What Justice Is
Justice in the City and in the Individual Human Being
P.Oxy.LII 3679, manuscript from the 3rd century CE,
Plato's Republic V.472e-473d.
P.Oxy is the Oxyrhynchus Papyri.
Oxyrhynchus is a city in Egypt on a branch of the Nile, about 185 miles south of Alexandria. The papyri were in the town dumps, which provided ideal conditions for preservation.
Most of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri are from excavations (1896 to 1907) that Bernard Grenfell and Authur Hunt undertook on behalf of the Egypt Exploration Society. Glaucon and Adeimantus have been silent, but now that the discussion in Book I has ended unsatisfactorily, they are disappointed with the outcome. Glaucon challenges Socrates not just to drive his interlocutors into contradiction, as he has done in the discussion thus far, but to demonstrate once and for all that the just life really is better than the unjust life.
Socrates accepts the challenge and tries to meet it in the remaining books of the Republic.
The Search for Justice
To show that the just life is better, Socrates first takes up the question of what justice is (Republic II.368c). This is what the reader might expect, given his search for definitions in the early dialogues, but now, in the Republic, Socrates proceeds in an unexpected way.
Socrates does not search for what justice is. Instead, he searches for what justice is in a city and what it is in an individual human being. He says that he will search for what justice is in a city, because it is "bigger," and so presumably more straightforward to consider, and then, with the nature of justice in the city understood, he will search for what justice is in a human being.
This strategy can seem surprising, but the Gorgias provides the context. Socrates says that when someone "does what is fitting (προσήκοντα) as regards men, his actions will be just ..." (Gorgias 507a). In this way, the correct answer to the "What is justice?" question is the relatively uninformative one that justice is what is "fitting" with respect to human beings. In the Republic, in the search for justice, the search is for what this is in a city and in a human being.
Remember too that Thrasymachus demanded that Socrates not explain what justice is by supplying a synonym. A synonym is not informative. He wants Socrates to say what justice is in terms of the underlying facts. "[D]o you yourself answer, Socrates, 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).
What Justice is in the City
Socrates begins with a search for justice in the city. This is a search for the appropriate organization of human beings into a "city" (πόλις). The question is what this organization is.
"The origin of the city, then, in my opinion, is to be found in the fact that we do
not severally suffice for our own needs, but each of us lacks many things. As a result of this,
then, one man calling in another for one service and another for another, we, being in
need of many things, gather many into one place of abode as associates and helpers,
and to this dwelling together we give the name city (πόλιν). And between one man and another there
is an interchange of giving, if it so happens, and taking, because each supposes this to
be better (ἄμεινον) for himself"
"I think our city, if it has been rightly (ὀρθῶς) founded, is completely good (τελέως ἀγαθὴν). Clearly, then, it will be wise (σοφή), brave (ἀνδρεία), temperate (σώφρων), and just (δικαία). So if we find any of them in it, the remainder will be that which we have not found" (Republic IV.427e).
Wisdom, bravery, temperance, and justice are the "cardinal" virtues, the virtues on which human perfection hinges. Piety is a subdivision of justice (Euthyphro 12d). Cf. Laches 199d, Protagoras 329c, Gorgias 507b, Meno 78d, and Phaedo 69c.
The Latin noun cardo means "the hinge of a door or gate."
"Virtue may be defined as a habit of mind in harmony with reason and the order of nature. ... It has four parts: wisdom, justice, courage, temperance" (Cicero, On Invention II.159). Human beings organize themselves in cities to make their lives better. Cities provide the benefits of group living, but there are appropriate and inappropriate ways that human beings can organize themselves into a city. The appropriate organizations constitute justice in the city.
These organizations function so that a city has three parts. It has a guardian, or ruling, class. The rulers are lovers of wisdom (Republic V.473d). They introduce the rules for the production and distribution of goods and for the behavior of individuals in the city more generally. The city also has an auxiliary class. Its job is to assist the rulers by enforcing the rules. Finally, the city has a working class to produce the services and material goods. The rulers must rule, the auxiliaries must enforce the rules, and the workers must produce the services and material goods.
