possibility of the ideal city and thus the possibility of philosophers assuming power for the first time. But the ideal city, if it first comes about by chance, obviously cannot depend on chance for its continued existence. A political model that rested on the chance appearance and disappearance of philosophers in power clearly would not be a model at all. Chance can explain only the possibility of the city coming into existence in the first place; once in existence, it can remain so only through a constitution that provides a system for educating and bringing into power future rulers, in this case, philosophers. So what needs to be discussed starting at 502e is the education of the philosopher rulers in distinction from the education the earlier books described for the guardians. This, then, is exactly what Socrates proceeds to provide in the latter part of Book 6 and in Book 7. What Weiss presents as two distinct paradigms of different kinds of city ruled by different kinds of philosophers are simply two stages in the establishment of one city ruled by one kind of philosopher. What is described in the second half of Book 5 and the first half of Book 6 is not a city at all, but the conditions for the city being possible in the first place. Once that possibility is secured and only then, Socrates can describe what the city and the rulers that thus come into being would look like.5

9In short, there appears to be a fundamental confusion in Weiss’s starting point: she takes what are presented as the natural preconditions for the ideal city that Socrates and his interlocutors are designing as the paradigm for another city to be opposed to the designed city. This is especially clear on p. 122 where she explicitly speaks of two cities and writes: “Only near the close of Book 6 does the sunny fantasy of willing rulers governing obedient subjects give way to the darker, more disturbing utopia of Book 7.” She takes what is presented as the philosophical nature that the education of the philosophical ruler will need to assume, and on which it will build, as the paradigm for another kind of philosopher who, as the ‘natural philosopher’, is to be opposed to the philosopher ‘designed’ by the educational program Socrates describes.

10Extraordinarily, Weiss refers in a footnote to something like the alternative reading just described, though as defended by Vegetti: “For Vegetti, the regime depicted in Books 5 and 6 is not Callipolis but merely a ‘historical’ regime that is transitional to it” (61, n26). Given that this alternative reading would undermine the whole project of Weiss’s book, it is surprising, to say the least, that she refers to it only in a footnote and without giving us a single reason for rejecting it.

11But what of the stark differences Weiss notes as outlined above? Are they not evidence that we should read 502e as a transition from one paradigm of the philosopher to another opposed one? Upon closer inspection, these supposed differences turn out to be a result of partial and question-begging readings of the text that presuppose rather than give evidence for the reading of 502e as the transition from one kind of philosophers and city to another.

12The first difference is easily explained on the reading suggested above as one between two stages in the coming to be of the ideal city: before the ideal city comes into existence, only chance can save philosophers from corruption and can bring them into power; once the ideal city has come into existence as a result of this chance assumption of power by a philosopher, neither the education of the philosopher nor the philosopher’s assumption of power need or can be left to chance. The third difference is also easily explained. In Book 6 we are speaking of philosophers existing outside the ideal city, before it comes into being. Of course there is no reason for such philosophers to be interested in war or hunting! The philosopher-rulers to be educated in the ideal city, however, come from the guardian class, as we were already told in Book 3 (412bff. a passage to which Socrates refers at 503e). Though as philosophers and rulers they require an education that goes beyond that of the guardians, and it is this education that Socrates now turns to, they will still share capacities and interests with the class from which they come and in whose education they have shared for a large part of their lives.

13As for the second and fourth differences, they are completely question-begging: only if you follow Weiss in assuming that we have at 502e a transition from one kind of philosopher to a different kind of philosopher are you prevented from ascribing to the philosopher of Book 7 what is said about the philosophical nature in Book 6. Since Socrates of course never says that the philosophers of Book 7 have unphilosophic natures, Weiss’s arguments are all from ‘silence’ and therefore collapse if we accept the suggestion above that what is described in Book 6 are natural preconditions that can therefore be taken for granted in Book 7. In other words, if we are not a priori committed to Weiss’s thesis, we have a clear explanation for why Socrates does not talk about the philosophical nature of the philosophers of Book 7, namely, that he has already done so in Book 6. Here indeed we see most clearly the distorted perspective produced by Weiss’s reading: she does not allow us to assume that the philosopher of Book 7 has the nature attributed to the philosopher in Book 6 because she is assuming that we are dealing with two kinds of philosophers here; thus, from the lack of explicit mention in Book 7 of the philosophical nature already discussed in Book 6, Weiss can infer that the philosophers of Book 7 lack this nature, i.e., have the opposite nature. In an otherwise illuminating account of the Myth of Er in the book’s concluding chapter, Weiss goes so far as to suggest that the philosophers of Book 7, given their unphilosophic natures, will be no better than the person who is virtuous from habit and could be expected, like him, to choose the life of a tyrant in the next round of incarnations (217).

