Political Philosophy Spring 2018

Justice in the City


We set out to answer a question about individual people: why should someone be just? But immediately after formulating the question, Plato takes up what appears to be a different subject: justice in a city.

Plato’s assumption is 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.

So Plato is going to try to answer four questions.

  1. What is a just city?
  2. Why is it good for a city to be just?
  3. What is a just person? (“individual” or “soul” are equivalent terms)
  4. Why is it good for a person to be just?

And he is going to try to answer these questions while also maintaining this assumption:

  1. Justice in the city is the same as it is in the individual soul.

Can he keep all five balls in the air? He comes surprisingly close. Plato is awesome.

In today’s class, I summarized the readings from Books II and III. Then we discussed the first part of Book IV.

A split among the virtues

The good city would have the four virtues of wisdom, courage, moderation, and justice. It has the first two virtues 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.

Note that the city is not courageous because everyone is courageous; it’s only the auxiliaries who are courageous (see 429b). Nor is the city wise because everyone is wise (428e). The city has these qualities because a particular class plays its role: the guardians run the city and the auxiliaries defend it.

Moderation and justice are different. As Catherine pointed out, everyone is supposed to play a part in making the city moderate and just. The city is moderate and just because, in some sense, everyone in it is moderate and just. At the same time, the guardians have a special role in making this happen. They have to: the whole point of the theory is that they have special ethical knowledge by virtue of their natures and training that the others lack.

This is a point where the analogy between the city and the soul seems to break down. The members of the productive class are supposed to be analogous to the desires and appetites in an individual mind. But while people can defer to the authority of the city’s “reasoning” part (the guardians), that isn’t the sort of thing that an appetite can do.

But, at the same time, Plato’s case for the guardians having authority rests on the analogy between reason and appetite in an individual mind. The city needs its rational part to be in charge of its appetitive part just as individuals need their rational part to be in charge of their appetites if they are to lead coherent lives.

Obviously, Plato needs to walk a pretty fine line in order to maintain the analogy. That is what we are going to focus on next time, when our main question is going to be whether the members of the productive classes could really be moderate or just.

Main points

These are the things you should know.

  1. What are the parts of the city called?
  2. What are the parts of the soul called?
  3. What is the difference between wisdom and courage, on the one hand, and moderation and justice, on the other hand, as virtues of the city?