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Theoretical Ethics

Plato's Republic: Inner Justice, Ordinary Justice and Just Action in the Polis

Jacqueline Chin
National University of Singapore

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ABSTRACT: In reading the Republic, there is no reason to search for arguments which show that Platonic justice ('inner justice' or 'psychic harmony') entails ordinary justice. The relationship between inner justice and ordinary justice is of no importance in Plato's Republic. We note that Plato tries to argue from the very first book that the true source of normativity lies in knowledge attained by philosophical reason. What is crucial, then, is the relationship between inner justice and acts which brings about a just polis.

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I. The Unimportance of Ordinary Justice

The issue of the relationship between inner justice and ordinary justice has been the subject of critical discussion since it was famously raised by David Sachs. (1) In this essay, I shall argue that the relationship between inner (or 'Platonic') justice and ordinary justice (conceived as doing acts which Glaucon, Adeimantus and the rest of the gathering consider to be just) was of no importance in Plato's Republic. (2) What was important, rather, was the relationship between inner justice and acts which bring about a just polis.

My claim about the unimportance of ordinary justice in relation to inner justice is pre-empted to some degree by Gregory Vlastos and Julia Annas. Vlastos distinguished two senses of ordinary justice:(3) (a) the degenerate morality of those who see it as a path to gratification, and (b) the common morality of those who respect virtue and have a firm disposition to act justly ('justice' as Cephalus possessed, for example).

Vlastos rejected any connection between inner justice and ordinary justice in the sense of (a), but assumed that inner justice entailed ordinary justice in the sense of (b) and argued for the connection. However, at least the following difficulty stands in the way of any argument for the entailment, namely, Plato sometimes drew a distinction between the vices of discord and ignorance, and held that it was possible to overcome discord in the soul and yet act ignorantly. This is the condition characterizing Cephalus. But the point made is that it is impossible to be in Cephalus' condition if one has not overcome discord in one's soul, and nowhere is it suggested that psychic harmony necessarily entails the form of morality practiced by Cephalus. It would seem too quick to assume an entailment relationship as Vlastos does.

A Fallacy of Equivocation?

The reason that Vlastos and others have tried to argue that inner justice entails ordinary justice might be that it is often assumed that Plato was committed to answering the challenge of Glaucon and Adeimantus to show that justice as they knew it to be was beneficial to the agent apart from its consequences. If the results of inner justice fail to match their ordinary knowledge of justice, Plato would be guilty of committing a fallacy of equivocation. But it is not often noticed that Glaucon and Adeimantus have no definition of justice. They have instead the haphazard intuitions of the rest, and why should inner justice be shown to entail that? They merely take up Thrasymachus' question about whether justice is advantageous or disadvantageous to the agent, as hastily speaking of its "nature" ('a thing honoured in the lack of vigour to do injustice') and "origin", without ever giving a definition of what it is. Without, that is, respecting the priority of questions which Socrates in Book I had emphasized as a condition of giving 'accounts' of things. Quite simply then, they do not know what justice, ordinary or otherwise, is — they have no 'account' of it as they would accept, having agreed to Socrates' conditions for possessing an account. Like the rest, they must doubt their intuitions about the acts previously considered just. Therefore, their challenge to Socrates must be that he shows that justice, awaiting his definition, pays. Not that justice, conceived as such-and-such, pays. Without the so-called "understanding" of ordinary justice so frequently ascribed to Thrasymachus, Glaucon and Adeimantus, the charge of a possible fallacy of equivocation is no longer meaningful. Therefore, there is no reason to find arguments to prove that inner justice entails ordinary justice.

