The Application of Plato’s Justice in Contemporary Society “The result, then, is that more plentiful and better-quality goods are more easily produced if each person does one thing for which he is naturally suited, does it at the right time, and is released from having to do any of the others” (Sayers 21) Despite an existing definition of justice prior to his philosophical works, Plato spent much of his life challenging that definition and introducing his own. He used his famous work The Republic to define justice and outline its implementation within his concept of the “just city. The Republic was written several thousand years ago, which causes one to question whether or not its contents are still relevant today. The goal of this paper is to show the correlation between Plato’s theory of justice, and our current contemporary idea of justice. While there are clearly some gaps between the two, I believe many of Plato’s theories are deeply rooted within our society still today. Plato approaches the subject of justice from two directions. He first addresses justice within the individual, and follows it with his model of the “just city” and societal justice.
Plato is clearly motivated by the failing government system in Athens, which at the time of The Republic was on the verge of ruins. Further adding to his frustration, was the execution of Socrates. “Plato blamed his death on a broken system in which justice was not truly understood or enforced” (Sayers 57). These factors were key in Plato’s pursuit of justice. Plato viewed individual justice as a “human virtue,” that forced consistency and overall good. Social justice was defined as a certain level of consciousness the “makes society internally harmonious and good” (Plato 14).
Plato believed that justice was contained within the individual, or within the soul, and therefore he laid out three crucial elements for the existence of justice. He believed that within the individual must existence a proper balance of reason, spirit, and appetite, in which reason was in control in order to contain the self-satisfying properties primarily of appetite. Plato used the same three elements to define social justice. He assigned each element to a different class within his “just city. The ruling class (or philosopher class) was representative of reason; the guardian or warrior class was representative of spirit; and finally the lower class (artisans, workers) were representative of appetite (Sayers 62). Plato believed that each element must work together for the overall good of society, in order to truly be just. In summary of Plato’s theory, he defines justice as “part of human virtue and the bond which joins man together within society” (Plato 61). “Justice is an order and duty of the parts of the soul, it is to the soul as health is to the body” (Plato 61).
Plato believed in the overall good of the individual and society, and defined this goodness paired with certain virtues and morality as justice. This brings us to justice within contemporary times. The current Webster’s Dictionary definition of justice is, “the maintenance or administration of what is just especially by the impartial adjustment of conflicting claims or the assignment of merited rewards or punishments. ” While we look to this definition for an understanding of justice it is clearly rather vague.
In fact, it uses the word just within the definition, and therefore leaves us wondering what justice today truly means. While researching this topic I looked to the writing of political philosopher Thomas Patrick Burke. In his book The Concept of Justice, Burke begins by saying that the mere concept of justice, “provides every society with its most fundamental rule of social order” (3). Burke further explains that the standard widely accepted question behind justice for much of history remained “what is right and wrong for a particular person in particular circumstances to do? (Burke 5) He then addresses a major shift in the sphere of public opinion that took place during the twentieth century. A “new” theory came in practice in which the concept of justice was forced to address the question of “how power should be distributed in society” (Burke 14) This “new” form of justice was referred to as “social justice,” or “economic justice,” “justice as fairness,” or “the liberal theory of justice” (Burke 14). This concept of social justice developed further with the growth of industrialization and the development of strength within more and more government structures.
Because this form of justice is addressed towards society as a whole it can only be met by the state. “As a basic principle of social order the shift towards social justice required the transfer of any responsibilities from the individual to the state, which “inevitably led to the expansion of the state and the increase of its coercive powers” (Burke 18). Without a doubt this mirrors Plato’s ancient concept of social justice rather closely. Burke’s analysis of the current construct of justice states that the state has been given significant control over the individual within society.
This concept is nearly identical to the Plato’s “just city” in which the ruling class, or state in contemporary times, is in control of reason, or right and wrong, within society. While the aforementioned similarity exits quite clearly, this new theory of justice differs quite significantly as well upon closer examination. The shift to a theory of social justice may closely mirror the “just city” construct, however it ignores entirely the other half of Plato’s concept. The just individual was a key component within Plato’s theory, and this newer model makes little mention of the individual.
