Plato: Republic (Book I, II)

A Lecture on Plato’s Republic by John Tasioulas

[Book I and II]

What does ‘justice’ mean according to various interlocutors? What is the nature of the challenges posed by Thrasymachus and Glaucon? Are they legitimate? Has Socrates given adequate answers to these challenges?

Some general questions.

1. What is the point of justice? Am I better in being just?

Plato: By being just is how much my life is made better. justice has intrinsic value. being just is to have a harmonious soul, which is part of a good life.

Some doubt: Greeks do not have a correct idea of morality, i.e. there is no sharp split between something to myself and something unto others. whereas in modern philosophy, there is a conflict between moral considerations and self interests. moral values are distinct from furthering your personal interests

NB: per Kant, the point of justice is for its own sake. No further reason needed to follow justice.

2. Would anything be lost in The Republic if the word ‘justice’ is replaced by the word ‘morality’?

No. However, morality is a more encompassing idea than justice. Although Plato is talking about justice in a broad sense, that broad sense is not equivalent to morality. For example, there are other moral virtues: courage, wisdom, moderation.

NB: to address the topic, one must be aware of the distinction between the concept of justice and the conception of justice. The former may refers to a moral value, while the latter may refers to an institutional order.

3. Plato’s thesis: if you fully have one moral virtue, you must be required to have more virtues, or them all. And justice is having the harmony of a soul.

Having an inferior version of the virtue does not have such a requirement. In a sense, fully having one moral virtue is a sufficient condition for justice.

Virtues are characteristic. Virtues are a disposition of character and a tendency of soul. By a disposition of character, it is the disposition to respond to desires, to see certain things as reasons and to seek truths. It is high rationalistic.

Unlike what many people think, virtues are not a set of norms and rules. No set of rules can define what justice is, or capture what justice requires. Situations might vary, but what justice is stays.

NB: per Aristotle, justice is not only about how to treat people but also about how it is socially enforceable.This is how justice is associated with law.

Plato would go against the society which is just but composed of devils, since justice may be satisfied in terms of how rules are complied with. Social justice would not be achieved unless some people have achieved justice themselves, which is a more demanding idea of justice.



virtue is a craft or techne (332d)


Wealth is important mostly because it reduces the likelihood that someone will be tempted into being unjust because he is poor (328b - 331b).

Justice is speaking the truth and paying one’s debts.



Justice is the advantage of the stronger (338c).

Law is laid by the stronger to enforce their interests.
(+) Marxism: justice is used for class oppression
(-) Socrates: rulers are usually not intelligible and may not necessarily pass laws that serve their interests

Justice is the good of another (343c)

Profitability of justice

Justice is not a virtue since it is a detriment to self interest for the consequences attached to the violation of justice. Morality is all about constraining self interest.

A just person doesn’t outdo someone like himself but someone unlike himself, whereas an unjust person outdoes both like and unlike (349d)

(-) The motivations may be different. A just person is acting for self betterment, while an unjust person is acting purely out of self-interest.

Cooperation (349 - 354)

Socrates: justice is for internal contentment. Justice is a soul’s virtue. Injustice its vice.


- There is a sophisticated division of goods into three classes (357)
for its own sake, e.g. joy
for both its own sake and the sake of what comes from it, e.g. seeing and being healthy
for what comes from it, e.g. physical training, medical treatment when sick, ways of making money

Socrates’s response

to screen out the consequences of justice. Man would want to achieve justice purely for the reputation of being just, which is an intrinsic value.
Justice might be a component of a good life. Not in terms of its consequences but in terms of its nature. If you are just, you’ll be always better off than someone who is unjust. A just person is happy An unjust person is wretched. (353e)

Modern philosophy is more or less consequentialist. Classic philosophy is deontological.
NB: per Kant, if a society is to prosper, it has to kill the last murderer in the prison.

Plato: desires


appetitive desires for food, drink, sex, and the money with which to acquire them

spirited desires for honor, victory, and good reputation

rational desires for knowledge and truth

a fully good or happy life must be one in which the satisfaction of those desires takes precedence over other things.

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