This city is wise because the rulers are wise, brave because the auxiliaries are brave, moderate because everyone is controlled, and just because each of three parts does its own job.
"The proper functioning of the workers, the auxiliaries, and the rulers, each doing its own work in the city, ... would be justice (δικαιοσύνη) and would render the city just" (Republic IV.434c).
What Justice is in the Individual
"If you call a thing by the same name whether it is big or little, it is like in the way in which it is called the same or like. Then a just man too will not differ at all from a just city in respect of the very form of justice, but will be like it (καὶ δίκαιος ἄρα ἀνὴρ δικαίας πόλεως κατ᾽ αὐτὸ τὸ τῆς δικαιοσύνης εἶδος οὐδὲν διοίσει, ἀλλ᾽ ὅμοιος ἔσται). But now the city was thought to be just because three natural kinds existing in it performed each its own function, and again it was temperate, brave, and wise because of certain other affections and habits of these three kinds. Then, my friend, we shall thus expect the individual also to have these same forms in his soul, and by reason of identical affections of these with those in the city to receive properly the same appellations" (Republic IV.435a). Now that they have found justice in the city, they apply their results to justice in the individual human being. They appeal to a principle about the use of words: that when someone uses the same predicate to say that different things are just ("this city is just," "this human being is just"), he is saying the same thing of each of the things with respect to which he uses this predicate.
Given this principle about the use of words, and given the understanding of justice in the city as the appropriate organization of the parts of the city, it seems to follow that the soul has parts.
Socrates says that this question of parts is difficult. To answer it, he appeals to a principle about opposites (discussed in a previous lecture) to show that the human soul is tripartite.
"The matter begins to be difficult when you ask whether we do all these things with the same thing or whether there are three things and we do one thing with one and one with another--learn (μανθάνομεν) with one part of ourselves, feel anger (θυμούμεθα) with another, and with yet a third desire (ἐπιθυμοῦμεν) the pleasures of nutrition and generation and their kind, or whether it is with the entire soul (ἢ ὅλῃ τῇ ψυχῇ) that we function in each case when we once begin. That is what is really hard to determine properly" (Republic IV.436a).
"And so it is fitting for the reasoning part to rule (οὐκοῦν τῷ μὲν λογιστικῷ ἄρχειν προσήκει), being wise and exercising
foresight on behalf of the whole soul, and for the spirited part to obey it and be its ally?
Assuredly, Socrates" (Republic IV.441e).
"[In a just human being, reason and spirit] will exercise authority over the appetitive part which is the largest part of the soul and is insatiable for possessions. They will watch over it to see that it is not filled with what we call pleasures of the body, and by becoming enlarged and strong thereby no longer does its own job but attempts to enslave and rule over those over whom it is not fitted (προσῆκον) to rule, and so upsets everyone's whole life" (Republic IV.442a).
"When a certain order, the proper (οἰκεῖος) one for each thing, is present, a thing is good" (Gorgias 506e). Justice in the human being, then, is the appropriate organization of the three parts of the soul. In this organization of the parts, reason rules and takes spirit as its ally against appetite.
"[Justice] does not lie in a man's external actions, but in the way he acts within himself.... He does not allow each part of himself to perform the work of another, or the parts of his soul (τὰ ἐν τῇ ψυχῇ γένη) to meddle with one another. He regulates well what is really his own and rules himself. He puts himself in order, ... and harmonizes the three parts of himself... He thinks that the just and beautiful action, which he names as such, to be that which preserves this state (ἕξιν) and indeed helps achieve it, wisdom to be the knowledge which oversees this action; and believing and naming the unjust action to be that which ever tends to, an unjust action to be that which always destroys it, and ignorance the belief which oversees that" (Republic IV.443d).
Justice and Freedom in the Individual
Polus, previously in the conversation, had tried to argue that orators have the best lives because they live like despots insofar as both do what they please (Gorgias 466c).) In the Gorgias, Callicles argues that the good life is not a life in the love of wisdom that Socrates advocates but is a life of doing what one pleases. In any other life, he says, one is a slave.
