Plato's Republic, Book IX


In Book IX of the Republic, Socrates finally returns to the guiding question of the whole dialog, the question posed by Glaucon and Adeimantus in Boook II: Why is it better to be just than unjust?  Socrates offers three “proofs” that in all circumstances, justice is to be preferred.

1st argument:  Portrait of the tyrant

Everyone has wild desires, but different people control them differently.  The tyrannical type is one who is mad with desires and continually demands that these desires be gratified.

  So rather like a drug addict, he does whatever it takes to meet this need: he spends all he has, borrows shamelessly, takes by force, and even steals from temples.  If he succeeds in actually becoming a tyrant, he has no true friends.  The city he rules is poor, full of fear, and lacks real community.  All those around him are either flatterers or seeking to use him or enemies plotting against him.  He lives in a kind of prison, requiring constant protection, and afraid to travel in case he’s ousted from power while absent.  So miserable is his existence, says Socrates, that the tyrannical type who actually succeeds in seizing power is the unlucky one; the individual with the same appetites who is not able to gratify them is, paradoxically, more fortunate.

The portrait Socrates paints is vivid and plausible.  The way a powerful person can feel trapped in his position is well illustrated by the tragedy of Michael Corleone in the Godfather movies, as well as by the actual histories of real-life tyrants.

  As an argument, though, it essentially amounts to claiming that injustice inevitably leads to unhappiness.

2nd argument: Analysis of the soul

Socrates identifies three parts to the soul:

  The appetitive part – desires food, sex, wealth, etc.

  The spirited part – desires for honor, victory, and control

  The philosophical part – desires learning and truth

There are three character types, and in each one a different part of the soul dominates.  Each thinks that their way of life is best and that they are happiest.  But the only ones that is really in a position to judge are the philosophical types, since only they have experience of all three sorts of desire and pleasure.  And those with the full range of experience always judge the philosophical life to be the best.  (In his famous work, Utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill offers a similar argument for saying that the “higher” pleasures are more valuable than the “lower” pleasures.)

Like the first argument,  this “proof” effectively claims that is in a person’s self-interest to live virtuously.

3rd argument: Analysis of pleasure

This “proof” is related to the second argument.  Socrates argues that the intellectual or philosophical  pleasures are superior to bodily pleasures on two counts: a) they relate to Being–that is, they involve contemplation and understanding of ultimate reality; and b) unlike the lower pleasures, which are constantly at war with one another, the intellectual pleasures are harmonious.  Socrates even goes so far as to calculate that the philosopher is 729 times happier than the tyrant–a conclusion he presumably offers tongue in cheek.

Socrates explains his view using a metaphor of a multi-headed beast with a human head (reason), a lion’s head (spirit), and various other sorts of head (appetites).  The unjust life, dominated by all one’s appetites and desirediverses,  is one in which one is constantly feeding all the heads.  The just life, by contrast, which is also the life of self-control, is one where the human part rules, the lion is its ally, and all the other impulse and desires are kept under control.

The three “proofs” clearly build on earlier part of the Republic.   The three parts of the soul, and the three kinds of pleasure, correspond to the three main classes in the model city.  Just as justice in the city involved every class performing its proper function, so justice in the individual consists in each part of the soul knowing its place, so to speak.

  The resulting harmony brings happiness.  It remains an open question, though, whether with these arguments Plato has really met the challenge of showing how justice is in itself better than injustice.