02 Mar 2010

Sample Essay: Plato's Republic – The Soul

Plato believed, and attempted to prove, that the justice of the city and the justice of an individual had a direct link to one another.  Plato relied on logic and the use of metaphors as well as the three main parts of the soul that include reason, desire and spirit.  He further believed that four virtues, wisdom, temperance, courage, and justice, also defined the soul of a person.  Plato considered all of his beliefs to be of the utmost importance as he sought to define a perfect republic.

According to Plato, souls that were filled with reason found an interest in knowledge.  He believed that these souls belonged to a class of people known as philosophers and that the virtuous aspect of their soul was wisdom.  Plato assumed that the brain was strongly connected to reason and therefore, people who practiced reason had a strong mind.  Although the evidence was lacking, Plato had made a very good guess when he made this assumption.

In terms of desire, Plato believed that this soul belonged to the commoners and that their virtue was temperance.  He sought to prove that their main interest was pleasure and that this interest rooted from the abdominal parts of the body.  In this situation, he believed that bad forces ruled these people and therefore they had no control over themselves and their behaviors.  These people were enslaved by their overwhelming desires.  This was desire to please themselves and the anatomical parts of their bodies that ruled them.

A person that had a soul full of spirit was believed to be in a class of warriors.  Plato said that their interest was honor and that their virtue was courage.  The spirited soul was closely linked to the heart of a person.  This spirit was the very essence of a person’s soul, the driving force of energy that kept bad influences at bay and allowed them live good, virtuous lives.  These warriors upheld the law, unlike those that were filled with desire.

During his research, Plato tried to link justice to each one of his classifications of the soul.  He found that he could not do this and therefore he placed justice, as a virtue, in all three categories.  He believed that everyone started with a white background and that overtime, certain social classifications and influences “dyed” these backgrounds and defined the souls of each individual.

Within the Republic, moreover, the soul’s tripartite division plays the pivotal role of establishing an analogy between the individual soul and the political state.  According to this model, the soul’s rational element is the psychological corollary of the guardian class in the city; the spirited part is analogous to the militaristic auxiliaries, and the diverse appetites correspond to the various productive craftsmen and traders (Purshouse 60-61).

Within ancient Greek culture, arête means virtue.  It is when a person strives to be as good as they can be in life, reaching their maximum potential as a good and virtuous human being.  Plato believed this to be true for both men and women.  Plato was nearly obsessed with arête and he constantly worked to answer the questions of virtue and justice.  The Platonic philosophy holds a belief in the fact that virtue and knowledge are one in the same and therefore, knowledge and arête are the same as well.  Plato tried to define exactly what arête really was and whether or not it could be taught or if it was something that was learned.

Plato, being a student of the famous Socrates, reinstates the question that Socrates tried to put forth by asking what justice really is.  People who were not raised in intellectual situations were prone to be blacksmiths or farmers, the peasants.  People who were courageous were the guardians of the city, acting as an army or police force.  Intelligent people were considered a rarity and were granted control over city.  It was their job to guide the people, in particular the commoners.  The courageous people were put in charge of guarding this wise group of teachers, their laws, and their beliefs.  Plato also summarizes justice as being defined by those who are strong and intelligent.  He further summarizes that these intelligent and strong souls are the ones who decide what is in the best interest for everyone else.  Socrates, however, refutes this claim since he believes that even those who are strong fail to see what is best.

Plato believed that the state could only find perfect justice if they allow themselves to be ruled by those who are intelligent and not just willingly, they had to enjoy being governed by the intellects.  It was extremely important for Plato to define these three types of souls in order to find a way to perfect the justice of the state.  He thought that if he learned why each individual fell into a particular category of souls that it would be easier to govern them.  He set forth a certain list of activities and teachings that would be given to a certain group of individuals based on their category of souls in order to teach them to ignore their feelings of temperance.