14But matters become much worse for Weiss’s interpretation when we recognize that Socrates does after all attribute to the philosophers of Book 7 the qualities attributed to the philosophers of Book 6: hatred of lies, moderation, courage, and all kinds of virtue (535d-536a). How, then, does Weiss deal with this clear counter-evidence to her thesis? First, by dismissing it as only a ‘belated’ attribution (77), as if the attribution were made any less damaging for her thesis by the page of Book 7 on which Socrates makes it. Then she equivocates, claiming that the love attributed to these Book 7 philosophers is only a philia that “lacks the fire of erós” and that all their virtues fall short of ‘goodness’ or ‘decency’, as shown by the fact that they are called gennaioi but not kaloi (81). In the face of such casuistry, critique seems pointless.

15If the argument from silence thus does not even have silence on its side, Weiss does have what appears to be a stronger argument. She continually points to the language of compulsion in Book 7 as evidence that the philosophers described there must be compelled against their nature (which is therefore, she claims, purely appetitive) to both become philosophers and assume rule. Here too an argument from silence plays a role since much is made of the fact that compulsion is not mentioned in the description of the philosophers in Book 6. This silence, however, is not surprising on the interpretation suggested above: in Book 6 we are talking about the natural disposition that is a precondition to being a philosopher and a ruler, whereas in Book 7 we are talking about how in the ideal state people are to be educated to become philosophers and rulers. Talk of compulsion would clearly make no sense in the first case.

16But why the talk of compulsion when it comes to the education of the philosopher-rulers? Weiss rightly points to what she calls “the pervasiveness of compulsion language (anankazein and its cognates) in Rep. 7” (107). The prisoners in the Cave are compelled to turn around (515c6), are compelled to look at the light within the Cave (515d9) and exit the Cave (βίᾳ, 515e5), are compelled to contemplate the Good (519c9), and are then compelled to go back into the Cave to rule (520a8). The first thing to note, however, is that there is no reason why this ‘compulsion’ should apply only to a certain kind of person and a certain kind of philosopher: the Cave describes our nature with regard to education and its absence (514a2). To make the need for compulsion a difference between the philosopher of 6-7 and the philosopher of 5-6, Weiss must claim implausibly and with no support in the text that ‘natural philosophers’ are not in the Cave at all and therefore do not need to be dragged out: “The philosopher by nature is thus not like the prisoner who is released from the Cave; indeed, he is not ‘like us’” (59). Since it is Socrates who says that the prisoners are ‘like us’ (515a5), this is a strange claim indeed!

  • 6 Much confusion is caused, both for Weiss and others, by Socrates’ habit of describing himself and G (...)

17If unlike Weiss we include in the Cave those who will become the philosophers of Books 5-6, whom we yet have no reason to distinguish from the philosophers of Books 6-7, then how do we interpret this language of compulsion and the role that such compulsion plays in education? Weiss herself must acknowledge that “in many instances in which anankazein is used, neither compulsion from outside nor opposition on the part of the party compelled is implied” (110). But her reason for claiming that compulsion must be meant in Book 7 is that there are people designated to do the compelling. For Weiss these people are the ‘founders’ who are not themselves philosophers (108, n. 48). But here we have another distortion that arises from Weiss’s failure to distinguish between the conditions for the possibility of the city, which is the topic of Books 5-6, and the design for the functioning of the city once in place. If the latter is the topic of Book 7, then the founders are no longer in the picture except in the guise of Socrates and Glaucon who are ‘founding’ the city in words;6 those who will actually educate philosopher-rulers in the city once established, or lead them out of the Cave, will be other philosophers who are already ruling and, in the case of the first generation, have come into power through the ‘chance’ Socrates has spoken of in defending the city’s possibility. As Weiss herself has to acknowledge in the note cited, it would make no sense for non-philosophers to lead potential philosophers “to the highest reaches of the transcendent realm.” Weiss also recognizes (158-9) that some commentators identify Socrates as the one who leads prisoners out of the Cave, but continues to speak of the ‘founders’ as playing this role, founders who must compel philosophers to ascend to a vision of the Good they themselves do not have. If we instead see here the leading of potential philosophers by other philosophers, then the anankazein loses much of its connotation of compulsion.

