Victor Nuovo: Justice and happiness
Editor’s note: This is the fifth in a series of essays or reflections about “The Republic,” a book written two and a half millennia ago by the great philosopher Plato.
What is justice? Before Socrates could even begin to answer this question, his friends confronted him with another problem that any adequate account of what justice is must solve. We all agree that justice is good, but what sort of good is it? Is it good because it is useful or necessary to some higher purpose, or because it is something valued for its own sake, like health or beauty, or is it both of these?
The friends, who by the way are Plato’s older brothers, Glaucon and Adeimantus, and who are Socrates’ principal interlocutors through the rest of the dialogue, wish that it were the latter, for something that is both useful and valued for its own sake is the best sort of good, a supreme good. However, they fear justice belongs to the first and worst sort of good. They worry that is like a bitter pill, or like dieting or exercise to keep trim and fit, or like rules that we obey grudgingly or out of fear of punishment, rules that prevent us from doing things we would prefer to do if we could do them with impunity, and we feel a mixture of envy and resentment towards those who live selfishly and get away with it, who always do what serves them best and are never called to judgment.
Thus, it may be that injustice is what we all really desire, and that justice is merely something we need to avoid suffering injustice at the hands of other persons. Justice in this latter sense is a remedy, a compromise between what is best, which is freedom to do what seems best for oneself, unrestricted megalomaniacal self-indulgence, and what is worst of all is to suffer injustice or to live in never-ending fear of it.
One must be very clear about the issue that Socrates’ friends are addressing. It is not a question whether we humans are by nature just or unjust, but whether justice is a mere expedient and unpleasant remedy of the chronic ills we humans are heir to, or whether it is something that we love and desire for its own sake and hence seek after, and which, when discovered is able to make us perfectly happy.
It sounds religious, but it is not. It is philosophical in a Socratic sense. What sort of thing, then, is Justice? It is an idea. It is an intelligible something that the mind is able to discover, examine and understand, and apply to all of life’s circumstances, but only by means of rational learning.
But I am getting ahead of myself. Return to happiness. The question is whether justice is a sufficient cause of happiness, whether by knowing what justice is and being just, and, perhaps, only in this way, we will be happy. Well, what is happiness? The Greek word commonly translated “happiness” is eudaimonia, which literally means having a good divine presence. Among its related meanings are having good luck and the sense of satisfaction comes with it, or a good conscience, or an exuberant feeling, an elevated sense of wellbeing, a joy of living, of sitting on top of the world. If happiness is all these things, can we suppose that knowing what justice is and becoming just will give us all these things? Once again, justice is not a reward that is superadded to living justly, rather it is an essential part of the experience of being just; doing justice must be enjoyable.
The sum of all this is expressed in the familiar expression “Justice is its own reward.” Justice, then, is a virtue, a human and social excellence; it is the supreme excellence. It perfects the soul of the individual and of the society that adhere to it. Perfect human beings, and perfect civil societies are happy by being just. If justice is the art of governing either oneself or a society, there must be joy in the very practice of it.
Now we can begin to see the enormous task that Plato assumed when he undertook to write the Republic: to prove that this is so, by discourse and by reasoning, and why it is so important that we read it and consider what it teaches us. It is a work of perennial value.
Plato has been aptly described by a former teacher of mine as “a dramatist of the life of reason” and the Republic as his consummate achievement. It is a philosophical drama in five acts, and had I the necessary skills to do it, which I know I do not, I would have liked to present it on the stage, rather than as a series of plain expositions in print. I mention this only because there is abundant talent in this town to do it.
In any case, on this analogy, I have now finished Act One, and after a brief intermission, the second act will begin. What I have called the first act covers the first book and the first half of the second book of the Republic. Act Two continues from the second half of the second book through Book iv. Act Three takes up Books v–vii, Act Four, Books viii–ix. Last comes Act Five, which is a sort of epilogue; it occupies Book x. Readers please take note.