What is Justice?

In this essay I assemble the final definition of justice that is described by Socrates in “The Republic”, by drawing upon the text as a whole. I start and center myself on the passage in which Socrates seems to give the final and most comprehensive definition of justice in “The Republic” (book IV, 443 c,d,e). I then expand it to include the other pieces of information spread among the other books concerning the just soul (and its opposite). I focus especially on books VIII, IX, and X and show that the notion of the just and unjust soul there is compatible with the one in book IV, and continues to build and improve on it. Finally, I test the concept of justice we have obtained against different examples given in the text about the just and unjust man, and use this to obtain greater insight into the concept of Justice that “The Republic” offers us.

Before we approach the definition of justice in “The Republic”, a key concept we must clarify is moderation. Moderation is a virtue that when applied to a city as a whole, makes the people work together as one (“sing the same chant together”), and most importantly, moderation also implies a general accord upon which class should rule. (432a) Thus, when extending the analogy to the soul, moderation means that there is an agreement over which parts should rule (namely calculated part ruling with the support of the spirited part ruling over the desiring part). (442 a, b).

Now that we have established what the virtue of moderation is for the soul, we can approach the definition of justice given near the end of book IV:

“But in truth justice was, as it seems, something of this sort; however, not with respect to a man’s minding his external business, but with respect to what is within, with respect to what truly concerns him and his own. He doesn’t let each part in him mind other people’s business or the three classes in the soul meddle with each other, but really sets his own house in good order and rules himself; he arranges himself, becomes his own friend, and harmonizes, the three parts, exactly like three notes in a harmonic scale, lowest, highest, and middle. And if there are some other parts in between, he binds them together and becomes entirely one from many, moderate and harmonized. Then, and only then, he acts, if he does act in some way – either concerning the acquisition of money, or the care of the body, or something political, or concerning private contracts. In all these actions he believes and names a just and fine action one that preserves and helps to produce this condition, and wisdom the knowledge that supervises this action; while he believes and names an unjust action one that undoes this condition, and lack of learning, in its turn, the opinion that supervises this action”(443 c,d,e)

So first of all, justice is about a man’s minding of his own internal business, with respect to what truly concerns him. The idea of “minding one’s own business” is of critical importance to the concept of justice and the just soul in “The Republic”, and thus appears numerous times alongside it (369e, 370a, 433a, 433e, 434a, 434c, 441 e, 441 e, 442 a,b, 442 b, 586c, 587a). In fact, the first definition of justice given after the founding of the city-in-speech, is that each man should mind his own business (433a). This means that for the soul, each of the different parts (calculative, spirited, desiring) should only stick to what “his nature made him naturally most fit” (433a) and not to involve themselves in the business of other parts (441 e).

So what “truly concerns” each part of the soul? That answer is best offered in book IX, which can be viewed as a natural extension to book IV. Socrates argues that both the desires and the spirit can easily be deceived, and thus need the calculative part to guide them. (586c) Thus, to give an example outside of the Republic, if one should feel a strong thirst and thus have a desire to drink, and he would drink randomly without using his reason, drinking any water he sees on the street, or saltwater if he lives near the sea, he would not only damage his health, but he will defeat the nature of his desire. For his desire stemmed from then need to drink potable water, not any kind of water. Thus, blindly following one’s desires, without using reason, could lead to doing things in opposition to what the true nature of what the desires required. Since reason is the only part of the soul that can pursue truth, it should naturally be the one that leads. Only reason can show the path to how to truly satisfy your desires and your spirit (587 a). Alongside it will be the spirited part, which, if we follow the analogy with the city-in-speech, gives reason the strength to rule over the desires and to enforce its will. The desires themselves, even if they are not the masters of the soul, are still very important. The unnecessary and dangerous ones will be kept under control, and the proper ones will move the soul forward, along with the spirit, and create the need for curiosity and wisdom in the calculative part of the soul, so as to be able to be truly satisfied.

So, following the definition of Justice in book IV, Socrates arranges the parts in the soul and places them in the proper order of mastery according to nature (444 d) and thanks to this internal harmony the soul becomes able to act as one. This internal harmony of the soul is strikingly similar to the state of a moderate soul. The difference comes from that whereas moderation is a static state of affairs, justice is a dynamic power that continuously tries to bring the soul into a state of being moderate (433b, 444d). Thus, whenever a person does something that helps maintain or encourage this state, it will be considered a just action, and when he does something that damages the fine equilibrium of moderation in the soul, it will be considered an unjust action.

Once the just soul has been defined, the unjust soul is usually given its opposite traits. The greatest injustice by far would be parts of the soul taking over each other’s role (434 c). A disharmony and faction between the three parts of the soul can also lead to injustice, by establishing an order contrary to nature (444 b, 444 d). Furthermore, the discussion of the unjust soul is continued and greatly developed in books VIII and IX. There, each of the 4 other cases of regimes in city and soul are considered and shown to be unjust.  The timocratic man’s soul is unjust because in it spirit rules over calculation (548c) and similarly the oligarchic man’s soul is unjust because it is ruled by desires (553d). The democratic man is ruled by random desires (of which many unnecessary), without any filtering by calculation, and thus it follows that it’s unjust (561 b, c). The man with the tyrannical soul is ruled by a strong individual desire, such as love, which overpowers all other things in the soul and rules unquestioned. (577 d,e; 579 e). All of the four cases have the common team of a master in the soul contrary to nature, by submitting calculation to the other parts, and thus the examples fit our overall definition of justice we obtained from book IV.

