Summary of Justice in Plato’s Republic

Bust of Pythagoras based on traditional iconography at the Museum Capitolini, Rome.

© Darrell Arnold Ph.D.– (Excerpt reprinted with permission.)

Justice in the Individual 

… According to Plato, the human soul is comprised of three parts — an appetitive, a spirited and a rational part — all of which pull individuals in differing directions. As Plato expresses this in the Republic, he asks us to envisage humans as comprised of a multi-headed beast, a lion, and a human. Each of these pulls the human soul in a different direction, as they vie for dominance. However, it is ultimately our choice to feed one or the other. We can choose to feed the multi-headed beast. But a life in which we do so becomes one where we consume ourselves, in which we are never satisfied, but always at war with ourselves. We can choose to feed the lion, but then we become a victim of our own desire for honor or pride. It is only by feeding the human that we will gain a harmonious soul, a fulfilled nature, and a happy human life.

The wise who pursue such virtue will not thereby fail to acknowledge the value of the other parts of the soul. But they will know to meet the needs of the lower soul in appropriate measure. Through the cultivation of a virtuous character, individuals are able to bring the lower parts of their souls under the control of their rational soul.

In contrast then to Glaucon who affirms a social contract perspective that justice is not intrinsically valuable but only valuable because it prevents individuals from being punished for being unjust. Plato argues that virtue is good in itself because it creates a harmony of the soul that is lacking among the vicious. Those with vices in fact lack control of the self. They become enslaved to their lower desires. So enslaved, they lack true sovereignty, the control of the self that comes with virtue alone.

The appetites and spirited part of the soul, in fact, are parts of the soul that humans share with other animals. What is really defining for humans qua humans, however, is the rational soul. To cultivate habits that subject our reason to the whims of our appetites, or to the desire for social recognition or honor that appeals to our spirited part of the soul, is to cultivate a character that is less the fully human. We only really fulfill ourselves, our natures, if we feed our rational soul more than any of our other parts.

Justice in society

Plato imagines the polity to have a similar tripartite structure to the individual. He argues that there just as an individual has a rational, a spirited, and an appetitive part, so does the polity. In a polity, classes of individuals occupy natural strata of society — the king, the aristocrats, and the workers. Each of these strata is an expression of individuals who are dominated by a differing part of the soul. A just society would be one dominated by the wise, who are dominated by their rational souls. Plato imagines rule by philosopher kings, who others obey out of an understanding of their own rightful place in society. An oligarchy would be ruled by multiple individuals, but individuals who were not wise but dominated by their desire for honor and social recognition. This would lead to certain compromises injustice as those pursuing honor would at times overlook the true needs of those in society. Finally, a democracy would be ruled by the multitude, but of those dominated by appetites.

Democracy, in Plato’s view, is the worst form of government and would have a tendency toward self-dissolution. Since individuals, dominated by their own desires and lusts, would vie for power and become embroiled in political conflict, democracy would tend toward entropy. A just society, by contrast, would be one in which the wise ruled and members of other strata knew their place.

Plato’s entire discussion of justice in the polity is very involved. Here I can do no more than point to some very general similarities between that view and the view of justice in the individual. In both cases, the rational part should rule the others. In Plato’s view, this is the only path to harmonious relations between an individual, who has a conflict-ridden soul and the polity, which, unless guided wisely, otherwise also tends toward disharmony.


Though Plato draws out similarities between justice of the individual and justice of the polity, this is, of course, quite a large assumption. Many may be attracted to his view that a certain sovereignty comes in gaining control of the self and living moderately, rather than controlled by one’s passions or emotions. Yet this would not commit them to an acceptance of his views on the virtues of hierarchical forms of government.

For most of Western history, however, many thought these views did pair well together. It was thought that the aristocratic rulers should have nobility of spirit, which would make them suitable for rule. The majority, the rabble, would always be unfit for self-rule. Only in the Enlightenment do we begin to see strong shifts away from this and does support democratic forms of government begin to become the norm rather than the exception.

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5 thoughts on “Summary of Justice in Plato’s Republic

  1. “ultimately our choice”? I guess Plato wasn’t very aware of childhood psychology and the deep effect it has on determining our ability to make free choices as adults.

    I do think he had a pretty nice idea about what a good society would look like and how one might build one. Starting with early childhood training and nurturing, so he wasn’t a complete dummy. Most people don’t make what I would consider free choices. The programming starts at birth and is relentless in the formative years. More or less (and usually more) everyone is affected. We are pretty much made into robots unless something interferes with the socialization process. Childhood trauma can do that, also neglect and other forms of abuse, and then later things such as psychedelic drug experiences. These things can under the right conditions and timing free a person up just a little. Unfortunately we don’t use healthier routes to freedom of thought. Humans it seems are afraid of too much consciousness and the challenges that brings on. A very good read on this IMO is “The Time of the Assassins” by Henry Miller. A nice short book with a lot to say about the deadly state we find ourselves in.

  2. “The majority, the rabble, would always be unfit for self-rule. ”

    Plato’s theory is still somewhat true today, as intelligence increase and education frequently result only in a more intelligent & educated rabble. This could slowly be changing, yet no hard evidence that it is. Plus, hierarchy can devolve: from an Augustus down to a Commodius; from an Obama down to a Trump, in a much shorter period of time than from Augustus to Commodius.

    Hierarchy is still completely unavoidable, but hierarchy is only valid because there exist just barely enough half-way principled aristocrats to justify aristocracy. At any rate, humanity has never known real democracy, only republican democracies/democratic republics.

    Why is hierarchy unavoidable? Because we don’t live in a civilization; no one ever has. What we call ‘civilization’ is in reality controlled barbarism; in such a state, hierarchy is only natural. Not good, mind you– but natural. People are no more/no less than the highest apes. Apes in the jungle kill each other; apes kill other animals; other forms of life kill each other. What could be more natural than hierarchy?

    The multi-headed beast and the lion still rule the human, thousands of years after Plato.

    “Many may be attracted to his view that a certain sovereignty comes in gaining control of the self and living moderately, rather than controlled by one’s passions or emotions. Yet this would not commit them to an acceptance of his views on the virtues of hierarchical forms of government.”

    Agreed, nonetheless not merely the modern consumer world but also high tech thrives on self-indulgence. I believe (am outdated re terminology) the recent term for it is ‘the Hedonistic Imperative’: self indulgence feeds high tech. Every whim for information and material satiation is gratified, leading to informational & material advancement.

    “A just society […] would be one in which the wise ruled and members of other strata knew their place.”

    Often true in the past. Today, though, it is survival of the fastest and most informed, not the wisest.

  3. Will keep this brief, and on-topic.

    ” …Yet this would not commit them to an acceptance of his views on the virtues of hierarchical forms of government.”

    Hierarchical government has been the natural form of government for all of recorded history; not virtuous at all, but natural– to this day.

  4. I love your works, specially this work. Thank you for providing me summary of Plato’s thought about Justice.
    With supportive spirit I pray for you to keep this positive point up and I hope you inspire me to be like you, once i will have finished my study about philosophy.

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