The Just Life is Better

Socrates Meets Glaucon and Adeimantus's Challenge

Republic V.449b-472a.          Women and children.
Republic V.472a-VI.502d.     The lover of wisdom.
Republic VI.502d-VII.541b.  Becoming a lover of wisdom.
Republic VIII.543a-IX.580a. Corrupted cities and characters.
Republic IX.580b-580d.          First in happiness.
Republic IX.580d-592b.          First in pleasure.
Republic X.595a-608d.            Imitation.
Republic X.608d-612b.           The immortality of the soul
Republic X.612b-621d.           The myth of Er.
By the end of Book IV of the Republic, Socrates has set out a conception of what justice is.

In a human being, justice consists in an organization of the three parts of the soul. Reason knows good and bad, spirit is reason's ally, and appetite is in check.

In this way, the three parts of a just soul are organized in such a way that action is in accordance with reason's knowledge of what is good and what is bad.

Now Socrates is ready to argue that the life of the just is better than the life of the unjust because justice in the soul brings more happiness than injustice in the soul.

The Unjust Life is not Worth Living

These misfortunes include being subject to horrific punishments because the many wrongly think that the just man is unjust.

"For if he is going to be thought just he will have honors and gifts because of that esteem. We cannot be sure in that case whether he is just for sake of justice or for the sake of the gifts and the honors. So we must strip him bare of everything but justice and make his state the opposite of his imagined counterpart. Though doing no wrong he must have the repute of the greatest injustice, so that he may be put to the test as regards justice through not softening because of ill repute and the consequences thereof. But let him hold on his course unchangeable even unto death seeming all his life to be unjust though being just, that so, both men attaining to the limit, the one of injustice, the other of justice, we may pass judgement which of the two is the happier. ... [About this test, those who commend injustice] will say that such being his disposition the just man will have to endure the lash, the rack, chains the branding-iron in his eyes, and finally, after every extremity of suffering, he will be impaled. At this point he will learn his lesson that not to be but to seem just is what we ought to desire" (Republic II.361b, 361e).
Socrates gives this argument in response to the challenge in Book II.

Glaucon and Adeimantus challenged him to show that the life of someone just who suffers what are popularly understood as great misfortunes is still better than the life of someone unjust who is showered with what are popularly understood as the good things.

In Book IV, given what justice is in a human being, Glaucon thinks it has become absurd to inquire further. He thinks it obvious that the just life is better.

"From this point, our inquiry becomes absurd—if, while life is thought to be intolerable with a ruined constitution of body even if accompanied by all the food, drink, wealth, and power in the world, yet we are to inquire whether it is worth living when our soul, the thing by which we live, is in turmoil and ruined, but one can do as he pleases except that which will rid him of badness and injustice and give him justice and virtue" (Republic IV.444e).

Socrates agrees that further inquiry may appear absurd, but to make the truth as plain as possible, he says that they should not "grow weary" but instead should continue their inquiry into the two lives and into which is better and how (Republic IV.445b).

Argument that the Just Life is Better

This inquiry culminates Book IX, where Socrates argues that the just life is better in two ways.    "Now we have already described the man corresponding to aristocracy or the government of the best, whom we aver to be the truly good and just man.
   We have.
   Must we not, then, next after this, survey the inferior types, the man who is contentious and covetous of honor, corresponding to the Laconian constitution, and the oligarchical man in turn, and the democratic and the tyrant, in order that, after observing the most unjust of all, we may oppose him to the most just, and complete our inquiry as to the relation of pure justice and pure injustice in respect of the happiness and unhappiness of the possessor, so that we may either follow the counsel of Thrasymachus and pursue injustice or the present argument and pursue justice?
   Assuredly, Socrates" (Republic VIII.544e).

  "[S]hall I myself make proclamation that the son of Ariston pronounced the best man and the most just to be the happiest (εὐδαιμονέστατον), and that he is the most kingly, the one who most rules like a king over himself; and declared that the worst and most unjust is the most unhappy, and that he is the most tyrannical, the one who is most a tyrant over himself and the city he rules?
  Let it have been so proclaimed.
  Shall I add the clause ‘alike whether their character is known to all men and gods or is not known’?
  Add that to the proclamation.
  Very well, this, then, would be one of our proofs, but examine this second one and see how it is" (Republic IX.580b).

