Return to the Classics: Plato’s Republic

by | Apr 19, 2023 | Return to the Classics

One of the goals of The Jesuit Post is to create content that can be used in high school and college classrooms. The “Return to the Classics” series is one way we aim to fulfill that goal. Every year, thousands of students at Jesuit schools read a selection of the classics of Western literary, philosophical, and theological traditions. “Return to the Classics” provides a Jesuit perspective on these works, steeped in Ignatian Spirituality. We rightly begin this series with one of the most widely read books in the world: Plato’s Republic.

The first time I cracked open my Plato: Complete Works to read the Republic I was a bit disoriented. Not from locating this dialogue in this nearly three thousand-page tome, but from the nature of the dialogue itself. For a work subtitled “On Justice,” I was expecting long, detailed, impassioned descriptions of the meaning of right and wrong. Or maybe a systematic analysis of what true justice is. The last thing I had expected was a dinner party.

Plato’s dialogues might read closer to a play to the uninitiated. Depending on the reader’s perspective, the dramatic setting might imaginatively engross the reader in the lively debate therein or it may frustratingly obfuscate Plato’s theses. In either case, the dialogue format serves as a vehicle for an author to raise objections and counterpoints. The multiple points of view are essential to the Republic because the stakes are monumental: the nature of justice and the primacy of immaterial realities over the physical.

The narrative commences with Socrates, Plato’s main character, in the port of Athens with his half-brother Glaucon on a visit to the festival of the goddess Bendis. They encounter Polemarchus, their friend and a teacher of rhetoric, who invites the two into his home to celebrate a sacrificial banquet as part of the ongoing celebrations. Gathered at the table are his elderly father Cephalus, Socrates’ other half-brother Adeimantus, and another rhetoric teacher Thrasymachus, among other friends and travelers. Gradually, the informal dinner conversation shifts to the nature of justice. Cephalus defines justice as speaking the truth and paying one’s debts (331). Polemarchus offers that justice is doing well to friends and harm to enemies (332). Thrasymachus crashes into the conversation like a “wild beast” to counter that justice is nothing more than the advantage of the stronger (338). Socrates picks apart each of these arguments and renders them untenable.

Socrates’ rebuttals to his three interlocutors leave the reader to question, “What exactly is justice?” In contemporary discourse, we throw the term justice around a lot. We hear of social justice, economic justice, and climate justice. After the murder of George Floyd, we saw signs and petitions calling for “Justice for George.” The March for Life fights for justice for the unborn. I suspect any of these groups could define what justice means for them. What Plato shows us over two millennia ago is that there have been different conceptions of justice for as long as humans have discussed the subject.

Plato’s own definition, provided by Socrates in the Republic, might be unsatisfactorily vague: justice is a kind of harmony. Socrates compares this right ordering of the soul to a utopian society. In his envisioned ideal city, the rulers, warriors, and merchants each aspire to prudence, courage, and temperance respectively. These same three virtues are needed to guide the three parts of the human soul: reason, passion, and appetite. Justice is the right ordering of society in the same way justice is the ideal ordering of the virtues and passions within each soul. Perhaps Plato imagines justice as a virtue since it is difficult to positively say how justice applies in everyday situations.

As Catholics, justice is at the core of our faith and we must strive to understand what a just life and a just society are. I suggest that we can merge Plato’s virtue definition with Ignatian spirituality to appropriate a definition of justice for daily life.

If justice is the right ordering of the soul, then the just life is one that is rightly ordered. In the Principle and Foundation of the Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius of Loyola writes that humans are “created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord.” All created things in the world are inherently good and we should “use these things in so far as they help toward this end, and to be free of them in so far as they stand in the way of it.” The Catholic can live a just life if each of their actions is either praising, reverencing, or serving God. The unjust person uses possessions to advance their own image or status.

Justice is a peculiar thing, though. As discussed, it is difficult to define justice. Still, justice—in whatever form—is something that virtually all people believe exists. Even the most cynical can adopt a Thrasymachan definition. But I cannot prove to you that justice exists. I cannot point to justice in space and time to demonstrate its reality. Justice is merely an idea, something that humans can only indistinctly apprehend. 

Plato shockingly argues that justice is more real than the screen or paper on which you are reading this article. The most “real” thing to Plato is his forms, particularly the Form of Goodness. Forms can be thought of as the perfect invisible reality undergirding a physical object like a tree or a concept like the number one.

The ordering of reality might be more apparent on the other end of the spectrum. Reflections are the least real to Plato. When I see my reflection in a puddle, I know that the puddle is not my physical body. Often, that reflected image is probably distorted by ripples or objects in the way. In any event, the reflection is two-dimensional while I am three-dimensional. As such, the puddle reflection conveys the reality of my being less perfectly than my actual body. Even still, my actual body is a less perfect conception of a human being than the ideal form of a human body.

Accordingly, Plato continues that our sensory perceptions of the world can be similarly misleading. When we hold a snowball, our brain has various sensory inputs such as white, cold, and round leading us to reasonably conclude that we are holding a snowball. The human mind comprehends physical objects by identifying the ideal forms in which the objects share. For example, we have an idea of what snowballs are in our minds.  Our imagined snowballs are likely perfectly white, round, and compact. That idea, in Plato’s estimation, is the most real snowball of all, more so than any particular instance of a snowball we have held. Actual snowballs may be a little misshapen or might contain some bits of debris. The form of a snowball is then more real than physical snowballs to Plato–and much more real than any reflection of a snowball one might see in a puddle.

In the seventh book of the Republic, Plato presents his famous cave allegory that better conveys his sense of the most real. Socrates paints the image of a person chained and facing the back wall in a dimly lit cave. The shadows of puppets are cast onto the back wall from a fire. If all that person sees are these shadows, he will eventually think those shadows are all that is real. The person will even give these shadows names. Then, imagine he is unchained and can see those puppets moving about in front of the fire. He will be struck by how much more real they are than the shadows. Eventually, the person will make their way out of the cave. When they walk into the light of day, they’ll have a sense of just how false their reality was when chained inside the cave.

The vibrant world, full of color and light, waiting outside the cave is the world of the forms. Plato thinks humans are too obsessed with what they can see or feel. They do not often fathom the reality of what they think or where those ideas come from. Nevertheless, most people today think that justice is real without tangible proof. However, when it comes to God, people want a concrete sign.

Why does immaterial justice get a free pass for belief when we demand proof for the existence of an invisible God? This is not to say that I do not discount healthy exploration of faith. When I look at the suffering in the wake of the Syrian earthquakes or recent mass shootings, I can question where or if God is at work. What Plato suggests though is that seeing is not believing. We humans believe in things all the time, such as justice or even the number one, even though we cannot touch them. God is still active, even if I cannot sensibly understand how.

If I had to guess, your next dinner party or family dinner will not discuss the nature of justice or dispute the reality of the immaterial. Still, Plato has one primary project that should inform any conversation or debate. Above all, the Republic most exhorts one to question the world and their life. People hold various beliefs and use many terms without knowing why. Perhaps it is best to examine those beliefs before the Socrates in your life interrupts to do so.


Ty Wahlbrink, SJ   /   All posts by Ty