‘Perfectly unequal and perfectly just’. Is this an adequate view of Plato’s Republic?

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Plato’s Kallipolis is a place of strict divisions, so as to fulfil Plato’s dictum of justice. But is it incompatible with equality? This essay will argue that even though Plato developed his thoughts in direct opposition to the system of democratic equality present during his life-time, his Republic does not preclude equality. Indeed, Plato’s Kallipolis is a city of equality within distinctive parts. These distinctive parts all take equal share in what is the nature of the just city and are of equal importance to its constitution – only man’s nature which makes inequality necessary renders Justice possible and yet all members of the city are endowed with equal opportunities according to their aptitude. Consequently above view should be corrected to read ‘perfectly equal and perfectly just’.


Plato’s views have inspired opposition and approval alike – to hold justice and the good as absolute standards has been the cause of much suspicion for critics of Plato. However, it is not the question of whether such absolute standards are conceivable, but rather of whether such standards, if held, have consequences that promote the good life. As such, Plato’s concept of the Kallipolis must be the matter of critical scrutiny – can the just city be said to conform to modern values? One such value, established throughout long years of struggle is equality that is, the equal valuation of every individual. It is this ideal that has been identified both as crucial to modern society and as missing in Plato’s thought. Plato’s view of justice as “doing one’s own work and not meddling with what isn’t one’s own” at first glance does not allow for equality, for every part of the multitude must do what their natural aptitude determines is to be their work and nothing else. (Plato, 1997, 433a) However, this essay will argue that Plato is in many respects egalitarian.


Inquiring the nature of justice Socrates is at first confronted with the difficult task of opposing commonly held views of justice: justice as paying one’s debts, or doing good to one’s friends and injury to one’s enemies. However, such definitions prove to be of no help – they do nothing but point towards an instance of justice, to just behaviour, but not to an absolute conception of justice. (Laing, 1933, p. 416) Yet Socrates manages to conceive of such an abstract notion: “[…] Justice is doing one’s own work and not meddling with what isn’t one’s own.” (Plato, 1997, 433a)

This conception of justice is based on the view that within the individual, as within any social body, there exist different and sometimes at first glance opposing desires and needs. Those desires are the building blocks of Plato’s Kallipolis: the artisans love money and the production of goods, the guardians desire honour and the philosopher-kings strive to attain wisdom. It is in the need to fulfil those differing desires that Plato locates the genesis of human society – the first city exists only as a collection of artisans, specialised, though only artisans, but as other desires exist within the individual soon the city will achieve a higher degree of complexity. (Kochin, 1999, p. 406) Yet this difference does not entail disharmony, indeed it is only through it that justice acquires its meaning as Laing (1933) points out: “Justice is essentially relational in character. If the nature of man were utterly simple, or if there were only one social class or one function, there would be no such thing as justice.” (p. 419). It is this relational character, the inequality that necessarily engulfs human existence that frames the order of reciprocal domination and submission between unequals” (Foster, 1951, p. 209) in Plato’s universe. For Plato, this characteristic of justice is not defined by the state, as Popper argues; rather it is a product of knowledge, of reason and a part of nature. (Foster, 1951, p. 206)

Injustice then is for the classes to mix and meddle – but this is not the sole instance of injustice: As we have seen justice entails the submission of the weak to the strong. This relationship can be transgressed firstly by exchanging roles and secondly by either party infringing the interest of the whole, i.e. the strong exploiting the weak or the weak not obeying the strong. Thusly the just relation supposes both factions to assume their responsibility to one another. (Foster, 1951, p. 209) It is here that Plato locates the flaw of democracy – here the weak stop obeying the strong and postulate their equality to them and thereby offend the just relation.

