Plato On Justice

Plato (428-347 BC) The Greek philosopher Plato was among the most important and
creative thinkers of the ancient world. His work set forth most of the important
problems and concepts of Western philosophy, psychology, logic, and politics,
and his influence has remained profound from ancient to modern times. Plato was
born in Athens in 428 BC. Both his parents were of distinguished Athenian
families, and his stepfather, an associate of Pericles, was an active
participant in the political and cultural life of Periclean Athens. Plato seems
as a young man to have been destined for an aristocratic political career. The
excesses of Athenian political life, however, both under the oligarchical rule
(404-403) of the so-called Thirty Tyrants and under the restored democracy, seem
to have led him to give up these ambitions. In particular, the execution (399)
of Socrates had a profound effect on his plans. The older philosopher was a
close friend of Plato's family, and Plato's writings attest to Socrates' great
influence on him. After Socrates' death Plato retired from active Athenian life
and traveled widely for a number of years. In 388 BC he journeyed to Italy and

Sicily, where he became the friend of Dionysius the Elder, ruler of Syracuse,
and his brother-in-law Dion. The following year he returned to Athens, where he
founded the Academy, an institution devoted to research and instruction in
philosophy and the sciences. Most of his life thereafter was spent in teaching
and guiding the activities of the Academy. When Dionysius died (367), Dion
invited Plato to return to Syracuse to undertake the philosophical education of
the new ruler, Dionysius the Younger. Plato went, perhaps with the hope of
founding the rule of a philosopher-king as envisioned in his work the Republic.

The visit, however, ended (366) in failure. In 361, Plato went to Syracuse
again. This visit proved even more disastrous, and he returned (360) to the

Academy. Plato died in 347 BC. Plato's published writings, of which apparently
all are preserved, consist of some 26 dramatic dialogues on philosophical and
related themes. The precise chronological ordering of the dialogues remains
unclear, but stylistic and thematic considerations suggest a rough division into
three periods. The earliest dialogues, begun after 399 BC, are seen by many
scholars as memorials to the life and teaching of Socrates. Three of them, the

Euthyphro, Apology, and Crito, describe Socrates' conduct immediately before,
during, and after his trial. The early writings include a series of short
dialogues that end with no clear and definitive solution to the problems raised.

Characteristically, Plato has Socrates ask questions of the form "What is

X?" and insist that he wants not examples or instances of X but what it is
to be X, the essential nature, or Form, of X. In the Charmides the discussion
concerns the question "What is temperance?"; in the Laches, "What is
courage?" in the Euthyphro, "What is holiness?" The first book of
the Republic may originally have been such a dialogue, devoted to the question
"What is justice?" Socrates holds that an understanding of the
essential nature in each case is of primary importance, but he does not claim
himself to have any such understanding. A formal mode of cross-examination
called elenchus, in which the answers to questions put by Socrates are shown to
result in a contradiction of the answerer's original statement, reveals the
ignorance of the answerer as well. Typically, these answerers are self-professed
experts (the title characters of the Gorgias and Protagoras, for example, were
leading Sophists; thus their inability to provide a definition is particularly
noteworthy. In the Apology, Socrates describes his mission as one of exposing
this ignorance, an exposure he takes to be a necessary preliminary to true
wisdom. Although the dialogues appear to end in ignorance, the dialectical
structure of each work is such that a complex and subtle understanding of the
concept emerges. The dialogues of the middle period were begun after the
founding of the Academy. Here more openly positive doctrines begin to emerge in
the discourse of Socrates. The dialogues of this period include what is widely
thought to be Plato's greatest work, the Republic. Beginning with a discussion
on the nature of justice, the dialogue articulates a vision of an ideal
political community and the education appropriate to the rulers of such a
community. Justice is revealed to be a principle of each thing performing the
function most appropriate to its nature, a principle of the proper adjudication
of activity and being. In political terms, this principle is embodied in a
society in which citizens perform the tasks for which they are best suited; in