Does Justice Exist?


Plato

Plato

In Book I of The Republic, we find Socrates initially challenged by Thrasymachus, who seems to state in a very aggressive manner, that justice is the advantage of the stronger (338c),  Socrates successfully refutes his argument by dissecting basic conceptions of justice presented. In the beginning of the second book, after Thrasymachus’ sullen withdrawal, Glaucon, excited by the debate, introduces 3 divisions of goods and asks Socrates to prescribe justice to the group he believes it belongs in (358a).  The first group Glaucon introduces are goods that are desired for their own sake, such as joy (357b), the second are goods which we desire both for its own sake and the consequences it brings, giving healthy being an example of this (357c). Finally he presents the third kind of good which is, like the art of money-making, beneficial for us only in virtue of their consequences (357c). Socrates is asked to choose where he would place justice and, without hesitating, believes that it belongs in the highest class of goods, that is, the second group mentioned because those who value it will be ‘blessed with happiness’[1] (358a). Now after hearing this Glaucon wants to hear justice praised by itself, not for its consequences[2], (358d) and attempts to reignite the debate with Thrasymachus conception of justice, whereby he believes that if people had the power to be unjust and get away with it; they would. Nonetheless, they are unable to do so resulting in having to come to an agreement to ensure peace in the form of laws and covenants (358e-359a). He tells us of the shepherd in the Gyges of Lydia, where a ring grants him invisibility, ultimately using it for mischief and unjust means- Glaucon believes this will be the fate of all men if such a ring were to come into their hands (359c-360d). He begins to paint the picture of a cunning unjust man, able to commit unjust acts while parading around with the reputation of a just man, both reaping benefits from his own unjust actions and ‘honours and rewards’ for his appearance of upholding justice (361a-c). Conversely the just man would be stripped of his possessions and reputation; leaving him poor and in disrepute (361c). He asks Socrates to show us how we will be able to call the just man happier[3]. Here Glaucon’s brother, Adeimantus, interjects intending to improve upon the challenge that his brother has proposed (362d). Adeimantus begins to talk of the appearance of justice and how ‘fathers speak to their sons’ praising the reputation that justice leads to and the benefits of being known as just (363a). Adeimantus goes on to talk of poets and justice, that the importance lies in the appearance of it,  when finally he reaches his point of asking justice or injustice beholds on its possessor in itself (367b), asking to hear how justice ‘because of its very self- benefits its possessors and how injustice harms them’ (367d). Socrates finally has a chance to talk where he praises them for playing devil’s advocate so well and doubts that these are their true opinions (368b)- believing he should rise to the defence of justice, he begins his argument. I will outline Socrates’ argument pointing out what I believe to be weaknesses or inconsistencies along the way ending with a conclusion of whether I believe Socrates has done, through his argument, enough to convince us that justice is better in itself than injustice.

Socrates talks of needing to see the argument clearly and gives the example of seeing letters from a distance that he will need to somehow increase the scope of the argument so that it’s components can be seen clearer (368d). He begins with looking at justice on the scale of a city (368e)- where multiple souls make up the state so after literally seeing the bigger picture, we can revert back to the individual with a clearer sense of what or how to investigate the matter.  However, the analogy may commit a fallacy of composition as it seems to want to investigate the whole of a state in order to find the answer to what it considers to be its part, the individual, the definition of justice between these two may differ as correctly stated by Socrates himself, there are some differences- such as the individual not being self-sufficing[4] (369b)

He begins building a city from the ground up, creating the general workforce e.g. cobblers, builders, farmers etc. (369d). Socrates continues to build his city larger with the introduction of more workers and an economy (370c-371e).  Eventually the state has grown into one concentrated entirely on necessary appetitive desires and leading to creating unnecessary ones that will result in war (373d-e). With the introduction of war comes the introduction of an army and the need for a  people not run by appetitive desires, because, according to Socrates, people have a natural aptitude for different things (374c), this may be an obscure statement[5] to us, but at the time of writing it would’ve been accepted. A soldier bred from birth to be a fighter differs from someone who practices it on the ‘side’, the same goes for the introduction of the guardians (364e)- the rulers of the state.

Now the 3 types of people that live within and sustain the existence of the state have been established, that is the person of appetitive desires, the person of spirit, and the wise- Socrates goes onto describe what their lives would entail; Adeimantus argues that, the guardians of the city who have been withheld the riches of the city by Socrates, will not be happy as they are without the material things that make people ‘blessedly happy’ (419a-420a). Socrates explains that their aim is not to find the happiness of one group (420c) but the happiness of the entirety of the state. Socrates develops the analogy of the just state, stating it’s happiness, to later revert back to the just man-  he would have begged the question had he initially told us that the just man is happy for he is just, but the analogy of the state allows us to witness it’s compilation- this compilation will be shown to us in the soul of a man. Socrates again mentions the importance of following each soul’s natural aptitude and the natural amount of happiness will follow from this (421a-c)- if they are able to gain an excess or deficiency of wealth then it will ruin their ability to work as they should (421d-e).

