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Rough Justice

What is justice? Why should we be just? The definition of justice is important to explore as students of wisdom and philosophy. Justice, as The Republic discloses, should not be universally assumed to be beneficial. It must be defined, since some may believe that it is better to look out for their own interests than to follow rules of right and wrong. The Sophists, who did not believe in objective truth or standards of right and wrong, viewed law and morality as a convention. Socrates must prove justice in not just a convention; it is a desirable virtue that is in our best interest to adhere to and is connected to objective standards of morality.

Is justice a certain set of acts that must be followed? We may wonder what is the reason to be just, if there is some motivation or incentive for behaving a certain way. The Greeks may have believed they would face Hades or suffer punishment from the gods for their injustices, but if the divine element does not exist, then must we be just for the sake of justice itself? Certainly, unjust men have flourished as well as perfectly just men.

According to Cephalus, justice means living truthfully, giving back what one takes, and keeping one’s legal obligations. His weak definition is emblematic of a complacent, non-philosophical conception of justice, crumbling at the slightest questioning from Socrates. His definition reduces justice to actions that should be followed so as not to fear certain consequences in the afterlife. Essentially, who you are doesn’t really matter as long as your obligations are filled. Coming from the perspective of an older man living out his last days, paying off his debts, leaving an inheritance, and righting any wrongs, seems at first to be a fair definition of justice. Socrates obviously respects Cephalus’ wisdom, but points out that this evaluation is not completely thought out. Should one return a weapon to a madman and risk acting unjustly and dishonestly (331c)? Surely the definition of justice is not to tell the truth or give back what one takes.

Polemarchus jumps in, and it is soon painfully obvious that he is a victim of convention. He adds to his father’s definition that justice means owing your friends help, and your enemy harm (332a-c).  His definition, along with Cephalus’, have the underlying principle of giving what is appropriate and rendering to each what is due. This argument is fundamentally flawed, since we may be mistaken in our judgment concerning friend or foe (334e). We are right back where we began. Polemarchus exclaims, “I no longer know what I meant” (334b). Polemarchus’ complacent and unreflective responses lead readers to feel frustrated and irritated as well.

Thrasymachus soon bursts from holding in his opinion for so long. His account of justice offers a less abstract definition and alters the tone of the debate. A fierce fighter, Thrasymachus claims that justice is “nothing other than what’s advantageous to the stronger” (338c). By the stronger, he means the ruling power in a city, regardless of political affiliation, sets up laws for its own advantage (338d-e). Soon we are exposed to Thrasymachus’ immoralist de-legitimization of justice, since the norms and mores traditionally considered just may actually hinder those who adhere to justice and benefit those who ignore it. For him, justice is an unnatural restraint on the desire to acquire and he does not see the benefits to yielding to just behavior (344b-c).

Socrates argues against this rationale, pointing out that Thrasymachus’ view promotes injustice as a virtue (349b-c). Since justice is a virtue of the soul, he reasons, and adhering to virtues mean the health of the soul, then being just would be desirable since it would lead to the health of the soul. Injustice, Socrates points out, produces faction and hatred, whereas justice produces cooperation and friendship (351d).

We are no closer to a consensus on the definition after being presented with these three weak arguments. The discussion in book one ends in a deadlock, or ‘aporia’, because it seems that Socrates can go no further with his definition. The popular, traditional thinking on justice has been torn down, so Socrates is forced to start from scratch in order to overcome the moral skepticism of Thrasymachus. Since the Socratic method is founded on building up knowledge out of one’s true beliefs, if Thrasymachus is right, then we are left without any true beliefs about justice. Socrates must abandon the old method and start from scratch if he is to define justice, by building up knowledge without resting on traditional beliefs. The burden of proof now lies upon Socrates to define justice and prove it worthwhile.

The first chapter of The Republic offers three partial definitions of justice.  The first two definitions offered by Cephalus and Polemarchus relate to their character. Cephalus is an older, established businessman, subsequently his definition of justice relates to maintaining good standing with the law and business. Polemarchus, on the other hand, has the attitude of an ambitious, young politician, his name meaning ‘leader in battle.’ His definition of helping friends and harming enemies is emblematic of his warrior spirit.

In later chapters, Socrates lays out a further explanation of justice by describing the city, which serves as an analogy of the soul. There are three classes of workers within this city-soul, the guardians, auxiliaries, and here we begin to understand the partial definitions of justice given in chapter one.  What we find is that in the city, justice means drawing from these three definitions. Once we see how the tripartite virtues of wisdom, courage, and moderation interact within the city, we can now begin to formulate a broader definition of justice. No city can flourish if its citizens treat each other unjustly, and will render individuals incapable of action, since he will be at odds with himself (352a). Socrates builds this city not with bricks and mortar, but lays the foundations of political philosophy grounded on principles of reason.

Still, there remains no conclusive definition of justice at the end of book one. Even Socrates says, “I am non the wiser” (354c), although the discussion has answered important questions about the attributes of justice. Perhaps part of the failure of the Socratic method to find definitive answers in book one allows Plato to begin subsequent chapter with a clean slate, allowing us to observe justice from a different angle.

20 Responses to “Rough Justice”

  1. khoneycutt says:

    Hunter,

    You do a solid job of working through the various accounts of justice in Book 1. I am not sure that the slate is wiped clean by the end of it (as you suggest near the end of your essay), but it does appear to end aporetically. Some scholars think Book 1 was originally a standalone dialogue, possibly called “Thrasymachus.” Whether or not that is true, you are right to suggest that it has features like that, i.e., that it does not end in a resolution about justice.

    I am not sure that Book 1 ends without any true beliefs about justice, though it may end without knowledge. The fact that justice involves helping one’s friends, for instance, seems to persist throughout the rest of the text.

    I think it is important to tie the accounts of justice to their authors. You are right to highlight that Cephalus is an older businessman, for example. I think the fact that he is an arms dealer (shield maker) is also important. We might also presume that he had a different education than Polemarchus; Polemarchus has at least been exposed to foreign educators like Thrasymachus.

    This is solidly written although there are minor spelling mistakes; be sure to proofread.

    KH

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