Plato’s theories seemed somewhat radical, even during his own lifetime.  He believed that justice and happiness went hand in hand.  When a person acted in a just fashion, they were a happy individual and vice versa.  Therefore, people that behaved immorally were not happy and if they wanted to be happy, they would strive to be just.  People who wished to fulfill their desires must learn to use reason in order to act upon that just behavior.  They also needed to learn how to control their emotions.  If they used reason to control their emotions and desires, they could reach their full potential as a just and happy human being.  “On the other hand, those simple and moderate desires, which go hand in hand with intelligence and right opinion, under the guidance of reasoning, will be found in a small number of men, that is, in those of the best natures and the best education” (Plato, and Tschemplik 148).

When Plato speaks of justice and happiness, he poses a question that, at times, seems unclear.  It is a choice to live either justly or unjustly.  Each individual makes the decision between right and wrong by their own accord.  Since Plato suggests that people can only find happiness if they are just, this suggestion is a form of guidance, more or less taking away an individual decision and determining what he believes to be just behavior.  However, one argument that we continue to see is that not all things that are just are good.  Therefore, how can we reasonably say that being just leads to happiness?  “The question whether justice is good for us and makes us happy, has more breadth and depth than might at first appear” (Santas 5).

Republic leaves the reader with no choice other than to make a decision as far as what is just and unjust.  The reader has three classifications to choose from which each rival each other in their own way.  Each choice is laid out in a solid and yet philosophical manner as well.  Plato further goes on to say a person cannot choose an answer that is just unless they are first willing to understand exactly what justice is.  We are also forced to choose between the differences in societies and make choices between them as well.

There were several concerns with Plato’s justice system.  In The Republic Plato uses his characters Glaucon and Adeimantus to show readers the voice of objection and concern associated with his ideas about those with spirited souls, otherwise known as the guardians.  He fails to breakdown differences between men and women beyond height and gender itself.  Instead, he proposes that as guardians, men and women with spirited souls should be taught in the same fashion to perform the same roles within society.  He also tears down the importance of family as a role within society by saying that instead of parents teaching their own children, it should be up to society to teach the children.

All three categories of souls, the wise, the courageous and the desirous could become good as a whole if they performed their roles by working together harmoniously and willingly.  If they could manage to act as one, work together to reach for this inner good, they would also reach a perfect justice system.  True justice would arise as a whole once these three souls meshed and willingly performed their function as they were supposed to with one another.  The person who experienced injustices simply lived with both the healthy and unhealthy personality and the unhealthy, unhappy side of that person was the most dominant, refusing to live in harmony.

The traits of the wise and strong were those that were desirable.  People that displayed opposite behaviors needed to be trained so that they could eventually develop these quality traits.  It was a person’s behavior, not their frame of mind, which held the utmost importance in terms of values.  This means that a person could perform a courageous or intellectual act without necessarily being courageous or intellectual.  Since the action of a person receives recognition, it is possible to teach them to perform these actions.  “One can do ‘the courageous thing’ without being courageous.  This links with the other feature of ‘externally’ assessed virtue: a person may perform ‘the courageous act’ out of social conformity, or out of fear of dishonor, and so on – motives which may not differ from those of the genuinely courageous person but be antithetical to them” (Lycos 3).

Socrates greatly contrasted the thoughts of Plato.  He sought to persuade society to determine the depth of a person’s virtue based on internal factors and not external acts.  Furthermore, he believed the state of mind was of the utmost importance instead of the actions of a person.  A person’s state of mind is what allowed them to act a certain way.  If they had a courageous state of mind, it would enable to them to act courageously.  It is because of this reason that Socrates attempted to teach people internally rather than externally.  Virtues would protect the people from the plagues of over excessive temptations and desires so that they can lead a good life.

However, although virtue is regarded as good, it does not necessarily mean that people will be able to avoid any misfortunate events in their life just because they hold strong or intellectual virtues.  Plato felt that trying to study the internal factors of a person could not actually prove whether a person was courageous, intellectual or tempted.  External factors can lead to misery, even for virtuous people.  Moreover, if a person is virtuous they can still perform an action to the best of their ability despite the extenuating circumstances.

