Socrates' Defnition of Justice, as Presented in Plato's Republic

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David Hefner
Socrates’ Flawed Cleansing of the Mind

In Book One of Plato’s Republic, Socrates begins to guide listeners and readers alike to a definition of justice by elimination rather than description. Such a method is tedious, slow, and imperfect; however, it allows Socrates an attempt to whitewash the canvas of the listeners’ minds, and therefore a chance to build up his definition from the foundation. However, the personal interaction necessary to effectively utilize this technique is obviously lacking in the case of the modern-day reader. This leaves Socrates’ path towards a definition of justice feeling contrived, incomplete, and unconvincing. In order to evaluate which general definitions of justice he successfully eliminates, an analysis of each suggested definition and its subsequent rejection must be made. Such analysis exposes the holes that Socrates leaves in his argument, allowing modern-day readers to disprove his statements and reject his conclusions in any countless number of ways.

The first definition of justice is offered by Cephalus and then paraphrased by Socrates as “speaking the truth and paying whatever debts one has incurred” (331c). Socrates quickly and easily obtains Cephalus’ admission of defeat by using a simple example. He states that returning a borrowed sword to a friend who has gone mad would be unjust. In doing so, Socrates obviously implies that a part of justice is watching out for the welfare of others. However, this has not even been previously stated, nor has it been adequately explained for immediate and unconditional acceptance. A modern-day reader, for example, may have asked Socrates if it is just to deprive another human being of the right to make their own choices. If it is not (which is later supported by Socrates’ claim that an inability to act stems from injustice – which would be the case for someone who is denied the ability to make their own choices), then surely it is unjust to refuse the...
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