The Opening Conversation

Socrates, Cephalus, Polemarchus, Thrasymachus

The Piraeus is the port settlement on the Phaleron Bay, about five miles southwest of Athens.

The conversation in the Republic takes place in Polemarchus' house in the Piraeus (Republic I.327a, I.328b).
In the Phaedo, Plato casts the good life in terms of the "contemplation" (θεωρία) the soul enjoys in its disincarnate state. A human being is an immortal soul temporarily located in a mortal body. In its disincarnate state, the soul is free from practical concerns and the need to exercise reason to meet them. Its existence is blessed and completely characterized by knowledge of the forms, the objects Socrates asks about when he asks for a definition. The good life for a human being is one in which he or she engages in the love of wisdom to regain, as much as is humanly possible, the existence in contemplation of the forms the soul enjoyed prior to incarnation.

This view in the Phaedo raises a tension whose resolution Plato explores in the Republic.

The suggestion in the early dialogues is that the competency involved in living the good life is a matter of having justice and the traditional virtues, but how this can be true is unclear if, as in the Phaedo, the good life for a human being is a life in imitation of the existence of the soul enjoys in its natural and disincarnate state. On reflection, it seems possible that an unjust life would be better because this life would allow one to spend more time in in contemplation of forms and thus to have a better life than someone whose life is burdened with the demands of justice.

Socrates, in the Republic, takes up this issue. He argues that the just life is better than the unjust life.

Book I of the Republic

The dramatic date of the Republic is uncertain. In Book I, Socrates says it is "summer" (Republic I.350d). Glaucon and Adeimantus are said to have distinguished themselves at the battle of Megara (Republic II.368a). There were battles there in 424 and 409 BCE. The latter date is the more likely, as they would have been too young for the earlier engagement. Book I has the style of a definitional dialogue. Socrates' interlocutors are Cephalus, Polemarchus, and Thrasymachus. The discussion is about justice, what it is and whether it pays.


Cephalus is the father of Polemarchus, Lysias, and Euthydemus (Republic I.328b). Lysias was a speechwriter. In Against Eratosthenes, he says that Pericles persuaded Cephalus to immigrate to Athens (4) and that he established and ran a prosperous shield factory in the Piraeus (8, 19). Cephalus has a common view about justice and happiness. He is rich, near the end of his life, and the conversation turns to how he has benefited from his wealth (Republic I.330d).

He suggests that wealth is good because it removes the need to act unjustly (Republic I.331a). The rich man has no need to risk punishment, either in this world or the next. Justice opposes happiness and tempts a human being to act unjustly to satisfy his desires. Wealth is good because it undermines this temptation and renders such unjust action unnecessary.

  "But, Cephalus, speaking of this very thing, justice, are we to affirm thus without qualification that it is truth-telling and paying back what one has received from anyone, or may these very actions sometimes be just and sometimes unjust? I mean, for example, as everyone I presume would admit, if one took over weapons from a friend who was in his right mind and then the lender should go mad and demand them back, that we ought not to return them in that case and that he who did so return them would not be acting justly—nor yet would he who chose to speak nothing but the truth to one who was in that state.
  You are right, Socrates.
  Then this is not the definition (ὅρος) of justice: to tell the truth and return what one has received" (Republic I.331c).
In this way, the discussion with Cephalus introduces the main question in the Republic. Cephalus understands justice as a burden a human being is sometimes better off without. Socrates thinks that the just life is always better than the unjust life and that injustice is never in one's interest.

To get clearer on whether the just life is better, Socrates asks Cephalus whether telling the truth, paying debts, and so on, is what justice is (Republic I.331c). Cephalus agrees that such things are not always just, and Socrates draws the conclusion that these things are not what justice is.


Polemarchus replaces his father in the conversation (Republic I.331d).

