Plato’s Republic: Conceptions of Justice Books 1 and 2

Nathaniel Blevins:

  • I’m a sophomore with a major in Philosophy. I’m also an MV and a member of the Hokies Pep Band. Music and philosophy have always been passions of mine, and I’m glad I can pursue both of them here at Tech.

Katie Stewart: 

  • I am a sophomore majoring in Political Science with a focus in legal studies and I’m also minoring in philosophy. I’m really interested in the intersections between politics and philosophy and I’m excited to further my understanding of them through this class. 

Camille Wellman:

  • I am a sophomore majoring in Political Science with a focus in national security and a minor in peace studies and violence prevention. I am interested in political and philosophical discussions and how they intersect, as well as how we use these discussions to understand our modern world. 

Johnny Callihan:

  • I am a graduating senior majoring in Political Science with a focus in national security. I minor in basketball (joke, I’m alright). I like to see how philosophical discussions relate to modern day arguments and I have enjoyed the structure and function of the course so far.

Plato’s Republic: Defining the concept of justice, the just city-state, and the just man:

This week our group was assigned to read Plato’s Republic, one of Plato’s later works. Like Plato’s earlier works, his dialogue is spoken through Socrates–his teacher  The book is organized into 10 books, but for the purposes of this discussion we are only touching on the first and second book. A majority of the first book is a conversation between Socrates, Cephalus, Polemarchus, and Thrasymachus (a sophist), where Socrates is trying to answer two questions: what is justice/the nature of justice? And why should one be just? The three men offer their own definitions of justice and Socrates promptly refutes them. The first book ends with the men being no closer to a definition of justice. The second book is primarily Socrates’ own account of justice, as he agrees to stop criticizing the others’ opinions and offer his own thoughts. All in all, his goal is to show why the just person leads a better life than that of the unjust person.

Book 1: Defining justice

The main goal of Socrates’ conversation(s) with Cephalus, Polemarchus, and Thrasymachus was to come up with a definition of justice. The first definition of justice is proposed by Cephalus: Justice is speaking the truth and paying whatever debts are owed. Socrates tests the definition by first asking if justice was only speaking the truth and paying back debts, then provides an example: if a friend loans you a weapon but then becomes insane and asks for it back, should you give it back? Cephalus says no, contradicting his own definition, causing it to fail–if one does not return the weapon, they are not repaying their debts. Cephalus’s approach to the definition of justice is logical, but it is too relativistic because it cannot be applied to all situations–pointed out by Socrates in his counterexample. Before providing his definition Cephalus explained how he made many unjust decisions when he was younger and how he made up for those mistakes in the future with his wealth. Money played an integral role in Cephalus’ life so it makes sense that he came to that conclusion 

After Cephalus leaves, Polemarchus disagrees with Socrates and takes Cephalus’ definition, but makes it more general, stating justice is friends doing well by each other–never harming one another–and enemies are owed harm. Socrates counters: what if one falsely believes an enemy is a friend and a friend is an enemy? Everyone makes that mistake at least once in their life. If one makes this mistake then the just man could accidentally help his enemies and harm his friends. To resolve this issue, Polemarchus clarifies a friend is someone who is of use and is inherently good; an enemy is one who is inherently bad. Due to this Polemarchus changes his definition to, “it is just to do good to our friends when they are good and harm to our enemies when they are evil” (335 e). Socrates again counters and the two come to the conclusion that hurting someone is unjust, thus the just man cannot cause harm to an enemy or a friend. 

Finally, Thrasymachus offers his definition of justice, but for a price–a key marker of a Sophist. Thrasymachus states justice is nothing more than whatever advances the stronger person. Thrasymachus’ points are touched on in more depth in the next section. The two eventually come to a conclusion that justice is related to virtue and wisdom while injustice is related to vice and ignorance. They then begin to talk about the soul and how an evil soul is an evil ruler and a good soul must be just, since justice is the excellence of the soul (353 e – 354 c). In other words, one who is just is happy and one who is unjust is unhappy. At the end of this conversation Socrates confesses that he still does not know what justice precisely is. In other words, throughout his exploration for the definition of justice, Socrates was jumping from idea to idea, finding holes in them, causing him, at the end, to be no closer to a positive definition of justice. 

In the clip linked here from Game of Thrones, John Snow is negotiating with Mance Rayder. Mance is considered the “King Beyond the Wall;” his followers call him that because he united thousands of warring wildling tribes, which is unheard of in GOT. In the previous episode they attacked the wall that protected the 7 kingdoms. Thrasymachus would say that Mance united the tribes because he wanted power and he wanted to take power from the seven kingdoms–which is why they attacked the wall. That is far from the truth. Mance wanted to protect his people from the dangers coming from the North and attacked the wall so they could get behind it and hide. He, like Socrates states, ruled for his subjects. He did not unite the tribes for a power grab, he instead spent years of his life planning to protect the free folk; he risked his life in the process not for his benefit, but for the benefit of his people. 

