What is Justice? Icon

September 30, 2015

Persons in the dialogue:

Socrates, the narrator Socrates avatar
Glaucon Glaucon avatar
Adeimantus Adeimmantus avatar
Polemarchus Polemarchus avatar
Cephalus Cephalus avatar
Thrasymachus Thrasymachus avatar
Cleitophon Cleitophon avatar

The scene is in Cephalus’ house at the Piraeus. Socrates narrates the dialogue to Timaeus, Hermocrates, Critias, and a nameless person, who are introduced in the Timaeus, the day after it happened.

Glaucon is the son of Ariston.

I went down yesterday to the Piraeus with him:

  • to offer prayers to the goddess Bendis (the Thracian Artemis), and
  • because I wanted to see how they would celebrate the festival, which was a new thing.

I was delighted with the procession of the inhabitants. But the procession of the Thracians was equally, if not more, beautiful. When we had finished our prayers and viewed the spectacle, we went the city. Polemarchus is the son of Cephalus.

Just then he saw us from a distance and so he came with:

  • Adeimantus, Glaucon’s brother,
  • Niceratus the son of Nicias, and
  • several others who had been at the procession.
Polemarchus Socrates, you are on your way to the city. We want you to go somewhere else.
Adeimantus Has no one told you of the torch-race on horseback in honour of the goddess which will take place in the evening? The horsemen will carry torches and pass them one to another during the race.
Yes. Let us rise soon after supper and see this festival.

We went to Polemarchus’ house and found:

  • his brothers Lysias and Euthydemus,
  • Thrasymachus the Chalcedonian,
  • Charmantides the Paeanian, and
  • Cleitophon the son of Aristonymus.
  • Cephalus the father of Polemarchus

Cephalus

Cephalus I am old and I like conversation more as I get older, so please stay with us. A lot of old men complain. But to me these complainers complain about the wrong thing because I don’t feel the same way. I feel more like Sophocles.
I think you have a good old life because you are rich.
Cephalus Yes, but people think that wealth is the cause, rather than the person. I tripled the value of my parents' wealth.

The makers of fortunes love money as their own creation, just as authors love their own poems, or parents loving their children.

What is the greatest blessing which you have reaped from your wealth?

Cephalus

Is it just to speak the truth and pay your debts? If a friend gives his weapons to me and asks for them when he goes crazy, should I give them back to him? People could just say that I should always speak the truth to him even if he were crazy.

Cephalus Correct.
Wrong. Speaking the truth and paying your debts is not a correct definition of justice.
Polemarchus Socrates is correct according to Simonides.
Cephalus I have to go now, you can continue with Polemarchus and the others.

Polemarchus

To Polemarchus: What did Simonides say about justice?
Polemarchus The repayment of a debt is just.

He doesn’t mean that I should return the weapons to a crazy man. But a deposit is a debt. I should not return the weapon to the crazy man. When Simonides said that the repayment of a debt was justice, did he not mean to include that case?

Polemarchus Certainly not. He thinks that a friend should always do good to a friend and never evil. If the two parties are friends, the return of a deposit of gold which can injure the receiver is not a repayment of a debt.
What do we owe to enemies who receive them?
Polemarchus They are to receive what we owe them.

If an enemy owes to an enemy the evil which is proper to him, then it means Simonides spoke darkly of the nature of justice.

He really meant to say that justice is the giving to each man what is proper to him. He called this debt. If we asked him what medicine should be given, and to whom, how would he respond?

Polemarchus He would surely reply that medicine gives drugs, meat, and drink to human bodies.
What is that which justice gives, and to whom?
Polemarchus Justice is the art that gives good to friends and evil to enemies.

The physician is best able to do good to his friends and evil to his enemies in time of sickness, just as the pilot is the best when they are on a sea voyage.

The just man does the most harm to his enemy and good to his friend by going to war against his enemy and in making alliances with his friend.

But when a man is well, there is no need of a physician. Likewise, a person who is not on a voyage does not need a pilot. Then in time of peace, justice will be of no use?