After Athen's defeat in the Peloponnesian War (431–404 BCE), instead of destroying Athens, Sparta installed a regime of anti-democratic Athenian aristocrats who became known as the "Thirty Tyrants" (τριάκοντα τύραννοι). They brutally suppressed the opposition. Lysias and Polemarchus (who supported the democracy) were arrested, their property and the shield factory were seized, Polemarchus was executed, and Lysias escaped to Megara (Against Eratosthenes 12-20). Lysias says that one of the Thirty, Melobius, in his greed and brutality, ripped the gold earrings from the ears of Polemarchus's wife (Against Eratosthenes 19 ). Polemarchus appeals to the poet Simonides (who died about the time of Socrates' birth) to say what justice is (Republic I.331e). Polemarchus says that justice is giving each man his due, that to one's enemies what is due is harm, and that to one's friends what is due is benefit.

This exchange brings into sharper focus the point of justice. To evaluate the traditional conception of justice (paying owns debts, telling the truth, and so on), it is necessary to know what justice is for. Polemarchus says that it is to give human beings what is due to them. Polemarchus, however, is confused about what this is. He cannot defend his answers against questioning.


Thrasymachus is a sophist visiting from Chalcedon. Thrasymachus breaks into the conversation to replace Polemarchus (Republic I.336b).

"[D]o you yourself answer and tell us what you say the just is. And don't you be telling me that it is that which ought to be, or the beneficial or the profitable or the gainful or the advantageous, but express clearly and precisely whatever you say. For I won't take from you any such drivel as that" (Republic I.336d; cf. Clitophon 409b-c). Thrasymachus is not satisfied with how the conversation has gone. He thinks that justice is profitable, and he thinks he knows how it is profitable. He has the common idea that the good life is a life of satisfying one's desires. He tells Socrates in no uncertain terms that "justice is nothing other than the advantage of the stronger" (Republic I.338c), that the rulers are the strong, that they use the power of the state to satisfy their desires, and that "justice is the same in every city, being that which supervenes on the advantage of the established rulers" (Republic I.338e).

The conversation now turns to whether the just or unjust life is better. Socrates thinks the just life is better. Thrasymachus disagrees, but he cannot defend his views in questioning. He thinks that justice is profitable and that the unjust life is better it helps a person get the most he can for himself. "For I tell you, Thrasymachus, I am not convinced, and do not think that injustice is more profitable than justice, not even if one gives it free scope and does not hinder it" (Republic I.345a).

In this discussion, Socrates gets Thrasymachus to admit that the soul has a "function" (ἔργον). Further, against the background of the earlier agreement that "justice is the virtue of the soul" (Republic I.350c), Socrates gets Thrasymachus to agree to a conception of what the function is. He admits that the function of the soul is "to take care of things, to rule, to deliberate."

"The soul, has it a work which you couldn't accomplish with anything else in the world, as for example, to manage things, rule, deliberation (τὸ ἐπιμελεῖσθαι καὶ ἄρχειν καὶ βουλεύεσθαι), and the like, is there anything else than soul to which you could rightly assign these and say that they were its peculiar work?
Nothing else.
And again life? Shall we say that too is the function (ἔργον) of the soul?
Most certainly.
And do we not also say that there is a virtue of the soul?
We do.
Will the soul ever accomplish its own work well if deprived of its own virtue, or is this impossible?
It is impossible.
Of necessity, then, a bad soul will govern and manage things badly while the good soul will in all these things do well.
Of necessity.
And did we not agree that the virtue of soul is justice and its defect injustice?
Yes, we did" (Republic I.353d).

Given these admissions, Socrates argues that injustice is never more profitable than justice.

"The just soul and the just man then will live well and the unjust badly?
So it appears by your reasoning, Socrates.
But surely he who lives well is blessed and happy (μακάριός τε καὶ εὐδαίμων), and he who does not the contrary.
Of course.
Then the just is happy and the unjust miserable.
So be it, Socrates.
But it surely does not pay to be miserable, but to be happy.
Of course not.
λυσιτελέστερον ("more profitable") is the comparative of λυσιτελής (λύω ("free") + τέλος ("end")). The question is which life frees the end more, the just life or the unjust life. The answer depends on what the end is. Thrasymachus seems to think it is to get whatever one desires. Never, then, most worshipful Thrasymachus (Θρασύμαχε), can injustice be more profitable (λυσιτελέστερον) than justice" (Republic I.353e).

