Saturday, March 1, 2014

Justice’s invisibility (the psyche's invisibility) [unfinished]

     Plato’s great dialogue, Republic*, is said to be about the virtue of justice—being just. The participants in the conversation—Socrates, along with Polemarchus, Glaucon, Adeimantus, and the others—seek a definition. In Book I of Republic, the sophist Thracymachus angrily interrupts the conversation, providing his famous definition according to which just conduct is nothing more than “the interest of the stronger.” The view has been variously interrupted. I rather like the interpretation according to which, for Thracymachus, morality is the successful hoodwinking of the poor and weak by the strong and advantaged. (Very much like contemporary American society.)
     Socrates engages in dialogue with Thracymachus and, in the end, embarrasses the latter, who is made to acknowledge the failure of his definition, if that’s what it is. But some of the participants, especially Glaucon, are dissatisfied, and so they launch into an elaborate challenge to Socrates to reveal that “being just” is desirable to the just person, not only for its consequences—avoiding trouble, a good reputation, etc.—but especially in itself. That is, just as the joy one feels in hearing one’s favorite music or eating one’s favorite meal is desirable “in itself,” being just is thus desirable and to an extreme extent such that the tortured just man is better off than the unjust man with power and luxury and, somehow, a great and enjoyable reputation for being just.
     I want to draw attention to some assumptions in this discussion regarding the nature of justice and the psyche (soul). One might suppose that “being just” is a pattern of behavior, and, indeed, for much of the Republic’s discussion, it is. For instance, it is a pattern of behavior in the account of justice ascribed by Glaucon to the many, according to which justice is peaceful and respectful conduct agreed upon with all others, not because it is in any way attractive, but because, though unattractive, participation in the agreement is the only means of avoiding continual insecurity and harm.
     At the beginning of Book II, Socrates and the others do not seem to view justice as a pattern of behavior. What is “being just” if it is not a pattern of honest and respectful conduct? Well, it is that quality of self such that that conduct is natural to it. It is that feature of the psyche—an arrangement or configuration (or ?) reliably producing just conduct.
     Might this be an inclination or tendency and nothing more? –I have in mind here any state of affairs or condition of self—its nature is otherwise irrelevant—that yields this pattern. It would contrast with a “something” that alone produces this pattern of behavior, a something whose nature we keenly desire to understand—and this seems to be the thinking of Socrates’ crew.
     But why? What if the something were, say, an aversion to elderberries? If this is the end of the trail, then surely we have somehow lost our way.
     Perhaps one assumes here that the something is nothing like an aversion to elderberries. It is more like a formula or directive or notion that, once apprehended, is received with satisfaction and joy—an intellectual MacGuffin. Socrates’ MacGuffin—the three parts of the soul sticking to their proper work—strikes me as being about as satisfying as an aversion to elderberries. When I behold the spectacle of a person invariably conducting him- or herself with justice, I am impressed; when I behold the supposed spectacle of a soul whose parts work—well, I guess that could be like exploring a shiny, new Porsche, a thing that dazzles in its mechanistic elegance and perfection. But Socrates never opens the hood, as far as I’m concerned. What is “the reason” if it itself does not have desires and passions? How can “the reason” direct the soul unless it itself has desires and passions that yield goals?
     The Book II discussion of justice assumes that “being just” is a condition of the soul (psyche), and it is more than just the soul’s disposition to act justly. (It’s this elderberry/parts business.) The discussion also seems to assume that the soul is opaque to oneself—or at least hard to discern—and that is the assumption to which I now wish to draw attention:
[Glaucon tells Socrates:] Thrasymachus seems to me, like a snake, to have been charmed by your voice sooner than he ought to have been; but to my mind the nature of justice and injustice have not yet been made clear. Setting aside their rewards and results, I want to know what they are in themselves, and how they inwardly work in the soul….
. . .
[Adeimantus tells Socrates:] The cause of all this, Socrates, was indicated by us at the beginning of the argument, when my brother [Glaucon] and I told you how astonished we were to find that of all the professing panegyrists of justice … no one has ever blamed injustice or praised justice except with a view to the glories, honours, and benefits which flow from them. No one has ever adequately described either in verse or prose the true essential nature of either of them abiding in the soul, and invisible to any human or divine eye; or shown that of all the things of a man's soul which he has within him, justice is the greatest good, and injustice the greatest evil. … I speak in this vehement manner, as I must frankly confess to you, because I want to hear from you the opposite side; and I would ask you to show not only the superiority which justice has over injustice, but what effect they have on the possessor of them which makes the one to be a good and the