What is Justice?

In this essay I assemble the final definition of justice that is described by Socrates in “The Republic”, by drawing upon the text as a whole. I start and center myself on the passage in which Socrates seems to give the final and most comprehensive definition of justice in “The Republic” (book IV, 443 c,d,e). I then expand it to include the other pieces of information spread among the other books concerning the just soul (and its opposite). I focus especially on books VIII, IX, and X and show that the notion of the just and unjust soul there is compatible with the one in book IV, and continues to build and improve on it. Finally, I test the concept of justice we have obtained against different examples given in the text about the just and unjust man, and use this to obtain greater insight into the concept of Justice that “The Republic” offers us.

Before we approach the definition of justice in “The Republic”, a key concept we must clarify is moderation. Moderation is a virtue that when applied to a city as a whole, makes the people work together as one (“sing the same chant together”), and most importantly, moderation also implies a general accord upon which class should rule. (432a) Thus, when extending the analogy to the soul, moderation means that there is an agreement over which parts should rule (namely calculated part ruling with the support of the spirited part ruling over the desiring part). (442 a, b).

Now that we have established what the virtue of moderation is for the soul, we can approach the definition of justice given near the end of book IV:

“But in truth justice was, as it seems, something of this sort; however, not with respect to a man’s minding his external business, but with respect to what is within, with respect to what truly concerns him and his own. He doesn’t let each part in him mind other people’s business or the three classes in the soul meddle with each other, but really sets his own house in good order and rules himself; he arranges himself, becomes his own friend, and harmonizes, the three parts, exactly like three notes in a harmonic scale, lowest, highest, and middle. And if there are some other parts in between, he binds them together and becomes entirely one from many, moderate and harmonized. Then, and only then, he acts, if he does act in some way – either concerning the acquisition of money, or the care of the body, or something political, or concerning private contracts. In all these actions he believes and names a just and fine action one that preserves and helps to produce this condition, and wisdom the knowledge that supervises this action; while he believes and names an unjust action one that undoes this condition, and lack of learning, in its turn, the opinion that supervises this action”(443 c,d,e)

So first of all, justice is about a man’s minding of his own internal business, with respect to what truly concerns him. The idea of “minding one’s own business” is of critical importance to the concept of justice and the just soul in “The Republic”, and thus appears numerous times alongside it (369e, 370a, 433a, 433e, 434a, 434c, 441 e, 441 e, 442 a,b, 442 b, 586c, 587a). In fact, the first definition of justice given after the founding of the city-in-speech, is that each man should mind his own business (433a). This means that for the soul, each of the different parts (calculative, spirited, desiring) should only stick to what “his nature made him naturally most fit” (433a) and not to involve themselves in the business of other parts (441 e).

So what “truly concerns” each part of the soul? That answer is best offered in book IX, which can be viewed as a natural extension to book IV. Socrates argues that both the desires and the spirit can easily be deceived, and thus need the calculative part to guide them. (586c) Thus, to give an example outside of the Republic, if one should feel a strong thirst and thus have a desire to drink, and he would drink randomly without using his reason, drinking any water he sees on the street, or saltwater if he lives near the sea, he would not only damage his health, but he will defeat the nature of his desire. For his desire stemmed from then need to drink potable water, not any kind of water. Thus, blindly following one’s desires, without using reason, could lead to doing things in opposition to what the true nature of what the desires required. Since reason is the only part of the soul that can pursue truth, it should naturally be the one that leads. Only reason can show the path to how to truly satisfy your desires and your spirit (587 a). Alongside it will be the spirited part, which, if we follow the analogy with the city-in-speech, gives reason the strength to rule over the desires and to enforce its will. The desires themselves, even if they are not the masters of the soul, are still very important. The unnecessary and dangerous ones will be kept under control, and the proper ones will move the soul forward, along with the spirit, and create the need for curiosity and wisdom in the calculative part of the soul, so as to be able to be truly satisfied.