The just man vs. the unjust man:

Thrasymachus asserts that justice is the interest of the stronger (338 c). The just man will serve the stronger, and doing so is justice. The unjust man will not serve the interest of the stronger, and doing so is injustice. This concept is also known as “might makes right” and was seen, albeit much later, in Machiavelli’s The Prince. So long as one has the necessary power, the means to ends he aims to meet, Thrasymachus’ “interest of the stronger” are just. In response, Socrates maintains that justice is more profitable than injustice, as was one of the catalysts of this argument. However, Thrasymachus goes on to say the unjust man achieves more than the just man because the just man is limited by his unwillingness to exploit his fellow just men, whereas the unjust man is willing to strive for more than the just and his fellow unjust (343 c-e). 

Thrasymachus believes the unjust man profits more than the just man (344 c). He then says rulers rule for their own benefit, and tyrants are happiest because of their injustice. The unjust man benefits from injustice in seeking the benefit for himself (340 e – 341 a).

Socrates uses Thrasymachus’ argument against him and shows how the ruler rules to the benefit of his subjects (346 e). He explains how artists of a certain art aim to perfect their craft, and that these crafts are for the sake of the art’s subject. Socrates compares how a doctor treats his patients to how a ruler rules his subjects; the doctor’s craft is for the benefit of the subject of the art, medicine, and the ruler’s craft is for the benefit of the subject of the art, ruling or government. Thus, the ruler doesn’t rule for himself and isn’t unjust. He goes on to add that just people would in fact seek out positions of power so that they might do the job better than unjust people in the same position (347 c-d).

The unjust city vs. the just city:

Thrasymachus claims that injustice is what creates powerful states with powerful tyrants because they are willing to harm the just and enslave them (344 b-c). He believes the perfectly unjust state would vassalize other states that are more just. As perfectly unjust people will become rulers, due to their willingness to lie and cheat and use other expedient ways to achieve power, they will naturally do to other states what they do to their subjects. Someone who has mastered injustice and can completely carry out acts of the like can and will force other states to serve their own interest. Thrasymachus’ description of justice is instrumental. To him, justice is a tool to serve the powerful. Rulers use “justice” as a mere instrument to affect their interests or desires onto the world. On the other hand, Socrates takes a realist approach to justice. Instead of justice serving rulers, rulers serve justice; justice is not the malleable device Thrasymachus makes it out to be, it is instead a powerful natural law unto itself.

Socrates shows that injustice is ignorance and malice, while justice is cleverness, goodness, and wisdom (350 a-e). Then, he rebuts Thrasymachus’ argument with the idea that injustice creates disorder, prevents necessary functions of a society or a state. He uses the example of a band of thieves who would inevitably steal from one another, then generalizes it to any group of unjust people turning on one another and against the just (351 d). How could a state form when injustice, as Thrasymachus admitted, is unwise and not good and this creates disorder and confusion? Socrates persists and demonstrates how injustice causes disorder in a single person (352 a-b). Injustice fosters disunity in one’s own mind and turns others against him. How could anyone be happy or live a fulfilling life when they are internally divided and at odds with everyone around them? They have been shown to be ignorant and bad, disorderly and treacherous. Surely, the just man prospers more than the unjust man.

In this clip from Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith, Anakin Skywalker defeats Count Dooku in a duel and is left with the option of killing him (against the Jedi code) or sparing him (the Jedi way). Palpatine, unbeknownst to Anakin and the rest of the Jedi, is actually a Sith and is Dooku’s master. Instead of Palpatine intervening to save his ally, he betrays Dooku by convincing Anakin to kill him. This is a great example of how a group of unjust people cause disharmony by having no restraint from harming their “allies”.

Nature and Origin of Justice: The Brothers’ Argument 

The conversation of defining justice is continued through Socrates’ dialogue with Glaucon and Adeimantus. Glaucon begins by classifying that which is “good,” or desirable, into 3 categories: good for its own sake (intrinsic goods), good for another’s sake (instrumental goods), and good for its own sake and another (intrinsic/instrumental goods). Glaucon and Adeimantus desire Socrates to prove his argument that, not only is justice desirable, but that justice belongs to the highest class of desirable things in that it is desired both for its own sake and its consequences. Though Glaucon does not agree with the beliefs of Thrasymachus, he formulates his argument in a way that praises the unjust life to the highest degree to demonstrate to Socrates how he should praise the just life to the utmost of his power in order to prove his argument in a satisfactory way. In order to do this, Glaucon pulls from the argument of Thrasymachus and breaks up his argument into three sections. First, he speaks of the commonly viewed nature and origin of justice. He moves on to argue that men who practice justice do so out of necessity and against their will. Finally, he argues that there is reason in the view that the life of the unjust is far better than the life of the just.  

