Analyzing the Theme of Justice in Plato's "Republic"

Updated on May 9, 2018
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Luke works as a middle school English, ELD, social justice, and mindfulness teacher in the sanctuary city, San Jose, CA.

Glaucon Challenges Socrates

In Book 2 of Plato’s Republic, Socrates concludes his elenchus with Thrasymachus. After he does so, Glaucon responds that he is unpleased with Socrates’ performance. Comparing Thrasymachus to a snake that Socrates had merely charmed, Glaucon presents a challenge to Socrates. Glaucon asks, “Do you want to seem to have persuaded us, Socrates, that it is better in every way to be just rather than unjust, or do you want to really persuade us” (Plato 36).

After Socrates responds that he truly wants to persuade his friends, Glaucon renews Thrasymachus’ argument. Glaucon wants to hear “what justice and injustice are, and what power each has when it is just by itself in the soul” (37). In order to satisfy Glaucon’s demands, Socrates must discuss three of Glaucon’s arguments: first, “state what sort of thing people consider justice to be, and what its origins are;” second, “argue that all who practice it do so unwillingly, as something necessary, not as something good;” and third, “argue that they have good reason to act as they do” (37).

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The Ring of Gyges

Wanting to hear a rational defense of justice, Glaucon proceeds with several thought experiments. Skipping to Glaucon’s second argument, he claims “that those who practice [justice] do so unwillingly, because they lack the power to do injustice” (38). In Glaucon’s first thought experiment, he refers to the power and freedom that Gyges of Lydia possesses. In Glaucon’s reference, he explains that Gyges was a shepherd who was caught in a terrible storm where an earthquake created a chasm where he was tending his sheep. Within the chasm, Gyges found a golden ring; later he learned it was a ring of invisibility. The story displays Gyge’s ability “to do injustice with impunity; he is able to do injustice without suffering any bad consequences” (Finch 16).

Glaucon then supposes that there are two such rings, one is worn by a just person, and the other is worn by an unjust person. Remember, the argument Glaucon is discussing is that those who practice justice do so unwillingly; justice is something necessary, not something purely good. Since both men have a ring of invisibility, neither has a need to act upon justice as a necessity (seeing as how he can rape, kill, free persons, or pillage at his own pleasure with no chance of getting caught). Glaucon states that the just person would do no differently than the unjust person. Glaucon reiterates that, “No one believes justice to be a good thing when it is kept private, since whenever either person thinks he can do injustice with impunity, he does it” (39).

Basically, Glaucon uses these two men to make the claim that no one is incorruptible. Moreover, “For someone who did not want to do injustice, given this sort of opportunity, and who did not touch other people’s property, would be thought most wretched and most foolish by everyone aware of the situation” (39). Glaucon ends his second argument with a shameful revelation: even if a man were to be just, “all other men believe that injustice is far more profitable to themselves than is justice.” This man gains nothing from being just; he is a fool.

Ring of Gyges

J. R. R. Tolkien got his idea for the "one ring" from Plato's analogy of the ring of Gyges.
J. R. R. Tolkien got his idea for the "one ring" from Plato's analogy of the ring of Gyges. | Source

The Just vs. Unjust Man

After Glaucon’s revelation of ‘foolish’ behavior, he proceeds to his third and final argument. Continuing with his analogy of the two men, the just and the unjust, he says that the unjust man must be given complete injustice, and the just man must be stripped of all honor and rewards and left with nothing aside from justice. By doing so, with these two extremes, we can better examine who has a better life. The third and final argument is that just men have a good reason to act as they do. For if they do not, the life of the unjust man may be better than the life of a just man. Here we learn that the perfectly unjust man has very persuasive speech, and because of his social standing, he will be able to attain anything he desires within the physical world.

A just man is believed to be unjust and he can receive no external rewards for his justice. The just man is stuck with his own piety and justice, but nothing else. The unjust man is a skilled spin-doctor. He is so skilled at achieving unjust acts, that he can have anything he wants in physical life. In fact, he is so clever at being unjust, the general populace believes him to be just. In the end, Socrates is left with a perplexing question. Is justice intrinsically valuable? That is, is the juice worth the squeeze? Can Socrates prove that justice is valuable outside of the physical world? Is a just man better off than an unjust man? If Socrates cannot show that it is possible for the perfectly just man to be better off than the perfectly unjust man, Socrates has not really defeated Thrasymachus.

If you had the Ring of Gyges (a ring of invisibility), would you do something unjust with it?

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Justice in Plato's Perfect Society

Next, in Book 9 of the Republic, Plato, as Socrates, finally completes his response to the arguments Glaucon posed in Book 2. As Socrates begins to formulate his response, he says he must first define justice by looking at the bigger picture. In order to better define what justice is, Socrates begins by considering what justice is in a city. Here, Plato begins building his ideal city, the Republic. When we look at the city as a whole, we find out that it is made up of individual beings, each with their own specified positions within society, who create the city as if it were a living organism.

