Ancient Concepts of "Justice"

Updated on July 23, 2019
Larry Slawson profile image

Larry Slawson received his Masters Degree at UNC Charlotte. He specializes in Russian and Ukrainian History.



In ancient times, the concept of “justice” was examined and debated by numerous thinkers, including Plato, Homer, Hesiod, Solon, Heraclitus, Protagoras, and Socrates. These intellectuals attempted to contemplate the true meaning of justice in regard to both society and individuals. The concepts they proposed vary quite significantly from one thinker to the next. Plato, in turn, drew much of his definition regarding justice from these early views, as he sought the true meaning behind what constituted a “just” society and individual. In doing so, Plato effectively defined justice in a way that fit an idealistic society. But, is it sufficient to conclude that Plato effectively defined justice in a manner that can be applied to everyday life?


Homer's View of Justice

Homer became one of the first thinkers to define the concept of justice in regards to both the individual, and society at large. To Homer, justice represented order within society and remained intricately connected to the notion of arête (excellence). According to Homer, for an individual to be “just” they must strive for excellence in all aspects of their life, and know their place within society. Kingdoms needed to be ruled by strong leaders (only 1 ruler at a time) that reigned supreme. According to Homer, kings knew all, were completely above criticism, and made no mistakes. A king/subject relationship was vastly important, and when this relationship was observed properly a “just” society resulted. Stepping out of ones’ place, however, disrupted order which, in turn, led to disorder and injustice. Homer demonstrates this concept in the following section of the Iliad by describing a man named Thersites:

“Mind your tongue, Thersites. Better think twice

About being the only man here to quarrel with his betters.

I don’t care how bell-toned an orator you are,

You’re nothing but trash. There’s no one lower

In all the army that followed Agamemnon to Troy.

You have no right even to mention kings in public,

Much less badmouth them so you can get to go home” (Steinberger, 6).

This notion is strongly reflective of modern military command structures. Individuals are not allowed to question the motives of their officers, as it leads to disorder/injustice and puts everyone’s life at risk, especially in times of war.

Additionally, Homer concluded that vengeance was intricately connected to justice as well. Homer proclaimed that individuals should strive to avenge crimes when they are committed, as crimes create disorder within the world. This notion seems largely reminiscent of the modern day concept of revenge. “Wrongs” must be corrected through punishing those who committed the crime. By avenging a crime, one returns order and balance within society.


Hesiod's View of Justice

Building upon concepts proposed by Homer, Hesiod defined his version of justice in a slightly different way. To Hesiod, “justice” could not be equated with vengeance or violence. Rather, Hesiod believed that justice was directly connected to notions of peace and tranquility. In addition, Homer’s earlier belief that proclaimed leaders knew all, and could make no mistakes was not shared with Hesiod. Hesiod believed that leaders, such as judges, could be easily corrupted. This corruption, he proclaimed, would lead to the destruction of the state and individual: “But for those who live for violence and vice, Zeus, Son of Kronos, broad-browed god, decrees a just penalty, and often a whole city suffers for one bad man and his damn fool schemes” (Steinberger, 11). This concept of justice seems largely similar to the idea of Karma (what goes around comes around). Hesiod believed that if leaders sought justice and ruled in a good manner, they could expect society to “blossom” (Steinberger, 11). If they ruled in a corrupt fashion, injustice would befall society and lead to destruction: “Plan harm for another and harm yourself most, the evil we hatch always comes home to roost” (Steinberger, 11).


Solon's View of Justice

Solon continued to develop this notion of justice proposed by both Homer and Hesiod. Solon, like Hesiod, believed that injustice brings many evils to a city (Steinberger, 14). To Solon, the gods did not like injustice and would, in turn, reign down misery upon societies who practiced unlawfulness. Thus, in Solon’s society, the law became an effective means of exacting justice: “…Lawfulness puts all things into good order and makes them sound” (Steinberger, 14). Differing from Hesiod, Solon shared the Homeric view of equating vengeance with justice in his belief that the state could use force on individuals who did not follow the law. Moreover, Solon felt that social imbalances would result in the downfall of society. Maintaining balance within society was the key to maintaining justice. Too much wealth, for instance, leads to arrogance by the rich, which leads to social gaps and injustice (largely similar to the arguments proposed by the “Occupy Wall Street” movement). Thus, Solon was a huge advocate of wealth redistribution as a means of preventing these gaps from even occurring: “For excess gives birth to arrogance, whenever great prosperity attends” (Steinberger, 14).

