Plato and Justice as Human Excellence

Taha Azzaoui - 2017.12.29


In book I of his Republic Plato writes of a discussion between Socrates and Polemarchus which eventually concludes with the idea that “men who are harmed necessarily become more unjust” (335d).

His Argument

As a rough outline of his argument, Socrates starts by defining the question, then continues by defining supplementary concepts that serve as stepping stones, each concept elevating his argument one level further until he eventually ascends to the top of the mountain that is his conclusion. The question he poses is simple: Do the just live happier than the unjust?

Socrates starts by defining a concept called an “end”. He refers to an “end” as a role which is best accomplished by something. For example, the “end” of the eye would be sight. This follows from its definition, as the eye is an organ and no other organ can outperform the eye in matters of sight.

He then uses the concept of an end to define another concept called “excellence”. According to Socrates, “excellence” follows from something’s end as it is that thing’s ability to fulfill its end.

After defining these preliminary concepts, he then makes it a point to generalize them, asserting that “the same is true of all things”, or in other words, everything has an end and a special excellence. This assertion of generality here is imperative as it will allow him to apply the implications of having an end/excellence indiscriminately later on in his argument.

The next question he asks represents the turning point of the whole argument, it goes roughly as follows. Do things that fulfill their end, fulfill them because of their excellence? Conversely, do things that fail to fulfill their end, come up short due to their own defect (or their lack of excellence)? As an example, consider the eyes once more. If the eyes fail to fulfill their end, or in other words are blind, is it because they have lost their proper excellence of sight? Socrates and Polemarchus of course agree that this is the case and swiftly move on.

The dominoes are all lined up, all the necessary propositions are in place. Socrates now flicks the foremost domino and kicks off the chain reaction that is his conclusion:

  1. The soul has an end and a special excellence.
  2. The end of the soul is life itself.
  3. Justice is the excellence of the soul and injustice is the defect (lack of excellence) of the soul.
  4. The soul cannot fulfill its end when deprived of its excellence.
  5. The just soul will live well and the unjust soul will live unwell.
  6. Happiness is the condition of living well and unhappiness is the condition of living unwell.

All of which lead to the unavoidable conclusion: justice makes its possessor happy, and injustice is its opposite. That is, the just are happy.