Jean-Paul RIOPELLE, L'hommage à Rosa Luxemburg, 1992 (détail)[ * ]

Plato, Justice, and the Beautiful Soul

Christopher Byrne


One way of stating the position of moral subjectivism is to say that human actions do not please us because they are morally good, but that they are morally good because they please us. In other words, human actions are moral because they elicit a certain response in us, rather than because of any intrinsic properties that belong to them, independent of us. This position is sometimes also called moral relativism inasmuch as moral judgments are thought to be grounded in individual preferences that are peculiar to one or a few persons and cannot be found universally. Similarly, aesthetic relativism claims that it is not the case that the objects of our experience please us because they are beautiful, but that we find them to be beautiful simply because they please us.

In his Republic and Symposium, Plato argues against both moral and aesthetic relativism. He freely admits that we often judge an action to be moral or an object to be beautiful because they produce pleasure in us, and that these reactions are often highly idiosyncratic. Nevertheless, for quite similar reasons, he argues that human actions are properly called morally good only to the extent that they possess certain properties that are independent of the response they produce in us, and that the objects of our experience are beautiful only to the extent that they too possess certain intrinsic, observer-independent properties. In this paper, I consider the reasons that Plato offers in these two dialogues for these views.


Imagine that someone presented the following argument to you:

If you want to understand the nature of human morality and justice, you must observe what people do and not what they say, their deeds and not their words.  For human beings are notoriously given to deception, either self-deception in that they do not understand the true motives for their own behaviour, or the deception of others, in that they deliberately mislead others about the true motives for their behaviour.  Setting aside, then, what people say they are doing, and observing instead how they actually behave, one is initially struck by the enormous variety in human customs and practices.  This variety is particularly striking when it comes to the moral evaluation of human behaviour, where practices that are condoned or even praised at one time and place are severely censured and punished at another.  Continued observation of human behaviour, however, reveals that this variety in human practices is deceptive in that certain forms of human behaviour turn out to be quite widespread, some indeed universal.  Again, the standards of morality and justice provide a striking example of this phenomenon inasmuch as they all manifest a common, fundamental pattern:  however varied the standards of moral praise and blame may be, they are all established so as to encourage and reward those practices that are to the advantage of the politically powerful, and to discourage and punish those practices that are to the disadvantage of this group.  The most important standards of morality and justice are the laws and rules of political communities, whether written or unwritten, and these laws and rules always serve the interests of those who make them, the politically powerful.  Human laws and customs vary from time to time and place to place because the composition of the ruling elite varies from time to time and place to place.  At some times and places the group of political rulers may be quite small compared to the population at large; these regimes we tend to call oligarchies, aristocracies, or, if the ruling group is small enough, tyrannies.  At other times and places, the group of those who have political power may be very large and include almost everyone; these regimes we tend to call democracies.  Nevertheless, however large or small this ruling group may be, the laws and the rules these people set down and enforce all follow the same pattern:  they are established to the benefit of the people who make them.  In sum, the standards of justice and morality are everywhere set down by the politically powerful, and everywhere they are set down according to what the politically powerful believe is to their advantage.

The reason for this universal pattern in the laws and customs that govern human societies is not simply human greed.  To speak of greed is to suggest that a different, non-selfish kind of human behaviour is both possible and, in some way, superior.  Neither of these alternatives, however, is the case.  Humans behave the way they do because of the desires that they have, and there is no non-arbitrary way of deciding whose desires should be satisfied and whose not.  Stated differently, there are no independently existing standards of right and wrong conduct; we make these standards, which means that, in practice, the rules of correct human conduct prevalent at any particular time and place will be the ones that serve the interests of the politically powerful.  People who censure other people’s behaviour as being greedy are in fact merely trying to re-arrange things more to their own advantage.  There is no higher standpoint from which to judge the actions of others.  Morality is simply war conducted by other means.

If I were to ask you who holds the above views about justice and morality, you might be tempted to name several contemporary figures, perhaps a modern de-constructionist such as Michel Foucault, or some of the many contemporary followers of the nineteenth-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.  In fact, the above views are all put forward by one of Socrates’ interlocutors in Plato’s Republic, a man by the name of Thrasymachus. [1]   Thrasymachus’ account of morality and justice is a somewhat extreme version of moral subjectivism.  Moral subjectivism argues that human actions are not moral because of any intrinsic properties that belong to them, independent of us.  Rather, human actions are moral because they elicit a certain response in us, typically because they please us or are useful to us in some way or other, and, as a consequence, we consider them to be morally good.  This position is sometimes also called moral relativism inasmuch as moral judgments are thought to be grounded in individual preferences that are peculiar to one person or a particular group of persons, and do not hold universally. 

