Justice: Deliberations in Plato’s Book I of Republc


When William Godwin said,​‘Justice is the sum of all moral duty’,​he allotted the concept of justice to a cardinal stature, just as Plato who used the Greek word​‘Dikaisyne’​ for justice which is almost synonymous to the word ‘morality’ or ‘righteousness’. With the prevailing degenerating conditions of Athenian democracy, Plato, dissatisfied, saw in Justice the only remedy to save Athens from the malady of dwindling prosperity.

Republic, Book I, inquires about justice from the crudest to the most refined interpretation. Book I has dialogues between Socrates and a number of characters, on Justice as to what it actually is, each of which arguments were at last being refuted by Socrates on various grounds. Cephalus, the venerable paterfamilias, spent his life in acquisitive arts, as a businessman. He represents the traditional morality, what will later be called in the Republic, the appetitive part of the soul. Cephalus’s theoryofjusticeis​justiceashonesty​whichheidentifiesas​‘speakingthe truth and paying one’s debt’​. The view propounded by Cephalus was debunked by Socrates on the ground that there might be cases in which this maxim can lead to the violation of the spirit of right. Restoring a deadly weapon to an unsound man which he had once deposited with a sound mind, is no way justice. With this, Cephalus leaves and with him, the tradition and the convention gets banished from the dialogue.

Polemarchus, son of Cephalus, who took over his father’s argument to further avail, having possessed a name which means ‘warlord’, is an embodiment of the spirited part of the soul, as called by Plato or Socrates. He seems to be concerned with questions of honor and loyalty and his theory of justice identifies justice as loyalty​. His contention is ‘justice is giving what is fitting to someone’​, or in further simplification, ‘justice is doing good to friends and harm enemies’.​Rebutting this stance, Socrates expounds that if the friend is only a friend in seeming and an enemy in reality then should we be obstinate with

Polemarchus’s definition and do him good or may we use discretion? But causing harm to anybody even if he is a foe, shows discrepancy in the elementary conception of morality.

Portrayed as an evil-doppelganger of Socrates, Thrasymachus, a visiting sophist, seeks to teach and educate, anticipating what the Republic will call the rational part of the soul. Thrasymachus holds out a hard-headed realistic and radical theory of justice which identifies justice as the ​‘interest of the stronger’.In every polity that we know of, justice consists of the rules, which are made by and for the ruling class, irrespective of the state being a democracy, autocracy or a monarchy. Justice is nothing more or less than what benefits the rulers. Every polity seeks advantage against others and for Thrasymachus, politics is a zero-sum game and the rules of justice are set up by the winners of the game to protect and promote their own interests. Socrates challenges Thrasymachus with a variation of arguments, He says just as a physician studies the art of medicine and exercises his power not in his interest but in the interest of the patient, the government of any polity shall exercise its power in the interest of the people. Thrasymachus advances some more arguments which say justice cannot bring as much strength and happiness as injustice can, to which Socrates attacks that justice implies superior character which is a human virtue integral to the soul and injustice can never be a virtue as it deceives people.

Socrates finally wins the argument with a sleight hand leaving loose ends as to what justice is in definite terms. Socrates spent his entire life searching for the meaning of justice.

What I could reflect from the viewpoints of Cephalus, Polemarchus and Thrasymachus regarding justice is that these definitions can partially intend to define justice but not in its entirety. From a general perspective of maintaining societal harmony, I think Cephalus was right to some extent though his definition was quite simple, shallow and vague. Polemarchus might have intended to mean his statement in objective terms but in a post-modern era where everything is subjective, I disagree with Polemarchus. We may well be mistaken in our assumption that someone is our friend or enemy. What if, between me and my enemy, I suppose to be the morally corrupt person, do I deserve justice over my enemy? What really makes the distinctions between friends and enemies? What if a corrupted person is my friend, in which case, should I seek for his justice or for the person he did wrong? Polemarchus’s statement poses a lot of questions of contradictions in my mind. Central to the twentieth-century contemporary political theorist Schmitt’s understanding of politics , is the concept of friends and enemy. Such a big concept but Polemarchus’s idea of friend and enemy is superficial, limited and non-dynamic, something which I do not agree with.

Analyzing from the perspective of a post-structuralist, post-modern contemporary world, Thrasymachus’s viewpoint cannot be entirely refuted. I can relate to Thrasymachus as a familiar being who enjoys bringing the harsh and unremitting facts about human nature to light, who enjoys dispelling illusions and pretty ideal beliefs. Thrasymachus actually means to say that human beings are engulfed by a desire for power, which distinguishes the alpha male from others- a quest which everyone is silently or not in. I believe it is true of individuals and collective entities that we are enslaved by the cravings of power and

domination. It did not take Karl Marx to discover that insight that the rules of justice are simply the rules of the ruling class for solely their benefit and that is exactly what Thrasymachus stated.

In 1884, the Dudley-Stephens case presented a grave issue of justice. Three people including a boy of seventeen years- Dudley, Stephens and Parker were on a lifeboat stranded in the ocean. Dudley and Stephens killed Parker believing that he was gonna die of starvation soon and fed on his flesh and blood. When they were rescued , they were accused of murder but one judge opined that the act was done under a condition of inevitable necessity and should be relieved off their accusations. It is hard to infer as to what is true, Plato’s ideal philosophy which suggests morality as an integral part of the human soul or the existentialist or utilitarian philosophy of Camus or Bentham which suggest that morality is just a social construct (yet necessary)? The quest for truth is ceaseless.

An amateur writer who is in a constant dilemma between accepting reality and drowning in her surrealistic reveries.