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Plato’s Interpretation of Justice Essay

We live in a society that has different perceptions of what the definition of society is and how its governance should be than those of past societies, which had existed several thousand years ago. For instance, individuals perceive social atmospheres and personal behavior in two different lights. What man does in his community as a loyal citizen should not reflect or influence how his life is lived as a person. These are the ideals of society now. However, when scholars, such as Homer, Plato, and Archimedes lived, they had envisioned a social order that exploited the attributes of its citizens.

By doing so, the superiors would be able to categorize the citizens into a rigid “caste” system. Not only did this categorical system help establish a clear social class, but it also defined the lifestyle on an individual. The methodical separation of classes showed a distinct difference between superiority and inferiority and the separation of one’s inner being. Yet, is this just? Is what these men are doing warranted? No better philosopher exemplifies these beliefs in his writings than Plato.

The Republic, by Plato, is first-hand accounts through the character of Socrates, a noble scintillating intellectual, and his questionings of society’s principles and the integrity of the soul. Throughout this text, Plato considers the nature and value of justice as they appear both in the fabric of society as well as within the souls of individuals who live in that society. Within the dialects of The Republic, many different varieties of justice are uncovered, but there is only one interpretation between the inner being of man and the society in which man lives in that Plato discusses.

One interpretation of justice is uncovered when Socrates is having a discussion with the elderly, wealthier Cephalus. Cephalus was a more orthodox individual than Socrates. He was never one to question what was just and unjust since the fear of Zeus’s rage was too overwhelming, not to mention being cast outside of the state is also quite frightening. This in itself gives a profound description of Greek culture. The fear that had been instilled within the denizens of the state had prevented questioning and rebellious efforts. Only within the safety and confines of his own estate will he, Cephalus, voice his opinion.

Cephalus gives his views on justice, which involved nothing more than telling the truth and paying back one’s debts to society or to another individual. Socrates, the devil’s advocate that he is, does not agree with this statement and argues his position giving an example. The example he gave stated that if a person receives a weapon from a friend who then becomes clinically mad, is it a “just” action to return that weapon if the friend then asked for it back? Cephalus, knowing his flaws in his interpretation of justice, agrees with Socrates.

Satisfied in Cephalus’ response, Socrates continues to play his game on the other individuals hoping for a similar outcome. The next person Socrates asks is Cephalus’ son, Polemarchus. Clearly thinking that his ideas are flawless, Polemarchus thoughts on justice are to “give each his due,” (of which he quotes Simonides). More simply put, his interpretation of justice means, “helping your friends and harming your enemies. ” To refer back to the earlier example that his father had given, Polemarchus believes that the weapon should be returned to the friend above, regardless of his state.

He had seen the situation as “I had given him what was his, and what he does with the weapon is his fault, not mine. ” Socrates, humoring himself, refutes that statement by arguing that what if the weapon you have returned to the friend harms himself. Would that not be harming your friends? With this twist of the scenario, Polemarchus agrees that it would be a mistake to return the weapon back to the friend. Still not satisfied with a legitimate answer to the seemingly simple question, Socrates asks his next participant in his discussion: Thrasymachus.

Thrasymachus confidently states that “justice or right is simply what is in the interest of the stronger party” (338c). What Thrasymachus means by this is that the more powerful individuals create laws that are to their own benefit, not the citizens of which they rule. Socrates cannot resist arguing this interpretation of justice. He compares justice to medicine, “no knowledge considers or prescribes for the advantage of the stronger, but for that of the weaker, which it rules”; meaning that the ruler actually makes laws the benefit the weaker, inferior people.

Thrasymachus, furious of having his own words manipulated, alters his definition by claiming that the ideal form of injustice is one that brings contentment to the ruler and desolation to others, in other words, an early form of tyrannical governance. Socrates knew he had failed to find a decent definition of the term justice and finally gives his interpretation of justice in society. Socrates enlightens the crowd by telling them a story about shepherd who served as a king.

On a day that the Shepard was herding sheep, an earthquake opened a tomb of some sort whereby he found a bronze horse, inside of which he found the body of a man, wearing a golden ring. The poor man that he was takes the ring and leaves. Amongst his fellow Shepards, he had happened to turn the setting of the ring toward him. Doing so, he became invisible. He would utilize this power to become messenger to the king, murder the king, and become king himself. Why not carry out this plan? If the man can commit any crime and not be punished for it, why should he not commit the crime?

Glaucon, interrupts, by saying that if the man is truly just, than he will not have to commit the crimes all together, since he has attained his inner peace and knows the morality of the situation. Socrates views society divided into several castes. The appetitive, or ones with appetite, are those who are artisans and craftsman. The spirited ones are the ones who have fight in them. These are the ones who have strong emotions and tend to over react on these emotions. The final echelon of society consists of those who have both rationale and intellect.

According to Socrates, these characteristics are not only found in society of man, but within man himself. “But who are the ruling party and why are they the ones to choose what is “just” for society and what is not? And if these people are rulers, than who are the other people within society? ” the others asked. Socrates justifies his answer by telling them that at birth people have certain metals within their blood; gold, silver and bronze, whereby the golden people are fit to rule, the silver are fit to guard and the bronze are fitted to work.

Clearly, this was a “white lie” but aware of his audience, Socrates knew he would be able to tell it. Plato, the author of The Republic, voices his beliefs through his characters. So, Plato believes society is grouped in three societal categories, just as the soul is clustered in three basic pieces. To see which category an individual would fall under, he would need to be placed in a situation where he only has three choices; choices that would target the three natures of a soul.