Book IX also adds some depth and nuance to the concept of justice by offering us an image of the human soul as being made of three creatures: a multi-headed beast (the desires), a lion (the spirit), and a human (the calculative part, or so it seems at first). Here, an image is useful for three reasons. First, it explains and makes accessible the concept of a just soul to a broader audience, since imagination is the first part of the divided line, which is Socrates’ epistemological framework, and thus the first part of somebody’s journey to true knowledge. Second, it serves as a persuasive mechanism, because of the intentional choice of creatures for each part (clearly most people will instinctively not choose to be ruled by a multi-headed beast instead of a human or a lion). Third, it serves to encourage the reader to participate in the philosophical undertaking by interpreting the image (see this essay for a detailed discussion on the topic of images).

One of the interesting facts stated in the image is the infinite recursion of a human within a human. Since the lion is specifically said to be “by far the greatest”, we are given the image of smaller and smaller humans inside each other. This recursion leads to a surprise conclusion: that the calculative part itself would be able to contain desires and spirit. Since this is a strong and paradoxical statement, and it is not developed in “The Republic”, we may intuit that the intention is to show us a similar but different picture of a soul, in which a one-to-one relation with the former does not quite work. Thus, even if the soul is divided into different parts (the existence of different parts of the soul except the ones named in book IV is hinted on at least two different occasions: 443, 603 d), the concept of justice still works (589). Thus, we are shown the flexibility of the notion of justice we have assembled so far from the text. Justice exists as long as we have a soul, made of different parts, each with its own distinct nature, which can aspire to a clear state of moderation.

The core rule that we have to keep in mind when deciding if an action is just or not is this: if the action helps preserve or encourages the state of moderation in the soul, it is just. If it distances or stops the soul from achieving a moderate state, it is unjust. Now that we have a definition of justice that fits the descriptions given in books 4-10, and explored its meanings, we stand to gain more insight to the concept by applying it to the examples given in the Republic.

The first example worth considering is 589e. There, Socrates gives the example of somebody who steals gold by following his desires (“enslaves the best part of himself to the most depraved”). Thus, we see that an action that stems from a non-moderate soul, is an unjust action. In other words, an action that originates from desires or spirit ruling over reason is unjust.

A more difficult set of examples to approach are the one at 443a. Here, Glaucon only unquestionably confirms Socrates’ assumptions about the just man, letting the reader wonder about the exact thinking process that stands behind these decisions. Thus, let us here go step by step and see how the Republic’s concept of justice works in these situations.

“And as for temple robberies, thefts, and betrayals, either of comrades in private or cities in public, wouldn’t this man be beyond them?”

“Yes, he would be beyond them”

“And, further, he would in no way whatsoever be faithless in oaths or other agreements”

“Of course not.”

So first of all, if these actions stem from the desiring part or the spirited part ruling over the calculative part, then they will not be committed by the just man. He will not steal because of pure greed, nor betray just for the sake of victory at all costs. But what happens if there is a case in which committing theft will help the soul be moderate, and will be a decision promoted by the calculative part, pensively ruling alongside the spirited part over the desires? Will then not a just man steal? For example, wouldn’t a man who needs to feed his children dying of hunger, entirely because of causes outside his power, not be just in stealing food?

A possible solution to this can be found in Socrates’ theory of the forms. Since the forms are unchanging, there can be definite truths out there that may be “seen” by the adequately trained philosophers. Thus, since the truths are the same, there are definite truths about how one should behave, and it may just be that there is an absolute truth out there that a man using his pure reason (à la Kant) will arrive at, which states that it is not “rational” under any circumstance to commit “temple robberies, thefts, and betrayals” or be “faithless in oaths or other agreements”.

In fact, “The Republic” insinuates at least three times that the notion of justice we are given can be further polished and improved upon. It starts humbly at 444a, right after defining it: “If we should assert that we have found the just man and city and what justice really is in them, I don’t suppose we’d seem to be telling an utter lie”. Next, at the beginning of book VIII, when Glaucon recounts how they got to that point in the discussion, he says: “[…] saying that you would class a city such as you described, and the man like it, as good. And you did this, as it seems, in spite of the fact that you had a still finer city and men to tell of.” (543 c,d; 544 a). Then, in book X, when introducing the notion of a pure soul in contrast to the one we had been operating until that point, Socrates says that “one will find it far fairer and discern justice and injustice and everything we have now gone through more distinctly.”

This humbleness of “The Republic”, coupled with an enticing notion that there is more to explore about the concept of justice, fits in with the interpretation of it as a text that serves to educate and stimulate the reader in philosophical thinking. After thoroughly analyzing the concept of justice contained within, and developing it along with the text, it is up to us, the readers, to build and refine the concept further.

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