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Justice in Republic

Posted on October 15, 2021 — 7 Minutes Read

Philosophy is the study of questions without answers for otherwise a doctrine of answers without question falls into the realm of religion. This feature is reminiscent in all works of philosophical worth and is most signature of those by Plato, one of the most influential ancient Greek philosophers. In one of his well studied writings, The Republic, Plato in the voice of Socrates inquired ten books long into the topic of justice. and the first book of which was dedicated to reveal to the audience, in a dialogue with Cephalus, Polemarchus, and Thrasymachus, that the notion of justice was more intriguing than the conventional understanding would hold, in order to disclose its philosophical richness and to invite the audience to an intensive exploration which would be in Book Two to Ten that follow. It must be noted that justice at the time denoted the interpersonal standard of behaviour between one another that is ethical in nature, evident of the answers that were given by Cephalus as speaking the truth and paying one’s debt (331c), by Polemarchus as helping friends and harming enemies (332d) and quoting the poet Simonides as giving to each what is owed (331e). This treatise as such despite named The Republic is as much about ethics as politics, and is a central text in the moral tradition that has come to be known as virtue ethics, as one of three major theories in normative ethics that concern the right with regard, or in detachment as in the case of deontology, to the good, that emphasises on the the moral character which attests to the aretê (virtue or excellence) of the person, instead of the moral rules or consequences as with the other two traditions.

Typical to the philosophising of Socrates, the journey started with unconcealing the inherent inconsistencies of the conventional understandings of the notion of justice. One example given by his interlocutors was returning a borrowed good. It might seem to be just yet as Socrates pointed out, returning a borrowed weapon to its rightful owner who was nonetheless not in his right mind (331c) was hardly right by any measure, when one with common sense would be able to foresee the unfortunate consequences of putting a weapon in the hands of the distressed. While this paved way for the inquiry that follows, it also revealed the seconds attribute to virtue ethics that was the importance of phronesis (practical wisdom), that required a degree of situational appreciation and awareness, and a recognition of the most crucial aspect of a given situation among the various, that come only with the experience of life. With the conventional understandings of the notion of justice unlearnt, and believing that justice must be an aretê (337e) as a fundamental constituent of the goodness of a person, Socrates, in the latter part of Book Two to Book Four, proceeded to formulate a justification that attempts to augment his belief into knowledge. In doing so, he also attempted to address a couple of objections to justice as an aretê on ground that the benefit of acting justly, that is curbing one’s desire and following the rules, contributed solely to the good of the others (343c) i.e. allotrion agathon raised by Thrasymachus in Book One, and on a conception of justice as a means to avoid negative consequences that may even be remediated by other actions, and as such rendered justice as a means to an end rather than an end in itself that ought to be desired raised by Glaucon and Adeimantus in the early part of Book Two.

A rather common strategy for philosophical investigation in ancient East and West was the use of analogy, with the strength of the argument lies as much in the soundness of the deductive reasoning as with the similarity and likeness of those being analogised. Employing precisely this strategy and grounded on an analogy between a polis (city state) and a person, Socrates proceeded the inquiry by first dissecting justice in a polis. Little argument there was about the purpose of a polis which was to satisfy the basic needs or even extravagant desires of each by work specialisation and exchanges of goods and services. On top of which as a polis among poleis with competing needs and desires, a polis needed to defend itself and its access to natural resources and as such required armed auxiliary forces, which in turn required guardian leaders to oversee their coercive power and to ensure the armed forces act in the best interest of all in the polis. This reasoning as such yielded three classes of citizens in a polis, namely the guardians, the auxiliaries and the producers with each specialising in their work, and a just polis, Socrates imagined, was one in which each given their natural abilities played their fitting political role for the proper functioning of a polis. Analogising a person with a polis, and on a conception of a tripartite of the human psyche (soul), with its rational, spirited, and appetitive parts corresponding respectively to the guardian, the auxiliary and the producing classes of a polis, a just, and in this sense also moral, person was as such one of whom each part of his soul, performed its role and function as intended with the rational part ruling, the spirited part acting as its auxiliary and the appetitive part governed by both (443c-e). For otherwise a mismatch of these parts and their functions, or with each part meddling with the functioning of the others, was akin to a civil war within and would result in a ruined psyche that would render a life not worth living regardless of the external conditions (445a-b). On such conception, justice in a person was understood as a disposition of the psyche and as a necessary condition for the goodness of a person, and that it was always preferable to injustice and was to the benefit of oneself, in answer to the objections of allotrion agathon by Thrasymachus and of justice as a mere means by Glaucon and Adeimantus.

One might question Plato’s way of reasoning by challenging the likeness between a polis and a person, or the tripartite conception of the human psyche which one with a reasonable study in philosophy would be well aware that a false dichotomy is the cause of many futile inquires, not to mention the assertion that a psyche would be ruined, and resulting in a life not worth living, if a certain part of it was overwhelming the functioning of the others, demanded still further justification for the time past and present are never lack of well-living individuals amassing wealth by means that are inexcusable and condemnable. Like philosophical inquiries of all kinds however, the philosophical worth of Plato’s inquiry into justice lies as much in its assertions as in its disputes. Regardless of the soundness of the premises and of the deductive argument that followed, the attempt to ground justice in a person on his aretê of moral character and disposition, guided by phronesis of situational awareness and appreciation, that are to be perfected by experience of life, is a noble cause that demands respect and thorough study especially in this day and age of accelerating moral decline.