Episode 40: Plato’s Republic: What Is Justice?

Discussing The Republic by Plato, primarily books 1 and 2.

What is justice? What is the ideal type of government? In the dialogue, Socrates argues that justice is real (not just a fiction the strong make up) and that it's not relative to who you are (in the sense that it would always be just to help your friends and hurt your enemies). Justice ends up being a matter of balancing your soul so the rational part is in control over the rest of you.

The Republic is Plato's utopia, described by analogy with justice in the individual: In the ideal state, the rational people will be in charge, and these leaders should go through rigorous conditioning and live communally (spouse sharing!) in order for them to serve the state effectively.

You'll hear Wes and Dylan Casey talk about their St. John's experiences (the "Johnny" discussion-only format provides a chief model for P.E.L.'s). Plus, Gay Girl from Damascus, which music degrades your character, and does suffering make people morally worse?

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End song: "Manager," from the 2011 New People album, Impossible Things (song written in 1997).

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  1. Russ says

    Well, since there has been no discussion on arguably the most influential philosophical work in history, I’ll put forward the following:

    Will Durant in The Story of Philosophy made the following statement: “And now what shall we say of Plato’s Utopia?”…”Has it ever or in any place or measure been realized?” Durant’s answer was yes, for a thousand years in the Middle Ages, i.e. medieval Christianity. I suspect even Durant would say this is a simplification, however, there’s no doubt that Augustine’s neoplatonism had tremendous influence, but was medieval Europe really modeled on Plato’s Republic?

    Speaking as an individual with Christian sympathies, it’s impossible for me to overlook the parallels: Church hierarchy/priests (guardians), religion/Christianity (noble lie or magical myth), and surely there are more.


  2. David Buchanan says

    It can be read either way but I prefer to see The Republic as a description of the soul by analogy to the State. Maybe there’s not an important difference between the two but it’s just so awful as a political statement. It’s a caste system written by snob who couldn’t stand to get his hands dirty. This so-called “utopia” makes me shudder. But as a picture of human nature, it just means that we should be guided by intellect rather than our biological appetites or the quest for fame and fortune. That’s not crazy. It might be a bit too prudish and tightly wrapped, but it’s not exactly totalitarianism.

  3. Bear Mathan says

    One of the things overlooked in the discussion was that all the prior ethical systems were very flawed. The classic example of this is in Homer’s “Iliad”.

    It is essentially the story of the quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles. Agamemnon had offend Apollo by treating the priest Chryses rudely and refusing to return his daughter. So Apollo sent a plague on the Achaean’s camp. Agamemnon initially forbids the soldiers to draw lots to determine who brought the plague upon them, but Achilles because of his excellence (i.e. was really good at fighting) had the moral authority to draw lots and find out that Agamemnon had cause the plague.

    Once this was known, the other leaders were able to force Agamemnon to return Chryseis to her father. In this Achilles acted “ethically” or “morally”. However, Agamemnon was rather angry and punished Achilles by taking the prisoner Briseis from him.

    Nestor the old and wise leader urged Agamemnon not to do this: not because Agamemnon would be doing the wrong thing, because he was within his rights to do so, but because it would enrage Achilles, which it did.

    The problem here is that both parties acted within their rights and were both “ethical”: however, it lead to a very serious conflict. So the question is what is the resolution? How could this ethical system be consistent.

    So Plato was attempting to find a consistent ethical/moral system. This is why he is dismissing all previous moral accounts at the start of the book.

    • What says

      The vital part however is that Achilles had the favour of Zeus, though Zeus did it in his time not Achilles.

  4. Ethan Gach says

    I wanted to pick up on an issue that was raised a couple times in the podcast. Namely, does harming someone make them more unjust, and is that intuitively obvious or even reasonably justified.

    It seems like by Socrates definitions and the reoccuring theme of his reasoning that if what one “conventionally” means by “harm” is done to an individual, and produces “good” results (i.e. makes them more disciplined, well behaved, perhaps even more just), than it isn’t actually harm that was done.

    And this seems to be a problem over and over again in the dialogues, where seemingly intended meanings of words switch from conventional definitions, to re-worked definitions, or even to circular ones.

