Essay on Justice and Social Conflict in a Globalized World
In Plato’s “The Republic” readers are provided with three different definitions of justice and its role within society. Socrates, the guiding voice that leads the conversation between definitions, debates with each interlocutor in order to break down the definition's weaknesses. The first to provide a definition is, father and elder, Cephalus, who begins the discussion on justice. Although Cephalus plays a small role in the discussion of justice, I believe that he is influential to the overall contemplation of its definition due to what he symbolizes within the text. He represents the traditional views within Greece, providing readers with context on societal views at the time. As well, Cephalus symbolizes the transition from old to new generational thinking in politics.
To begin, it is first important to understand Cephalus’ role within “The Republic”. He is introduced through a conversation between himself and Socrates, primarily on the topic of old age. Cephalus and Socrates go back and forth discussing the positives and negatives of aging; explaining that for Cephalus “[o]ld age is altogether a time of great peace and freedom” (Plato, 329c). This is largely due to Cephalus’ wealth, providing him with “many consolations” (Palto, 329e), increasing ease, and the ability to pay any debts he owes. Cephalus is primarily focused and concerned with death and the afterlife, he performs sacrifices to the Gods and pays his debts in order to ensure his place within the afterlife. He believes that the Gods will decide whether you have lived a just life, determining your placement within the afterlife. This thinking represents the traditional views within Greece at the time and is the reason behind his views of justice. This conversation may seem irrelevant to the overall goal of defining justice; however, through this Cephalus both sets the stage for further debate and provides readers with an understanding of the religious traditions in Greece at the time. Cephalus, with Socrates' help, defines justice as being honest and living up to your legal obligations to both the Gods and man. Cephalus who is a wealthy and god sacrificing individual finds this concept of justice rather easy to follow. He can either be just in life or rectify any injustices by way of money or by sacrifice. By having Cephalus provide the first definition readers are given background on how justice is viewed within Greek society because he symbolizes the traditional religious man, which would have potentially made up the majority of the society. Cephalus is a direct representation of the older and traditional thinkers, therefore it is paramount to understand his definition before contemplating any others. Furthermore, he lays the foundation for further discussion between Socrates, Polemarchus, and Thrasymachus, which makes building from this definition their sole job. Without Cephalus’ seemingly irrelevant conversation, Socrates would never have approached the topic of justice and if he had, then readers would have no context behind Greek thinking at the time. This brings me to my second point, Cephalus symbolizing the passing down of political philosophy to society's future thinkers.
The majority of Cephalus’ dialogue in “The Republic” takes place before he provides his definition of justice, afterward, he simply leaves the conversation to the other interlocutors present. Cephalus is the only interlocutor that leaves the discussion without offering any kind of justification or rebuttal for his definition. I believe his departure from the conversation is symbolic, representing the transition from old to new generational thinking within society. Since Cephalus symbolizes the traditional thinking in Greece, he would arguably be uneasily swayed or bullied into changing his thinking. Unlike the other interlocutors, Cephalus never debates with Socrates, questions his thinking, or even justifies it. This shows just how headstrong the man is, believing that the traditional and religious ways provide an adequate definition of justice. Arguably, Cephalus would have therefore been unable to further the conversation due to his strong beliefs and lack of debate. This is rather ironic because Cephalus himself states his growing “desire and taste for conversation” (Plato, 327e), therefore leading readers to believe that he would be willing to give his time to the overall discussion. However, because Cephalus represents the old ways of thinking he cannot advance or aid in the creation of these new ways of thinking, which the other interlocutors present. His role within “The Republic” was simply to provide readers with context and background, therefore once his job was over he then steps away from the conversation to continue his regular task of performing sacrifices. Arguably, Cephalus’ job isn’t to answer the question of what justice is, but merely to present the idea to the new thinkers, who will later form Greek political society. This is made clear within the text when Cephalus’ son, Polemarchus, takes his father's place. Socrates describes this as Polemarchus inheriting the argument (Plato, 331e), having Cephalus hand the discussion over to his heir. This sort of passing of the torch is a direct representation of the older generation passing these philosophical and political issues over to the newer generation. This further explains why Cephalus didn’t debate with Socrates, since age is a place for “peace and freedom” (Plato, 329d), Cephalus has no need to dispute with Socrates and therefore leaves the debating for the younger generation.
Cephalus is a rather comedic and lighthearted voice within “The Republic”. Although his conversation with Socrates on the topic of old age seems out of place and irrelevant to the overall text, I believe that Cephalus’ role is symbolic and therefore important to the discussion on justice. Firstly, Cephalus symbolizes the traditional religious man in Greek society, which provides readers with background and an understanding of how justice was presently being defined. Secondly, he represents the transition between old to new generations, passing discussions of politics over to the future leaders and thinkers. While the majority of Cephalus’ dialogue comes before the discussion on justice, his contribution to the argument is relevant and foundational for readers and the other interlocutors.
Plato. Plato's “The Republic”. New York: Books, Inc., 1943. Lines 328c - 331e.