Category Archives: Plato

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.

Summary the Ring of Gyges in Plato’s Republic

Related image

© Darrell Arnold Ph.D.– (Reprinted with Permission, edited slightly.)

One of the most famous discussions of justice occurs in Book 2 of Plato’s The Republic
where Socrates’ interlocutor in the dialog, Glaucon, argues that there is no intrinsic reason to be just. The only reason to be just is to avoid the consequences of unjust actions. In making this point, Glaucon also highlights an anthropological underpinning for this view, namely the idea that people are largely selfishly motivated. He raises the issues of justice (from a perspective that Plato will reject) against the backdrop of a story that was well-known in Greece, the story of Gyges’ ring.

According to the story, Gyges, a young shepherd in the service of the King of Lydia was out with his flock one day when a great storm occurred. Near to where he was tending sheep, there was an earthquake, opening a crevice into the ground. Gyges descended into the crevice where he found, among other things, a bronze horse, with doors. Opening the doors, Gyges saw a human skeletal form possessing a golden ring. Gyges took the ring and ascended from the opening. Later in the month at a gathering of the shepherds of the King, Gyges noticed that twisting the ring on his finger, he disappeared. Those around him began speaking of him as if he weren’t there. Repeating this trial, it worked each time. Now, having acquired this new ability to become invisible, Gyges arranged to become a messenger sent to court. Once in court, Gyges used his magic ring to gain the graces of the queen, who he seduced. With the power to go undetected, he then managed to conspire with the queen to kill the king and to take over the kingdom.

Any man with similar power, Gyges maintains, would do the same. If we could get away with crimes that advanced our interest, we would all do so. The only reason that we are just is that we do not possess such magical rings and we thus would suffer negative consequences for acts of injustice. The implication of the story is that being just is not fundamentally in our interest. It is something we do as a compromise because we cannot get away with injustice. In short, no one is just for intrinsic reasons.

Beyond merely asking whether there is an intrinsic reason to be just, Glaucon also sets up the discussion with a clear hurdle. He asks: Is it always better to suffer injustice than to be unjust? Wouldn’t it, in fact, be better to have a reputation for justice while being unjust (at least in some instances) than to be just while suffering the negative repercussions of having a reputation for injustice?

We can all imagine situations where a just person is unjustly killed or imprisoned. Plato would certainly have been able to think of Socrates as one such example. But as bad as Socrates’ fate was, he was an aged man, who had lived a full life. What of someone, young and innocent, falsely accused of an injustice who might spend an entire life in prison? How does his life, just though it may be, stack up against the life of someone unjust but who goes undetected?

The view that Glaucon puts forward is a basis for a social contract view of justice such as we will see developed later in the history of philosophy by Hobbes and others. Glaucon’s proposal implies that we are essentially self-interested and amoral. We act morally not because morality fulfills our natures but because we have no other alternative.

In responding to Glaucon’s contractarian view Plato proposes an alternative view of human nature to that of the contractarians. We are, Plato will maintain, ultimately only fulfilled as human beings by being virtuous. Justice is thus intrinsically preferable to injustice. Indeed, Plato seems in general to underline Socrates’ view that care for the soul is our fundamental good. The only real harm is harm to the soul.

We will take up Plato’s response in our next post.

A Summary of Plato’s Political Theory and American Politics 2016

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, November 13, 2016.)

Plato argued that we can’t have a good life without good government, and he also believed that we can’t have good governments without intellectually and morally excellent leaders.

To understand why we need intelligent and knowledgeable individuals occupying the most important positions in society, Plato invites us to consider the following: if we want good health care we consult physicians and nurses; if we desire legal advice we consult attorneys; if we want to construct buildings or bridges we consult engineers and architects; etc. Yet, Plato said, in a democracy when we choose our political leaders we consult all the people—even the most ignorant among us.

Now if you were trying to determine whether you needed heart surgery you would consult a cardiologist, not take a vote or ask the cashier in the checkout lane. If you want to know about the merits of a lawsuit you would consult an attorney, not a pharmacist or plumber. And if you want to understand the science of climate change, you would consult a climate scientist, not a scientifically illiterate politician. Since running the society is of the utmost importance, Plato believed it imperative that those holding political positions be at least minimally knowledgeable of politics, history, economics, science and more.

In his dialogue The Republic, Plato lays out an educational plan to help ensure, as far as possible, that politicians—like physicians, attorneys, nurses, physicists, and philosophy professors—are educated in areas relevant to making important decisions for the society. In addition, Plato thought that the ruling class should be morally excellent, and in The Republic, he lays out a plan to ensure, as far as humanly possible, that virtuous individuals compose the ruling class.