other an evil to him. And please, as Glaucon requested of you, to exclude reputations…. Now as you have admitted that justice is one of that highest class of goods which are desired indeed for their results, but in a far greater degree for their own sakes—like sight or hearing or knowledge or health, or any other real and natural and not merely conventional good—I would ask you in your praise of justice to regard one point only: I mean the essential good and evil which justice and injustice work in the possessors of them. Let others praise justice and censure injustice, magnifying the rewards and honours of the one and abusing the other…. And therefore, I say, not only prove to us that justice is better than injustice, but show what they either of them do to the possessor of them, which makes the one to be a good and the other an evil, whether seen or unseen by gods and men.
     Socrates and the others are proceeding, it seems, on the assumption that, if “being just” is what it’s cracked up to be, it must be desirable, and very much so, in itself to he who “has” it (if that is how we should put it). But no one has ever identified that desirability. Why?
     The answer seems to be that justice, as a quality of soul, “is invisible to any human or divine eye….” –And that, I suppose, is because the soul itself is “invisible,” or largely so. Perhaps it is more obscured than invisible. I shall refer, then, to the assumption of the invisibility of the soul (IOS). Alternatively, we might refer instead to the assumption of the obscurity of the soul (OOS).
     When Socrates takes up the challenge, he seems to emphasize the obscurity/invisibility of the soul:
   I told them, what I really thought, that the enquiry would be of a serious nature, and would require very good eyes. Seeing then, I said, that we are no great wits, I think that we had better adopt a method which I may illustrate thus; suppose that a short-sighted person had been asked by some one to read small letters from a distance; and it occurred to some one else that they might be found in another place which was larger and in which the letters were larger—if they were the same and he could read the larger letters first, and then proceed to the lesser—this would have been thought a rare piece of good fortune. Very true, said Adeimantus; but how does the illustration apply to our enquiry?
   I will tell you, I replied; justice, which is the subject of our enquiry, is, as you know, sometimes spoken of as the virtue of an individual, and sometimes as the virtue of a State.
   True, he replied.
   And is not a State larger than an individual?
   It is.
   Then in the larger the quantity of justice is likely to be larger and more easily discernible.
     The soul—or at least the soul qua just/unjust—is hard to discern. It is hard to discern somewhat like distant letters are hard to discern visually. And this, I suppose, is why no one has ever sung justice’s praises as a state of the soul; it has simply never been discerned.
     I’ve always been bothered by the “small letters/large letters” analogy. If one sought to read the distant letters and discovered that the same letters could be viewed more closely, why would one bother to attempt to read the distant letters again upon having read the closer ones? (The translations I have examined all seem to have Socrates portray an effort, in the end, to go back to trying to see those distant letters.)
     Perhaps I’m reading too much into the analogy.
     Problems arise, too, in making sense of the indirect State/Soul strategy that Socrates and the others agree to follow, for there is a prima facie problem with it. The group will construct the ideal State and then attempt to identify justice, the greatest virtue, there. Upon doing so, they are “fortunate,” as they now prepare to discern justice in the soul.
     But how are they fortunate?
     Well, one might suppose, they are fortunate because they have already discerned justice, and, having done so, they will more readily recognize it as they view the soul. But that would be to assume the correctness of their definition of State Justice. In fact, however, the participants to the conversation treat that definition of justice derived from their construction of the Republic as a hypothesis to be confirmed by turning, now, to another instance: the just soul. But, of course, confirmation can occur only if their examination of Soul Justice does not depend on their definition of State Justice, for otherwise they are caught in a circle. Isn’t there a contradiction in embracing a strategy of “confirmation” (confirming the definition of State Justice by finding Soul Justice) while embracing a strategy of “guidance,” as one seeks Soul Justice? Confirmation can only occur if finding Soul Justice does not depend on the previous definition of State Justice. But the whole point of constructing the ideal state was to make it easier to discern Soul Justice, and it can make that project easier only insofar as their definition of State Justice is correct—not a mere hypothesis to be confirmed.
     Now, in fact, Socrates and the others proceed into the soul to find justice there with what they regard as a hypothesis of the definition of justice. And then, when they seem to find that the soul, like the state, has three parts, they seem to feel that they have achieved confirmation…. [to be completed]

 Back to obscurity of the soul…. [Where I’m going with this is a point about the Free Will debate based on a point made by Plato and that we would seem to have to agree with….]

 *I’m using Jowett’s translation of The Republic.