Justice and its Reward

The Just Life is Better than the Unjust Life

In the Republic, Socrates argues that the just life is better than the unjust life.

In a just human being, reason rules, spirit is reason's ally, and appetite is held in check. In this way, the three parts of the soul in a just human being are organized in such a way that action is in accordance with knowledge of what the good life is. This knowledge belongs to reason. In this part of the soul, there is the knowledge that existence in the body is temporary, that the body and its needs are distractions, and that the good life is one of "contemplation" (θεωρία).

The Unjust Life is not Worth Living

For if he is going to be thought just he will have honors and gifts because of that esteem. We cannot be sure in that case whether he is just for sake of justice or for the sake of the gifts and the honors. So we must strip him bare of everything but justice and make his state the opposite of his imagined counterpart. Though doing no wrong he must have the repute of the greatest injustice, so that he may be put to the test as regards justice through not softening because of ill repute and the consequences thereof. But let him hold on his course unchangeable even unto death seeming all his life to be unjust though being just, that so, both men attaining to the limit, the one of injustice, the other of justice, we may pass judgement which of the two is the happier (εὐδαιμονέστερος). ... What [those who commend injustice] will say is this: that such being his disposition the just man will have to endure the lash, the rack, chains the branding-iron in his eyes, and finally, after every extremity of suffering, he will be impaled, and so will learn his lesson that not to be but to seem just is what we ought to desire" (Republic II.361b, 361e). Glaucon ask Socrates to demonstrate that just life is better, and the bar he sets is high. Socrates must show that someone just who suffers what are popularly understood as great misfortunes is still better off, even if the comparison is to a someone unjust who suffers none of these misfortunes but instead is showered in what are popularly understood as the good things in life.

  "And now at last, it seems, it remains for us to consider whether it is profitable to do justice and practice honorable pursuits and be just (λυσιτελεῖ δίκαιά τε πράττειν καὶ καλὰ ἐπιτηδεύειν καὶ εἶναι δίκαιον), whether one is known to be such or not, or whether injustice profits, and to be unjust, provide one does not pay the penalty and is not improved by punishment.
  Socrates, I think that from this point on our inquiry becomes an absurdity—if, while life is thought to be intolerable with a ruined constitution of body even if accompanied by all the food and drink and wealth and power in the world, yet we are to inquire whether life is going to be worth living when our soul, the very thing by which we live, is disordered [or: in turmoil (ταραττομένης)] and corrupted, , if one can do as he pleases, but cannot do that which will rid him of evil and injustice and make him possessed of justice and virtue" (Republic IV.444e).

Glaucon thinks that further inquiry is "absurd" given what justice and injustice is in a human being, but it is not clear that he is right. Socrates has not explained in sufficient detail how to measure the "happiness" (εὐδαιμονία) in a life.. He thinks that "contemplation" makes a substantial contribution. This much seems clear, but Socrates never explains how this contribution is weighed in comparison with other things traditionally thought to contribute to or detract from happiness. Hence, it remains unclear that the just life is always better than the unjust life.

The truest pleasures are proper to the parts

"The three parts of the soul have, it appears to me, three kinds of pleasure, one peculiar to each, and similarly three appetites and controls" (Republic IX.580d).

  "But since the tests [for deciding which life is the most pleasurable] are experience and wisdom and reason, what follows?
  Of necessity, that the things approved by the lover of wisdom and the lover of reason (ὁ φιλόσοφός τε καὶ ὁ φιλόλογος) are most true (ἀληθέστατα).
  Then of the three kinds of pleasure, the pleasure of that part of the soul whereby we learn is the sweetest, and the life of the man in whom that part dominates is the most pleasurable?   It surely will be, since he is the best judge, and he praises his own life" (Republic IX.582e)

"[T]o be filled with what befits (προσηκόντων) nature is pleasure..." (Republic IX.585d).
Socrates argues that the just life is more pleasurable than the unjust life.

The argument comes in Book IX, after Socrates has described corrupted cites and the characters that correspond to them. He was going to describe these cities and characters at the end of Book IV and beginning of Book V, but Adeimantus intervenes to ask for a fuller explanation of marriage and family life in the just city (Republic V.449d). Socrates agrees to the request and does not return to the cities and characters until Book VIII. When he returns, he recalls that they "have already described the man corresponding to aristocracy or the government of the best, whom we correctly state to be the good and just man" (Republic VIII.544e). After he describes the corrupted cities and characters, his interlocutors agree that the just man is the happiest (Republic IX.580b). Socrates says that "this, then, would be one of our proofs (ἀπόδειξις), but examine this second one and see if there is anything in it" (Republic IX.580c). This second proof is the first of two proofs he gives to show that the just life is more pleasurable than the unjust life.

Socrates says that there is pleasure for each part of the soul, that the objects of desire approved by reason are "most true," and that the life of reason is the "sweetest." This is part of the second proof, that the just life is the most pleasurable because this is the life the lover of wisdom praises.