  • 7 Weiss’s distinction between the two kinds of philosophers requires an opposition between nature and (...)

18Weiss, however, will still object that the philosophers of Book 7 are made to turn away from the wall of the Cave, are made to ascend out of the Cave, are made to look up at the Good, are made to descend back into the Cave. Does this not show that they are naturally disinclined to do so and therefore have unphilosophical natures? This is true only if we assume that those with a philosophical nature do not also need education, do not have to overcome much in their environment and in themselves to develop fully into philosophers, and do not need any guidance from other philosophers. But why should we assume that? In assuming that they are a completely different kind of being from the philosophers educated in Book 7 and even from all of us, Weiss turns her ‘natural philosophers’ into these practically divine beings who are born outside the Cave in full contemplation of the Sun and therefore in no need of education. But that is not the kind of philosopher Socrates describes in Book 6. What he describes there are people whose philosophical nature is vulnerable to corruption by their bad environment, but who by some stroke of fortune, such as illness or a divine voice, are saved from such corruption. Such people cannot completely fulfill their potential and are thus rendered useless, but at least they do not become bad. The point of establishing the ideal city is precisely to put an end to this situation in which only a few rare natures are saved from corruption by luck; it will do so by providing for the proper nurture and education of these philosophical natures. It is that education that is the topic of Book 7. Weiss’s idea that the true ideal city is one that will not seek to educate philosopher-rulers, but will simply rely on chance in praying that they will naturally sprout out of the ground at the opportune moments, not only has no basis in the text, but is frankly bizarre. Book 6 is again describing only the natural preconditions for a person to become a philosopher, preconditions that are far from guaranteeing that one will become a philosopher and thus a worthy ruler; the task of Book 7 is to describe the educational system the ideal city will put in place to ensure the proper development of the philosophical natures it requires. Is it any wonder that here the emphasis will be put on what such an education must contend with?7

19But what of the last difference noted above? Must not the philosophers of Book 7 be forced to return to the Cave and rule while the philosophers of Book 6 want to rule but are prevented from doing so? This difference too disappears upon closer examination. First, it is by no means clear that the philosophers described in Book 6 want to rule. In arguing that they “show no signs of reluctance or aversion to ruling” but mind their own business only because they are not allowed to rule (27), Weiss cites the passage at 499b where we are told how necessity by chance (ἀνάγκη τις ἐκ τύχης) might require those currently considered useless to take care of a city ‘whether they want to or not’ (b6) (28). Weiss insists that what is of importance in the qualification is the assumption that the philosophers might want to (p. 29, n. 53). But there is no such assumption, quite the contrary. When we talk of someone being required to do something ‘whether they want to or not’, the implication is normally that they do not want to; the point of the phrase is that their dislike is irrelevant. For example, if I tell a child that she must eat her vegetables whether she wants to or not, the implication is not that she wants to, but rather that she does not want to; otherwise, the necessity I am invoking would be superfluous. If Socrates really saw these philosophers as by nature wanting to rule, he would not add the qualification at all nor speak of a necessity requiring them to assume rule.

