The Nature of Justice in Society and the Individual According to Plato


Christopher Lotito, Drew University, 2002


            The study of Ethics is a diverse one encompassing many topics and having many applications.  Some of the age-old questions inherent to Ethics refer to the nature of justice.  Justice is the one of the oldest concepts in existence and as such has been discussed by many a philosopher over the ages.  Plato discussed Justice at length and this paper will discuss the following questions relating to justice based upon his findings: what is Plato’s account of the nature of justice for the individual, how does Plato build his account, why does Plato take it that the claim made by Thracymachus is altogether mistaken – if indeed he does?

            Plato finds that justice is the harmonious balance of the three elements of the soul.  He explains the elements as the desire that is that which drives or motivates you, the appetites that are that which causes you to be spirited or to act outside reason, and the reason that reigns in both the desires and the appetites.  Plato likens the relationship of these three elements to be similar to that of a Phaedrus in which a driver flies a chariot pulled by two winged horses towards the sun.  The horses represent the desires and the appetites respectively, while the driver represents the reason that reigns in the horses.  The sun represents the truly important goals in life, but mainly justice in this case.  Plato stresses that, like Icarus, we must be sure to balance the pull of the horses thus flying neither too low to the ground nor too close to the sun and in so doing achieve a true balance of all three elements.  Plato believes that only through this balance can justice be achieved for the individual.

Plato makes his case for the nature of justice through the explanation that the nature of justice for the individual is something that is most easily understood through the understanding of justice in terms of society.  This is like the case in which writing too small to be read, using eyes alone and solitary from a frame of reference, might be capable of understanding if it were to be found writ large elsewhere. 


“…we shall expect to find that the individual soul contains the same three elements and that they are affected in the same way as are the corresponding types in society,” (Plato 54).


Therefore, Plato makes his case through his plan for an ideally just society. 

Plato believes that in many ways a minimal state is best; it provides for benefits of specialization, division of labor, and the capability to meet the needs of the people.  The problems with a minimalist society are that some people within the society will always want luxuries, some people outside the society will want to take the benefits of the society, and that the benefits of the society are incapable of being guarded by guardians alone.  This last point is made clear through Plato’s explanation that the presence of guardians requires the allocation of power to certain portions of society; any time that power is allocated it must be checked.  Plato’s question is:  who will guard us from the guardians?  This question is not easily answered without causing a pattern of infinite regression; for to add more guardians is simply to create more of the problem.

Plato also discusses the possibility of a luxurious state.  In this state the needs of the people are met, there is a division of labor, and the state provides luxuries for the people.  This state spawns the same protection problems that a minimalist state does.  Plato comes to the conclusion that luxuries tend to corrupt the individual and thus, by the seed of an evil tree, the state as well.  Plato next discusses the possibility of an ideal state, which is beyond the shortcomings of the first two states.

In Plato’s ideal state the needs of the people are met, there is division of labor, the people experience limited luxuries, and there is military protection present that does not constitute a threat to the state itself.  The key differences in this model are that the luxuries are limited and there is successful military protection.  These results are not independent of each other causally.  The limited luxuries are the key that make the military successful.  Plato’s ideal society is based upon several layers that in some ways could be considered castes.  They should not be considered castes in the traditional sense because in most caste systems increased power is associated with increased luxuries; the reverse is true of Plato’s system.  Since Plato believes luxuries corrupt, the solution for him is to decrease the amount of power a person has relative to the luxuries they have.  Thus, business people, craftsmen, and farmers have the highest level of luxuries in the society.  This class of people has unrestricted access to luxuries, their only limit is what they are able to attain.  These people are represented by the metals bronze and iron.  The next class of people is the auxiliaries.  They consist of the military, which is made up of soldiers and some officers.   This class has limited luxuries; they are only permitted to attain the barest minimal amounts of luxuries (i.e.  some extra food and some extra living space).  These people are represented by the metal silver.  The most powerful class of people are the rulers.  They reign superior over all the other classes.  Their power is the most and their luxuries the least.  They are provided by society with the bear minimal resources required to live.  They have no families, no distractions, and are not allowed to keep their children.  They are represented by the metal gold.

Plato did not believe that these classes should arbitrarily be stocked with people randomly pulled from the already existing society, far from it.  Plato had a complex system of education designed to place everyone in the class to which they were best suited.  The first of these five levels of education went from early youth to the age eighteen and consisted of training in the arts and physical training.  Those who were not chosen as suited to continue to the next level of education became the bronze and iron class.  The second level of education consisted of physical and military training until the age of twenty.  Those who were not chosen to continue at this point became soldiers who were members of the silver class.  The third level of education consisted teachings in math and science for ten years until the age of thirty, at which point those who did not continue became officers and members of the silver class.  The fourth level of education was a study in dialectics lasting until the age of thirty-five, the failures of which became officers (albeit, most likely higher ranked ones than the previous level) in the silver class.  The fifth and final class consisted of apprenticeships and studies with a focus in life study and practice in decision-making.  This level lasted until age fifty.  If a person completed this level, they then became a ruler and a member of the gold group. 

