21 December 2010

Socrates and Necessity

This is an excerpt from MIT open source copy of Plato's “Republic.” Apologies on the formating. It follows on from my posts on necessity, but is also interesting as an example of a different sort of dialogue. I picked this because it represents a key moment in this dialogue for me. Socrates has just distinguished that the subject of the inquiry is 'justice' and they have moved to begin defining a state. In this passage Socrates describes his ideal state. Glaucon then asks about 'luxury' and the entire thing changes. It is a shift in contextual necessity from 'food' to 'luxury.' The implications and change in the dialogue are evident and immediate. This is echoed in the Cave analogy and again in the myth that concludes the “Republic.” This is also one of the places where people feel Socrates is making an argument for 'expertise' or 'division of labor.' One could also meaningfully interpret these statements as about 'social fabric.' It is interesting to consider that as an ethicist (rather than an economist) Adam Smith expressed concern about the destructive effects of division of labor on the workers themselves and society at large. He stipulated that the society would need to invest heavily and broadly in education to balance this. That idea was in turn interpreted as the need for 'factory schools' as appeared in the northern part of the US at the beginning of the industrial era. The factory school does not address the need for dimensionality. There is a very good RSA video about this latter question of education: RSA Animate - Changing Education Paradigms

The Republic, Book II

Then, I said, let us begin and create in idea a State; and yet the true creator is necessity, who is the mother of our invention.

Of course, he replied.
Now the first and greatest of necessities is food, which is the condition of life and existence.

The second is a dwelling, and the third clothing and the like.
And now let us see how our city will be able to supply this great demand: We may suppose that one man is a husbandman, another a builder, some one else a weaver --shall we add to them a shoemaker, or perhaps some other purveyor to our bodily wants?

Quite right.
The barest notion of a State must include four or five men.
And how will they proceed? Will each bring the result of his labours into a common stock? --the individual husbandman, for example, producing for four, and labouring four times as long and as much as he need in the provision of food with which he supplies others as well as himself; or will he have nothing to do with others and not be at the trouble of producing for them, but provide for himself alone a fourth of the food in a fourth of the time, and in the remaining three-fourths of his time be employed in making a house or a coat or a pair of shoes, having no partnership with others, but supplying himself all his own wants?

Adeimantus thought that he should aim at producing food only and not at producing everything.

Probably, I replied, that would be the better way; and when I hear you say this, I am myself reminded that we are not all alike; there are diversities of natures among us which are adapted to different occupations.

Very true.
And will you have a work better done when the workman has many occupations, or when he has only one?

When he has only one.
Further, there can be no doubt that a work is spoilt when not done at the right time?

No doubt.
For business is not disposed to wait until the doer of the business is at leisure; but the doer must follow up what he is doing, and make the business his first object.

He must.
And if so, we must infer that all things are produced more plentifully and easily and of a better quality when one man does one thing which is natural to him and does it at the right time, and leaves other things.

Then more than four citizens will be required; for the husbandman will not make his own plough or mattock, or other implements of agriculture, if they are to be good for anything. Neither will the builder make his tools --and he too needs many; and in like manner the weaver and shoemaker.

Then carpenters, and smiths, and many other artisans, will be sharers in our little State, which is already beginning to grow?

Yet even if we add neatherds, shepherds, and other herdsmen, in order that our husbandmen may have oxen to plough with, and builders as well as husbandmen may have draught cattle, and curriers and weavers fleeces and hides, --still our State will not be very large.

That is true; yet neither will it be a very small State which contains all these.

Then, again, there is the situation of the city --to find a place where nothing need be imported is well-nigh impossible.

Then there must be another class of citizens who will bring the required supply from another city?

There must.
But if the trader goes empty-handed, having nothing which they require who would supply his need, he will come back empty-handed.

That is certain.
And therefore what they produce at home must be not only enough for themselves, but such both in quantity and quality as to accommodate those from whom their wants are supplied.

Very true.
Then more husbandmen and more artisans will be required?
They will.
Not to mention the importers and exporters, who are called merchants?

Then we shall want merchants?
We shall.
And if merchandise is to be carried over the sea, skilful sailors will also be needed, and in considerable numbers?

Yes, in considerable numbers.
Then, again, within the city, how will they exchange their productions? To secure such an exchange was, as you will remember, one of our principal objects when we formed them into a society and constituted a State.

Clearly they will buy and sell.
Then they will need a market-place, and a money-token for purposes of exchange.

Suppose now that a husbandman, or an artisan, brings some production to market, and he comes at a time when there is no one to exchange with him, --is he to leave his calling and sit idle in the market-place?

Not at all; he will find people there who, seeing the want, undertake the office of salesmen. In well-ordered States they are commonly those who are the weakest in bodily strength, and therefore of little use for any other purpose; their duty is to be in the market, and to give money in exchange for goods to those who desire to sell and to take money from those who desire to buy.

This want, then, creates a class of retail-traders in our State. Is not 'retailer' the term which is applied to those who sit in the market-place engaged in buying and selling, while those who wander from one city to another are called merchants?

Yes, he said.
And there is another class of servants, who are intellectually hardly on the level of companionship; still they have plenty of bodily strength for labour, which accordingly they sell, and are called, if I do not mistake, hirelings, hire being the name which is given to the price of their labour.

