Plato’s conception of a ‘just society’

By Zikri Rosli

The word ‘justice’ is probably one of the words that has thousands of meanings and interpretations due to its subjective nature. Since ancient times, mankind has repeatedly debated and discussed what ‘justice’ truly means.

In the ancient Greek civilisation where the field of philosophy bloomed impressively, there was a philosopher named Plato who was then a student of Socrates, a great philosopher. His famous work ‘The Republic’ is still being used in colleges and universities nowadays.  In ‘The Republic’, Plato tried to define the word ‘justice’ by laying out his thoughts through the concept of Just or Ideal Society.

In ‘The Republic’, Plato firstly discussed the concept of an ‘ideal’ or a ‘just society’ and followed by the concept of a ‘just individual’. Both of these concepts are vital components in his work and are closely related. Plato’s conception of ideal society was laid out by having a structured society. There are three main classes of people in an ideal society – producers (craftsmen, farmers, and artisans), auxiliaries (warriors), and guardians (rulers).

According to Socrates, a society is just when relations between these three classes are right. Each class has its own function that needs to be done, for example, guardians must rule, warriors must obey the rulers, and producers must strive to produce things in the field that they are expert in. These functions can be done by the right groups and only the right groups. This is known as the principle of specialisation which is a principle that requires each person to fulfil societal role in which nature fitted him or her and not interfering in any other business.

Based on the above concept of a just society, it can be considered that Plato views society through one of the main sociological theories which is structural functionalism theory. The central idea of this theory is that society is a whole unit made up of interrelated parts that work together and each part in the society needs to play its function. This theory is clearly aligned with Plato’s concept of ideal state which is a society is just when relations between the three classes are right and each class perform its own function.

However, the principle of specialisation stressed by Plato is undemocratic. A role of a person should not be confined by nature as democracy represents freedom and open participation. In a democratic country, every citizen in a state who fulfils a certain criteria has the right to participate in the election process – that leads to voting. One cannot simply asked someone not to interfere in politics just because they are not well-versed in politics.

Next, Plato explained the concept of a ‘just individual’ as it is interrelated with the concept of ‘just society’. He claims that the soul of every individual has a three-part structure similar to the three classes of a society. There is a rational part of the soul, which seeks after truth and is responsible philosophical inclinations; a spirited part of the soul, which desires honour and is responsible for the feelings of anger; and an appetitive part of the soul, which lusts after all sorts of things, especially money.

For an individual to be just, the rational part must rule, the spirited part of the soul supports this rule, and the appetitive part of the soul submits and follows wherever reason leads. This is also applicable for the community to become a just society. The guardians who are supposedly dominated by their rational faculties and wisdom must rule the society, warriors who are dominated by their spirits must help and support the guardians, and producers who are dominated by their appetites must submit to the ruler’s will.

Using this concept of a just individual, one can apply it as their principle of life. As a normal human being, we are created with appetite and a desire that will lead us into negative consequences if we were to blindly follow what our desire needs. By using Plato’s concept of  a just individual, the rational part should guard the desire part through proper reasoning and thinking. Similarly, in the political context, the rulers of state must rule the state with proper knowledge and wisdom to ensure that justice prevails in the society. ***

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