What Justice Is

Justice in a City and in a Human Being

Republic II.368c-369b.      The search for justice in the city.
Republic II.369b-372e.      The birth of a city.
Republic II.372e-374d.      The birth of a luxurious city.
Republic II.374d-III.412c. The education of the guardians.
Republic III.412c-414b.     The rulers.
Republic III.414b-417b.     The auxiliaries.
Republic IV.419a-427d.     Happiness in a city.
Republic IV.427d-434d.     Justice in a city.
Republic IV.434d-435c.     Justice is in a human being.
Republic IV.435c-444e.     Tripartite Theory of the Soul.
Republic IV.444e-445c.      Now the conclusion is obvious.
Republic IV.445c-V.449b.  The forms of vice.






P.Oxy.LII 3679, manuscript from the 3rd century CE,
Plato's Republic V.472e-473d.

P.Oxy is the Oxyrhynchus Papyri.

Oxyrhynchus is a city in Egypt on a branch of the Nile, about 185 miles south of Alexandria. The papyri were in trash heaps (or "middens"), which provided ideal conditions (dry and anaerobic) for preservation.

Most of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri are from excavations (from 1896 to 1907) Bernard Grenfell and Authur Hunt undertook on behalf of the Egypt Exploration Society.
Glaucon and Adeimantus had been silent in Book I of the Republic, but now that the discussion with Thrasymachus has ended unsatisfactorily, they are disappointed with the outcome. So they challenge Socrates not just to drive his interlocutors into contradiction, as he has done in the discussion thus far with Cephalus, Polemarchus, and Thrasymachus, but to demonstrate once and for all that the just life really is better than the unjust life.

Socrates accepts the challenge. To meet it, his first step is to describe what justice is in a city and in an individual human being. He completes this step by the end of Book IV.

The Search for Justice

Given how Socrates proceeded in the early dialogues, we should expect the what is justice question to be first in the inquiry, but this is not what happens.

He searches for what it is in a city and what it is in an individual human being. He says that he will first search for what justice is in a city because a city is "bigger" and so presumably more straightforward to think about than justice in a human being (Republic II.368e).

This strategy can be a little perplexing, but the Gorgias makes it intelligible.

Socrates says that when someone "does what is fitting as regards men, his actions will be just" (Gorgias 507a). This suggests that justice is what is fitting for human beings ("fitting as regards men") and that the search Socrates undertakes in the Republic is for what is fitting for human beings in a city and for what is fitting for a human being as an individual.

Remember too that Thrasymachus has told Socrates not simply to give his usual answers.

"If you really wish to know what the just is, do not merely ask questions or plume yourself upon controverting any answer that anyone gives—since your acumen has perceived that it is easier to ask questions than to answer them, but do you yourself answer the question, and tell us what you say the just is. And do not be telling me that it is that which ought to be, or the beneficial or the profitable or the gainful or the advantageous, but express clearly and precisely whatever you say. For I will not take from you any such drivel as that" (Republic I.336c).

It is not enough to know that justice is what is fitting and that this is "that which ought to be, or the beneficial or the profitable or the gainful or the advantageous."

What Justice is in the City

We can understand Socrates as thinking through the sort of answer Thrasymachus demands.

If justice is what is fitting "as regards men," then justice in the "city" (πόλις) is what is fitting for human beings in a city. A city is an organization of human beings for a certain purpose. A just city, then, is a city in which human beings are organized for this purpose in a fitting way.

Socrates searches for what this organization is by thinking about its purpose. He thinks that human beings organize themselves in cities to make their lives better.   "The origin of the city (πόλις), then, in my opinion, is to be found in the fact that we do not severally suffice for our own needs, but each of us lacks many things. Do you think a city is founded on any other principle?
  No other, Socrates.
  As a result of this, then, one man calling in another for one service and another for another, we, being in need of many things, gather many into one place of abode as associates and helpers, and to this dwelling together we give the name city. And between one man and another there is an interchange of giving, if it so happens, and taking, because each supposes this to be better for himself" (Republic II.369b).

"Our city, if it has been rightly founded, is completely good. Clearly, then, it will be wise, brave, temperate, and just. So if we find any of them in it, the remainder will be that which we have not found" (Republic IV.427e).

Before Socrates reaches this conclusion, he first described what Glaucon dismisses as a "city of pigs."

  "If you were founding a city of pigs, Socrates, what other fodder than this would you provide?
  Why, what would you have, Glaucon?
  What is customary. They must recline on couches, I presume, if they are not to be uncomfortable, and dine from tables and have made dishes and sweetmeats such as are now in use.
  Good, I understand. It is not merely the origin of a city, it seems, that we are considering but the origin of a luxurious city (τρυφῶσαν πόλιν)" (Republic II.372d).

