Justice and the Good Life

The Opening Conversation and the Challenge

Map of Athens and the Piraeus
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).

Republic I.327a-328c.   The opening scene.
Republic I.328c-331d.   Socrates talks with Cephalus.
Republic I.331d-336b.   Socrates talks with Polemarchus.
Republic I.336b-354b.   Socrates talks with Thrasymachus.
Republic I.354b-354c.   The conversation ends in perplexity.

Republic II.357a-358e.  Glaucon challenges Socrates.
Republic II.358e-362d.  Glaucon sets out the origin of justice.
Republic II.362d-367e.  Admeimantus clarifies the challenge.
In the Republic, Socrates argues for a conception of what justice is in an individual human being and in a city. Further, he argues the just life is better than the unjust life.

This argument in the Republic develops the position in the Phaedo. Socrates, in the Phaedo, explains that the person with the virtues character lives his life so that he spends his time in the contemplation of the forms. Socrates, in the Republic, articulates this view in terms of the parts of the soul and a way of organizing human beings into a "city" (πόλις).

The Opening Conversation

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.
The Republic is Plato's second longest dialogue. The conversation takes place in ten books.

Book I has the style of an early 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 so a human being is tempted 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).
This discussion with Cephalus introduces the main question in the Republic. Cephalus understands justice as a burden a human being is sometimes better off without. This is a common view of justice, but Socrates will argue that this common view is false.

To get clearer on whether justice is sometimes a burden, a first step is to get straight on what justice is. It is for this reason that Socrates asks Cephalus whether telling the truth, paying debts, and so on, is what justice is. In asking, he points out that such things are not always just. Cephalus agrees, and Socrates draws the conclusion that these things are not what justice is.


At this point in the discussion, Polemarchus jumps into 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. He says that justice is giving each man what he is owed.

  "Tell me, then, you the inheritor of the argument, what it is that you affirm that Simonides says and rightly says about justice.
  That it is just to render to each his due. In saying this I think he speaks well.
  I must admit that it is not easy to disbelieve Simonides. For he is a wise and inspired man. But just what he may mean by this you doubtless know, but I do not" (Republic I.331e).

This exchange brings into sharper focus the point of justice. To know what justice is, and so to know how to move beyond the conception of justice (as paying owns debts, telling the truth, and so on) that Socrates and Cephalus agreed was incomplete, it is necessary to know what justice accomplishes and thus why we value it. Polemarchus says that justice is a matter of what is due, but he is confused about what this is. He thinks what is due and thus is right is to help friends and to harm enemies, but he cannot defend this understanding in questioning.


Thrasymachus is visiting from Chalcedon. Aristotophanes' Dailetes, produced in 427 BCE, alludes to him.

Thrasymachus breaks into the conversation to replace Polemarchus (Republic I.336b).

The "city" (πόλις) in ancient Greek is a political system in which a place, such as Athens, served as the ruling center of political, economic, and cultural life in its territory.
Thrasymachus he tells Socrates that "justice is nothing other than the advantage of the stronger" (Republic I.338c), that the rulers are the strong, that they use their power in the city to get what they like and to avoid what they dislike, and that "justice is the same in every city, being that which supervenes on the advantage of the established rulers" (Republic I.338e).

"For I tell you, Thrasymachus, I [Socrates] 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).
The conversation now turns away from what justice is and to which life is better. Socrates thinks the just life is better. Thrasymachus disagrees. He seems to think unless one is the ruler in the city, the unjust life is better because it allows one to get the most he can for himself. Like Polemarchus, he cannot defend his view in questioning with Socrates.

In this questioning, Socrates gets Thrasymachus to admit one of the most important premises in the argument in the Republic. He gets him to admit that the soul has a "function" (ἔργον). Further, Socrates gets Thrasymachus to agree with a certain conception of what the function is: 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 (ἀρετήν) 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 the 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. This is a preview of the longer and more detailed argument Socrates sets out in Books II-X.

  "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 a comparative form of the adjective λυσιτελής, which is a compound word formed form the verb λύω ("free") and noun τέλος ("end"). The question, then, is which life frees the end more, justice or injustice. Socrates argues that it is justice.   Never, then, most worshipful Thrasymachus, can injustice be more profitable (λυσιτελέστερον) than justice" (Republic I.353e).

To understand what Socrates has in mind, it helps to remember an exchange in the Gorgias. The question is whether doing what we see fit coincides with living a good life. Socrates thinks that for them to coincide, given that a good life is a life that benefits the person living it, it must be true that "acting as one sees fit coincides with acting beneficially" (Gorgias 470a). Further, Socrates says acting as we see fit benefits us if it is acting δικαίως ("justly" or "rightly") and does not benefit us if it is acting ἀδίκως ("unjustly" or "wrongly"). So the just man, because he acts justly when he acts as he sees fit, lives a better life than than the unjust man.

This, though, does not tell us which acts are just and which are not. The view is not that acting in accordance with the customs that happen to be enforce is acting justly. So we can expect Socrates, in the subsequent books of the Republic, to set out the ways of acting that benefit us.