20This of course should not surprise us since Socrates says repeatedly that the best rulers will be those who do not want to rule, as Weiss acknowledges (90). So no philosophers, neither those of Books 5-6 nor those of Books 6-7 (whom we again have no reason to distinguish) want to rule. Weiss addresses this objection by distinguishing between not wanting to rule because one is not interested in the rewards of ruling and not wanting to rule because one is unwilling to take the trouble to benefit others (91; she also speaks of a third person who is from the outset unwilling and remains that way, but I do not see how this is fundamentally distinct from the second). She then claims that a good ruler is unwilling to rule only in the first sense, whereas the philosophers of Book 7 are unwilling to rule in the second sense. But this is where Weiss’s introduction of the notion of ‘unselfishness’, about which more will be said below, starts to distort things. She cites a passage in which Socrates claims that no one (μηδένα) wishes to rule willingly when they discover that ruling benefits others rather than oneself (346e), but interprets this as only a general rule that therefore admits of exceptions (93). The rulers of Book 7 “like the general run of men, . . . do not care to benefit others” (94). Weiss’s assumption is that her ‘true philosophers’ will be ‘unselfish’ (94). Perhaps here is where we see emerge the motivation behind Weiss’s interpretative strategy: finding in Book 6 a philosopher distinct from the one educated or ‘designed’ in Book 7 enables her to design this first philosopher in the way she wants: as someone fundamentally unselfish dedicated to benefitting others rather than himself or herself.

21Weiss’ thesis requires her to claim that the language of compulsion and necessity is peculiar to Book 7 whereas it in fact pervades the whole of the Republic. Weiss contrasts Socrates with the philosophers of Book 7 by referring to his ‘willing descent’ (89). But in fact Socrates must be threatened with compulsion to remain in the Piraeus (327c) and repeatedly he tries to leave the discussion but is prevented from doing so. On p. 143 Weiss suggests that Socrates’ interlocutors only ‘solicit’ and ‘beg’ his contribution. On p. 152 this becomes only “the mildest of arm-twisting”; then in n. 47 she proceeds to describe all the cases in which Socrates is held back in the Republic as ones in which “he is hardly an unwilling captive.” But all this is mere assertion with no textual foundation, unless one considers “begging” and “mild arm-twisting” to be accurate paraphrases of Polemarchus’ claim that Socrates must either prove stronger than those who want to detain him or remain, since they will not listen to persuasion (327c). Whatever one’s interpretation, the problem of the relation between persuasion and compulsion with regard to the philosopher’s role in the city is there in the Republic from the opening page and is by no means confined to Book 7, as Weiss would have us believe.

22In the case of the philosophers in Book 7, as in the case of Socrates, there is not only compulsion but also persuasion. Weiss, however, considers the argument of the ‘founders’ for why it is just for the philosophers to return to the Cave to be “more slick than sound: none of its elements can be sustained from the perspective of strict justice” (99). Her view is summed up in the following: “The philosophers, then, who have received a benefaction they did not seek, one they might well not have wanted, one that was not bestowed solely for their benefit, one that was anything but ‘free’, one that came with a stipulation of precisely how it is to be repaid, and one that may not be equal in value to the payment demanded in return do not stand to the city in the way a debtor stands to his creditor or a willing beneficiary to his benefactor” (101). But why would Socrates use such a weak argument? Because he knows that an appeal to true justice will not move these philosophers (102). And what is true justice? Putting the good of others (in this case the city) ahead of your own good, of course (102). These philosophers “are hardened men, products of coercion. Even the vision of the Good leaves them cold” (103). Socrates must therefore resort to a threat: if the philosophers want their leisure, they will need to pay for it! (104-5).

23We see here what for Weiss is the real problem with the philosophers of Book 7: the fact that they do not willingly run back down into the Cave eager to rule shows that they do not care about the good of others above their own good and that therefore they do not care about justice (113-115). The first problem with this claim is that here again the text does not give its support: just as Weiss’s claim that the philosophers of Book 7 do not have the virtues ascribed to the philosophers in Book 6 is contradicted by Socrates’ explicit claim that they do, so her claim that they do not care about justice is again contradicted by Socrates’ explicit claim that they do. At 540d-e Socrates describes the philosopher rulers as taking what is just to be what is greatest and most necessary (μέγιστον δὲ καὶ ἀναγκαιότατον τὸ δίκαιον, 540d7-e1). Weiss here too must resort to some casuistry to dismiss the evident sense of what Socrates says. She assures us that “careful examination” of the passage reveals that justice is in fact not the philosophers’ favored goal but something they only adopt when compelled to rule the city (116); my own ‘careful examination’, however, reveals no such thing. She also wants us to believe that because they are said to consider justice only ‘greatest’ and ‘necessary’, they do not consider it good and noble (116).