If a person is virtuous and good, they do not necessarily please society.  However, if they perform an action that pleases society they are considered virtuous and good.  It is the response received after performing a certain action, which enables a person to call themselves good.  This way of thinking is considered moral subjectivism.  Plato argues against this moral subjectivism and yet he openly admits that an action is only considered virtuous and good based on the properties of that action and the responses acquired from that action.

If we were to judge a person’s morals based on their actions we would not listen to the words that came out of their mouths.  Morals are based on the laws that are set by the political system and community itself.  Thus, a person is moral if their actions follow what the law expects of them and not by what they think or speak.  Plato seeks to encourage people to act morally by teaching them moral behaviors in order to build a utopian and perfect justice system.

Since virtue is always defined by actions, it is for this reason that arête is also defined as “functional excellence”.  In order to understand this definition better an example needs to be used.  A baker’s job is to bake breads for customers.  People who are not bakers are capable of baking bread yet the baker is the best at performing this specific task.  If the previous statement is true then we can agree with the fact that a moral person is more capable of performing a moral action.

Although there are certain jobs that must be performed by each individual within a community, not everyone is going to perform the functions that they are supposed to do.  When we break down all that we have learned about Socrates and Plato’s thoughts on the human soul, we must ask ourselves our own set of philosophical and moral questions.  Can a person be taught to perform certain moral tasks?  To some extent, the answer is yes.  It is possible to teach a person moral behaviors.  However, a person must want to learn and therefore not everyone can be taught which makes a perfect justice system unattainable.

Another thing that we have learned is that a moral action is determined by how pleasing the response is.  If this is the case, then not everything that is done should be considered moral since our need to be pleased by an action should be considered a desire and Plato has already posed the problem that souls filled with desire are problematic and do not follow moral behaviors.  How is it fair to judge a person’s morality based on our own desires?

Adeimantus speaks of a society that needs no guardianship.  He talks about people that are well taught and self-disciplined.  These people are capable of watching themselves and their own behaviors without the need for a law enforcement agency to make them follow any moral behaviors.  This is his description of a perfect and justly educated society.  This would also be considered a Utopian society.  A society such as this would be impossible since people act on their own accord, based on their own freed will.  “Rather than imagine a well-disciplined society that corresponds to the well-disciplined individual, he imagines a society that would require no discipline at all, because each of its members is sufficiently self-disciplined to dispense with social constraint” (Ferrari 37).

Since Plato did not actually answer questions with any specific detail, it may seem hard to understand him.  The arguments that were posed seem somewhat vague and they tend to go back and forth from one conclusion to another.  In short, the one thing that we know is that although his ideas of what defines a soul were good, they were not necessarily correct.  Groups of people do not all share the same virtues.  Within a group of leaders, you may find one that is courageous, another to be wise, and another to be filled with desire and greed.  It is actually an injustice to assume that only intellectual people are rulers.  It is also unfair to claim that only courageous people can protect the law and that only commoners have desires.

Each person will behave how they choose and although outside factors may influence certain behaviors, it is who they are that will determine how they react to those outside influences.  Although it may be possible to guide certain people in order to help them make moral decisions, it is up to the person to make that decision and not those that teach, therefore, Plato’s perfect justice system was an impossible dream.


Ferrari, Giovanni R. F. City and Soul in Plato’s Republic. Chicago: The University of Chicago

Press, 2003. 37. Print.

Lycos, Kimon. Plato on Justice and Power: Reading Book I Of Plato’s Republic. Albany: State.

University of New York Press, 1987. 3. Print

Plato,  and Andrea Tshemplik. The Republic. Student ed. IV. Lanham, MD: Rowman &

Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2005. 148. Print.

Purshouse, Luke. Plato’s Republic: a Reader’s Guide. New York, NY: Continuum Internation

Publishing Group, 2006. 60-61. Print.

Santas, Gerasimos. Understanding Plato’s Republic. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2010. 5.Print.

