Justice in the city Notes for February 1

Main points

A just city is one in which the members play their roles. I raised two broad questions about this.

  1. First, what’s the difference between justice and moderation? Moderation also appears to involve sticking to one’s own role.
  2. Second, what’s the relationship between this way of understanding justice and the challenge with which we started?

A question about the guardians

While we started with Plato’s description of the city, we often switched over to talking about his description of the soul. Of course, this is just what Plato wanted us to do, since he thought that there were significant parallels between the two. This is OK so as long as we’re clear about what we’re doing.

Our question about the guardians came up when we asked whether the members of the non-guardian classes have souls with reasoning parts. It’s hard to see how they would operate if they didn’t. But if they do, and their reasoning parts are in charge, it’s hard to see what separates them from the guardians. Perhaps their reasoning parts aren’t as as good as the guardians’ reasoning parts. Or perhaps they aren’t effectively in control as often. Perhaps both.

This led to the converse question. Are the guardians the most complete people? That is, could they do everyone’s job as well as their own? Or do the productive classes occupy roles that the guardians would not be good at occupying? I said I thought it would be the latter: nothing in the guardians training would make them any good at farming or commerce. Jesse and Chris said they thought it would be the former, on the grounds that the guardians are the best. Without some more direct textual evidence, though, we’re just guessing.

Moderation and justice

Moderation is different than wisdom and courage. The city is wise and courageous because it has some members who are wise and courageous who lead and defend the city. The city can be wise and courageous even if not all of its members have those qualities. Moderation, on the other hand, “spreads throughout the whole” such that there is unanimous agreement about who should lead (432b).

I have several questions about moderation. First, how is it that the non-guardians can be moderate? The city is moderate because “the desires of the inferior many are controlled by the wisdom and desires of the superior few” (431d). That suggests that the members of the productive class are incapable of moderating themselves. But if that’s right, where does the unanimous agreement come from? That sounds closer to the non-guardians governing themselves. We’ll talk more about this next time.

Second, how is moderation different than justice? Camille and Leslie proposed that moderation involves deferring to others or not interfering with others. Justice involves taking positive steps to perform your role. So a completely lazy person could be moderate but not just. (Why not just call these people lazy or useless? They said that performing your role or not has effects on others.)

Does this answer Glaucon’s question?

Glaucon asked Socrates to explain the value of some conventionally just behavior: honesty and fair dealing. The answer that we’re driving towards is that a just person’s soul is well ordered.

Now, it seems pretty clear that it’s a good thing to have your soul in order. Who wants a messy soul? But it’s not clear how this is relevant to the conventionally just behavior with which we started. A liar could be good at calculating and controlling his emotions; you would have to be if your lies are elaborate. And a conventionally just person need not have a soul that meets Plato’s standards. Just look at Cephalus.

I don’t mean to prejudge things. Plato still has six books to go. But I don’t think that Plato himself ever directly confronted it.

This page was written by Michael Green for Social & Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Spring 2010. It was posted February 2, 2010.
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