Polemarchus

No, it will still be needed.

Justice is useful in peace and in war, like husbandry for wheat acquisition, and shoemaking for getting shoes. Justice is useful in peacetime in contracts, like partnerships.

The skilful player is a more useful and better partner at a game of drafts than the just man. In the laying of bricks and stones, the builder is a more useful or better partner than the just man.
Polemarchus The just man is a better partner than a harp-player in a money partnership.
Yes, but surely not in the use of money. You do not want a just man to be your counsellor in buying or selling a horse. A horse expert is better for that. When you want to buy a ship, the shipwright or the pilot would be better. So when would a just man be better for the use of silver or gold?
Polemarchus When you want a deposit to be kept safely.
  • Justice is useful if you want to keep pruning shears safe. But if you want to use it, then the gardening arts are more useful.
  • Justice is useful if you want to keep a weapon and not to use it. But if you want to use it, then the art of the soldier is more useful. And so for all other things.

Justice is useful when those things are useless. Justice is useless when those things are useful. Then justice is not good for much.

The best boxer that can box is also the best one to avoid the blows. The most skilful in preventing a disease is the best able to create one. The best guard of a camp is the best able to infiltrate the enemy camp. A good keeper of anything is also a good thief. Then if the just man is good at keeping money, he is good at stealing it. Then after all, the just man has turned out to be a thief. This is a lesson which I suspect you must have learnt out of Homer.

Autolycus was the maternal grandfather of Odysseus, who is a favourite of Homer. Homer said of Autolycus that ‘He was excellent above all men in theft and perjury.’ And so, you, Homer, and Simonides agree that justice is an art of theft. But it is to be practised ‘for the good of friends and for the harm of enemies’.

Polemarchus No. But I still stand by ‘for the good of friends and for the harm of enemies’
Do you mean real friends and enemies or only those who seem to be friends and enemies?
Polemarchus A man may be expected to love those whom he thinks good, and to hate those whom he thinks evil.

Justice is Not Merely Doing Good to Friends and Doing Harm to Enemies

Yes, many people often err about good and evil.

  • Many who are not good seem to be good.
  • Many who are good seem to be not good.

To them, the good will be enemies and the evil will be their friends. In that case, they will be right in doing good to the evil and evil to the good. But the good are just and would not do an injustice. Then according to your argument, is it just to injure those who do no wrong?

Polemarchus No. It’s immoral.

Then you suppose that we should do good to the just and harm the unjust. But see the consequence:

  • Many people ignorant of human nature have friends who are bad.
  • In that case, they should harm such friends.
  • People have good enemies whom he should benefit.
  • But, if so, we shall be saying the very opposite of what Simonides meant.
Polemarchus Yes. We should correct an error in the use of the words ‘friend’ and ’enemy.’ We assumed that a friend is someone good or seems to be good. We should rather say that a friend is someone who seems good, but is not good.

He seems to be a friend, but not a friend. He also might be an enemy. People would think:

  • that the good are our friends and the bad our enemies,
  • that it is just to do good to our friends when they are good, and
  • that it is just to harm our enemies when they are evil.

But should the just injure any one at all?

Polemarchus He should injure his enemies and those who are wicked. When horses are injured, they are deteriorated.

Injured men become deteriorated too, and so they are necessarily made unjust.

  • But the musician by his art cannot make men unmusical.
  • The horseman by his art cannot make men bad horsemen.

The just, by justice, cannot make men unjust. The good, by virtue, cannot make men bad, just as heat cannot produce cold.

  • Drought cannot produce moisture just as the good cannot harm anyone.
  • A just man will not injure a friend or anyone else just as it is not justice to injure another.

Thus, it is not wise to say:

  • “Justice is in the repayment of debts”,
  • “The debt which a just man owes to his friends is good”,
  • “The debt which a just man owes to his enemies is evil”,

Then are we prepared to take up arms against anyone who attributes such a saying to Simonides, Bias, Pittacus, or any other wise man or seer?

Polemarchus Yes, I am quite ready to do battle at your side.