2. Plato’s The Republic

Plato was a Greek philosopher who lived in the city-state of Athens from 428/427 to 348/347 B.C. For several years he operated a school of higher education, called the Academy, in his home. He composed a number of dialogues in which an earlier philosopher, Socrates, discusses philosophical topics with various people. In The Republic they examine the nature of justice. Here I’ll consider just the first two of its ten books, guided by the discussion of them by Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff in volume 1, A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, of The Great Ideas Program (Encyclopedia Britannica: 1959).

The discussion described in The Republic takes place in the house of an old man, Cephalus, who is a friend of Socrates. After quoting Pindar’s “Hope cherishes the soul of him who lives in justice and holiness, and is the nurse of his age and the companion of his journey,” Cephalus ascribes such hope to the good man rich enough that he has had no occasion to deceive or defraud others. Socrates responds, “Well said, Cephalus…but as concerning justice, what is it?‒to speak the truth and to pay your debts‒no more than this?” (The Dialogues of Plato in volume 7 of Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952, page 297). He challenges this view of justice on the grounds that there are some cases in which one ought not to pay one’s debts. Cephalus refuses to be drawn into an argument, but others are drawn in. In the course of their discussion, two other definitions of justice are proposed, both of which Socrates shows are also unsatisfactory:

“[J]ustice is the art which gives good to friends and evil to enemies” (page 298).

“[J]ustice is nothing else than the interest of the stronger” (page 301).

Adler and Wolff summarize the rest of Book I of The Republic thus:

“Here we can now see a surprising development. Socrates’ refutation of Thrasymachus [he’d proposed ‘justice is nothing else than the interest of the stronger’] gives us, by implication, the definition of a ruler’s justice as ‘acting for the sake of the ruled,’ or ‘acting so as to give the ruled their due.’ Now this is entirely compatible with Polemarchus’ earlier definition of justice as ‘acting so as to give each man his due.’ That latter definition only failed to satisfy Socrates because Polemarchus was mistaken about what each man’s due is [Polemachus had proposed ‘justice is the art which gives good to friends and evil to enemies’]. If Socrates’ definition of justice is valid, he must show what it is that is due to those who are ruled. And, of course, a great part of The Republic is devoted to just that.” (Adler and Wolff,  A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, pages 18-19)

Book II of The Republic opens with two of Plato’s brothers, Glaucon and Adeimantus, entering the discussion. Glaucon says that most people hold injustice to be superior to justice, and Adeimantus adds that appearing just rather than being just is advantageous. They ask Socrates to refute them by discussing the nature of justice. Socrates agrees but suggests looking for justice in the state rather than in man since it will more easily seen in the larger unit. He proceeds to consider the ideal state in the rest of Book II and in Books III-V. I commented briefly on those books, guided by Adler and Wolff’s discussion of them in volume 2, The Development of Political Theory and Government, of The Great Ideas Program, in an earlier post on The Republic, https://opentheism.wordpress.com/2017/02/11/plato/.

Here is what Plato eventually concluded about justice in The Republic. He identified four virtues in a state–wisdom, which he associated with the rulers or guardian class; courage, which he associated with the warriors or auxiliary class; temperance, which he associated with the working class; and justice, which he summed up as “when the trader, the auxiliary, and the guardian each do their business” (The Dialogues of Plato, page 350). Then he said that just as there are three classes in the state there are three principles in the individual–appetite, reason, and passion–and that in the same way as a state is just when each of the classes does its own business an individual is just when “the several qualities of his nature do their own work” (page 354).


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