So, following the definition of Justice in book IV, Socrates arranges the parts in the soul and places them in the proper order of mastery according to nature (444 d) and thanks to this internal harmony the soul becomes able to act as one. This internal harmony of the soul is strikingly similar to the state of a moderate soul. The difference comes from that whereas moderation is a static state of affairs, justice is a dynamic power that continuously tries to bring the soul into a state of being moderate (433b, 444d). Thus, whenever a person does something that helps maintain or encourage this state, it will be considered a just action, and when he does something that damages the fine equilibrium of moderation in the soul, it will be considered an unjust action.

Once the just soul has been defined, the unjust soul is usually given its opposite traits. The greatest injustice by far would be parts of the soul taking over each other’s role (434 c). A disharmony and faction between the three parts of the soul can also lead to injustice, by establishing an order contrary to nature (444 b, 444 d). Furthermore, the discussion of the unjust soul is continued and greatly developed in books VIII and IX. There, each of the 4 other cases of regimes in city and soul are considered and shown to be unjust.  The timocratic man’s soul is unjust because in it spirit rules over calculation (548c) and similarly the oligarchic man’s soul is unjust because it is ruled by desires (553d). The democratic man is ruled by random desires (of which many unnecessary), without any filtering by calculation, and thus it follows that it’s unjust (561 b, c). The man with the tyrannical soul is ruled by a strong individual desire, such as love, which overpowers all other things in the soul and rules unquestioned. (577 d,e; 579 e). All of the four cases have the common team of a master in the soul contrary to nature, by submitting calculation to the other parts, and thus the examples fit our overall definition of justice we obtained from book IV.

Book IX also adds some depth and nuance to the concept of justice by offering us an image of the human soul as being made of three creatures: a multi-headed beast (the desires), a lion (the spirit), and a human (the calculative part, or so it seems at first). Here, an image is useful for three reasons. First, it explains and makes accessible the concept of a just soul to a broader audience, since imagination is the first part of the divided line, which is Socrates’ epistemological framework, and thus the first part of somebody’s journey to true knowledge. Second, it serves as a persuasive mechanism, because of the intentional choice of creatures for each part (clearly most people will instinctively not choose to be ruled by a multi-headed beast instead of a human or a lion). Third, it serves to encourage the reader to participate in the philosophical undertaking by interpreting the image (see this essay for a detailed discussion on the topic of images).

One of the interesting facts stated in the image is the infinite recursion of a human within a human. Since the lion is specifically said to be “by far the greatest”, we are given the image of smaller and smaller humans inside each other. This recursion leads to a surprise conclusion: that the calculative part itself would be able to contain desires and spirit. Since this is a strong and paradoxical statement, and it is not developed in “The Republic”, we may intuit that the intention is to show us a similar but different picture of a soul, in which a one-to-one relation with the former does not quite work. Thus, even if the soul is divided into different parts (the existence of different parts of the soul except the ones named in book IV is hinted on at least two different occasions: 443, 603 d), the concept of justice still works (589). Thus, we are shown the flexibility of the notion of justice we have assembled so far from the text. Justice exists as long as we have a soul, made of different parts, each with its own distinct nature, which can aspire to a clear state of moderation.

The core rule that we have to keep in mind when deciding if an action is just or not is this: if the action helps preserve or encourages the state of moderation in the soul, it is just. If it distances or stops the soul from achieving a moderate state, it is unjust. Now that we have a definition of justice that fits the descriptions given in books 4-10, and explored its meanings, we stand to gain more insight to the concept by applying it to the examples given in the Republic.

The first example worth considering is 589e. There, Socrates gives the example of somebody who steals gold by following his desires (“enslaves the best part of himself to the most depraved”). Thus, we see that an action that stems from a non-moderate soul, is an unjust action. In other words, an action that originates from desires or spirit ruling over reason is unjust.

A more difficult set of examples to approach are the one at 443a. Here, Glaucon only unquestionably confirms Socrates’ assumptions about the just man, letting the reader wonder about the exact thinking process that stands behind these decisions. Thus, let us here go step by step and see how the Republic’s concept of justice works in these situations.

“And as for temple robberies, thefts, and betrayals, either of comrades in private or cities in public, wouldn’t this man be beyond them?”

“Yes, he would be beyond them”

“And, further, he would in no way whatsoever be faithless in oaths or other agreements”

“Of course not.”