    Hence, harming someone makes them more unjust because it’s unjust to harm someone. I’m probably missing out on much of the subtlety and sophistication here, but it seems like all Plato is really able to put forward is that there is a thing called “justice” and it is related to “harmony.”

    Harmony of what and in what way seems impossible to figure out. So we end up with the Socratic hit’n run, where we have to admit that, of course the best would be the best.

    For instance, toward the end of my undergrad I became more sympathetic to the “ideal” republic put forth by Socrates, thinking that, well, if things are really as he says, than I don’t see why that wouldn’t be a great place to live. Because if everyone does what is “best” for them to do, well, how could that be “bad?” WilI really be harmed by a lie just by virtue of it being a lie?

    Of course, perhaps Socrates sows the seeds of his Republic’s own folly when having the guardians lie, after having claimed earlier that committing injustice harms he/she who committs it even more than those it is committed upon, leaving the guardians as a necessarily corrupt since their very duties require them to do things that harm their character. Maybe a way around this would be to replace the guardians regularly enough so that the ones who have had to lie for so long, and begin to believe that they should lie about other things as a result of the self-inflicted moral decay, can be removed from office.

  5. Geoff says

    So Plato was attempting to find a consistent ethical/moral system. This is why he is dismissing all previous moral accounts at the start of the book.

    Reading this statement reminded me of the most recent xkcd strip. Viewing this the other day I thought to myself: you know, this is probably how new religions start…


  6. says

    Hey, just wanted to register my appreciation for this! It’s helping me revise for an Ancient Ethics exam – and easing my guilt of doing the housework/other chores when I’m meant to be studying!

  7. Snir Hordan says

    It seems like by Socrates definitions and the reoccuring theme of his reasoning that if what one “conventionally” means by “harm” is done to an individual, and produces “good” results (i.e. makes them more disciplined, well behaved, perhaps even more just), than it isn’t actually harm that was done.

    I think that there is some repression going on when you “harm” someone when you supposedly make them more disciplined in the sense that you are causing them to be more depressed and have a lower value of themselves when you do that. Now there must be some discipline in order for a society to function, but relating back to the Nietzsche discussion, I believe that individuals should have the right to express themselves and “channel their aggression” (Robert Greeene) in order to have a healthy psychic and not have some mental dysfunction problems.
    Ethics comes into this when you realize that “harming” someone in the terms mentioned does correlate to the means of doing some emotional damage.Now, on the contrary, you could say, oh, it’s not harming anyone but it’s good for them so they develop this discipline or whatever you call it. There is no purpose in doing it in a harmful way. One can inspire rather than “discipline” and show the student the effects of the studies, show them some influential figures that have risen from the position the student is currently in to a high-level position and so on.
    In my view it’s a law of human nature that whoever is disciplined by someone will want to revenge in some way. The repression of this urge will make the person “tied” psychologically since a person has to show out his feelings. Now rather showing the young adult an ideal or giving him a brighter view of himself and his future ought to make things better without “harm”.

  8. Joan Brown says

    I can’t seem to get past why the issue of ‘eugenics'( in any form, truly, but my perspective comes from my background as an advocate/educational consultant for people with disabilities) is so lightly passed over and/or rationalized when discussing the utopian society? I have not read the book, and so do wonder if this is the case in the writing of Plato.
    Can you tell me?

    • Profile photo of Mark Linsenmayer says

      This eugenics issue came up in the feminism ep too. If we breeze over or make light of an issue like this, or slavery (in the Foucault episode), or racism or totalitarianism or whatever, it’s because these are clearly not live moral issues for us or, presumably, you listeners. I don’t think there was any rationalizing of this; it’s just evil. At the same time, that doesn’t mean we have to ignore the rest of what someone with an evil view in some area has to say about the rest of it, or if the evil view betrays some fundamental flaw that goes through the rest of the person’s thinking, we can still get something out of it as a historical lesson. I’ve not made up my mind whether any kind of utopianism is coherent w/o some kind of reprogramming or eugenics or something like that… if people being fundamentally crappy is going to muck up any utopia, and any potential methods for changing it are rightly off the table, then that makes the view pretty hopeless. In the case of Plato’s Republic, the viability of his utopia is of secondary interest to me when compared with his take on the conflicted human soul and all that, though even that is pretty naive and oversimplified.

