Justice and Social Harmony

Explain and assess Socrates’ claim in Plato’s Republic that justice is a kind of social harmony.

Justice and morality have been discussed, debated, and contemplated by the greatest philosophers in history. Three generations of Greek thinkers are often considered the foundation of philosophical thinking: Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Each confronted the problem of explaining, justifying, and understanding justice. I will examine the fount of much of the debate around this topic over the past couple thousand years by seeking to understand Socrates' account of justice as social harmony.

In Plato's work "The Republic" Socrates begins the discussion with others in his normal way, a dialogue where he asks questions seeking to understand what people mean by what they say. In that way he draws out clearer definitions, and often finds contradictions and other difficulties in the thinker's process leading to their conclusions. This can be frustrating not only for the people involved in the dialogue, but also for the people watching and listening to the dialogue. It's a great method for pointing out difficulties in thought processes, finding undefined areas, and for making some realizations and insights, but it does not lend itself to making an explicit positive account of Socrates' organized perspective and beliefs around the subject. To this end he is asked to give an account of what justice is.

Justice and morality are often examined at an individual level, e.g. what does and should x person do in y situation. Socrates points out that it's possible to be too close to something in our attempt to examine it. For instance, if there is a large sign that we want to read and understand, it is not useful to stand so that our nose is touching the sign. Although it does seem that we are examining it closely and should be able to discern the meaning and substance of the sign with more clarity, in truth we are so close to the subject we are studying that we cannot see enough context to extract the meaning we are looking for. To gain a more appropriate perspective we must distance ourselves and perceive the sign in aggregate. Socrates says that this is also the case with justice, and therefore to examine justice we must look to the city-state.

Socrates identifies three key sets of people that make the city-state social structure possible: rulers, guardians, and merchants. There must be rulers to plan things, to decide disputes, to think of the rules and procedures necessary for society to function. There must be guardians to protect people both from external and internal threats. And there must be merchants to produce and distribute the things that people want and need.

Each of these parts of the social and political structure serve different functions that support each other. Each part both requires and exemplifies a virtue. Without the necessary virtue they cannot function properly in their role. Without each role properly functioning the social structure becomes unstable and collapses upon itself. Without the rulers there is discord among neighbors, disputes go unresolved and escalate, and chaos ensues. Without the guardians, enemies burst through the gates and take over, or thugs from within do the same. Without the merchants there are no goods and services for people to live, let alone flourish. Each part is essential in its proper role and proportion.

A virtue is a good trait that is achieved to a high degree. Thus, each part of the social structure has a virtue that they are the exemplars of. Not that others cannot have them, for they truly must to some degree, but that there are specific areas of importance for different roles. The rulers must have the wisdom to understand what is necessary for the social structure, to define and clarify rules of interaction and procedure. The guardians must have the courage that it takes to be ever vigilant in the confrontation with enemies both external and internal. The merchants must have the temperance, sobriety, or level-headedness to make clear decisions. This ability to restrain the self to one's properly functioning role is important for all three of the parts of the city-state.

When each of these roles is functioning properly there is a social harmony that is achieved. There are processes in place from the rulers, there is protection from the guardians, and there is provision from the merchants. This social harmony is justice.

Since we have taken in a larger perspective and found this tripartite structure of justice in the social harmony of the city-state, Socrates now delves once again into the individual. There is also a tripartite structure in the individual person, an order to their soul or mind.

Socrates arrives at this conclusion by noting that a person can both want and not want to do something. For instance, a person may want to have a bite of chocolate because they like the taste of chocolate. Yet, they don't want to eat chocolate because they are trying to lose weight and have told themselves that they are going to do that by not snacking on sweets. One part of the self is the appetite, seeking provision like the merchant of the city-state. Another part of the self is rational, utilizing wisdom like the ruler. Finally, let's say that the person wants to eat the chocolate because they know it will taste good. They also don't want to eat the chocolate to continue following their eating plan. But, they eat the chocolate nevertheless. Now, they are mad at themselves for having done it. Thus we have the emotions, protecting us internally and externally like the guardians.

The chocolate example shows discord among the three parts of the human soul. When these can be brought into accord then the individual has found justice. Thus, justice for the individual is a harmony of the soul, as justice for society is harmony within the city-state. Each has a tripartite structure that requires each part to function properly in its role to achieve the necessary balance for justice to exist.

While Socrates' explanations offer us many insights as well as things of practical use, I would be remiss if I did not point out at least one difficulty. For the merchants to function in their provisionary role the guardians must operate to stop things like robbery and theft. For the guardians to stop robbery and theft they must have a clear understanding both of what they are and when they have occurred or not, and what to do in response. These directions must come from the rulers, who know these things because of their wisdom. And yet, knowing who to punish when, and to what extent, is an often used definition of justice itself. Thus in order for social harmony to be achieved there must exist rulers who have the wisdom to know what justice is before social harmony is achieved. This offers a problem that if accepted shatters the foundational definition of Socrates' concept of justice and makes his argument circular.

Socrates' definition and explanation of justice has a depth that continues to spark conversation, debate, and contemplation thousands of years after his words were spoken. Whatever criticisms have been offered in the past, and will be offered in the future, we all owe a debt of gratitude to Socrates for igniting the flame of critical thought on the subject.



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