I mention Thrasymachus’ moral subjectivism because it is important to realize that the views on the nature of human morality and justice set out by Socrates in the Republic are presented by him in full awareness of the alternative account of morality and justice stated above.  In other words, Socrates’ account of morality and justice is not a naïve one, presented by someone who is unaware that another, much less flattering account of human behaviour is possible.  On the contrary, in Thrasymachus, Socrates faces an opponent who believes he has dispensed with all religious and conventional obfuscation, and has instead reason and scientific observation on his side.  The same can be said for Socrates’ defence in the Symposium of the view that the objects of our experience are beautiful only to the extent that they possess certain intrinsic, observer-independent properties.  Socrates defends this claim explicitly against what might be called aesthetic subjectivism, namely the view that beauty is not an intrinsic feature of certain objects of our experience, but that we consider something to be beautiful only insofar as it pleases us.  The first part of my paper considers the arguments given by Socrates in Plato’s Republic for what one might call moral objectivism.  The second part of my paper attempts to show how very similar arguments are used by Socrates in the Symposium to argue for what one might call aesthetic objectivism.  In the third part, I consider briefly some objections to the above views and how Socrates might respond to them.


Socrates’ response to Thrasymachus in particular, and to moral subjectivism in general, has two parts.  First, he argues that justice and morality can be useful to all, that is, that contrary to what Thrasymachus thought, some social arrangements really can be to the advantage of all members of a political community, and not just to the advantage of some and the disadvantage of others. [2]   In support of this view, he points to what he takes to be the natural dependence of human beings on one another, beginning with our lack of self-sufficiency with respect to the production of the material necessities of human life, and pointing out the economic, or material benefits that derive from the division and specialization of labour.  In other words, he points to the general utility, the usefulness for everyone, of certain economic and social arrangements.  In this context, justice and morality are instrumentally good to the extent that the economic and social arrangements they preserve are useful to us all. [3]   The second and principal part of Socrates’ response to Thrasymachus, however, does not rely on the usefulness of justice and morality to obtain various goods for ourselves.  He argues, instead, that justice and morality, properly understood, are intrinsic goods, things that are good for their own sake, independent of the benefits and rewards that typically attend just behaviour and the losses and punishments that usually follow injustice. [4]   In defence of the intrinsic goodness of justice Socrates argues for the view that justice is a virtue of the human soul. [5]   Indeed, Socrates argues that justice is the principal virtue of the human soul inasmuch as, on his account, justice presupposes the three other cardinal virtues, wisdom, courage, and moderation, or self-control. [6]   To understand and evaluate Socrates’ claim, then, we need to consider what Socrates means by the human soul, virtue in general, human virtue in particular, and finally, the relation between justice and the other human virtues.

 To begin with, for the purposes of this argument, all that we need understand by the term ‘human soul’ is the sum total of human psychological faculties, some of which are shared with other animals and some of which are unique to human beings.  Stated differently, we should think of the human soul simply as whatever distinguishes human beings from inanimate objects.  Elsewhere Socrates argues for the immortality of the human soul, or at least of part of it, but nothing that he says about the connection between justice and the human soul presupposes the immortality of the latter.  The second important concept that Socrates uses is that of virtue, by which he means the capacity to perform a specific task, or job, or function, well. [7]   Two points about his definition of virtue should be noted.  First, a virtue is always said in relation to a specific task, function, or job.  There is no such thing as virtue as such; a virtue is always the virtue of something of a certain kind to perform a task of a certain kind.  As a result, the Greek term for ‘virtue’ (arete) is sometimes translated as ‘functional excellence,’ that is, the excellence required to perform a specific function well.  Thus, Socrates’ definition of ‘virtue’ clearly presupposes the notion of specific function; by the latter he understands the ability of something to perform some task or other, where the task in question is something that that kind of thing performs either uniquely or best. [8]   The specific task of a wood saw, for example, is to cut wood; other things might be used to cut wood, but a wood saw does it best.  Second, inasmuch as a virtue is the ability to perform a certain task well, there is a normative standard implicit in the notion of a virtue.  The normative standard, however, is not a general one; rather, it is specific to a particular task, or function, and is grounded in what is required to accomplish that task properly.  A standard of excellence, then, is set by what is required for the successful completion of some task.  The latter also determines what it is to be a good one of that kind of object.  Something is a good X, if it has the ability to complete X’s specific task properly.  It follows that if what is going on cannot be understood in terms of the successful completion of some specific task, there is no room for virtue and no place for the good.  It is not the case, then, that everything that happens is, in and of itself, either good or bad.  From what Plato says elsewhere in his dialogues, notably in the Timaeus, the best examples of such occurrences are the physical interactions of matter, which are governed by a kind of brute, mechanical necessity and are, in themselves, neither good nor bad. [9]