  9. Joan Brown says

    yes. i do not mean that you, in the podcast, rationalized the evil. it is just that i don’t fully agree with your thought that ‘that doesn’t mean we have to ignore the rest of what someone with an evil view in some area has to say about the rest of it…’, or that these are dead moral issues.
    while i know that, in effect, that would mean we should not appreciate the beauty of, say, the ceiling of the sistine chapel because it was commissioned by a catholic church that engaged in torture and molestation, or benefit in any humane way from medical advances discovered during the holocaust’s prisoner experiments, or take pride in a country founded on the backs of slavery and decimation of native peoples, this actually is what i DO believe.
    makes it hard to swallow. that’s all.
    thanks for the response.

  10. Adam Swartz says

    Great episode as ever. I would lobby hard that this work is, indeed, meant to be taken as an internal inventory of the soul. The ideal state is the ideal state of an individual, with all different parts firing on all cylinders. It’s clearly stated (forgive my laziness for not going over to the bookshelf to grab my old copy and cite the passage..oy), that the entire reason we are talking of the state is so that we can examine a (hu)man writ large.
    Given that, there are many interesting propositions/assumptions to ponder…what parts of myself, say, can make shoes? What parts of myself can ponder the Good (which would include of course questioning whether the Good–or any Form–exists). How do I order this complex cacaphony of people that all head up under the title of me?
    The other political questions are infinitely fascinating and important. As Mark noted, the very act of envisioning an ideal state is inspiring and much needed in this day/age. But my reading of this text is actually akin to how I would read a Buddhist text; that is, as a theoretical framework for self knowledge/improvement.

    Ok…longwinded commentary over. Now, a question: I certainly can get a sense of the discontent with Plato’s Forms as a metaphysical framework. Criticism has been leveled at this in several episodes and I’m sympathetic to what I’ve heard thus far. However, I can’t quite wrap my mind around what sort of solution there could be to, say, the case of a triangle or any geometric shape, *without* the idea of an eternal Form of a Triangle, er, informing my little drawing. Has this been addressed head on in any of the episodes, or can anyone shed light on alternative Platonic metaphysics?

  11. Once Upon A Space says

    Wow. Wes, that’s absolutely fascinating what you had to say about the whole “Gay Girl in Damascus” thing. I’m an English guy living in Hungary, and in Europe at least there has been a whole huge propaganda campaign to drum up support in the LGBT and women’s rights political communities for the NATO backed Al-Qaeda affiliated largely external neo-colonial destabilisation/regime-change campaign in Syria, of which I am not a major fan. This is not to say that I think Assad is wonderful guy or something, (nor was I ever an apologist for Saddam Hussein in Iraq), but the one sidededness of media coverage over here been to say the least disgraceful. The sad thing is, I know some really good guys in the LGBT community here who have bought into the Hillary state-department viewpoint hook line and sinker, to the extent that I can only consider them ‘Useful Idiots’ and ‘Fellow Travelers’ for the neoliberal regional economic agenda. The joke is that should a Muslim Brotherhood/Al-Qaeda regime ever be installed in Damascus by the West, they are unlikely to be sympathetic to gay rights comparing with the Assad regime, which despite it’s inadequacies is at least broadly secular. This is quite indicative of the essential difference between a republican administration, which wants to bomb middle eastern regimes into the stone age because “Jesus said so”, compared with a democrat regime, which wants to do the same thing, so that their “gays can get married”. Ok that’s somewhat of an un-nuanced caricature of the co-opting of the liberal agenda, I know, and it’s not my intent to cause offence in a forum that should be more or less apolitical, but caught between the bigotry of the right, and the hypocrisy of the left, sometimes I despair and end up preferring the bigotry of the right, despite myself!

    In all honesty, I can say that I hope the guy can never write for a living again. I can say with a reasonable degree of epistemic certainty that he has helped solicit donations that have gone towards providing materiel support, (possibly even arms) to one side in a conflict that has a very real impact on ordinary families, both sunni and shia, in the region. I hope he has a level of knowledge and engagement in the region and it’s situation that could give him grounds for justifying his taking such a strong partisan pro-western stance in the situation, especially given that his work was presented to the public as a 100% authentic ‘Syrian voice’, and was used to bolster support for a particular political agenda there.

