Painting of an idealized reconstruction of the Acropolis and Areios Pagos in Athens, by Leo von Klenze (1846)

POLITEIA

ΠΟΛΙΤΕΙΑ

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Plato set the dramatic events of The Republic (politeia) on the Greek and Thracian festival of Bendideia, which fell on the nineteenth day of the month of Thargelion. The day in 407 BCE (the year scholars ascribe to the dramatic events of the work) would correspond to May 12th. Plato’s Republic, in which Socrates discussed the virtue of justice.

As Socrates and his friends did 2,800 years ago, Stoics use May 12th as a date to discuss JUSTICE. It also provides the opportunity to start thinking more carefully about SOCRATES and the unique style with which he engaged in philosophical discussions with likeminded people. Socrates himself called his method a kind of “MIDWIFERY” (maieutikos). If you want to sound more scholarly, you can call his method “maieutics.”

In May and June, Stoics observe Sokratia—a festival 30 days long that corresponds with the days Socrates spent in prison. The main events of Sokratia are the commemorations of the trial and death of Socrates, which took place on May 16th and June 15th respectively in the year 399 BCE. These events are very important for several reasons which we will get into… next week.

Two Forms of Justice

In Book 1 of Plato’s Republic, Socrates and his friends went down to the Piraeus (the port city six miles southwest of Athens) to celebrate the festival of Bendideia. It’s an interesting festival because it might have been the only one that was directly imported without modification from another culture into the Athenian calendar. Bendideia celebrated the Thracian goddess Bendis, whom the Athenians associated with Artemis since they were both goddesses of the hunt.

Why does Plato set a dialogue about justice on Bendideia? It’s a legitimate question but one that I haven’t found any comments on in the academic literature; in the normal commentaries on the Republic, scholars don’t seem to think it’s significant except that it served as an excuse to get Socrates out of Athens (a rare event). Whenever Plato has Socrates leave the city it seems to provide some figurative distance from the conventional values of Athenian politics. In the Republic, this distance helps Socrates propose some radical ideas about the nature of justice in the ideal city-state. 

Perhaps the Bendis-Artemis connection represent a return to nature—Socrates starting from scratch with his interlocutors and trying to imagine what justice should look like despite how it looked like in Athens at the time. Perhaps it indicates that Socrates himself is on the hunt for justice and will not stop until he and his interlocutors have come to a satisfying conclusion (which they actually seem to do, but not after ten books full of arguments, analogies, digressions, and debates).

So what did they hunt down? What is justice? 

Socrates quickly acknowledges that there are two forms of justice: “We say, don’t we, that there is the justice of a single man and also the justice of a whole city?” (368e). The justice of a single man—justice in the narrow sense—is a disposition of the mind to treat people fairly (or, to give others what they’re owed). The justice of a whole city or society—justice in the broad sense—is a disposition of public institutions to distribute resources fairly. Socrates assumes that both forms of justice are isomorphic. That is, they both have a similar structure and operate the same way, but at different scales. In fact, this is the whole point of why Socrates spends most of the Republic talking about justice in an ideal city: because once we understand what justice is in the broad sense we will better understand what justice is in the narrow sense. Many readers forget that the overall purpose of the work is to elucidate the virtue of justice in an individual person:

since we aren’t clever people, we should adopt the method of investigation that we’d use if, lacking keen eyesight, we were told to read small letters from a distance and then noticed that the same letters existed elsewhere in a larger size and on a larger surface. We’d consider it a godsend, I think, to be allowed to read the larger ones first and then to examine the smaller ones, to see whether they really are the same. . . . So, if you’re willing, let’s first find out what sort of thing justice is in a city and afterwards look for it in the individual, observing the ways in which the smaller is similar to the larger.

Plato’s Republic 368d-369a

Perhaps readers overlook this because this ‘narrow justice’ is not usually how we speak of justice today; I don’t often hear anyone—except modern Stoics—talk about justice as it exists within an individual person. But this is exactly how the Stoics conceive of justice. Below are some relevant passage trying to define justice (you can also read a more technical approach from Lawrence Becker’s A New Stoicism on p. 124). The following passages are all from a text called The Epitome of Stoic Ethics written by Arius Didymus in the 1st Century BCE and preserved in the works of Joannes Stobaeus.

