Economics Philosophy

Economics Philosophy

In “Book II” of Plato’s, Republic, Socrates discusses what it means to be “just” with Adeimantus using the analogy of a city to create a powerful image of being “just.” As the analogy of the city begins to grow, Socrates discusses what it takes to create a “just” and well functioning city beginning with the jobs that each person in the city will have.

First and foremost he discusses how “because people need many things, and because one person calls on a second out of one need and on a third out of a different need, many people gather in a single place to live together as partners and helpers. Such a settlement is called a city” (369C). This depiction of a city as a spot where people live together as “partners and helpers” closely resembles the economic principles of specialization and trade, which indicate that it is wise for one country to work with another country because each country is better at something than the other.

This economic principle is further perpetuated when Socrates states, “we aren’t all born alike, but each of us differs somewhat in nature from the others, one being suited to one task, another to another,” indicating that to create the most well functioning city people should specialize in the tasks they are best suited to do (370A-370B). The reason this method is so successful is that each member of the community is able to work on the task he or she is best at and then “contribute his own work for the common use of all,” thus giving everyone the highest quality work possible (369E).

In context of the economic principle, the countries develop what are known as terms of trade, which determine how much of which good each country makes to maximize the production possibilities of each independent nation. The same is true for Socrates’s description of how to construct the best city possible. For example, people who are excellent cobblers will develop a cost for their goods relative to the price of fruit and vegetables from farmers, so that the farmer can get the best shoes and the cobbler can get the best fruit.

I think the intersection between economics and the study of forming a knowledgable and well functioning society is interesting. The ability to cross-apply the same concept to two entirely unique fields allows one to develop an even better understanding of the same principle and learn new methods to apply it. Prior to reading Republic, I never would have associated a common economic principle with the philosophy of forming a society designed to maximize the capabilities of a successful city.


4 responses to “Economics Philosophy

  1. Hi Harry,

    I think your post is very well thought out and informative. I like how you explained many of the economic concepts in detail, with examples, so the topic of the post is accessible to all.

    The topic you’ve decided to write about is really similar to what I wrote about in my “Naturally Suited” blog post. I also noticed the similarities of Socrates’ argument to real world economic systems. I think his theory is somewhat flawed though, because in the real world it’s really difficult for everyone to fit together and supply each others’ needs so nicely. What do you think?

    I like your point on how two very different fields can have similarities, because the more I think about it, and the more philosophical works I read, the more I see how philosophy is worked into each other fields like science, or as you have said here, economics.

  2. I also find it very interesting that Plato uses the simple principles, which you called economic principles, of what people need, want, and can supply for themselves in order to construct cities as well as study justice and injustice on a larger scale. Plato’s two cities, “the city of pigs” and the “feverish city”, ended up being very different from each other just because these principles varied between them(Republic 372). Plato refers to his second city as, “swollen in bulk and filled with a multitude of things which are no longer necessities”, saying that a city built on these principles will inevitably have to go to war in order to satisfy their need for land(373b). Plato claims he has “found the origin of war” in this feverish city(373e).
    Do you think there is an economic principle which drives the growth of the feverish city, some economic principle of desire which explains why people overstep “the boundaries of the necessary”(373d)? And what do you think about Plato’s claim that a city built on such principles is logically driven to war?

  3. Caroline,

    Thank you for your advice. As for your question, while I agree that in the real world everything doesn’t work together perfectly, I still think the theory is a valid theory. Although we are not able to create perfect trade partners all the time, the majority of the time countries are able to work together to establish the optimal situation for both parties. The reason I find this theory valid, is that all parties have different interests and all parties are better at some things than others. For example, Japan is an outstanding producer of cars, so the U.S. is able to establish trade relations with Japan for U.S. goods, possibly even American cars, in exchange for Japanese cars. Countries recognize that it is in each of their best interests to work together to establish better relations with each other, as well as get the most of what they need for what they don’t need. This same principle is still valid in the world that Socrates/Plato create. Some people are better at teaching, therefore they teach in exchange for other people, who are better at being cobblers, doing shoe repair. Obviously there are some gaps such as, when someone is unwilling to work with others, but if someone is unwilling to work with others, that means that he/she does not get the benefits from working with other people, so over time, that person will be driven to cooperate with everyone else for his/her own benefit, so eventually the economic principle to work itself out. I also think that Socrates and Plato are not necessarily saying this system is perfect, I think they are indicating that this is the system we should strive towards to create the most utilitarian society.

  4. Trieste,

    I think you make an interesting point on how the “feverish city” becomes too overcrowded with “things that are no longer necessities,” and while I don’t think the cause of this situation can be explained by an economic principle, but rather just greed, I think the solution easily can, and is the exact concept I was trying to explain. Given that the “feverish city” is overcrowded with unnecessary goods, it would be wise for them to trade with cities who don’t have as many goods and are in need of goods. They could find a city that has lots of land that they are willing to trade for in exchange for the excess goods the “feverish city” has, this means that as opposed to waging war against other cities, they could work together with other cities, which would benefit all parties, as well as establish a relationship between the two cities, which would allow them to create more constructive trade in the future and even work together on other projects. I think that greed and the desire for power is what provoked the “feverish city” to become too saturated with useless goods, but I think that as they realize that they need more land, they will recognize that as opposed to waging war, they can simply negotiate a trade with other parties, which would create long term stability.

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