The Most Important Part

The Most Important Part

In Book II of The Republic Plato has Socrates tell us that “the most important part of any work is its beginning.” The use of the word “work” (Greek, ergon) in a slightly equivocal manner appears intentional, especially in a text—a work—like The Republic that so cleverly maneuvers between part and whole, between the character of the individual and a just society generally.  That our English word “work,” like ergon, can function as both a noun and a verb—work, a work, to work, working—adds to this simple and implicit ambiguity. Given the context of this passage, however, Socrates and friends are clearly referring to children and the education of children. Education here mainly, though not exclusively, means the development of character. They wish to cultivate character by way of censoring stories that wrongly portray the gods as doing evil and mischief, while only allowing stories that rightly show and praise the goodness of the gods. Socrates believed we confused children by telling them the gods were good, yet we then turned around and told them stories about them doing all sorts of nasty, petty things. And as Socrates believed that if an endeavor was marred at its origin it could never recover—most especially children—such paradoxical, confusing stories were banned in the Just City. Still, though this passage is most directly addressing children and the education of children, every time we come across this passage we should be tempted to flip back to the beginning of The Republic as we cannot help but think he also means any and every work, all texts, all endeavors, all deeds. There, at the beginning of that text, we find acts of anamnesis and kata-basis: “Yesterday I went down to the Pireaus with Glaucon, Ariston’s son, to offer my devotions to the goddess.” We find remembrance and descent in the name of genuine curiosity and religious piety (taken with irony these two traits arguably represent comportments fundamental to Socrates’ philosophical approach). Religious piety or devotion not so much to the gods themselves, but rather to what the gods symbolize: the Good, the ultimately True and Beautiful. Not agents in time and space. In any event, the second ambiguity of the remark becomes apparent: what constitutes a beginning? An arche? How flexible or exacting ought we be it terms of beginnings? If we can apply this axiom to all things and not just children, then the beginning of a book determines the possibilities and failings of the book’s endeavor. Do we then pay special heed to dedications? Frontispiece Prefaces? Introductions? Propaedeutical materials whatsoever? Strictly first chapters? Finding and determining a beginning seems to be as important as beginnings themselves.


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