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20 Jan 2010

Sample Essay: The Power Of The Gyges Ring

As we look at the beginning of Book II of the Republic, Thrasymachus has just finished arguing that the unjust man is the successful man. This is because the unjust man employs his intelligence to use injustice as his source of strength to bring happiness into his life, even if it means using others for selfish gain. Socrates, however, counters that happiness, goodness, and justice must work hand in hand. One cannot exist without the other. In order for man to have a good life, he must live in virtue, being just in his acts toward his fellowmen. Without goodness, there is no happiness (Plato’s Ring of Gyges).

The argument continues: justice vs. injustice

In response to Socrates’ counter statement against Thrasymachus’ argument, it is Glaucon who this time argues that human beings are, by nature, egoists, and are therefore strongly inclined to pursue their own selfish interests. It is only because they do not have the power or freedom to do wrong that they are forced to do just things against their will (The Republic by Plato). Glaucon further states that man’s inherent nature is not to be good because it is only out of fear that man is good. Do children listen to their parents because they want to? Or because they are simply afraid of being punished if they get caught doing wrong? Do people pay their taxes because they really want to? Or because they fear the possibility of what will happen if they do not? Man’s goodness, therefore, is nothing but a show which just acts as a mask to cover up his cowardice to want to do wrong.

Relation of the Gyges ring to injustice

Thrasymachus had earlier disagreed violently on the outcome of the discussion Socrates had with Polemarchus on the issue of justice. Thrasymachus had insisted that justice is simply the advantage of the stronger man, and that injustice will remain to be more masterly than justice (The Republic by Plato). Following his line of argument, Glaucon now relates the legend of Gyges, a common shepherd, who one day discovered a ring that gave him the power to become invisible. Glaucon argues that no man would think twice about doing something unjust if he had the opportunity to do it without being punished. As in the story, Gyges, now with the power to become invisible, is able to enter the royal chambers unchallenged. Thereafter, he seduces the queen, murders the king, and takes over the kingdom (Cohen, Curd, Reeve 363). Glaucon further argues that the just man would do exactly the same as Gyges did if he could do so without fear of punishment because that is the only thing that actually hinders man from doing anything unjust. It is just a matter of man being forced to accept a compromise not to do any injustice to others as long as others would not do any injustice to him. However, if man was to be given the chance to do unjustly things without having to fear punishment as a result, he would never enter into such an agreement or compromise (Cohen, Curd, Reeve 362).

Glaucon strengthens his argument

Glaucon presents Socrates with two major points. First is on the origin of justice. In the beginning, there were no laws to dictate to man what he could or could not do. Man simply did as he wanted. But as time passed and the strong started taking advantage of the weak, people came to the decision that life would be much safer and better if there were laws to protect them. Therefore, the need for laws and justice came about only for the sole purpose of protection rather than for a sense of righteousness (Cohen, Curd, Reeve 362).

The second point Glaucon presents is on the difference between the just and the unjust man. Glaucon insists that if two rings, with the same power to make one invisible, existed and one is given to a just man, the other to an unjust man, both men would end up doing exactly the same thing. The unjust man would still continue to do wrong as he has always done. On the other hand, the just man this time would see no need to continue being just in his acts because there would no longer be any reason for him to fear doing wrong (Cohen, Curd, Reeve 363). Therefore, the good acts of man are only the result of man’s fear of the possible consequences of doing wrong.

Socrates presents his side

Having presented his points of argument, Glaucon now challenges Socrates to defend his position that the life of a just man is still better than that of an unjust man. Socrates then points out that man is known to act according to reward or punishment. And because of man’s physical nature, his ultimate decisions are usually based on whether the end would result to either pleasure or pain. However, man has also been given the gift of rational intellect. Thus, he would be willing to endure pain or suffering if the end result would be sacrifice for the well-being of a loved one or for the greater good of his fellowmen (Plato’s Ring of Gyges). To cite an example, despite knowing the danger he will face, a man would not hesitate to rush into a burning building in order to save a loved one. Therefore, it is not fear that dictates man to do good things. Man will do a good thing because it is simply the right thing to do, in spite of the possible consequences involved. In countering Glaucon’s arguments, Socrates has likewise countered that of Thrasymachus.