The point of this exchange is not obvious.

One possibility is that Glaucon introduces the assumption that human beings naturally are tempted to lead profligate lives and thus that constraints are essential if an organization of human beings into a city is to achieve its purpose.
Cities provide the benefits of group living, but there are different ways human beings can organize themselves to provide these benefits. A fitting organization is one that does this well.

In Books II-IV, Socrates describes a city he takes to be "rightly founded."

This city is rightly founded because its organization is fitting. Its organization is fitting because it best achieves the purpose for which human beings live in cities.

We can, then, understand the initial part of Socrates' thinking as consisting in the following

• a city is an organization of human beings
• in a just city, the organization is fitting
• it is fitting because it achieves the purpose for which human beings live in cities
• human beings live in cities to make their lives better
• the better life human beings seek in a city is the good life

To understand why Socrates thinks the city he describes is "rightly founded," we need to know

• what life his "rightly founded" city provides
• what the parts are in the organization in this city
• how these parts in this city provide the life they provide

Socrates answers these questions in the course of the Republic as he sets out his argument.

Education in a Rightly Founded City

In his discussion of the "guardians" (φύλακες) necessary to protect the life this city provides to its citizens, we can begin to see what Socrates thinks are the parts of a rightly founded city.



  "Where the gods are concerned, then, it seems that those are the sorts of stories the future guardians should and should not hear from childhood on, if they are to honor the gods and their parents, and not treat lightly their friendship with one another.
  I am sure we are right about that, Socrates
  What about if they are to be courageous? Shouldn’t they be told stories that will make them least likely to fear death? Or do you think that anyone ever becomes courageous if he has that fear in his heart?
  No, by Zeus, I do not.
  What about if someone believes that Hades exists and is full of terrible things? Can anyone with that fear be unafraid of death and prefer it to defeat in battle and slavery?
  Not at all.
Then we must also supervise those who try to tell such stories, it seems, and ask them not to disparage the life in Hades in this undiscriminating way, but to speak well of it, since what they now tell us is neither true nor beneficial to future warriors.
  Yes, we must.
  We will start with the following lines [in Homer's Odyssey where Achilles is replying to Odysseus], then, and expunge everything like them: 'I would rather labor on earth in another man’s service, a man who is landless, with little to live on, than be king over all the dead'..." (Republic III.386a).

  "Or have you not observed that imitations, if continued from youth far into life, settle down into habits and nature in the body, speech, and thought?
  Yes, indeed, Socrates" (Republic III.395d).

  "[Since the one properly educated in music] feels distaste rightly, he will praise fine things, take delight in them, and receive them into his soul and, through being nourished by them, become himself fine and good. The ugly he will rightly disapprove and hate while still young and yet unable to apprehend the reason. And, because he has been so trained, he will welcome the reason when it comes and recognize it easily because of its kinship with himself.
  Yes, Socrates, it seems to me that these are the goals of musical training." (Republic III.401e).



Socrates thinks that the education will most efficiently create a just city if the old ways do not interfere.

  "All inhabitants above the age of ten they will send out into the fields, and they will take over the children, remove them from the manners and habits of their parents, and bring them up in their own customs and laws which will be such as we have described. This is the speediest and easiest way in which such a city and constitution as we have portrayed could be established and prosper and bring most benefit to the people among whom it arises.
  Much the easiest, Socrates, and I think you have well explained the manner of its realization if it should ever be realized" (Republic VII.540e).
Because the guardians require the greatest "knowledge and training" (Republic II.374), as their work is the most important in a rightly founded city, Socrates sets out in considerable detail the education necessary to produce them. It begins with training in "music" (μουσική) for the soul and in "gymnastics" (γυμναστική) for the body (Republic II.376e).

This is the traditional form of education in 5th century BCE Athens, but Socrates opens it to girls and removes other problems he takes to have plagued its traditional implementation.

Education in "music" (μουσική) is not what we may initially think.

It is education in the arts over which the "Muses" (Μοῦσαι) preside. To be "musical" is to be skilled in these arts. It is to be cultured. The Muses preside primarily over poetry sung to music, but μουσική also covers what we think of as the fine arts more generally.

Impressing Character on Children

Because the initial aim is to impress a certain character on them, it is necessary to control the stories they hear so that this μουσική instills the right convictions (Republic II.377b).

The tales they hear must be of "virtue" (Republic II.378e).

