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Lindsey Pelland

Professor Honeycutt

Roots of Western Thought

March 31, 2014

 

Books I-IV of Plato’s Republic are centered around a discussion on justice. Socrates and his companions desire to define justice and because of this desire to discover what it is justice means and put that into words, their conversation develops and changes as they continue to find fault in their own definitions.  Although the idea of justice becomes the main focus of Republic, neither Socrates nor his companions seem to have begun their evening with the intentions of defining justice.  The whole conversation begins with the head of the house, Cephalus, discussing his old age with Socrates.

Cephalus first mentions his old age when he greets Socrates and encourages him to visit more often because he has grown too old to easily travel. He also tells ,Socrates that he no longer enjoys corporal pleasures as he used to and rather prefers the pleasures of conversation (1. 328D). Socrates assures Cephalus that he enjoys his company with the notion that, “I enjoy talking with those who are very old very much, for it seems to me one ought to learn from them”(1. 328E). In this statement Socrates recognizes a clear distinction between older people and younger people and he also separates himself from Cephalus using age as a distinction. This statement also implies that Socrates recognizes that with age comes a certain kind of wisdom that is only attained through the process of growing old.

Socrates asks Cephalus about his view on old age now that he is “on the door step out of old age” (1. 328E).  Both Socrates and Cephalus recognize that Cephalus is nearing the end of his life and therefore has a point of view unlike that of Socrates who still has many years before him. Cephalus speaks to him of how often when he gathers with other men of his age they spend their time reminiscing on days gone by and recalling their sexual escapades, drunken evenings, and feasts of plenty (1. 329B). They act as though that was when they were the most alive and now they are merely waiting to die. Cephalus however does not share this view. He mentions the poet Sophocles who said that growing old was “as if I had run away from some raging savage master” (1. 329D). Cephalus goes on to explain this by saying that old age is indeed an escape from the uncontrollable desires one faces in their youth.

Cephalus next addresses the unhappiness many people feel towards growing old. He says that the cause for such feelings is “not old age, but the dispositions of the people. For if they are orderly and peaceable, even old age is a burden within bounds. But if they aren’t, both old age and youth turn out hard for such a person” (1. 329D). In this statement Cephalus connects one’s reaction to growing old with their character. He seems to indicate that if they are at peace with themselves and who they are then growing old is bearable and even enjoyable, but if they are not then not only is old age difficult but their whole lives are.

Socrates counters Cephalus’s remarks on disposition by claiming that the reason he has taken so easily to growing old is his great wealth (1. 330A).  Cephalus concedes that being rich does indeed help but he maintains “neither would someone who is not decent, even though they were rich, would ever come to be at peace with himself” (1. 330A).  The conversation takes an important turn towards the definition of justice when Socrates asks Cephalus, “What do you suppose is the greatest gift you’ve enjoyed from possessing your great wealth?” (1. 330D). This question prompts Cephalus to discuss how when someone nears death they begin to worry and care about things that have not entered their mind for many years.  As people age they begin to reflect on their lives and the people they have wronged. Cephalus says that, “one who finds many injustices of his own in his life even wakes up often from sleep in terror, the way children do, and he lives in an expectation of evil. But to one who is conscious of no injustice in himself, a pleasant and good hope is always present to nourish his old age” (1. 331A) In this statement Cephalus recognizes that with old age comes the fear of punishment for the injustices that one has committed throughout their life. The imminent threat of death raises the question of whether or not one has lived a just life. Wealth has allowed Cephalus to live a just life because it has allowed him to pay back what he has owed and to not be in debt to any man. This leads to the first definition of justice seen in the Republic, which is “to tell the truth and give back what one takes” (1. 331C).

The first definition of justice is quickly discounted, but nonetheless it is the impetus for the rest of the discussion.  Without first discussing old age the conversation may have gone in a very different direction and the issue of justice may have never been addressed at all. Old age is an interesting place to have started this conversation and it may reveal something about the idea of justice. In growing old one reflects on their life and the injustices they may have committed and the punishment they might receive because of it.  This in itself reveals the desire humans have to live a just life and the notion that justice in itself is rewarded and injustice is punished. It also indicates that to be just is the most important part of one’s character because in the end it is the sole way one is judged.

 

19 Responses to “From Old Age to Justice”

  1. khoneycutt says:

    Lindsey,

    I think you are right to highlight Cephalus’ age as being an important factor in his definition of justice; I think it is crucial to tie the definitions back to their authors. Cephalus is a foreign resident and an arms dealer (shield maker), too, and surely he did not receive the same education that Polemarchus has. But perhaps the most important thing about him is that he is old; there are not only generational issues at stake but also death.

    So the question of the best life–that is, the question of justice–springs from a question of the best death. That is interesting, as it is not the case in all Platonic dialogues that the question of the best life comes about. Cephalus is conventionally pious (he is not making offerings to the Thracian goddess, we can presume), but is his definition merely conventional? The part about reciprocity (i.e., giving back what one takes) is perhaps a conventional place to start. But telling the truth? That is definitely something that will be called into question. And yet the seeds of the other definitions, I think, are all contained in this first one somehow.

    Cephalus leaves the stage in Book 1 and, unless I am mistaken, never returns for the rest of the Republic. And yet his name means “head,” so somehow he is the head of the conversation that will follow (and not merely, I would submit, the head of the household…).

    KH

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