24What is for Weiss the conclusive proof, however, that these rulers are not concerned with justice is Socrates’ description of them as expelling from the city everyone over ten years old, an action Weiss finds “shockingly offensive” (117). But are not Weiss’s favored philosophers of Book 6 described as wiping clean the slate of the city, “rubbing out one thing and drawing in another” (501c)? Weiss assures us that whatever this means (and she is careful to leave the meaning completely indeterminate, 30-31), “one thing it surely does not mean is exiling everyone over ten” (118). But of course, wiping clean the slate of the city and its citizen most certainly could mean exiling adults as having already settled dispositions and starting from scratch with children. What else, indeed, could it mean? Weiss is therefore making only a groundless assertion when she insists, “The philosophers of Book 6, by contrast, though they, too, require a clean slate on which to etch their reforms, do not callously toss out the older people but try to improve their souls along with the souls of the young” (120).

25A clear logic to Weiss’s reading begins to emerge. Her fundamental assumption is that justice is the selfless concern for the good of others. Since the philosophers described in Book 7 do not appear to exhibit this kind of justice, she claims that they simply are not just and therefore do not have true philosophic natures, even though both claims are contradicted by the text. Because she finds the ‘natural’ philosophers of Book 6 more amenable to her conception of justice, she argues that they are a completely different kind of philosopher and she minimizes anything in the text that might assimilate them to the philosophers of Book 7. Her entire interpretation is driven by her conception of justice.

26I of course say ‘her conception of justice’ because, as Weiss herself must acknowledge, her conception is completely contradicted by the definition of justice provided in Book 4 of the Republic itself. So we need to see how she deals with this book. But first we must consider an addendum on Book 1 in which Weiss exposes most clearly the fundamental presupposition of her reading: that the view that one does what is good for one’s own advantage is both repugnant and not Socratic. “It should be evident that Socrates does not actually subscribe to this view, regardless of how forcefully he advances it. For, besides the stark implausibility and repugnance of the notion that good and decent wise men never act for the sake of anything but their own advantage, this idea relies on the patently Thrasymachean view that men are ineluctably selfish and that another man’s gain must be one’s own loss” (126; my emphasis). The phrase I have italicized is significant: Weiss must grant that Socrates forcefully advances this view since, not only is his disagreement with Thrasymachus only about whether or not justice is to one’s advantage, but his task throughout the whole of the Republic is to show, in response to the challenge of Glaucon and Adeimantus, that justice benefits oneself more than injustice. So what Weiss would have us believe is that not only she, but even Socrates finds repugnant this argument he is at such pains to develop over the course of a very long discussion. Why would Socrates in this case present such an argument? As already noted, Weiss puts the blame on Glaucon and Adeimantus: this repugnant argument is the only one they could accept. But this leaves us with the question that Weiss thinks she can ignore but that in fact needs an answer if we are to be in the least inclined to adopt an interpretation such as hers: given that Plato as a writer is in control of the characters he chooses, why would he present his major reflection on the nature of justice in the form of a dialogue with two non- and even anti-philosophers that allow Socrates to make only a repugnant argument for a distorted conception of justice? Weiss’s interpretation indeed implies that no text could be more misleading about the nature of justice than the Republic.

27It is in chapter 5 that Weiss turns to the account of justice in Book 4. There is no doubt much that is odd in this account. But while others have attempted to explain the puzzling parts in the argument, Weiss’s strategy is to point to everything problematic as a piece of evidence that the argument cannot be taken seriously. She claims it would be more elegant and satisfying to assign moderation, not to the whole soul but rather to a particular part (the appetitive), as are wisdom and courage (170). Perhaps. But as she knows, there is a reason for assigning moderation to the whole, namely, that it involves all the parts (171). As for the purely appetitive part not having its own distinctive virtue, is there really anything so odd about that? Could one not reasonably hold that virtue always requires submission of the appetites to spirit or reason and is not something the appetites can possess in themselves (whereas reason can be wise in itself and spirit can be courageous in itself)? And is there such a great difference, as Weiss wants us to believe (172-3), between defining moderation as the mastery of pleasures and defining it as the submission of the other parts (including pleasures) to reason?

