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Socrates and Justice

Updated on August 24, 2012
 A bust of Socrates from the British Museum.
A bust of Socrates from the British Museum. | Source
Death of Socrates, 1875 Hermitage
Death of Socrates, 1875 Hermitage | Source

Of the four Greek virtues -- courage, moderation, wisdom, and justice -- Socrates spends the majority of The Republic discussing justice. Obviously, it is something he is greatly concerned with. He first tries to determine what justice is, and then tries to determine if a truly just city can be created, with a bit of wandering thrown in to make the argument last a little longer. (At least, it almost seems that he’s wandering, but then in the end, he always seems to pull the point back together.)

So why does Socrates spend so long on this one virtue? There may be several reasons, but one of the central ones has to be the difficulty of defining it. Courage is easy to define -- courage is standing up for what is right and being willing to fight for it, whether it is your city-state, country, or family. Moderation is also easy to define. The Oracle at Delphi had a motto above the door that said “Nothing in Excess.” That is the definition of moderation in three words. Wisdom is a little more difficult. To ancient Greeks, wisdom would be knowledge. Most ancient Greeks believed that the older you were, the more knowledge (street sense) you had, and therefore, the wiser you were. (Modern society has a different view.) Socrates, however, does seem to see wisdom as slightly difficult to explain as he spends most of Book 7 in the Republic discussing wisdom using the allegory of the cave. Socrates sees wisdom as difficult to understand, though, simply because it is hard to know if what you know is really knowledge or not. (This is why the allegory of the cave is so useful -- if someone doesn’t know better, they will think they are wise when they are not. Socrates contrasts wisdom with ignorance.) Even with that confusion, however, wisdom as a concept can still be defined. Justice, however, is much more complex. Unlike wisdom, moderation, and courage, finding a fixed meaning for justice is near impossible. In order to figure one out, Socrates embarks on a series of long arguments to try to find it.

From some of the arguments, we can see that justice is indeed difficult to find and define. Cephalus believes that “speaking the truth and giving back what one takes” (331 d, pg 7) are justice. Polemarchus takes it one step further, adding that justice is “doing good to friends and harm to enemies” (332d, pg 8). Thrasymachus (a relativist) believes that justice is “nothing other than the advantage of the strongest” (338c, pg 15). Obviously, these can’t all be right, yet each of them are held by their owners to be true. There are problems with each definition. Cephalus’s argument is quickly broken down and shown to be wrong as you can give back things to people who shouldn’t have them, Polemarchus’s argument is weak because you can’t always tell who your enemy is, and being unjust to someone who is unjust is still unjust. Thrasymachus’s argument is wrong as might doesn’t automatically make right, it just makes what the ruler/rulers want into law.

Each of these definitions has basic flaws, which show us how difficult it is to define something as vague and amorphous as justice. Even after a lot of argument with Glaucon (a wonderful foil for Socrates), they still don’t have a good definition. In 350d (pg 29), they decide that justice is “virtue and wisdom, and injustice is both vice and lack of learning.” This still isn’t quite right, however. The big problem is that each definition put forth assumes a world of black and white absolutes, with no greys. Since this isn’t possible, none of the definitions put forth are right.

Another reason he is concerned with justice is because, as is stated in 538c (pg 217), “surely we have from childhood convictions about what’s just and fair by which we are brought up as by parents…” Challenging the assumptions that people hold is very important to Socrates. He feels it is critical to examine the ideas that people have and see where they come from. Judging by the definitions of justice that he is able to get from his companions, their ideas of justice are far from perfect and based on things that they’ve been told or learned, without their questioning it. Without this questioning, they may have kept their opinions on justice, and while it probably wouldn’t have made them unjust, they may have unknowingly taught their incorrect views.

Finally, Socrates was also concerned with what justice was so that people would know it when they see it. A large problem that is discussed as part of justice is whether something or someone that seems “just” really is. Adeimantus (Glaucon’s brother) argues that “the seeming overpowers the truth” (365c, pg 42) and that the unjust is more powerful and easier to do than the just. This matters, especially to Socrates later in his life when he is convicted and sentenced to death for what “seems” to be justice. (If he really was guilty of the things he was accused of, then it might have been “just” for him to be condemned.) Just as it is important to question what you have been told, it is important to know the difference between what seems to be true and what really is true.

The difficulty in reaching a definition, the need to challenge previously held conceptions, and the question of understanding truth are three reasons that Socrates would be so concerned with justice. While they might not be the only reasons for his concerns, they are certainly three pivotal ones.

In order to determine what justice is, Socrates uses an analogy of a city to a person because he believes that by determining what justice is in a city, it will be easier to then determine what justice is in a person, because a city is larger, and therefore justice will be easier to see. I wasn’t sure I really agreed with his analogy at first, but I’ve come to like the city to man analogy more and more.

Personally, I believe that he is just using the city as an analogy to the human soul, and while he also uses it to make comments on the current government, it is not meant to be a true blueprint of a new city. When you consider the things he discusses -- protection, ruling, and working -- these are all things that people have to do as part of themselves. You have to protect yourself, whether it’s fighting in war or watching out for yourself and your health. You have to rule yourself, which ties in directly to moderation. Finally, you have to work at some trade. Each person in ancient Greece had a job and a responsibility, whether it was a woman who needed to care for the home or young children or a man who needed to go to war and make shoes. While Socrates discusses each of these functions as a separate person, each person really has to contend with all of them as separate parts of a whole. As he puts together individual people to make them into a city, each role can also be put together to form a complete person.

