In The Republic, the great philosopher Plato attempts to reveal through the character and dialogues of Socrates that justice is better when it is the good for which men must strive for, regardless of whether they could be unjust and still be rewarded. His method is to use dialectic, the asking and answering of questions. This method leads the audience from one point to another, supposedly with indisputable logic by obtaining agreement to each point before going on to the next, therefore, building an argument.
Interestingly about the work of Socrates is that its not known very well, since nothing was recorded during his time. Everything that we know about Socrates has come through the writings of his greatest pupil, Plato. Socrates was a man that revolutionized philosophy and how to approach his surroundings. One of Socrates greatest findings as a philosopher was that he admitted that he knew nothing, which to others, specifically the Delphic Oracle led them to believe that there were none wiser than Socrates. Socrates techniques as a philosopher came about with his abilities to question others.
His line of questioning, to see why everything had a purpose drew a crowd of younger people, which leads us to The Republic, where Socrates encounters some questions for him. Socrates had two young listeners posing questions of whether justice is stronger than injustice, and what each does to a man? What makes the first good and the second bad? In answering this question, Socrates deals directly with the philosophy of the individual’s goodness and virtue, but also binds it to his concept of the perfect state, which is a republic of three classes of people with a rigid social structure and little in the way of amusement.
Although Socrates reiterates the concept of justice over and over again it all comes to his discourse on the perfect city-state, which seems a bit off the mark, considering his original subject. However, one of Socrates’ main points is that goodness is doing what is best for the common. It is greater good as opposed to that of individual happiness. There is a real sense in which his philosophy turns on the concepts of virtue, and his belief that ultimately virtue is its own reward. His first major point is that justice is an excellence of character.
He then seeks agreement that no excellence is achieved through destructive means. The function of justice is to improve human nature, which is essentially productive. Therefore, at a minimum, justice is a form of goodness that cannot be involved in being disruptive of one’s character. In short, justice is a virtue, a human excellence. His next point is that acting in accordance with excellence brings happiness. Then he ties excellence to one’s function. His examples are those of the senses: Each sensory organ is excellent if it performs its function, as the eye sees, the ear hears.
Therefore, the just person is a happy person, which means that person is performing his function. Given that these are all tied together, injustice can never surpass these virtues and justice is stronger and is the good. However, Socrates does not stop there. He moves forward to examine the questions that lead to the nature of justice and the just life. He identifies four of the Athenian virtues: wisdom, courage, moderation, and justice. For much of the book, he looks at each virtue case by case in terms of the perfect city-state, but my objective is on justice.
Socrates makes the point that justice, of all the virtues, resides in man’s relations to other men, not just in man as an individual. Thus, it is an excellence in social organization and in the organization of the human soul. So justice is of virtue, which must be connected to the function of efficient and healthful cooperation. Justice is in one sense the greatest virtue for it is key to making the other virtues work together for the common good. If all the parts are to work together as a whole, each must have on function to excel at.
This is very much like the engine of a car, each part of the engine has their own particular task, but without the complete unit, it will all collapse. Using this analogy, justice would be something like the moral engine that guides the car in its activities. Justice then is the engine, at the top of the hierarchy in social terms. When the other three virtues work together in a systematic manner within the state, justice is created. But for justice to be created, it must come from everyone doing his assigned function under the excellent guidance of the ruling class.
Despite his emphasis of justice as a function of the perfect state, Socrates also deals with justice as a personal virtue. He finds that there is a parallel between the organization of the state and the individual. Just as there are three virtues other than justice, Socrates finds three parts in the individual soul: Sensation, emotion, and intelligence. The just person then must have balance between these aspects. Each must function in moderation to contribute to the health of the whole. Appetite and sensation are matters of desire.
Desire must be subordinate to reason, or else they will throw the individual out of balance and lead him into injustice and unhappiness. Emotion also can master desire. The alliance of emotion and reason is similar, Socrates says, to the rulers and the guardians in the state. Thus, the individual is a miniature state, and justice in the soul is like justice in the state. The complete opposite of that case, unjust, whether state or individual, desires a tyranny. Due to a shortage of internal control, outside things move the unjust around at will. Thus the unjust lives a life of fear and anxiety, the fruit of being out of control.
Socrates asserts that only the man of reason has pure pleasures. All others have varying degrees of unhappiness. By equating the philosopher with the man of pure reason, he sets up a situation where proof is not so much necessary for any of his points as it is to say that the philosopher, the only one who sees clearly, says so. Amazingly so, Socrates molds a form of despotism in terms, which are intended to seem quite compassionate. Since happiness is the sign of justice, and pleasure is one sign of happiness, then the just person is the happy person.
Socrates then equates true pleasure with knowledge, the province of reason and the philosopher. Within Book X, In The Republic, Socrates argues for the existence of an immortal soul. With this plead, he makes the point that good is that which preserves and benefits. Justice is good, so it therefore preserves and benefits in this life as well as the next. Therefore, even though a man may wish to behave badly when no one is looking, as with the myth of the ring of Gyges, according to Socrates, by behaving justly we will have the most rewards.
Eventually, the difficulty with Socrates’ arguments is that they rely on associating things on to the next in a chain that eventually leads back to the original proposition. But, the logic of these connections seems built more on assumptions than on objective truth. Thus, within keeping his stance that ultimately what he says is right is right because he is a philosopher, and therefore is by his nature right. The dialectic seems more of a game to get the audience to go along.