At the end of Book IV, Socrates has set out what justice is both in the city and in the individual. To continue the inquiry into the just and the unjust life, he begins to set out the four kinds of unjust cities and unjust individuals (Republic IV.445c). As he does, Polemarchus and Adeimantus intervene to ask for a more complete explanation of marriage and family life in a just city (Republic V.449b). Socrates agrees to their request. This forces him to postpone further discussion of the unjust cities and individuals until Book VIII.

When Socrates finally returns to the discussion of the unjust cities and individuals, he reminds his interlocutors that they "have already described the man corresponding to aristocracy or the government of the best, whom we rightly say to be both good and just (ἀγαθόν τε καὶ δίκαιον)" (Republic VIII.544e). He then goes onto describe the four unjust cities and individuals that he had intended to describe before the interruption in Book IV.

Once he finishes, he asks Glaucon whether he should proclaim "the best man and the most just to be the happiest, and that he is the most kingly, the one who most rules like a king over himself" and "that the worst and most unjust is the most unhappy, and that he is the most tyrannical, the one who is most a tyrant over himself." Glaucon accepts this without hesitation, and Socrates says that "this, then, would be one of our proofs" and goes on to tell him to "examine this second one and see if there is anything in it" (Republic IX.580b).

In this first of the "proofs," Socrates argues that justice in the soul brings more happiness than injustice. The details of his argument are not easy to see, but the basic point seems to be that those who souls are just do more do what of they wish than those who souls are not just.

"The three parts of the soul have, it appears to me, three kinds of pleasure, one peculiar to each, and similarly three appetites and controls" (Republic IX.580d).

  "But since the tests [for deciding which life is the most pleasurable] are experience and wisdom and reason, what follows?
  Of necessity, that the things approved by the lover of wisdom and the lover of reason are most true.
  Then of the three kinds of pleasure, the pleasure of that part of the soul whereby we learn is the sweetest, and the life of the man in whom that part dominates is the most pleasurable?
  It surely will be, since he is the best judge, and he praises his own life" (Republic IX.582e)

"[T]o be filled with what befits nature is pleasure..." (Republic IX.585d).

  "May we not confidently assert that those desires of even the profit-loving and honor-loving parts of the soul [the appetite and spirit], which follow knowledge and reason and pursue with their help those pleasures which intelligence prescribes, will attain the truest pleasures possible for them, since they are following the truth. These pleasures are proper to them, if that which is best for each thing may be said to be most proper to it. So if the whole soul follows the wisdom-loving part [reason] and there is no internal dissension, then each part will keep to its own task and be just, and also each will reap its own pleasures, the best and the truest as far as possible. And when one of the other two gets the mastery the result for it is that it does not find its own proper pleasure and constrains the others to pursue an alien pleasure and not the true?
  Quite so, Socrates" (Republic IX.586d).
After Socrates gives this argument, he goes on to argue that the lives of those whose souls are just is more pleasurable than the lives of those whose souls are not just.

He gives two proofs of this conclusion.

The first is the "second one" he mentions (Republic IX.580c). He argues that there is pleasure for each part of the soul and that the praise of the lover of wisdom shows that that the life of reason is the "sweetest" (Republic IX.583a) and thus more pleasurable than other lives.

A few lines later, Socrates gives another proof of this conclusion he describes as the "greatest and most decisive overthrow" for the just man against the unjust man (Republic IX.583b).

In this "most decisive" proof, Socrates argues that a part of the soul get its "truest" pleasures when the objects of the desires it gets are "most proper" to it. So when reason is wise and rules (as is it does only in just souls), reason directs action with the goal of living a life in which all three parts get what benefits them and thus their "truest" pleasures.