So first of all, if these actions stem from the desiring part or the spirited part ruling over the calculative part, then they will not be committed by the just man. He will not steal because of pure greed, nor betray just for the sake of victory at all costs. But what happens if there is a case in which committing theft will help the soul be moderate, and will be a decision promoted by the calculative part, pensively ruling alongside the spirited part over the desires? Will then not a just man steal? For example, wouldn’t a man who needs to feed his children dying of hunger, entirely because of causes outside his power, not be just in stealing food?

A possible solution to this can be found in Socrates’ theory of the forms. Since the forms are unchanging, there can be definite truths out there that may be “seen” by the adequately trained philosophers. Thus, since the truths are the same, there are definite truths about how one should behave, and it may just be that there is an absolute truth out there that a man using his pure reason (à la Kant) will arrive at, which states that it is not “rational” under any circumstance to commit “temple robberies, thefts, and betrayals” or be “faithless in oaths or other agreements”.

In fact, “The Republic” insinuates at least three times that the notion of justice we are given can be further polished and improved upon. It starts humbly at 444a, right after defining it: “If we should assert that we have found the just man and city and what justice really is in them, I don’t suppose we’d seem to be telling an utter lie”. Next, at the beginning of book VIII, when Glaucon recounts how they got to that point in the discussion, he says: “[…] saying that you would class a city such as you described, and the man like it, as good. And you did this, as it seems, in spite of the fact that you had a still finer city and men to tell of.” (543 c,d; 544 a). Then, in book X, when introducing the notion of a pure soul in contrast to the one we had been operating until that point, Socrates says that “one will find it far fairer and discern justice and injustice and everything we have now gone through more distinctly.”

This humbleness of “The Republic”, coupled with an enticing notion that there is more to explore about the concept of justice, fits in with the interpretation of it as a text that serves to educate and stimulate the reader in philosophical thinking. After thoroughly analyzing the concept of justice contained within, and developing it along with the text, it is up to us, the readers, to build and refine the concept further.

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Images in Plato’s Republic

The moment is 487 e. The place is “The Republic”. Socrates has just established the numerous qualities that a philosopher has: “a rememberer, a good learner, magnificent, charming, and a friend and kinsman of truth, justice, courage, and moderation” (487a). Yet, when he tries to conclude that they are the ones who should rule a city, Ademaintus interrupts and raises the problem that in practice, most philosophers are vicious persons, and the rare ones that turn out to be perfectly decent are considered useless to the cities (487 a-d).

In this paper, I give three reasons for why an image is needed at this point in the text and why it is much more useful than a simple direct answer. I then use each of these three reasons as a starting point to analyze the issue of images in “The Republic”.

First of all, images are the most fundamental type of understanding, of which we are all capable of (509 e, 510 a, 511 d). Even if an image is only a remote likeness of the original object, it still alerts us to its existence, and starts us on the path to knowledge. Thus, images are the first part of the divided line, serving as a building block for reaching the more advanced levels of understanding (trust, thought, intellection) [511d]. Therefore, images can be used to introduce advanced and unfamiliar concepts to a wide audience. In this case, it ensures than most people, regardless if they have a philosophic nature or not, have a better chance of grasping the main ideas of the answer.

Because of this, Socrates also uses images to introduce two of the most complex ideas in “The Republic”: for his metaphysical and epistemological model of the world he uses the divided line, and to introduce the Form of the Good he uses the metaphor of the Sun.

The second reason for using an image is that when you want to introduce an idea that is directly opposed to somebody’s current beliefs, just plainly stating it will usually result in outright rejection. A more deft approach would be to show an instantiation of what you are trying to tell (a thought experiment), and leave to the listener to discover the pattern behind it and understand why he was initially wrong. Thus, if Socrates wants to show his contemporaries that they do not know what kind of ruler they truly need, just plainly stating it will not have the desired effect. Instead, by showing them a third party, a hypothetical ship on which the crewman do not know their own interests, and on which they ignore the true pilot, he softens the blow and makes them realize indirectly at first how they are wrong. Later, he makes the situation very clear: “You’ll make no mistake in imaging the statesman now ruling to be the sailors we were just now speaking of, and those who are said by them to be useless and gossipers about what’s above to be the true pilots”. (489 c)

It is easier for a human to reject a purely abstract idea instinctively, whereas an image (here taken as a representation) can appeal to his senses, and rooted from there slowly grow into new ideas, while removing the old. Thus, the most controversial idea in Socrates’ view, that of choosing a philosopher-king as ruler (473 c, d, e), is supported by using two images: the ship of state allegory (showing that people do not actually know what is best for them) and the allegory of the cave (showing the horrendous educational state of the general population as regards to reality, the possibility of some escaping it, and the journey of a hypothetical philosopher-king).