To put a modern twist on this scenario, an individual is standing in front of three doors that lead to three rooms. The first room is a massive hall filled with treasures far as the eye could see; enough wealth to support his great-grandchildren’s expenses. The second room is empty except for a red switch. The switch is wired to an explosives device that will execute all known terrorists by the United States. The third room is filled with millions of glass vials containing vaccines to all known diseases and epidemics world-wide.

Which door would the individual choose? The base of the triangular representation of Plato’s society is comprised up of people who have the wants and needs of simple things, but these wants tend to overcome their emotions and reasoning, and therefore act on them, leading to failure. The appetitive trait of an individual craves simple pleasures, comfort, and monetary values. According to Plato, the appetitive portion of an individual or society is the part “with which it lusts, hungers, thirsts and gets excited by other appetites”.

What he means by this is that the appetite of an individual or will sometimes overcome his ability to use logic therefore, if a person is too appetitive, than he will not use his judgment for the good of the state but instead for the good of himself. Thus, a person with too much appetitive traits cannot rule. Likewise, the appetitive segment of a person’s soul can sometimes have urges too overwhelming that no matter how much the person tries, he will not be able to resist. The appetitive quality within the individual would undoubtedly choose the first room filled with treasures.

Why not flip the red switch and place an end to the War on Terror? Why not cure the vast majority of people in Africa with vaccinations or people in Asia who have devastating sicknesses? The fact that this person chose the room which would only benefit him clearly indicates a selfish individual and this person would not be a fit ruler. This appetitive trait within a human is driven by the instinct of want. This want overcomes our ability of self-control, an ability that separates man from animal. If our appetitive soul takes the better of us, than we would not be able to carry out our everyday lives.

Now the spirited individual in society is one who does not let his wants interfere with his decisions, but rather his drive and willingness for his beliefs. These people are known by Plato as “auxiliaries”, also known as soldiers and warriors who defend the state. This portion of a person’s soul lets the heart to do the thinking and is represented by honor and glory, key characteristics of a worthy soldier. Whatever thoughts and notions that are pre-conceived by the mind and appetite, the heart ignores. In the same scenario of the three doors, this person would choose the second door with the red switch.

However, this decision is not truthful but rather bias. This person is middle-classed and could most certainly use the wealth for his children and had never really felt the impact of losing someone to a disease, yet what if this individual had lost his brother in war? In his mind, he could end all the agony he had felt from the loss of his brother as well as the war on terror by simply flipping on a switch. Yet, by turning on the switch, the individual risks worsening the war by instigating retaliation.

A society cannot have a person who is too “trigger happy” as a ruler, yet these people do not belong in the lowest level of society since they are taking into account what is in the best interest of society but are still risking lives of others. Similarly, the part of the soul that exhibits these features is known to control one’s decision making and rationale more than the appetitive trait. Therefore, this trait is warranted only within limits. The only people who are left are those who reside in the uppermost strata of society: the rational ones.

These individuals consider all the aspects of the decision, the pros and cons, and make the choice accordingly. These people let their minds control them and would open door number three, the one that contains the vials of vaccinations, since this door is most likely beneficial to all people. According to Plato, these people would have an excess amount of gold in their body so they are most fit in determining what is right and wrong. This portion of the soul is one that does not worry about monetary values or even fighting for vengeance.

Because of these virtues, the rational few are the ones who are given the privilege to rule. This tripartite of the inner soul can be viewed as a profound theory, one which Plato illustrated in a depiction of a charioteer, grasping the reins of two stallions: the horse on the right has a pearly white and magnificent mane while the other horse on the left is black, tarnished, and considered useless. The charioteer, the rational partition of the soul, is a noble rider, one who knows the course and track (metaphorically speaking, the lessons and path of life.

He must use his judgment in order to overcome obstacles and still manage to steer the horses to victory (victory being inner justice, as Plato refers to it as. ) The white stallion on the right is a representation of a glorious spirited horse, one that is motivated and will not falter until the course, of life, is completed. The stag on the left is a representation of the appetitive quality of the soul. This stag has no reason to continue its journey other than to reach its simple pleasures in life. Both of these horses will tend to drift off the chosen path and wander into mischief.

The purpose of the charioteer is to keep both horses in check and focused on the task at hand. This is analogous to how the mind has to keep the heart and stomach in line to carry out life functions. If humans were to let their stomachs make their decisions, the individual would be quite gluttonous as well as lustfulness. If man were to allow his anger and brute strength to decide for him, than his inner being would be discontent; always seeking out battles and defending trivial logic. Moreover, if man were to let rationale and reason to decide, his soul would be quite content but his life would not progress.

He would always be pondering abstract thoughts and behavior and have no momentum or incentive to carry on life. Society cannot thrive on just morals and ethics just as how a body cannot operate successfully without its other parts. According to Plato, to have the best justice within a society, all the levels of society will need to operate in sync with each other in order to be successful. The artisans and appetitive souls are known as the providers of society. They want goods, and an excess amount at that. The soldiers and warriors, the ones with spirit and determination, will be the protectors of society.

With the help of these individuals, the spirited souls, and the workers, the appetitive souls, the rational beings, can achieve a proper balance between all three virtues in the polis and the body itself. Justice is a quality that not only bonds the inner being of man but also bonds man to each other. According to Plato, justice is not physical attribute or strength but rather a characteristic that is in unison with all other characteristics of man. Plato also conceived that almost all ethics and scruples revolve around the inner peace of the individual as well as the harmony within the society.


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