The meaning of justice

Twenty-five hundred years ago Socrates asked a Sophist orator named Thrasymachus the meaning of justice.

It’s a question we’re still asking.

In the first book of the Republic, Plato shares a conversation between Socrates and Thrasymachus, a Sophist orator, that touches on the nature of truth, justice, and law.

“I proclaim that justice is nothing but the interest of the stronger,” Thrasymachus tells Socrates. He continues:

…the different forms of government make laws democratical, aristocratical, tyrannical, with a view to their several interests; and these laws, which are made by them for their own interests, are the justice which they deliver to their subjects, and him who transgresses them they punish as a breaker of the law, and unjust. And that is what I mean when I say that in all states there is the same principle of justice, which is the interest of the government; and as the government must be supposed to have power, the only reasonable conclusion is, that everywhere there is one principle of justice, which is the interest of the stronger.”

The claim that justice is “nothing but the interest of the stronger” is a cynical one, but one Thrasymachus repeats again and again in his long discourse with Socrates. One senses early on that Socrates does not agree with this view of justice, and through a series of questions he traps a “blushing” Thrasymachus into conceding that justice was not an arbitrary precept established by the state but an eternal idea that embodies “virtue and wisdom.”:

“Lets  consider what happens in a State divided into three classes of citizens.

The rulers, the warriors and the producers. This State is just, only when each class performs it’s own tasks without mingling in the works of other classes.

Similarly, the soul is divided into three parts which correspond to the three classes of our State.

Justice in the soul amounts to each part of it, doing what it belongs to it to do.

So then, justice means that the soul, is in harmony.

So if you agree that we possess nothing more important than our soul, then will also agree to this: the life of a just man is preferable to that of an unjust one”