Philosophy is for Everyone

Socrates on What People Misunderstand about Goodness

People often misunderstand something about goodness.

In Plato’s Republic, Plato portrays Socrates discussing goodness with some of his friends and acquaintances.

The word for goodness in the Republic is dikaisoune (δικαισύνη). Now, the English language doesn’t have an exact translation for the word dikaisoune. In the Greek it means something like all of these ideas rolled into one: righteousness, correctness, integrity, complete excellence and rightness.

So, translators of the Republic often translate this word as justice.

In the Republic, Socrates and his interlocutors (discussion partners) try to determine what justice is.

You can find this book at your local bookstore or here at Amazon.

One guy named Thrasymachus argues that justice is just a line some folks sell other people to get them to do what they want.

For instance, Thrasymachus argues that a typical pattern in cities or government is this: someone takes control of a city. Then he establishes rules he calls “justice”. But those rules, Thrasymachus suggests, are just actions that benefit the ruler personally.

Thrasymachus argues,

Some cities are ruled by a tyrant and others by a democracy, and others by a democracy, and others by an aristocracy.  And further, each regime has its laws framed to suit its own interests:  a democracy making democratic laws, a tyrant tyrannical laws, and so on.

Now by this procedure, the regimes have pronounced that what is for the interest of themselves is just for their subjects; and whoever deviates from this, is chastised by them as guilty of illegality and injustices.[1]

So, Thrasymachus argues, justice is just the interest of the stronger. And those who act justly, he further suggests, are dupes.

“The Relation of the Individual to the State” by John La Farge, picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

But Socrates has another view of justice.

Socrates suggests that justice is an internal state of harmony that occurs when somebody’s reason, will, and passions all do their job properly, accomplishing the task they are suited for, rather than tasks for which they are not suited.[2]

For example, Socrates argues that with people, the job of reason is to rule a person to help them make good decisions. Reason should function like a good and wise king.

The job of the will is to align itself with the good and wise king to carry out its wishes. Socrates suggests the will should act like the guardians of a city.

And the job of the passions is to help get things done. The passions are like the workers of a city.

Justice for Socrates, once again, is an inner state of harmony in which everything plays the role best suited to it.

And both a person and a city can possess justice.

Now, on the face of it, Socrates’ description of justice sounds somewhat quaint and possibility even a little elitest.

But then Socrates presents a thought experiment involving a band of robbers. Socrates notes that, ironically, to be successful in their criminal enterprise, even a band of robbers must possess justice.

In other words, to carry out their crime, even a band of robbers must follow their reason, rule their appetites, and allow their will to align with reason.

If their appetites overpower their reason, for example, the band of robbers will undermine themselves and be unable to carry out their plans.

To underscore this idea, Socrates points out,

Injustice breeds divisions and animosities and broils between man and man, while justice creates unanimity and friendship; does it not?”[3]

Portrait of Socrates, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Socrates’ discussion of goodness reveals something interesting.

The good soul is a just soul. It is a soul with a wise, harmonious ruler (reason); motivated and cooperative workers (appetites); and properly aligned will (guardians).

A just soul is a happy soul, much like a just city is a happy city.[4]

And the point is that goodness helps us develop a happy well-ordered soul.

I teach ethics every semester, and so I think quite a bit about this question:

“Why should people be good?”

I think many people along the way develop a view of goodness much like Thrasymachus. Perhaps we imagine that goodness is a line that people sell us to manipulate us into doing what they want us to do.

Socrates presents a different view and the right one: Becoming good and just is the most precious gift you can give to yourself.

That is because goodness helps you develop inner harmony, order, and happiness.

With those gifts, you can accomplish just about anything.

I recommend the Hackett edition of Plato’s Republic, which you can find on Amazon or at your local bookstore.

You might also like reading this post about developing your own moral and ethical code, which is one of the ways you can cultivate goodness in your life:

Develop Your Own Moral and Ethical Code


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[1] Plato. Republic. 338e.

[2] Ibid, 370b.

[3] 351d

[4] 353d

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