In Book 4 of the Republic, Socrates defines justice as ‘harmony of the soul’. To arrive at this definition, Socrates first sets up the foundations of the actual ‘Republic’, a city-state designed to achieve harmony and peace between its citizens. By finding justice on a large-scale, Plato believes we can then narrow down our focus to find justice on the scale of an individual human being. This post will consider the plausibility of Plato’s account of justice, including some of the common objections towards the ‘harmony of the soul’ theory.
Firstly, to provide some background as to how this discussion came about, a number of characters in Book 1 of the Republicoffered their own definitions of ‘justice’, but each was dismissed by Socrates as incomplete or ineffective. Pressed by Glaucon and Adeimantus, Socrates is persuaded to give a more fuller account of justice, in particular, trying to answer the following two questions: (1) what is justice, and (2) why is justice preferable to injustice. This current post will restrict itself to the first question only.
Socrates accepts that the task is a difficult one, so he suggests starting on a larger-scale search, by finding justice in the city-state. This leads Socrates to paint his picture of the ideal city-state. One of the distinctive features of the city-state is that the populace is divided into three parts: the guardians, the auxiliaries, and the general citizens. The three divisions provide Plato with a convenient way to map each class to one of the Greek virtues. The guardians, as rulers of the city, display wisdom in carrying out their duties. The auxiliaries, as ‘guard dogs’ of the city, provide courage. The general citizens provide moderation in that they defer to the judgement of their superiors. But what about justice, the fourth and final of the Greek virtues? Where does it exist in this tripartite model of the city-state?
Socrates believes that once we’ve found wisdom, courage and moderation, we can find justice in whatever is left over. Although this is not a convincing piece of reasoning – it assumes we are searching for four pieces of the puzzle only and nothing else – Socrates believes that it allows him to pinpoint the location of justice. As part of the city-state, Socrates has already stated that specialisation is one of the prime features of the city. Each person must do their assigned job – the one they are best suited to – and not meddle in the affairs of other people. Therefore, this must be justice. When every citizen sticks to his own business and avoids getting involved in other people’s business, this is justice.
With these ideas in mind, Socrates then returns to the individual and decides that the soul of an individual can also be divided into three parts: reason, spirit and desire. These are comparable to the three divisions of the city-state. Reason, backed by wisdom, rules over the other two. Spirit provides the courage and the passion. Desire provides the drive and the necessity for the essentials of life. Justice in the individual is therefore harmony of all three parts, with reason leading and the others following suit. If the soul suffers from disharmony – for instance, the desirous part takes control of the body and eats too much unhealthy food – then there is injustice in the soul. In short, justice is harmony, while injustice is disharmony. Justice is comparable to health, while injustice is comparable to disease.
What are some of the objections we can make to Plato’s model of justice? Perhaps the most obvious is that discussed by Julie Annas in her book. Plato’s psychological theory of justice – where justice is confined to the soul of an individual – tells us nothing about how we should deal with other people. The common understanding of ‘justice’ is that it deals with the rights and obligation owed by one person towards another. How does having a theory of justice based on harmony of the soul tell us anything about how we should respect the rights of others? A bank robber, for instance, could come up with a perfect plan for a robbery. All three parts of his soul are in agreement with the plan, so we would have to agree that justice exists in his soul. However, is he really acting justly by carrying out the robbery?
Annas believes we can clarify Plato’s idea of justice by considering the difference between an act-centred theory and an agent-centred theory of morality. An act-centred theory is something like utilitarianism. All we care about are the consequences of an action. However, for an agent-centred theory, the character of the agent is the main question. Annas believes that Plato offers us an agent-centred theory, meaning we should see ‘inner harmony’ as a powerful state of character that helps the agent to carry out ‘just acts’.
Plato also wants to reject any notion of a rules-based theory. In Book1, he already dismissed definitions of ‘justice’ offered by Cephalus and Polemarchus because they seemed too simplistic, believing them to be nothing more than following a few rules. Therefore, although ‘inner harmony’ might not directly have anything to say about justice, by developing the good character required by ‘inner harmony’ this will allow the agent to carry out just acts.
Overall, Plato’s argument is persuasive in some areas but not others. Being moral would seem to involve more than just following a set of prescribed rules. Every rule is subject to exceptions, plus we cannot possibly define every single rule in advance. So focusing on the good character on the agent would seem a pragmatic move. In fact, Aristotle would agree with Plato on this point, with his further examination of the human virtues.
On the other hand, Plato’s theory has little to say about what is really ‘good’ and ‘bad’. How do human beings know whether something is right or wrong? Plato’s theory offers us no guidance here. As mentioned earlier, a bank robber might feel that his plan to execute the robbery is perfectly just. It’s difficult to see how we can object to this on Plato’s theory of ‘harmony of the soul’. The theory seems to lack an overriding sense of exactly what is meant by ‘just acts’, as opposed to the ‘just person’. Plato simply asserts that a just person will carry out just acts, but he provides little argument as to exactly what ‘just acts’ are.