Plato’s Concept of Justice

  • The Greek word for justice is ‘Diakusune’ which has a wider implication than the English word justice and comes very near to the English word morality.
  • It represents to do the right thing.
  • Amateurish meddlesomeness (indicating sophists), factious (unnatural or artificial) spirit and political selfishness which characterized the contemporary Athens.
  • This led Plato to formulate the concept of justice based on self-less devotion to the State on the lines of functional specialization.
  • The division of society into three classes and the confinement of each class to its own specialized function was calculated as Plato to remove the causes of political struggle and to lead to real unity and harmony in the state.
  • Plato reviews a number of traditional and other theories of justice representing successive stages in the growth of nations about morality and justice.

1. Conventional Idea or Traditional Theory of Justice

  • For old Cephalus, justice and morality meant being true in word and deed, paying ones debts in time and to be honest towards God.
  • His Son Polemarchus slightly modified this definition by saying that justice consists in giving each person his due (needs) and what is proper to him.
  • According to Polemarchus, Justice is doing goods to friends and evil to enemies.
  • For old Cephalus, justice and morality meant being true in word and deed, paying ones debts in time and to be honest towards God.
  • His Son Polemarchus slightly modified this definition by saying that justice consists in giving each person his due (needs) and what is proper to him.
  • According to Polemarchus, Justice is doing goods to friends and evil to enemies.
  • Virtue makes a man good. Plato analyzed virtue in the constituent elements of wisdom, courage and common desires.
  • Justice is ‘architectonic in relation to other’s excellence and is necessary for their perfection.
  • Justice is thus not purely a personal virtue but has a social side too.
  • It is a bond of societies and states, holding men together in healthy social relationships by making them good and perfect for social order.

2. Radical Theory of Justice

  • Thrasymachus, a sophist, gave the radical theory of justice.
  • He represented the new and critical views about the nature of justice and morality.
  • He did not believe in traditional view of justice.
  • According to him, “In all states, there is same principle of justice which is the interest f the government.
  • The government must be supposed to have power.
  • The only reasonable conclusion is that everywhere there is one principle of justice, which is the interest of the stronger’.
  • From Tharsymachus’ points of view, it can be concluded that:
    • Justice means just for one man i.e. the ruler must be just for all;
    • Justice is the decision of the stronger;
    • Those who breaks laws should be severely punished.
  • Thus justice is obeying powerful authority according to Thrasymachus.
  • To this view of Thrasymacus, Plato replies that justice is always better than injustice and a decision of powerful ruler cannot be categorized as justice.
  • So justice is not the interest of the stronger.
  • The governors are just the shepherds to protect their sheep and exist for the good of the governed.
  • Justice produces social harmony by developing socially expedient behavior.
  • Stronger one could be dictator without reason, i.e., injustice.

3. Pragmatist Theory of Justice (Executive Theory/Pragmatic Theory)

  • Glaucon and Adiemantus, as pragmatist say that

    • The state is born of a compact based on mutual fear and not on universal moral principles.
    • The state is a conventional and not natural organization so morality is only a second best thing.
    • Justice should be created for man’s comforts, a product of convention and custom.
    • Justice is an artificial thing, it is external and is executed.
    • So justice is a necessity of weaker not the interest of the stronger as radicals say.
  • But Plato here also denies that justice is conventional and therefore something external.

  • According to him, justice depends upon neither conventional nor external force, it is the right condition of human soul and is something internal, depending on human virtue.

  • It exists both in the state-hence his portrayal of the ideal state and in the individual too.

  • Having reviewed and dismissed other theories of justice, Plato sets himself through person of Socrates, the task of discovering in his famous book ‘The Republic’.

  • Justice is the harmonious balancing and operation of life among the three classes in the state.

  • Plato’s justice means “the will to concentrate on ones own sphere of duty and not to interfere sphere of others.

  • To Plato, justice is an indispensable quality of moral life in the community.

  • Plato’s polity is a moral organism and his theory of justice is a theory of ethical code.

  • Man should get offices according to their ability and to their devotion to their duties to the state.

  • Ability included moral and intellectual thrust.

The whole conception of justice of Plato is based on the following elements:

  • Recognition of 3 elements in an individual and the division of society into three classes.

  • Those three classes representing three elements of reason, spirit and appetite. These three elements are guide to action and bond of union in the state.

  • Well-regulated scheme of education and training to individuals for their true vocation in life.

  • Organization of the state on the basis of functional specialization. One man one work creates concentration which strengthens individual efficiency and enriches the life of community.

  • Freedom of philosopher rulers from labor and private worries and entanglements by as system of communism of property and wives.

  • The rule of unselfish intellect, it banishes ignorance from politics and leads to political unselfishness.

  • Emancipation of women enabling them to take their proper place in public life due to the communism of wives.

  • Plato’s justice is a conception of service and devotion to the state of the individual and not his rights and powers.

  • An individual exists for and in the sate and has not meaning apart from the state. ‘Man versus the state is incompatible with Plato’s concept of justice.

  • Plato’s concept of justice conceives of universal and not particular or legalistic justice. It rises above the ‘keen narrow, little and particular legal mind’ which limits the moral life of man to mere conformity to the law of the state.

  • It refers to the whole duty of ma not merely his legal duties.

  • Plato’s justice lies in the sphere of morality rather than of law. His concept of justice was of Greek (Metaphysical) rather than Roman (Legal).

  • To Plato, the essence of social ethics and of justice lies in the concept of “my stations and my duties.”


In the modern context, Plato’s concept of justice sounds very novel for what it omits and what it includes. It is, in no sense, a juristic or legal definition of justice. Self-control and devotion in the interest of the state is the base of Plato’s justice which lacks the individuals’ rights and the maintenance of these rights through law courts. Justice for him is a social virtue, theory of manners, goodness and moral principles having no sanctions behind them. So it envisages a dull uniformity and harmony in social life.

Professor Popper, Prof. Joad and Crossman comment his concept of justice

  • Plato’s version of ‘one man, one work’ militates against the full development of human personality and deprives the community of a full and rich variety of life.
  • Plato’s justice is static and passive.
  • It is too subjective and does not issue in an objective law for the guidance of people.
  • Plato’s theory is totalitarian, it leads to the complete subordination of individual to the state.
  • No equal treatment of the citizens before the law.
  • No mention about impartiality of the courts of justice, etc.
  • Plato’s emphasis on justice in all his books is itself a contribution.
  • Plato too realized his excessive idealism later on and in “The Politicus” and “The Laws,” he gave all citizens a share in political powers in the name of justice.
  • It is true that Plato’s concept of justice postulates an individual who does not stand isolated but is an active and integral part of a social order.

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