We can also expect Socrates to explain the state of the soul when someone acts justly and thus live a life that benefits him. This will involve the Tripartite Theory of the Soul. We have seen this theory in a prior lecture, but its first appearance in Plato is in Book IV of the Republic.

Glaucon and Adeimantus Challenge Socrates

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 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" (Republic II.358b).

To bring Socrates' conception of justice into sharper focus, Glaucon outlines the common view of justice and the value of the just life that many accept and that he himself wonders about.

"They say that to do wrong is by nature 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 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 origin and reality of justice (γένεσίν τε καὶ οὐσίαν δικαιοσύνης)" (Republic II.358e).

On the understanding of Glaucon outlines, justice is a convention for regulating the behavior for group living that allows individuals to work out for themselves what the good life is. The only restriction is that the life is consistent with the convention. 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 has a neutral sense in which it means that everyone works to satisfy a greater, not lesser, number of his goals, but πλεονεξία is often used with a negative connotation to mean something like "undue gain."

"[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).
Because "advantage (πλεονεξίαν) is what all of nature naturally pursues as good..." (Republic II.359c), the best outcome for the individual who has the power is one in which he acts unjustly and makes others his victims (Unjust x Victim in the game of "Individual versus Others" represented in the 3x3 box). This, however, is not possible for most human beings. So, given that allowing others to commit injustices against oneself (Victim x Unjust) is clearly the worst of the four possibilities, two choices remain. An individual can act justly (Just x Just) or unjustly (Unjust x Unjust). Glaucon says that for those who lack the power to make others their victims, the injury that results from acting unjustly (Unjust x Unjust) makes acting justly (Just x Just) the better choice.

To prove that acting unjustly (Unjust x Victim) results in the best outcome, Glaucon retells a story about a shepard who found a ring that made him invisibly and thus gave him the power to get away with injustices. Glaucon says that the many think there is no reason why anyone who had such a ring would not use it, and he challenges Socrates to show that they are wrong.

"[No one, Socrates,] has ever censured injustice or commended justice otherwise than in respect of the repute, the honors, and the gifts that accrue from each. But what each one of them is in itself, by its own inherent force, when it is within the soul (ψυχῇ) 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.... [M]ake clear to us what each in and of itself does to its possessor, whereby the one is evil and the other good. But do away with the repute of both, as Glaucon urged. For, unless you take away from either the true repute and attach to each the false, we shall say that it is not justice that you are praising but the semblance, nor injustice that you censure, but the seeming, and that you really are exhorting us to be unjust but conceal it, and that you are at one with Thrasymachus in the opinion that ... injustice is advantageous and profitable to oneself but disadvantageous to the inferior. ...[T]his is what I would have you praise about justice—the benefit which it and the harm which injustice inherently works upon its possessor. But the rewards and the honors that depend on opinion, leave to others to praise. For while I would listen to others who thus commended justice and disparaged injustice, bestowing their praise and their blame on the reputation and the rewards of either, I could not accept that sort of thing from you unless you say I must, because you have passed your entire life in the consideration of this very matter. Do not then, I repeat, merely prove to us in argument the superiority of justice to injustice, but show us what it is that each inherently does to its possessor—whether he does or does not escape the eyes of gods and men—whereby the one is good and the other evil" (Republic II.366e).
Adeimantus clarifies this challenge Glaucon puts to Socrates.

Adeimantus says that Socrates must show that justice is good and injustice bad for someone, not because of such things as reputation, but because of their presence in the soul. Adeimantus, in this way, says that Socrates must show what he previously forced Thrasymachus to admit in questioning: that "the virtue of the soul is justice and its defect injustice."

The Origin of Justice

The conception of justice Glaucon outlines is similar to the conceptions Protagoras and Callicles outline in the Protagoras and Gorgias. In the Protagoras, in the myth Protagoras tells, human beings did not stay together in cities because they could not get along well enough. To solve this problem, and thus to save the human race from destruction, Zeus brings about a change in their psychology so that they have the potential to act justly or rightly. The specific form this potential takes is a matter of an agreement in attitude in cities reached through what Protagoras, in the Protagoras, describes as the teaching of virtue. Callicles, in the Gorgias, describes this teaching of virtue as a kind of trick the weak use to protect themselves from the strong.

"Thus far provided, men dwelt separately in the beginning, and cities 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 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 shame 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 shame: '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 (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 have the equal, 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, 1902), 3, 6).

ἐξουσία, exousia, noun, "power to do a thing"
ἰσονομία, isonomia, noun, "equality of political rights"
λυσιτελής, lysitelēs, adjective, (λύω ("unbind, unfasten") + τέλος ("end")), "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, pleonektēs, noun (formed from adjective), "the one who has or claims more (ὁ πλέον ἔχων)
πλεονεξία, pleonexia, noun, "advantage"

Internet Archive:
Henry Sidwick, Outlines of the History of Ethics for English Readers.

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