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Justice and Injustice in Plato’s Republic

Undoubtedly Plato can be considered among the greatest philosophers of ancient time. It can be stated that the establishment of his philosophical thoughts was at the hand of Socrates, another great philosopher of that time, and who is merely known from Plato’s dialogues. In his works, Plato combines philosophical ideas and politics, and in that regard, his work “The Republic” can be considered among his most famous works, where philosophy was used as a means to express ideas of political theory. Although the “The Republic” can be considered as an expression of Plato’s vision of the ideal society through many questions such as freedom, morals, education, knowledge, etc. It can be stated that the main idea of the work revolves around justice as the central point to which other aspects are attached.

The main question in the dialogues appearing in “The Republic” is “What is Justice?” In the dialogue in which many characters including Socrates discuss the notion of justice, and in which the justice to be known, an example of a good state should be constructed. A larger example, allowed the discussion to examine justice, based on the characteristics of a good state. In the light of the aforementioned, this paper examines the notion of justice based on Plato’s “The Republic”, supporting Plato’s claim that it is better to be just than unjust.

The title of the work, i.e. “The Republic” implies that the description provided by Plato for the ideal society, defining justice, was not merely defining a state, but also a system; a system in which all of its branches were defined through drawing the analogies between the structure of the ideal society and the structure of human soul.

According to Plato, the notion of justice is difficult to define, and in that regard, it was easier for him to state what justice is not or not limited to. The propositions of the definitions of justice offered by the company were too limited to reflect the true nature of justice. Thus, Plato’s opposition to the proposed definitions stated that justice is not merely “speaking the truth and paying your debt” (Plato & Lindsay, 1975, p. 33), “giving to each man what is proper to him” (36), doing good for the good of our friends and the harm of enemies, or following the interest of the stronger. In that regard, it can be stated that the definitions provided by Cephalus, Polemarchus, or Thrasymachus, are merely representing the view of justice in the context of the individual and thus the rebuttal of such definitions were provided also with consideration to the scale of the definitions.

Plato’s main idea of justice is its representation as a human virtue (45), inseparable from the human nature. In that regard, Plato’s claim, opposing the rest of the company was in that being just is better than being unjust, an argument proving which the assessment of the justice on the individual level is not enough, and thus the nature of justice and injustice should be performed as they appear in the state (110).

Assessing the necessity of justice in the ideal state, Plato through the dialogues claims that the rulers of such states should be philosophers. Explaining such claim, Plato defines philosophers as having the minds that “always love knowledge of a sort which shows them the eternal nature not varying from generation and corruption” (352). Following such definitions, the attributes of philosophers include the impossibility to be unjust (355). Thus, it can be seen that Plato outline justice as an inseparable aspect of a good ruler, pointing to the characteristics of philosophers and that they might constitute such rulers.

Accordingly, justice can be considered as an internal aspect of human soul as it is an internal aspect of the ideal society. The latter can be seen through the explanation of the notion of good. It is argued that an important aspect in assessing the rulers of a state is knowing the good, or the ideas of good, a term “that which imparts truth to the known and the power of knowledge to the knower” (402). The good is what gives cognizable things the validity, and gives the people the ability to cognize, as it is the reason for knowledge. It is through the good that justice becomes beneficial. Thus, through such an outline of the relation between the good and justice, it can be seen that the explanation in which Glaucon stated that the justice is taught for its apparent significance, i.e. to appear just rather than be just. In that regard, through such distinction, the good can be seen linking justice as an internal part of people.

Accordingly, the difference can be perceived between the natural and the conventional justice, i.e. the justice that is not praised for the justice in itself, but rather for its appearance (107). On the other hand, the justice praised by Socrates, which is meant in the statement that being just is better than being unjust implies the justice that is good in and of itself.

It should be stated that if Plato, in outlining the way being just is better, used the analogy of the ideal state and the human soul, the way he showed such benefit implied drawing the picture of such society, where justice applies to all the aspects of the virtues of people and all society’s organizations. In other words, Plato states that the existence of the ideal society is the main way of showing that is just is better, where the goal is the ideal society, and the method of reaching and maintaining such goal is being just. Plato outlined the conditions and the rules for such a society to exist, which is based on the divisions and the classes, and where philosophers as rulers were a single example of such conditions. The choice of philosophers, as explained earlier, is a condition of being just, where justice serves as a container for other virtues.

