Justice in the Soul

Plato’s chief claim is that the virtues for individual people come “in the same way and in the same part” (441c) as the virtues of the city do.

In order to make good on this claim, he first has to show that the soul has parts (463a-439b) and also that the parts of the soul correspond to the three parts of the city (439c-440c).

We discussed the analogy between the city and the soul. We were particularly concerned with two questions.

  1. Does Plato have to choose between an attractive picture of the city, a realistic picture of the soul, and his claim that the virtues for individuals come about in the same way as the virtues of city do?
  2. Can the members of the productive class be just?

We had an extremely good discussion, with several points being made that I had not heard before. Well done!

The problem

It appears that Plato has to give up one of these three things:

  1. A realistic description of how the parts of the soul interact with one another.
  2. An attractive description of how the parts of his ideal city would interact with one another.
  3. His theoretical claim that there is a strong parallel between the city and the soul.

The attractive picture of the city is one in which the members of the different classes peacefully coexist, with each wholeheartedly accepting its role. The realistic picture of the soul is one in which the different parts are in conflict, with the reasoning part either controlling or being overwhelmed by the appetitive one.

The apparent problem is that Plato insisted the two cases parallel one another. So which is it? Is he implausibly saying that the parts of the soul agree to coexist? Or is he saying that the classes in the city constantly struggle for control, making the city rather less attractive than it appeared to be?

When Plato tries to explain why the guardians had to be in charge of the city, he appeals to the psychological side of the analogy in order to show that the members of the other classes are deficient and so need to be ruled. For example, he describes the members of the productive class as being like the various desires and appetites in the mind. The idea is that they need to be controlled or else chaos will break out, much as individual people need to control their desires in order to get anything done. Here, we have a realistic picture of how the mind works but an unattractive picture of how the city might work.

When he tries to explain why a just and moderate soul is well ordered, he switches to the political side of his analogy. Thus, for example, he describes an individual as “moderate because of the friendly and harmonious relations between these same parts, namely when the ruler and ruled believe in common that the rational part should rule and don’t engage in civil war against it” (442c, p. 118). Here, we have an attractive picture of how the city might work but an unrealistic account of how the mind works.

Can the productive class be just?

When you first look at it, it appears that Plato is torn between saying two things.

  1. They can be just if they stick to their role in the city. For instance, the cobblers are just if they stick to cobbling rather than trying to run the city.

  2. They cannot be just because just people are governed by the rational part of their souls and people are in the productive class are governed by the appetitive part of their souls.

The trick is to figure out whether these two points can be reconciled with one another.

Harry said that the analogy with the city commits him to the second point. The city is just only if its rational part is in control, namely the guardian class. If the analogy between the city and the soul holds, then individuals will be just only if the rational part of their souls is in control. But, by hypothesis, the members of the productive class are ruled by the appetitive part of their souls (see table 2 on the handout).

Stuart said that the members of the productive classes are just so long as the guardians are governing them. Will added that one way of putting this together would be to say that it is only important that the members of the productive class are governed by a rational part; it is not necessary that it is their own rational part. A few days later, I found a passage that comes pretty close to saying that. Nifty!

to insure that someone like that [a manual worker] is ruled by something similar to what rules the best person, we say that he ought to be the slave of that best person who has a divine ruler within himself. It isn’t to harm the slave that we say he must be ruled, which is what Thrasymachus thought to be true of all subjects, but because it is better for everyone to be ruled by divine reason, preferably within himself and his own, otherwise imposed from without, so that as far as possible all will be alike and friends, governed by the same thing. (590d)

Rosie, James, and Kamyab all noted that the just city seems to need a productive class, whether its members are just or not. The just city needs three classes all performing their own roles. If the role of the productive class is to follow their appetites, then that is what they have to do. After all, someone is going to have to make things! The guardians will be barefoot and hungry if there are no cobblers and farmers.

But Oscar said that it would be odd if significant parts of the city are incapable of being just. Wasn’t the point of the book to show that that it is desirable to be just? What happens to that project if most of the city cannot be just? (Maybe the book is only directed towards an aristocratic class?)

Here are a couple of other suggestions.

Plato might take up something that Audrey said last time. The members of the productive classes are deficient, but they realize this about themselves and so agree to be ruled by the guardians, who they see are their superiors. They could be just rational enough to realize that they need rulers, in other words. Would their voluntary submission be enough to make them just? It certainly gets them closer than if the coercive force of the guardians and auxiliaries were the only thing that kept them in their designated roles, kicking and screaming all the way.

I think that moderation in the soul might also have some resources that we did not explore. We all know moderate people. They typically have, well, moderate desires. Their minds are not cauldrons of raging appetites that they manage to keep in check through the force of their will. I think that Plato’s description of moderation in the soul is unrealistic: appetites do not “agree” to anything, much less that the rational part should be in charge. But he might well be onto something anyway. Mature people have moderate desires and they can even moderate their desires in response to their circumstances. Unlike children, they don’t keep on insisting on cookies when they know they can’t have them. I don’t know how they do it. (Maybe I will when I grow up!) But this is a real phenomenon. Maybe someone could use it on Plato’s behalf to show that he could have a realistic account of the soul that corresponds with his attractive account of the city.

Key concepts

  1. The attractive picture of the city.
  2. The realistic picture of the soul.
  3. In what sense can the members of the productive class be just?
  4. In what sense can they not be just?


Plato. 1992. Republic. Translated by G.M.A. Grube and C.D.C. Reeve. Indianapolis: Hackett.


There was a handout for this class: 04.PlatoJusticeSoul.handout.pdf