In fact Burke states that much of the responsibility that once belonged to the individual now rests with the state (Burke 8). Burke likely chose to title the opening chapter of his book “The Problem of Justice” because of this very problem. Plato explains that although the overall good of the society as a whole was the key component to this portion of his philosophy, morality and reason still reigned supreme. He believed that it was reason being in control of the spirit and appetite of the individual within a society, which made his just city plausible.
This sense of reason and morality led those in each position to do their part to work towards the common good. In Burke’s explanation of social justice, he does mention that the state is expected to work towards the common good of the society; however the absence of the mention of virtues or controls of the individuals, especially those with positions of authority within the state is quite noticeable. Another area of conflict between the theories of Plato, and those existing in contemporary times comes with a rather interesting proposition.
Burke states that in the new social justice theory, “Whatever is unjust is also unfair or unequal, but the proposition cannot be inverted: not everything that is unequal is necessarily unjust” (Burke 54). Once again this ignores Plato’s idea that reason is the driving factor behind justice. Plato believed that in order for justice to exist the soul of the individual must contain virtue and be in proper balance (Sayers 26), therefore the theory that justice can exist in the face of unfair practices contradicts his teachings.
While both state that the overall wellbeing of society is the major focus, this contemporary theory views justice as colder, and more external than Plato intended. Plato believed that virtues which controlled justice lived within the very souls of individuals and mankind as a whole, while contemporary theory suggests justice as a more changing spur of the moment development not controlled by reason, but rather the opinions of the state.
Burke goes on to quote French writer Bertrand de Jouvenel as saying, “The justice now recommended is a quality not of a man and a man’s actions, but of a certain configuration of things in social geometry, no matter by what means it is brought about. Justice is now something which exists independently of just men. ” Burke explains in his own words that, “Since it’s primarily the state of affairs in society that is unjust, irrespective of how it came about, the injustice of actions recedes in significance or even disappears altogether as a matter of concern” (Burke 13).
This seems to suggest quite clearly a lack of belief in the contemporary model of justice, or in fact a complete lack of justice within society completely. It seems as though both writers see the term justice to now be little more than a spot in the dictionary. One could infer that Plato may have shared these beliefs to an extent upon examination of his feelings towards the reigning Athenian democracy of his time.
However, I believe that Plato had a stronger ability to see the potential energy within society and the individual to act justly, and the ability to turn that potential energy in kinetic progress in the form of his “just city. ” It would seem as though both Burke and Jouvenel have little faith in the ability of the state to meet the needs of the individual. Another potential gap between Plato’s societal model, and the more contemporary presentation of Burke, is the changing societal structure.
Plato proposed a very straight forward model, in which there were three very distinct classes, all with their own individual responsibilities which worked towards the common good of everyone. Burkes points out that today in many countries (particularly those with high levels of development and industrialization) the middle class is disappearing at a rather alarming rate (Burke 40). The gap between the upper class (which assumes authority) and the lower class has increased substantially.
The clear lines are no longer drawn, and therefore the identification of responsibilities of the individual has become extremely difficult. More importantly the “ruling class” as defined by Plato’s model, in contemporary times has become much larger than it was ever intended. This leads to more individuals working in their own self-interest and the idea of justice dissipates more and more. It is expected that the theories of an ancient philosopher would not necessarily apply in today’s society, however certain aspects of the teaching within Plato’s The Republic remain relevant.
Unfortunately the description of justice today has become vague and diluted, and there is much contention (not unlike in Ancient Greece) as to what it truly means to be just. Burke presents a rather gloom shift in the practice of justice in contemporary history, however that is not to say the transition to the concept of “social justice” is necessarily detrimental to society as a whole. It would appear the overall ownership of responsibility has shifted from the individual to the state, however in under the right circumstances this could potentially prove beneficial.
Plato’s model of the “just city” was based on the assumption that individuals contained the necessary virtues for justice within their very soul; it did not take into account the possibility of a lack of virtue, and therefore was much better on paper than in practice. Works Cited Burke, Patrick Thomas. The Concept of Justice. New York, NY: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2011. Print Plato. The Republic. 2nd ed. Trans. Desmond Lee. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1987. Sayers, Sean. Plato’s Republic: An Introduction, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999. Print