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A significantly large aspect of Plato’s dialogue entitled Republic is the discussion of the concept of justice. On a preliminary note, the significance of such a concept makes itself manifest in our deepest questions concerning the many aspects of the political order and political life. In the Republic, Socrates’ interlocutors Glaucon and Adeimantus, challenge the view that it is always more preferable for an individual to be just than unjust. At this early part of the paper, it is an imperative to explain in further detail what Glaucon and Adeimantus’ challenge demand from Socrates.
Glaucon and Adeimantus, following the view presented by Thrasymachus, demand an explanation from Socrates whether one is better off refraining from injustice even if one has the power to escape detection or being caught. Socrates’ reply at the end of Book IV is clear; that it is always better for one to have a just soul than an unjust soul. This paper seeks to explicate in full detail, the challenge (or problematic) put forth by Glaucon and Adeimantus, Socrates’ reply, and more importantly, the reasons as to why Socrates was able to arrive at his conclusion.
The central question of the Republic is, “What is justice?
” and by such a question, what Socrates (or Plato) seeks to arrive at is the Being or essence of justice; that is, what justice really is. Such being the case, the dialogue itself is not intended as a mere practical inquiry about justice in the context of the Athenian political order and Athenian political life but more importantly, a sustained theoretical inquiry about the concept (or definition) of justice.
It is for this reason that in Book I of the Republic, Socrates did not consider his victory over Thrasymachus as something which can be considered as a progress in their discussion of justice.
In summing up what happened in their entire conversation, Socrates said the following: Before finding the first thing we inquired about- namely, what justice is- I let that go, and turned to investigate whether it is a kind of vice and ignorance or a kind of wisdom and virtue. Then an argument came up about injustice being more profitable than justice… Hence the result of the discussion… is that I know nothing. For when I do not know what justice is, I will hardly know whether it is a kind of virtue or not, or whether a person who has it is happy or unhappy.
(Plato I 35) From a logical point of view, Socrates is correct in the sense that prior to establishing whether or not justice is a virtue and whether or not a person who has it is happy, it must first be established what justice is. In this universe of discourse, it is also equally important to consider that the argument of the Republic is essentially, a moral one which centers on the very nature of justice in its absolute sense. As a reaction against the view of the Sophists, Socrates attempts to show that justice is not artificial or illusory.
The contradictory position to that of Socrates’ is presented by Glaucon in Book II of the Republic by recasting the argument earlier presented by Thrasymachus that “the life of the unjust person is, they say, much better than that of the just one” (Plato II 37). In Book II, Glaucon presents the view that human beings are naturally self-centered; each looking after himself and his own self-interests. Regarding this particular view, Glaucon explicates in detail: People say, you see, that to do injustice is naturally good and to suffer injustice bad.
But the badness of suffering it far exceeds the goodness of doing it. Hence, those who have done and suffered injustice and who have tasted both- the ones who lack the power to do it and avoid suffering it- decide that it is profitable to come to an agreement with each other neither to do injustice not to suffer it. (Plato II 37) As a consequence of the aforementioned passage, Glaucon claims that human beings “begin to make laws and covenants; and what the law commands, they call lawful and just” (Plato II 37).
An important point that should be considered in the first horn of Glaucon’s argument is that in Glaucon’s words, we are able to find an expression of the view that moral obligations have their origin, in whole or in part, from contract or an agreement. Such being the case, it can plausibly be maintained that, in as far as the challenge presented by Glaucon to Socrates is concerned, if the challenge itself is a moral one, then it is inevitable that the entire discourse on justice also be of the same nature (that is, moral).
In a very real sense, one may infer that in Glaucon’s view, the nature and the source of justice is merely based upon human frailty; that is, human beings’ incapacity “to do injustice without paying the penalty” and “to suffer it without being able to take revenge” (Plato II 37). It is important to note that the recognition (or acceptance) of Glaucon’s premise (that is, that the nature and the source of injustice is merely based upon human frailty) is crucial if we are to understand the second horn of Glaucon’s argument; that is, as to why people who practice justice “practice it unwillingly” (Plato II 38).
If it is correct to say that people who practice justice practice it unwillingly, then the obvious problem, on the part of his interlocutor, that is, Socrates, would be as to how it can be cogently explained why justice is regarded as a virtue, and the just person is regarded as virtuous. This is a legitimate problem because if a person commits acts which are just simply because he cannot “do injustice without paying the penalty,” then his actions do not have moral worth. The reasoning behind this is simple: it is only acts which are free which can be praiseworthy or blameworthy, moral or immoral.
Finally, Glaucon’s argument points out the uselessness of justice if kept in private. Glaucon states the following: This, some would say, is strong evidence that no one is just willingly, but only when compelled. No one believes justice to be a good thing when it is kept private, since whenever either person thinks he can do injustice with impunity, he does it. Indeed, all men believe that injustice is far more profitable to themselves than is justice. (Plato II 39) If Glaucon’s account of the nature and source of justice is correct, then the aforementioned problem must be addressed.
It is important to note that Glaucon’s argument is largely built upon the concept of human nature in the negative sense; that is, the view that human beings are naturally self-centered; each looking after himself and his own self-interests. Adeimantus provides a rejoinder for Glaucon’s argument. Whereas, Glaucon’s argument focuses on the arguments for the superiority of injustice over justice, Adeimantus’ argument focuses on the arguments “that praise justice and disparage injustice” (Plato II 41).
