Plato? Who Cares?

We all should care. Here’s the deal. One fine day Plato sat himself down and wondered about justice. “What does it mean,” he pondered, “to say that something is just? Is it a simply a matter of strength, evenhandedness, or law, or is there something deeper going on here?” And the more he thought about it, the more complex he realized the question actually is. And so, eventually, he invoked his alter ego, Socrates, and together, the philosopher and his alter ego, wrote what was to become one of the most influential books of European philosophy ever written, The Republic.

It turns out that in order to answer the question, he had to work out his entire philosophical system, from aesthetics through metaphysics and on to politics and psychology. It was a bumpy ride, indeed. Quite clearly no mere blog can possibly do justice (snicker!) to such a monumental book. But his final definition of justice is, I think, well worth thinking about.

First, he dismissed such ideas as justice is what is in the interest of the strongest, or justice is punishment for wrong-doing. That’s not too difficult. But then he tells us that justice is not primarily a legal concept after all. Legal justice is derivative from something much more profound. Just laws are those that produce just people. Therefore, before we can think about what makes laws just, we must understand what makes a person just. Justice, Plato tells us, is first and foremost a quality, not of law, but of people.

So what does Plato think a just person is? He begins by noting that there are three aspects to the soul: a rational aspect, an emotional aspect, and an appetitive aspect. The rational aspect is that part of us that deals in argument, evaluating evidence, drawing conclusions, and the like. The emotional aspect is that part of us that deals with our feelings. The appetitive aspect is that part of ourselves that deals with our basic drives, like sex, hunger, safety, and the like. A person is just when these three are in balance and each carries out its proper function without encroaching on the others.

This is easy to misunderstand. Over the centuries, the idea of a soul has taken on a religious meaning that it did not have for Plato. As a result, those who may reject that religious meaning can be tempted to dismiss it out of hand. But suppose we think of this rather differently. Suppose we think of Plato to be talking of our human minds in their entirety. Then what?

Then what we are looking at is Plato’s psychology. Now, psychology has gotten a lot more sophisticated since Plato’s time, and we have many different ways of thinking about the mind. But pick your favorite psychology and grant for a moment Plato’s notion of the primacy of the just mind. What would a just human mind be?

However many aspects there are to the mind, Plato would say that in a just mind they all function well together, in balance, none usurping the proper functioning of another. For example, think about our emotions. We have evolved to have our various emotions for very good reasons, even those emotions that are sometimes unpleasant.

To be concrete, consider anger. It is not hard to understand how our ancient ancestors needed the occasional fit of anger. If you could not get angry when someone tried to steal your stuff, you would starve to death. And we still need anger to motivate us to correct social ills and oppose oppression. As Martin Luther King, Jr. pointed out, there are things about which we ought to be angry. But. Anger can take over our consciousness and become paranoid, dangerous, destructive, even murderous.

Similar observations apply to all of our emotions. We need to be able to be afraid, but fear, like anger, when it takes over the mind, becomes paranoia. Even the so-called positive emotions can get out of hand. Love, when it takes over the mind, becomes obsession, the will to possess rather than the will to nurture. And so it goes. When our emotions cloud our rationality and try to take over our minds, the result is injustice.


Not a bad idea, eh? To be just is to live a life in proper balance. Platonic justice begins to look rather like what we have come to call self-actualization. And just as self-actualization is an ideal that is never quite within our grasp even while it calls us onward, toward it, Platonic justice leads out into deeper and deeper levels of our humanity.


This has a lot of implications. It carries us to law, to education, to proper relations among each other, even to environmental action. In my next installment, I want to explore some of these implications. But just to whet your appetite, let me leave you with a couple of questions: Under this understanding, what would a just penal system look like? When we call for justice for the victim of a crime, what are we asking for? What would Plato say we are asking for? Could he be right? Hmmmm.


2 thoughts on “Plato? Who Cares?

  1. Robin Montz

    One of the basic tenets of my work in the B.C. correctional system (I wlatorked there for 8 months in the late ’60s) was that for a justice system to be truly just it needed to do more than merely extract revenge or even rehabilitation. What was needed was restorative justice — to restore the relationship between the offender and his/her offended community, and thus initiate the reintegration of the individual back into the community in a positive relationship. To me, restoration is an important element of true justice.


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