What Justice Is

Justice in the City and in the Human Being

Republic II.368c-369b.      The search for justice in the city.
Republic II.369b-372e.      The birth of a city.
Republic II.372e-374d.      The birth of a luxurious city.
Republic II.374d-III.412c. The education of the guardians.
Republic III.412c-414b.     The rulers.
Republic III.414b-417b.     The auxiliaries.
Republic IV.419a-427d.     Happiness in the city.
Republic IV.427d-434d.     Justice in a city.
Republic IV.434d-435c.     Justice is in a human being.
Republic IV.435c-444e.      The Tripartite Theory of the Soul.
Republic IV.444e-445c.       Now it seems obvious.
Republic IV.445c-V.449b.  The forms of vice.






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 trash heaps (or "middens"), which provided ideal conditions (dry and anaerobic) 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 had been silent in Book I, but now that the discussion with Thrasymachus has ended unsatisfactorily, they are disappointed with the outcome. As we saw in the prior lecture, they challenge Socrates not just to drive his interlocutors into contradiction, as he has done in the discussion thus far with Polemarchus and Thrasymachus, 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 something 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 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 some context. Socrates says that when someone "does what is fitting (προσήκοντα) as regards men, his actions will be just ..." (Gorgias 507a). This suggests that 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, the search is for what fitting is in a city and in a human being.

Remember too that when Thrasymachus tells that Socrates he should say what justice is, he seems to think that Socrates should not supply a perhaps true but uninformative answer. Instead, he wants Socrates to explain what justice is in terms of the underlying facts.

"But if you really wish, Socrates, to know what the just is, don't merely ask questions or plume yourself upon controverting any answer that anyone gives—since your acumen has perceived that it is easier to ask questions than to answer them, but do 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.336c).

What Justice is in the City

If, as Socrates suggests in the Gorgias, justice is what is fitting with respect to human beings, justice in the "city" (πόλις) is what is fitting with respect to human beings in a city. A city is an organization of human beings, so justice in a city is a fitting organization.

The question, then, is what this "fitting" organization of human beings is.

Socrates searches for the answer by thinking about the purpose of the organization. He thinks human beings organize themselves in cities to make their lives better.   "The origin of the city (πόλις), 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. Do you think a city is founded on any other principle?
  No other, Socrates.
  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. 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 for himself" (Republic II.369b).

"I think our city, if it has been rightly founded, is completely good (οἶμαι ἡμῖν τὴν πόλιν, εἴπερ ὀρθῶς γε ᾤκισται, τελέως ἀγαθὴν εἶναι). Clearly, then, it will be wise, brave, temperate, and just. So if we find any of them in it, the remainder will be that which we have not found" (Republic IV.427e).

Cf. Gorgias 506e: "When a certain order, the proper (οἰκεῖος) one for each thing, is present, a thing is good."


To be "musical" is to be skilled an art over which the Muses presided. The word is used generally of a person of letters and accomplishments. (The opposite is to be ἀμαθής. To be ἀμαθής is to be "unlearned, ignorant, stupid, or boorish.) The primary art in "music" is the poetry and music that constitutes the songs inspired by the Muses (Μοῦσαι), but it also included dance and literature generally.


In describing a rightly founded city, Socrates first describes what Glaucon calls a "city of pigs."

  "If you were founding a city of pigs, Socrates, what other fodder than this would you provide?
  Why, what would you have, Glaucon?
  What is customary. They must recline on couches, I presume, if they are not to be uncomfortable, and dine from tables and have made dishes and sweetmeats such as are now in use.
  Good, I understand. It is not merely the origin of a city, it seems, that we are considering but the origin of a luxurious city (τρυφῶσαν πόλιν)" (Republic II.372d).

The point of this exchange is not obvious, but it might be that the services and material goods produced in group living can tempt human beings to lead profligate lives and thus that constraints of some sort must be part of the organization if the city is to achieve its purpose.
Cities provide the benefits of group living, but there are different ways human beings can organize themselves to provide themselves with these benefits. A fitting organization is one that does this well. In this way, justice is the primary virtue of an organization of human beings into a city.

In an effort to discover what the organization is, Socrates describes what he takes to be a "rightly founded" city. He thinks a rightly founded city is just because in this city human beings are organized in such way that the city best achieves the purpose for which human beings live together in cities. As he says after he has described an organization that he thinks is best, "I think our city, if it has been rightly founded, is completely good" (Republic IV.427e).

Education in Music and Gymnastics

In a rightly founded city, there are services and material goods necessary for a good life. This seems obvious, and Socrates is not too concerned with the details. His focus is on "guardians (φύλακες) necessary to protect these goods and the lives of the citizens.

