The Just Life is Better

Socrates Meets the Challenge

Republic V.449b-472a.          Women and children.
Republic V.472a-VI.502d.     The lover of wisdom.
Republic VI.502d-VII.541b.  Becoming a lover of wisdom.
Republic VIII.543a-IX.580a. Corrupted cities and characters.
Republic IX.580b-580d.          First in happiness.
Republic IX.580d-592b.          First in pleasure.
Republic X.595a-608d.            Imitation.
Republic X.608d-612b.           The immortality of the soul
Republic X.612b-621d.           The myth of Er.
By the end of Book IV of the Republic, Socrates has set out a conception of what justice is in a human being in terms of the arrangement of the three parts of the soul.

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 are organized in such a way that action is in accordance with knowledge of what is good and what is bad. 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).

Now Socrates is ready to argue that the just life is better than the unjust life.

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). In Book II, Glaucon and Adeimantus challenge Socrates to demonstrate that just life is better than the unjust life. They challenge him to show that the life of someone just who suffers what are popularly understood as great misfortunes is better than the life of someone unjust who is showered with what are popularly understood as the good things in life.

In Book IV, given the conception of what justice is in a individual human being in terms of the parts of the soul, Glaucon thinks that it has become absurd to inquiry further into whether the just life is better than the unjust life. He thinks it obvious that the just life is better.

"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 (ταραττομένης) and corrupted, but 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).

Socrates agrees it appears absurd, but to make the truth as plain as possible, he says that they should not "grow weary" but continue their inquiry into the two lives (Republic IV.445b).

Two Ways the Just Life is Better

This inquiry culminates Book IX, where Socrates argues that the just life is better in two ways.    "Now we have already described the man corresponding to aristocracy or the government of the best, whom we aver to be the truly good and just man.
   We have.
   Must we not, then, next after this, survey the inferior types, the man who is contentious and covetous of honor, corresponding to the Laconian constitution, and the oligarchical man in turn, and the democratic and the tyrant, in order that, after observing the most unjust of all, we may oppose him to the most just, and complete our inquiry as to the relation of pure justice and pure injustice in respect of the happiness and unhappiness of the possessor, so that we may either follow the counsel of Thrasymachus and pursue injustice or the present argument and pursue justice?
   Assuredly, Socrates" (Republic VIII.544e).

  "[S]hall I myself make proclamation that the son of Ariston pronounced the best man and the most just to be the happiest (εὐδαιμονέστατον), and that he is the most kingly, the one who most rules like a king over himself; and declared that the worst and most unjust is the most unhappy, and that he is the most tyrannical, the one who is most a tyrant over himself and the city he rules?
  Let it have been so proclaimed.
  Shall I add the clause ‘alike whether their character is known to all men and gods or is not known’?
  Add that to the proclamation.
  Very good, this, then, would be one of our proofs, but examine this second one and see if there is anything in it" (Republic IX.580b).

In Book IV, when Glaucon suggests that further inquiry is unnecessary, Socrates has set out what justice is in the city and in the individual. So to continue the inquiry into the just life and the unjust life, he begins to set out the four main kinds of unjust cities and unjust individuals. (Republic IV.445c), Polemarchus and Adeimantus, however, intervene to ask for a more complete explanation of marriage and family life in a just city (Republic V.449b). Socrates agrees to their request and does not return to the unjust cities and individuals until Book VIII.

When he returns to the unjust cities and individuals, he reminds his interlocutors that we "have already described the man corresponding to aristocracy or the government of the best, whom we rightly say to be good and just" (Republic VIII.544e). He then goes onto describe the four unjust cities and individuals that he had intended to describe before the interruption.

Once he finishes, he asks Glaucon whether he should proclaim on his behalf that "the best man and the most just to be the happiest (εὐδαιμονέστατον), and that he is the most kingly, the one who most rules like a king over himself" and "that the worst and most unjust is the most unhappy, and that he is the most tyrannical, the one who is most a tyrant over himself." Glaucon agrees without hestitation, and Socrates concludes that "this, then, would be one of our proofs, but examine this second one and see if there is anything in it" (Republic IX.580b).

In this first of the "proofs," Socrates argues that the most just are the happiest. The "disorder" (ταραχή) that occurs in the soul when reason is prevented from engaging in its proper activity outweighs any of the things traditionally thought to contribute to a good life. The just, therefore, in whom reason rules and who are the most "kingly" in the way they control the parts of their souls, are the "happiest." In their lives, reason is impeded least of all.

Only the Lover of Wisdom is Free

"For how can a man be happy (εὐδαίμων) if he is a slave to anybody at all? No, natural fairness and justice, I tell you now quite frankly, is this—that man who would live rightly should let his desires 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 freedom (τρυφὴ καὶ ἀκολασία καὶ 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). The Republic, in this way, provides a solution to a problem that arises in the Gorgias.

Polus argues that orators have the best lives because they, like despots, live as they please (Gorgias 466c). When Callicles takes his place in the conversation, he picks up this theme. He argues the good life is not the life in the love of wisdom that Socrates advocates but is a life of doing what one pleases. He says that in any other life a human being is a slave.

"It is clear then that those constitutions that aim at the common advantage are in effect rightly framed in accordance with 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 communion of free men (ἡ δὲ πόλις κοινωνία τῶν ἐλευθέρων ἐστίν)" (Aristotle, Politics III.1279a).
Given the conception of the tripartite soul and of justice in the individual in the Republic, the life Callicles advocates is not a life of freedom at all. We can understand freedom in analogy with political freedom, where someone is free in this way if he is a citizen, not a slave, in a city in which there is no despotic rule. Someone is free, then, if there is nothing playing the role of "despotic ruler" that prevents him from living a good life. Given the theories of the soul and justice in the Republic, it follows that only the just human being is free. Someone who lives a life of the sort Callicles advocates is not free. He lives under the despotic rule of the appetite in his soul. His reason is thus the most impeded, and he is the least "kingly" and most unhappy.