Glaucon argues that “to do injustice, by nature, is good; to suffer injustice, evil; but that the evil is greater than the good” (359a). When people have both carried out and suffered injustice, they agree to do away with injustice altogether. This is because the best case scenario for man is the ability to carry out injustice without being punished. The worst case scenario is suffering injustice without the ability to retaliate. Man cannot enjoy the benefits of injustice without also enduring the worst of injustice. Justice is at the middle point, therefore it is not tolerated as good, but as the lesser evil. As a result, laws arise and that which is lawful is deemed just. This, according to Glaucon, is the nature and origin of justice. Glaucon goes on to argue that those who practice justice do so involuntarily because they do not have the power to be unjust by force of law. He illustrates his point using an allegory called “The Ring of Gyges.” The allegory is about what would happen should a ring of invisibility exist. Glaucon claims that whether the ring is worn by a just or unjust man, the individual will take part in unjust practices because of the lack of repercussions they would face. This, he says, affirms the notion that a man is not just willingly or because he believes it will benefit him, but out of necessity for his own safety. Wherever man believes he can be safely unjust, he is unjust. Glaucon continues with his argument that living a perfectly unjust life is more pleasant than living a perfectly just life. The unjust man is able to achieve more as he seeks benefits for himself and is honored and rewarded with wealth and power. 

Adeimantus interjects, before Socrates is able to respond to Glaucon, to develop his brother’s argument further. Parents and tutors, Adeimantus states, teach their children and wards to be just, not for the sake of justice, but for the sake of reputation. He also adds that divine rewards and punishment should be excluded from Socrates’ praise of justice. The quick-witted youth, in Adeimantus’s eyes, would think that if they are just then there is no profit in it, “but the pain and loss on the other hand are unmistakable. But if, though unjust, [they] acquire the reputation of justice, a heavenly life is promised to [them]. Since then, as philosophers prove, appearance tyrannizes over truth and is lord of happiness, to appearance [they] must devote [them]self.” The brothers implore Socrates to prove justice as choice worthy, in practice rather than image, outside of possible external or divine reward or punishment.

In this scene from the show Vikings, we see a group of noblemen from Wessex slaughter an entire unsuspecting Danish settlement. When the party returns to report, King Ecbert berates them for violating a peace treaty that was signed with the Danish leader, Ragnar, “in good faith.” Ecbert has the entire party arrested for treason, although, after the room is cleared, he reveals to his son that he is actually thankful and may have planned this from the beginning, for now he maintains his just image without having to grant concessions to the Danish. 

The Just State Cont.: 

Socrates, in rebuttal, begins to explain the just state, seeing as the state must have more ability to be just than the man due to size, as one which recognizes the specialization of human labor in order to make the use of skill more efficient. The growth of population in this just state would directly correlate with the development of specialized labor. After discussing the final form of specialized labor, hirelings, who lack skill, but bring with them physical strength, Glaucon and Adeimantus ask Socrates to draw attention to the existence and location of justice and injustice within this state. “Probably in the dealings of these citizens with one another.” Socrates considers, “Cannot imagine that they are more likely to be found anywhere else (372a).” 

The population of the just state, Glaucon remarks, would also be fond of living luxuriously more so than the simple lifestyle that Socrates’ just state would originally provide. In discussing the toils of a comfortable life in a just state, Socrates and Glaucon arrive at the challenge of expansion which would produce war. The guardians of the state would be hand-picked in showing an aptitude for the many skills they would need. The guardians would need to be physically and spiritually strong, but must also show a gentleness towards their own populace. Socrates and the brothers spend time debating if someone of this nature could exist with these seemingly contradictory traits before Socrates realizes that these traits are found together in many animals, especially the well-trained dog, and, thus, must be able to be found within the members of the state. Animals are constantly learning, familiarizing themselves with others and situations, so the guardians of the state must also have a love for learning (376b). The trio arrive at the desired traits of the guardian to unite in himself: philosophy, spirit, swiftness, and strength. 

The nature of the soul cannot develop thoroughly on its own, so the education of these guardians as youth is brought up as a way to protect and hone these natures. The soul seems to be as important to the state as it is to the individual body, so the state will be dependent upon the actions and desires of the soul. Education will be necessary to direct the soul and purge the state of destructive ideals. Socrates believes that music, including literature, and gymnastics ought to be taught to the guardians from a young age. Because stories told to the youth often shape the character of the adult, the specific stories of fiction told within the state must also be supervised as to not “…carelessly allow children to hear any casual tales which may be devised by casual persons, and to receive into their minds ideas for the most part the very opposite of those which we should wish them to have when they are grown up (377b)[.]” Socrates then describes how stories of the gods should be articulated. First, stories should only show the gods as wholly good. Many poets of the time would write of devious actions by the gods, but the young guardians-to-be in the just state must not be allowed to believe that these actions could be permissible. Second, the gods should not be seen as transforming their image, because any change for the “wholly good” gods would be into something worse than themselves and a form of trickery. “The gods,” Socrates elaborates, “are not magicians who transform themselves, neither do they deceive mankind in any way (380d).” This would also be a negative influence on the young population, so the poets would not be allowed to describe this. Book 2 of The Republic transitions to Book 3 discussing similar topics.