Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.03.33 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.03.33

Roslyn Weiss, Philosophers in the 'Republic': Plato’s Two Paradigms.   Ithaca; London:  Cornell University Press, 2012.  Pp. xi, 236.  ISBN 9780801449741.  $49.95.  

Reviewed by Joel Alden Schlosser, Deep Springs College (


In Philosophers in the ‘Republic’: Plato’s Two Paradigms, Roslyn Weiss argues that Plato’s Republic contains two “distinct and irreconcilable” portrayals of the philosopher: what Weiss calls the “philosopher by nature” and the “philosopher by design”. Through close reading of the arguments and, more importantly, the dramatic action of the Republic, Weiss convincingly shows the distinctness of these two types while also educing a third: that of Socrates himself. Although primarily in conversation with other close readings of Plato’s work, Weiss’s book deserves attention from scholars interested in the figure of Socrates, Plato, virtue ethics, and ancient philosophy. Weiss illuminates the multifaceted arguments of the Republic anew with deft intelligence, calling attention to conspicuous absences as well as important inconsistencies that ought to shift conventional readings of the dialogue from any approach.

Weiss’s five substantive chapters trace the three different portrayals of the philosopher in Plato’s Republic and then supplement these distinctions by showing how the portrayal of Socrates calls attention to shortcomings in the two other types of philosopher. Socrates distinguishes himself both for his introduction of an otherwise unnamed virtue in the Republic, piety, and for the inconsistency between his own practice of justice and the definition of justice developed within the discussion he leads. These differences lead Weiss to conclude that, while the arguments within the dialogue are meant to convince Glaucon and Adeimantus of the worth of justice and the value of philosophy, the dialogue itself proposes to its readers a different understanding of justice, and of Socrates as the most valuable philosopher. The arc of the book thus roughly follows the sequence of the argument within the Republic, until circling back to reassess Socrates himself and his role in spearheading the conversation. This approach gives the reader a pleasant sensation of not just reading but rethinking the dialogue as the analysis proceeds; Weiss develops an admirably thorough and sensitive reading of Plato throughout.

Chapter 1 treats the “philosophers by nature”. These philosophers appear as if out of nowhere; not until Book 5 is there any suggestion that philosophers will rule the city under discussion. Genuine love of wisdom distinguishes the philosophers by nature and, unlike the guardians discussed earlier in the dialogue, there is no suggestion that war and hunting are among the things these philosophers love. They are virtuous and their virtues come as a natural consequence of their immersion in “what truly is”. Their distinctiveness as philosophers becomes apparent through the contrast with deficient types in Republic 6: their uselessness stems from failing to be appreciated, not from having gone bad; they are not counterfeit but rather abstain from the unjust world around them; they would rule (if put in the position to do so) but they do not seek power actively. These are the philosophers of the famous ship-image: unnoticed and perhaps also unwelcome, yet worthy and capable of advising crew and captain (if these parties would only listen).

Chapters 2 and 3 discuss the “philosophers by design”. After Socrates has introduced the rule by philosophers in Book 5 and defended the philosophers by nature against Adeimantus’ aspersions at the beginning of Book 6, the dialogue turns to a discussion about how to educate philosophers. Here Weiss persuasively shows that a new philosopher, one that is “not by nature philosophic” (50), enters the scene. This new philosopher is a hybrid: both a warrior and philosophic. Indeed, there is not a single mention of war in Book 6 until the philosopher-ruler enters. The image of the cave highlights another difference: while the philosopher by nature knows he (or she) inhabits a world of appearances, this new philosopher, the philosopher by design, must be made to realize he (or she) inhabits such a world. In the discussion, Socrates selects those with intellectual fitness but not necessarily natural decency, which the philosophers by nature also possessed.

Perhaps most significantly, whereas the philosophers by nature fall into ruling (if at all), the philosophers by design must be compelled to rule. Here Weiss marks a cogent departure from much of the scholarly consensus about the role of compulsion in bringing about the rule of philosophers. Not only must philosophers be compelled to rule, Weiss shows, but they must even be compelled to order their own souls. “Moderation comes from without” and education must be made compulsory (75). It is even more difficult to depict their unwillingness to rule favorably. Once these philosophers by design have escaped the cave, they must be forced to return. Weiss notes the pervasiveness of compulsion language in Book 7 and interprets the argument given to these potential rulers by the “founders” — Socrates, Glaucon, and Adeimantus — as “more slick than sound” (99). The debt these philosophers by design owe for their rearing, Weiss suggests, has been forced upon them: they had no choice in the matter; it was a benefaction “with strings attached”. Thus Cicero’s criticisms of these philosophers in De Officiis (1.9.28) ring true, for while they do no injustice, these philosophers by design assume their civic duties only under duress.

