Victor Nuovo: What justice is not, and what it should be

Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a series of essays or reflections about “The Republic,” a book written two and a half millennia ago by the great philosopher Plato.
Plato’s Republic is one of the great monuments of our civilization. It is a work of consummate art dedicated to a most serious purpose, which is to set its readers on a path of discovery of how to live well and prosper together in a society that is peaceful, enduring, and just. Its title in Greek is Politeia,which may be translated in several ways: civil society or the body politic, its mode of government or constitution, or citizenship, which pertains to the duties and moral character of its members, for Plato assumed that human fulfillment is to be realized not in solitude but in society with others. All of these themes are covered in the work, and several more. “Republic” is a Latin word, meaning commonwealth. There is also an alternate title, “On Justice,” which was probably added later, after Plato’s death. The work opens on this theme and never leaves it.
The Republic begins in a typical Socratic manner. There is a gathering of friends and other notable figures at the home of a wealthy merchant. Socrates is greeted by the paterfamilias, Cephalus, and after some polite preliminaries, the theme of the book is introduced. Cephalus remarks on the contentment of old age. The passions of youth have cooled down, and, because he is confident that he has lived justly all his life and has sufficient wealth to pay all of his debts, he does not fear death. Socrates asks, what, then, is justice? Cephalus responds, it is giving back what one owes and telling the truth, which is also a sort of debt owed to others.
Most everyone would agree that these are just actions. But Socrates asks further, suppose someone gave you a weapon to hold in safekeeping. Would it be just to return it to him, if he came to you in a crazed state of mind or with homicidal intent and asked for its return? Surely not. So the definition isn’t right.
Polemarchus, Cepalus’ son, breaks in with a more general definition, which, by the way, has become a traditional definition of justice, to give to everyone what is owed them, “to each his own.” Socrates was not satisfied with this. He asks, can it ever be just to cause harm to another? Polemarchus’ answer is Yes. We do good to our friends and bad to our enemies.
In this respect, justice is a sort of getting even. Socrates is not so sure. How do you distinguish friends from enemies? Suppose someone whom you believe to be your friend is really your enemy, or, conversely, a supposed enemy is really a friend? As a general rule, this definition doesn’t work. Besides, isn’t it the case that by harming anything, we make it worse, not better? Doesn’t harming one’s enemy only increase his enmity towards us and others? Doesn’t it tend to perpetuate hostility, and cause a chronic state of getting even or, to use a more technical terms, retribution or retaliation?
Going by this definition, justice would be the cause of conflict and war. This can’t be. So what is justice? Socrates continues by comparing justice to arts and crafts. A physician possesses the expertise to kill. A mechanic knows best how to cause machines to malfunction. But good physicians use their skill always for good, never to do harm, and the same is the case of good mechanics. So, we might imagine justice to be a sort of art — we might label it “the art of politics,” whose purpose is to cause universal peace and contentment.
I must pause to observe that this is probably Plato’s greatest moral and political principle, which he learned most likely from Socrates. True justice can never be the cause of harm. Getting even is never just, nor is retribution, nor vengeance. Like the true physician, the just individual, and the just society, never does harm, always does good. In fact, it is far better to suffer injustice than to do it. Yet we still don’t know what justice is. However, such thoughts should make us more than ever desire to discover what it is, for don’t we all desire to learn of a way to bring about peace and contentment for all? What could be better?
It is important also to notice that Plato’s idea of justice is contrary to another traditional idea of justice that belongs to the Western intellectual tradition, which includes retribution or vengeance as a part of justice. From Plato’s point of view, this idea of justice is just wrong.
At this point in the conversation, another of those present bursts forth in a rude and shocking way. He is Thrasymachus, a sophist, a travelling educator whose clientele are the scions of the best families of the cities he visits. He offers a curriculum not unlike the liberal arts: literature, history, some mathematics, perhaps, and the art of public speaking, an essential skill for anyone planning a public life.
Thrasymachus was a political realist, an advocate of the doctrine of might makes right. He mockingly dares Socrates to define justice, which he avoids by asking Thrasymachus, whom he suspects has an answer ready, what he thinks it is. He answers that justice is the advantage of the stronger, which, after a round of question and answer, reduces to this. Thrasymachus supposes that the best regime is a tyranny. Justice is whatever the tyrant requires of his subjects to increase his own power, wealth, honor, and to fulfill his political fantasies. Justice for the powerful is whatever they will to do or have done, whereas for the rest, who lack power, justice is to obey, to do what one is told to do.
Now Socrates asks, suppose the tyrant is fallible and requires of his subjects that they do something that will cause him personal harm? Then, an obedient subject, by doing what he is told, is acting both justly and unjustly at the same time, for surely it is not advantageous to a tyrant to suffer harm, and yet it is what he is required to do. It is almost comic. Thrasymachus’ response is that when a tyrant fails to make a rule that benefits himself, he is acting, as it were, out of character, his art has failed him, which is an instance of weakness, a failure to be strong, as though to say, he deserves what he gets. Thrasymachus’ definition is in trouble.
Furthermore, if politics is an art, like other arts, then shouldn’t it be the case that a ruler, like a physician, never practices his art for his own benefit but solely for the benefit of his subjects? It must be a strange art whose purpose is to benefit oneself only. Such a thing is unheard of. If justice is truly an art, then it is the art of governing justly, whose proper purpose is to do good to all the governed. This is a part of what justice should be, but just what is the whole of it?

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