The guardians require the greatest "knowledge and training" (Republic II.374), and Socrates sets out the education necessary to produce them. It consists in "gymnastics" (γυμναστική) for the body and "music" (μουσική) for the soul (Republic II.376e). This is the traditional Greek education, but Socrates removes what he takes to be mistakes in this tradition.

Music begins before gymnastics. Because the aim is to impress a certain character on the children, it is necessary to control the stories they hear so that these stories impress the children with the right convictions (Republic II.377b). They must be tales of "virtue" (Republic II.378e).

  "[The absence of the fine] would be most quickly perceived by one who was properly educated in music, and so, feeling distaste rightly, he would praise fine things and take delight in them and receive them into his soul to foster its growth and become himself fine and good (καλός τε κἀγαθός). The ugly he would rightly disapprove and hate while still young and yet unable to apprehend the reason, but when reason came the man thus nurtured would be the first to give her welcome, for by this affinity he would know her.
  I certainly think that such is the reason for education in music" (Republic III.401e).

After music, the children receive training in gymnastics (Republic III.403c). This training too aims at virtue. It trains the body so that it can carry out the demands of virtue.

  "For these two, then, it seems there are two arts which I would say some god gave to mankind, music and gymnastics for the service of the high-spirited principle and the love of knowledge (τὸ θυμοειδὲς καὶ τὸ φιλόσοφον) in them—not for the soul and the body except incidentally, but for the harmonious adjustment of these two principles by the proper degree of tension and relaxation of each.
  Yes, so it appears.
  Then he who best blends gymnastics with music and applies them most suitably to the soul is the man whom we should most rightly pronounce to be the most perfectly Muse-inspired and harmonious, far rather than the one who brings the strings into unison with one another.
  That seems likely, Socrates.
  And shall we not also need in our city, Glaucon, a permanent overseer of this kind if its constitution (πολιτεία) is to be preserved?
  We most certainly shall.
  These, then, are the patterns (τύποι) for education and upbringing" (Republic III.411e).

The Rulers are the Best of the Guardians

"Then must we not institute a third kind of competitive test with regard to sorcery and observe them in that? Just as men conduct colts to noises and uproar to see if they are liable to take fright, so we must bring these lads while young into fears and again pass them into pleasures, testing them much more carefully than men do gold in the fire, to see if the man remains immune to such witchcraft and preserves his composure throughout, a good guardian of himself and the culture which he has received, maintaining the true rhythm and harmony of his being in all those conditions, and the character that would make him most useful to himself and to the state. And he who as boy, lad, and man endures the test and issues from it unspoiled we must establish as ruler over our city and its guardian, and bestow rewards upon him in life, and in death the allotment of the supreme honors of burial-rites and other memorials. But the man of the other type we must reject" (Republic III.413d). The next question is who among the guardians should rule (Republic III.412b).

Socrates explains that the rulers should be the guardians who are revealed in tests to not act contrary to their education (Republic III.413c). In this way, he divides the guardians into firsts and seconds. The firsts are the "perfect" or "complete guardians" (φύλακες παντελεῖς), "watchers against foemen without and friends within, so that the latter shall not wish and the former shall not be able to work harm" (Republic III.414b). These guardians are the "rulers" (ἄρχοντες) in a rightly founded city. The seconds are the "helpers" (ἐπίκουροι). They form the auxiliary class in a rightly founded city. Their function is to assist the rulers.

The guardians selected to be rulers receive further education (Republic VII.519c). This consists in training in arithmetic, geometry, astonomy, and harmonics (Republic VII522c, VII.526c, VII.527d, VII.530d). When they are thirty, there is a second selection of those who excel to recieve further education (Republic VII.537d). This is in dialectic (Republic VII.532b). After five years of training in dialectic, they "hold commands in war and the other offices" to gain experience (Republic VII.539e). This continues until they are fifty. At this time, those who have excelled to look to the form of "the good itself" to rule themselves and the city.

"[T]hose [selected to be guardians] who have survived the tests and approved themselves altogether the best in every task and form of knowledge must be brought at last to the goal. We shall require them turn upwards the vision of their souls and fix their gaze on that which sheds light on all, and when they have thus beheld the good itself (τὸ ἀγαθὸν αὐτό) they shall use it as a pattern for the right ordering of the state and the citizens and themselves throughout the remainder of their lives, each in his turn, devoting the greater part of their time in the love of wisdom (φιλοσοφίᾳ), but when the turn comes for each, toiling in the service of the state and holding office for the city's sake, regarding the task not as a fine thing but a necessity; and so, when each generation has educated others like themselves to take their place as guardians of the state, they shall depart to the Islands of the Blest and there dwell. And the state shall establish public memorials and sacrifices for them as to divinities if the Pythian oracle approves or, if not, as to happy and godlike men (εὐδαίμοσί τε καὶ θείοις)" (Republic VII.540a).

