The Unjust Life is not Worth Living

Glaucon ask Socrates to show that just life is better, and he sets a very high bar. He asks Socrates to show that a just human being who suffers what are popularly understood as great misfortunes is still better off, even if the comparison is to an unjust human being who suffers none of these so-called misfortunes but instead is showered in what are popularly understood as the good things in life.

"We must take away his reputation, for a reputation for justice would bring him honor and rewards, so that it wouldn't be clear whether he is just for sake of justice itself or for those honors and rewards. We must strip him of everything except justice and make his situation the opposite of the unjust person's. Though he does no injustice, he must have the greatest reputation for it, so that his justice may be tested. ... [T]hose who praise injustice at the expense of justice will say that a just person in such circumstances is worse because he will be whipped, stretched on a rack, chained, blinded with fire, and, at the end, when he has suffered every kind of ill, he'll be impaled..." (Republic II.361b-362a).

"Socrates, I think that from this point on our inquiry looks ridiculous now that justice and injustice have been shown to be as we have described them. Even if one has every kind of food and drink, lots of money, and every sort of power to rule, life is thought not to be lived if the nature of the body is ruined. So if someone can do whatever he wishes, except what will free him from vice and injustice and make him have justice and virtue (δικαιοσύνην δὲ καὶ ἀρετὴν), how can it be worth living if the nature by which we live is ruined and in turmoil (Republic IV.445a-b).

Despite Glaucon's suggestion that further inquiry would be "ridiculous," it is not at all clear that Socrates has shown that the just life is better. Part of the problem is that Socrates has not explained in any real detail what it is to be "happy" (εὐδαίμων). He thinks that "contemplation" (θεωρία) 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" (εὐδαιμονία).


The truest pleasures are proper to the parts

Socrates argues that the just life is the most pleasurable and thus is happier 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." A few lines later he provides more detail. He argues that a part of the soul will get the "truest" pleasure when it gets what is "proper" to it, that when the part of the soul with reason dominates, all parts of the soul get their "truest" pleasures because the knowledge in the part with reason directs action, and that when the appetitive or spirited parts dominate, the parts of the soul do not get their "truest" pleasures.

"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 are experience and wisdom and reason (ἐμπειρίᾳ καὶ φρονήσει καὶ λόγῳ), 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 (ἡ τούτου τοῦ μέρους τῆς ψυχῆς ᾧ μανθάνομεν ἡδίστη ἂν εἴη, καὶ ἐν ᾧ ἡμῶν τοῦτο ἄρχει, ὁ τούτου βίος ἥδιστος;)?
  How coud it be otherwise" (Republic IX.582e-583a)?

"[T]o be filled with what befits (προσηκόντων) nature is pleasure..." (Republic IX.585d).

"Let us confidently assert that those desires of even the profit-loving and honor-loving parts of the soul, which follow knowledge and reason (ἐπιστήμῃ καὶ λόγῳ) and pursue with their help those pleasures which intelligence (φρόνιμον) prescribes, will attain the truest (ἀληθεστάτας) pleasures possible for them, since they are following the truth. These pleasures are proper (οἰκείας) to them, if that which is best for each thing may be said to be most proper to it. So if the whole soul follows the wisdom-loving part (φιλοσόφῳ) and there is no internal dissension, then each part will be able to fulfill its own task and be just in other respects, and also each will reap its own pleasures, the best and the truest as far as possible. And when one of the other two [parts of the soul] 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" (Republic IX.586d-587a).

Why Lovers of Wisdom Rule in a Just City

In a just city, the rulers are lovers of wisdom. How can this be true if, as Socrates claims, justice pays? Wouldn't the lovers of wisdom be better off abandoning their posts as rulers so that they can spend more of their time in "contemplation" since this is the activity, not ruling, in which happiness consists most of all?

Socrates says that the lovers of wisdom rule out of "necessity." "Each 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).

Glaucon worries that it is "wrong" to make the lovers of wisdom rule because the requirement to rule takes them way from the intellectual activity that characterizes the good life. Socrates seems to agree that the lovers of wisdom would be better off were they to spend all their time in "contemplation" of forms but to say that only they are the rulers a just city requires.

 "Do you mean to say that we must do them this wrong (ἀδικήσομεν), and compel them to live an inferior life when the better is in their power (ποιήσομεν χεῖρον ζῆν, δυνατὸν αὐτοῖς ὂν ἄμεινον)?
You have again forgotten, my friend, that the law is not concerned with the special happiness (εὖ) of any class in the state, but is trying to produce this condition in the city as a whole, harmonizing and adapting the citizens to one another by persuasion and compulsion, and requiring them to impart to one another any benefit which they are severally able to bestow upon the community, and that it itself creates such men in the state, not that it may allow each to take what course pleases him, but with a view to using them for the binding together of the commonwealth.
 True, I did forget it" (Republic VII.519d).


The consequences of forsaking the necessity to rule

Suppose that one of the lovers of wisdom were sometimes to forsake his duty to rule. What follows in this case? Does it follow that that by doing this he would be making himself better off and his life happier? That seems to depend on whether as a result of forsaking his duty to rule, he would spend more time in "contemplation."

Would he spend more time in "contemplation"?

The answer is hard to know, but there are two possibilities. The first is that he would not spend more time in "contemplation."