Book II of the Republic

Socrates refutes Thrasymachus, but the answers to the two questions about justice (what justice is and whether the just life is better) have not been settled (Republic I.354b). Book I of the Republic thus ends in perplexity (like the early dialogues devoted to the search for a definition), but "But what each one of them is in itself, by its own inherent force, when it is within the soul of the possessor and escapes the eyes of both gods and men, no one has ever adequately set forth in poetry or prose—the proof that the one is the greatest of all evils that the soul contains within itself, while justice is the greatest good" (Republic II.366e) Plato's older brother, Glaucon, is not content to let such an important matter go without further discussion. He tell Socrates that he is "eager to hear the nature of each, of justice and injustice, and what effect its presence has upon the soul (ψυχῇ)" (Republic II.358b).

Glaucon outlines a view of justice and the value of the just life that many accept but that he himself wonders about. He want Socrates to help him see that this understanding is mistaken.

"They say that to do wrong is by nature (πεφυκέναι) good, to be wronged is bad, but the suffering of injury so far exceeds in badness the good of inflicting it that when men do wrong and are wronged by one another and taste of both, those who lack the power to avoid the one and take the other determine that it is for their profit to make a compact (λυσιτελεῖν συνθέσθα) with one another neither to commit nor to suffer wrong; and that this is the beginning of legislation and covenants between men, and that they name the commandment of the law the lawful and the just, and that this is the genesis and being of justice" (Republic II.358e).

On the view of justice and the good life that Glaucon outlines, justice is a convention that allows individuals to work out for themselves what the good life is. The only restriction is that the lives are consistent with the convention that regulates group living. This regulation is necessary because "advantage (πλεονεξίαν) is what all of nature naturally pursues as good..." (Republic II.359c). πλεονεξίαν is a form of πλεονεξία, a compound noun which comes from of the adjective πλείων and the verb ἔχω ("to have"). The adjective πλείων ("greater in number") is the comparative form of πολύς ("great in number"). The noun πλεονεξία often is used with a negative connotation to mean roughly "undue gain," but Glaucon may be using it more neutrally to mean that everyone prefers a greater number, not a lesser number, of his goals to be satisfied.

"[T]hat those who practise justice do so unwillingly (ἄκοντες) and from want of power to commit injustice—we shall be most likely to apprehend that if we entertain some such supposition as this in thought: if we grant to each, the just and the unjust, licence (ἐξουσίαν) to do whatever he wishes (βούληται), and then accompany them in imagination and see whither his desire will conduct each. We should then catch the just man in the very act of resorting to the same conduct as the unjust man because of the advantage (πλεονεξίαν) which every creature by its nature pursues as a good, while by the convention of law it is forcibly diverted to paying honor to equality (ἴσου). The licence that I mean would be most nearly such as would result from supposing them to have the power which men say once came to the ancestor of Gyges the Lydian. ... [Once he realized the ring he found gave him the power to be invisible], he immediately managed things so that he became one of the messengers who went up to the king, and on coming there he seduced the king's wife and with her aid set upon the king and slew him and possessed his kingdom. If now there should be two such rings, and the just man should put on one and the unjust the other, no one could be found, it would seem, of such adamantine temper as to persevere in justice and endure to refrain his hands from the possessions of others and not touch them, though he might with impunity take what he wished even from the marketplace, and enter into houses and lie with whom he pleased, and slay and loose from bonds whomsoever he would, and in all other things conduct himself among mankind as the equal of a god. And in so acting he would do no differently from the other man, but both would pursue the same course. And yet this is a great sign, one might say, that no one is just of his own will (ἑκὼν) but only from constraint, in the belief that justice is not his personal good, inasmuch as every man, when he supposes himself to have the power to do wrong, does wrong. For that there is far more profit (λυσιτελεῖν) for him personally in injustice than in justice is what every man believes, and believes truly, as the proponent of this theory will maintain" (Republic II.359b).