Personal views

If I had the Gyges ring, I believe I would still continue to act justly in the things I do. Unlike Gyges, I would instead use the power of the ring to bring to justice those who do wrong against others in this world and are unjustly able to get away with it. Thrasymachus may say to me, “The weak follow the rules, serve the interests of others, are just, but are miserable. The strong make the rules, serve themselves, are unjust, but are happy.” And I would simply say to him, “Happiness cannot come from without. It must come from within. It is not what we see and touch or that which others do for us which makes us happy; it is that which we think and feel and do, first for the other fellow, and then for ourselves.” (Helen Keller) Therefore, without the goodness in man, there simply can be no happiness.

Works Cited

Cohen, S. Marc, and Patricia Curd, and C. D. C. Reeve. Readings in Ancient Greek Philosophy from Thales to Aristotle. 3rd ed. Indiana: Hackett Publishing Company Inc., 2005.

Plato’s Ring of Gyges. 24 Mar. 2008. Gyges. 24 Mar. 2008 <http://www.walkupsway.com/Gyges.htm>

The Republic by Plato. Ed. Benjamin Jowett. 28 Mar. 2008. The Internet Classics Archive. 28 Mar. 2008 <http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/republic.mb.txt>

Helen Keller. 28 Mar. 2008. Wisdom Quotes. 28 Mar. 2008 <http://www.wisdomquotes.com/002666.html>

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05 Oct 2009

Sample Essay: The Politics, Economy, and Liberal Cosmopolitanism of Venice

Justice and Mercy in “The Merchant of Venice”

The Merchant of Venice is one of the most frequently performed plays of Shakespeare. Written between 1594 and 1598 in Elizabethan England where the playwright lived, the play is thematically rich. The themes of mercy, religion (Christianity and anti-Semitism), love and revenge, law and justice are all inextricably interwoven into the plot lending it the complexity that is characteristic of human emotions and relationships. The inexplicable unfolding of these underlying emotions and ideas contribute to the drama. One school of critics are of the opinion that the play is fundamentally allegorical, addressing such themes as the victory of mercy over justice, New Testament forgiveness over Old Testament law and love over money. Shakespeare also portrays the economic trends of the Renaissance period, the growing power of money and emerging capitalism in Merchant of Venice.

The dramatist has interwoven the ideas of justice and mercy throughout the plot, rendering them one of the prominent themes. The Christian merchant Antonio was forced to enter into a contract with Jewish usurer Shylock when he had to borrow money from him to help his friend. His friend was Bassanio, who was living in debt, but required the funds to travel to Belmont and woo Portia, a rich heiress. Because most of Antonio’s money is tied up in his ships, he cannot help Bassanio, but agrees to post his property as collateral so Bassanio can obtain a loan. Bassanio borrows money from Shylock who had reason to hate Antonio and his Christian friends as they often ridiculed him. Antonio had treated Shylock disdainfully, had spat upon him and had threatened his livelihood by lending money to others without interest, Shylock insists on the condition that if funds were not returned in three months, Antonio must forfeit a pound of flesh. Antonio agrees to this strange condition, confident that his ships will return with merchandise soon and he will be able to repay the loan. Meanwhile when Shylock’s daughter Jessica elopes with Bassanio’s friend Lorenzo, taking with her jewels and gold and converts to Christianity, Shylock’s hatred for Antonio and his friends intensifies. This is depicted in Act 2, Scene 8, when Salanio and Salarino exchange news in a Venetian street. They inform him that Antonio’s ships are lost and ask him if he will exact the forfeit of his bond. Shylock answers that he will as he was always ill treated by Antonio and his friends. His sentiments are evident in the following extracts:

“I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? (3. 1. 23)”

“…if it will feed nothing else, it will feed my revenge; he hath disgraced me, and hinder’d me half a million, laughed at my losses, mock’d at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies – and what’s his reason? I am a Jew.” (3. 1. 47-52)

The multiple themes of justice and mercy, love and revenge, Christianity and anti-Semitism all come to a climax in the court room scene in Act 4, Scene 1.

