One Work Only

(philosopher-Kings excepted)

I’m four chapters into Plato’s Republic, and among several peculiarities, one has been sticking out in my mind. In the course of exploring justice – what it is, its’ importance, and its’ desirability, both for a person and for a city, Socrates invents and describes his ideal city. It has three levels, with craftsmen, guardians, and then, chosen from the guardians, counselors – rulers. It’s reasonable enough. But there’s a rule that Socrates and Gloucon agree at the very beginning that strikes me as very peculiar: that each man have one work and one only. Nor is this rule incidental, for at the end of chapter four Socrates suggests that perhaps justice consists in each person in a city, and each part of a person, doing his work, and only that work. When it comes to parts of the soul – which is what we were talking about in class on Thursday – I don’t understand well enough what he means to be able to say. It seems possible, certainly. It might be right for hunger to deal with making sure that the body is nourished, but sometimes it also tries to alleviate boredom, or sadness, or whatever, and that would be wrong. Perhaps it would even be unjust, though I’m not used to considering justice within a person. But within a city – for a shoemaker to make shoes, and nothing else worth mentioning, or a guardian to work out and practice weaponry and tactics and whatnot, and nothing else? There is something foreign in how Socrates talks about what we would call vocation, that I can’t quite get a hold on. At one point, Socrates says, as though it were common knowledge, that “…a doctor and a carpenter have different natures,” and someone (Gloucon, I believe) agrees “of course” (V:454). how does he mean that? In what sense do they have different *natures*? I know a young woman who’s a medical student and a musician; why couldn’t someone (presumably a very, very industrious someone) be a doctor and a carpenter?

What he seems to mean is that for any given person there’s one thing only where there is both use and a strong aptitude. He says out of hand that a person will necessarily be worse at pursuing several occupations than one, and therefore of less use to the city. But is that necessarily the case? What about the fellow who teaches, writes, owns a vineyard, speaks, raises a family, etc. – and each thing contributes some color and interest to the others?

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