← other entries

Reasoning About Justice from Analogy

Socrates: Is it, then, the part of a just man to harm any human being whatsoever?

Polemarchus: Certainly, bad men and enemies ought to be harmed.

Socrates: Do horses that have been harmed become better or worse?

Polemarchus: Worse.

Socrates: With respect to the aretē of dogs or to that of horses?

Polemarchus: With respect to that of horses.

Socrates: And when dogs are harmed, do they become worse with respect to the aretē of dogs and not to that of horses?

Polemarchus: Necessarily.

Socrates: Should we not assert the same of human beings, my comrade—that when they are harmed, they become worse with respect to human aretē?

Polemarchus: Most certainly.

Socrates: But isn’t justice human aretē.

Polemarchus: That’s also necessary.

Socrates: Then, my friend, human beings who have been harmed necessarily become more unjust.

Polemarchus: It seems so.

Socrates: Well, are musicians able to make men unmusical by music?

Polemarchus: Impossible.

Socrates: Are men skilled in horsemanship able to make men incompetent riders by horsemanship?

Polemarchus: That can’t be.

Socrates: But are just men to make others unjust by justice, of all things? Or, in sum, are good men able to make other men bad by aretē?

Polemarchus: Impossible.

Socrates: For I suppose that cooling is not the work of heat, but of its opposite.

Polemarchus: Yes.

Socrates: Nor wetting the work of dryness but of its opposite.

Polemarchus: Certainly.

Socrates: Nor is harming, in fact, the work of the good but of its opposite.

Polemarchus: It looks like it.

Socrates: And it’s the just man who is good?

Polemarchus: Certainly.

Socrates: Then it is not the work of the just man to harm either a friend or anyone else, Polemarchus, but of his opposite, the unjust man.

Polemarchus: In my opinion, Socrates, what you say is entirely true.

Dijon: My opinion, Socrates, is not yet formed. Would you be willing to help me complete it by answering a few questions?

Socrates: I will try.

Dijon: Why do you think music and horsemanship can teach us about justice?

Socrates: Music is the aretē of musicians, horsemanship the aretē of men skilled in horsemanship, and justice the aretē of humans. Thus, if we know a property of music and horsemanship, we may reason that justice will have the same property, for all three share the same essential nature as types of aretē.

Dijon: Do you agree that music and horsemanship are unique arts?

Socrates: Certainly.

Dijon: Couldn’t this property, for example that musicians can’t make men unmusical by music, be due to music’s unique nature and not its nature as a type of aretē?

Socrates: No, because each art follows the same pattern: Can a poet make men less poetic with poetry?

Dijon: A masterful poet may make an ambitious young person stop pursuing their art, fleeing for an easier mountain to climb.

Socrates: This isn’t entirely implausible, but wouldn’t this ambitious young person still love poetry more for having observed the master’s greatness?

Dijon: Maybe, but is the aretē of poets to listen to poetry or to write it?

Also, what is the aretē of a warrior? Wouldn’t it be to harm their enemies?

And I have a different question. When you harm a horse, how is its horse aretē decreased?

Socrates: I do not know the aretē of horses well, but they must be able to take their rider long distances quickly—now still, now galloping like lightning—like the great breed of Tros’ team, whom Diomedes wrested from Aeneas and who won him a slave woman in the great funeral games of Patroclus. Would even one of these excellent horses, given by Zeus for Ganymede, have been as excellent if Diomedes’ spear had pierced its leg instead of splitting through Pandarus’ jaw?

Dijon: Indeed not, and so when you speak of human aretē being decreased by harm, do you mean the same type of harm?

Socrates: The aretē of men is different than the aretē of horses, and so men can be harmed by more than spears, swords, and boulders.

Dijon: Yet physical harm will make a man worse with respect to human aretē?

Socrates: Yes.

Dijon: And since justice is human aretē, if a man is caught abusing widows and orphans and is beaten with a plank and whipped, does this beating with a plank and whipping make the man less just?

Socrates: It looks like it.

Dijon: It seems that you are using the word “just” in a different sense than I usually use the word. Perhaps I am only confused about this.

Isn’t it possible that the man’s punishment would lead him to consider his error, thus making him better with respect to human aretē? While physical harm may not make horses better, it doesn’t seem to follow that physical harm can’t make humans better. Wouldn’t you agree that not all harm is bad?

Socrates: I do not. Can a punishment, intended to improve the person, be properly called a harm? When Simonedes says to help your friends and harm your enemies, he must have meant killing your enemies, stealing their cattle, and making their wives your slaves.

Dijon: Consider, then, that the widow and orphan abuser is stoned to death. Couldn’t the stoning, while unable to make the abuser more just, serve to make others more just by example?

The first portion of the dialogue is adapted from Allan Bloom’s translation of The Republic of Plato.