Now none of this guarantees that will we get good politicians, nor that society will flourish as a result because even after long periods of training there are incompetent and immoral politicians, physicians and philosophy professors. But surely the fact that physicians, nurses, attorneys, physicists, and philosophers endure long periods of training and must pass multiple examinations makes them more likely to be qualified to do their jobs than if they were chosen randomly or by a vote of the ignorant.

By contrast, suppose your physician told you that she knows nothing of medicine, but the free market lets anyone practice so she thought she would give it a go. Suppose your philosophy professor says he had never had a philosophy class, but that he got the job because he knows the dean. In either case, you would not feel good about the situation. Plato thinks the same way about politics. You want those who practice to be qualified. And like Plato, I believe that persons applying to hold a political office should have to pass some kind of exams to demonstrate knowledge of the relevant issues, in the same way, one must pass medical boards (physicians), or the bar (attorneys), or comprehensive examinations (PhD) in order to practice in those realms. [We might also consider some minimal qualifications for voting too, as so many are low information voters.]

Now all of this is relevant to the American political system where those who run for political office often have no relevant knowledge of the issues; often they are ignorant of economics, science, political theory, history, religion, nuclear weapons, and more. Sometimes they are even chosen because they are actors, athletes, or ignorant celebrities. Surely all of this is insane! I want a physician to treat me, not someone who plays one on TV. In other important positions, I want someone who understands health care, the economy, the environment, and technology, not someone who only pretends to understand them. As for the argument that leaders don’t have to know anything, just choose good experts to advise them, I say balderdash. How can an ignorant person even identify knowledgeable ones? They cannot.

Now I do realize that intellectual excellence is merely a necessary and not a sufficient condition for good governing, but necessary it is. As for the moral component, this is a more difficult thing to recognize. To identify moral individuals we might use Plato’s model of observing people for many years to assess their moral virtue, or we may prefer the one used for centuries in ancient China—the Imperial Exams. But, as readers of this blog know, the best solution I know of to change our world is to use technology to change the human genome and the brain itself. This is a radical solution, but the best one I know of.

The Allegory of the Cave, The Divided Line, The Myth of the Sun

As I said in yesterday’s post, Plato used three images to explain his theory of the Forms. The first was the myth of the cave.

The chained prisoner’s tied see only the wall in front of them while in the roadway behind them various objects are carried back and forth resulting in the shadows on the wall. One day a prisoner breaks free and see the objects behind him. He knows there is something more real and he has more knowledge of his reality. Eventually, he makes his way out of the cave and sees objects in the sunlight, and then he sees the sun itself.

The allegory this refers to his leaving behind the impermanent, material world for the permanent intelligible world. It is a story about the human journey from darkness to light, from sleeping to waking, from ignorance to knowledge. For Christians like St. Augustine it represented the soul’s journey from this world to the heavenly one. Contemporary commentators often argue that has something to say to us. We look at our televisions, smartphones, and computer screens rather than contemplating eternal things.

Plato’s next device to explain forms was the divided line.

As move from top to bottom, you find more reality and more knowledge. For example suppose you only know the shadow of a horse, in that, are at the bottom (A). The shadow has very little reality—it depends on the horse casting the shadow—and it provides little knowledge. If you now see an actual horse you have moved up one level (B). You know more about horses and the actual horse has more reality than its shadow. If you move further upward to (C) you are in the realm of understanding, the realm of mathematical ideas. Finally, as you proceed upward you arrive at the world of forms (D), the highest of which is the form of the good.

Finally, Plato says that just as the sun illuminates the entire physical world so too, by analogy, does the idea of the good illuminate all of reality. Thus the entire material, temporal world that we usually see is less real than the immaterial, non-temporal.

I don’t know if I hope Plato is right or not. But if he is, then dinner is not that important.

Summary of Plato’s Theory of Human Nature

Plato Silanion Musei Capitolini MC1377.jpg

Plato: The Rule of Reason

(This is a summary of a chapter in a book I often used in university classes: Twelve Theories of Human Nature. Phrases in brackets are my commentaries.) 

