Plato, Part 3

In which Plato tells us what justice is, and finally understands why they killed Socrates.

Plato, Part 3

(If you're just coming to this, Part 1 is here and Part 2 is here. All of it plus stories of other philosophers can be found here)

Let us begin, says Plato, by looking at justice in a city. Why? Well, big things are easier to see, right? An ant is easier to hide than an elephant, right?

Yes, of course.

And so it is with justice, says Plato. A city is much bigger than a person, so it will be easier to identify justice when we examine than when we identify a person. And justice is justice no matter where it’s found, so when we’ve understood what justice in a city is, we can sort of transfer that over to an individual person and understand what it is for a person to be just.


Just as you say, old chap.

And thus begins the grand adventure of the Republic.

All of you living in this city, in our Republic, are brothers, says Plato. You are one blood, bound to one another through life and death.

Brothers, repeats Plato, the olive trees murmuring in the breeze. Do you understand what means?

They nod, slowly, uncertainly, thinking they understand, not entirely sure.

Before I say anything more, understand this: You were all made by the same Gods. You are all the children of the Gods. Do you understand?

Yes, someone says quietly, and again that uncertain nod spreads.

In some of you, the God has mixed some gold; in others, some silver; and in others still, some bronze. The ones with gold - you are the ones equipped to rule. The ones with silver - you are the ones equipped to fight. The ones with bronze - you are the farmers and the other craftsmen.

In our city, in the noble Republic of our dreams, each of you does what the God has created you to do. The ones with gold in them rule. The ones with silver in them fight. The ones with bronze in them farm.

In our Republic, the rulers will rule not because they love power but because they love their brothers. They will rule because they will understand that they are the best at ruling and so it will be best for the city if they rule. And so with the others, the men with silver and bronze in them.

That is what justice is. Each doing what they are meant to do, each doing what the God has intended for them - and doing it like brothers: doing it for each other, with love for each other, living and working like brothers, because that is what they are.

In a city like this, Socrates would not have been murdered.

And now we know what justice looks like in the city, we can identify it in persons.

Just as the city is divided into three parts, so is the individual soul.

The three parts of the individual soul, of your soul, of mine, of all souls, are these: reason, spirit, and appetite.

The woman ruled by reason, says Plato, is characterised by a love of wisdom. That is what she desires and pursues.

The man ruled by spirit, on the other hand, pursues social prestige and honour.

The person dominated by appetite values material pleasures above other things, and generally ends up pursuing wealth, because wealth is the most effective means to satisfying most material desires.

Justice in the soul is the same as justice in the city: it is the three parts of the soul each doing what they are meant to do, each doing what the God has intended for them.

Justice, Plato is saying, is harmony.

It is the harmony created when each part has its proper place, when each part does what it was created to do, when each part allows the other to do what it is supposed to.

In a just city, all the parts are honoured as necessary. The men of gold do not look down upon the men of silver and bronze. They are brothers and they recognise they are brothers.

So it is also in a just soul. Reason rules, but it does not tyrannise. In a just soul, reason guides the pursuit of wisdom but it is both constrained and guided by the spirit and the appetite. A soul ruled only by reason, where only reason is honoured, would not be a just soul. It would lack the courage and vigour that comes from spirit and appetite.

Justice is sometimes associated with the word “integrity”. Let us dig into this a little, because it will allow us to understand Plato better.

The word “integrity” comes from the Latin word integer. This word, integer, means: “complete, whole, intact”. In the original sense, then, to have integrity means to be whole, to be the opposite of fragmented and divided.

For a soul to have integrity is for it to be whole, to be a soul which is not fragmented and divided, a soul which is not at war with itself.

And this is exactly what Plato tells us justice is: it is the three parts of the soul working together, living in harmony, each in its proper place, each loved and honoured as itself. To be just is to have a soul that is at peace with itself.

Socrates was a just man. He may have been the only just man in Athens. But instead of honouring him, the tyrants had prosecuted him. Instead of begging him to rule, the mob had murdered him.


It is in the nature of grief to look for reasons. If only we could understand, we feel, things would be better. If only we knew, if only he told me why he did it, if only she had explained.

Plato was the son of Apollo, but he was also a man. The question gnawed at him. Why had they done it? How was it even possible to do it?

Imagine a cave, said Plato. It’s dark and damp and very deep. Imagine now that human beings live in this cave, deep down, far away from the entrance. Those humans were born in this cave and have always lived there. Their necks and their legs are bound in iron chains so they can only see in front of them.

Imagine them, says Plato, and something in his voice makes you really try. You can see them now, perhaps. A row of hobbled, haunched humans, staring straight ahead of them. Emaciated, the iron fetters solid against their scrawny flesh.

Plato smiles, and the smile is the kind that makes men shiver.

Now, says Plato, imagine that behind these human beings a wall has been built. A low wall, a wall like the screen that puppeteers use.

And then, continues Plato, imagine that people are carrying stuff on the wall, all kinds of things that project above it. Statues of people, of animals … everything.

And behind the wall and behind the people carrying those things, a long way behind, imagine a fire burning. A big fire, the only source of light in the cave.

Picture them. Picture the carriers on the wall, some speaking and others not, picture the fire burning high above them, and picture the fettered human beings staring ahead of them.

What do the prisoners see, asks Plato?

The shadows thrown onto the surface in front of them.

Can they see anything else?


Remember, he says: they know nothing else. They have been born there, they have always lived there. To them, the cave, the shadows, the echoes … that is what there is. That is the world, that is reality.

And now, he says, now … now imagine that one of them is freed. Imagine he loosens the fetters and struggles up to the top, to the very top, beyond the wall and beyond the fire, all the way to the sunlight. At first he is blinded, the light is too much - he is used only to shadows, remember?

But he remains in the light and slowly his eyes get used to it. He begins to see - to really see. For the first time in his life, he sees not shadows but the things themselves. Imagine his happiness!

And imagine what he feels now about the world below, the world that used to be his, about the ways in which people there talk, the things they talk about. Imagine what he feels about the things they care about. How can he take any of it seriously?

But he comes back down. Out of love or pity, who knows, he comes back down to the world of the shadows and the people who live in it. He wants to tell people about the light.

When he comes down, his eyes have to adjust again, because they are no longer used to the shadow. He can’t see in the shadows as well as the other men. And instead of praising him for finding the light, the prisoners mock him for ruining his eyesight.

He cannot live in the cave anymore. He has seen too much. He cannot take the shadows seriously, he can no longer worship the illusions that the people in the cave lie and die for, the illusions that they kill each other for. It is all laughable to him.

So the prisoners of the cave find him laughable, because he has none of the things they value: no money, nothing to buy or sell, nothing that is honoured in the land of the shadows.

Imagine, now, that this man tries to free his brothers. Imagine he hacks at their fetters, imagine he keeps telling them they are living in the world of shadows, that everything they value and live for is a lie … imagine he loves his fellow prisoners so much that despite the mockery and the scorn, despite the anger and the hate, he keeps trying, over and over again, never relenting, desperate in his attempts to help them reach the light?

I knew such a man, says Plato. They killed him.