Ordinary Justice as a Constraint on Ethical Theory

Julia Annas often points out that the laws of the ideal republic are extremely revisionary even for Plato' original audiences. She rejects the entailment from inner justice to ordinary justice, but holds that Plato implicitly and unconsciously uses the precepts of ordinary justice as a constraint upon his account of the requirements of justice in the Republic. (4) Plato does this, according to Annas, because he implicitly subscribed to the view later developed by Aristotle that unless an ethical theory confirms many of our ethical intuitions, it can have no rational claim over us. I think that this reading of Plato is at least misleading; it fails to take seriously Plato's worries — indeed, despair — concerning the corruptibility of the common intuitions of whole societies, and his belief that systematic theoretical knowledge could correct untrustworthy intuitions. Out of his interchange with Cephalus and Polemarchus, Socrates and his companions find themselves perplexed by ordinary justice: many of its prescriptions, when pressed, run counter to common intuitions about justice. The lack of systematic understanding about what justice is throws into doubt their capacity to determine whether this or that action is just or unjust. They learn not to trust their fleeting intuitions or beliefs about just and unjust acts since these often lead to contradictions and absurdities. Further, intuitions about justice are far from uniform in Book I of the Republic; Thrasymachus sways the company enough with his scepticism to make them see how it is possible to view matters quite differently, enough even to shatter confidence in their fundamental belief in the goodness of justice. If the reports of Glaucon and Adeimantus are to be trusted, then in Plato's Athens, ordinary intuitions were strong on both sides. Which among these would serve as appropriate constraints? Without attempting to resolve this issue (since one would have to say more on it than Plato did), I wish to note that importing the assumptions of Aristotelian ethics into Platonic ethics is a move that we are well-entitled to be suspicious of, not least because the former tended to favour a conservative ethical outlook whereas the latter describes a revolution of society, and we ought to be interested in the reasons for this difference. More to the point, however, if Plato relied on certain intuitions as foundations for his ethical theory, they seem not to consist in ordinary ethical intuitions but metaphysical, and perhaps psychological, ones.

A Difficulty

How are we to explain the passage at 442D 10ff. where Socrates proposes to apply vulgar tests to his first exposition of inner justice towards the end of Book IV? In order to facilitate an explanation, it will be necessary to quote the relevant passage beginning a few lines before 442D 10.

But surely now, a man is just by that which and in the way we have so often described.
That is altogether necessary.
Well then, said I, has our idea of justice in any way lost the edge of its contour so as to look anything else than precisely what it showed itself to be in the State?
I think not, he said.
We might, I said, completely confirm your reply and our own conviction thus, if anything in our minds still disputes our definition — by applying commonplace and vulgar tests to it.
What are these?
For example, if an answer were demanded to the question concerning that city and the man whose birth and breeding was in harmony with it, whether we believe that such a man, entrusted with a deposit of gold or silver, would withhold it and embezzle it, who do you suppose would think that he would be more likely so to act than men of a different kind?
No one would, he said.
And would not he be far removed from sacrilege and theft and betrayal of comrades in private life or of the State in public?
He would.
And is not the cause of this to be found in the fact that each of the principles within him does its work in the matter of ruling and being ruled?
Yes, that and nothing else.
Do you still, then, look for justice in anything else than this potency which provides men and cities of this sort?
No, by heaven, he said, I do not.

First, there is, on this reading of the problematic passage, no reference to ordinary justice; rather the appeal is to a rough estimate of what the citizen in the ideal city, the city imagined in the preceding discussion, would do or would not do. It is clear in the passage that Socrates is not attempting to argue that ordinary justice would entail the actions named, but asking what behaviour Glaucon would expect of an ideal (just) citizen. Socrates is conducting a rough thought experiment. The "commonplace and vulgar tests" do not refer to ordinary justice, but to not strictly methodical — hence, rough — thinking, which may or may not rely upon intuitions about 'ordinary justice'. Secondly, the focus of the passage is not concern about the acceptability of the proposed definition of justice to Glaucon and the others, but rather a concern to determine whether or not justice in the individual is just the mirror-image of justice in the State. That is, in my view, not an implausible reading of the passage, and one that successfully removes the difficulty for my argument.

An issue which remains important is the question of what relationship inner justice — "an inner state of a man and his several parts" — has with a person's external actions, or the question of behaviour within society.