"For how can a man be happy if he is a slave to anybody at all? No, natural fairness and justice, I tell you now quite frankly, is this—that he who would live rightly should let his desires (ἐπιθυμίας) be as strong as possible and not chasten them, and should be able to minister to them when they are at their height by reason of his manliness and intelligence, and satisfy each appetite in turn with what it desires. ... No, in good truth, Socrates—which you claim to be seeking—the fact is this: luxury and licentiousness and liberty (ἐλευθερία), if they have the support of force, are virtue and happiness (ἀρετή τε καὶ εὐδαιμονία), and the rest of these embellishments—the unnatural covenants of mankind—are all mere stuff and nonsense" (Gorgias 491e).
"It is clear then that those constitutions that aim at the common advantage are in effect rightly framed in accordance with absolute justice, while those that aim at the rulers' own advantage only are faulty, and are all of them deviations from the right constitutions; for they have an element of despotism (δεσποτικαὶ), whereas a city is a partnership of free men (ἡ δὲ πόλις κοινωνία τῶν ἐλευθέρων ἐστίν)" (Aristotle, Politics III.1279a). According to Socrates, as Plato represents him in the Republic, the life Callicles advocates is not a life of "freedom" (ἐλευθερία) at all. A human being has political freedom if he is a citizen, not a slave, in a city in which there is no despotic rule. In analogy with the political notion, a human being is free if there is nothing plays the role of "despotic rule." This "despotic rule" is anything that would in a systematic way prevent him from doing what it takes to live a good life.
For Plato, what can play the role of "despotic rule" has to do with the soul and reason.
"[This] makes me think, my friend, as I have often done before,
how natural it is that those who have spent a long time in the study of philosophy (φιλοσοφίαις)
appear ridiculous when they enter the courts of law as speakers.
What do you mean, Socrates?
Those who have knocked about in courts and the like from their youth up seem to me, when compared with those who have been brought up in philosophy and similar pursuits, to be as slaves in breeding compared with freemen (ἐλευθέρους).
In what way is this the case?
In this way: the latter always have that which you just spoke of, leisure, and they talk at their leisure in peace; just as we are now taking up argument after argument, already beginning a third, so can they, if as in our case, the new one pleases them better than that in which they are engaged; and they do not care at all whether their talk is long or short, if only they attain the truth. But the men of the other sort are always in a hurry—for the water flowing through the water-clock urges them on—and the other party in the suit does not permit them to talk about anything they please, but stands over them exercising the law's compulsion by reading the brief, from which no deviation is allowed; and their discourse is always about a fellow slave and is addressed to a master who sits there holding some case or other in his hands; and the contests never run an indefinite course, but are always directed to the point at issue, and often the race is for the defendant's life. As a result of all this, the speakers become tense and shrewd; they know how to wheedle their master with words and gain his favor by acts; but in their souls they become small and warped. For they have been deprived of growth and straightforwardness and independence (ἐλευθέριον) by the slavery they have endured from their youth up, for this forces them to do crooked acts by putting a great burden of fears and dangers upon their souls while these are still tender; and since they cannot bear this burden with uprightness and truth, they turn forthwith to deceit and to requiting wrong with wrong, so that they become greatly bent and stunted. Consequently they pass from youth to manhood with no soundness of mind in them, but they think they have become clever and wise" (Theaetetus 172c).
"[T]his is the condition of those whose function (ἔργον) is the use of the body and from whom this is the best that is forthcoming. These are by nature slaves (φύσει δοῦλοι).... For he is by nature a slave who ... participates in reason so far as to apprehend it but not to possess it; for the animals other than man are subservient not to reason, by apprehending it, but to feelings (παθήμασιν). And also the usefulness of slaves diverges little from that of animals; bodily service for the necessities of life is forthcoming from both, from slaves and from domestic animals alike" (Politics I.1254b). "Then the tyrannized soul—to speak of the soul as a whole—also will least of all do what it wishes.... Then it is the truth, though some may deny it, that the real tyrant is really enslaved to cringings and servitudes beyond compare, a flatterer of the basest men, and that, so far from finding even the least satisfaction for his desires, he is in need of most things, and is a poor man in very truth, as is apparent if one knows how to observe a soul in its entirety; and throughout his life he teems with terrors and is full of convulsions and pains" (Republic IX.577d, 579d; cf. Gorgias 492e).