As the example of the wood saw makes clear, specific functions and their corresponding virtues are not restricted to naturally occurring things; according to Socrates artifacts, too, have virtues.  Nevertheless, he argues that naturally occurring objects and their parts, or organs, often have a specific function, which in turn requires the corresponding virtue to perform that task properly.  The function of the eyes, he argues, is to see, and good eyes are eyes that possess the corresponding virtue, namely the ability to see well.  Over and above the functions performed by our organs and parts, Socrates argues, it is also the case that human beings as such perform all sorts of specific functions or jobs, for example, the jobs performed by doctors, animal trainers, teachers, ships’ pilots, and so forth.  Again, the successful performance of these tasks typically requires a specific virtue or set of virtues.  Indeed, it is precisely because the successful performance of the various jobs that humans need to do typically requires certain virtues specific to those jobs that Socrates thinks the division and specialization of labour is a more efficient arrangement of human society. [10]   We cannot all acquire all of the skills required to perform all of the jobs needed to provide for our material and other necessities.  Finally, in addition to all of the particular jobs that different people perform, Socrates argues that there are some jobs that we all have to perform, the jobs that belong to us simply as human beings, living in some kind of social unit.  Following what we have said so far, the successful performance of these human jobs will require certain virtues, and these turn out to be the moral virtues.  Indeed, on Socrates’ account the moral virtues are precisely the virtues required to perform successfully those tasks that we must all perform simply as human beings, as opposed to the virtues required to perform successfully the tasks that are performed by just some and not all human beings. [11]

There are certain tasks, Socrates argues, that must be performed in every human society because they make the latter possible; about this we have no choice.  Moreover, because certain virtues are required to perform these tasks well, we also have no choice about whether we need these virtues.  Every human society must make some decisions about what sorts of activities are permitted, what activities are necessary, and how they are to be co-ordinated; this is the job of the political rulers, who need the virtue of wisdom if they are to make these decisions properly.  Every human society requires people whose job it is to enforce the laws and defend the members of that society against internal and external threats to the security of their persons and property; this is the job of the soldiers and policemen, and they need courage if they are to succeed in their job.  Every human society needs people to produce the various goods and services that are required if we are to overcome material scarcity and have the time and leisure to cultivate those pursuits that are not immediately directed to providing food, clothing, and shelter; this is the job of all the people Socrates calls the craftsmen, and they, along with everybody else in society, need moderation, in the sense of the ability to control their appetites.

Although the above jobs must be performed in every human society, they will not be performed by everyone in any given society.  Instead, Socrates argues that these jobs should be allotted to certain people, who will specialize in the performance of one of these jobs and acquire the virtues and skills required to do that job well.  A political community will be just, then, according to Socrates, if everyone in it is allotted that particular task for which he or she is naturally best suited. [12]   Nevertheless, he argues as well that we must all perform these tasks in some measure in our own life.  In other words, at least with respect to our own life, although not with respect to the community at large in which we live, we must all act as ruler, policeman or soldier, and craftsman, or money-maker.  Again, we can do these jobs properly only if we possess the corresponding virtues.  Each one of us must make decisions about what one might call the overall shape of one’s life, that is to say, what activities to pursue, at what time, and to what extent.  These decisions always involve comparing the different parts and activities of one’s life and making judgments about their comparative worth; the ability to do this well Socrates calls wisdom.  Like the soldiers and policemen whose job it is to protect the freedom and security of their fellow citizens, we too must overcome our fear of harm and the distraction of extraneous pleasures if we are to accomplish our goals in life, and thus we too all require courage.  Finally, we must all make choices about which appetites to satisfy and when to abstain, and for this we require self-control.

Justice and morality as they are conventionally understood, namely rendering unto others what belongs to them and is their due, will emerge if and only if we possess the above virtues. [13]   Stated differently, it is impossible, on Socrates’ account, to say what justice and morality are all by themselves.  We cannot know what is just without knowing what is good for human beings, and the latter cannot be determined without knowing what jobs we all have to perform simply as human beings and what virtues are required to perform those tasks properly.  Justice may be the principal human virtue inasmuch as it presupposes the other human virtues, but precisely for that reason it is also a derivative virtue.  A just action is one performed on the basis of the other virtues because without the other virtues we cannot render unto others what they are due.  In the end, then, Socrates claims that morality is objective because there is an objective fact of the matter about what we are, what is good for us, and what we need to do in order to live well and be happy.


