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Mare Nostrum

Socrates: the Search of Justice

by J. Davis

For centuries, the definition of justice has been disputed over by wise men of all countries. Through the works of Plato, the views of Socrates are recorded for all to read and reflect upon. He believed that justice was good, and the good could only be attained through self-knowledge. Socrates argued that a universal good existed. Therefore, every man was capable of finding the good.


Athena, the goddess of wisdom and cheif goddess of Athens, was, according to myth, born by springing out of the head of Zeus. Socrates believed that his pupils, already knew the answers to the questions they asked, but needed help finding them in their minds. This was Socrates job: to help the knowledge "spring" from ones mind.

Life of Socrates

Socrates (469-399 B.C.), was a Greek thinker whose thoughts influenced philosophers in antiquity to shift their focus from scientific explanations to searching for explanations of life that would satisfy the soul. He never put his teachings on paper, but his pupil Plato recorded many of Socrates' conversations. Of the life of Socrates, he was born in Athens and lived there all his life, leaving only to serve in the Peloponnesian War. His contemporaries considered him extremely ugly, and he also walked around Athens barefoot with an unkept beard and sloppy hair. He supported his wife Xanthippe and two sons by stone cutting, but felt his true occupation was philosophy. Socrates compared his existence to that of a midwife; he helped to deliver knowledge to pregnant minds. Socrates died in 399 B.C., at about seventy years after a conviction of impiety. He had to drink a cup of hemlock, and this scene described in Plato's Phaedo,"is one of the most famous in literature" (qtd. In Dockendorf).

Hercules performed good deeds in order to repent killing his wife and children. This is in accordance with Socrates teachings concerning the meaning of the word good.Socrates believed a good man harmed no one, and beleived that wrongdoers should find the cure to their evil ways, and become good.

The Good

Socrates asked the question: what is justice? In the first two books of Plato's Republic, we can read the viewpoints Socrates concluded after long debates with fellow philosophers. They agreed that justice is good, and therefore it is true in saying injustice is evil. So for a man to be a just man, he must be a good man. But what is good?
Kealy states that "good is what is desired, needed, lacked." Socrates goes on to say these are natural needs, not what man thinks he needs. One's nature is what is called the daimon- one's inner self that seeks to be fulfilled. Naturally the good is desired, because it fulfills one's nature, and Socrates states the pursuit of happiness is the "natural aim of life" (Kealy).
But as individuals are different, one's daimon is unique to each individual. The only way to attain one's daimon, according to Kealy, is by "unfolding their own proper potential (rather than someone else's idea of what it should be)". One must do this by using knowledge.Next, Socrates argues since knowledge leads to good, it is also good itself. Thus, knowledge of self leads to the knowledge of the difference between good and evil. Only in knowing one's self can one be good, Socrates argues, because one does not commit wrong if he knows it; but he can commit wrong if he is ignorant of his actions. Therefore, virtue is knowledge, and conversely, ignorance is vice. From this, he stated the four virtues:

  • courage
  • temperance
  • justice
  • piety
could be traced back to knowledge.


After agreements of the fact one could not be just but not good, or good but not just, the philosophers Socrates conversed with then asked for a definition of justice. In Plato's dialogue Gorgias, Socrates begins by stating, "Happiness surely does not consist in being delivered from evils, but in never having them." (Gorgias) To support this, he asks his listeners to picture a person suffering from illness. Would this person remain ill, or would he go to seek a cure? Without a doubt he would seek the cure for his ailment. He then points out the man who never falls sick is happier than the man who is cured from sickness. After stating this, Socrates claims that punishment for the crime is the cure for evil, and justice leads to that punishment.
As the healthy man is happier than the cured man, the man who has done no wrong is happier than the man who has received punishment (justice) for his actions. But following this, the most miserable man is the man who leads an evil life and thinks himself better for not suffering punishment. This man, as Socrates relates, is like a child who is afraid of the medicine of justice. He is so afraid of the immediate pain of the cure, he becomes blind to the benefits he will receive in the long run: a soul free from corruptness, disorder, injustice, and ultimately, evil. He does not see punishment as the only cure for evil, and to prevent punishment only prolongs his own suffering. Socrates asks what the purpose of living with an unjust soul serves; the just life is more important than even external possessions. So on the scale of evil, second is the man who does wrong, but first is the man who does wrong and gets away with it. Socrates concludes with:

And if he, or any one about whom he cares, does wrong, he ought of his own accord to go where he will immediately be punished; he will run to the judge, as he would to the physician, in order that the disease of injustice may not be rendered chronic and become the incurable cancer of the soul; we must not allow this consequence . . . if our former admissions are to stand:-is there any other inference against them? (Gorgias)
In Plato's Republic, Socrates was then asked about the role of justice in the life of man. Socrates begins another discussion and a conclusion is reached that "it is just to do good to our friends when they are good and harm to our enemies when they are evil." (Five Great Dialogues 232) Socrates does not accept this reasoning as final, and points out that doing harm is far worse than receiving harm, for "doing injustice harms yourself internally" (Kealy). In turn, to harm any person is the act of the unjust, and the just man will not harm another, because by doing so the just man will prove himself the opposite of what he claims to be. This was the first time in European philosophy the idea that a man should not harm others, even his enemies, had been declared. In the first book of The Republic, Socrates receives the argument that men find it easier to fall into the pleasures of the unjust rather than choose the inevitable loss and suffering endured as a result of being good and just. But because the just life is more important than the external pleasures that vice and injustice can yield, loss and suffering is a little price to pay. Better is the poor man with a good, just soul than the rich man who has found his wealth through vice and thus attained a tainted soul.

Influence and Final Days

Socrates brought a new way of thinking to philosophy. His views influenced many philosophers and his teachings are still used today. He served as the model philosopher, dying for what he believed in. During his imprisonment before his death, Socrates' friends had offered him the chance to escape, but he did not accept the offer. In Plato's Crito, Socrates weighs the pros and cons of escaping and concludes that the law of Athens have protected him all his life, and that he could not disobey them, even if it meant his life. He felt that if he escaped, it would do him no good to roam from town to town. Later philosophers argue Socrates was rash and foolish for not accepting his friends' offers, but it is the popular conclusion that Socrates personified his views on justice, even if it cost his life.

Works Cited

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This page was created by J. Davis. Last revised 3/29/00.