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Plato on justice and the nature of the soul


To: Alistair L.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Plato on justice and the nature of the soul
Date: 16th March 2011 11:41

Dear Alistair,

Thank you for your email of 3 March, with your essay for the University of London BA Ethics Historical Perspectives module, in response to the question, 'Is Plato's defence of justice in the Republic soundly derived from a correct account of the human soul?'

This is one of those questions which lays down very clearly what the examiner wants you to do. There are two questions to consider: whether Plato's account of the human soul is correct; and whether Plato's attempt to derive the notion of justice from his account of the soul is successful. Purely as a matter of strategy, I would say this straight off, just so the examiner knows that you know what you are being asked to do.

In your essay, you do address both questions, although it has to be said that most of the essay is concerned with exposition. This is very good, so far as it goes. I do think that you have been somewhat unfair to Thrasymachus (though admittedly Plato's portrait of the great Sophist is itself unfair). The idea that those in power are the ones who define 'justice' has a long tradition which arguably reaches its most potent expression in Nietzsche's moral and political philosophy. 'Justice' is for those equal in power, the masters.

Your answer to the question whether Plato's account of the human soul is correct is, basically, that it is on the right lines, and you mention briefly Plato's arguments for the distinctions that he draws -- the familiar phenomena of conflict, e.g. between reason and the appetites, or the phenomena of anger and shame which point in the direction of a third component which Plato calls 'spirit'.

I think the examiner is looking for a bit more. This is a possible topic for an essay, but here you need to treat it as a topic for at least half an essay. Why three components, why not four, or two? Yes, as you state, the model is kind-of plausible, but is there any more one could say? How good is Plato's philosophy of mind here? What criticisms have been made of his conception? How would you defend it against those criticisms?

Your answer to the question whether the concept of justice is soundly derived from the model of the soul is, again, that what Plato is trying to do is along the right lines, the biggest problem being to bridge the gap between justice as a virtue possessed by an agent, and the notion of justice as it applies to acts and the relations between individuals. You concede that a 'just' individual according to Plato's model of the soul, could do 'unjust' acts (i.e. acts which we would intuitively describe as 'unjust'). But, contrary to those intuitions, they would be 'just', just because a 'just' person did them.

There is more to say here. One possible line would be to emphasize what Plato's moral philosophy has in common with what we would now call 'virtue ethics'. The task for philosophy is not to come up with a comprehensive 'theory of justice' as an account of the necessary and sufficient conditions for just action, but rather to come to an understanding of justice as a virtue, from which acts which we would normally describe as just naturally flow, but that doesn't mean that we are simply defining 'just action' as anything a just person does.

What about the analogy with the well constructed city state? Is it just an analogy, nothing more? Just a 'model' of the soul? It seems to me that Plato is attempting something far more ambitious. The three classes which constitute the just state are classes of human beings each of which has a soul divided into three parts. The very possibility of achieving the harmony which the ideal state aims for depends on the constitution of the human soul. Beings who were differently constituted (say, whose souls had two, or four components, if that makes any sense) could not form a just state.

I wonder whether it would be going too far to say that Plato has hit upon a structure which hints at the mathematical idea of fractals. How would just states interact with one another? If there is any possibility of world justice, then one might expect a similar division into states which perform the function of rulers, states which are guardians, and states which are workers. Then, perhaps, one could raise the question how just planets interact with one another...

It's mind-blowing stuff, once you get into it. All I would say is that there is more going on than just 'valid' or 'invalid' arguments for this or that conclusion. Plato is attempting nothing less than describing a metaphysical vision of the place of man (the place of intelligent life) in the universe.

All the best,