Justice in the city

Notes for January 30

Main points

We set out to answer a question about individuals: why should an individual be just? Then we took a detour to talk about justice in the city. The assumption was that justice is the same in the city and the individual soul, such that a description of justice in the city would help us to answer our original question about justice in the individual.

Today, we saw how Plato filled out the assumption about the parallel between the city and the soul. The city has three parts and the city’s character is determined by the role that each part plays in the life of the city. Similarly, the individual’s soul has three parts and the individual’s character is determined by the role played by these parts.

Wisdom and courage

The ideal city would have the four virtues of wisdom, courage, moderation, and justice. It has each virtue 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 courageous because the auxiliaries are in charge of their defense.

We spent some time talking about why Plato might have thought that people who are good at business or military affairs would not be good leaders for the society as a whole. We were a little puzzled by this. The abilities to plan and organize a business or army seemed to us to be similar to those that a political leader would require. Perhaps Plato had in mind the things that business people and military leaders think are important: they are interested in money and security, but Plato thinks ideal leaders would be interested in knowledge in a very general sense. (We will talk about this on February 6.)

Moderation and justice

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 that 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. Do the inferior parts of the city agree that the guardians should rule or are they controlled by the guardians and auxiliaries?

In any event, 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

  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 and Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Spring 2014. It was posted February 8, 2014.
Social and Political Philosophy