Third, since images are a metaphorical representation of reality, which is incredibly complex and nuanced, they can contain much more subtle information than the plain statement of an idea. Using an example implies choosing different objects for your image. Each object in itself has dozens if not hundreds of attributes (such as name, color, shape etc.), some of which the speaker might choose intentionally as symbols, others which are just there because of the nature of the object, but which might be interpreted by others to mean something. Thus, the stupefied owner of the ship in the Ship of State metaphor can be regarded as the people in a democracy, the rich in an oligarchy, the ruling class in an aristocracy, or whoever else has the power to elect the leader. The stargazer himself is a very important choice of an image, since it could be interpreted that the stars that he knows about are the Forms.

By this very attempt to understand and interpret the image, an interlocutor can engage with the philosophical ideas contained, and build upon them depending on his own thoughts.  Thus, by using images, at a meta-level, Plato enables us to bring ourselves into the text, to try to understand it using our patterns of thoughts, and maybe to take it further then he originally could. It is not accidental that the most famous thoughts of Plato that survive in our popular cultures are images such as the metaphor of the cave or that of the ship. When treating philosophy as a social endeavor, as dialectic, using images can prove to be much more fruitful and stimulating than abstractly stating your framework of ideas.

At the same time, images themselves can be a hidden danger. As an oratorical device, for all their benefits, they might actually serve to distract the interlocutor, and without offering a clearly stated answer, to convince him of something that is untrue. Thus, their elegance or beauty might start to distract us from their initial purpose, and even worse, we might become so accustomed and attached to them that we do not want to let them go. Plato himself tells us of the dangers that images entail, using an image (the metaphor of the cave) to show us how an image (the shadows on the wall) can manipulate us.

This again shows us the educational nature of “The Republic” as a whole. “The Republic” is itself an image of the philosophical inquiry, and thus serves as a stepping stone in one’s search for the truth. Plato is using the richness and full potential of imagery, of its positive and of its negative aspects, not only because of the points made above, but also to educate the reader about imagery itself.

Thus images can serve both for showing the truth (by having a universal audience, avoiding instinctive negative reactions), and hiding it by distracting and offering the illusion of an answer. They can be the foundation that will start somebody on the path to the Forms (the divided line), or a prison of ignorance and complacency (the cave). They can be the birth of philosophy or the death of it.


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Should we be just?

Prompt: “What, if anything, has been lacking in the defense of justice given by Socrates, with which Book 1 of Plato’s Republic concluded?”

„And this must be considered, most simple Socrates: the just man everywhere has less than the unjust man” (343 b) – with this statement begins a discussion that lasts for the later part of Book 1 of „The Republic”. Socrates tries to argue to the contrary, by approaching the problem from numerous perspectives, and by juggling with logic and with abstract concepts, but the lack of a solid foundation is preventing him from reaching a good conclusion. Thus, despite his best efforts, and in contrast with most of his interlocutors, I find myself firmly unconvinced by his arguments in favor of being just.

First of all, Socrates and his interlocutors have yet to define what justice and being just is. Part of the reason why they’ve been unable to get a definite grasp of the concept so far, is because they consider it to be a single vague entity, for which it is hard to find an all-encompassing definition. They have not tried to break justice down into its constituent parts. For example, they could try separating it into an individual point of view („how should one live his life?”, „what is the right thing to do for me now?”) and a group point of view („how should members of a city behave?”, „what is the right thing to do for the city and its inhabitants?”).

Furthermore, Socrates chooses the abstract approach over the specific (348 a). Instead of listing specific things belonging to the just and to the unjust man, and comparing them, Socrates gets the permission from his interlocutors to follow a more abstract way of reasoning, as he has done so far, and to continue discussing the issue until they reach a common point of view. It would make his arguments a lot more convincing if he would go into specific cases and details, testing his theories and showing how the just man has a better life than the unjust.