The Sophists

The evolving notion of justice continued with the sophists, Heraclitus and Protagoras, who believed in the “relativity of truth” concept. To both Heraclitus and Protagoras, justice was relevant to individuals and societies. Each felt as though laws should be created by individual city-states and kingdoms to fit their particular needs/situations. Protagoras proclaimed that leaders needed to define justice for their own city-states. This is very similar to the modern notion of the United States and the Soviet Union. Whereas American leaders built their society around the principles of democracy and a free-market economy, the Soviets declared their society to be a workers paradise under the curtain of communism. According to sophists, laws served as a means to quench violence, which was equated to being similar to a fire: “Willful violence must be quenched more than a fire” (Steinberger, 20). Violence, in essence, is able to spread easily and get out of control very quickly. Thus, laws were like a wall of a city, as they protect humans from one another (Steinberger, 20). Obedience to law (justice) is supreme, in regards to violence, and will overcome its fury.



Following these various thinkers, Socrates introduced a newfound means of explaining truth, morality, and justice that served as a cornerstone to Plato’s future ideas. Unlike the sophists, Heraclitus and Protagoras, Socrates countered the notion of the “relativity of truth” by proclaiming that absolute truths existed instead. Whereas sophists believed that individual societies needed to determine laws for their particular forms of government, Socrates believed that only one form of justice existed. An individual came to understand justice and morality by being open-minded, and questioning themselves (and others) constantly through the “Socratic method.” Socrates believed that all humans are born with innate ideas of absolute morality/justice. Bringing out these truths, however, is extremely difficult and can be compared to the difficulty of giving birth.

Additionally, Socrates believed that a truly “just” individual is one who lives a truthful and moral existence, and strives for arête in all aspects of their life. When placed on trial for corrupting the youth of Athens, Socrates refused to use rhetoric (as advised by the sophists) as a means of avoiding execution. Socrates believed that he needed to maintain truth in all situations and proclaimed that justice requires great courage to uphold. In the Apology, Socrates equates this courage to the bravery of a soldier in battle:

“This is the truth of the matter, gentlemen of the jury: wherever a man has taken a position that he believes to be best, or has been placed by his commander, there he must I think remain and face danger, without a thought for death or anything else, rather than disgrace” (Steinberger, 153).

In a way, Socrates seems a lot like Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi in their pursuit of justice. Facing the ever-present threat of violence and death, each pressed forward through perseverance and courageousness so that justice could be achieved.



Following his execution, Plato, one of Socrates’ greatest students, incorporated many of the same ideas of justice from his former mentor while also expanding upon ideas presented from previous thinkers. In his book the Republic, Plato uses Socrates as the main character in order to define his own version of justice and morality. Much like Socrates, Plato believed in absolute truths. Within the Republic, Plato consistently rejects ideas proposed by the sophists (like Heraclitus and Protagoras) that proclaimed justice is relative to individuals and societies. Through the concept of arête (originally proposed by Homer), Plato argues that individuals must lead fulfilling lives in which they strive to excel in everything they do. This is the first step to becoming a “just” individual, and achieving a “just” society.

According to Plato, humans possess a tripartite soul that is divided into appetites (pleasures), spirit (ideals), and the mind (rationality). Comparing the soul to a chariot pulled by two horses, Plato concludes that one must keep the two horses (appetites and spirit) under control in order to continue moving forward. Too much “spirit” turns one into a fanatic, whereas too much “appetite” transforms an individual into a hedonist. Radical environmentalist groups and alcoholics, for instance, are good examples of what happens when a person cannot keep their “chariot” under control. A “just” person, therefore, is one who can balance his tripartite soul effectively. In doing so, an individual is able to achieve arête.

