Plato’s Republic, begins with a discourse between Socrates, Glaucon, Lysias, Euthydemus, Thrasymachus, Charmantides, Clitophon, and Cephalus. I think this discourse is the best part of the book.

Here is my abridged retelling of the dialog (I am not going to research who said what – otherwise, I would just post the whole discourse here. Socrates is the principal actor here, the others are just there to keep the discourse going, so they have been lumped together as Friend):

Socrates: “What is justice?”

Friend:“It is doing good to ones friends and harm to ones enemies.”

Socrates: “Sounds sensible. But what if your friend was really your enemy and your enemy was really your friend? Then you would have harmed your friend and done good to your enemy.”

Friend:“Well, we should amend that to say, ‘Do good to true friends and harm to true enemies’”.

Socrates: “Ah! That is much better. But how do we distinguish between true friend and true enemy?”

Friend:“That is not easy.”

Socrates: “So it would require some sort of skill to know who is your friend and who is your enemy?”


Socrates: “We would call a person with such a skill a just man. Just as we would call a man who is skilled in the making of music a musician or a man skilled in the art of healing a doctor?”

Friend:“It would seem so.”

Socrates: “When a musician applies his skill, it is to do good - to produce a melodious sound as opposed to a cacophonous noise?”


Socrates: “When a doctor applies his skill it is to help a man and not to harm him?”

Friend:“That is the nature of the doctor.”

Socrates: “We could say that the product of the skill of the musician and of the doctor is excellence in music and in health, respectively?”

Friend:“That is correct.”

Socrates: “So the application of the skill of justice should too produce excellence in man as its outcome.”

Friend:“That is correct, he produces excellence by doing good to his friend and harm to his enemy.”

Socrates: “If we harm a dog, do we make it a better dog or worse dog – by the standards by which we judge dogs and not horses?”

Friend:“A worse dog.”

Socrates: “If we harm a horse, do we make it a better horse or worse horse – by the standards we judge horses and not dogs?”

Friend:“A worse horse.”

Socrates: “If we harm a man, do we make him a better man or a worse man – by the standards we judge men and not horses or dogs.”

Friend:“A worse man.”

Socrates: “We earlier agreed that excellence is the result of the actions of a just man. Yet, by your admission, if a just man harms a man he makes him worse. This clearly seems at odds with the principle of excellence.”

Friend:“Fine, Socrates, if you’re such a smart ass, how about you tell us what justice is then?”

At this point, Socrates launches into ‘The Republic’

When teaching children at my church and trying to explain how to determine if our actions towards others are Christian (obviously, by definition, good), I would often use the “If we harm a …” question / response format. It was always neat to see the kids expressions when I got to the last question, “If we harm a person …” It is one of the few times you can see the light bulb turn on in people’s minds.

Sound bite: Justice is human excellence.

Executive summary: The outcome of just actions is always excellence. If our actions do not improve people, if they do not raise and uplift causing the person to excel as a human, to be the best that they can be, then we have failed at justice.

Image nabbed from here.

[NOTE: the original discourse is more detailed, longer, and nuanced in its use of language. So, if you have problems with the technical accuracy of my version … toooooo bad ;-)


LawSchoolDoll said…
I think there is a difference between "harming" someone and "punishing" someone for bad deeds. But then again, I'm not a philiosopher, I'm just a prosecutor, so I'm probably biased. :)
LawSchoolDoll said…
And apparently a prosecutor who can't spell first thing in the morning.

Take one of those i's out of philosopher, will ya? Kthx.
Richard said…
Well, the original text uses the expression "to harm one's enemy" - so I stuck with it.

Now, as to punishing instead of harming. We need to ask ourselves "does this punishment actually help this person become a better person?"

If not, then the remedy is of no value - it can be argued then that the intent was to harm and not to help.

You have probably already studied some history of law. Generally, the Code of Hammurabi is regarded as a breakthrough in codified laws (not really, there are older ones, but since the Code of Hammurabi was carved in stone, it has survived - the others are only fragmentary). Its chief feature is lex talionis (the law as retaliation - literal translation).

Interestingly, this was picked up by the Hebrews and is better known as "an eye for an eye". Although, Jewish oral law does not interpret this as a literal prescription, but rather as a guide towards restitution / compensation.

I do not think that retribution is a good model. Restitution - if possible - is better. However, restitution does not satisfy all the requirements of justice - since we need to ask, "How has this helped achieve human excellence".

A more modern feature is imprisonment. I guess, the idea is that someone will have time to cogitate over their crime and, in effect, heal themselves. This doesn't seem to work either.

Incidentally, I was not writing of justice as in the justice system (laws and such). I believe that justice and the legal system are two completely separate things and if justice is achieved through the legal system it is more by accident than design.

My intent in writing was to air the ideal of justice - human excellence - not as a commentary on anything else. I'm not a lawyer, nor a philosopher - just a guy with opinions, thoughts and ideas that, hopefully, I can squeeze into a paragraph or two.

It would be great if blogger allowed spell checking before posting a comment. Sometimes, if I am writing a longer response, I will do it in Word first and then cut and paste (this also has the advantage of being more discrete than having a web page open on screen - at least from work).
LawSchoolDoll said…
I attempted to respond, but I think this might be too deep for 7:15 in the morning. I'll try and have some good thoughts and post later.
Colleen said…
This is too deep for me. My brain hurts just reading it.
Richard said…
Ha ha! Socrates was a Sophist. A philosophical style that believed everything you ever wanted to find out could be done with words and arguments.

Sophists were well known (famously or infamously) for being able to redefine the meanings of words, so by the end of the conversation you would be left thinking back is white and white is black.

Seneca (a Stoic - my favourite school of philosophy) once wrote to his friend Lucilius on friendship: "You know what I would like those fellows to tell me? Not how many meanings there are of the word friend; not how many ways the word friend can be used, but what are my duties and obligations to a friend."

"Those fellows" being Sophists.

You could sort of think of Sophists as being politicians on spin steroids.
Wow. This is a good piece of article. THanks for sharing. Extremely insightful and really got me thinking.

Usually men would think Justice is to avenge wrong doings, getting back what you deserve and the concept of retribution.

This really made me think hard.... I must admit I have never thought of justice as improving someone's life...or achieving excellence - like a doctor would.

This piece truly provides a reason for me to reflect on how I view justice. Articles like these, like the bible, could effectively have a profound impact on the way one thinks. It has definitely made me more perceptive .....to Justice. :)
Richard said…
elvina: Glad I could stimulate a new point of view in you.

For me, life is about Truth and Human Excellence. Not sure I know how to achieve it, but those are my goals.

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