II. Inner Justice and Just Action in the Polis

Harmony in the Soul

In the secondary literature, inner justice is widely described by the phrase "psychic harmony". Inner justice as psychic harmony refers not merely to psychological stability, for that is present in the masterful, perfectly unjust person who sticks to a rationally organized path of injustice. Nothing in the description of the oligarchic man suggests that he typically falls into temptation in the

pursuit of money, and he might in fact refrain from embezzling a deposit of gold now in order to be entrusted with a larger deposit later. He is ruled by reason in a sense, but it is clear that he reasons only to serve his appetites. Psychic harmony refers to the proper ordering of the parts of the soul according to a certain normative ideal. In the ideal soul, the reasoning part and the feelings rule over the appetitive part. The rule of reason in this case implies that the desire for knowledge must dominate over the desires of the other parts of the soul (e.g. desires for honour in the feeling part of the soul, or desires for wealth, sex, food, etc. in the appetitive part). This in turn implies that the philosopher exemplifies the perfect soul. Not all human beings have natures which enable them to become philosophers, but they approach this ideal of love for knowledge by aspiring to be ruled by philosophers. A properly ordered soul experiences a sense of well-being or psychological health (thus, psychological health is distinct from psychological stability, and depends on psychic harmony).

Why is a soul ruled by love of knowledge paradigmatic of a virtuous soul? Plato inherited from Socrates and the Pythagoreans the view that the noblest part of the soul is the intellect. Socrates identified the intellect with the soul, and like the Pythagoreans, was concerned about its purification from disruptive and chaotic passions. Plato introduced his tripartite conception of the soul, particularly to deal with the problem of conflict in the mind, but retained the conviction that the noblest of these parts is the intellect, and should rule over the other parts which have been brought into a state of harmony. He also inherited the Socratic formula that virtue is knowledge, and the view that virtue can be taught. Another influential factor was the fact that the ancient Greeks tended to identify goodness with a thing's function. The arete of any craftsman is just being good at his craft. We, likewise, speak of a good carpenter, say, in this way. It has been held that the Socratic formula naturally arose, first from the idea that to be good at something is a matter of skill/knowledge, and then to the idea that to be good is a matter of skill/knowledge. Plato later distinguished ethical knowledge from techne, since he saw that a craftsman's knowledge allows him to cause as much harm as good, while a just man's knowledge cannot make him better at causing harm. Nevertheless, Plato never abandoned the doctrine that virtue is a matter of having knowledge of some kind.

Among the philosophical reasons for subscribing to the rule of reason as an essential feature of the virtuous soul are two that I wish to mention here. First, it is a commonplace that one is virtuous only if one acts for the right reason. Acting for the right reason on Plato's ethical schema consists in knowing the good and acting because it would be an instantiation of the good to so act. Whatever problems there are of understanding Plato's doctrine of the Good, it is at least clear that he holds that knowledge of it is attainable only by philosophical endeavour. Hence, if no soul can be virtuous without knowledge of what is good, and philosophical reasoning is the means by which one comes to know the good, then no soul can be virtuous without caring about philosophy. But to say this is not to imply that only philosophers can be virtuous; non-philosophers can have virtuous souls if they care about knowing the good and acting in accordance with it. This is best achieved in their case by listening to philosophers, although the virtue they can attain to seems to be regarded as an inferior type. Second, no other part of the soul besides reason is able to lead it to act for the sake of the good. Given the Platonic division of the soul into intellectual, feeling and appetitive parts, and another division between perceptual/imaginative and reasoning parts within the soul, we see that there is a correspondence of the intellectual with the reasoning part, and of feeling and appetitive parts with the perceptual/imaginative part. (5) It is apparent that the feeling and appetitive parts are incapable of apprehending the good, since that is a matter for reasoning and not perception/imagination. Hence, these parts of the soul are incapable of leading the soul to act for the sake of the good. Hence, a soul is capable of virtuous action only if it is ruled by reason.

Inner Justice and External Actions

Upon encountering the view of justice in the Republic, our questions about the connection between inner justice and external justice might tend to focus on what inner condition would conduce to proper social behaviour. If the question is considered in this way, we are then led to wonder whether the inner condition described as psychic harmony, explicated earlier, is adequate to the task. However, Plato puts the question the other way around, namely, he considers what sorts of social behaviour would preserve inner harmony as explicated — and it is these actions which we recognize to bear the Form of justice. Similarly with the just polis, he considers the structures and virtues requisite for fullest harmony within the polis, and then says that everyone who does his own work (that is, work which needs doing by him in order for an ideal harmonious polis to be sustained) acts justly. Action which is just, is therefore action which does not seek to have or do more than is necessary for harmony. At 443E, only preservation of harmony in the individual's soul is mentioned, but since Plato thinks that the individual's harmonious condition is in unity with (and not merely analogous to) harmony in the polis, just action is equally that which brings about and sustains social harmony.