Plato (427-347 BCE) “was one of the first to argue that the systematic use of our reason can show us the best way to live.” [Platonic thinking is part of this rise of reason in ancient Greece—often called the Greek miracle. It replaced superstitious, religious, mythological, supernatural thinking with rational, scientific, philosophical, naturalistic thinking. The lives we live today, especially the benefits of science and technology, owe much to this Greek miracle.] Plato argues that if we truly understand human nature we can find “individual happiness and social stability.” [We can answer ethical and political questions.]

Plato’s Life and Works – Plato “was born into an influential family … of Athens.” Athens was at the center of the Greek miracle, the use of reason to understand the world. He was especially influenced by Socrates, but after Athens lost the twenty-seven year Peloponnesian War with Sparta, Socrates came under suspicion and was eventually condemned to death. [Here is my summary of the trial of Socrates.]

Socrates was interested in political and ethical matters, especially about whether the Sophists were correct in defending moral (cultural) relativism. [This is the idea that morality is relative to, conditioned by, or dependent upon cultural conventions.] Socrates believed that the use of reason could resolve philosophical questions, especially if one employed the method of rational argument and counter-argument; the Socratic method uses a series of questions and answers designed to uncover the truth.

Socrates claimed that he did not know the answers to questions beforehand, but that he was wiser than others in knowing that he didn’t know. [This is the essence of Socratic wisdom—he is wiser than others in knowing he doesn’t know, whereas the ignorant often claim to know with great certainty. Using the Socratic Method, he showed people that they didn’t know what they claimed to know. Needless to say, questioning people about their beliefs and implicitly asking them to defend them often arouses resentment and hostility. As Spinoza said “I cannot teach philosophy without being a disturber of the peace”]

Plato was shocked by Socrates execution but maintained faith in rational inquiry. Plato wrote extensively, and in a series of dialogues, expounded the first (relatively) systematic philosophy of the Western world. [The early dialogues recount the trial and death of Socrates. Most of the rest of the Platonic dialogues portray Socrates questioning to those who think they know the meaning of justice (in the Republic), moderation (in the Charmides), courage (in the Laches), knowledge, (in the Theaetetus), virtue (in the Meno), piety (in the Euthyphro), or love (in the Symposium).] The Republic is the most famous dialogue. It touches on many of the great philosophical issues including the best form of government, the best life to live, the nature of knowledge, as well as family, education, psychology and more. It also expounds Plato’s theory of human nature. [The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead famously said that all of philosophy is just footnotes to Plato.]

Metaphysical Background: The Forms – Plato is not a theist or polytheist, and he is certainly not a biblical theist. When he talks about the divine he is referring to reason (logos), a principle that organizes the world from preexisting matter. What is most distinctive about Plato’s philosophy is his theory of forms, although his description of forms isn’t precise. But Plato thought that knowledge is an active process through which we organize and classify our perceptions. Forms are ideas or concepts which have at least 4 aspects:

A) Logical – how does “table” or “tree” apply to various tables/trees? How does a universal concept like “bed” or “dog” or “red” or “hot” apply to many individual things? [Any word, except proper names and pronouns, refers to a form.] Nominalists argue that words simply name things, there are no universal concepts existing over and above individuals. [Words are convenient names that demarcate some things from others.] Platonic realists argue that universal forms really exist independently, and individual things are x’s because they participate in the form of xness. [Dogs are mammals because they participate in doginess—which transcends individual dogs.] At times Plato suggests that there is a form for all general words—other times he doesn’t.

B) Metaphysical – are forms ultimately real; do they exist independently? Plato says yes. Universal, eternal, immaterial, unchanging forms are more real than individuals. Individual material things are known by the senses, whereas forms are known by the intellect. And the forms have a real, independent existence—there is a world of forms.

C) Epistemological – knowledge is of forms, perceptions in this world lead only to belief or opinion. We find the clearest example of knowledge based on forms in mathematics. [Hence the motto of Plato’s academy. “Let no one ignorant of geometry enter here.”] The objects of mathematical reasoning are often not found in this world—and we can never see most of them—but they provide us with knowledge about the world. [Plato is challenging us to account for mathematical knowledge without positing mathematical forms. Even today most mathematicians are mathematical Platonists.]

D) Moral – ideals of human conduct, moral concepts like justice and equality are forms. [So there are physical, mathematical, and moral forms.] Individuals and societies can participate in justice, liberty, or equality, but in this world, we never encounter the perfect forms. The most prominent of all the forms is the form of the “good.”

