Plato- The Republic
In the Republic, Plato, speaking through his teacher Socrates, sets out to answer two questions. What is justice?
Why should we be just? Book I sets up these challenges. The interlocutors engage in a Socratic dialogue similar
to that found in Plato’s earlier works. While among a group of both friends and enemies, Socrates poses the
question, “What is justice?” He proceeds to refute every suggestion offered, showing how each harbors hidden
contradictions. Yet he offers no definition of his own, and the discussion ends in aporia—a deadlock, where no
further progress is possible and the interlocutors feel less sure of their beliefs than they had at the start of the
conversation. In Plato’s early dialogues, aporia usually spells the end. The Republic moves beyond this deadlock.
Nine more books follow, and Socrates develops a rich and complex theory of justice.
When Book I opens, Socrates is returning home from a religious festival with his young friend Glaucon, one of
Plato’s brothers. On the road, the three travelers are waylaid by Adeimantus, another brother of Plato, and the
young nobleman Polemarchus, who convinces them to take a detour to his house. There they join Polemarchus’
aging father Cephalus, and others. Socrates and the elderly man begin a discussion on the merits of old age. This
discussion quickly turns to the subject of justice.s
Cephalus, a rich, well-respected elder of the city, and host to the group, is the first to offer a definition of justice.
Cephalus acts as spokesman for the Greek tradition. His definition of justice is an attempt to articulate the basic
Hesiodic conception: that justice means living up to your legal obligations and being honest. Socrates defeats this
formulation with a counterexample: returning a weapon to a madman. You owe the madman his weapon in some
sense if it belongs to him legally, and yet this would be an unjust act, since it would jeopardize the lives of others.
So it cannot be the case that justice is nothing more than honoring legal obligations and being honest.
At this point, Cephalus excuses himself to see to some sacrifices, and his son Polemarchus takes over the
argument for him. He lays out a new definition of justice: justice means that you owe friends help, and you owe
enemies harm. Though this definition may seem different from that suggested by Cephalus, they are closely
related. They share the underlying imperative of rendering to each what is due and of giving to each what is
appropriate. This imperative will also be the foundation of Socrates’ principle of justice in the later books. Like
his father’s view, Polemarchus’ take on justice represents a popular strand of thought—the attitude of the
ambitious young politician—whereas Cephalus’ definition represented the attitude of the established, old
Socrates reveals many inconsistencies in this view. He points out that, because our judgement concerning friends