Doing One's Own Work in the Polis

But it is precisely unobvious that the individual's harmony (well-being, happiness) is a unity with social harmony, or, that acting for the sake of social harmony would bring about inner harmony. (This might serve as a restatement of the challenge of Glaucon and Adeimantus). After the first construction of the ideal polis, Adeimantus objects that the Guardians will not be very happy with the stiff requirements their role (419-420B2). Plato recognizes that he has the task of demonstrating that the greatest happiness of the whole is in the end not in conflict with, and in fact preserves, the inner harmony of the individual. He provides the first hints of an answer in his reply to the objection (420B-421C4).

By following the same path I think we shall find what to reply. For we shall say that while it would not surprise us if these men thus living prove to be the most happy, yet the object on which we fixed our eyes on the establishment of our state was not the exceptional happiness of any one class but the greatest possible happiness of the city as a whole...

Consider, then, whether our aim in establishing the guardians is the greatest possible happiness among them or whether that is something we must look to see develop in the city as a whole, but these helpers and guardians are to be constrained and persuaded to do what will make them the best craftsmen in their own work, and similarly the rest, And so, as the entire city develops and is ordered well, each class is to be left to the share of happiness that its nature comports. (My italics.)

Plato says, somewhat darkly, that a Guardian (or any citizen) who fulfills his role is a good craftsman, and will find the happiness which comports with his nature. Plato further suggests that he will, thereby, also be most happy. How might we understand this? Firstly, Plato is invoking the familiar Greek notion that to be good at something is to be good (i.e. virtuous) and happy. Presumably, one can be truly good at a task (a true craftsman) only if suited by nature for it. But what is it to be suited by nature for some task? There seems to be at least two senses to this notion: a) being suited by ability, and b) being suited by temperament, for performing a given task. While we tend to separate the two things such that we think a person could be unhappy in a profession wherein he does what he is good at, Plato seems not to distinguish the two. Indeed, it might be suggested that to be best able to do something well, one has to be suited by temperament for it (for example, one must like the job). It seems to me not implausible to suggest that this is what Plato thought, and in addition, that the function of education as Plato saw it is to ensure, through "constraint and persuasion", that the two things do not come apart. If so, it would be easier to see that the best craftsmen would be happy, since they would be doing well in the tasks they like doing best. An explanation for the claim that the Guardians would be most happy will be forthcoming as well: each part of the soul has its own pleasures and desires (580D, 581C). Thus, there are three different kinds of pleasure and correspondingly, three different classes of men: lovers of wisdom, lovers of honour and lovers of gain. With the Guardians who have been identified by prolonged scrutiny to be lovers of wisdom, the balance of pleasure in the soul weighs on reasoning and philosophical activity which is in part their work as statesmen. Further, it is said that when a man's desires incline violently in one direction, they are weakened in other directions; the philosopher who desires wisdom is never greedy of wealth, etc. (485D), so that his happiness is not compromised by abstinence from luxury.

These cryptic remarks on the relationship between doing one's own work in the polis and being happy are not yet the full account of the matter. For it is not yet clear why, in doing what one is best at and most enjoys, it is necessary to employ one's efforts only within the limits of preserving harmony in the polis. Otherwise, the individual's happiness is compromised. It is not self-evident that doing one's work within the bounds necessary for social harmony conduces to individual happiness.

Not Overreaching

If one enjoys what one does, the natural tendency would be to think that the opportunity for doing more would increase personal happiness. Indeed, Plato suggests that the Guardians would much rather spend all their time philosophizing instead of performing the duties of statesmen. The hedonist would, likewise, require demonstration of the claim that having more of the pleasures of ambition and appetite is not a better state-of-affairs. Why should the Guardians divide their time between philosophy and state duties, and what argument can be given to refute hedonism? Plato's often ready answer to the former is that Guardians would recognize that if the rulership of the polis were left to the ignorant and less capable, they risk having to suffer under an unenlightened state leadership. The refutation of hedonism is a much more interesting way of answering the question of why not "overreaching" one's business is requisite for personal happiness. It is also a principal theme in the Republic's treatment of scepticism, and to that polemic I now turn.

