How does Plato teach the reader about justice through Socratic dialogue?
Socratic dialogue in Plato’s The Republic focuses on defining the virtue of justice. In fact, Plato takes his readers through a series of tangents that result in a better understanding of the moral and philosophical underpinnings of justice: While Book I takes a more direct approach at this, because Socrates debunks the definitions of his hosts, Book II examines justice more indirectly by addressing how the foundations of interests pertain to justice.
The concept of justice during the Classical Period was ethical rightness in general. But Socrates and his hosts are more interested in developing this concept into a definition. The first major dialogue in Book I is between Socrates and Polemarchus. Polemarchus contributes the first definition of justice: justice is giving to each what he is owed (331e). Socrates is intrigued by this definition of justice. In order to confirm whether this definition is valid, Socrates tests it against other beliefs that Polemarchus holds. Polemarchus’s definition fails to be fully adequate against these inquiries. By substantially disproving this definition of justice, readers are taught that accepted definitions of justice are not necessarily true. Plato proceeds to show readers a series of dialogues between Socrates and Polemarchus that assigns attributes to the virtue of justice. Plato shows here how a significant amount of dialogue between the two results in very little progress towards a definition of justice is. This is to the anger of Thrasymachus, who interjects and verbally attacks Socrates. Socrates parries the criticism by prompting Thrasymachus for his own definition. Thrasymachus bombastically claims justice is “nothing other than what is advantageous for the stronger” (338c). Socrates debunks this definition of justice as well, but does not offer his own. By directly disproving Thrasymachus and Polemarchus’ definitions of justice, Plato teaches readers that justice exists, but it is far less rigid than commonly thought.
In Book II, Glaucon joins the discussion by reviving the definition of Thrasymachus on the basis of an inconsistency. Moreover, Glaucon adopts contrarian rhetoric with Socrates, pressing him to validate how being just is beneficial. Adeimantus intervenes to point out a flaw in Socrates argument: Socrates is only articulating how society values the reputation of justice, not the virtue itself (367c). Plato uses this dialogue to show readers that distinguishing justice from perceptions about justice is necessary in order to prove it is beneficial. Without a direct definition or proof of how justice is beneficial, though, Socrates seeks to create justice from its foundations; for the remaining duration of Book II, Plato includes dialogue between Socrates and Adeimentus or Glaucon consisting of the building of a city. The shared interests of multiple individuals is how they found a city. Through the development of a city, Plato shows readers how justice gradually imprints itself in society.
Plato has revealed in Books I and II that justice is a valued virtue in society, but it cannot be easily defined. In Book I, the Socratic dialogue focused on directly debunking traditional definitions of justice; Book II contained Socratic dialogue that focused on how justice roots itself. Together these books teach readers that justice is a working definition and its origin is rooted somewhere in a city which has the collective belief that such a virtue is desirable.
Plato, and C.D.C. Reeve. 2004. Republic. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.