View from
The Center

Plato and the Pursuit of Justice

“Those who do not make justice the central concern for Plato are not talking about Plato at all.”

Justice (dikaiosynē) is the central concern of Plato in his dialogues—as is friendship. It is not difficult to imagine why. Socrates, Plato’s teacher (and friend), was unjustly put to death by the state of Athens. This was something Plato never forgave or forgot; however, it did spur him to question the nature of justice, which is what began the entire tradition of Western philosophy.

Plato is sometimes remembered as a metaphysician and epistemologist, a philosopher who considered how the universe came to be and how we can know anything in this life. Plato’s many afterlives are just as interesting as his actual life, but they obscure some important realities about Plato’s mission while he was living. Later Neoplatonists, Plotinus being the most famous, reinvented Plato as a mystic (claiming they possessed secret lost dialogues). Not long after the Neoplatonic remaking of Plato, a new religion from Judaea spread into the Greek world. Several centuries after taking hold, Christian theologians, in their cultural struggles with academic skepticism and the remnants of Roman paganism, enlisted Plato into their ranks. Plato was pursuing truth, and, while not a Christian, he shared many Christian values and virtues. (Justin Martyr and Saint Augustine are among the most famous to have presented a Christianized version of Plato, and he would receive yet another Christian makeover during the Renaissance.) 

While the Neoplatonic and Christian versions of Plato have some truth to them (Plato does have metaphysical-mystical and epistemological implications), the fact is Plato was a philosopher of justice first and foremost. In fact, if the history of Western philosophy is, as Alfred North Whitehead put it, “a series of footnotes to Plato,” we can extrapolate further that Western philosophy begins (and ends) with the question of justice. What is justice? is the principal question of all philosophy as begun by Plato.

The question and pursuit of justice, however, was not an invention of Plato. Dikē, the understanding of justice prior to Plato, is found in the playwrights and dramatists. It is wrongly asserted that Plato was an enemy of the poets, an incorrect assertion that has proliferated far and wide. Fortunately, many scholars now recognize this problem and have responded to this inaccuracy with clarity and vigor. This mistaken perception comes from an improper understanding of Plato having Socrates banish the poets in his ideal city in The Republic. First, Plato wanted to be a dramatist. Second, Plato writes in dramatic dialogue form, often employing dramatic tropes and myths (mythos) in his writings. Third, imagery and rhetoric are the main drivers of Plato’s rational inquiries (logos). In short, Plato was something of a dramatic artist, even if we consider him a philosopher and his writings philosophy instead of drama. We might go as far as to say that Plato’s dialogues contain the drama of justice within them.

“If Plato was an artist of sorts,” the critic might ask, “why did he despise the poets and playwrights?” Their view of justice was his main objection. Read The Republic carefully when discussing the ban on the poets. What they taught, the morality and understanding of justice in their works, was what Plato objected to—not poetry itself. In Hesiod’s Theogony and Works and Days, justice is related to the powerful and forceful: Those with the most power and most brute force (the gods or the animals) are the ones with whom justice resides. In The Republic, Thrasymachus reiterates this ancient and now reactionary understanding of justice as simply belonging to the most powerful. After Hesiod, justice was understood as a cosmic reality related to retribution or revenge, and Aeschylus’s magisterial Oresteia is the best example of this even if Orestes is acquitted by the end of the play. The plays of Euripides also often deal with vengeful justice where individuals so clearly wronged take matters into their own hands, often killing or maiming the ones who brought harm. This understanding of retributive justice (tisis) is still the predominant understanding in Herodotus. 

What we find in the playwrights, then, is an understanding of justice that is related to brute force, power, and death. In other words, killing one’s enemy is just. And, of course, this is what Athens employed against Socrates despite the propaganda sloganeering about democracy and freedom. Plato was able to see through the veil of political and rhetorical lies. Plato’s commitment is not to any particular political form or system but to justice itself.

This returns us to Plato’s understanding of justice. At the beginning of The Republic, we see a glimpse into Plato’s parsing out of a justice based on force and a justice based on rationality. Returning from a festival, Socrates and his friends are stopped by a slave boy of Polemarchus:

“[Socrates]: I went down to the Piraeus yesterday with Glaucon, son of Ariston, to pray to the goddess; and, at the same time, I wanted to observe how they would put on the festival, since they were now holding it for the first time. Now, in my opinion, the procession of the native inhabitants was fine; but the one the Thracians conducted was no less fitting a show. After we had prayed and looked on, we went off toward town.

