Socrates Defines Justice
Socrates attempts to define the true meaning of justice by critiquing the ideas of other philosophers. In book 1 of Plato’s Republic the debate among Socrates and his colleagues begins with Cephalus, who first defines justice as simply being honest and repaying one’s debts. Cephalus is a wealthy, elderly man who acquired much of his fortune through inheritance as Socrates points out. Socrates divulges this to explain that those who come from money are not as fond of it as those who are self-made men. This is because self-made men love their wealth as a creation of oneself much like a craftsman loves their art or a father loves his son. Cephalus then explains that the greatest function of wealth, for those of good character, is to be able to repay debts and to avoid defrauding people and lying to them. Thus his definition of justice is derived from the importance of money. The problem with this definition that Socrates points out immediately is that simply repaying debts as they are due does not always constitute just action. Socrates gives the example of borrowing weapons from a man who was once sane but it is now insane. It would not be just to return weapons to a man who is insane. It would merely be an act of honesty and returning borrowed items. As Cephalus is a wealthy man content in his place in old age, his self-interest of being able to repay debts and pass down a sizable fortune to his offspring drives his definition. He sees justice as a means of maintaining his privileged status, since being honest and paying his debts on time has benefited him in the past. Cephalus concedes his argument quickly but then it is inherited by Polemarchus, Cephalus’ heir. Polemarchus aims to redirect the definition by stating that justice is to pay everyone what is owed to them. More specifically he explains that justice is to do good for friends and do harm to enemies. This definition immediately is put to the test by...
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