Socrates Defines Justice

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Socrates engages in a discussion with other philosophers to determine the true essence of justice. In Plato’s Republic, the conversation commences in Book 1 as Socrates and his colleagues examine Cephalus’ perspective. Cephalus asserts that justice equates to honesty and fulfilling one’s obligations, drawing from his personal experience as a prosperous, aged individual who inherited a significant portion of his wealth. Socrates notes this background to illustrate that individuals who inherit wealth do not hold the same attachment to it as self-made individuals do. This is because self-made individuals cherish their wealth as a product of their own efforts, akin to how an artist values their craft or a father cherishes their child.

Cephalus explains that for those of good character, the most important function of wealth is to repay debts and avoid fraud and lies. Therefore, his definition of justice is based on the significance of money. However, Socrates promptly critiques this definition by highlighting that merely repaying debts does not always constitute just behavior. To illustrate his point, Socrates mentions the scenario of borrowing weapons from a person who was previously sane but is now insane. It would be unjust to return weapons to an insane individual.

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The definition of justice is portrayed differently by Cephalus and Polemarchus. Cephalus believes that justice is simply being honest and returning borrowed items, as it aligns with his self-interest of repaying debts and securing a prosperous inheritance for his offspring. He sees justice as a means of maintaining his privileged status, which has been beneficial to him in the past. However, Polemarchus inherits this argument and seeks to redefine justice by asserting that it is about paying everyone what is owed to them.

In more detail, he explains that justice involves performing acts of kindness towards friends and causing harm to enemies. Socrates challenges this definition by highlighting the problem of identifying who is a friend and who is an enemy. Socrates convinces Cephalus that people can mistakenly perceive friends as enemies and vice versa. Thus, one might unknowingly treat a good person unfairly and treat a bad person favorably. Since the good person is just and does no wrong, it is unjust to cause harm to them. Polemarchus recognizes the flaw in this philosophy and attempts to redefine the concepts of friends and enemies.

In the text provided, the speaker suggests that if someone seems good and is truly good, they will be regarded as a friend. Conversely, if someone appears good but is not actually good, they will be viewed as an enemy. This prompts a revised definition of justice: it is considered just to assist a friend if they are genuinely good, and to harm an enemy if they are genuinely bad. Socrates questions whether it is inherent in the nature of a just person to mistreat someone. Polemarchus argues that it is acceptable, as long as the person being mistreated is bad. Socrates goes on to explain the consequences of mistreatment on horses, dogs, and humans.

When individuals and animals are subjected to mistreatment, their behavior deteriorates instead of improving. This deduction implies that mistreating a person diminishes their level of human excellence. As both men concur that justice is an innate aspect of humanity, mistreating individuals causes them to become more unjust, which is contrary to the intentions of a just person. Socrates simplifies this explanation by stating that it is not in the nature of justice to support injustice. Similarly, heat does not possess the characteristic of cooling things; instead, its opposite does.

According to Socrates, it is not characteristic of a righteous person to mistreat either friend or foe; rather, it is a trait of the unjust individual. Socrates goes on to explain that the notion of favoring friends and harming enemies originated from a wealthy king who possessed great influence in the past. This demonstrates the introduction of self-interest in this concept. A king with substantial power would likely benefit from supporting his allies and annihilating his enemies. Therefore, he would promote a theory of justice that aligns with the manner in which he obtained his power – all in an effort to justify his authority among his followers.

As Socrates and Polemarchus reach consensus, Thrasymachus disrupts the conversation by challenging Socrates to provide his own definition of justice. Through skilled social maneuvering, Socrates persuades Thrasymachus to first present his own definition of justice. Thrasymachus defines justice as simply what is advantageous for the more powerful group. He elaborates that in all forms of government, the governing body establishes laws that serve their own interests (the stronger). These laws are then followed by those under their authority, and individuals who violate them are punished for being unjust.

