Political Philosophy Spring 2018

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 his description of the members of the productive class. Can they be just or not?

The City-Soul Parallel

Plato says that both the city and the soul have three parts and that those parts parallel one another.

City Part Soul Part
Guardians Rational
Auxiliaries Spirited
Productive Appetitive

But the relationship between the parts of the city and the parts of the soul goes even deeper than this. Plato says that people belong to the classes they do by virtue of which part of their soul is the predominant one. He says that “the reason we say there are three primary kinds of people” is that the rational part rules “in some people’s souls while one of the other parts … rules in other people’s” (Plato 1997, 581c).

Member of City Part Ruling Part of the Soul
Guardians Rational
Auxiliaries Spirited
Productive Appetitive

So there is more than an analogy here. Plato uses the parts of the soul to explain the division of the city into three classes.

What is the Difference Between Spirit and Appetites?

Alexa asked a great question. If you look at Table 1 on the handout, you’ll see that the appetitive part of the soul is made up feelings, desires, lusts, hungers, and thirsts (see, for example, Plato 1997, 439c–d). The spirited part of the soul contains anger and resentment. But anger and resentment are feelings, so why don’t they go in the appetitive part?

I said that anger and resentment are reactive in a way that the appetites do not seem to be. Hunger pushes me to eat. Anger is a reaction that I feel to something that I see or think about.

Alec had a better answer. He said that anger and resentment can be aligned with the rational part of the soul while the appetites cannot be. I think he’s right about this. Plato thinks that the parts of our minds reflect moral distinctions and anger and resentment, as he describes them, are highly moralized emotions. You feel them in response to the thought that you have been treated unjustly but not in response to bad treatment that you think you deserve (Plato 1997, 440c). By contrast, you feel hunger and the other appetites regardless of your other thoughts.

On this point, I am curious about what he means in saying that children feel anger and resentment before they have reason (441a). Maybe the idea is that small children draw distinctions between getting their fair share and not getting their fair share even before they have sophisticated understandings about what fairness is. But that’s speculation on my part.

Skye speculated that the difference might be due a distinction between the body and the mind, with the appetites having their source in our physical needs and anger and resentment coming from a more mental source. That seems promising too, though I would need to spend some more time on it before I could say for certain what I think. (442a looks interesting for Skye’s point, for what it’s worth.)

Can the Productive Class be Just?

This is the part of the discussion that I put on the board. But I have to apologize for not remembering all the details.

As I recall, Alex got us started by observing that the analogy with the city suggests the answer is no. The city is just because its rational part is in control and all the other parts are playing their roles. But the members of the productive class are controlled by their appetites, not their rational parts, and so, it seems, they could not be just.

On the other hand, as Octave pointed out, the members of the productive class can play their role in the city. So long as they agree that the guardians should be in charge and “don’t engage in civil war” against them, they can do their part in a just city (Plato 1997, 442d).

There are three things you will want to bear in mind as you think about this.

First, remember that Plato’s case for political authority depends on the guardians having superior ethical knowledge. The members of the productive class should obey them because they know better what to do.

Second, Plato thinks that the virtues of moderation and justice are different than the virtues of wisdom and courage. The city is wise and courageous because the rational and spirited parts play their roles. But, while wisdom and courage each “resides in one part” of the city, moderation “spreads throughout the whole” (Plato 1997, 432a). I assume the justice is similar to moderation in this respect.

Third, how important do you think it is for Plato that a just person is internally as opposed to externally regulated? These two passages seem interesting.

in truth justice … isn’t concerned with someone’s doing his own externally, but with what is inside him, with what is truly himself and his own. One who is just does not allow any part of himself to do the work of another part or allow the various classes within him to meddle with each other. He regulates well what is really his own and rules himself. He puts himself in order, is his own friend, and harmonizes the three parts of himself like three limiting notes in a musical scale — high, low, and middle. He binds together those parts … and from having been many things he becomes entirely one, moderate and harmonious. (Plato 1997, 443d)

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. (Plato 1997, 590d)

Main Points

These are the things you should know from today’s class.

  1. How does Plato try to show that the soul has parts?
  2. What is the relationship between the parts of the city and the parts of the soul?
  3. Why is Plato inclined to say that the productive class can be just?
  4. Why is Plato inclined to say that the productive class cannot be just?


To get a sense of how contemporary neurologists try to isolate the different parts of the mind, I recommend Michael Gazzaniga’s book Who’s in Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain (2011). We have a copy in the Philosophy Library and it’s easy to read. So flip through it and pick out an interesting seeming experiment. It’s fascinating.


Gazzaniga, Michael S. 2011. Who’s in Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain. New York: Ecco HarperCollins.

Plato. 1997. “Republic.” In Complete Works, edited by John M. Cooper, translated by G.M.A. Grube and C.D.C Reeve. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company.


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