    Dangerous stuff. It’s not my intent to turn this thread into a political discussion, or to take sides in the Syrian situation, but well, Wes, you brought it up and I feel strongly about it, and what is political philosophy for, if it has be carefully sanitised and detached from relating to actual contemporary politics?

  12. Frank says

    Oh man… Book 1. The Sophist’s argument was that justice is an idea (not a real thing – per se) and serves those in power. Socrates’ (plato’s) was that there is a true form called Justice, The Just. The dialogue fails even to open a true discussion of those points of views. Mark was frustrated with this. Plato continually skirts the real issue because he BELIEVES in Justice as a Form and therefore always has Socrates “outsmarting” Thrasymachus with some ridiculous argument. Yea, if I wrote a book and wanted to prove my point I could have any other character with an opposing view come off childish. The real argument a Sophist would have had would have been that whether or not an action is right or wrong is less important than whether or not it benefits the interests of the agent. Many argued that there were no such things as right and wrong—that objective moral standards did not exist. Some denied any possibility of objective truth and scoffed at the idea of objective knowledge. They claimed that morality is a convention imposed by the rulers of societies upon their subjects. Okay – I’m a Sophist. Sorry Plato, thanks to you we had to go through Christianity and we see where that has brought us – right back to the Existentialists 2500 years later. I think the real Socrates was more interested in testing beliefs. Not proving them. I enjoyed your conversation, always do.. There where some good ideas floating around from reading the Republic but not necessarily having to do with the validity of it’s thesis. ciao

  13. Nick says

    Hey guys, great podcast series and as an autodidact I’m enjoying going through them.

    I have one thing to point out though, and that’s the reading of Plato apart from the view of say, a classicist. You guys have identified a lot of the concerns with language and translation, but some of the deeper cultural institutions are not really present in the discussion.

    For instance the eugenics-y practice of leaving babies out in the elements to die – this is not a shocking thing to the ancient Greeks, nor an introduction by Plato. While Sparta may have been unusual in the selection of babies for the good of the state, this was practiced at the discretion of the family unit everywhere in the Greek world.

    In the same way, although Plato tries to align to needs of the polis to this perfect function of the whole, the concept of the polis and a man’s unwavering service to it is not a new thought. Even the unusual method of heavy infantry combat that the Greeks engaged in can perhaps be attributed to this dedication to the polis – not even Athens was any different in this area. Men’s farms were their source of freedom, and their farms were protected by the city-state – thus service to the polis was a way of securing their own individual freedom. This framework was a pre-existing one.

    So this is just to say that when you separate Plato from his culture, what you end up doing is sometimes ascribing general, ingrained Greek cultural concepts to Plato himself. Moreover as a practical political philosophy this makes some sense if you are trying to build a polis – but not when you try to apply this to France. Right? It certainly makes more sense to have a dedicated warrior class when it’s a reality that everyone in the polis might be enslaved or murdered or otherwise dishonoured politically (say, forced to pay tribute or contribute military forces to the Spartans or Athenians as a subjugated people). If that warrior class fails, it’s actually a reality that this would lead to everyone else in the polis being killed.

    In this way I think it needs to be remembered that ancient Greece was a very, very different place. It’s almost another planet. So I start to have a problem when parts of Plato are dismissed because he is constructing a philosophy for a framework that was receptive to these ideals, but this framework is different today – and so the conclusion is that Plato is talking out of his ass.; Well, no, he was talking about establishing a Greek polis – not the United States. Surely if Plato were aware of the United States, he would have had something different to say. So that’s just my two-cents, if you guys get email notifications for old podcast comments – if you guys approach ancient philosophy in the future I think there should be a conversation on this importance of historicity, and how effectively a philosophy can be translated while avoiding a transplant.


  1. […] Episode 40: Plato’s Republic: What is Justice?  What is justice? What is the ideal type of government? In the dialogue, Socrates argues that justice is real and that it’s not relative to who you are (in the sense that it would always be just to help your friends and hurt your enemies). Justice ends up being a matter of balancing your soul so the rational part is in control over the rest of you. […]

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