He proclaims the city of beholding the virtues of wisdom, courage, temperance and justice (427e), he starts attributing these to the different sort of groups in the state that they have created; wise to the ruling guardians (428d), courage to the soldiers (429b), temperance is granted to all of the population who have their desires and pleasures controlled by their guardians (431c-d) in order to practice proper regulation not overstepping their marks in terms of desires. So three of the four virtues (432b) have been described and all that is left to locate is the virtue that is justice- Socrates states that we have previously unknowingly stumbled across the idea (432d), and that is that justice is the practice of everyone doing to what they are best suited. He asks us to switch back to the idea of the individual soul (434e) so that we might compare introducing the different parts of the soul to the states components (435b).  Here he has introduced the idea of the soul consisting of different components before arguing against the soul as a single entity- this isn’t confronted until Socrates asks of Glaucon whether we can have the same thing willing to go in opposite directions of itself(436a-b). Socrates here is talking about the theory of non-opposition, the psychological conflict within us when contemplating a task- that ‘that one soul can experience simultaneously opposing attitudes in relation to the same thing, but only if different parts of it are the direct subjects of the opposing attitudes’[6] so he believes that there is at least two parts of the soul. He gives an example of inward confliction, distinguishing between the conflicting parts of spirit and appetite, when talking of ‘Leontius’ where his appetite draws him in to ogle at the bodies of dead men while his spirit tries to resist this desire(439e).

Socrates concludes with Glaucon that a man must be just in the same way as a city if it’s appointed parts of the soul carry out the task to which they are most naturally suited (441d); allowing our rationality to guide us in wisdom and foresight, the spirit abides as an ally (441e) allowing both to rule the appetite in order that the soul practices temperance and is harmonious. We have fulfilled the order of wisdom, courage, temperance and so the soul must be just and just as we have shown the state with these four virtues to be happy so too must we in our souls be happy if we allow the harmony of our soul to be put into the correct order like a ‘musical scale-high, low, and middle’ (443d). As you would remember Adeimantus also asked to be shown why injustice would leave you unhappy and Socrates declares it identical to a civil war as some part may not be doing that to which it is suited or attempting to do more than should be allowed causing a revolt or rebellion (444b). In agreement with Socrates, Glaucon concedes that even with many material riches, if the natural order of your soul is in tatters then the person is in turmoil (445b).

We then resume the argument book 8 where he says that if there are five constitutions of ruling so there must be 5 different stages in the soul also (544e). He declares the aristocracy, the rule of the one, as identical with complete reason and rationality, a timocracy he considers as a ruling of the spirits (549a-550b), oligarchy he believes to be the ruling of necessary appetites (550d-554a), democracy of unnecessary appetites (555b-561e) and finally a tyrannical regime, which would be the most unbalanced and unjust man, as lawless appetites (562a – 571a) showing that the unjust state would be the least desirable, both for the state and soul, as he thoroughly explains its intricacies in the beginning of Book IX. Socrates then gives his first proof as showing that from aristocracy to tyranny, these are ranked in order of happiness and clearly shows as was asked at him all these pages ago, to show that, in itself happiness in justice is desired and injustice shunned (580a-d), very successfully proving the superiority of justice over injustice.  In the second proof we see that Socrates believes that the best means of judging things are experience, reason and argument, of which Philosophers or the truth-loving man are the most skilled in and shows as the philosopher has already experienced the other pleasures and is capable of experiencing deeper pleasures which the truth-loving or honour-loving cannot (580d-583b). The third proof by Socrates is a complex one concerned with the superiority of philosophers that we need not be too concerned with.

To conclude, I believe that this is a very abstract definition that Socrates provides, initially told of justices good then proved after being challenged[7]; and it needs to be considering the result of Book I and how he disregarded most conventional definitions[8] of justice. Earlier I mentioned that the analogy of the state and the microcosm it residing in the soul may commit a fallacy, however Socrates provides a good reply to this in that the state is formed from individuals and so what is contained within that state, such as the virtues, must also be derived from the individuals within that state (435e). Even so, I believe he has built a just city, but one which could never really feasibly exist without oppression and obedience as people would never silently accept a ruler- and I believe that if this state cannot exist, would it not follow that a perfectly just man cannot exist, although this many not seem to be the aim of our essay, whether he succeeds in defending justice relies on how credible the concept of justice is shown to be. Although through his types of ruling government in the soul and the state- replying to Adeimantus and showing the good of justice in itself and why injustice is bad ignoring and devoid of the appearance of it. He also manages to show that a just society would be happy- explaining the harmonious soul ruled by reason rather than an tyrannical unjust one and successfully links this with the soul of a man providing a defence to Glaucon’s challenge of showing that a just man is inherently happy. I believe Socrates replies to both challenges very well and satisfies both brothers, achieving his goal although in modern times his theory of justice has space for criticisms and creates more questions than answers due to its abstract nature.


[1] Kirwan, C. (1965). Glaucon’s Challenge. Phronesis. 10 (2), p162-173.

[2] Ibid

[3] Sachs, D. (1963). A Fallacy in Plato’s Republic. The Philosophical Review. 72 (2), p141-158.

[4] White, N.P (1979). A companion to Plato’s ‘Republic’. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, p. 15

[5] White, N.P (1979). A Companion to Plato’s ‘Republic’. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, p.17

[7] Cross, R.C & Woozley, A.D (1964). Plato’s Republic: A Philosophical Commentary. London: St Martin’s Press, p. 62

[8] Ibid. p.61

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One thought on “Does Justice Exist?

  1. Nice work pointing out that Socrates commits the compositional fallacy when he attempts to argue that society as a whole may be just, and that since society is comprised of individuals, that all individuals are, by nature, just.

    This immediately jumped out at me while reading. Good job.

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