Justice in the city Notes for February 2

Main points

We talked about Plato’s claim that the purified city is just. By “purified city”, I mean what he had called the luxurious city that is ruled by guardians who have had the kind of education that he described.

Specifically, we talked about Plato’s way of showing that the city has the four virtues he lists. It depends on the character of individual members of the city and what they do. We brought that out by going over his reasons for thinking that rule by some of the classes would not be compatible with wisdom and the other virtues. His reasons have to do less with intelligence than desires: the members of the productive classes want money rather than the good of the city, for instance.

We also pursued the question of what justice, as he identified it in Book IV, has to do with the original question about justice.


Moderation and justice are very difficult to distinguish from one another. They also share similar problems.

One set of problems concerns the productive classes. The city is said to be moderate because all of its members recognize and defer to the guardians as rulers. But Jennifer asked how the productive classes could do this if they lacked the ability to understand how the city should be run. How would they know that the guardians were doing a good job? In a similar vein, Rebecca asked how they could exercise the self-control to defer, given that their desiring part is said to be in control of their souls. She suggested that either Plato’s description of their psychology is wrong or they would have to be either repressed or timid in order to be moderate.

The same sort of questions will come up concerning the productive classes and justice.


I closed the class by asking about the relationship between justice as Plato described it in Book IV and as the other speakers had described it in Books I and II. The latter listed a series of things like paying one’s debts, honestly dealing with others, and so on. Some spoke in praise of this kind of behavior while others were critical. The challenge was to answer the critics.

The shape of Plato’s answer is becoming clear enough. The just person has a soul whose parts play their proper roles. The unjust person, by contrast, will be psychologically unstable and, presumably, lead an undesirable life as a consequence.

But it’s not obvious how that is going to answer the questions we started with. Specifically, why is it clear that an unjust person couldn’t have a well-ordered soul, with reason in charge of emotions and so on? And aren’t some people who lack the qualities of guardians, such as Cephalus, impeccably just in their behavior?

Plato wants to say that having a well-ordered soul is to just behavior as an underlying medical condition is to its symptoms. But the linkage just isn’t obvious and Plato doesn’t seem to have thought he had to do much to establish it. Curious.

This page was written by Michael Green for Social & Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Spring 2009. It was posted February 3, 2009.
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