Socrates and Cephalus start a conversation about the merits of old age but the conversation swiftly turns into an issue of justice. Cephalus who is an adherent of the Greek traditions attempts to define justice. According to Cephalus, justice is living up to one’s legal obligations and paying off one’s debts. This definition takes a conventional perspective perhaps because of the conservative nature of Cephalus and his status within his community.
Socrates does not agree with Cephalus’ definition stating that implementing such definition on real life experiences could be just and at times unjust. He counters Cephalus’ definition by formulating an example regarding a mad person who surrenders his weapon for safe keeping and later comes to collect the weapon. The reality is that the person who keeps the weapon on behalf of the mad man owes the mad person his weapon because it legally belongs to him but giving the weapon back to the mad person may be unjust because one would be endangering the lives of other people. Socrates concludes that justice cannot merely entail honoring legal obligations and paying debts.
Consequently, Polemarchus attempts his own definition of justice by stating that justice affords benefits to friends and does harm to enemies. This definition is seemingly different from that of Cephalus but the two meanings have same undertones of giving a person what is due and giving what is suitable. Further, this definition just like that of Cephalus bases its argument on good repute. Socrates points out to inconsistencies in this definition. First, he believes that the use of friends and enemies to describe justice is unreliable and may lead people to do harm to good people while helping the bad. This critique is based on the fact a person may not always become friends with righteous people and enemies may not necessarily be bad people.
Conversely, Thrasymachus definition of justice disregards the aspects of moral standards by declaring that justice is nothing other than the advantage of the stronger. This approach however does not provide a definition as such but rather Thrasymachus words are aimed at delegitimizing justice as a whole. Evidently, Thrasymachus is certain that being just is not worthwhile. This definition also suggests that being just only benefits others and not the person behaving justly. Thrasymachus therefore proposes that the best thing is to disregard justice completely because the concept is imposed on people by the powers that be. Thrasymachus purported definition shifts the discussion from attempting to define justice to ascertaining whether justice is worthwhile.
As against Thrasymachus assertion, Socrates begins his critique by letting Thrasymachus realize that his definition only commends injustice as beneficial. Thrasymachus’ view according to Socrates only suggests that life is a competition for wealth and power and whoever is most successful in the struggle is the most virtuous. In this regard, Socrates opines that injustice can never be a virtue as it is against wisdom.
In the end, Socrates argues that understanding justice requires observance to certain guidelines. He concludes that people who are not just are totally unable to achieving anything. He further observes that a just person possesses a just soul and is in good health therefore happy while an unjust person lives a bad life and is hateful.
Although Socrates defends justice throughout the discussion he eventually provides a weak definition of justice which ends up discussing the importance of being just. As such, Socrates just like Thrasymachus fails to provide a conclusive definition of justice instead opting to discuss the value of justice to individuals. His argument is suggestive of acting while considering the wellbeing of others, an approach that creates doubts as to the existence of personal happiness since it views justice as requiring acting for the benefit of others, at one’s perceived expense.
Consequently, Polemarchus definition of helping friends and harming enemies takes a simplistic view of justice. That is, people consider justice as having prevailed when they or people closest to them are favored by certain decisions or circumstances. This approach takes the perspective of ‘me against you’ and ‘us against them’. As such, if something favors ‘me’ then it is just but if it favors ‘you’ as against ‘me’ then it is not just. Further it is not necessarily true that a just person is a happy person as Socrates suggests. Socrates promotes an argument that one should consider other people’s happiness before doing anything. However, if this approach is adapted then one may act in ways that are not self-fulfilling as long as such acts benefit other people. Taking the foregoing into consideration, there can be no conclusive definition of justice because there exists unlimited notions of what justice is and ought to be.
Reeve, C.D.C. (1998). Philosopher-Kings: The Argument of Plato's Republic. Princeton: Princeton UP.