..    At the Venetian court of justice before the Duke of Venice, the duke asks Shylock to show mercy by giving up his claim for a pound of flesh. Shylock refuses. Bassanio then offers Shylock more than he is owed, but Shylock continues to insist on exacting a pound of flesh. Nerissa, dressed like a law clerk, arrives and introduces the disguised Portia as Bellario, a learned doctor of law. Portia entreats for mercy on behalf of Antonio,

‘The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice bless’d;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice.” (4. 1. 180-193)

She tells Shylock mercy cannot be forced from someone; it must be freely given. Ordinary people are seldom asked to display this quality. It is a gift given from kings and rulers. Shakespeare explores the tension between justice and mercy through the attitudes of Shylock and Portia. Portia’s understanding of mercy is based on the way Christians in Shakespeare’s time understood the difference between the Old and New Testaments. According to the writings of St. Paul in the New Testament, the Old Testament depicts God as stern and exacting. The New Testament portrays a God who forgives rather than punishes and offers salvation to those who forgive others.

The theme of mercy also ties in with the theme of religion. Portia says, “it is an attribute to God himself” and refers to the God of the New Testament, who is seen as merciful. The idea that Christians are merciful is repeatedly enforced in the play. In the extract Shylock says that mercy is for fools, or Christians, “I’ll not be made a soft and dull-eyed fool, to Christian intercessors.”

The theme of revenge is linked to the theme of religion as Shylock believes that revenge is a Christian quality (just as Portia believes that mercy is a Christian quality).

“If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? – why revenge!” (3. 1. 63-64)

Shylock seeks revenge by exploiting the power of the law, and Portia manipulates the law to turn it against Shylock.

This theme is also repeated in the scene that Shylock demands his justice by the letter of the law and the forfeit of his bond. Portia lets Shylock have the chance to take the moral path or the letter of his bond. Shylock insists on the penalty, complacent in the knowledge that law and justice is on his side, deaf to appeals for mercy. Then suddenly the balance of power in the trial changes. Portia warns Shylock that when he cuts away the pound of flesh, he must take only flesh, not blood; for the signed agreement calls only for a pound of flesh and nothing else.

‘Then take thy bond, take thou thy pound of flesh;
But, in the cutting it, if thou dost shed
One drop of Christian blood, thy lands and goods
Are, by the laws of Venice, confiscate
Unto the state of Venice.” (4. 1. 308-312)

Portia expounds on mercy, but it is doubtful whether Sherlock was granted this mercy. All his worldly goods were to be divided between his daughter and Antonio, although Antonio gives them back on the condition that he gives up his religion and adopts Christianity.

“The Jew shall have all the justice, soft no haste!

He shall have nothing but the penalty.” (4. 1. 317)

Bloom in “Shakespeare’s Politics” says that Shylock and Antonio act as representatives of Judaism and Christianity, respectively, and that it is Shylock’s absolute deference to the law that necessarily brings about his downfall. In this interpretation, Bloom illustrates the limits of law as to its ability to ultimately protect and maintain justice.     In Tovey’s “The Golden Casket: An Interpretation of the Merchant of Venice”, the play is treated as an allegory relating philosophy and politics.

In “The Merchant of Venice”, justice and mercy are recurring themes, and the interplay between them has a key role in determining the outcome of the play.

Works Cited

1.     Bloom, Allan with Harry V. Jaffa. Shakespeare’s Politics, 3rd ed., Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981. pp. 16

2.     Cummings, Michael J. The Merchant of Venice – A Study Guide, http://www.cummingsstudyguides.net, 2003.

3.     Tovey, Barbara. The Golden Casket: An Interpretation of The Merchant of Venice, pp. 261-287, ISI Books, 2000.

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