Socrates thinks that in a rightly founded city, there are guardians who have completed this education. Further, he thinks they introduce the rules for the production and distribution of services and material goods and for the behavior of individuals more generally.

The Fitting Organization for Human Beings in a City

"At last, then, son of Ariston [Glaucon], your city may be considered as established. The next thing is to procure a sufficient light somewhere and to look yourself, and call in the aid of your brother [Adeimantus] and of Polemarchus and the rest, if we may in any wise discover where justice and injustice should be in it, wherein they differ from one another and which of the two he must have who is to be happy, alike whether his condition is known or not known to all gods and men" (Republic IV.427d). Now that he has described a city, Socrates returns to the main questions: what justice is and whether it is better. First he looks for justice in the city he has described.

Given that the city Socrates has described is rightly founded, it is clear what justice in a city is. It is an organization of human beings into a city in which education and training gives some the ability to be rulers, others the ability to be auxiliaries, and yet others the ability to be workers. Further, it is an organization in which those with the ability to rule are the rulers, those with the ability to assist the rulers by enforcing the rules are the auxiliaries, and those with the ability to produce the services and material goods are the workers who produce them.

"The doing of one's own job by the workers, the auxiliaries, and the rulers, each doing its own work in the city, is justice (δικαιοσύνη) and renders 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).

"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 with one part of ourselves, feel anger with another, and with yet a third desire 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 set out for something" (Republic IV.436a).
Once they have found justice in a city, they apply their results to find justice in an 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 to which he applies the predicate.

Given this principle about the use of words, and given the understanding of justice in a city as an organization of the parts of a city, it seems to follow that the soul has parts.

To settle whether the soul has parts and what they are if the soul does have parts, Socrates appeals to a principle about opposites (discussed in a previous lecture on the Tripartite Theory of the Soul). He takes this argument to show that in fact the soul has three parts.

Justice in the human being, then, is the "fitting" organization of the three parts of the soul in a human being. In this organization, reason rules and takes spirit as its ally against appetite.

  "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 appetite 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).

"[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 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 binds them together, and himself from a plurality becomes a unity. ... He thinks that the just and beautiful action, which he names as such, to be that which preserves this state 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 destroys it, and ignorance the belief which oversees that" (Republic IV.443d).

A Solution is to a Prior Puzzle

Socrates, in the early dialogues, suggests that there is a certain competency involved in living a 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. A human being who acts in terms of these virtues chooses wisely and thus arranges things in his life so that he is "happy" (εὐδαίμων).

In the Republic, Socrates articulates this view in terms of the parts of the soul. He explains that justice is the state of the soul that constitutes the competency in living. In a just soul, each part does its own job. The reasoning part knows what is good and what is bad. So the just soul is wise. The part with spirit holds to the declarations of the reasoning part against the desires of appetitive part. So the just soul is courageious. The appetitive part is under control of the reasoning part with the spirited part as its ally. So the just soul is temperate.

  "Then, wouldn't these two parts also do the finest job of guarding the whole soul and the body 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, I suppose, that we call a single individual courageous, 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 because of that small part of himself that rules in him and makes those declarations and has within it the knowledge of what is advantageous for each part and for the whole soul, which is the community of all three parts.
  Absolutely.
  And isn't he temperate 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
Aristotle, Politics

Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon:
ἀνδρεία, andreia, noun, "manliness, brave" (one of the cardinal virtues) 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).

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 appetitive part (of the soul)")
θυμοειδής,, thymoeidēs, adjective, "high-spirited" (τὸ θυμοειδές = "the spirited part (of the soul)")
καθαίρω, kathairō, verb, "cleanse, purify"
κεκαθαρμένη πόλις, "purified city"

  "And by the dog, without being aware of it, we have been purifying (διακαθαίροντες) the city which a little while ago we said was luxurious (τρυφᾶν).
  That is because we are being moderate (σωφρονοῦντές)" (Republic III.399e).
κάθαρσις, katharsis, noun, "cleansing, purification"
λογιστικός, logistikos, adjective, "skilled in calculating," (τὸ λογιστικόν = "the reasoning part (of the soul)")
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)
φλεγμαίνουσα πόλις, "fevered, inflamed city"

"It is not merely the origin of a city, it seems, that we are considering but the origin of a luxurious city (τρυφῶσαν πόλιν)" (Republic II.372e).
φλέγμα, phlegma, noun, "inflammation," (from φλέγω, phlegō, verb, "burn")
φλεγμαίνω, phlegmainō, verb, "to be heated, inflamed, fester"
φλεγματικός, phlegmatikos, adjective, "abounding in phlegm"
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




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