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Plato’s Theory of Justice

The question of justice has been central to every society, and in every age, it surrounds itself with debate. Plato’s Theory of Justice.


The question of justice has been central to every society, and in every age, it surrounds itself with debate. Justice has been the most critical part of a person’s morality since time immemorial. Perhaps, it is for this reason that Plato, the ancient Greek philosopher, considered it crucial to reach a theory of justice.

Plato’s main concern in the Republic is to discover the principles of justice, to the extent that he also subtitles it as ‘Concerning Justice.’


The Sophists supported this theory, and according to their perspective, justice is in the interest of the stronger.

One should act as per his capacity and strength and achieve what is possible.

This perspective also implies that considering the state’s possession of the strongest will, whatever is done by the state is deemed just.

Therefore, the will of the ruler determines what is deemed just.

One who has power or authority can make justice work according to their whims. Plato argued that:

  • This theory cannot explain the different behaviors and activities of different rulers in different times and the concept of  justice varied from place to place. 
  • It does not give any universal idea of justice. 
  • It is not a rational principle.  
  • It cannot guide a person who wants to achieve justice in his own way. 


Polymarchus is credited with giving this theory. According to this theory, justice means giving a man what is good for him. In simple words, it means gains to the friends and evils to the enemies. However, Plato criticized this theory on the ground that it is hard to differentiate between friend and enemy, and so on this basis we cannot decide our conduct towards people. For example, treating someone the way they treat us is what this theory says. 

Plato and his thoughts

Greek political thought originates from Socrates. Plato was one of the most brilliant disciples of Socrates.

Today, we consider Plato as the pioneer of Western Political thought.

It is because his mentor, Socrates, did not produce any writing, and we know of his thoughts only from the writings of Plato.

Plato, originally named Aristocles, displayed a keen interest in pursuing philosophy and seeking the “truth”.

After the tragic death of Socrates, Plato produced various works on questions of State, Law, Justice, Politics and Philosophy. The Republic, in particular, is one of his most famous works. It deals with a wide range of ideas, and many of those ideas are relevant and are studied to date. Theory of Justice in Plato’s Republic is worth studying for any political science student today.

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Plato’s Theory of Justice

Since the tradition of Greek Philosophy considered ethics to be important, they believed that the state comes into existence for the sake of life and continues for the sake of a good life. Plato believed in the same dictum and held that the state exists to fulfil the necessities of human life. The origin of the state, therefore, owed its existence to the fulfilment of human needs, and the Greek philosophers saw society and state as the same.

Unlike other living beings, human beings do not merely seek survival but essentially want to live a good life. Justice is the essential requirement to lead a good life. One cannot lead a good life without meeting their needs, and it’s possible to meet one’s needs only in the presence of Justice.

The Republic discusses Justice in the form of a dialogue.

Plato borrowed the Dialectical Method from his mentor, Socrates, and this methodology is known by that name.

The dialogue takes place between Socrates, Glaucon, Adeimantus, Cephalus and Thrasymachus.

The dialogue reached the conclusion that if one were permitted to suppress another, complete anarchy would ensue, and it would become challenging to maintain any state of affairs.

To save oneself from any such suffering and to prevent injustice, men enter into a contract to prevent injustice upon themselves or on others. That is also how laws came into existence to codify standard human conduct and bring a sense of Justice.


Plato characterises human behaviour in three main sources:
  • Desire (or Appetite)
  • Emotion (or Spirit)
  • Knowledge (or Intellect)

Each human being has all three emotions but what varies is the degree to which these emotions are present in them. According to Plato, those who are restless and rapacious are considered fit for trade, while others who are driven by their emotions or spirit are deemed best suited to become soldiers.

Lastly, there are few individuals who derive no pleasure from worldly pursuits or victories, and they find contentment in meditation.

Such beings, who yearn to learn and are constantly in search of truth, are deemed by Plato as the only ones fit to rule.

Plato thinks that just like the perfect individual is the one who has the ideal combination of desire, emotion and knowledge, a just state is the one that has individuals as its citizens for trade, to be soldiers and to rule. In the perfect state, individuals driven by desire will lead to growth and production but would not rule; the military armies would maintain security but not rule either. Only the individuals who have no appetite to gain material possession or power and are forces of knowledge would become the rulers.

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Plato’s theory of Justice is famously known as the Architectonic Theory of Justice.

He explains that as during the construction of a building, each part is assigned to different artisans, but the architect combines it to contribute to the final outlay of the building and add to its splendour.

Similarly, the three cardinal virtues, namely Temperance, Courage, and Wisdom, would be cultivated by Traders, Soldiers and Philosopher class, respectively, and Justice, the fourth virtue, would act as the architect establishing a perfect state. Due to this inference between architecture and the organisation of society, his theory is also called the Architectonic Theory of Justice.

To conclude, Plato considers Justice to be a necessary condition of the good life. It is conducive to human happiness. The Republic, his famous work, is the most important work that explains his idea of justice.

His theory of justice, which builds upon moral foundations, clarifies virtues, and classifies social classes, is considered relevant for all ages today.

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