Q.Give an account of the fundamental features of Plato’s theory of justice.
The problem here is how to compress the fundamentals of this complicated theory into a relatively small space. It is possible to deal in this way with the theory in outline only. Particular attention should be given to Plato’s views on ‘harmony’ and the state, and reference should be made to his ideal state. A skeleton plan is suggested as follows:
Introduction – emergence of the state from the very nature
of man – justice as a ‘general virtue’ – justice and the
degeneration of the state – the ideal state of Magnesia –
necessity for a code of laws – the modern approach to
Plato’s theory of justice.
Plato (c 427–c 347 BC), together with Aristotle, laid and shaped a large part of the foundations of the entire intellectual and cultural traditions of the West. His theory of justice was expounded in The Republic (c 370 BC); a development of that theory and its application to an ideal state are embodied in The Laws (c 340 BC). Neither the theory nor its application is found attractive to modern jurists in general, save for a group who favour an authoritarian approach to the law and who claim to find support for their views in The Republic. Critical studies of The Republic and The Laws (which, in a sense, are complementary) have been responsible for much of the theorising which burgeoned into early European jurisprudence.
The Republic is, in a number of respects, the crowning work of Plato’s philosophical writings: it brings into sharp focus many of his basic beliefs regarding the nature of man and the essence of good government and law. It takes the form of a discussion between Socrates and his friends and is, essentially, an application of Plato’s ethical theory to the delineation of the features of an ideal State. Socrates is used as a mouthpiece for Plato’s own thoughts. The dialogue moves swiftly towards the central question of the nature of justice. Socrates’ friends attempt definitions which collapse under his scrutiny. The concept of justice as ‘paying one’s debts and giving each his due’ is rejected swiftly. The argument that justice is ‘nothing but the interests of the strong’ is exposed as a contradiction. Answers to the question, ‘Why should one be just?’ constitute the central part of Socrates’ vision of justice. He suggests that, because it is easier to perceive things in the large than in the small, it might be better to look for justice ‘writ large’ in the state. Hence it would be valuable to seek to establish what makes a ‘just state’ rather than to concentrate on a ‘just individual’. Because justice will figure large in the attributes of an ideal state, it is necessary to outline such a state with particular reference to its constitution and its attitudes to justice.
It is important to note that Plato uses the Greek word ‘dikaiosune’ for ‘justice’. In its true sense, it means ‘righteousness’, and bears no overtones of ‘equality’. Plato’s view of ‘justice’ does not take in egalitarianism: this is evident, for example, in his dismissal of democracy as ‘distributing an odd kind of equality to equals and unequal’s.
The state must be considered as emerging from the very nature of man and as reflecting the structure of human nature. Individuals are not self-sufficing; hence, a division of labour is essential, allowing each person to perform, at the right time, ‘the one thing for which he is naturally fitted’. A multitude of crafts and craftsmen will emerge. Exhaustion of the community’s resources may result and wars with other communities will take place, necessitating the creation of an army of warriors. From the ranks of the warriors will emerge the guardians of the state, and from the most highly trained guardians will come an elite which will rule the state. The three classes – craftsmen, guardians, and rulers – epitomise, according to Plato, the ‘three parts of the soul’, that is, the appetitive, the spirited and the rational. The virtues associated with the three classes are temperance (among the craftsmen), courage (characterising the guardians), and wisdom (to be found among the rulers). Members of the three classes would have to be taught (on the basis of what Plato refers to as ‘a convenient fiction ... a single bold flight of invention’) that nature approves a perfectly stratified society and that it had mixed gold in the composition of those who were to be the rulers, silver in the guardians, and brass and iron in the craftsmen.
The achievement of justice in a state depends on whether the elements of wisdom and philosophy could achieve dominance. Evils within society will continue until the philosophers acquire political authority, or until those in authority become philosophers.
Justice is a general virtue; it necessitates all parts of the state fulfilling their special functions and thereby achieving their respective virtues. It will be attained within the state only when and if each class fulfills its functions. When every individual stays in his place, and does the special task for which his aptitudes equip him, then will justice emerge. Justice is, indeed, harmony, reflected in a ‘correct balance of the soul’. It involves a harmony of the fundamental virtues of temperance, courage and wisdom. Therefore, each person within the state must attain his own individual harmony based upon these virtues. Hence, in the ‘just state’ the craftsman must pursue the appropriate virtues which will teach him to accept his position within society and to obey the rules made by the elite.
‘Balanced uniformity’ within the state, which mirrors the desirable healthy, harmonious unity within individuals, will produce the settled community within which justice will flourish. Plato recognizes, however, that not all states can achieve and maintain an appropriate degree of harmony, nor can individuals attain their own internal harmony because of variations in human character. Even the state in which justice predominates may contain the seeds of its eventual decline. Plato notes five forms of government, each one of which reflects appropriate kinds of ‘mental constitutions’ within individuals. The ideal state, characterized by a high degree of justice in its constitution, and in which the philosopher-rulers are supreme and each person’s appetites are controlled by individual reason, is termed by Plato an aristocracy. The essence of the aristocratic state is the proper subordination of classes. Justice emerges naturally from this arrangement. But this type of state tends to degenerate into a democracy, epitomising ambition and love of honor, and mirroring the individual in whom irrational characteristics are assuming a significant role. Further degeneration takes place and culminates in the rise of a plutocracy in which power is in the hands of those who are concerned mainly with wealth. This degenerate form of state is a reflection of those individuals whose principal characteristic is greed. Hence, ‘the rich rise and the virtuous sink’; self-gratification produces antagonistic groups of rich and poor, and justice is weakened.