28The problem of the relation between moderation and justice is a more significant one. Other readers too have found it hard to distinguish justice from moderation on Socrates’ account (174-6) and it is indeed the case that it is hard to discover justice as a distinct virtue once the other virtues have been defined. But, again, Weiss’s conclusion that the account of justice fails here completely is not the only or even more plausible explanation. Another is suggested by a passage she herself quotes (177) in which justice is described as what provides the other virtues with the power to arise in us and sustains them once they come into being (433b8-10). Justice thus turns out to be not just another virtue but a kind of super-virtue or even virtue itself (see the conclusion at 433d10 that justice rivals [ἐνάμιλλον] the others for the title of virtue). Why? Because for the rational part to achieve wisdom it must perform its proper job or function; for spirit to become courageous it must do its proper job or function; for the different parts to work together, each must do its job. Thus, justice, defined as ‘doing one’s job’, turns out to be the condition or ground of all the other virtues. Is it then surprising that it is hard to distinguish from moderation when the latter concerns the relations between all the parts and thus the whole? Yet distinguishable it is since justice turns out to be the condition that makes moderation possible. Thus when Weiss asks, “What reason could Socrates have for proposing that they bypass moderation and proceed directly to justice other than that he knows full well that once he defines moderation, precious little will be left for justice?” (178), there is an answer: he believes we cannot really explain moderation until we give an account of its condition, which is justice.

29The reason such an answer will not suit Weiss is that, as we have seen, she has a different conception of justice she thinks is the one that should be in the text. She thus tells us that “justice as it actually is” is missing from the discussion (180) and that the only justice that could satisfy its description at 433b-c as the most valuable virtue and as the one that makes the others possible is “one that is directed outwards towards one’s fellow men, one that has regard for the interests of others” (180). This is what should be in the text and Weiss will not forgive its absence. As for all the work Socrates has done to make justice an internal property of the soul rather than primarily a property of actions, which is often taken to be a major accomplishment of the Republic, this was all simply a waste of time as Socrates is just wrong. “For, despite Socrates’ strained efforts to depict justice as the cordial relations among the parts of the soul, justice is in its essence a social or interpersonal virtue” (180; my emphasis); “It concerns the way in which people regard and treat one another—not the way in which the internal parts of the soul do” (181).

30If Socrates defines justice as a certain order of the soul, he also attempts at 433e-434a to show what consequences this order has for how we treat others. According to Weiss, however, Socrates does so “shamelessly” (181) and appears to “deliberately muddle the matter” (197). Nevertheless, Weiss is led to correctly observe: “As these examples show, Socrates wants justice to do double duty: to be both a matter of minding one’s own business and a state of harmony or accord” (198). Now one could argue that Socrates fails at this, but that is quite different from maintaining with Weiss that he deliberately fails by advancing what is in his own view a distorted and even fundamentally incorrect notion of justice. In a revealing note Weiss writes: “The view argued for here is that for Socrates it is moderation that is the one place group predicate and justice the relational one. The only reason Socrates conflates the two is in order to make justice ‘profitable’” (n. 87, p. 199). Consider what this means: the whole of the Republic is a deliberately fallacious argument based on a willful conflation of two distinct notions and for a false conclusion. We can say ‘the whole of the Republic’ because matters do not get better for Weiss after Book 4, except for that brief glimmer of truth provided by the account of the philosophical natures in parts of Books 5 and 6.

31Even if we were at all inclined to accept this very ungenerous reading of the text, we would still be left asking WHY? Why would Socrates ignore “justice as it really is”, or “as it should be” (185), in favor of a willful distortion of its nature? According to Weiss, “the answer must be, because there is no simple and straightforward way to defend justice, to show that an other-regarding social or interpersonal virtue is profitable for the agent” (184; as if Socrates’s defense has been simple or straightforward!) So Socrates must “obfuscate” and all, again, “for Glaucon’s sake” (185). The problem is that those Socrates is addressing fail “to see the attraction” of justice in the true sense (187), and with such interlocutors “what is one to say?” (187). Again we must ask why Plato would write such a dialogue doomed to fail from the start.