The city is arranged to support the lovers of wisdom. It might be that if a given lover of wisdom were to sometimes forsake his duty, others would also forsake their duty and the support in the city for lovers of wisdom would break down. The lovers of wisdom will then have to support themselves. This takes time. So by forsaking his duty to rule, the lover of wisdom would make his life worse because he would be arranging things in his life so that he will spend less time in "contemplation."

"And so the man proposes the penalty of death. Well, then, what shall I propose as an alternative? Clearly that which I deserve, shall I not? And what do I deserve to suffer or to pay, because in my life I did not keep quiet, but neglecting what most men care for--money-making and property, and military offices, and public speaking, and the various offices and plots and parties that come up in the state--and thinking that I was really too honorable to engage in those activities and live, refrained from those things by which I should have been of no use to you or to myself, and devoted myself to conferring upon each citizen individually what I regard as the greatest benefit? For I tried to persuade each of you to care for himself and his own perfection in goodness and wisdom (βέλτιστος καὶ φρονιμώτατος) rather than for any of his belongings, and for the state itself rather than for its interests, and to follow the same method in his care for other things. What, then, does such a man as I deserve? Some good thing, men of Athens, if I must propose something truly in accordance with my deserts; and the good thing should be such as is fitting for me. Now what 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 (εὐδαίμονας), 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 36b-37a).

There is the question too of whether forsaking his duty would make the ruler unjust. If forsaking his duty were to upset the ordering among the parts of his soul, then he would become unjust and thus no longer a lover of wisdom. So, again, by forsaking his duty to rule in turns he would be arranging things in his life so that he will spend less time in "contemplation."

It may be, then, that taking their turns ruling is the most realistic way for the rulers to spend the most time in "contemplation." So although they know that only they are the rulers a just city requires, they also know that ruling in turns is good for them because it is the best way for them to arrange things so that they spend the most time in "contemplation."

The other possibility is that he spend more time in "contemplation" if he were sometimes to forsake his duty to rule.

In this case, although justice in the city makes the lover of wisdom a ruler, his life would be happier if he were sometimes to forsake his duty. This means that justice in the city does not always pay for him. It does not mean that he would happier if the three parts of his soul were not properly ordered and thus that he were unjust.


The argument for why it is right that they must rule

 "Observe, then, Glaucon, that we shall not be wronging, either, the philosophers (φιλοσόφους) who arise among us, but that we can justify our action when we constrain them to take charge of the other citizens and be their guardians. For we will say to them that it is natural (εἰκότως) that men of similar quality who spring up in other cities should not share in the labors there. For they grow up spontaneously from no volition of the government in the several states, and it is justice that the self-grown, indebted to none for its breeding, should not be zealous either to pay to anyone the price of its nurture. But you we have engendered for yourselves and the rest of the city to be, as it were, king-bees and leaders in the hive. You have received a better and more complete education than the others, and you are more capable of sharing both ways of life. Down you must go then, each in his turn, to the habitation of the others and accustom yourselves to the observation of the obscure things there. For once habituated you will discern them infinitely better than the dwellers there, and you will know what each of the 'idols' is and whereof it is a semblance, because you have seen the reality of the beautiful, the just and the good (καλῶν τε καὶ δικαίων καὶ ἀγαθῶν). So our city will be governed by us and you with waking minds, and not, as most cities now which are inhabited and ruled darkly as in a dream by men who fight one another or shadows and wrangle for office as if that were a great good, when the truth is that the city in which those who are to rule are least eager to hold office must needs be best administered and most free from dissension, and the state that gets the contrary type of ruler will be the opposite of this.
 By all means.
 Will our alumni, then, disobey us when we tell them this, and will they refuse to share in the labors of state each in his turn while permitted to dwell the most of the time with one another in that purer world?
 Impossible, for we shall be imposing just commands on men who are just. Yet they will assuredly approach office as an unavoidable necessity (ἀναγκαῖον), and in the opposite temper from that of the present rulers in our cities.
For the fact is, dear friend, if you can discover a better way of life than office-holding for your future rulers, a well-governed city becomes a possibility. For only in such a state will those rule who are really rich, not in gold, but in the wealth that makes happiness(εὐδαίμονα)—a good and wise life (ἀγαθῆς τε καὶ ἔμφρονος). But if, being beggars and starvelings from lack of goods of their own, they turn to affairs of state thinking that it is thence that they should grasp their own good, then it is impossible. For when office and rule become the prizes of contention, such a civil and internecine strife destroys the office-seekers themselves and the city as well.
 Most true.
 Can you name any other type or ideal of life that looks with scorn on political office except the life of true philosophers (ἀληθινῆς φιλοσοφίας)?
 No, by Zeus.
 But what we require is that those who take office should not be lovers of rule.
Otherwise there will be a contest with rival lovers.
 Surely.
 What others, then, will you compel to undertake the guardianship of the city than those who have most intelligence (φρονιμώτατοι) of the principles that are the means of good government and who possess distinctions of another kind and a life that is preferable (ἀμείνω) to the political life?
 No others" (Republic VII.520a-521b).




Perseus Digital Library: Plato, Republic
Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon: διάνοια, θεωρία, νόησις, νοητός, νοῦς, οἰκεῖος