Democracy is the rule of those unfitted to rule, the rule of demagogues and is consequently unjust. Democracy is fundamentally variety supplanting rule – it “distributes a sort of equality to both equals and unequals alike.” (Plato, 1997, 558c) As Saxonhouse (1998) argues it is for Plato, none other than a regime incapable of introducing distinctions whether it is in philosophy or in politics. (p.274) This of course is diametrically opposed to the philosophical order Plato envisions, the Forms to which only a few have access to are the means to and the reason for introducing such distinctions – Forms serve as sign posts to identities and at the same time the underlying distinction is already made, only those who can discern these identities are wise and fit to rule.

This distinction Plato thinks is already made at the very beginning of human existence, the aptitude of any given individual is determined from the very start – each individual is fitted to a certain task and justice can only be achieved if this aptitude is discovered and forthwith lived by. (Plato, 1997, 370a) In the Kallipolis this is ensured by conjuring up a myth to persuade those unable to see the truth to abide by this standard – they are subdued twofold: firstly they must submit to the rule of those able to conceive justice, secondly they are lied to, their inequality manifests itself in them being lied to for their own good. (Plato, 1997, 415a-c)Yet Plato conceives of this city as a whole, its hierarchical structure serves only to ensure the good life within it and any concern of a citizen is a concern of the city. (Plato, 1997, 462d-e) Plato’s argument then operates on two levels: on the one hand those fitted to rule, namely philosophers, are to rule because only they are governed by reason, on the other hand those not governed by reason should still be able to live in a city wherein reason is yielding power. This hierarchy serves only to further the well-being of the whole, the rules sole purpose is to bring to highest excellence the multitudes potential; the master must serve the slave: (Bluck, 1955, p.71; Smith, 1979, p.206)

It isn’t to harm the slave that we say he must be ruled […], but because it is better for everyone to be ruled by divine reason, preferably within himself and his own, otherwise imposed from without, so that as far as possible all will be alike and friends, governed by the same thing. (Plato, 1997, 590c-d)

At the same time, however, for Plato, there is no argument for the weak not to submit to the strong, the forms “provide an absolute standard”. (Neu, 1971, p. 247) This absolute standard is the main difference between democracy as radical equality and Plato’s Kallipolis – it is the ability to categorise and differentiate, the very essence of reason, which drives the class divisions of the Kallipolis.

The noble lie then offers to the artisans and guardians the closest possible approximation to the truth they are able to conceive of – the rule of the philosopher-kings serves only to give them access to the good as reliably as possible taking into consideration their natural gifts and talents. Furthermore their ruling desires and needs are satisfied and their education is to go as far their aptitude permits. (Reeves, 2009, p.71/77) No distinction is made between men and women; aptitude is the determining factor in the development of the individual. (Plato, 1997, 540c)

Additionally Plato precludes the philosopher-kings corruption by limiting their life-world – they hold no private property, their private interests are to be fully diminished and replaced with an interest in the well-being of the city. In short “Communism swallows up the private use of „mine“ and so ensures coincidence of interests.” (Neu, 1971, p. 247)

It is here that we can see how Plato and equality fit together perfectly, Plato’s Kallipolis as Rancière (2009) notes:

[…] is not the reign of equality through the law, of ‚arithmetic‘ equality between equivalent units. It is the reign of geometrical equality, which places those who count for more above those who count for less. Its principle is not the written law that applies to everyone, but the education that endows each person and each class with the virtues specific to its place and its function. (p. 64)


It becomes clear then that Plato’s Kallipolis is a place of justice and equality – equality however only under the condition of justice, i.e. subdued to it. Each part has to fulfil its function first and only afterwards can one speak of equality – it is equality of opportunity, not democratic equality that prevails in the just city. Every citizen is to be educated according to their aptitude and even those without the talent of discovering justice are to take part in it – the Kallipolis offers the good to everyone despite what reservations the individual may have. One can thusly assert that though the members of the city are parts of distinctive social classes, they have an equal share in the benefits that the city offers – Plato’s Kallipolis then is a place ‘perfectly equal and perfectly just’.


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