The parables of the sun and cave are primarily about understanding forms and the form of the good. [Plato compares the sun’s illumination of the world with the form of the good’s illumination of reality.] Plato thought that by using reason we could come to know the good, and then we would do the good. Thus knowledge of the good is sufficient for virtue, doing the good. [This seems mistaken as Aristotle will point out because our will can be weak.] Thus Plato’s philosophy responds to intellectual and moral relativism—there are objective truths about the nature of reality and about human conduct. [The allegory of the cave, the myth of the sun, and the divided line are the devices Plato uses to explain the forms. I will explain these in tomorrow’s post.]

Theory of Human Nature – The Tripartite Structure of the Soul – [Having encountered the social self of Confucianism, the divine self of Hinduism, and the no-self of Buddhism, we come to dualism.]

Plato is a dualist; there is both immaterial mind (soul) and material body, and it is the soul that knows the forms. Plato believed the soul exists before birth and after death. [We don’t see perfect circles or perfect justice in this world, but we remember seeing them in Platonic heaven before we were born.] Thus he believed that the soul or mind attains knowledge of the forms, as opposed to the senses. Needless to say, we should care about our soul rather than our body.

The soul (mind) itself is divided into 3 parts: reason; appetite (physical urges); and will (emotion, passion, spirit.) The will is the source of love, anger, indignation, ambition, aggression, etc. When these aspects are not in harmony, we experience mental conflict. The will can be on the side of either reason or the appetites. We might be pulled by lustful appetite, or the rational desire to find a good partner. To explain the interaction of these 3 parts of the self, Plato uses the image is of the charioteer (reason) who tries to control horses representing will and appetites. [Elsewhere he says that reason uses the will to control the appetites.

Plato also emphasized the social aspect of human nature. We are not self-sufficient, we need others, and we benefit from our social interactions, from other person’s talents, aptitudes, and friendship.

Diagnosis – Persons differ as to which part of their nature is predominant. Individual dominated by reason seeks are philosophical and seek knowledge; individuals dominated by spirit/will/emotion are victory loving and seek reputation; individuals dominated by appetites are profit loving and seek material gain. Although each has a role to play, reason ought to rule the will and appetites. And in the same way, those with the most developed reason ought to rule the society. A well-ordered, harmonious, or just society is one in which each kind of person plays their proper role.  Thus there is a parallel between proper functioning individuals and proper functioning societies. Good societies help produce good people who in turn help produce good societies, while bad societies tend to produce bad individuals who in turn help produce bad societies.

Plato differentiates between 5 classifications of societies. 1) The best is a meritocracy, where the talented rule. This may degenerate into increasingly bad forms, each one worse than the other as we go down the list. 2) The timarchic society, which values honor and fame while reason is neglected. In such a society spirit dominates the society and the ruling class. 3) Oligarchy, where money-making is valued and political power lies with the wealthy. In such a society appetites dominate the society and the ruling class. 4) Democracy, where the poor seize power. They are also dominated by appetites. He describes the common people as “lacking in discipline [and] pursuing mere pleasure of the moment …” 5) Anarchy is the sequel to the permissiveness and self-indulgence of democracy.  It is the total lack of government. Plato thought this would usher in a tyrant to restore order.

Prescription – Justice is the same in both individuals and society—the harmonious workings of the parts to create a flourishing whole. But how is this attained? Plato believes that education—academic, musical, and physical—as the key. Education takes place in the context of a social and political system. Not surprisingly this includes kings (rulers) being philosophers, those in whom reason dominates. If there really is a truth about how people should live, then only those with such knowledge should rule. [Think of the parallels with Confucianism, where those who rule have mastered the Confucian political texts.]

To achieve this end Plato, the guardians or rulers must engage in a long educational process in which they learn about the Forms. [After a nearly 50 year-long process, those of the highest moral and intellectual excellence will rule.] The guardians cannot own personal property and cannot have families. [The idea is that only the desire to serve the common good motivates them, rather than money or power.] He hopes that the guardians will so love wisdom that they will not misuse their power. As for those dominated by will/emotion/spirit they are best suited to being auxiliaries—soldiers, police, and civil servants. The final class is composed of the majority, those in whom the appetites dominate. They will be farmers, craftsman, traders, and other producers of the materials necessary for living.

Critics have called Plato’s republic authoritarian or totalitarian, and Plato advocated both censorship and propaganda as means of maintaining social control.  He certainly believed that the masses [who he says like to “shop and spend”] were unable to govern the society and that an elite, composed of the morally and intellectually excellent should make the important decisions about how best to govern a society.

“The School of Athens” fresco by the Italian Renaissance artist Raphael.