32In another addendum on Book 1 Weiss considers the use Socrates already made of the city-soul analogy in Book 1 to show against Thrasymachus that justice is stronger than injustice. This argument, she claims, “veers off course”, and Socrates “muddies the waters”, when it considers the injustice of the group diminished when its members act justly towards one another (191). Weiss’s objection is that “internal justice, whether in a man or a group, only maximizes the entity’s ability to commit injustice and thus to be unjust” (193). Likewise, she insists that internal discord is not what makes a group or individual unjust. This is because Weiss again has her own conception of injustice: “Since injustice remains first and foremost the disposition of men (or groups of men or cities) to mistreat one another, the only way an individual man can be unjust is if he is inclined to wrong others” (194). Again one must wonder what exactly Socrates (or Plato!) is up to on Weiss’s reading. “All Socrates has added for the sake of disconcerting and discrediting Thrasymachus is the (mistaken) notion that an unjust entity whose parts are also unjust is more fully unjust (though surely less successful in executing its unjust projects) than one whose parts are just” (194). So Socrates is not trying to prove Thrasymachus wrong—something he could do only on the basis of a correct notion of justice—but only to ‘disconcert’ and ‘discredit’ him by himself employing an incorrect notion of justice. Here we need to note that according to Weiss Socrates actually agrees with Thrasymachus that justice is the good of another (187). So she has Socrates ‘disconcerting’ someone whose conception of justice he shares by employing a completely mistaken notion of justice! And this Socrates, as we will see, is for Weiss the ideal of the pious, caring philosopher!

33In a second addendum we learn that in Weiss’s view the later Books of the Republic fare no better or, as she puts it, they “establish less than Socrates or we would like” (199). This is because these Books do not actually defend justice at all but only what is for Weiss completely distinct from justice: moderation and philosophy. The philosopher is happier because of the order in his soul, but what does this have to do with benefitting others and therefore with justice in Weiss’s sense? Clearly nothing, so that on Weiss’s reading the final books must appear completely beside the point.

34Weiss is arguably at her most insightful when she is discussing in chapter 4 what is left out of the Republic’s description of the philosopher: Socrates. It seems clear that Socrates is not like the philosophers (or I would say philosopher) described in the Republic. Weiss thinks he is not even like her ideal philosophers of Book 6 because, while they retreat to private life, Socrates does not, even if in a sense he stays out of politics (132). Weiss furthermore shows that a distinctly Socratic virtue, the virtue Socrates associates with his philosophical mission and involvement in the city, is strangely left-out of the Republic. Piety appears to be deliberately suppressed from the very outset (133); Socrates “is the left-out philosopher just as piety is the left out virtue” (135). Weiss sees the key to Socrates’ remarkable unselfishness (which she allows is not the same as being completely selfless, p. 141) in this piety that need not be interpreted as devotion to a literal god, since “his god may well be the truth and justice and goodness he serves” (144). Weiss also sees Socrates’ piety as requiring the lack of wisdom, something that would again distinguish him from the philosophers described in both Books 6 and 7 (159-160). But what is so disappointing about this chapter is that Weiss never even poses the question of why Plato in the Republic should present us with a description of the philosopher that excludes Socrates, who is certainly his model at least elsewhere, as well as an account of justice that systematically suppresses discussion of the piety so closely related to it. Weiss’s own thesis only makes this question more pressing and the answer more elusive: if Plato is describing two different kinds of philosophers in the Republic, why would he not describe the third who, as Weiss claims at the very conclusion of her book, towers above the other two?

