Socrates Discussion with Cephalus – The Beginning of the Republic

Bust of Socrates

Plato’s Republic – Book I

This article is the beginning of an analysis of Books I and II of Plato’s Republic.

Book I begins with Socrates and Glaucon going to Piraeus to pray to Bendis and to see the Panathenaic Festival. On their way home, Socrates and Glaucon encounter Polemarchus, the son of a wealthy arms manufacturer, Cephalus. Polemarchus invites Socrates to his father’s house.

Upon arrival, Socrates is welcomed by his host Cephalus and the two men engage in a very rich conversation that serves as a pre-cursor for exploring the topic of justice in books I and II.

When Socrates asks Cephalus what old age is like, Cephalus admits that many men complain of old age, but that he likes the fact that old men are no longer slaves to their passions. He also thinks that those who complain of old age are generally unhappy people and would complain even if they were young. To illustrate this, Cephalus says:

“The truth is, Socrates, that these regrets, and also the complaints about relations, are to be attributed to the same cause, which is not old age, but men’s characters and tempers; for he who is of a calm and happy nature will hardly feel the pressure of age, but to him who is of an opposite disposition youth and age are equally a burden (296).”

Plato’s Republic – Book I

Cephalus brings up a wise lesson for the reader in this passage. He reveals the level of power we have in shaping our perception of the world and how much control we have in making sure that our experience is generally positive. You can see that Cephalus isn’t a fan of complainers, and praises men, who like himself, embrace the change that life naturally places in their path.

It’s a condemnation of those who aren’t grateful for the life they’re given, and thereby take their youth for granted in the same way they’ll ignore some of the pleasures of a serene old age.

Wealth and its Benefits

Socrates challenges Cephalus on this and insinuates that perhaps Cephalus is allowed to be as optimistic as he is because of his great wealth and asks him whether he has acquired or created his wealth.

Cephalus responds that he has acquired it.

Socrates makes another noteworthy remark based on Cephalus’ answer and states that:

I see that you are indifferent about money, which is a characteristic rather of those who have inherited their fortunes than of those who have acquired them; the makers of fortunes have a second love of money as a creation of their own, resembling the affection of authors for their own poems, or of parents for their children, besides that natural love of it for the sake of use and profit which is common to them and all men. And hence they are very bad company, for they can talk about nothing but the praises of wealth. (296-297)

This is a great observation of nature by Socrates. It makes sense that those who have inherited money would not be as interested in money, as they take it for granted and as being a part of who they are. Those with humble beginnings, who have strived for their riches would naturally attach a greater value to wealth, as they understand what it means to live without it and can recognize the struggles of being poor and the amount of work it takes to get out of such a condition.

Further, Socrates ascribes to the creators of wealth a quality of a parent or an author. As wealth is their creation, they love it as they would a child or something else concrete that they have expended effort and time on molding and shaping.

Cephalus on the Afterlife

When Socrates asks Cephalus what is the biggest blessing that he has received from his wealth, Cephalus responds by saying:

When a man thinks himself to be near death, fears and cares enter into his mind which he never had before; the tales of a world below and the punishment which is exacted there of deeds done here were once a laughing matter to him, but now he is tormented with the thought that they may be true: either from the weakness of age, or because he is now drawing nearer to that other place, he has a clearer view of these things; suspicions and alarms crowd thickly upon him, and he begins to reflect and consider what wrongs he has done to others. And when he finds that the sum of his transgressions is great he will many a time like a child start up in his sleep for fear, and he is filled with dark forebodings. But to him who is conscious of no sin, sweet hope, as Pindar charmingly says, is the kind nurse of his age:

Hope, he says, cherishes the soul of him who lives in justice and holiness and is the nurse of his age and the companion of his journey; –hope which is mightiest to sway the restless soul of man.

How admirable are his words! And the great blessing of riches, I do not say to every man, but to a good man, is, that he has had no occasion to deceive or to defraud others, either intentionally or unintentionally; and when he departs to the world below he is not in any apprehension about offerings due to the gods or debts which he owes to men. Now to this peace of mind the possession of wealth greatly contributes; and therefore I say, that, setting one thing against another, of the many advantages which wealth has to give, to a man of sense this is in my opinion the greatest. (297)

This long and rich passage tackles a lot of heavy subjects. It addresses the change in men before their death. Getting closer to the moment of passing makes a person more reflective of their past and the decisions they have made. While being far away from death, the concept of a hellish underworld may not be that threatening to a person, but the closer he inches towards his last breath, youthful certainty dissipates and turns into an anxious dread of what’s to come, especially if it’s unknown.

This brings up the idea of existential fear becoming a pathway towards realization and a semblance of conscience. The guilty man, aware of a possible punishment will not sleep lightly, he will wonder if damnation awaits him, as he reflects upon the sins and transgressions he has committed.

Cephalus contrasts this with a man who is not bothered by his conscience and isn’t worried about a divine punishment. This man he labels as being in possession of hope. A hope that he will be rewarded in the afterlife and that the struggles and pains of life shall come to a peaceful end, followed by a heavenly eternity.

This leads Cephalus to explain that what he values most about wealth is that he has had no occasion to defraud or deceive anyone. He has not needed to sin for the sake of material gain. He isn’t worried about not contributing enough alms to the gods, and he hasn’t ever had to worry about not being able to repay his debts. He hasn’t even had the occasion to go into debt.

Most of all, Cephalus values the peace of mind his wealth has provided for him. In his case, wealth has prevented him from sinning. His lack of need decreased his chance of ever committing a crime.

Cephalus’ answer creates some interesting questions. Are those that are wealthy less inclined to commit sins and harm against others? Is the state of need and poverty responsible for some of our transgressions?

Transition to the Topic of Justice

This conversation soon concludes when Socrates asks Cephalus:

 “but as concerning justice, what is it? –to speak the truth and to pay your debts –no more than this? And even to this are there not exceptions? Suppose that a friend when in his right mind has deposited arms with me and he asks for them when he is not in his right mind, ought I to give them back to him? No one would say that I ought or that I should be right in doing so, any more than they would say that I ought always to speak the truth to one who is in his condition.

You are quite right, he replied.
But then, I said, speaking the truth and paying your debts is not a correct definition of justice. (297)

Why does Socrates bring up justice at the end of this conversation? Is it related to what Cephalus was saying about what he is most grateful about for having wealth?

Socrates brings up justice at the end of the conversation with Cephalus because he is interested in the relationship between justice and happiness. Cephalus has just said that he is happy because he has lived a good and virtuous life. Socrates wants to know more about what Cephalus means by “virtuous” and “good.”

Cephalus defines justice as “telling the truth and paying one’s debts.” Socrates challenges this definition by asking Cephalus to consider the case of a man who returns a weapon to a friend who is going to use it to commit a crime. In this case, returning the weapon would be truthful, but it would not be just.

This leads Socrates to ask the question: “What is justice?” He is not satisfied with Cephalus’ definition, and he wants to find a more comprehensive definition of justice.

Polemarchus, the son of Cephalus comes in to continue the conversation with Socrates, as Cephalus makes his exit.

I will do an analysis of this in my next post.

Author: Kristap Baltin

The Version of Plato’s Republic, Book I, I used for this article

GREAT BOOKS OF THE WESTERN WORLD: VOLUME 7. Plato: Robert Maynard Hutchins, Editor: Books


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