A few lines later Socrates sets out a third proof, which he describes as the "greatest and most decisive" defeat for the unjust man (Republic IX.583b). He argues that a part of the soul will get the "truest" pleasure when the object of its desire is what is "most proper" to it, that when the part of the soul with reason rules, all three parts of the soul get their "truest" pleasures because the knowledge in the part with reason directs action, and that when either the appetitive or spirited parts rules, the three parts of the soul do not get their "truest" pleasures.

  "May we not confidently assert that those desires of even the profit-loving and honor-loving parts of the soul [appetite and spirt], which follow knowledge and reason and pursue with their help those pleasures which intelligence prescribes, will attain the truest pleasures possible for them, since they are following the truth. These pleasures are proper to them, if that which is best (βέλτιστον) for each thing may be said to be most proper (οἰκειότατον) to it. So if the whole soul follows the wisdom-loving part [reason] and there is no internal dissension, then each part will keep to its own task and be just, and also each will reap its own pleasures, the best and the truest as far as possible. And when one of the other two gets the mastery the result for it is that it does not find its own proper pleasure and constrains the others to pursue an alien pleasure and not the true?
  Quite so, Socrates" (Republic IX.586d).

Why the lovers of wisdom rule in a just city

Socrates says that "[e]ach ruler will spend much of his time in the love of wisdom (φιλοσοφίᾳ), but, when his turn comes, he labors in politics and for city's sake, not as if he were doing something fine (καλόν), but as a necessity (ἀναγκαῖον)" (Republic VII.540b).

What is this "necessity"? If the necessity is the obligation to do what is just, as it seems to be, why is the requirement to rule just? Further, does justice in the city profitable for the rulers? Or would they have more time to spend in contemplation if they were to forsake their duty to rule?

"[W]hat is fitting for a poor man who is your benefactor, and who needs leisure to exhort you? There is nothing, men of Athens, so fitting as that such a man be given his meals in the prytaneum. That is much more appropriate for me than for any of you who has won a race at the Olympic games with a pair of horses or a four-in-hand. For he makes you seem to be happy, whereas I make you happy in reality; and he is not at all in need of sustenance, but I am needy. So if I must propose a penalty in accordance with my deserts, I propose maintenance in the prytaneum" (Apology 36d). The answers to these questions are not completely clear, but Socrates, it seems, thinks that the rulers owe the city for their special training and that if the requirement to rule is an imposition, it is offset by the good ruling brings to the city. Further, it may be that Socrates thinks that ruling is not an imposition. He may think that justice in the city is good for the rulers because ruling is the way for them to maximize the time they spend in contemplation. It may be that if a ruler were not to take his turn in ruling, the city would become unjust and that in these circumstances the ruler would spend less, not more, time in contemplation and hence would be less happy.




Perseus Digital Library:

Plato, Republic

Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon:
λυσιτελής, (λύω + τέλος), lysitelēs, "profitable"


"[W]hereas Socrates had thought that there was no need to gain theoretical knowledge about the world or reality and that perhaps it was even impossible to do so, since it was not the function of reason to gain such knowledge, both Plato and Aristotle disagreed. They thought that it was crucial not only for a good life, but also for an understanding of how to live well, to have an adequate general understanding for the world. Moreover, though they granted that it was a function of reason to determine the way we live, they, each in their own way, did not think that this was the sole function of reason. Plato rather seems to have thought that guiding us through our embodied life is a function which reason takes on, but that it, left to itself, is concerned to theoretically understand things quite generally" (Michael Frede, "Introduction," 13. Rationality in Greek Thought, edited by Micheal Frede and Gisela Striker (Oxford University Press, 1996), 1-28)

"The soul is conceived of as preexisting and as just temporarily joined to the body. It thus has two lives and two sets of concerns. Its own concern is to live a life of contemplation of truth. But, joined to the body, it also has to concern itself with the needs of the body. In doing this it easily forgets itself and its own needs, it easily gets confused so as to make the needs of the body its own. To know how to live well is to know how to live in such a way that the soul is free again to clearly see and mind its own business, namely to contemplate the truth. Thus we have an extremely complex inversion of the relative weight of one's theoretical understanding of reality and one's practical knowledge of how to live. It is one's understanding of reality, and the position of the soul in it, that saves the soul by restoring it to the extent that this is possible in this life to its natural state, in which it contemplates the truth. Hence a good life will crucially involve, as part of the way one lives, contemplation of the truth. Practicing the right way to live will also be a means to enable the soul to free itself from the body, to see the truth, and to engage in the contemplation of truth" (Michael Frede, "The Philosopher," 9. Greek thought: A Guide to Classical Knowledge, edited by J. Brunschwig and G.E.R. Lloyd (Cambridge University Press, 2000), 3-16).




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