Soon after the children begin training in music, gymnastics too becomes a part of their education (Republic III.403c). It trains the body so that it can carry out the demands of virtue.

  "For these two, then, it seems there are two arts which I would say some god gave to mankind, music and gymnastics for the service of the high-spirited principle and the love of wisdom in them—not for the soul and the body except incidentally, but for the harmonious adjustment of these two principles by the proper degree of tension and relaxation of each.
  Yes, so it appears.
  Then he who best blends gymnastics with music and applies them most suitably to the soul is the man whom we should most rightly pronounce to be the most perfectly musical and harmonious, far rather than the one who brings the strings into unison with one another.
  That seems likely, Socrates.
  Then won’t we also need this sort of person in our city, Glaucon, as a permanent overseer, if indeed its constitution (πολιτεία) is to be preserved?
  We most certainly shall.
  These, then, are the impressions (τύποι) for education and upbringing" (Republic III.411e).

Notice that we have not seen how the education system in a rightly founded city knows which convinctions are the right ones to impress on the children to mould their character.

The Rulers are the Best of the Guardians

Given the initial education necessary to produce the guardians, Socrates turns to the question of who among these guardians in training should be the rulers in a just city (Republic III.412b).

In answer, he explains that there are tests to see who acts contrary to their education (Republic III.413c). These tests divide the guardians into firsts and seconds. The firsts are the "perfect" or "complete guardians" (φύλακες παντελεῖς), "watchers against foemen without and friends within, so that the latter shall not wish and the former shall not be able to work harm" (Republic III.414b). These guardians are the "rulers" (ἄρχοντες) in a rightly founded city. The seconds are their "helpers" (ἐπίκουροι). They function as police and military.

  "You remember, I presume, that after distinguishing three kinds in the soul, we tried to bring out what justice, temperance, courage, and wisdom each is.
  If I did not remember that, Socrates, I should not deserve to hear the rest.
  So do you also remember what we said before that?
  What was that?
  We were saying, I believe, that for the finest discernment of these things another longer way was required that would make them plain to one who took it..." (Republic VI.504a).

"[T]he idea of the good (ἡ τοῦ ἀγαθοῦ ἰδέα) is the most important thing to learn about, and that it is by their relation to it that just things and the others become useful and beneficial" (Republic VI.505a).

"[T]hose [selected to be guardians] have survived the tests and approved themselves altogether the best in every task and form of knowledge must be brought at last to the goal. We shall require them turn upwards the vision of their souls and fix their gaze on that which sheds light on all, and when they have thus beheld the good itself (τὸ ἀγαθὸν αὐτό) they shall use it as a pattern to order the city and the citizens and themselves throughout the remainder of their lives, each in his turn, devoting the greater part of their time in the love of wisdom (φιλοσοφίᾳ), but when the turn comes for each, toiling in the service of the city and holding office for the city's sake, regarding the task not as something fine but as a necessity; and so, when each generation has educated others like themselves to take their place as guardians of the city, they shall depart to the Islands of the Blest and there dwell. And the city shall establish public memorials and sacrifices for them as to divinities if the Pythian oracle approves or, if not, as to happy and godlike men (εὐδαίμοσί τε καὶ θείοις)" (Republic VII.540a).
This makes it sound as if the education of the guardians is now complete, but this is not true. In Book VII, Socrates sets out a futher, higher education for the guardians (Republic VII.519c).

The higher education consists in training in arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and harmonics (Republic VII.522c, VII.526c, VII.527d, VII.530d). When these guardians are thirty, there is a second selection of the best. They receive education in dialectic (Republic VII.532b, VII.537d). After five years of training, they "hold commands in war and the other offices" to gain experience (Republic VII.539e). This continues until they are fifty. At this point, those who have excelled are ready to behold the "the good itself" and to rule themselves and the city.

This, finally, tells us how the education system gets its knowledge of the "impressions" that instill the right convictions in the children. The guardians get this knowledge by grasping "the good itself." What they do is get this grasp is hard to see, but they use this knowledge to lay out the education system that instills the right convictions in the children in the city.

With this answer, Plato departs from what the historical Socrates seemed to think.

In previous dialogues, Socrates gives no indication that sciences are necessary to know what is good and what is bad. Nor does he talk about the good itself. He seemed to think that to become wise, we make our beliefs consistent by living ascetically and engaging in dialectic.

Now, in the Republic, the path to wisdom is much more involved and harder to understand.

The Fitting Organization in a Just City

Education is an essential part of the fitting organization that constitutes justice in the city.