The Refutation of Hedonism

In Book IX, Socrates declares the things that the wise man would do (591C-592A):

(a) He will not abandon the habit and nurture of his body to the brutish and irrational pleasures, nor even give health (becoming strong and beautiful) first place unless these things are likely to bring moderation. He will always be attuning the harmonies of his body for the sake of concord in his soul.

(b) He will deal likewise with harmonizing his possessions, and will neither be dazzled by the felicitations of the multitude nor amass wealth without measure. He will keep his eyes firmly fixed on the constitution in his soul, taking care not to disturb anything there either by excess or deficiency, adding or subtracting from his wealth according to this principle as far as possible.

(c) With regard to honours and office, he will gladly take part in those which make him a better man, but shun those which may overthrow the established order in his soul.

The hedonist does not moderate his pursuit of the pleasures of honour and appetites because he is ignorant in several respects:

(1) 580D-582A: The hedonist views pleasure too simply. He fails to see that pleasures are not homogeneous. The issue is not merely a question of whether to maximize or limit the pursuit of pleasure, but it is also a contentious matter what kinds of pleasure are honourable or base, better or worse, actually pleasurable or only illusory pleasures. There are three recognizable classes of pleasure associated with the pleasures which each of the three parts of the soul enjoys, namely, the pleasure that knowledge yields, the pleasure of winning honours, and the appetitive pleasures (which are manifold in their forms). There is great contention over a range of questions concerning them.

(2) The hedonist who identifies the good with the pleasures of ambition and the appetites does so only because he does not know better. 582A-E; By the criteria of experience, intelligence and discursive reasoning, the lover of honour and gain fails as an authoritative judge of that question. He has had no proper experience of the pleasures of knowledge to make a fair comparison, and with respect to the latter two criteria he is obliged to defer to the judgement of the lover of wisdom whose intellectual and discursive faculties are far superior. In fact, 586C: The mind of the hedonist is deprived of the sanity required for a sound estimate. 584C-585A: The hedonist is led to an overblown belief that he is approaching fulfillment and pleasure because the affections which find their way through the body to the soul — that is, the feelings and appetites — are greatest in number and most intense.

(3) The hedonist is wrong to identify the good with pleasures of ambition and the appetites because they are by nature illusory and unreal, being presented to us by way of contrasts between pleasure and pain experienced bodily or in our hopes. They are illusory and false, because what we mistake for pleasure is usually the neutral state, the absence of uneasiness, the cessation of pain (583B-584B).

(4) The hedonist is ignorant of the effects of unbridled pursuit of ambition and appetitive pleasures on the soul. 587A: When these two parts of the soul gets the mastery of it, the result is that the soul as a whole does not find its own proper pleasure and its parts are made to pursue false and alien pleasures. The unjust soul is vividly described as enslaved under a many-headed beast and a lion.

The wise man, who acts such as to maintain in the parts of the soul (including the reasoning part) their true and proper proportion of pleasure is thus happiest. He is happiest by not overreaching. Paradoxically, the hedonist, who acts to have more of what he enjoys, brings great unhappiness upon himself.

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(1)David Sachs, "A Fallacy in Plato's Republic", in G. Vlastos (ed.), Plato, Vol. II: Ethics, Politics and Philosophy of Art and Religion, New York, 1971.

(2)I have used the Jowett translation.

(3) Gregory Vlastos, Platonic Studies, Chapter 5: "Justice and Happiness in the Republic", Princeton, 1981 (2nd edition), esp. pp. 135-136.

(4)Julia Annas, An Introduction to Plato's Republic, Oxford, 1981, see esp. Chapter 6.

(5) There are three different ways of dividing the soul in the Republic: i) the division into reasonable, feeling and appetitive parts; ii) the simile of the line which groups its cognitive capacities into understanding and reasoning on the one hand, and belief and imagination on the other; iii) the division in Book X between the knowing part and the perceptive part. The divisions of the line correspond to the divisions in Book X. In Book III, the feelings and appetites are contrasted with reason, so they naturally rely on perception and imagination and not on knowledge.

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