Catching sight of us from afar as we were pressing homewards, Polemarchus, son of Cephalus, ordered his slave boy to run after us and order us to wait for him. The boy took hold of my cloak from behind and said, “Polemarchus orders you to wait.”

And I turned around and asked him where his master was. ‘He is coming up behind,’ he said, ‘just wait.’

‘Of course we’ll wait,’ said Glaucon.

A moment later Polemarchus came along with Adeimantus, Glaucon’s brother, Niceratus, son of Nicias, and some others—apparently from the procession. Polemarchus said, ‘Socrates, I guess you two are hurrying to get away to town.’

‘That’s not a bad guess,’ I said.

‘Well,’ he said, ‘do you see how many of us there are?’

‘Of course.’

‘Well, then,’ he said, ‘either prove stronger than these men or stay here.’

‘Isn’t there still one other possibility,’ I said, ‘our persuading you that you must let us go?’

‘Could you really persuade,’ he said, ‘if we don’t listen?'”

Right from the beginning, Plato—who employs a brilliant dramatic technique called foreshadowing—informs his readers what the dialogue is about: force and persuasion, power and rationality. The themes of force and persuasion, power and rationality, will be related to justice as the dialogue proceeds and Socrates engages with his Sophist interlocutors beginning with Thrasymachus who makes the conversation about justice explicit when he barks, “I say that justice is nothing other than the advantage of the stronger.”

Plato recoils at this notion. He knows that this conception of justice is found in the playwrights: the rule of the strong (often leading to vengeance). Here, the rule of the strong does not matter if it is at the individual level or the collective level. The rule of might does not make right regardless of how it manifests itself, whether individually or collectively.

As the dialogue develops, we begin to see Plato’s understanding of justice come to fruition: harmonious cooperation between all persons working together on behalf of the polis. This is why, for much of history, Plato was considered a sort of proto-socialist or even communist. Plato’s conception of political life, where justice is the governing spirit, is, admittedly, a collective endeavor. However, this is also somewhat misleading because Plato was not a materialist. Furthermore, he did not believe in the workers owning the means of production, and he was not an egalitarian. Hierarchies abound in Plato; he takes hierarchy as a given reality of existence. Furthermore, Plato’s concern for justice is also a concern for liberty. Plato is an opponent of tyranny, which always produces injustices because tyrannical injustice destroys the aristocratic liberty of the soul (as happened with Socrates). Plato is equally a social and political critic who deconstructs the façades of the earthly city. He exposes “democratic” Athens as being cruel, tyrannical, and unjust despite their propagandistic rhetoric to the contrary. (This is why Plato was also a significant influence over aspects of 20th century postmodernism.) 

It is not only in The Republic, Plato’s most famous dialogue, where this question (and pursuit) of justice is a principal focus. We find it in the other great dialogues of Plato too: The Laws, the Crito, and the Euthyphro are among three of the most obvious and critical examples. All of them are dealing with juridical justice in some fashion, including by raising questions about the nature of law as well as seeking to answer how one is to relate to law, especially in relationship to the self and with others.

This permits us to begin understanding Plato’s association of justice with rationality or persuasion (logos). Persuasion is a means to achieve justice instead of force or even the “rule of law.” In The Laws, for instance, Plato is anything but conservative. The Athenian Stranger comes as an outsider, an instigator, and a questioner. Cleinias is the defender of the old ways, the traditions, and divine revelation from the gods. Over the course of the dialogue, the Athenian Stranger destroys Cleinias’s traditionalist beliefs, and Cleinias eventually invites the Athenian Stranger to aid in the construction of a new constitution. Sometimes, existing laws are not good and need changing.

