The Appearances of Justice

The Appearances of Justice

   Long ago, in graduate school, I said to a friend with whom I studied the Republic, that after all we had been through, I still did not really get what justice is. “Your not serious,” he said, “really?” This caused me to pause and consider whether I did not have some much clearer thought about this than when I began, but I’m still not sure. We love, believe in and follow righteousness (dike), otherwise translated justice, but really do not have hold on what it is.

It always seemed amazing to me that those who spent their lives supposedly concerned with justice, such as lawyers or members of the “Justice” department, have no interest at all in the best efforts to consider what justice is, despite making their livings at it. These do not love justice, and soon treat anyone who does as unjust, as though any who would bid them to inquire were convicting them of their negligence. Soon these will use their powers, and obedience to law-their working definition of justice, as means to attack those who inquire. That is what was done to Socrates, in what is described as being like the trial of a doctor by a pastry chef before a jury of children.

The following was given as an attempt to address the question of justice in a class on Book V of the Republic, so much text and certain questions are assumed. But rather than stand over the class like Socrates himself, it seemed right to give an opinion or an attempt to state what justice is, however defective.

Justice exists in the relations, 1) between individuals; 2) between individuals and political bodies, ) between political bodies, and 4) within individuals and within political bodies. The political bodies, roughly, and with some qualification, are :




States or provinces

Counties or townships

Organizations and groups



Extended families



A constitution (Politea) is an ordering of a political body (politeuma). The political bodies differ in their origins and natures. Some, like the nation, the state, the Geek city and the pre-civilized tribe or village, are “sovereign,” meaning simply that there is no authority above them in practice. The family is ordered by nature, and is among the “things that grow,” whereas the city is founded and given a constitution or ordering by the lawgiver or legislator. Nations are a mixture of the principles of the city and the family. Like the “English,” or the French,, the nations are one by differing combinations of the principles of common descent, government, language and location. At some point in our history, the nations each unified by opposition to an invading people or nation (ethnoi). A group of cities repeats the process of the unification of villages into a city, as was done by Theseus in founding Athens, and as Plato indicates in the Laws, choice is then made among the ways and gods of the peoples unified. Empires, which seem to be founded in conquest, are different still. These join a number of states or nations, but their universality is unnatural, and they are not really different from nations joining states. There seem to have been seven of these, Egypt, Babylon, Assyria, Persia, Alexandrian Greece, Rome and perhaps Great Britain, though none of these were truly universal, and others such as China or the Indus valley, the Inca and the Aztec, are not considered among the seven. Orders, such as “the West,” or “Christendom,” are aggregates of those political bodies which share a common character and fundamental thought or law.” Confederacies might be included here, groups of cities, states or nations joined for a particular purpose, usually defense. Humanity is by nature universal, and may be a natural body, though it is not a political, but a trans-political body (perhaps perversely imitated by the empire). The seven empires have been identified, in one reading at least, with the seven heads of the beast in the Revelation. Humanity, though, is not a political body but a natural species, though it has a common good, and so there is justice among all mankind. The individual, too, has a good by nature, though one cannot be unjust to oneself in most senses, or, only in a qualified sense.

Within these political bodies, the appearances of justice are:

I) Equity: the principle of fair exchange, such as just weights and measures.

But equity can conflict with law, with the common good, with the fitting, and with the right. An example would be fulfilling a fair and legal contract when the profit would be used to buy a murder weapon. Something similar occurs in Book One of the republic, where justice is said to be returning deposits, or paying what is owed. Gifts, or the giving of what is not owed but advantageous, and what are called “graces,” would then be “more than just.”

II) Law and obedience to law (Republic, Book I).

But: a) there can be unjust laws, and circumstances where just laws conflict with the equal, the common good, the fitting and the right. The rule of law is best because individuals are deficient. We do not have a wise man to rule. And b) The legislator attempt to enact just laws, rather than simply imposing the “advantage of the stronger,” leading to unjust laws. When Socrates gets Glaucon and Adeimantus to join in constructing a city in speech in order, by looking through this, to see justice in the soul, he gets them, like legislators, by necessity, to transcend legal positivism and look toward natural right.

III) The common good and dedication to the common good. The principle of the three  right constitutions is that the one, the few or the many rule looking to the good of the whole (Aristotle, Politics, III.6).

But: a) The common good often conflicts with the good of individuals, and with the good of other commons, and b) The question remains as to what the common good is: Is it wealth, honor, empire, wisdom, security or noble action, or some combination of these? In this sense, the common good is the right ordering of the priorities in the soul and the regime.

IV) To give to each what is owed or fitting (Republic, Book I). These are a) Distributive: The distribution of goods, especially honors and offices, and

b) Retributive: The civil and criminal balancing of harms with penalties and recompense: The Justice system.

V) To care for one another, or  “Love thy neighbor.” The Biblical word “righteousness could be translated “justice.” This is said to summarize and fulfill the law or the ten commandments. It is universal, or between all humans, rather than fellow citizens, etc., even in the Old Testament (Leviticus 19:17-18). Unlike particular laws (and like #6 below), it might be right in all circumstances. The command is to “Love oneanother…” (John 1:34-35, and its unity with the individual good is similar to the unity of self-love and friendship (Aristotle, Ethics, VIII-X). One saying is “guard your brother like the pupil of your eye” (Thomas). Another is the parable of the speck in your brother’s eye (Matthew 7:-5; Luke 6: 41-42). The mysterious reason for the first law, against murder, is that man is “in the image of God” (Genesis 9:6; 1:26-27), and this proves to be the basis of the whole law, both the laws regarding or governing eros and anger.

6) The right ordering of the parts of the soul and city (Republic IV). A kind of justice is “complete virtue in relation” to others (Aristotle, Ethics, V.1). The right heirarchy of the parts of the soul is synonymous with the right ordering of the priorities among the goods, and ethics is in each case a matter of the right priorities.

7) What is right to do, and the ability to see and do the one right thing in each situation (Aristotle, Ethics, II.6, with III.4 and VI.8,11. Justice is one with prudence or practical wisdom (phronesis).

8) Justice is somehow what is the same in all of these manifestations or appearances of justice.

One formulation is: Justice is the appearance of the good while men are divided. Hence, we see why it is depicted as a scale, with two sides and a balance.