Plato’s Republic, Book I – A few notes

This is only a short overview of some of the interesting ideas I got out of the book. This post is intended for those who’ve read the book and would like to see what other people have extracted from it. Overviews of the book can be found elsewhere.

First definition of morality: always telling the truth and giving back what one has borrowed. – But what if an insane man asks you where another man is with the intention of killing him? What if a man lets you borrow his knife and then asks for it back with the intention of killing himself or others?

Second definition of morality: doing good to friends and evil to enemies. – When you inflict real harm upon an individiual he becomes a worse man. The true virtue of man is morality. When you harm a man you therefore make him less moral. Can moral people use morality to make people less moral? Socrates’ answer is that moral people never commit immoral acts, only immoral people.

Third definition of morality: morality is the advantage of the stronnger pary, since governments put laws in place to their own advantage, telling its citizens what is just and moral. But what if the rulers accidentally pass laws which are contrary to their actual goals?

Thrasymachus asserts that rulers are not actual rulers when they pass laws contrary to their own benefit. In the strict sense of the word “ruler”, they rule perfectly. Socrates compares rulership to other expertise – doctors, in the strict sense of the word, only care for their subjects.

Thrasymachus decides to change tactics and asserts that morality is in fact bad for the person in possession of it, and that immoral people always come on top economically and socially over the moral people.

Socrates states that perfectly immoral people are incapable of working with one another, or with anyone else for that matter. They fall out with everyone and those qualities still hold power within a single individual. Immorality is, therefore, a bad mental state.

A mind’s tasks are many: finance, authority, management, etc. To perform those tasks aptly, and to live well, the mind needs its special function. Following the arguments of the last paragraph, immorality is a bad mental state, and morality a good one. Therefore, a moral person will live a more rewarding and fulfilling life.

  • Cephalus provides some timeless wisdom about life and old age. Many people blame old age for their troubles, such as less interest and capabilities in physical activities, or decreased social bonds. Cephalus, on the other hand, looks at it as an opportunity to inquire into human virtues, and finds conversation as enjoyable as he used to find physical activities. He asserts that anything bad that old age might bring can be canceled by having a good-temper and self-discipline.
  • Socrates defines three modes of payment: money, honor, and punishment. Moral people are not hungry for money or honor. The only payment they take for ruling will be punishment; the punishment of worse men then themselves ruling.
  • Throughout this book/chapter, Socrates makes his interlocutors define morality as an expertise, and therefore they all have a difficult time trying to define what morality actually is (not just some superficial parts of it). The truth is that morality is far wider than any field of expertise and has a different purpose.

Quotes:

‘In my case, you see, declining interest in physical pleasures is exactly matched by increasing desire for and enjoyment of conversation.’

‘I do in fact enjoy talking to very old people, because I think we ought to learn from them. They’ve gone ahead of us, as it were, on a road which we too will probably have to travel, and we ought to find out from them what the road is like – whether it is rough and hard, or easy and smooth.’

‘But to my mind, Socrates, they are holding an innocent responsible. If old age were to blame, then I too would have had the same experiences as them…’

‘”How do you feel about sex, Sophocles? Are you still capable of having sex with a woman?” He replied, “Be quiet, man! To my great delight, I have broken free of that, like a slave who has got away from a rabid and savage master.”‘

‘When the desires lose their intensity and ease up, then what happens is absolutely as Sophocles described – freedom from a great many demented masters.’

‘If someone is self-disciplined and good-tempered, old age isn’t too much of a burden; otherwise, it’s not just a question of old age, Socrates – such a person will find life difficult when he’s young as well.’

-When a Seriphian says that Themistocles was only famous because he was Athenian, ‘”It is true that I wouldn’t have become famous if I were a Seriphian, but it’s also true that you wouldn’t if you were an Athenian.”‘

‘Anyone who discovers that during his life he has commited a lot of crimes wakes up constantly in terror from his dreams, as children do, and also lives in dread; on the other hand, anyone who is aware of no wrong in himself faces the future with confidence and optimism which, as Pindar says as well, “comforts him in old age.”

‘Can a moral person harm anyone?’

‘Because immorality makes for mutual conflict, hatred, and antagonism, while moral behaviour makes for concord and friendship.’

‘The ultimate punishment for being unwilling to assume authority oneself is to be governed by a worse person, and it is fear of this happening, I think, which prompts good men to assume power occasionally.’

‘If it’s a function of immorality to generate hatred in its train, then wherever it arises among people – people from any walk of life – won’t it make them hate one another and clash with one another and be incapable of doing things together?’

‘What is at stake is far from insignificant: it is how one should live one’s life.’

 

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Economics in One Lesson, Chapter II – Henry Hazlitt

Part 2 – The Lesson Applied, Chapter II – The Broken Window

Imagine yourself seeing a vandal breaking a baker’s window. The vandal runs off and you suddenly feel the need to rationalize the act from a social perspective. You realize that the baker will have to replace the window in the next couple of days. To replace it he’ll have to buy a window from a glazier for, let’s say, 250$. That glazier will have 250$ to spend with other merchants, and these will have 250$ to spend with still other merchants, and so ad infinitum. The smashed window will go on providing money and employment in ever widening circles. Was the vandal then, in fact, a public benefactor?

From the first perspective the vandal definitely seems like a benefactor for the society. But let’s look at it from a different perspective. Let’s say that the shopkeeper was planning on using his 250$ (now lost on replacing the window) to buy a suit that very afternoon. Then the tailor will be in the same position as the previous glazier and produce the same effect. Instead of having a window and a suit, the baker now only has a window and now that suit will never come into being. The tailor, as well as the community, is now one suit poorer that it would have been.

In short, the glazier’s gain of buisness is merely the tailor’s loss of buisness. During your philosophical reflection you had forgotten the third party involved, the tailor, precisely because he was not there. In the following days you might see the window replaced, but you will never see that new suit,  precisely because it will never be made.

Economics in One Lesson, Chapter I – Henry Hazlitt

Part I, Chapter I – The Lesson

The lesson:

The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in the tracing of consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups.

‘Economics is haunted by more fallacies than any other study known to man.’ The inherent difficulties of the subject are difficult enough, but they are multiplied a thousandfold by a factor that is insignificant in other fields of study – i.e. the special pleading of selfish interests. These special interest groups will hire the best buyable minds to argue for their points persistently, to the point that clear thinking on the subject can be nearly impossible.

The other big factor for the difficulties of economic study is the short-sightedness of both the public and of bad economists. They tend to look only at the short-term benefits of a proposed policy and/or the effects of that policy on only one group. Nine-tenths of economic fallacies stem from these two flaws in thinking; that of looking only at the immediate consequences of an act or a proposal, and that of looking at the consequences only for a particular group to the neglect of all other groups. The opposite error is also possible and is often made by the classical economists; i.e. of concentrating only on its long-term effects on the community as a whole, but that error is much less common than the previous one.

It is often complained that bad economists present their errors to the public better than good economists presents their truth. The reason for this is simple; that the bad economists are only presenting half-truths. They speak only of the immediate effect of a proposed policy upon a single group. The answer consists in supplementing and correcting the half-truth with the other half. But to present the rest of the truth often requires a long, complicated, and dull chain of reasoning which most of the public has a hard time following. The bad economists often just respond to the good economists with slurs like “classicism” or “capitalist apologetics” and quickly dismiss their arguments.

The following chapters will consist of illuminating these lessons by providing examples. Through them we can learn to avoid first the crudest and most palpable fallacies and finally the most sophisticated and elusive.