To this, Socrates challenges the notion that the ruling body may occasionally err in creating laws that do not favor the stronger. Consequently, the subjects who abide by the laws of justice would not be benefiting the stronger party. Thrasymachus agrees that mistakes can be made by those in power but disputes that Socrates has distorted his argument. Fearing a loss of credibility, Thrasymachus digresses from the original argument to highlight the disparities between a just individual and an unjust one. At this point, Thrasymachus seeks to illustrate the advantages that the unjust individual possesses over the just individual.

He provides various instances of wealth distribution in which the honest individual pays higher taxes and fees while the dishonest individual does not. The most notable example he presents is the rise of tyranny, which involves seizing others’ belongings. He clarifies that even at the smallest level, individuals who engage in theft, grave robbing, and temple raiding are denounced and penalized by the government. However, those who perpetrate such acts on a grand scale (such as kings who enslave entire populations) are praised and supported by their subjects.

Thrasymachus concludes that justice is actually what is beneficial to the stronger and injustice is what is profitable and advantageous for oneself. He emphasizes the importance of a large scale for this statement to hold true. Thus, Thrasymachus modifies his argument, asserting that justice serves to uphold power for the ruling body, whereas injustice benefits the most powerful individuals who exploit it. This is where the true weaknesses of the theory are exposed.

According to Socrates, he argues that justice and injustice are determined by the ruling power of a government, and rational individuals should engage in acts of injustice for their own benefit. However, Socrates refutes these claims by stating that both justice and injustice are inherent qualities of human beings, rather than mere actions or legal principles. Through extensive discussion, Socrates persuades Thrasymachus that a just individual never attempts to surpass another just individual, but only unjust individuals. Conversely, an unjust individual not only seeks to outperform the just individual but also other unjust individuals.

These are the qualities that distinguish the men as good or bad. Thrasymachus refuses to acknowledge that the just man possesses wisdom and goodness, while the unjust man is ignorant and wicked. As a result, his entire argument collapses. Initially, Thrasymachus displayed hostility towards Socrates for scrutinizing others’ definitions of justice, accusing Socrates of only asking unanswerable questions without providing any answers of his own. This acrimonious exchange sheds light on why Thrasymachus formulated such a simplistic definition of justice, intending to trap Socrates with “tricks.” Thrasymachus’ personal agenda to embarrass Socrates in front of fellow intellectuals influenced both the ambiguous initial definition of justice and the later revised version. Thrasymachus asserts the value of justice merely because Socrates esteems it highly, yet he fails to present a clear definition to the group. Thrasymachus’ argument, driven by personal interests, has nothing to do with his government position or wealth; rather, it stems from a dispute with the esteemed Socrates, whom he aims to undermine.

The closest Socrates gets to defining justice is when he states that justice is an excellence of the soul and injustice is a vice or defect of the soul. This definition views justice as a characteristic of the soul, rather than a means used by governments or individuals. Being just means being good and wise, while being unjust means having a flawed soul. However, the flaw in this definition lies in the subjective nature of defining the goodness of the soul.

The universal application of a definition to ruling bodies of governments is not possible since the measurement of a man’s soul’s value is not feasible. Socrates further states that he does not know the true nature of justice and whether it is a form of excellence or virtue, or if the person possessing it is happy or unhappy. This reaffirms Socrates’ self-interest, as his desire for knowledge outweighs his intention to prove other definitions incorrect. Without knowing the true definition of justice, Socrates has no ulterior motives in proving one definition right or wrong.

Socrates initiates the discussion with the purpose of discovering the genuine essence of justice. However, he encounters difficulties as he identifies shortcomings in each proposed definition. According to Socrates, justice is a complex concept that may or may not have advantages for humans. Even now, as it was challenging for Socrates and his followers to define justice, reaching a consensus on a universal definition remains arduous. Considering that we are all unique individuals driven by individual motives, it is nearly unattainable for our kind to agree upon a justice that is applicable to everyone.

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Socrates Defines Justice. (2017, Jan 24). Retrieved from

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