For example, let us consider Socrates’ arguments about the art of ruling. He separates it from the art of making money (346 d), and from other benefits that people may draw from it (342 e). He states that arts should cover different things, and each should “provide us with some peculiar benefit and not a common one” (346 a). So, all that remains is the art of ruling in a pure form, where a ruler only governs for the benefit of his people (346 e).

In theory, it sounds good, but in practice, even if we separate the art of ruling from the art of money-making, they will both still be in the human which is in the position of power. In fact, that human will probably have a large set of arts concerning his current position: the art of attaining and maintaining power, the art of propaganda, the art of making money, the art of negotiating, the art of manipulation, etc. Thus, even though the art of ruling may imply a purely selfless act in abstract theory, in practice it often goes together with other arts that are not so kind to the subject. And if some of these arts imply just actions by definition, and some imply unjust actions, can we really say about their practitioner that he is a just person, or he is an unjust person? Maybe we shouldn’t view morality in such black and white terms, and we should start to appreciate its grey nuances.

Therefore, another flaw in Socrates’ arguing is ignoring the middle ground. Socrates intentionally steers the discussion into talking about „perfect justice” and „perfect injustice” (348 b). They only compare the extreme cases, and they ignore the possibility in which someone would act both justly and unjustly depending on the situation and on his/her own interests.  For all we know, the middle ground might actually lead to a better life than the two extremes.

Using these extremes of justice and injustice, later in the book, Socrates argues that being perfectly unjust means being unable to work with others. He then tries to further extend this to also apply to an individual human: „And then, when it is one man, I suppose it will do the same thing which it naturally accomplishes. First it will make him unable to act, because he is at faction and is not of one mind with himself, and second, an enemy both to himself and to just men” (352 a). The analogy with the groups of people cracks at this point. The reason Socrates gave for why groups of unjust people could not function is because of „faction and difference” (352 a). How does that work for an individual human? Can a human be divided into pieces, which can be just or unjust, and which can then have conflicts between each other? Socrates never touches on this question.

Later in his argument for the just life, one of Socrates’ most important conclusions is that „the just man is like the wise and the good, but the unjust man like the bad and unlearned” (350 c). The conclusion is based on the fact that the unjust man is not knowledgeable about justice. For Socrates says „The man who knows is wise” and „The wise man is good”. Thus, if the unjust man was knowledgeable, he would be both wise and good. Socrates gives no satisfying explanation for why the unjust man cannot be knowledgeable. He ignores the possibility of a man who possesses knowledge about justice, and thus is both good and wise, but which chooses to act in an unjust manner.

Socrates also tries to use the gods to prove his points. He says that the gods are just, and thus „the unjust man will also be an enemy to the gods, […], and the just man a friend” (352 b). Yet, Socrates does not explain why the gods are just. He takes it for granted, without further questioning. just as he doesn’t question why justice is considered a virtue.

This issue, of justice being a virtue, is one of the biggest problems with Socrates’ arguing. His final conclusion, that „the just soul and the just man will have a good life, and the unjust man a bad one” (353 e) depends on the assumption that „justice is a virtue of the soul, and injustice, vice” (348 c, 353 e). Socrates so far never tries to question why this is so, nor does he ever explain why we should consider justice (a concept for which we have no definition yet) a virtue.

Socrates himself recognizes this problem, and at the end of Book 1 (354 b, c), admits he was rushing into tangents without solving the initial problem on which they depend: „So long as I do not know what the just is, I shall hardly know whether it is a virtue or not and whether the one who has it is unhappy or happy” (354 c).

Thus, the first book of „The Republic” ends on a humble note. Socrates and his interlocutors have only started to test the waters around the concept of justice, trying to figure out what it is and how to approach the subject. They experimented with some common sense definitions of justice, which quickly proved to be inadequate, and have seen the danger of rushing headlong into more complicated problems which depend on the definition of justice. For before they can even approach the problem of if we should be just or not, they still have to find an appropriate definition and paradigm for the concept of justice and of being just.

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