Critically examine Plato's theory of justice.

Critically examine Plato's theory of justice.

 Q.6. Critically examine Plato's theory of justice. [2012] 

Ans. Theory of Justice

In his interpretation and enquiry into the nature of justice Plato has followed the dialectic method. As in his epistemology and ethics so here also before finally presenting his own idea of justice Plato has evaluated the following four theories of justice prevalent in his time : 

        1. Traditionalism: According to Polymarchus, the son of Cephalus, justice consists in giving to each man what is proper to him. Thus it is speaking the truth and paying the debt. In other words, justice is an art which gives good to friends and evil to enemies. Criticising this theory of justice Plato has advanced some arguments.

        2. Radicalism: According to this theory, prevalent in Plato's time, justice is the interest of the stronger. This theory was supported by Sophists including Thracymachas. According to Thracymachas justice is the interest of the stronger. One should act according to his capacity and he should achieve whatever isl possible for him. As the state is the strongest of all whatever the state does is just. In other words, justice is the will of a ruler who wills his own good.

        3. Pragmatism: According to this theory of justice is the child of fear. Glaucon, the originator of this theory, presented a theory of social justice followed later by the social contract theory of Hobbes and Rousseau. Justice, according to it, is born out of traditions. It is thus not natural but artificial. In ancient times people used to heap injustice upon others who succumbed to it. These people were weak and therefore, could not oppose the strong. They therefore, arrived at a sort of social contract that they will neither do injustice to others nor tolerate injustice. This social contract led to certain conventions in human society. These conventions resulted into social ethics. This social ethics liels between the two extremes of doing injustice and tolerating injustice. As against this explanation of justice on the basis of social customs and traditions.

        4. Rationalism: Justice, accordint to socrates, is an art. Art aims at removal of the defects of things. For example, aphysician removes the defects of the body and the teacher removes the defects of the mind. An ideal teacher is a person who develops the capacity of the mind of the student removing all the defects and incapacities. Similarly, a ruler is successful only if he removes the defects from the ruled. He is following the art of justice so that a person utilises his art for his living and even sometimes for the satisfactionof his selfish ends, but this is not the ideal condition. In theideal condition the artist is unselfish, totally devoted to the intrinsic aim of the art, without any selfish and narrow end of achieve and always acting for the improvement of his art. It is hence that Plato in his The Republic, advocated therule of aphilosopher king for the achievement of ideal republic.


        The acme of the social philosophy of Plato is the theory of justice. This may be called the theory of social justice since, as has been pointed out, stale was a means for the whole of the society. Therefore, political justice is a corrolary of the theory of the social justice. The theory of justice has been elaborated in Plato's famous dialogue The Republic. In this work the books first and second discuss the theory of justice while political justice has been discussed in the books two, three and four. The Republic was concerned with the nature of justice, its characteristics and how it can be dispensed with in the society and state. This theory was developed on the basis of imagination of an ideal state, how a state ought to be. It was not based upon a survey of the actual fact; in Greece or elsewhere. Therefore the discussion is mostly philosophical.

Quality of the Soul

        In The Republic the nature of social justice has been discussed in the form of a dialogue between Socrates and some of his friends concerning the aim of human life, the structure of human personality and the parallelism between the individual and the society. The philosopher pointed out that just as in the individual different aspects must be given their due and no one aspect should be allowed to dominate all the rest for all the time, similarly in society the different classes must be given what is due to them and no single class should be allowed to dominate all the other classes without any restriction. Justice, according to Plato, is the quality of the soul. Therefore, it does not depend upon any external source of power. It is the voice of conscience of man. The human personality is guided by three tendencies-knowledge, physical tendency and the spiritual tendency.

Organic Theory of Society

        Thus it is clear that justice, according to Plato, is primarily and ethical concept not a jural one. It insists upon following one's duties in the path of morality. It maintains the necessity of following the spiritual impulse. Plato has, however, committed a mistake in holding the organic theory of society in which different parts have an intrinsic and vital relationship with each other. As has been pointed out by modern sociologists and political scientists, society is not an organism. While organism has an internal relationship between different parts, some of the relationships in the social groups are external. 

Integral Approach

        The most important characteristic of Plato's theory of justice is its integral approach. It looks to all the sides of the individual personality and the body politic It aims at giving justice to every part of the individual and each class of society. However, in maintaining a hierarchy like the varna system in India and adhering to it too rigidly, he arrived at a concept which was a negation of his essential purpose. 

Characteristics of Justice

        Plato's theory of justice exhibits the following characteristics: Based upon social stratification: Corresponding to the three 

        1. elements of a soul Plato has pointed out a three-fold social stratification involving the guardians, the soldiers and the general people such as the artisons, farmers etc According to him, justice consists in the fulfilment of duties by all these three classes in a state.