Then hirelings will help to make up our population?
And now, Adeimantus, is our State matured and perfected?
I think so.
Where, then, is justice, and where is injustice, and in what part of the State did they spring up?

Probably in the dealings of these citizens with one another. cannot imagine that they are more likely to be found anywhere else.

I dare say that you are right in your suggestion, I said; we had better think the matter out, and not shrink from the enquiry.

Let us then consider, first of all, what will be their way of life, now that we have thus established them. Will they not produce corn, and wine, and clothes, and shoes, and build houses for themselves? And when they are housed, they will work, in summer, commonly, stripped and barefoot, but in winter substantially clothed and shod. They will feed on barley-meal and flour of wheat, baking and kneading them, making noble cakes and loaves; these they will serve up on a mat of reeds or on clean leaves, themselves reclining the while upon beds strewn with yew or myrtle. And they and their children will feast, drinking of the wine which they have made, wearing garlands on their heads, and hymning the praises of the gods, in happy converse with one another. And they will take care that their families do not exceed their means; having an eye to poverty or war.

Socrates - GLAUCON

But, said Glaucon, interposing, you have not given them a relish to their meal.

True, I replied, I had forgotten; of course they must have a relish-salt, and olives, and cheese, and they will boil roots and herbs such as country people prepare; for a dessert we shall give them figs, and peas, and beans; and they will roast myrtle-berries and acorns at the fire, drinking in moderation. And with such a diet they may be expected to live in peace and health to a good old age, and bequeath a similar life to their children after them.

Yes, Socrates, he said, and if you were providing for a city of pigs, how else would you feed the beasts?

But what would you have, Glaucon? I replied.
Why, he said, you should give them the ordinary conveniences of life. People who are to be comfortable are accustomed to lie on sofas, and dine off tables, and they should have sauces and sweets in the modern style.

Yes, I said, now I understand: the question which you would have me consider is, not only how a State, but how a luxurious State is created; and possibly there is no harm in this, for in such a State we shall be more likely to see how justice and injustice originate. In my opinion the true and healthy constitution of the State is the one which I have described. But if you wish also to see a State at fever heat, I have no objection. For I suspect that many will not be satisfied with the simpler way of way They will be for adding sofas, and tables, and other furniture; also dainties, and perfumes, and incense, and courtesans, and cakes, all these not of one sort only, but in every variety; we must go beyond the necessaries of which I was at first speaking, such as houses, and clothes, and shoes: the arts of the painter and the embroiderer will have to be set in motion, and gold and ivory and all sorts of materials must be procured.

True, he said.
Then we must enlarge our borders; for the original healthy State is no longer sufficient. Now will the city have to fill and swell with a multitude of callings which are not required by any natural want; such as the whole tribe of hunters and actors, of whom one large class have to do with forms and colours; another will be the votaries of music --poets and their attendant train of rhapsodists, players, dancers, contractors; also makers of divers kinds of articles, including women's dresses. And we shall want more servants. Will not tutors be also in request, and nurses wet and dry, tirewomen and barbers, as well as confectioners and cooks; and swineherds, too, who were not needed and therefore had no place in the former edition of our State, but are needed now? They must not be forgotten: and there will be animals of many other kinds, if people eat them.

And living in this way we shall have much greater need of physicians than before?

Much greater.
And the country which was enough to support the original inhabitants will be too small now, and not enough?

Quite true.
Then a slice of our neighbours' land will be wanted by us for pasture and tillage, and they will want a slice of ours, if, like ourselves, they exceed the limit of necessity, and give themselves up to the unlimited accumulation of wealth?

That, Socrates, will be inevitable.
And so we shall go to war, Glaucon. Shall we not?
Most certainly, he replied.
Then without determining as yet whether war does good or harm, thus much we may affirm, that now we have discovered war to be derived from causes which are also the causes of almost all the evils in States, private as well as public.


  1. I dont understand how division of labor detracts from the social fabric. If we each have specialized work, don't we then understand how much we need each other. Maybe if the work is divided up too much, we no longer see the value in our production?

  2. Hi. The point from Adam Smith is that division of labor requires a kind of monolithic repetition. He comments both on the necessity of improving the 'dexterity' of the worker as well the effects of such monotonous activity on the individual. Consider the trade offs involved as a teacher between creating a new course (or always doing that) and teaching a course you have taught for 20 years with no changes or intent to change it, or the way you teach it. These two cases have different characteristics and requirements.

    Marx makes a slightly different point in the same area. The basis for alienation is labor that has no 'feed back' loop with respect to result or value to some larger context such as society. This is based on the notion that the sense of subjective self is from witnessing our works and actions.

    Another take is the metaphor of the stone cutters and how their contextual reality alters the moment to moment experience of their labor.

    Socrates is suggesting 'food' as a context. Glaucon is suggesting 'luxury', which is in turn related to self gratification. The meaning arising from the individual actions (labor) alters greatly as a result.

  3. Regarding your most recent post on micro-finance and this post on "relish"...I re-read this. Is the question you are asking yourself (and us) about "relish", what is actually needed, versus wanted for comfort? and if we aren't clear on this then war (or failure of micro-finance) is inevitable?