Those whose souls are just, then, in more doing what they wish, live more pleasurable lives. The point is not that they aim at pleasure and are more successful in achieving it. They aim at what reason knows is good, and because of the nature of parts of the soul and their organization, they live more pleasurable lives than those whose souls are unjust.

  "We have discovered that justice is best for the soul, and that it is to do what is right whether it possess the ring of Gyges or not, or the cap of Hades [an invisibility device (Iliad 5.845)].
  Most true, Socrates" (Republic X.612b).

By "discovered," Socrates means they have found that the conclusion that the just life is better follows from premises about justice in the soul and about the proper objects of desire.

We may wonder both whether the premises are true and whether the conclusion follows.

Justice in the City and the Rulers

The question of whether justice always pays is really two questions.

There is the question of whether justice in the soul alway pays. Socrates has argued that it does, but there is also the question of whether justice in the city always pays.

For the rulers, it can seem that justice in the city does not always pay.

Socrates himself says that "[e]ach ruler [in a just city] will spend much of his time in the love of wisdom (φιλοσοφία), but, when his turn comes, he labors in politics and for city's sake, not as if he were doing something fine, but as a necessity" (Republic VII.540b).

These remarks can suggest that the rulers would be happier were they sometimes to forsake their duty to rule and that for them justice in the city does not always pay.

Glaucon worries but Socrates denies that the requirement to rule is unjust.

  "Do you mean to say that we must do them this wrong, and compel them to live an inferior life when the better is in their power?
When Socrates tells Glaucon he has "forgotten," the conversation he has failed to remember is this one.

"[W]hile it would not be at all surprising if these men thus living prove to be the most happy, yet the object on which we fixed our eyes in the establishment of our city was not to make any one class outstandingly happy but to make the whole city so, as far as possible. ... [In our attempt to discover justice, we are] fashioning the happy city, not isolating a small class in it and postulating their happiness, but that of the city as a whole" (Republic IV.420b).


  "Observe, then, Glaucon, that we won’t be unjustly treating those who have become philosophers in our city, but that what we will say to them, when we compel them to take care of the others and guard them, will be just. For we will say to them that when men of similar quality who spring up in other cities, they are justified not sharing in the labors there. For they grow up spontaneously without the accord of the governments in the several cities, and it is justice (δίκην) that the self-grown, indebted to none for its breeding, should not be zealous either to pay to anyone the price of its nurture. But you we have engendered for yourselves and the rest of the city to be, as it were, king-bees and leaders in the hive. You have received a better and more complete education than the others, and you are more capable of sharing both ways of life. Down you must go then, each in his turn, [to rule the others]. ... Will they disobey us when we tell them this, and will they refuse to share in the labors of state each in his turn while permitted to dwell the most of the time with one another in that purer world [of contemplation]?
  Impossible, for we shall be imposing just commands on men who are just, but each of them will surely go to rule as something that must be done" (Republic VII.520a).


"[W]hile [the city] comes into existence for the sake of life, it exists for the good life" (Aristotle, Politics I.1252b).
  You have again forgotten, my friend, that the law is not concerned with the doing well of any class in the state, but is trying to produce this in the city as a whole, harmonizing and adapting the citizens to one another by persuasion and compulsion, and requiring them to impart to one another any benefit which they are severally able to bestow upon the community, and that it itself creates such men in the state, not that it may allow each to take what course pleases him, but with a view to using them for the binding together of the commonwealth.
  True, I did forget it" (Republic VII.519d).

Socrates, in the remarks I quote in the side notes, says that the rulers in a just city owe the city for the education that has made them lovers of wisdom and for the time the city provides for them to spend in contemplation. He thinks that the rulers recognize this debt and believe that in exchange for their life they have a duty to take their turns ruling in the city.

Why will the rulers believe this?

The education in a just city tries to make all the citizens think they should comply with the organization in the city because it is just. The other citizens do not understand the proof that the organization is just, but the rulers do because they have grasped the good itself.

This, it seems, does not show that for the rulers justice in the city always pays.




Perseus Digital Library

Plato, Republic

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

λυσιτελής, (λύω + τέλος), lysitelēs, "profitable"






move on go back