The legitimising of all appetites under a plutocracy produces an insatiable craving for wealth, equality and unrestricted freedom. The stage is set for democracy – a further degeneration. Modern jurists emphasise that Plato probably could not have had in mind a style of democracy other than that which he had experienced in the small city state of Athens. Direct popular government, as practised in Athens, seemed to him a total violation of the concept of a state ruled by those with special, trained aptitudes. Within a democracy, justice will be incomplete and inadequate. The final degeneration takes the form of despotism, a reflection of the ‘enlargement of the unjust soul’. The absolute despot who enslaves a community mirrors the single ‘master-passion’ which has enslaved the individual soul. The harmony which is necessary if justice is to prevail has been shattered totally, so that justice disappears completely under despotism.
Some years after The Republic was written, Plato produced a detailed, practical plan for his ideal ‘just state’. The Laws is an account of the structure and organisation appropriate for this ‘Utopia’. The significance of law is emphasised: law is viewed by Plato in this work as essential for the moral salvation of the community and the maintenance of an appropriate standard of justice. The ideal state involves government based on a minutely detailed code of laws which points the way to achievement of ‘the true good’. The resulting picture of an ideal state has few attractions for contemporary jurists who find its picture of a regimented community to be repulsive. The ideal state emerges as an authoritarian regime based on laws which are almost unalterable and which seek to control every aspect of individual life.
The state will be named ‘Magnesia’. Its guiding principles are: the existence of certain absolute standards of morality and their embodiment in a code of laws; the total obedience of the population to the rules and regulations made for them; the total prohibition of any attempt by citizens to modify the prevailing moral ideas or the code of law which expresses those ideals. Magnesia will be 10 miles from the sea, with a population of 5,040 citizens, plus some resident aliens. Justice will necessitate the encouragement of modest living standards, so that ‘excess’, which can destroy harmony, is discouraged. Each family will own a farm and most of the manual labour will be performed by slaves (who enjoy none of the rights of citizens). Trade will be carried out by the resident aliens. All persons will be educated in a manner which will prevent their subversion by undesirable ideas, which will fit them for their destined occupations and allow them to defend the state. (A constant state of undeclared war between Magnesia and other states is taken for granted: peace is ‘only a name’.) In the interests of the social harmony upon which justice will rest, there will be a state religion and adherence will be enforced rigidly.
The government of Magnesia will include officials elected by the citizens. It will, however, observe the general policies lay down by the ‘Guardians of the Laws’. The imposition of standards so that harmony and justice might prevail is the direct responsibility of these governing elite. Members of the elite will pursue a programme of philosophical studies, designed to enable them to comprehend the ‘true reasons’ behind the laws of the state and their significance for the maintenance of justice.
Justice will reflect harmony, and that harmony will require an all-embracing, detailed and systematically-arranged code of laws. It is the criminal code of Magnesia which has attracted considerable attention from generations of political scientists and jurists. Its range of penalties is very wide; the nature of the penalties is often, in our eyes, bizarre. Apart from basic crimes, such as theft, assault and homicide, there is a long list of offences, trivial and serious, attracting severe penalties. Thus, it is an offence under this code to attend weddings when forbidden to do so, to fail to marry, or to arrange for extravagant wedding feasts. There are penalties for the pursuit of an unsuitable occupation, for the carrying on of retailing (except in the case of resident aliens or temporary visitors), or for the staging of unauthorised comic plays. Meddling in law or education, the inconsiderate planting of trees, and truancy from school, also attract penalties. The code of laws will assist in the establishment and maintenance of that unity of purpose from which justice will flow.
Some aspects of Plato’s penology are based on his belief in reform rather than vengeance – in the interests of justice for all citizens. He perceives crime as involuntary, in the sense that the ‘true nature’ of the offender has been conquered against his own fundamental wishes. Hence, he should be ‘cured’ rather than punished. Yet, in contrast, Plato’s code prescribed the death penalty for the ‘incurable’ criminal in a large number of cases, particularly where the security of the state is endangered. The punishment to be meted out to slaves is often of an abhorrent nature.
The modern approach to Plato’s theory of justice acknowledges that he was a remarkable ‘child of his time’, that his attitudes were conditioned by beliefs which are not easily comprehended in our day, and that to condemn him, say, for his acceptance of slavery, is to condemn an entire era. His lasting contribution to legal theory is in the basis of early jurisprudential thought founded on concepts of harmony, virtue and balance as desirable ends to be reflected in the law. Our own society, its laws and institutions, have changed since Plato’s time, and our conceptions of justice are far-removed from his. But, in Friedmann’s words, the fundamental issues for jurisprudence have not changed: the problems and conflicts which are discussed in The Republic continue to exercise us today.
The Republic has been translated by Lee, Jowett, and many other scholars; a large number of editions exists. The Laws has been translated by Saunders. Friedmann’s Legal Theory, Chapter 2, contains an account of the essence of Plato’s theory of justice. The theory is analysed in Calhoun’s Introduction to Greek Legal Science, and in Jones’ The Law and Legal Theory of the Greeks.