Political Philosophy Spring 2024

Justice in the Soul


Today’s topic is the analogy between the city and the soul. We will be particularly concerned with his description of the members of the productive class. Can they be just or not?

Last time we identified justice in the city. Now Plato will try to show that justice is the same for individuals.

In the first half of book IV, Plato thinks he shows that there are three classes in the city and that the city is just if each class does its part without interfering with the others. Here is what he tries to show about individuals.

  1. The soul has parts (436a–439b).

  2. The parts are the same as the parts of the city (439c-440c).

  3. An individual’s virtues come about “in the same way and in the same part” as the virtues of a city do (441c).

  4. Therefore, individuals are just if the parts of their souls play their roles.

The Parts of the Soul

It is obvious that the city has different parts. You can see people doing different things. It is not obvious that the soul has different parts. So Plato has to show that it does. He begins with a principle that a thing can move in different directions at the same time only if it has distinct parts that are moving in different directions (436a-437a). Then he applies this principle to human psychology. Our minds try to move us in different directions at the same time: I can want to go get a drink of water and also want to finish my work. (That’s how I feel right now!) So our souls must have parts, one of which wants to go get a drink while the other wants to stay put (437b-439b). That’s pretty clever, I think.

What parts does the soul have? Plato thinks that there are three parts which he calls the rational, spirited, and appetitive. Here are some of the characteristics of each part.

Parts of the soul
Soul part Features of the soul
Rational Overrides feelings (439c), calculates about better and worse (441b), exercises foresight for the whole (441e), learns, loves truth and knowledge (580e), philosophical (581b)
Spirited Anger, resentment. Aligned with rational part vs. the appetitive, e.g. look at corpses (439d). “Wholly dedicated” to “control, victory, and high repute” (honor) (581a)
Appetitive Irrational, feeling, desires, lusts, hungers, thirsts. Drives or drags the soul (439c–d). Appetites for food, drink, and sex (580e). Insatiable desire for money (442a, 581a).

The City-Soul Parallel

There are three parts to the soul. And there are three parts to the city. And the names “Rational,” “Spirited,” and “Appetitive” sound oddly familiar. Could there be something going on?

Yes! As you might have guessed, the three parts line up with one another.

Parts of the city and parts of the soul
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 much deeper than this. Plato’s story is not just that the soul’s parts are similar to the city’s parts. He thinks people belong to the class that they do because of how the parts of their soul are arranged. People whose souls are dominated by their rational part are guardians, those whose souls are dominated by the spirited part are auxiliaries, and those whose souls are dominated by their appetitive part belong to the productive class.

Here is what Plato says. (Note that some of these are not in the reading we have done to date. They come from later in the book. You will see them eventually.)

And it is because of the spirited part, I suppose, that we call a single individual courageous, namely when it preserves through pains and pleasures the declarations of reason about what is to be feared and what isn’t. … And we’ll call him wise because of that small part of himself that rules in him and … has within it the knowledge of what is advantageous for each part and for the whole soul (441c).

And doesn’t this [rational] part rule in some people’s souls, while one of the other parts … rules in other people’s? That’s right. And isn’t that the reason we say that there are three primary kinds of people: philosophic, victory-loving, and profit-loving? (581c)

The idea is that the kind of person you are is dictated by which part of your soul rules the other parts. That, in turn, explains why you belong to one of the three social classes rather than the others.

Features of the classes (442c, 581c)
Class Kind of person Ruling part of the soul
Guardians Learning-loving, philosophic Rational
Auxiliaries Victory-loving Spirited
Productive Money-loving Appetitive


Now we are in a position to describe the virtues of cities and of souls. What could be better than another table? Nothing!

Explanation of the virtues (from 442b–d)
Virtue City Soul
Wisdom Wise members (guardians) rule the city Rational part rules the soul
Courage Spirited members (auxiliaries) defend the city and support the guardians Spirited part aligns with the rational part against the appetitive
Moderation All classes recognize and defer to the ruling part Harmonious relations among parts of the soul
Justice Each class plays its role Each part plays its role

I said last time that Plato was going to have a hard time with the productive class. Here is what I had in mind.

A thing is just, according to Plato, if all of its parts play their proper role. How could this work for the productive class? For them, the appetitive part controls the soul and the rational part is subordinate. If the parts were in order, the rational part should govern the soul with the appetitive part being subordinate.

On the other hand, if we look at the way the members of the productive class participate in the city, we can see how it could make sense to describe them as being just. As long as they stay in their own lane, it appears that they should count as being just, by Plato’s lights.

So we are pulled two ways on the question of whether they can be just or not. That is why it is an interesting question!

Here are some passages to puzzle over. Some are about moderation rather than justice, but since moderation and justice are so close, I think they apply to both virtues.

the desires of the inferior many are controlled by the wisdom and desires of the superior few. (431d) (This is an explanation of why the city is moderate — mjg)

unlike courage and wisdom, each of which resides in one part, making the city brave and wise respectively, moderation spreads throughout the whole. It makes the weakest, the strongest, and those in between … all sing the same song together. And this unanimity, this agreement between the naturally worse and the naturally better as to which of the two is to rule both in the city and in each one, is rightly called moderation. (432a)

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

I suppose we’ll say that a man is just in the same way as a city. … And surely we haven’t forgotten that the city was just because each of the three classes in it was doing its own work. … Then we must also remember that each one of us in whom each part is doing its own work will himself be just and do his own. … Therefore, isn’t it appropriate for the rational part to rule, since it is really wise and exercises foresight on behalf of the whole soul? (441d-e)

the principle that it is right for someone who is by nature a cobbler to practice cobblery and nothing else, for the carpenter to practice carpentry, and the same for the others is a sort of image of justice — that’s why it’s beneficial. (443c).

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 comes entirely one, moderate and harmonious. (443d)

Plato vs. Thrasymachus

Plato’s case for political authority rests on the inferiority of the productive class compare with the guardian class. Their souls are governed by their appetites rather than their rational part. Even if their reason were in charge, they would not have the kind of knowledge about what to do that the guardians have.

The guardians, by contrast, are governed by their rational part and they do know what is best for the city. The idea is that they act as a kind of rational part for the members of the productive class when they are in charge of the city.

At this point, Plato compares his picture of the city with Thrasymachus’s in a way that I think is revealing.

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)

Plato is saying that political hierarchy is good for those who are subject to it, at least, in a just city ruled by wise guardians. Thrasymachus had said that political rule had to be exploitative.

Whether you find Plato’s story persuasive or not, it is noteworthy that he thought it was important to show that this is so. Thrasymachus, by contrast, either believes that it is not possible to have a non-exploitative political system or that it is undesirable even to try. Either way, he puts no weight on showing that the people at the bottom of the hierarchy benefit from it. That is a significant difference between Plato and Thrasymachus, in my opinion.

Main Points

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

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


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