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The central theme seen in Plato’s Republic is to define different virtues and ideas that are seen to be important in society and life, namely justice in Book I. In the Republic, Plato attempts to answer the question of “what is justice?” All of these traits seen in individuals and society are put forward in examples based off of Plato’s idea of a Utopian society in Ancient Greece. Plato explains what these traits are and how they fit in within this society through very intricate and detailed examples. This essay will analyse Plato’s conceptions of justice and whether or not it is better to live a just life. He believed that a ruler could not entirely be just unless they were in a society that was also just. The Republic is written in the form of a play or a conversation like dialogue, if you will. The use of the dialogue format was very useful for Plato in addressing sceptics and dissenting opinions. It also aids in showing the development of these ideas through discussion and makes it more interesting and easier for the audience to follow along, especially as ideas are passed around and different philosophers enter the conversation with their input on the topic.
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Socrates and his fellow philosophers set out in Book I of Plato’s Republic to find a definition for justice. After some time in Book I, Thrasymachus joins the conversation following Socrates shutting down Polemarchus’ idea that one should spite their enemies. Thrasymachus takes an interesting position on justice which I don’t necessarily agree with. He argues that justice is based off of the interests of the rulers, or those with power in society. He reforms his argument after a short conversation with Socrates to relate justice to something that benefits someone or something else. He explains this in terms of a subject and his or her ruler, “each declares that what is just for its subjects is what is advantageous for itself – the ruler – and it punishes anyone who deviates from this as lawless and unjust”. Based off of this, Thrasymachus declares that justice is such a dynamic that it is only able to work to the favor of the ruler, and never to the subjects. However, this is a thought which I don’t agree with: I believe it is possible for justice to work in the favor of the lesser through working together to achieve the common good for society. Not everything we do or accomplish is to benefit the powerful, but rather it is often for the common good of society and the happiness and welfare of the common people.
Socrates refutes Thrasymachus’ argument that justice is how he says it is by pointing out that rulers don’t always know what’s best and often times make mistakes in their laws and rulings. He continues on to state that injustice is not as strong as justice since justice is equal to wisdom and virtue, which together are stronger than ignorance (which is represented by this injustice). In addition to this, Socrates points out that injustice often brings about conflict and division in groups, which is seen to be the opposite of justice. Socrates partially succeeds in refuting Thrasymachus’ argument with the exception of failing to address the argument of justice pertaining to the rulers (or the strong).
At first, Thrasymachus believes that he has a solid definition of justice through his argument that “justice is nothing other than what is advantageous for the stronger”. This part of Thrasymachus’ argument initially makes sense given context of the situation since the ruling class is the ones who possess all the power – the ones that make the laws – they decide what justice is and set this standard for the people to follow. Their subjects are expected to essentially blindly follow and do whatever they say, including upholding laws they deem unfair – exemplifying justice in doing so. However, after Thrasymachus is thrown off of his initial argument by Socrates, he abandons this initial position.
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We then get to a point that even if justice is deemed to be one following the laws that it does not necessarily lead to the benefit of another. This is based off of the fact that even if justice is defined as being a law abiding citizen and behaving according to the law, laws don’t only benefit the powerful, but they help in maintaining an orderly functioning society of productive individuals – which arguably benefits everyone living in the community. However, some laws during this time were set up against certain individuals or groups, so by following these laws, injustice was essentially created through following the laws, or being just. Thrasymachus adjusts his argument, “justice is really the good of another”. This transforms Thrasymachus’ previous stance of whatever is good for the strong (or the rulers in this case). Thrasymachus has broadened his argument to make justice more broadly inclusive – whatever is good for another as opposed to the strong – which is getting closer to what one would likely define justice as today.
It was previously mentioned that the rulers may be mistaken about their interests or create some unjust laws, which is perfectly understandable given human nature and the tendency to make mistakes. The people, in honoring these “mistaken” laws that their rulers have created are essentially acting to inhibit the interests of the stronger, whether they know it or not. Socrates states, “according to your account, then, it isn’t only just to do what is advantageous for the stronger, but also the opposite: what is not advantageous”. This argument from Thrasymachus contradicts itself by leading us to the conclusion that justice is now in the hands of the weak, which are in turn, in service to the strong. Based off of this, justice can work in the favor of or against the rulers – depending on their intelligence and wisdom. This refutal coming from Socrates, essentially nullifies Thrasymachus’ initial definition of justice. This then requires Thrasymachus to adjust his definition or find a new one entirely.
If Thrasymachus were to initially choose to define “someone else” as a person who was wise – based off the fact that Socrates had offered the counterclaim of wisdom as justice – then this would aid Thrasymachus’ claims as he furthers his argument by noting that the goal of the man who is not just is to get all that he can for himself, and that is wise based off the fact that he goes after whatever is in his interest.
Socrates then proceeds to call Thrasymachus’ attention to the ignorant, “And what about an ignorant person? Doesn’t he want to do better than both a knowledgeable person and an ignorant one?”. If someone is ignorant, they claim to be superior to everyone, even if they may in fact be inferior. By claiming to be superior, they prove that they are unwise and unintelligent. The knowledgeable man on the other hand, knows not to make these claims. Thrasymachus and Socrates both agree that the intelligent man is better than the ignorant one and only does injustice to the unjust. This leads us to the conclusion that injustice is ignorance, in a sense. The unjust only serve to further the belief that they are ignorant by constantly trying to put others down and talk themselves up.
Socrates continues on to make a point that injustice separates people. If injustice is something that divides, creates factions, and causes conflict, then doing what benefits someone else would of course be the natural thing to do. Division stops people and society from unifying together to achieve a goal or work together for a common purpose. Socrates states, “injustice causes factions, hatred, and quarrels among them, while justice brings friendship and a sense of common purpose”. The only way for a society or a group of people to succeed in their purpose and get anything done is to work together. The only thing we have seen injustice accomplish is to drive people apart and cause dismay – which nobody is able to benefit or profit from. Justice is something that is able to benefit everyone from all walks of life, and from this justice, citizens are able to live happy, safe lives.
However, in the end, through this dialogue, neither man is able to come to an ultimate definition of justice. Socrates refutes Thrasymachus’ initial claim of justice being in the interest of the rulers, but he is unable to come up with his own definition. They come no closer to figuring out how to live a just life – at least the ultimate definition of it. Socrates admits his loss, “Hence the result of the discussion, so far as I am concerned, is that I know nothing. For when I do not know what justice is, I will hardly know whether it is a kind of virtue or not, or whether a person who has it is happy or unhappy”.
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