Adeimantus’ contribution to the discussion of justice and injustice is the laying down of the “praise and blame given to each” (Plato II 42). By doing so, Adeimantus believes that Socrates will be able to understand the Glaucon’s argument in its fullness and complexity. Adeimantus provides a detailed explication of what people, especially their forefathers, priests and poets say about justice and injustice. At this point, Adeimantus’ words amount to what may be called social criticism. Adeimantus said the following:
As you know, when fathers speak to their sons to give them advice, they say that one must be just, as do all those who have others in their charge. But they do not praise justice itself, only the good reputation it brings. (Plato II 41). The foregoing passage points out two things. First, what most people praise or blame is not justice itself but the reputation that it brings. Second, most people’s approval or disapproval of just/unjust acts then are merely grounded upon the consequences of such acts and not because of the rightness or wrongness of the acts themselves.
Adeimantus offers another criticism on the gods and virtue in relation to the unjust person. He said the following: Begging priests and prophets to go to the doors of rich people and persuade them that, through sacrifices and incantations, they have acquired a god-given power: if the rich person or any of his ancestors has committed an injustice, they can fix it with pleasant rituals. And if he wishes to injure an enemy, he will be able to harm a just one or an unjust one alike at little cost, since by means of spells and enchantments they can persuade the gods to do their bidding. (Plato II 42)
It is important to note that Glaucon and Adeimantus’ arguments complement each other; and together challenges Socrates to defend his view that justice is preferable than injustice without mentioning merely the consequences of being just or unjust but what justice and injustice is, in their own right. Adeimantus sums this challenge to Socrates in the following: But I… want to hear the opposite from you… So do not merely demonstrate to us by argument that justice is stronger than injustice, but tell us what each one itself does, because of itself, to someone who possess it, that makes the one bad and the other good.
(Plato II 45) The foregoing discussion further strengthens the claim that was earlier presented; that the argument of the Republic is essentially, a moral one; since the challenge put forth by Glaucon and Adeimantus in Book II is also, by its very nature, moral. Now that we are able to present Glaucon and Adeimantus’ challenge to Socrates in full detail, our next task is to lay down the arguments presented by Socrates in his defense of justice. Although it is Socrates who does the talking in the Republic, it can be argued that at some point in the dialogues such as this one, Socrates merely served as a mouthpiece of Plato.
This is to say in that the Republic, Plato departs from Socrates and conducts his own philosophizing. In reading Plato, one may infer that his political theory is very closely connected with his moral philosophy. The challenge put forth by Glaucon and Adeimantus received a very lengthy discussion by Socrates in his usual method of questioning. In response to the challenge of defining justice itself, Socrates likens the state to the soul of an individual. This is to say that the state serves as the macrocosm of the individual and the individual, the microcosm of the state.
For the most part, this is the main analogy within which Socrates’ (or Plato’s) response to Glaucon and Adeimantus consists in. Expounding on this analogy further, in as much as the state is composed of different classes, the individual soul too, is composed of different parts (or elements). Such being the case, the key to understanding the concept of justice is to be found in analyzing the very nature of the state because “there is justice that belongs to a single man and also one that belongs to a whole city” (Plato II 46). In the dialogue, Socrates provides a distinction between “war” and “faction” (Plato V 162).
The former, according to Socrates, refers to hostility towards strangers whereas the latter refers to hostility towards one’s own. Such a distinction is helpful if we are to arrive at a fuller understanding of the underlying idea behind the analogy between the justice in an individual and justice in the state. Socrates said the following to Glaucon: Now, notice that whenever something of the sort that is currently called faction occurs and a city is divided, if each side devastates the land and burns the houses of the other, the faction is thought abominable and neither party is thought to love the city. (Plato V 163)
The underlying idea in the analogy is that if a city has existing factions, then that city is divided and it will not be able to function well. In this context, justice is considered as a general virtue. This is to say that all parts are fulfilling their distinctive functions and in the process, are also achieving their respective virtues. Thus, justice in the state can only be attained if the three classes in society fulfill their functions. In the same vein, for an individual to function well and flourish, it is imperative that the there exists a harmony among the elements of the soul of the individual.
In the final analysis, Glaucon and Adeimantus’ challenge to Socrates (or Plato’s) incited a lengthy discussion of the nature of justice (and injustice). In his defense of justice, Socrates makes use of the analogy between the soul of the individual and the classes of the city (or state). In both cases, Socrates points out two important things via the analogy. First, in the context of the city, justice is doing one’s distinctive function in the city. Second, injustice occurs when a part of the whole is not fulfilling its distinctive function. In the same vein, the same line of reasoning may be applied to the soul of the individual.
Socrates asked the following: What about an appetite that goes beyond these and seeks other sorts of foods; that, if it is restrained from childhood and educated, most people can get rid of; and that is harmful to the body and harmful to the soul’s capacity for wisdom and temperance? (Plato VIII 256) The point is clear. Against Glaucon and Adeimantus, what is brilliant in Socrates’ analogy is that through it, he was able to point out that justice is more superior (and preferable) than injustice because, if we are to follow the analogy, without justice, a city will not be able to function.
If, for example, the military will depart from its distinctive function and seek acquire wealth like merchants or rule a city, injustice occurs. The same is true if a merchant will seek to become the ruler of a city. In the context of the individual’s soul, if the appetitive element is more dominant than the rational element, then that individual will not be able to function well or flourish. Justice then, in both the individual and the city (or state) is the harmony among elements: temperance, courage and wisdom.
Plato. “Republic. ” Republic. Ed. C. D. C. Reeve. Np: Hackett Publishing, 2004.
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