I did question the need for the details in the analogy, but in 472c (pg 152), Socrates reminds Glaucon that they got to where they were by searching for the meaning of justice. To me, this says that Socrates wanted to make sure that Glaucon was still paying attention to the main point and purpose of the conversation. While the other discussions that appear are equally interesting while they’re going on, they are just small diversions on the path. Socrates seems to agree with me when he tells Glaucon, “We were not seeking them for the sake of proving that it’s possible for these things to come into being.” (472d, pg152)

Socrates seems to be serious about finding justice, but I’m not sure how serious he is about the possibility of a just city existing. He is not a believer in democracy (as I learned when I was researching him -- he didn’t believe in selection by lot for something as important for rulers; he did believe in the ruler being a philosopher king, and one who did not want to rule, as only those who viewed it as a responsibility and not fun or a chance to get what they want, will do it well). I also don’t think he’s a believer in a totalitarian regime. He asks too many questions for that. He thinks that government should be just, and a totalitarian government would not be just. Socrates does, however, seem to think it’s okay to lie and withhold information from people in order to get them to behave. So while it’s a little hard to find a way for those concepts to exist concurrently, I think that may lend credence to the fact that a just city is not possible as some of the things he suggests to make it just seem to be, to me, not just.

At the same time, Socrates seems to like the thought of the city, and wishes it could exist, as I’m sure most people do. He asks Glaucon whether he supposes

a painter is any less good who draws a pattern of what the fairest human being would be like and renders everything in the picture adequately, but can’t prove that it’s also possible that such a man come into being? (472d, pg 152)

Being able to create the city isn’t the important part -- the idea of the city and its values are what Socrates is concerned with.

He spends quite a bit of time building the city, and I don’t think that it’s because he is serious about creating the city, but because he is serious about finding smaller analogies within the larger analogy, taking the argument to its logical conclusion, and understanding everything that it would take to make a city just so that he can understand what it would take to make an individual just. To Socrates, saying that a city is like a person and leaving it there would be impossible. He would need to question and figure out the details -- otherwise he would just be as bad as the other sophists who didn’t want true dialectic arguments, just wins. In 473a on page 153, Socrates asks Glaucon, “can anything be done as it is said?” That seems to be a sign that he doesn’t expect to create the city that he is talking about. While he might be using the city to explore previously held concepts and question them, he doesn’t expect such a city to suddenly sprout from the mud and exist as he planned it. Even if he did think it was possible, I don’t think it’s possible because I tend to think a little more poorly of human nature and think that people are just because of a combination of the urge to be just and the fear of punishment/wish for reward and not only because of the urge to be just that keeps people honest and good.

At the same time, however, Socrates also seems to forget his point and get very serious about the city. This occurs in 536c (pg 215), when Socrates says “I forgot…that we were playing and spoke rather intensely.” Obviously, their discussion has come out of the realm of the possible and spilled over into the real world. It is easy to get carried away when discussing politics, which is what Socrates has done (probably on purpose) when he began the analogy.

Socrates, who seems to us to be really annoying, was sentenced to death because he was considered a threat to Athenian society. Was he really such a threat? According to himself, he was. In 537e (pg 217) Socrates asks Glaucon, “how great is the harm coming from the practice of dialectic these days?” Glaucon doesn’t understand the question, so Socrates answers himself, telling Glaucon that “its students…are filled with lawlessness.” Glaucon agrees with him on that point. Apparently, searching for the truth was not highly prized at that time. Would that really be enough of a reason for death? Socrates does further state that

when the true philosophers…come to power in a city, they will despise the current honors and believe them to be illiberal and worth nothing. Putting what is right and the honors coming from it above all, while taking what is just as the greatest and most necessary, and serving and fostering it, they will provide for their own city (540e, pg 220).

Does that push the envelope far enough to warrant death? Admittedly, those are not the only things he did, but those definitely call to mind two of the charges that were brought against him.

If one looks at the Bible as historical and not religious truth, Socrates can be compared to Jesus. In both cases, a man is killed for preaching something that is not well received by the current power structure. Socrates, like Jesus, questioned the ways that things were done, suggesting that there was a better way for people to think and live. Both were individuals with no true power other than the word they spoke, yet their words alone were enough to condemn them. To further the comparison, both were slandered by their opposition. Aristophones and the sophists were less than fond of Socrates, and regularly credited him with things that he did not say or do, or did not give credit when it was due. (Why Socrates was slandered, I’m not sure. Was it that they realized what he did by teaching people to argue for free, for the sake of learning? Was it that they just didn’t like what he said? Did he somehow endanger their way of life? How much of it can we really know for sure? I’m thinking that the sophists probably didn’t write down a list of why they hated Socrates, and so I would have to believe that we can’t know for sure what they had against him.)

The Republic contains numerous mentions of things that probably didn’t go over well with those who had the power (the citizen males) to bring him up on charges: he preached that women should be taught the same as men and treated like men, he talked about communism (although it wasn’t called as such -- but not letting men have things that were better or worse than each other, living in a communal house and sharing everything with each other with no ownership, and everyone being treated as equals are some of the basic concepts of communism), he talked against factions (those within the cities fighting themselves, as opposed to the “real” enemies), and of course, he also taught the youths who followed him that they should question what they were told. It’s never a good idea to teach people to question their leadership – the leadership generally doesn’t enjoy it. Within The Republic, while discussing the just city that can never exist, Socrates says that their own current rulers are in it for themselves and are not truly “intelligent” because they aren’t philosophers. Assuming he ever repeated that in any other conversation, it is easy to see that they might fear his wanting to usurp them. (Of course, if he’s serious about what he says, he wouldn’t want to do that, because he would realize that it wasn’t fun to govern if you do it properly.)

Was any of this enough of a reason to kill Socrates? Maybe not to us, a few thousand years later, but to the people of his time, it was enough. Today we have already been taught to question things and think for ourselves; in Socrates’ time, those were not welcome ideas.


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