Ideas of balance and control continue into Plato’s description of a “just” society. According to Plato, a “just” society is comprised of three classes that include: craftspeople, auxiliaries, and the guardians. The ideal form of government for this type of society is not democratic (which Socrates favored), but rather a republic led by one class of people (guardians), and one supreme leader known as the “philosopher king” (which sounds largely similar to the Homeric view of having only one leader). For this society to be “just,” Plato argues that each class must practice a particular form of arête. Craftspeople should practice the virtue of “temperance,” auxiliaries should maintain the virtue of “courage,” whereas the guardians should practice the virtue of “wisdom.” When all of these ideals are practiced, in conjunction with each individual striving to achieve arête (through the maintaining of a well-balanced soul), a fourth virtue arises within society called “justice.”

Plato believed that his ideal society was largely possible through the leadership of the guardians and “philosopher king.” Differing with Socrates significantly, Plato did not believe one became wise through questioning themselves and others (by using the “Socratic method”). Instead, Plato argued that people are born with innate ideas of knowledge and wisdom. Because of this, Plato argued that the guardians and “philosopher king” could be effective leaders for his ideal Republic since (through their wisdom and knowledge) they knew what constituted a “just” society and would pursue the greater good.


As seen, Plato’s concept of justice greatly expanded or contradicted conceptions of justice defined by earlier thinkers. Was Plato successful in defining justice? To a certain degree, he is. Plato’s view of justice, however, seems to only be sufficient in regards to an idealistic society. Additionally, Plato tends to switch back and forth between ideas and, at times, seemingly contradicts himself on numerous occasions. For instance, Plato did not like fictional stories. He felt that such stories were lies and seemingly immoral/unjust because of the harm they can inflict to society at large: “The young can’t distinguish what is allegorical from what isn’t, and the opinions they absorb at that age are hard to erase and apt to become unalterable” (Steinberger, 193). Yet, Plato’s book the Republic can be classified as a fictional book. Since he did not like these types of stories, it is interesting that Plato chose to express his ideas of justice and morality within a fictitious form. Moreover, Plato believed that the “noble lie” was acceptable for the guardian class to practice in his version of a “just” society. If truths are absolute, as he proclaims, a lie should either be right or wrong. Is a lie ever truly good? In a sense, his argument in favor of absolutes, therefore, does not seem to be adequately addressed.

Assuming that we live in an ideal world, however, Plato’s version of a “just” society seems reasonable. A “philosopher king” would be the perfect choice for ruling a society, since one leader can make quick decisions and not get bogged down in the process of debating an issue (like we see in democracies). But, again, this whole concept relies entirely upon living in an ideal world with a king that is truly a “just” individual. In a realistic world, this type of society does not sound possible. Instead, it sounds more like an oligarchy or single-party government (like the Soviet Union). As experienced throughout history, these forms of government usually have negative consequences (especially in regard to the common people).

Which philosopher (or group) was most correct in their view of "justice?"

See results

Works Cited:


"Hesiod." Wikipedia. July 03, 2018. Accessed July 03, 2018.

"Homer." Wikipedia. July 03, 2018. Accessed July 03, 2018.

Kraut, Richard. "Socrates." Encyclopædia Britannica. June 22, 2018. Accessed July 03, 2018.

Meinwald, Constance C. "Plato." Encyclopædia Britannica. May 11, 2018. Accessed July 03, 2018.

"Solon." Wikipedia. July 03, 2018. Accessed July 03, 2018.

"What Do the Scales of Justice Stand For?" Reference. Accessed July 03, 2018.


Steinberger, Peter. Readings in Classical Political Thought. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2000. Print.

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Larry Slawson


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      • Larry Slawson profile imageAUTHOR

        Larry Slawson 

        18 months ago from North Carolina

        Thanks Dora! Yes, I believe the historical background of these individuals, particularly Homer, definitely influenced a lot of their thinking. A far different mindset from more modern thinking haha.

      • MsDora profile image

        Dora Weithers 

        18 months ago from The Caribbean

        Very unique topic. Thanks for the research and the presentation. Some of these views, for example, Homer's on punishment are a bit uncomfortable but his background and mindset may have influenced his conclusions.


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