This system of selection may seem rather rigorous to most people.  That is because it is.  Plato designed this system such that, in addition to properly educating and preparing a person for their proper role in life, all who gained power would be choosing it for the right reason.  Plato wanted to ensure that those who had power really wanted to rule the state for the best interests of the state; neither because they wanted luxuries nor because they wanted power alone.  In order to become a ruler of this state, one would have to be dedicated and selfless indeed.  It is also of interest to note that a class of people in Plato’s state is conspicuously missing here; namely, the slave class.  Plato did not choose a metal to represent these people; he just took them as a normal facet of society with no special place to fill other than the one they then held.  Another point to be made relates to the equality in application of Plato’s system.   Plato fully intended that all children pass through this system regardless of class their parents were of because Plato found it fully possible that gold should give birth to bronze or bronze might give birth to silver.  Equality is also the reason that rulers were not permitted to keep their children; if a ruler raised their own child, they would inevitably raise the child as a ruler.

Therefore, Plato’s ideal state is created such that it ensures that every individual is placed in their proper role and that each class maintains its proper social role, thus there is balance and harmony throughout the state.

“…we decided that a society was just when each of the three types of human character it contained performed its own function,” (Plato 54).

Each part of the state represents another part of the balance in the tripartite division of the soul required for justice.  The rulers represent the reason, the military represents the desire, and the business people, craftsmen, and farmers represent the impulse or spirit.  The slaves are not considered an autonomous part of society and thus are not representative of anything other than cheap labor.  Justice for the state is not found in part of the state but in the state as a whole.  The justice of the state is based on the balance of its elements.  Likewise, the justice of the individual is based upon the balance of the elements of the individual.

“What I say is that ‘just’ or ‘right’ means nothing but what is to the interests of the stronger party,” (Thracymachus p31).  Thracymachus believes that what is ultimately just is that which is mandated by the powerful.  He believes that might makes right.  Whether he believes that this is effectually the reality of the world he is living in or that this is way the world should be is unimportant because he states it to Plato as a matter of fact.  For his part, Plato has always disagreed with this attitude, he does not believe that this is the way things should be, and in fact, his entire work “The Republic” is an attempt to refute the very idea that might makes right.  Plato believes that the needs of the individual must be met, that state grew out of a communal need to fulfill personal needs, that by this token the state must meet the needs of the individuals, and that the state must meet the needs of the individual in order for it to be just.  Thus, Plato sees a just society as one that fulfills the needs of the individuals; in fact, all the individuals rather than a few or simply some.  Again, the issue of slavery is not fully addressed.  In Plato’s opinion, Thracymachus is simply wrong because a state where the strong dictate what is just will too easily meet merely the wants and needs of those in power and neglect the needs of those who are not.

Throughout this paper, the terms just, justice, and right have been used.  In the traditional English definition of the word justice, there are only a couple of definitions, all relating to fairness and equality.

jus·tice  (jsts)

  1. The quality of being just; fairness.
    1. The principle of moral rightness; equity.
    2. Conformity to moral rightness in action or attitude; righteousness.
    1. The upholding of what is just, especially fair treatment and due reward in accordance with honor, standards, or law.
    2. Law. The administration and procedure of law.
  4. Conformity to truth, fact, or sound reason: The overcharged customer was angry, and with justice.
  5. Abbr. J. Law.
    1. A judge.
    2. A justice of the peace.

do justice to

The Greek word for justice is dikaiosune; unlike the word justice, this word has many meanings.  See below:



dikaiosuvnh / dikaiosune

  1. in a broad sense: state of him who is as he ought to be, righteousness, the condition acceptable to God
    1. the doctrine concerning the way in which man may attain a state approved of God
    2. integrity, virtue, purity of life, rightness, correctness of thinking feeling, and acting
  2. in a narrower sense, justice or the virtue which gives each his due

So in considering Plato’s discussions on justice it is important to remember that the material is translated and that the words and definitions we are working with are not necessarily identical to the ones he used.  In fact, the best way this can be summed up is to remember the Italian saying, Traduttore, traditore: ‘to translate is to betray’.

            There are as many opinions about justice as there are applications of the word in this world, perhaps more.  Plato’s definition of justice is unique in some ways because it is based not on opinion or even application, but on relation of ideas.  When Plato relates the concept of justice for the state to justice for the individual he is showing a relationship of concepts, something which philosophy tells us we cannot refute, much like the fact that two and two equal four and the square of nine is three.  What comes into question is the correctness of the concepts being related.  At any rate, Plato makes a good argument and in the end, it seems as though he may be just, err right, umm correct that is to say.