It gives some citizens the ability to be rulers in the city, others the ability to be helpers or auxiliaries to the rulers, and yet others the ability to be workers in the city. Further, it is essential to this organization that those who are best able to rule in the city are the rulers, those who are best able to assist the rulers by enforcing the rules are the auxiliaries, and those who are best able to produce the services and material goods are the workers who produce them.

This gives us Socrates' answer to the question of what justice is in a city.

"At last, then, [Glaucon,] son of Ariston, your city [the rightly founded city whose organization I have been describing] is established. Next is to procure a sufficient light and to look yourself, and call in the aid of your brother [Adeimantus] and of Polemarchus and the rest, to discover where justice and injustice are in it" (Republic IV.427d). "The doing of one's own job by the workers, the auxiliaries, and the rulers, each doing its own work in the city, is justice (δικαιοσύνη) and renders the city just" (Republic IV.434c).

A city organized in this way, Socrates thinks, best achieves the purpose for which human beings organize themselves into cities. To the extent possible, it results in the good life.

What Justice is in the Individual

"If you call a thing by the same name whether it is big or little, it is like in the way in which it is called the same or like. Then a just man too will not differ at all from a just city in respect of the very form of justice, but will be like it. But now the city was thought to be just because three natural kinds existing in it performed each its own function, and again it was temperate, brave, and wise because of certain other affections and habits of these three kinds. Then, my friend, we shall thus expect the individual also to have these same forms in his soul, and by reason of identical affections of these with those in the city to receive properly the same appellations" (Republic IV.435a).


"The matter begins to be difficult when you ask whether we do all these things with the same thing or whether there are three things and we do one thing with one and one with another--learn with one part, feel anger with another, and with a third desire the pleasures of nutrition and generation and their kind, or whether it is with the entire soul we function in each case when we set out for something" (Republic IV.436a).
Once Socrates and his interlocutors have found what they take to be justice in a city, they apply their results to find justice in an individual human being. They appeal to a principle about the use of words: that when someone uses the same predicate to say that different things are a certain way (for example, that "this city is just" and that "this human being is just"), he is saying the same thing of each of the things to which he applies the predicate.

Given this principle and that justice in a city is an organization of the parts of a city, it seems to follow that the soul has parts and that justice in the individual is an organization of these parts.

To settle the question of whether the soul has parts and what they are if it does, Socrates appeals to a principle about opposites. As we saw in the prior lecture on the tripartite theory, he takes this argument from opposites to show that the soul has three parts.

Socrates thinks that one organization of the parts of the soul is fitting because it is the most beneficial. In this organization, which is justice in the individual, reason is wise and rules.


"[Reason and spirit in a just soul] will exercise authority over the appetite, the largest part of the soul and the part insatiable for possessions. They will watch over it to see that it is not filled with what we call pleasures of the body, and by becoming enlarged and strong thereby no longer does its own job [as justice requires] but attempts to enslave and rule over those over whom it is not fitted to rule, and so upsets everyone's whole life" (Republic IV.442a).

"[Justice] does not lie in a man's external actions, but in the way he acts within himself.... He does not allow each part of himself to perform the work of another, or the parts of his soul to meddle with one another. He regulates well what is really his own and rules himself. He puts himself in order, ... and harmonizes the three parts of himself... He binds them together, and himself from a plurality becomes a unity. ... He thinks that the just and beautiful action, which he names as such, to be that which preserves this state and indeed helps achieve it, wisdom to be the knowledge which oversees this action; and believing and naming the unjust action to be that which destroys it, and ignorance the belief which oversees that" (Republic IV.443d).
  "And so it is fitting for the reasoning part to rule, being wise and exercising foresight on behalf of the whole soul, and for the spirited part to obey it and be its ally?
  Assuredly, Socrates" (Republic IV.441e).

Because reason is wise and rules, the just know what is good and bad and act on this basis.

This conception of justice in the individual makes the just rare. Socrates, in the early dialogues, shows that none of his interlocutors are wise. It follows that none of them are just.

It is true too that in the rightly founded city, only the guardians are just because only they are wise. The others take their direction from them and act on the habits education ingrains.

Wisdom and the Virtues of Character

In earlier dialogues, Socrates thought the good life is a matter of knowing what is good and bad. This is wisdom. It is sufficient for the virtues of character and thus for the good life.

Plato does not have this view. He thinks that justice, not wisdom, is the virtue of the soul.

In a just soul, each of the three parts of the soul does its own job. When reason is doing its own job, it knows what is good and is in control and directs action. The just soul, then, is wise. In a just ousl, spirit upholds the declarations of reason against the temptation to seek pleasures of the body. The just soul is thus courageous. Appetite, in a just ousl, is under control of reason with the spirit as its ally. So the just soul is not only wise and courageous, it is temperate too.