The Just Life is More Pleasurable

"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).

  "May we not confidently assert that those desires of even the profit-loving and honor-loving parts of the soul [the appetite and spirit], which follow knowledge and reason and pursue with their help those pleasures which intelligence (φρόνιμον) 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 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).
Socrates also argues that the just life is more pleasurable than the unjust life. The view is not that pleasure is the good and that the just life is happier because it has more pleasure. Rather, the view is that the just life is happier and that it also has more pleasure than the unjust life.

Socrates gives two proofs of this conclusion. The first is the "second one" he mentions (Republic IX.580c). He argues that there is pleasure for each part of the soul and that the praise of the lover of wisdom shows that that the life of reason is the "sweetest" (Republic IX.583a).

A few lines later Socrates gives another proof that he describes as the "greatest and most decisive overthrow" for the just man against the unjust man (Republic IX.583b).

In this proof of the conclusion that the just life is more pleasurable, Socrates argues that a part of the soul get its "truest" pleasures when the objects of its desires are "most proper" to it, that when reason rules in the soul (as is the case in a just human being), all three parts get their "truest" pleasures because the knowledge in the part with reason directs action, and that when either the appetitive or spirited part rules, the three parts do not get their "truest" pleasures.

The just life, then, not only is first in "happiness" (εὐδαιμονία), it is also more pleasurable than the unjust life. So in both ways the just life is better than the unjust life.

  "[W]e have not invoked the rewards and reputes of justice as you [Adeimantus] said Homer and Hesiod do, but we have proved that justice in itself is the best thing for the soul itself, and that what it is to do is what is right whether it possess the ring of Gyges or not, or the cap of Hades [an invisibility device to which Homer refers in Illiad 5.845] as well.
  Most true, Socrates" (Republic X.612b).

Why the Lovers of Wisdom Rule in a Just City

It can seem that justice in the city is not better for the rulers 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).

This can suggest that the lovers of wisdom in a just city would have more time to spend in contemplation and thus would be happier if they were sometimes to forsake their duty to rule and thus were to act contrary to the rules of justice in a just city.

Glaucon, in fact, worries about this.

He asks Socrates whether the requirement to rule is wrong because it takes the lover of wisdom away from the intellectual activity that characterizes the good life.

  "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?
"[W]hile it would not be at all surprising if these men thus living prove to be the most happy (εὐδαιμονέστατοί), yet the object on which we fixed our eyes in the establishment of our city was not to make any one class outstandingly happy but to make the whole city so, as far as possible. ... [In our attempt to discover justice, we are] fashioning the happy city, not isolating a small class in it and postulating their happiness, but that of the city as a whole" (Republic IV.420b).

  "Observe, then, Glaucon, that we shall not be wronging the lovers of wisdom who arise among us, and that we can justify our action (δίκαια πρὸς αὐτοὺς ἐροῦμεν) when we constrain them to take charge of the other citizens and be their guardians. For we will say to them that when men of similar quality who spring up in other cities, they are justified not sharing in the labors there. For they grow up spontaneously from no volition (ἀκούσης) of the governments in the several cities, and it is justice (δίκην) 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 rule the others]. ... Will they 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 [of contemplation]?
  Impossible, for we shall be imposing just commands on men who are just, but each of them will surely go to rule as something that must be done" (Republic VII.520a).

"[W]hile [the city] comes into existence for the sake of life, it exists for the good life" (Aristotle, Politics I.1252b).
  You have again forgotten, my friend, that the law is not concerned with the happiness [or: doing well (εὖ πράξει)] of any class in the state, but is trying to produce this in the city as a whole, harmonizing and adapting the citizens to one another by persuasion and compulsion (συναρμόττων τοὺς πολίτας πειθοῖ τε καὶ ἀνάγκῃ), 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).

In reply to Glaucon, Socrates denies the injustice.

Socrates says that for lovers of wisdom who have received their education in a just city, the requirement for them to rule is not wrong. They owe the city for their education, and if the ruling is an imposition, it is offset by the good it brings to the city. This, Socrates explains, is something the lovers of wisdom in a just city will themselves think is true.

The lovers of wisdom will think that this is true because the education in a rightly founded city makes them and the citizens more generally, to the extent this is possible for these citizens, see that they themselves have good reason to endorse and to comply with the organization in the city. In this way, the organization that constitutes justice in a city is self-sustaining.

Notice, though, that contary to the understanding of justice Glaucon and Adeimantus set out in Book II and ask Socrates to refute, the agreement of the citizens is not what makes the organization in a city just. An organization of human beings constitutes justice in a city because it best acheives the purpuse for which human beings organizes themselves into cities, and the upbringing and education in a just city teaches the citizens to appreciate this fact. (Of course we ourselves may doubt that the city Socrates describes and thinks is rightly founded in fact does achieve the purpose for which human beings organize themselves into cities.)

This leaves the question whether ruling is an imposition on the lovers of wisdom and whether they would have more time for contemplation if the were to forsake their duty to rule.

There is a strong temptation to think it is an imposition, but since the just city is arranged to support the rulers, it might be that if one of the rulers were sometimes to forsake his duty to rule, the support in the city for rulers would break down because the organization in the city would break down. So it might be that by forsaking his duty to rule, a ruler would make his life worse because he would be arranging things so that he spends less time in contemplation.

Perseus Digital Library:

Plato, Republic

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

"[W]hereas [the historical] 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 [as Socrates had thought]. 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, 1-28).

"[In the Phaedo, 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, 3-16).

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