Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Obscurity of Benefit as the Proper Context for the Question of Wealth

image © Marie-Lan Nguyen
Wikimedia Commons
This post is part of a series on
Republic. It can stand
alone, but is
 intended to
continue the line of
 summarized here.
Last week, I said that in order to see the substance of Socrates's argument in opposition to Cephalus (and so to see the difference from the contentious sophists and debaters from whom Socrates is to be distinguished), we would have to ask how Cephalus's unstated opinions about justice obstruct his view of the benefit of wealth. We should expect that it would be easier for Cephalus not to see benefit itself than to make a miscalculation about money.

In fact, if we follow up on Socrates's refutation as it is developed in the ensuing conversation with Cephalus's son, Polemarchus (not to mention Thrasymachus, we do find that benefit, especially with regard to the possibility of being mistaken about it, is a crucial turning point in the question about justice. According to Polemarchus, the hard cases of justice in which it supersedes the determinations of legal property are governed by the principle that "friends owe it to their friends to do good for them, never harm," and that justice "gives benefits to friends and does harm to enemies." So you would not give a deposited weapon back to an enraged friend because you know it would not benefit him but harm him to have it.

I just can't think about the
idea of the good when you
look at me that way.
But what is benefit? And who is a friend? Depending on the answers to these questions, justice could be marvelous and powerful or completely superfluous. We already want to benefit our friends; that's contained in our considering them friends. But justice must add something to the natural state of affairs, or everyone will be just except for a few fantastically twisted souls. (As Seth Benardete points out in Socrates's Second Sailing, this superfluousness of the just intention is what moves Socrates to construe Polemarchus's justice as an art — a method of application of the intention which we all in fact already have.) So the problem becomes one of identifying what it is that justice could know about friendship and benefit that we don't know just by wanting to benefit our friends.

Socrates's refutation of Cephalus does not turn explicitly on the question of benefit, but it does make clear that Cephalus cannot have seen the benefit of money, precisely in its relation to the idea of benefit, if he thinks that it facilitates justice by way of paying what is owed. For it equally facilitates injustice, if paying what is owed is sometimes unjust.

Thus the obstruction in Cephalus's view of the benefit of wealth is his own presumption of knowledge. He does not see benefit because he does not look for it in a place of darkness — in the field of his ignorance. Socratic wisdom is famously knowledge of ignorance. Here we see that this knowledge is a positive power, that orients the knower in the direction of what he would learn. To get the benefit of Cephalus's report, Socrates needs to place it in the light of something obscure. Benefit itself needs to be seen as something that somehow hides itself.