  "Then, wouldn't these two parts also do the finest job of guarding the whole soul and the body against external enemies--reason by planning, spirit by fighting, following its leader, and carrying out the leader's decision through its courage?
  Yes, Socrates, that is true.
  And it is because of the spirited part, I suppose, that we call a single individual courageous, namely, when it preserves through pains and pleasures the declarations of reason about what is to be feared and what isn't.
  That is right.
  And we'll call him wise because of that small part of himself that rules in him and makes those declarations and has within it the knowledge of what is advantageous for each part and for the whole soul, which is the community of all three parts.
  Absolutely.
  And isn't he temperate because of the friendly and harmonious relations between the same parts, namely when the ruler and the ruled believe in common that reason should rule and don't engage in civil war against it?
  Temperance is nothing other than that, in the city and in the individual" (Republic IV.442b).




Perseus Digital Library

Plato, Euthyphro, Laches, Gorgias, Protagoras, Meno, Phaedo, Republic, Theaetetus
Aristotle, Politics

Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon

ἀνδρεία, andreia, noun, "manliness, brave" (one of the cardinal virtues) Wisdom, bravery, temperance, and justice are the "cardinal" virtues, the virtues on which human perfection hinges.

(The place of piety is a little unclear. Socrates seems to give different explanations (Euthyphro 12d, Gorgias 507b).)

The Latin noun cardo means "the hinge of a door or gate."

"Virtue may be defined as a habit of mind in harmony with reason and the order of nature. ... It has four parts: wisdom, justice, courage, temperance" (Cicero, On Invention II.159).

ἁρμονία, harmonia, noun, "means of joining, fastening"
δικαιοσύνη, dikaiosynē, noun, "justice" (one of the cardinal virtues)
ἐλευθερία, eleutheria, noun, "freedom"
ἐλευθέριος, eleutherios, adjective, "acting and thinking like the free"
ἐλευθεριότης, eleutheriotēs, noun, "the mode of thinking and acting which suits the free,"
ἐλεύθερος, eleutheros, adjective, "free"
ἐπιθυμητικός, epithymētikos, adjective, "desiring," (τὸ ἐπιθυμητικός = "the appetitive part [of the soul]")
θυμοειδής,, thymoeidēs, adjective, "high-spirited" (τὸ θυμοειδές = "the spirited part [of the soul]")
καθαίρω, kathairō, verb, "cleanse, purify"
κεκαθαρμένη πόλις, "purified city"

  "And by the dog, without being aware of it, we have been purifying the city which a little while ago we said was luxurious.
  That is because we are showing good sense (σωφρονοῦντές).
  Then let us complete the purification" (Republic III.399e).
κάθαρσις, katharsis, noun, "cleansing, purification"
λογιστικός, logistikos, adjective, "skilled in calculating," (τὸ λογιστικόν = "the reasoning part [of the soul]")
οἰκεῖος, oikeios, adjective, "proper, fitting, suitable"
οἰκειοπραγία, oikeiopragia, noun, "minding one's own affairs"
ὁσιότης, hosiotēs, noun, "piety," (a subdivision of justice in the cardinal virtues),
προσήκοντα, prosēkonta, participle as adjective, "befitting, proper
σοφία, sophia, noun, "wisdom" (one of the cardinal virtues)
φλεγμαίνουσα πόλις, "fevered city"

"It is not the origin of a city, then, that we are considering but that of a luxurious city. Perhaps that isn't such a bad suggestion. For by observing such a city we might discern the origin of justice and injustice in cities. The true city I believe to be the one we have described—the healthy city, as it were. But if it is your pleasure that we contemplate also a fevered city, there is nothing to hinder" (Republic II.372e).
φλέγμα, phlegma, noun, "inflammation," (from φλέγω, phlegō, verb, "burn")
φλεγμαίνω, phlegmainō, verb, "to be heated, inflamed, fester"
φλεγματικός, phlegmatikos, adjective, "abounding in phlegm"
φρόνησις, phronēsis, noun, "purpose, intention," alternative for σοφία in the cardinal virtues
σωφροσύνη, sōphrosynē, noun, "soundness of mind, self-control, temperance" (one of the cardinal virtues)

Charlton T. Lewis, Charles Short, A Latin Dictionary

cardo, noun, "the hinge of a door or gate"
liber, adjective, "free"
liberalis, adjective, "of or belonging to freedom, relating to the freeborn condition of a man"
libertas, noun, "freedom"

Arizona State University Library. Loeb Classical Library:
Cicero, On Invention




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