Plato's View of Justice in the Republic

Topics: Justice, Soul, Plato Pages: 8 (2919 words) Published: May 26, 2003
Discuss Plato's view of Justice in The Republic.

Having lived an extraordinarily long life (for his time), with no consistent doctrine of belief, it has become customary to divide Plato's writings chronologically into three periods, Early, Middle and Late. The Republic, a collection of ten books, is thought to have been written after Phaedo during the 'middle-period' of Plato's life. It is during this period that Plato's philosophy becomes his own rather than a commentary on Socrates beliefs and sayings.

It is important to remember that Plato's time was an age of constant upheaval and it is this air of upheaval and constant change that led him to focus on his societies' failings and to put forward a structured society that puts his view of justice into practice.

The main theme of The Republic is to define justice and other virtues and to put forward an idea for a Utopian city-state based on his beliefs on justice and virtue to show how these ideals could be implemented.

The text takes the form of a dramatised discourse between certain characters of differing backgrounds and beliefs. The use of a dramatised debate is a useful way to demonstrate the way Plato (whose ideas are represented by the character of Socrates) would handle his sceptics. It also serves to show the development of his thought through discussion and to sceptic-proof his argument by foreseeing potential counter arguments.

Plato starts demonstrating his definition by taking some popular conceptions of what justice means and whether it is better to live a just life.

In book one the debate starts with a statement made by Cephalus, an old, retired self-made manufacturer. Cephalus puts forward the view that as people grow older they become more aware of religious teachings regarding retribution in the afterlife for living an unjust life and therefore monitor they're own behaviour, in the past and present:

'And when he finds that the sum of his transgressions is great he will many a time like a child start up in his sleep for fear, and he is filled with dark forebodings.'

He is saying that idea of justice is something that is merely a doctrine enforced by the unproven premise of damnation. If fear of an unproven afterlife is the reasoning for living a just life then the argument for justice is weak and reliant on blind faith. If an individual does not believe in 'Hades' or Hell then what stops him from acting unjustly? Continuing on Cephalus states 'Wealth can do a lot to save from having to cheat or deceive someone against our will and from having to depart for that other place in fear because we owe a sacrifice to a god or money to a person'. By this Cephalus means that by having ample wealth he never had the need to be unjust to anyone. He could afford to appease the Gods with sacrifice and to keep his debts paid. This first presented description of justice is flawed. Socrates gives the following example to prove this:

Suppose that a friend when in his right mind has deposited arms with me and he asks for them when he is not in his right mind, ought I to give them back to him? No one would say that I ought or that I should be right in doing so, any more than they would say that I ought always to speak the truth to one who is in his condition.'

Socrates, by Cephalus's definition just living, was acting in a just way when he returned weapons to a maniacal friend (paying his debts). The modern day equivalent of this scenario is the United Nations returning a previously confiscated nuclear weapon to an insane and potentially violent state in full knowledge that it will be used to wreak havoc (injustice). This demonstrates that Cephalus's popular description of justice is weak and potentially unjust!

Later in book 1, When Socrates criticizes Polemarchus' idea that man should spite his enemies, Thrasymachus puts his view forward; 'Since the established rule is surely stronger, anyone who reasons correctly will conclude that the just...
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