On the other hand, following such method of outlining the way being just is better, to show injustice as an opposite, Plato showed examples of states that oppose the notion of ideal, as if showing the results that being unjust will lead to. According to Plato there are four variants of the states that can be resulted from injustice, and what might have happen if the rulers of such states will continue to be unjust. These variants are timocracy (timarchy), oligarchy, democracy and tyranny (468).

In terms of timocracy, which is translated as the government of honor, the main reason for the occurrence of such a form of the government as with other types as well, is the division of governing power. Timocracy is the first form of the state, and which accordingly is the close to the ideal state. The example given of such state is Sparta and Crete (466). The injustice in the ideal state will lead to that the ignorance of the rulers the division of classes is no longer maintained according to the nature of each class, “and hence there will arise dissimilarity and inequality and irregularity, which always and in all places are causes of hatred and war” (471).

This form of government is the most perfect of the imperfect forms, where initially some of the aspects of the ideal state are still maintained. Such aspects include the praise of the rulers, and the warriors are free from material burdens. In that regard, with injustice still progressing, the strongest and the bravest will eventually seize the power, and enslave the rest of the classes of the state. The warrior spirit and the military aspects are dominating over qualities and accordingly ambitions are developing, wherein striving for power, striving for wealth will eventually occur. The latter will lead to that the money will become the measure of honor and influence. The individual influence of injustice can be seen through the growth of complaints in the younger generation, where being divided between the rational principles and the encouragement of the passionate and appetitive sides of the young soul, young people even not bad will become “arrogant and ambitious” (477).

Oligarchy, which is logical flow from timocracy, can be defined as “a government resting on a valuation of property, in which the rich have power and the poor man is deprived of it” (478). The wealthy part of oligarchy is the spending part, where oligarchy can be described as a state of two co-existing layers, the poor and the wealthy. Being the spending part, the wealthy can eventually become the poor, and the main principle of the society described by Plato, which is each part only doing him is violated.

The growth of wealth is eliminating the virtue in the life of the people, and accordingly the justice is proportionally eliminated, creating the utterly poor and the utterly wealthy, with the latter doing everything to maintain the wealth and status. The constant struggle between the two sides will eventually lead to the fall of the wealthy being the lesser part. On the individual side, valuing money over other virtues will lead to people will abandon their desires and subdues, which are not profitable (487).

With the fall of the oligarchy and the wealthy, the form of the state that follows is democracy. Democracy can be seen as the power and the governance of the majority. However, as the distinction between the poor and the wealth increased in the oligarchy, hidden anger is developing toward the wealthy as well as every aspect in the government that previously maintained such distinction. The democracy will come in full effect after the poor have conquered some of their opponents, slaughtered some and banished some, with the rest equalized in rights and property. It can be seen that the progression of injustice accumulates, but nevertheless, democracy still maintains or restores some of the aspects of the ideal society, i.e. the division to classes, although the classes are different at this time. The loss of moral orientation, where the surplus of the freedom will ruin its foundation, and with the total equalization, the injustice will be seen through the loss of giving everyone what he is due. All of the aforementioned will lead to the development of the opposition to the total freedom, i.e. tyranny.

Tyranny is grown out of the excessive freedom which leads to excessive slavery, i.e. the power of one over all the society. Tyranny can be considered the worst form of government and in the justice hierarchy is positioned at the bottom. It can be seen that being unjust did not serve well even those who were in the power in each of the forms of imperfect states outlined by Plato. In that regard, it can be assumed that the difference between natural justice and conventional is in the way the attainment of this justice in the society is achieved.

It can be seen that the manifestation of justice as a human virtue will facilitate reaching the conditions of the ideal state, in which the justice will apply to all other virtues, while the conventional justice will lead to that eventually each of the conditions will be violated, and gradually the balance in the society will be shifted, first to the power, then to the wealth, the excessive freedom and finally to excessive slavery. Accordingly, it can be stated that being just is better than being unjust, regardless of the current position in society, to maintain the principles of the ideal state.


Plato, & Lindsay, A. D. (1975). The Republic. Web.