Socrates' view on man's search for justice is one of the great guiding lights provided by the Ancient Greek civilization. Provided for civilization through the writings of his student, Plato, Socrates lays the framework for the idea that justice is good and that every man seeks to find through self-examination what good is. From this basic concept, the Socratic method of teaching, which has been passed down through the ages, developed. In the Socratic method of teaching, it is understood that each student already possesses the answers to the question and that the role of the teacher is to help each student find that answer within himself. Thus, Socrates said the same about the general seeking of justice. That everyman knows what justice is but must, through self-examination, uncover what that concept truly means.
In his book Republic, Plato speaks through his teacher Socrates and uses Socrates' conversations with Thrasymachus as the basis for a discussion regarding the concept of justice. Assuming the role of an antagonist, Thrasymachus suggests that in life there are material rewards for acting unjust. Thrasymachus states: "a just man must always get less than does an unjust one (Reeve, 2004: p.22)." Thrasymachus was identified by Plato as a Sophist and, as such, he did not believe in objective truth. For Thrasymachus and the other Sophists truth is purely subjective and there is nothing in life that is absolutely right or wrong. Truth is determined by what is either advantageous or disadvantageous to the person making such decision. In his discussions with Socrates, Thrasymachus suggests that law and morality are not absolutes but mere conventions and that one ought to act in accordance with what can get away with and not according to some objective standard. In Thrasymachus' view, justice is defined as nothing more than the advantage that the strong have over everyone else. In Thrasymachus' world those who act unjustly gain power and money and eventually attain positions of leadership in society. For Socrates, however, justice is something much more. Socrates sees justice as something that is both good and desirable. It is not a mere convention as Thrasymachus argues but an objective truth.
Socrates believed that justice was a good thing and not something that someone sought as a convenience or as a way of bettering one's life. It was something to be sought for its own sake. Later in the Republic Socrates engages in another discussion with another Athenian named Glaucon who challenges Socrates to prove that justice is good for its own sake (Reeve, 2004: p. 36). In the process of attempting to prove that justice is good for its own sake, Socrates actually proves both this point and the fact that justice is the most important virtue.
Glaucon in his comments to Socrates challenges Socrates to prove that justice is good for its own sake by showing the benefits of being just against the disadvantages of being unjust. In making his argument Glaucon points out to Socrates that the "just person in such circumstances will be whipped, stretched on a rack, chained, blinded with a red-hot iron, and, at the end, when he has suffered every sort of bad thing, he will be impaled, and will realize then that one should not want to be just, but to be believed to be just (Reeves, 2004: p. 40)." What Glaucon was essentially asking Socrates was just how much agony he would be willing to suffer as a just man before he decided it wasn't worth it? Glaucon offers Socrates a long list of potential negative consequences but Socrates responds by stating that he would rather choose shame, poverty, discomfort and death before he acts unjustly.
To understand how Socrates comes to the conclusion that justice is good for its own sake it is important to understand what Socrates' definition of justice. In explaining his idea of justice, Socrates uses the analogy of a city (Reeve, 2004: pp. 34-137). The city begins small and moderate. As the city grows larger, its tastes become more luxurious and more control is necessary to protect the property rights of its individuals. Eventually an army is needed to both protect the city from unscrupulous neighbors but also to acquire the property necessary for the city to keep growing. In this large city, it is necessary that the various levels of society live in harmony in order for the city to function properly. The result is the formation of different classes that perform different specific functions. For instance, the lower class provides the labor, the middle class forms the military, which in turn provides services to the ruling class. In making this analogy Socrates is making the point that it better for each part of the city to work well with each other than it is for each part ot work best on its own.
Socrates uses the divisions of the city into the divisions that he feels make up the individual soul. For Socrates, the human soul is divided into three parts much like the city. The first part is the appetite which determines ones needs and desires. This part of the soul seeks money and other worldly things. The second is the will which desires such things as honor while the third is the power to reason which desires truth. The interaction of these three parts, like the divisions of the city, is what constitutes harmony and Socrates' justice is equated with harmony.
The idea of a tripartite soul is an excellent way of explaining the inner conflict that occurs in every man. It explains how man has urges, desires, and temptations. It explains how man can experience different feelings and thoughts at the same time and how the soul resolves these different conflicts. Socrates notes that individuals often have the experience of wanting something such as drink while at the same time wishing that we did not want that drink, or at other times wishing to exact revenge on someone whom we believed has wrong us, and yet believing that acting on such anger is inappropriate (Reeves, 2004: p.124). It is the result of the tripartite soul that allows this process to take place. Harmony is what occurs as these three parts of the soul result in balance. This is a theme that is represented in different forms throughout the history of man but what is important from the point-of-view of Socrates is that the virtuous person always follows the lead of his reason and controls the appetite and will portion of the soul.
The purpose of behind the writing of the Republic was to demonstrate the importance of justice. Through the comments of Socrates in his various discussions with his friends, Plato demonstrates that just action is good in itself and that one should seek justice even when it does not result in an immediate advantage. Throughout the discourse in the book, Plato, through Socrates, examines what it means to be just and how only a just soul is untroubled and calm. As Socrates states to Thrasymachus early in the Republic, "So a just soul and a just man will live well and an unjust one badly (Reeve, 2004: p.34)."
Throughout the Republic Socrates emphasizes the importance of maintaining harmony and balance in order to achieve a just state (Reeve, 2004: p.133). This ideal just state will come to pass when the philosophers, that is, those individuals who spend their lives dedicated to study and to acquiring wisdom, become the rulers of the people. In Socrates' view, only the philosophers are capable of knowing what is right for the city and not anyone else. The philosophers and the philosophers alone possess the ability to know what is right for the city and no one else. The philosophers are not tainted with a desire for wealth or power which a greedy person or a power hunger military man would be. Such men are unjust and motivated by self-interest.
According to Socrates justice in the city occurs when each individual is doing the work for which he is best suited and the philosopher-king is ruling. This would represent a perfect state of justice. Justice in the individual, however, occurs when each part of the soul does the work for which it is best suited. This situation creates what ordinarily everyone believes is a just state. A state where individuals with a just soul would never engage in actions typically associated with being unjust such as embezzling, robberies, thefts, betrayal of friends and families, adultery, or disrespect of one's parents.
Late in the Republic Socrates begins to describe and compare the lives of the just and the unjust. Only a just soul, according to Socrates, is able to flourish and to feel at peace with himself. The just person possesses inner harmony because he is ruled by reason and through reason an individual is able to allow all of his values to be properly expressed which creates a state of harmony.