  • “Justice is knowledge of the distribution of proper value to each person. . . . Injustice is ignorance of the distribution of proper value to each person.”(5b1)
  • “Justice concerns distributions. . . . Of those [virtues] subordinate to . . . justice: piety, good-heartedness, public-spiritedness, fair dealing. . . . piety is knowledge of service to the gods; good-heartedness is knowledge which does good [to others]; public-spiritedness is knowledge of fairness in a community; fair dealing is knowledge of how to deal with one’s neighbors blamelessly.” (11b)
  • “[The Stoics] say that justice exists by nature and not by convention. Consequent on this is the belief that the wise man participates in political life, especially in the sort of governments which show some moral progress toward becoming perfect governments.” (ibid.; Cf. the end of Seneca’s De Otiō)
  • “Cleanthes posed this sort of argument about the claim that the [ideal] state is virtuous: if the state is a contrivance for dwelling in which one takes refuge in order to give and receive justice, is not the [ideal] state a virtuous thing? But the [ideal] state is such a dwelling place; therefore, the [ideal] state is a virtuous thing. And ‘state’ is used in three senses: as a dwelling place, as a complex system of human beings, and third as the combination of these two senses. In two of these senses the state is said to be virtuous: as a complex system of human beings and in the combination of the two senses because of the implicit reference to its inhabitants.” (11i)
  • “And the virtuous man does not suffer injustice or harm (although it is true that some people behave unjustly and arrogantly toward him), and in this he acts justly.” (11m)

Some things you should notice from the above passages: justice is described as a disposition or as a kind of knowledge of how to act towards other people. At the individual level, whether someone is just does not depend on their external circumstances whatsoever. Justice is a natural state of human beings (a way people may “live according to nature”) because a healthy human being is cooperative and social. A collection of morally developed human beings will form a community that is itself just—that has a disposition to treat its constituents fairly (rationally). And the perfectly just person will want to contribute to the health of this community.

A fulfilling way to commemorate justice might be to attain a better understanding of it and to not neglect justice in a narrow sense. Here are some more passages that may appear paradoxical or confusing at first, but which may help us unlock insights about the nature of justice itself.

  • “[Stoicism] does not at all approve of the view that justice or friendship should be welcomed or approved of because of its advantages. For the very same advantages could just as well undermine and overthrow them. Indeed, neither justice nor friendship can exist at all unless they are chosen for their own sakes.” (Cicero De Finibus 3.70)
  • “[I]f you agree that human nature is . . . like that of a bee, which cannot live alone and is doomed if isolated from others and which is inclined toward one task that is shared with its hive mates and works and labors in cooperation with its neighbors; if this is the way things really are and if in addition it is understood that injustice, cruelty, and neglect of the distress of one’s collaborators are vice in human beings, whereas our virtues include kindness, decency, justice, and the inclination to be generous and caring to one’s neighbors—then on this basis each of us must look out for the interests of one’s city and regard his household as part of the city’s defenses.” (Musonius Rufus Lectures & Fragments 14)
  • “We should make every effort to show all the gratitude we can. For the good in it is our own. After all, gratitude is not justice (as is commonly believed), for justice pertains to others, but much of the good in gratitude redounds to oneself. Everyone who helps another person helps himself. . . I mean that every virtue is its own reward. For one doesn’t practice the virtues in order to receive a prize: the reward for right action is having acted rightly.” (Seneca’s Letters to Lucilius 81.19-20)
  • “Consider: ‘This is the way you should treat a friend, this way a fellow citizen, and this way an ally.’ Why? ‘Because it is just.’ I can learn all this from the topic that treats justice. There I find that fairness is desirable in itself; that we are not forced into it by fear or motivated by monetary gain; and that one who is pleased by anything in justice except the virtue itself is not just. Once I have convinced myself of this and absorbed it, what is the good of those” (Letters 94.11)
  • “[J]ustice cannot suffer anything unjust, because opposites do not combine; and injury cannot be done except unjustly; therefore injury cannot be done to the wise person. Nor can you be surprised if no one can do an injury to him, when no one can even benefit him! The fact is that nothing is lacking to the wise person that he could receive in the place of a gift, and equally, that the bad person can confer nothing that is worthy of the wise person. For he needs to have before he can give, but he has nothing which the wise person will rejoice over when it is passed on to him.” (Seneca’s On the Constancy of the Wise Person 8.1)

In the spirit of Socrates, invite others in conversation about what justice means in the narrow sense of the word— at the individual level. What does it mean to have justice as a feature of one’s mind, as a disposition?; as a kind of knowledge?; as something invulnerable to external circumstances? How is this form of justice related to the wider sense of justice—social or political or institutional or structural justice? How would the perfectly just person interact with their community to bring about this wider sense of justice?

In honor of Bendis and Artemis, we are on the hunt for justice just like Socrates and his friends were on the hunt for justice so long ago:

we must station ourselves like hunters surrounding a wood and focus our understanding, so that justice doesn’t escape us and vanish into obscurity, for obviously it’s around here somewhere. So look and try eagerly to catch sight of it, and if you happen to see it before I do, you can tell me about it.

Plato’s Republic 432b-c

Happy hunting.

KALĒ POLΙTEÍΑ!

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