This view that Glaucon outlines is similar to the ones Protagoras and Callicles outline in the Protagoras and Gorgias. On the conception in the Protagoras, the suggestion is that Zeus is responsible for a change in human beings that allows for group stability and that the specific form this potential takes is a matter of agreement reached through rhetorical persuasion. In the Gorgias and the Republic, there is no appeal to the traditional gods. In the Gorgias, the "weaker" who are the "more numerous" engage in a program of indoctrination to reach agreement.

"Thus far provided, men dwelt separately in the beginning, and cities (πόλεις) there were none; so that they were being destroyed by the wild beasts, since these were in all ways stronger than they; and although their skill in handiwork was a sufficient aid in respect of food, in their warfare with the beasts it was defective; for as yet they had no political (πολιτικὴν) art, which includes the art of war. So they sought to band themselves together and secure their lives by founding cities. Now as often as they were banded together they did wrong to one another through the lack of political art, and thus they began to be scattered again and to perish. So Zeus, fearing that our race was in danger of utter destruction, sent Hermes to bring respect and right (αἰδῶ τε καὶ δίκην) among men, to the end that there should be regulation of cities and friendly ties to draw them together. Then Hermes asked Zeus in what manner then was he to give men right and respect: 'Am I to deal them out as the arts have been dealt? That dealing was done in such a way that one man possessing medical art is able to treat many ordinary men, and so with the other craftsmen. Am I to place among men right and respect in this way also, or deal them out to all?' 'To all,' replied Zeus; 'let all have their share: for cities cannot be formed if only a few have a share of these as of other arts. And make thereto a law of my ordaining, that he who cannot partake of respect and right shall die the death as a public pest'" (Protagoras 322a).

"The makers of the laws are the weaker sort of men, and the more numerous. So it is with a view to themselves and their own interest that they make their laws and distribute their praises and censures; and to terrorize the stronger sort of folk who are able to get an advantage (πλέον), and to prevent them from getting one over them, they tell them, that such aggrandizement (πλεονεκτεῖν) is foul and unjust (αἰσχρὸν καὶ ἄδικον), and that wrongdoing is just this endeavor to get the advantage of one's neighbors: for I expect they are well content to see themselves on an equality, when they are so inferior. So this is why by convention it is termed unjust and foul to aim at an advantage over the majority, and why they call it wrongdoing: but nature, in my opinion, herself proclaims the fact that it is right for the better to have advantage of the worse, and the abler of the feebler. It is obvious in many cases that this is so, not only in the animal world, but in the states and races, collectively, of men--that right has been decided to consist in the sway and advantage of the stronger over the weaker" (Gorigias 483b).

Perseus Digital Library:
Plato's, Protagoras, Gorgias, Republic

Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon:
ἄκων (Attic contraction for ἀέκων), akōn, adjective, "unwilling, under constraint,"
ἑκὼν, hekōn, adjective, "wittingly, purposely," opposite of ἄκων,
δικαιοσύνη, dikaiosynē, noun, "justice,"

"[One conception of Ethics]--equivalent to the qualified term 'Private Ethics,' which is sometimes preferred-- [is] a study of the Good or Wellbeing of man, so far as this is attainable by the rational activity of individuals as such. ... [Another is] concerned primarily with the general rules of Duty or Right Action sometimes called the Moral Code viewed as absolutely binding on every man, and properly to be obeyed by him without regard to his personal interests; the relation of duty to the agent's private happiness being regarded as a matter of secondary concern from an ethical point of view" (Henry Sidwick, Outlines of the History of Ethics for English Readers, 5th edition. (Macmillan and Company, 1902), 3, 6).

ἐξουσία, exousia, noun, "power to do a thing,"
ἰσονομία, isonomia, noun, "equality of political rights,"
λυσιτελής, (λύω ("unbind, unfasten") + τέλος ("end")), lysitelēs, adjective, "profitable,"
Θρασύμαχε, Thrasymache, proper name (from θρασύμαχος, thrasymachos, adjective,"bold in battle"),
ὅρος, horos, noun, "boundary,"
πόλις, polis, noun, "city"
πλεονεκτέω, pleonekteō, verb, "to claim more,"
πλεονέκτης (= ὁ πλέον ἔχων), pleonektēs, adjective, "one who has or claims more,"
πλεονεξία, pleonexia , noun, "advantage"

move on go back