In the Republic, Plato sets out to answer the question, “What is justice?” Along the way, Socrates* and his interlocutors raise the question of who leads the more pleasant life, the just or the unjust. They bring it to extremes. They assume that the unjust person gets away with it, so to speak. People don’t recognize his lack of justice, he reaps great rewards and much praise. They also assume at points that the just person is unfairly punished. She’s** accused of crimes, poor and destitute. Socrates says that even in this extreme case, the just person leads a more pleasant life than the unjust person. He then lays out a proof to show how much more pleasant the life of the perfectly just person, aka the King, is than the life of the perfectly unjust person, aka the Tyrant. He determines that the King lives 729 times more pleasantly than the Tyrant and that the Tyrant is 729 times more wretched than the King (587 e).
To modern readers, this comes off as a bit strange. I recognize all the problems. What is a unit of pleasantness? How is it measured? Isn’t pleasure subjective? But this proof has stuck with me ever since I first read the Republic. I don’t know about the number 729, but it seems intuitively true, to me, that a just person leads a more pleasant life, a happier life, than an unjust person, regardless of the consequences. I don’t take this to mean that there is somehow joy in suffering and I’m not talking about rewards and punishments (Heaven and Hell). I mean that I believe that Gandhi was happier, even during his hunger strike, than his British oppressors. I guess I find Plato’s arguments convincing when he says that knowing The Good is more pleasurable than satisfying desires.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot while living through the current Trumpian dystopia. I find it comforting to know that I am leading a more pleasant life than Donald Trump. I don’t know if it’s 729 times more pleasant. I’m not perfectly just, I give in to my impulses and desires from time to time. And Trump isn’t a perfect Tyrant. More than half the country recognizes him as a sad, pathetic loser and didn’t vote for him. But I think it’s safe to say that most of us are much more just than Trump. Therefore, most of us are much happier than Trump.
I want to stress that this in no way excuses, mitigates or forgives Trump’s horribleness. He is simply a nightmare of a president and a nightmare of a human being. We need to stay focused on removing Trump and the Republicans from power and repairing the damage they’ve caused. I just hope that this small bit of comfort can help us get through the day. The constant march of bad news is more than a bit overwhelming, especially coming from such an inept media. We need to take comfort where we can find it. And Plato has shown me one small place to find it.
* This is Socrates, the character in Plato’s work, not the actual Socrates. It seems clear, to me at least, that this character is the mouthpiece for Plato’s own views. In discussing this work, it is easy to use Plato and Socrates interchangeably. I just want to make sure everyone knows that when I say Socrates, the character, I still attribute the ideas to Plato, the author.
** In Plato, they are talking about just and unjust men. He came from an amazingly sexist society. But, since the Republic gives a rather lengthy argument for why women should be equal, I think it’s OK to update the language and use she as well as he.