A Solution is to a Prior Puzzle
Socrates, in the early dialogues, suggests that there is a certain competency involved in living the good life, that this competency is a state of the soul, and that the person who has the traditional virtues is the one who has this competency. The person who acts in terms of these virtues chooses wisely and thus arranges things in his life so that he is "happy" (εὐδαίμων).
Now, in the Republic, Socrates articulates this view about the virtues and happiness in terms of the parts of the soul. He explains that justice is the state of the soul that constitutes the competency, that justice in the soul is a matter of the three parts of the soul each doing its own job. If the soul is just, the part with reason leads. It is not confused about what is good and what is bad. In this way, a human being whose soul is just is wise because the part with reason exercises "forethought in behalf of the entire soul" and hence arranges things so that he is "happy" (εὐδαίμων). He is courageous because the spirited part of his soul holds to the declarations of reason against the desires of appetitive part, and he is temperate because the appetitive part is under control.
"Then, wouldn't these two parts also do the finest job of guarding the whole soul and the body
(ἁπάσης τῆς ψυχῆς τε καὶ τοῦ σώματος) against
external enemies--reason by planning, spirit by fighting, following its leader, and carrying out the
leader's decision through its courage?
Yes, Socrates, that is true.
And it is because of the spirited part (τὸ θυμοειδὲς), I suppose, that we call a single individual courageous (ἀνδρεῖον), namely, when it preserves through pains and pleasures the declarations of reason about what is to be feared and what isn't.
That is right.
And we'll call him wise (σοφὸν) because of that small part of himself that rules in him and makes those declarations and has within it the knowledge (ἐπιστήμην) of what is advantageous for each part and for the whole soul, which is the community of all three parts.
And isn't he temperate (σώφρονα) because of the friendly and harmonious relations between the same parts, namely when the ruler and the ruled believe in common that reason should rule and don't engage in civil war against it?
Temperance is nothing other than that, in the city and in the individual" (Republic IV.442b).
Perseus Digital Library:
Plato, Euthyphro, Laches, Gorgias, Protagoras, Meno, Phaedo, Republic, Theaetetus
Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon:
ἀνδρεία, andreia, noun, "manliness, brave" (one of the cardinal virtues),
ἁρμονία, harmonia, noun, "means of joining, fastening,"
δικαιοσύνη, dikaiosynē, noun, "justice" (one of the cardinal virtues),
ἐλευθερία, eleutheria, noun, "freedom,"
ἐλευθέριος, eleutherios, adjective, "acting and thinking like the free,"
ἐλευθεριότης, eleutheriotēs, noun, "the mode of thinking and acting which suits the free,"
ἐλεύθερος, eleutheros, adjective, "free,"
ἐπιθυμητικός, epithymētikos, adjective, "desiring," (τὸ ἐπιθυμητικός = "the part (of the soul) with appetites),"
θυμοειδής,, thymoeidēs, adjective, "high-spirit," (τὸ θυμοειδές = "the (part of the soul) with spirit"),
λογιστικός,, logistikos, adjective, "skilled in calculating," (τὸ λογιστικόν = "the (part of the soul) with reason"),
οἰκεῖος, oikeios, adjective, "proper, fitting, suitable,"
οἰκειοπραγία, oikeiopragia, noun, "minding one's own affairs,"
ὁσιότης, hosiotēs, noun, "piety," (a subdivision of justice in the cardinal virtues),
προσήκοντα, prosēkonta, participle as adjective, "befitting, proper"
σοφία, sophia, noun, "wisdom" (one of the cardinal virtues),
φρόνησις, phronēsis, noun, "purpose, intention," alternative for σοφία in the cardinal virtues,
σωφροσύνη, sōphrosynē, noun, "soundness of mind, self-control, temperance" (one of the cardinal virtues)
Charlton T. Lewis, Charles Short, A Latin Dictionary:
cardo, noun, "the hinge of a door or gate,"
liber, adjective, "free,"
liberalis, adjective, "of or belonging to freedom, relating to the freeborn condition of a man,"
libertas, noun, "freedom"
Arizona State University Library. Loeb Classical Library:
Cicero, On Invention