Throughout The Laws, Plato turns Hesiod on his head. The Myth of Cronus in Hesiod’s Theogony is the turning point of that epic. Cronus, spurred on by the injustice of Uranus in raping Gaia and ruling the cosmos with tyrannical lust, takes a sickle fashioned by Gaia and castrates the sky father. This leads to the birth of the Olympians, starting with Aphrodite, from the castrated phallus of Uranus as it falls into the sea. Lust, sex, and war govern Hesiod’s cosmos. This is the traditional view of the cosmos that is also eminently unjust. This is not the story of Cronus that Plato offers us. Instead, Cronus is given a rational makeover. The violence that governed the myth from the earlier poets is washed away in Plato’s rationalization of the cosmos.

This, too, is what we find even in the Timaeus. While the later Neoplatonists reinterpreted this text to create Plato the mystic (which had a tremendous influence over Christian interpretations of Plato), the Timaeus is instructive in Plato’s own rationalist mythmaking and artistic criticism. As in The Laws, Plato is directly rebutting the cosmogonies of the poets and playwrights. Rationality becomes the governing spirit of the cosmos, from which order and understanding emanate. Chaos and war, the pillars that built Hesiod’s cosmos, are no longer present in Plato. Rationality and order, with their necessary relation to mathematics (drawing from Pythagoras), are now at the heart of the cosmos.

The Timaeus is, in fact, a political dialogue. Although it nominally deals with the creation of the cosmos (on the surface), the dialogue has political overtures as any attentive reader recognizes. At the end of Timaeus’s speech explaining the origins of the cosmos in rationality, order, and mathematics, the dialogue returns to the political. After talking about the cosmos and bodily health, Plato has Timaeus state:

“In addition, when men who are constitutionally unsound as I’ve been describing, live in cities with pernicious political systems and hear correspondingly pernicious speeches at home and in public, and when, moreover, what they learn from childhood onwards does nothing at all to remedy all this, these two factors, which have nothing whatsoever to do with one’s own choice, are responsible for the badness of those of us who become bad.”

With a quick switch Plato has us return to the earthly city with concerns over political systems, whether they are just, and how we are to respond to them. The intent is clear: The rationality, mathematical order, and proportionality of the cosmos is something knowable to us as humans. The imitation of the rationality and proportionality of the cosmos (knowable through the soul in Socratic dialogue) is the basis of justice for political life because we can have a cooperative endeavor in this. The harmony that Plato seeks is not a harmony imposed by force (that is a false harmony) but, rather, one that arises from persuasive agreement, which leads to cooperation. Universal truth is something we can all rationally understand and live by; universal truth is now the governing spirit of life rather than force and violence.

One need not necessarily agree with Plato, but one must do Plato justice in accurately representing his views, especially on political matters. Those who do not make justice the central concern for Plato are not talking about Plato at all. It is unsurprising, then, that after two and a half millennia the ghost of Plato is still with us. We are still his children. We are still asking the question “What is Justice”? The question remains unsettled, as it was in Plato’s time. 

I began by noting that Western philosophy begins and ends with the concern for justice. This is what Plato bequeathed to the world. Our philosophical tradition encourages questions, dialogue, and ultimately friendship. Part of Plato’s answer to the question of justice includes friendship. All readers of Plato should be attuned to this aspect of Plato too.

Friendship, as mentioned in the introduction, is another of the major themes throughout Plato’s corpus. Thrasymachus becomes a friend of Socrates over the course of The Republic. Strangers become friends with each other as they walk and talk in each other’s company, debating and discussing the question of justice. This is not accidental or unintentional on Plato’s part. Friendship is married to justice throughout his works. 

The questions that Plato asks about the nature of justice do not occur in lonely solitude or isolation. They arise in the company of others. It is a social endeavor. For that is the only way for proper persuasion—not by the imposition of brute force but through a dialogue with others that changes minds and ultimately forms friendships. We might go as far as to say that Plato implies friendship as the basis for which justice can emerge in the world. Without friends, we only have enemies. When we only have enemies, we return to the world of Hesiod and Thrasymachus (before his friendship with Socrates), where might makes right and the obliteration of enemies is considered justice. And that, Plato informs us, is injustice writ large, with a tyrannical spirit antithetical to the life offered in friendship from which justice flows.

Paul Krause is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. His most recent book is Finding Arcadia: Wisdom, Truth, and Love in the Classics. He can be found on Twitter @paul_jkrause

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.