35These criticisms should not obscure what is of great value in the book: Weiss in offering a very unorthodox reading of the dialogue is raising important questions and drawing our attention to particularly difficult problems of interpretation. Specifically, if we do not accept her interpretation of the role the concept of ‘necessity’ plays in the dialogue, and particularly in Book 7, her extensive and penetrating discussion of the topic puts the burden on us to come up with a better interpretation. Too often the language of ‘compulsion’ and ‘necessity’ is noted in passing by interpreters who do not fully acknowledge the difficulty this language poses: this is no longer possible after Weiss’s book. Also, Weiss’s book has the great merit of drawing our attention to the Republic’s exclusion of the virtue of piety and of a certain conception of justice that goes with it, an exclusion made particularly puzzling by the fact that the discussion is conducted by the philosopher who embodies both. If we consider the depiction of Socrates in the Apology, we must find it very strange that both the piety and the care for others attributed to him there are nowhere to be found in the Republic. Even Socrates in this dialogue seems to be acting out of some kind of compulsion, rather than out of piety or care for others, as he is threatened by force to stay down in the Piraeus and is seemingly kept in the discussion against his will. Weiss’s book demands an explanation of this and has great value in doing so; the problem is that, as noted, it does not itself provide one. The reason is that, instead of focusing on the discrepancy between the kind of philosopher represented by Socrates and the kind of philosopher described in the Republic and defending an interpretation of the overall strategy of the dialogue that could make sense of this discrepancy, Weiss gets sidetracked into pursuing another distinction between two kinds of philosophers that, for the reasons indicated above, is not to be found in the dialogue at all and that presupposes an altruistic conception of justice also not to be found there. In the end, Weiss, while admiring some things in the Republic, appears to wish that Plato had written a different dialogue. Are we then allowed, while admiring much in Weiss’s book, to wish she had written a different book?

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1 We are told from the outset that true justice for Plato, far from being a healthy condition of the soul that profits oneself, is ‘unselfish’ and ‘concerned for others’, and that it is this that makes it the primary virtue (10).

2 She tells us in note 1, p. 1, that metaphysics will receive scant attention and the question of whether the dialogue is political or psychological/moral is entirely avoided.

3 On p. 7 Weiss surprisingly, and perhaps in an effort to make her reading more palatable, describes the accounts of justice and philosophy in the dialogue as ‘slightly distorted versions’. As we will see, the distortions are on Weiss’s reading anything but ‘slight’. How, indeed, can a definition of justice that confuses it with moderation and conceals its most essential aspect (the care for others) be only a ‘slight’ distortion ? How can the identification of the philosopher with someone who lacks a philosophical nature entirely and therefore cares neither for knowledge nor the good be only a ‘slight’ distortion of philosophy’s nature ?

4 I wrote a much shorter review of this book for Philosophical Review in which limitations of space prevented me from doing it full justice, with regard to both its defects and its merits. The present article provides the full assessment.

5 This is completely clear in the text. At 502c Socrates finally concludes that the proposal of philosopher-kings, while hard to come about, is not impossible. Then he continues : “Now that this difficulty has been disposed of, we must deal with what remains, namely, how the saviours of our constitution will come to be in the city, what subjects and ways of life will cause them to come into being, and at what ages they’ll take them up” (502c-d, trans. Grube/Reeve). So for Socrates there is no shift here from one kind of city and philosopher to another, but rather a natural transition from the general defense of philosophical rule being in principle possible—a defense that need appeal only to chance—to an examination of the educational program through which the ideal city will ensure that such philosophical rulers come to be within it—something that most definitely cannot be left to chance.

6 Much confusion is caused, both for Weiss and others, by Socrates’ habit of describing himself and Glaucon as agents in the city they are founding : thus at 519c he describes it as their task to compel the best natures to pursue the study of the good. But this obviously cannot be taken literally : if the city Socrates and Glaucon are founding in words ever came to be in reality, they would not be in it compelling anyone to do anything. It is only in the city in words that Socrates and Glaucon have the power to compel anything, where this means only that they can determine what is necessary for such a city to be in fact the best. To say that “we will compel the best natures to study the good” is equivalent to saying that “the city we are founding in words requires that the best natures study the good.”

7 Weiss’s distinction between the two kinds of philosophers requires an opposition between nature and nurture that will doubtless surprise readers of Plato. On p. 84, for example, we are told that ‘only nature’ and not education could endow one with an ardent love for wisdom and truth concerning ‘what always is’.

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Francisco Gonzalez, « Roslyn Weiss, Philosophers in Plato’s Republic: Plato’s Two Paradigms »Études platoniciennes [En ligne], 11 | 2014, mis en ligne le 15 avril 2015, consulté le 22 mai 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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