Socrates attempts to define the true meaning of justice by critiquing the ideas of other philosophers. In book 1 of Plato’s Republic the debate among Socrates and his colleagues begins with Cephalus, who first defines justice as simply being honest and repaying one’s debts. Cephalus is a wealthy, elderly man who acquired much of his fortune through inheritance as Socrates points out. Socrates divulges this to explain that those who come from money are not as fond of it as those who are self-made men. This is because self-made men love their wealth as a creation of oneself much like a craftsman loves their art or a father loves his son.
Cephalus then explains that the greatest function of wealth, for those of good character, is to be able to repay debts and to avoid defrauding people and lying to them. Thus his definition of justice is derived from the importance of money. The problem with this definition that Socrates points out immediately is that simply repaying debts as they are due does not always constitute just action. Socrates gives the example of borrowing weapons from a man who was once sane but it is now insane. It would not be just to return weapons to a man who is insane.
It would merely be an act of honesty and returning borrowed items. As Cephalus is a wealthy man content in his place in old age, his self-interest of being able to repay debts and pass down a sizable fortune to his offspring drives his definition. He sees justice as a means of maintaining his privileged status, since being honest and paying his debts on time has benefited him in the past. Cephalus concedes his argument quickly but then it is inherited by Polemarchus, Cephalus’ heir. Polemarchus aims to redirect the definition by stating that justice is to pay everyone what is owed to them.
More specifically he explains that justice is to do good for friends and do harm to enemies. This definition immediately is put to the test by Socrates who points out the flaw in defining friends and enemies. Socrates convinces Cephalus that human beings can misinterpret friends as foes and vice versa. In doing so, one would inadvertently treat the good person badly and the bad person well. And since the good person is just and does no wrong it is then unjust to do harm to the good person. Polemarchus sees the flaw in this philosophy and aims to redefine friends and enemies.
He then claims that if someone appears good and is so then he is considered a friend but if he appears so and is not he would be considered an enemy. This leads to the revised definition of justice that entails, it is just to help a friend if he is indeed good, and to harm an enemy if he is indeed bad. To this Socrates asks if it is truly in the nature of the just man to treat someone poorly. Polemarchus asserts that it is, as long as that person is bad. Then Socrates explains what happens to horses, dogs, and humans respectively when they are treated badly.
When people and animals are treated badly they become worse not better. This leads to the deduction that ill treatment of a human makes them worse by the standard of human excellence. And since both men agree that justice is a human excellence in it of itself, then poor treatment of people makes them more unjust which is not the goal of the just man. This explanation is simplified by Socrates who explains that is simply not in the nature of justice to promote injustice. Much like it is not a property of heat to cool things, but rather a property of its opposite.
Thus it is not the property of the just man to treat friend or foe badly; it is the property of the opposite, the unjust man. Socrates then explains that the origin of the philosophy of treating friends well and enemies poorly came from a rich king in the past that had great power. It is here where the advent of self-interest is evident in this definition. A powerful king would likely benefit from aiding his allies and destroying his enemies. He would then promote a theory of justice congruent with the nature of how he came into power in order to legitimize his power in the eyes of his followers.
As Socrates and Polemarchus reach consensus, Thrasymachus interjects by challenging Socrates to give a definition of justice on his own. After clever social maneuvering, Socrates convinces Thrasymachus to first give his definition of justice. Thrasymachus defines justice as simply what is good for the stronger. He explains that in all of the types of governments the ruling body enacts laws that are beneficial to themselves (the stronger). As these laws are created, they are followed by the subordinates and if they are broken, lawbreakers are punished for being unjust.
To this Socrates challenges that the ruling body could on occasion make the mistake of creating a law that did not benefit the stronger. And in doing so, the subjects following the laws of justice would not be benefitting the stronger. Thrasymachus accepts the assertion that the ruling body could in turn make mistakes but does not accept that Socrates has flipped his argument. Thrasymachus, sensing he is losing credibility, deviates from the original argument to point out the differences between the just man and the unjust man. At this time Thrasymachus aims to demonstrate the advantages the unjust man has over the just man.
He points out several examples involving distribution of wealth where the just man pays more in taxes and levies and the unjust man does not. The greatest example he gives of true injustice prevailing is the advent of tyranny—taking of other’s possessions. He explains that on the smallest scale people who are thieves, grave robbers, and temple raiders are condemned and punished for their acts by the state. But those who commit it on the largest scale (kings who enslave entire populations) are commended for their actions and haled by their citizens.
The ultimate conclusion of Thrasymachus is “that justice is in fact what is good for the stronger, whereas injustice is what is profitable and good for oneself. ” Thrasymachus points out that a large scale is important for this statement to be true. So Thrasymachus has now hybridized his argument to show that justice exists to maintain power for the ruling body while injustice is what benefits the most powerful individuals who utilize it. It is here the true flaws of the theory are revealed.
He claims justice is something that is simply established by the ruling power of a government and injustice is merely an act that a rational person should engage in for self-benefit. From here Socrates will show that both statements are false. Both justice and injustice according to Socrates are innate properties of man, not mere acts or law bodies. After much deliberation, Socrates convinces Thrasymachus that the just man does not ever try and out do another just man but only unjust men. On the other hand the unjust man not only tries to outdo the just man but other unjust men as well.
These are properties of the men that make them good and bad respectively. Thrasymachus is reluctant to accept that the just man is wise and good and the unjust man is ignorant and bad. From here the entire argument falls apart. In the beginning Thrasymachus was antagonistic towards Socrates for dissecting other people’s definitions of justice, claiming that all Socrates does is ask questions that cannot be answered without offering any answers of his own. This bitter exchange gives some insight as to why Thrasymachus would construct such a simple definition of
justice in order to invite “tricks” from Socrates. The self-interest of Thrasymachus to embarrass Socrates in front of fellow intellectuals drives the vague original definition of justice and the revised version later. Thrasymachus claims justice is invaluable simply for the fact that Socrates values justice so much yet he fails to give the group a concise definition. Thrasymachus interest driven argument has nothing to do with his position in government or level of wealth, but rather a quarrel with the great Socrates who he aims to undermine.
The closest that Socrates actually comes to giving a true definition of justice is when he claims that justice is a excellence of the soul and that injustice is a vice or defect of the soul. This definition sees justice not as a tool of governments or individuals but as a property of the soul. To be just is therefore to be good and wise and to be unjust is to possess a defective soul. The reason this definition is flawed is the subjective nature of defining goodness of the soul.
Such a definition could not be applied universally to ruling bodies of governments because measuring the value of a man’s soul is not feasible. Socrates later denotes that “I don’t know what justice is, I’m hardly going to know whether or not it is in fact some kind of excellence or virtue, or whether the person who possesses it is unhappy or happy. ” Here the self-interest of Socrates is reiterated as Socrates desires knowledge of the subject more than proving the other definitions incorrect. Since he does not know the true definition of justice he has no other motives in proving one right or wrong.
Socrates begins the discussion with the intention of finding the true nature of justice. This turns out to be a daunting task as he finds flaws in every definition that is presented. Socrates sees justice as an elusive concept that may or may not be beneficial to human beings. As justice could not easily be defined by Socrates and his followers it remains difficult to agree upon a universal definition today. If we are all individuals, with individual motives, it will be next to impossible for our species to agree upon a justice that applies to all.