        2. Innate tendency: Justice, according to Plato, is innate. It is the quality of the soul. It is the voice of conscience.

        3. Functional specialisation: Plato classified society into three classes according to the three human tendencies-the cognitive, the conative and the effective. While the guardians represent the first, soldiers the second, the third is represented by the general masses. Thus Plato arrived at a functional specialisation among citizens.

        4. Philosopher King: Justice, according to Plato, is possible only in a state wherethe philosopher rules since the philosopher, according to Plato, is the wisest among human beings.

        5. Communism: In order to keep the guardians free from personal worried and envies, Plato hasadvocated communism of property and women among guardians and soldiers.

        6. Two Types of Justice: Plato has classified justice into two

types - Social and Individual, both of which are intimately related. 

        7. Universal: Justice, according to Piato, is,the same everywhere. It is the universal principle.

        8. Moral concept Platonic concept of justice is not juial but moral: Fulfilment of justice does not so much requite fulfilment of jural duties but the following of moral obligations.

        9. Freedom Tor women: The establishmem of justice, according to Plato, requires freedom for women. Women should be given equal rights in the state to participate in all the activities alongside with men. 10. Education for justice: In order to prepare the citizens for the realization of justice in the state, Piato has advanced a scheme of planned education.

The individual Justice

        Justice, according to Plato, is the spirit by which men are animated in the fulfilment of duty. In human mind there are three elements-reason, spirit and appetite. While wisdom is the virtue of reason, the courage of the spirit and the temperance of the appetite, justice is the virtue which maintains harmony in all these three. Thus, according to Plato, each part of human mind must get its due satisfaction and ultimately there must be a harmony between different parts of the individual. Only such harmonious individuals can create a harmonious society and a harmonious state,

Social Justice

        Just as in the individual, there are three elements, similarly in a society there are three types of men corresponding to it. These types of men are classified according to the predominance of some one part out of the three pointed out above in the individual source. Thus some people are. predominantly rational. They are more adept in rational persuits. Some other people are strong in spirit and therefore more active. The majority of the people are neither strong in reason nor in spirit but only in passions. These are required to be controlled by the other two. On the basis of this classification of the individual types in society, Plato has established a three fold functional social stratification in which the philosophers are at the apex, the soldiers in the middle and the artisans, farmers etc. at the base. Each of these parts of the state should carry on its own activity. 


The following criticism have been advanced against Plato's theory of justice explained above:

        1. Concept of moral justice : Plato's theory of justice is the concept of moral justice. He has therefore laid more emphasis upon the duties rather than the rights. Undeniably, emphasis on rights keeps the society united and in the state of solidarity, exclusive emphasis, however, leads to exploitation. Both rights and duties are important man ideal society.

        2. Centralization of Power: Plato provided wide powers to the philosopher king. He, however, forgot the psychological principle that absolute power corrupts absolutely. Even the wise person becomes corrupt if he is allowed absolute power.

        3. Disadvantages of functional specialization: Though some sort of division of labour is.necessary for the harmonious growth of every society, yet too much functional specialization leads to the hindrance in the all round growth of individual personalities. By prescribing division of labour based upon inherent tendencies Plato prescribed a division of labour in society solely according to these functions. He forgot the principle that heredity alone is not responsible for the personality traits. Personality is governed both by heredity and environment. Laying exclusive emphasis u pon heredity, Plato prescribed education suitable for different functions in society. He, therefore, inspite of his idea! of harmony and justice, laid the foundation of the system of society and the system of education which tended to develop one-sided personalities.

        4. Fascism: As has been already pointed out, Plato's theory of justice lays a foundation for fascism. According to it each citizen is expected to show absolute loyally towards the state, which in its tern, is also powerful. Modern thinkers are against entrusting all powers to the state which invariable results in curbing the freedom of the individual.

        5. Guardian's freedom from law: While Socrates gave so much importance to law that he refused to escape from the prison, Plato considered the guardians of the state above law. In fact what be calls justice is the dictate of the in dwelling spirit of the guardians. True justice however, can not be based upon personal conscience. Plato's theory of justice doels not provide a regulation of society and the state, while on the other hand morality is concerned with the ought and the ideal. Neglecting this distinction between moral and legal obligation Plato has failed to provide sound basis of either.

        6. Passive concept: Plato's concept of justice is extremely passive. Being primarily individual and moral it can not be the basis of jural regulation. He does not provide any solution in the conflict between desire and duty, duties and rights.

        7. Emphasis on unity than diversity: Inspite of maintaining some sort of relationship between the unity and diversity Plato has laid too much emphasis upon the unity of the state. In his search for unity he arrived upon such absurd ideas as communism of women and abolition of a marriage and family. He provided too much authority to the state, so much so that it reduced individual to a mere cell of the state organism.

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