Plato on justice in the city Notes for September 17

Main points

The city has three parts. The character of the city is determined by the role that each of its parts plays. Similarly, the individual’s soul has three parts and the individual’s character is determined by which part of the soul predominates over the others.

We talked about why the ideal city has the virtues of wisdom, courage, moderation, and justice. We did so with an eye to the parallel that Plato will draw between the city and the soul.

Virtues in the city

The ideal city would have the virtues that it does because of the roles played by the different classes. For instance, the city is wise because it is ruled by the class that knows the most about what is good and is the most dedicated to the city: the guardians. And it is just because every class plays its role.

We had several interesting discussions of the virtues. For instance, Lucas disputed what Plato said about courage. He said that a city could only be courageous if most of its members were willing to fight on its behalf, not just the auxiliaries.

The two big virtues are moderation and justice. Plato’s account of moderation in the city begins with the individual: moderate individuals control their desires such that the “naturally better part” of the soul “is in control of the worse” (431a). Similarly, in the city, “the desires of the inferior many are controlled by the wisdom and desires of the superior few” (431d). At the same time, he said, in the city “moderation spreads throughout the whole” producing “agreement between the naturally worse and the naturally better as to which of the two is to rule” (432a). This is a point where the analogy between the city and the soul seems strained.

The city was thought to be just “when each of the three natural classes within it did its own work” (435b).

We will discuss two questions going forward. First, what is the parallel with the individual soul? On the face of it, it would involve each part of the soul doing its own work. That brings up the second question. How will this account of justice answer the question Glaucon posed? Plato will have to show that having one’s soul in order is a good thing and that the person whose soul is in order would do the sorts of things that everyone in Books I and II agreed were typically just: telling the truth, not stealing, and so on.

Key terms

You’ll should be familiar with these terms:

  1. The parts of the city
  2. The parts of the soul
  3. The virtues of city and soul

In other words, you should be familiar with the tables on the handout.

This page was written by Michael Green for Social & Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Fall 2012. It was posted September 17, 2012.
Name of website