The Greek word which Plato uses to mean "justice" -- dike or dikaios -- is also synonymous with law and can also mean "the just"; as Allan Bloom (1991) notes, Plato uses a more specific term -- dikaiosyne -- in the Republic, which means something more like "justice, the virtue" (p. 442). Gregory Vlastos (1981) goes even further to note that, with Plato's very vocabulary for these concepts of justice, "the sense is so much broader: they could be used to cover all which is morally right" (p. 111). This terminology links it with justice as it would be conceived within Plato's theory of forms, and Dominic Scott (2006) notes that -- following that theory -- this introduces "another connotation of virtue" as being "a genus of which such qualities as justice, courage, temperance and wisdom are species" (p. 14). Slippage of terminology seems to be looming here in Plato's very definition of what he means by "justice," and the idealizing tendencies of his theory of forms somewhat abandon the question of the existing social structure and framework of justice in practice rather than in theory (possibly because the democratic justice that was ultimately meted out to Socrates himself is hardly something that Plato could endorse). Without any allegiance or adherence to such an existing framework would lead to a vertiginous sense of unleashed amorality: this leads one of the interlocutors of Socrates to propose a mythological story of Gyges and his magical ring of invisibility. Intriguingly, the centrality of the Gyges story to the overall framework of Plato's discussion of justice within the Republic seems to be structurally or conceptually related to (but hardly in philosophical agreement with) the much later analysis of justice in John Rawls' now-classic Kantian discussion of "justice as fairness." Yet before taking a closer look at Plato's overall conception of justice -- as espoused in the Republic, but with brief considerations of two other dialogues (Meno and Protagoras) where justice is analyzed en passant by Socrates -- it is worth noting that the Republic itself contains a criticism of the reliance on illustrative storytelling like the myth of Gyges itself. I hope to show that, to some extent, Plato actually anticipates later criticisms of Rawls' method by including a critique . For Plato justice is an ideal -- it is not conceived of as something that is able to be put into perfect practice, any more than philosophy is.
At Republic 511c, Socrates in conversation with Glaucon has raised the question of the Platonic theory of forms. Plato's theory of forms is notorious not only for the central role it plays in his philosophy, but the almost willful vagueness with which Socrates and Plato expound its details -- but at this point, it is sufficient to note that Socrates' topic is the role that the theory of forms plays upon the practice of philosophy itself.
"Well, then, go on to understand that by the other segment of the intelligible I mean that which argument itself grasps with the power of dialectic, making the hypotheses not beginnings but really hypotheses -- that is, steppingstones and springboards -- in order to reach what is free from hypothesis at the beginning of the whole. When it has grasped this, argument now depends on that which depends on this beginning and in such fashion goes back down again to an end; making no use of anything sensed in any way, but using forms themselves, going through forms to forms, it ends in forms too." (Bloom 1991: 191.)
In other words, Socrates seems to suggest that any reference to specific illustrative examples is in itself a step down from the perfect abstraction of discussing the forms of different aspects of virtue, such as justice, insofar as it is inherent in Plato's theory of forms that to go from the abstraction of the forms to the concrete details of reality is always seen as something of a step down. (Socrates in the Symposium will explicitly compare the progress of love towards its ideal Platonic form to a ladder, in which the corporeal aspects are distinctly defined as a literal "step down" or more from the most idealized form of love that Socrates and Diotima discuss in their recounted dialogue.) Morgan (2000) glosses the passage as follows:
The philosopher's aim is to reach the intelligible moving from idea to idea, without the aid of sensible images (511c). But neither Sokrates nor his interlocutors are in a position to do this. They look at justice in the soul by comparing it with justice in the city (even if it is an ideal city), a sensible image. (p. 203)
In other words, this is an idealized philosophy conceived of within the idealized realm of Plato's forms, but not reachable by mere mortals. Certainly in reality the discussion of justice is not immune to the slippage of terminology I identified earlier: in the Meno, where Plato is concerned more with the larger definition of virtue, he will invoke justice to argue that "whatever comes with justice is virtue and whatever is without all such qualities is vice" (1997: 78e8 -- 79a1). Again, this seems to permit many more kinds of "virtuous" activities under the heading of the just than should be permitted: concrete examples would certainly help to clarify the difference between justice and "whatever comes with justice" which is automatically to be regarded as virtuous. But the Republic's critique of illustrative examples in philosophical discourse will strike the twenty-first century reader as possibly bizarre: what has intervened is of course not only the empirical trend in philosophy (beginning immediately after Plato with Aristotle, and including the implied critique of Platonic idealism inherent in Aristotelian naturalism) which would seem to prize the "solidity of specification" (to borrow a phrase from Henry James' The Art of Fiction) that is inherent in offering narrative illustrations. Of course, what will strike the reader of Plato's Republic as most bizarre about Socrates' willingness to consider narrative illustration as being an inferior form of philosophy is the fact that Plato's Republic is chock-full of memorable examples of precisely the sort of narrative illustration that Socrates decries: the Allegory of the Cave, the analogy of the Divided Line, the metaphor of the sun, the myth of Er, the concepts of the Noble Lie and the Philospher King, and the legend which poses a direct challenge to the Platonic assumptions about justice -- the Ring of Gyges -- are all high points of argument within the Republic itself, yet they seem to qualify as an inferior form of philosophy within Socrates' own definition.
But it is worth considering -- from this list of illustrative narrative exempla which are presented in the description of justice within the Republic -- the one specifically which is most crucial to the overall thrust of Plato's dialogue, which I would argue is the Ring of Gyges. So much of the Republic is concerned with defining justice as an ideal that is worth pursuing for itself, and not for any societal incentives offered for conformity to society's own definition of justice: the majority of Books I through IV, and then Books VIII and IX, are devoted to the proof that justice is good for the individual. Indeed, Monoson argues in Plato's Democratic Entanglements (2000) that "the vision of justice in the Republic can be fairly described as one in which a legitimate power 'stills the unruly conflicts and contests of democratic politics'. It is a place of fantastic unity" (p. 14). Of course, this fantastic unity can only come at the cost of individual expression, but by the terms that Glaucon establishes in the story of Gyges (in Republic 359b and following), individual expression may not be considered a positive goal in itself by Plato, and seems actually like a potential nightmare. Here is how Glaucon begins the story of Gyges' ring:
That even those who practice it do so unwillingly, from an incapacity to do injustice, we would best perceive if we should in thought do something like this: give each, the just man and the unjust, license to do whatever he wants, while we follow and watch where his desire will lead each. We would catch the just man red-handed going the same way as the unjust man out of a desire to get the better; this is what any nature naturally pursues as good, while it is law which by force perverts it to honor equality. The license of which I speak would best be realized if they should come into possession of the sort of power that it is said the ancestor of Gyges, the Lydian, once got. They say he was a shepherd toiling in the service of the man who was then ruling Lydia. There came to pass a great thunderstorm and an earthquake; the earth cracked and a chasm opened at the place where he was pasturing. He saw it, wondered at it, and went down. He…