Chapters 4 and 5 turn to Socrates. Socrates mentions himself when describing the “philosophers by nature” in Book 6, but Weiss shows how he differs from these philosophers in important respects. Whereas the philosophers by nature prefer to “stand aside under a little wall” (496d) Socrates “chooses not politics per se but a certain form of political life, a life of being ‘a busybody in private’” (132). To explain this different embodiment of philosophy, Weiss pinpoints piety as Socrates’ distinguishing feature. Socrates is, after all, “a man on a (divine) mission” (135): he explicitly claims to have a divine calling; this charge from the god leads him to engage his fellow Athenians with both fearlessness and humility. Socrates is moved to intervene in affairs by virtue of his divine vocation; similarly, Socrates deprecates his own epistemic state in contrast to the gods’ omniscience. Piety, in Weiss’s words, “is the virtue that demands for more” (141). Most forms of justice in the Republic require minimal action towards others, but piety involves tending for others and represents the highest form of justice.

The connection between piety, as exemplified by Socrates, and justice, which ostensibly generated the entire argument of the Republic, leads Weiss to an interesting reconsideration of justice and its relationship to moderation. Early in the dialogue Socrates introduces an understanding of justice as internal concord, but this seems to fall away after Book 4. Weiss suggests that Socrates intentionally elides the difference between justice and moderation in the course of the dialogue in order to bring Glaucon, Adeimantus, and the other interlocutors around to a moderated view of justice, and she lists eight ways in which we can see that justice in the soul is really moderation (175-6). Why doesn’t Socrates distinguish justice from moderation clearly? Weiss asserts that there is no simple or straightforward way to defend justice to the particular interlocutors present in the Republic; making a case for justice as something internal through the city-soul analogy, however, allows Socrates to introduce justice as a source of integration which will respond to the demands of Glaucon and Adeimantus. Justice “properly speaking” concerns interpersonal affairs; similarly, an account is rightly called just or unjust because of how it affects others (182). Yet Socrates cannot easily convince his interlocutors of this more robust form of justice (which is, in effect, convergent with Socrates’ piety); this leads him, according to Weiss, to obfuscate justice’s actual meaning.

The deeper logic of justice, however, surfaces again in Book 10 and the Myth of Er, which Weiss discusses in her conclusion. The myth is, in Weiss’s words, “disconcertingly reticent about the rewards and punishments visited on the righteous and the wicked” (209). Instead, it focuses on the need to make the right choice in picking the appropriate next life. Here Socrates and Socratic piety return to the scene. While those who lived just lives would seem well qualified to select the best possible lives, this is complicated by the lottery procedure described in the myth. Although the “spokesman” does assure listeners at 619b that “even for a man who comes forward last, if he chooses intelligently and lives earnestly, a life to content him is laid up, not a bad one”, this is followed by an insistence on the residual importance of chance: one loving wisdom is likely to be happy only if the lot does not fall out among the last (619e). In other words, being among the last to select could mean there are no just lives from which to choose; one would be doomed to choose a bad one. As Weiss puts it: “It would appear that the fate of the souls is not quite predetermined by their past, yet also that they do not make their choices in a vacuum” (213).This dilemma highlights the inadequacy of the two other types of philosopher: the philosopher by nature does well by him- or herself yet does not actively seek to improve his or her prospects; even worse, the philosopher by design depends entirely upon the coercive educational and political institutions created by the founders. If the myth of Er holds true, it is not enough to live justly. Weiss explains: “The possibility in Book 10 of there being no just life available is the mythical counterpart to the condition in Book 6 of being surrounded by corruption and having no ally with whom to come to the aid of justice.” The philosopher by nature would cower behind a little wall; the philosopher by design would have no help at all.

What then can the argument of the Republic propose? Weiss’s book has prepared us to see the example of Socrates as a model. Whereas readers of the dialogue who look exclusively to the philosophers by nature find its lack of solution an example of political pessimism, and other readers who look exclusively to the philosophers by design find its solution totalitarian, Weiss illuminates Socrates and his virtue of piety as providing a third way that avoids both these responses. Even if no just life is available, Socrates shows a way of living a life of justice. “By ingenuity and by sheer force of will, and most of all by dint of an absolute and unwavering commitment to justice, Socrates would turn even an unjust life into a just one” (218). As “a species of justice”, piety provides the saving grace for those condemned to choose an unjust life. Weiss implies that even if one is not born into just circumstances and thus with a natural inclination toward justice, piety not only serves negatively to prevent one from doing injustice but works positively by “tending to the souls of others and fighting for the cause of justice” (149). Pursuing justice in an unkind world, we would do well to follow Socrates.

(The reviewer found one error in the published book: Ellen Wagner’s work, mentioned on p. 74, was not included in the Works Cited.)

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