As an organism, Plato suggests the city will better thrive if each citizen “contributes his own work for the common use of all” (48). Here we learn that it is human nature to set higher standards of living for ourselves and for those around us. In order to do so, people within the city must work together as a single unit by dividing the labor into categories which best suit the individual. Before luxury can be established within the city, Plato intends to settle matters of war. First, there must be those who guard the city, guardians. As discussed in my previous paper, the topic of guardians expands into Plato’s “Myth of the Metals.” Briefly, there are three types of metals: gold is given to the souls of rulers, silver is given to auxiliaries, and bronze is given to farmers and craftsmen.

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Plato Defines Justice Within the Soul

After Plato’s description of how each individual within the city will be assigned their duties, he again focuses on Glaucon’s first question: state what justice is and what its origins are. Using the modus tollens technique, Plato says, “I expect, then, to find justice in the following way. I think our city, if indeed it has been correctly founded, is completely good” (112). If Plato’s Republic has been correctly founded, which it has, then it is wise, courageous, temperate, and just.

Once Plato describes how each virtue comes to be, he is left with justice. Justice, Plato says, “consists in everyone’s doing his own work–rivals wisdom, temperance, and courage in its contribution to the city’s virtue” (120). On the other hand, injustice, the worst evil one could do to one’s own city, is a “meddling and exchange among [the] three classes” (120). Now that Plato has described what justice is within a city, he must again focus on the individual soul, because Glaucon’s original proposal was what justice is in the individual soul.

Plato describes that just like the city, the soul also has three parts: reason, spirit, and appetite. Justice in the individual soul consists in each part of the soul’s doing its own work. Each of the four city’s virtues are analogous to the virtues of the soul. Within the soul, there are several conflicts that establish that there are separations of the soul. The first conflict is reason versus appetite. The second conflict is appetite versus spirit. The rulers are the rational aspect of the soul, the auxiliaries are the spirited aspect of the soul, and the farmers and craftsmen are the appetitive aspect of the soul. Like Plato’s city, each portion of the soul must observe the chain of command. The appetitive aspect must be subordinate to the spirited aspect, and the spirited aspect must be subordinate to the rational aspect. When this chain of command is not established within one’s soul, we find that complete chaos ensues.

Downfall of Plato's Republic

To answer Glaucon’s third and final argument, the question of if justice is intrinsically valuable, Plato discusses the downfall of his Republic. In Book 8, Plato says that his Republic will not last. Within the city analogy, there are five aspects to consider: the highest chain of command are the rulers, then the soldiers, then the craftspeople, then those with unnecessary appetites, and finally those with unnecessary lawless appetites. In juxtaposition to these, there is also the chain of command within the soul: the highest being rational, followed by spirit, necessary appetites, unnecessary appetites, and finally unnecessary lawless appetites. When observing all of the above, Plato realizes that five types of cities will follow in accordance to the chain of command within a city and within a soul; each getting progressively worse.

As Plato discusses the five types of cities that will come about by means of the five aspects of city and soul, he finally answers Glaucon’s question of whether it is better to be a just or an unjust man. The first type of city is Plato’s Republic; it is ruled by philosopher kings–perfectly just men. As the Republic falls because of failure in eugenics, it will turn into a Timocracy, and will be ruled by lovers of honor. Timocracy is ruled by the spirited aspects, the warriors; there are no true philosophers left. Next, Timocracy will fall because the beget of Timocracy will create rich men. The city begins to think that money is what is needed to become a good ruler instead of wisdom or honor; this is Oligarchy–necessary appetites. In the following generation, once people start thinking money is what truly matters, they will no longer value the hard work in which the Oligarches did to achieve their wealth. This next generation, a Democracy, will be ruled by unnecessary appetites. They want freedom with no restraints, they want all and they want all for themselves. Finally, Plato strikes his final blow against the question of whether justice or injustice should be sought after.

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Justice is Intrinsically Valuable

It is true that a completely unjust man will have all he could ever desire. He will have complete power and can have any luxurious possession he desires. The final type of ruling is Tyranny. Here, we learn that the soul of a tyrant is controlled by unnecessary lawless appetites. For many, this may spark a warning sign immediately. Since we previously learned that in order to live right, the appetitive aspect of the soul must be controlled by the spirited and the rational aspects, a man living purely on appetite alone can bring no good to the world.

Plato says the tyrant is like a completely unjust man. He is a slave to his own passion; he desires ever more; he is a bottomless pit of self desire. Plato says that the tyrant is the completely unjust man and the philosopher king is a completely just man. The philosopher king is much happier than the tyrant in his soul. The tyrant is never happy; he cannot be satisfied and is in fact starving for satisfaction. With this epic analogy completed, Plato has finally explained why justice is intrinsically valuable. The just will reap unlimited benefits within the soul. The unjust–tyrant– will be in constant quest of satisfaction, because of this, he will never be satisfied. Truly, one should be in constant desire to achieve the philosopher king status.

Justice in Plato's "Republic"

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    © 2018 JourneyHolm

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