The Republic and the NAP

by Gene Callahan

Having discussed in a previous post the libertarian contention that following the non-aggression principle implies holding libertarian policy views, I wanted to follow up here with an example from The Republic.

Now, let us begin by noting that Socrates, towards the beginning of the work, states a non-aggression principle (NAP) even stronger than the one usually framed by libertarians. It is not merely wrong, he claims, to do injury to one who has not injured you, it is even wrong to do injury to someone who has injured you. The details of the argument need not concern us here; the relevant point is that Socrates endorses a strong version of the NAP.

But then, of course, Socrates (or Plato, if you wish to consider “Socrates” here as a sock puppet) goes on to paint a vision of the just State in many ways far more extensive than anything we even have today in the US, including things like tight State control over art. How can this be?

A key passage in this regard is, I think, when Socrates asks Cephalus to “Consider an example: a friend who is sound in mind and body lends you his weapons. Then, when he returns to claim them, you see he has gone mad. Would it not be wrong to give them back to him? Would that not be an injustice?” And Cephalus agrees it would be unjust to give the weapons back.

Here, we see the crux of the difference between Plato’s view and a typical libertarian take on this matter. Many libertarians, I imagine, would consider it just to give the weapons back, no matter the fellow’s state of mind, because you would be violating his property rights otherwise. But Plato takes the opposite view: it is returning the weapons that would be an act of aggression, and hanging on to them is the just response.

Now, many libertarians probably don’t like Plato’s understanding of justice in this case. But it should be clear why, for instance, when Plato would ban the works of Hesiod, he is not “in favor of aggression”; instead, he has a different understanding of what constitutes aggression.

The non-aggression principle alone does not really get libertarians anywhere; Hobbes, for instance, would probably also sign on to it, and assert that his Leviathan is compatible with it. It is only the non-aggression principle in combination with certain views of duty, obligation, rights, the nature of the individual, and the nature of society, that result in the particular libertarian take on what constitutes aggression and what it means to follow the NAP.

15 thoughts on “The Republic and the NAP

  1. Yes, NAP alone isn’t enough. Libertarians also need to specify that one does not acquire a right to tell other people what to do and take their things and force them to fund various projects just by incapacitating the last sovereign.

    Silly libertarians, assuming that everyone would take that as given.

  2. Yes, Jim, I think that’s correct.

    James, thanks for providing a good example of a silly libertarian!

  3. Toward the end of The Republic, SOcrates notes that while the *city* would indeed be happy if designed as he suggested, none of the citizens of the city would be happy, and therefore what he proposed should rather be taken as a metaphor for the formation of the just soul. The recommended list of banned works are thus not works that the government should ban, but the books Plato/Socrates thinks harm your soul — which prevent you from developing into a good, just person. There is thus a huge difference between a just individual and a just government.

  4. Gene,

    I agree with you on your analysis of Socrates’ example of giving the weapons back. I think many libertarians make the mistake of overapplying their principles from what governments should do to what individuals in voluntary society should do.

    A good example of this I have run into is the belief by all too many that freedom of speech means freedom from criticism — that freedom of speech means freedom from social responsibility for what they say and freedom from consequences, or even to have what they say questioned. There is a huge difference between the government saying you can’t say this or that, and there being social consequences from private citizens for saying those things. Liberty means liberty from government initiating force; it does not mean being liberated from society and social consequences. Of course, this comes about from the all-too-common confusion of government with society. It’s a mistake common not just with socialists — and to the extent that even many libertarians make this mistake, it’s a rather unfortunate linguistic/conceptual victory for the Left.

  5. Troy, that’s a very lovely interpretation you have there. It might be held against it that Aristotle, who did spend 20 years directly speaking to Plato about these things, did not share your interpretation, but then, he lacked your insight that every thought is a metaphor, so that probably crippled his understanding of Plato.

    In any case, how exactly to interpret The Republic was not the topic here, so nice attempt at a threadjack! Since “don’t feed the trolls” is a tried-and-true method, I will henceforth forego even reading future comments by you. I’m sure you will claim I am “afraid to engage in rational discourse with you,” since that is what every troll claims when he is ignored, but so be it.

  6. And let me apologize to those who might have wanted to discuss this, and with whom I would have enjoyed doing so, but my new policy is: Troy arrives in a discussion, I leave. Trolls ruin it for everyone!

  7. I. F. Stone argued that Socrates was a proto-fascist. Granted, this is take on Socrates is colored by Stone’s leftist creed. Still, Socrates and Plato (don’t know that they can really be told apart) certainly favor a very intrusive state.

  8. What I meant to say is that Socratic non-aggression — limited to individual actions and coupled with an aggressive state — fits authoritarian systems, whether they’re called fascism, communism or something else.

  9. I was just quoting what Socrates himself said in The Republic.I’m surprised to learn that that’s not relevant. I’m also surprised to learn that understanding what The Republic is about is irrelevant to discussing it.

    I do note you ignored the rest of what I said, though. Can’t even agree with you!

  10. I was just quoting what Socrates himself said in The Republic. I’m surprised to learn that that’s not relevant. I’m also surprised to learn that understanding what The Republic is about is irrelevant to discussing it.

    I do note you ignored the rest of what I said, though. Can’t even agree with you!

  11. From wikipedia: “a troll is someone who posts inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community, such as an online discussion forum, chat room or blog, with the primary intent of provoking other users into a desired emotional response[1] or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion.”

    Considering my primary intent has never been to provoke an emotional response (one cannot help the sometimes irrational reactions of others in the face of facts and logical discourse), I cannot be a troll. Also, none of my posts were intentionally inflamatory — but rather a spirited attempt at thinking through issues — and none of them were off topic or extraneous, as observed above, so by definition, I am not and never was a troll. Try to use your terms properly. SInce you argued that you wouldn’t respond to me because I’m a troll, and I have proven I’m not a troll, I suppose that means you will be responding to me in the future. I know an apology for acting so childish and for not having the decency to extend to me any sort of professional courtesy as a fellow scholar or acknowledge the fact that all my responses have been with the intention of engaging in a real discussion on these important issues you have raised (rather than just blowing smoke up your rear) over the last few postings’ responses is out of the question, so I will settle for the professional courtesy of actually engaging in rational discussion with me on the topics you continue to raise.

  12. Anyone can come up with their own definition of injustice, but I don’t see how returning the items constitutes “aggression”. Imagine that you were completely passive and your friend simply entered your house and took back his things. Can inaction be aggression?

  13. “instead, he has a different understanding of what constitutes aggression.”

    The point is whether his definition of aggression is consistent with the rest of his beliefs. Until you define it, very little can be said.

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