Plato’s Republic and his Symposium have a number of similarities.  Both begin with a series of preliminary conversations or speeches about the main topic of the dialogue by five persons other than Socrates who are present at the discussion.  Again, in both dialogues, Socrates is given the crowning speech in which he sets out not only what he takes to be the answer to the question at hand, but also how the views of the other participants are in fact partly right and have a place in his own, more comprehensive account.  Finally, and most importantly, in both dialogues Socrates argues that there is an intimate connection between the good and the beautiful, a connection that can only be seen by reason and not simply by our senses.  As a result, Socrates’ argument against aesthetic subjectivism, the view that beauty is simply in the eye of the beholder, is quite similar to his argument against moral subjectivism, the view that moral rightness is simply in the eye of the beholder.

The Symposium takes up where the Republic leaves off in the analysis of human desire. The Republic claims that there is a wide variety of human desires and ways in which those desires can be satisfied.  The Republic also claims that there is a natural hierarchy of human desires based on a natural hierarchy of our human capacities and abilities.  At the bottom of the hierarchy of human desires are those aimed at the physical necessities of life.  These desires are both the most necessary, inasmuch as their satisfaction is a pre-condition for all other human activities, but also the least human, inasmuch as we share them with all other animals.  At the top of the hierarchy is the desire for knowledge, which expresses itself both in our innate curiosity about the world and in our desire to order our lives in the way that is most rational.  These latter desires are the most human, inasmuch as they are unique to humans as compared to other animals.  This range of human desires is represented in the Symposium by the first five speakers in the dialogue, each of whose speech in praise of the god of love, Eros, is in fact a praise of a certain kind of object of love, and the sequence of beloved objects praised by these speakers follows the hierarchy of human desires described in the Republic, starting at the bottom and moving to the top.  The first speaker, Phaedrus, praises erotic love and makes sexual passion the basis for all other goods in human life. [14]   The second speaker, Pausanius, claims that there are non-physical objects of desire as well as physical ones, but as he understands it, this simply amounts to the view that one should be concerned with the education of one’s beloved and not just with good sex. [15]   Eryximachus, the medical doctor, claims that beauty is found in all of nature. [16]   In particular, beauty is found in the harmony of opposites, as seen, for example, in music and physical health.  He is the first to require one of the cardinal virtues as a pre-condition for seeing what is beautiful and loving it correctly, namely moderation, in particular with respect to the appetites of the body. [17]   Aristophanes both makes fun of our desire for physical union in the pursuit of sexual gratification, but also speaks of the connection between courage and erotic love. [18]   Finally, Agathon adds the virtue of wisdom inasmuch as he claims that true beauty can be discerned only by the wise, which sets the stage for Socrates’ speech. [19]

 In the Republic Socrates argues that the moral and the good are the same inasmuch as justice and morality require the cultivation of those virtues that are required to perform our specific human tasks properly.  In the Symposium Socrates argues that the good and the beautiful are the same inasmuch as the beauty of something is ultimately due to its manifesting its intrinsic perfection. [20]   The intrinsic perfection of an object, in turn, consists precisely in its ability to perform its specific function well, that is, in the exercise of its specific virtue.  Again, as with virtue, this means that in certain instances the concept of beauty cannot be applied; where there is no specific function, there is no specific excellence and thus no beauty.  Moreover, where something has several different functions, there will be different, possibly competing specific virtues and standards of beauty.  It is also the case that reason will typically be required to discern what the appropriate standard of excellence and beauty will be because both nature and human artifacts do not always make evident what powers they have and what functions they perform.

Again, just as with the virtues, so too with beautiful objects, there is a hierarchy of lower and higher.  The objects we desire offer us some good.  In some cases the good is necessary and transitory, say, the satisfaction of our hunger and thirst through food and drink.  It is with respect to the satisfaction of these kinds of desires that moral and aesthetic subjectivism have their place and their truth.  For in the case of those things that satisfy our immediate, necessary physical desires, the good and beauty of the object lies not in itself, but in its ability to satisfy our desire and in the pleasure it produces in us.  With respect to those matters which literally are a matter of physical taste, for example, how some food or drink reacts to our taste buds, the old adage does hold that de gustibus non disputandum est.  If the good of the object is purely instrumental, its usefulness to us or its ability to produce pleasure in us, then its good and beauty are simply subjective and relative to only some people.  In other cases, however, the good desired is not only not immediately necessary, but also not transitory.  These are the things that are good always, for all persons at all times and places, and Socrates claims that the good and beauty of these things is neither subjective nor relative, but must be understood in terms of their own intrinsic perfection.  He also claims that these thing alone will make us truly happy.  We desire goods because obtaining them will make us happy.  Lasting happiness is found only in obtaining those goods that are always good. [21]   These are also the highest objects of beauty.  The most beautiful things, then, are those things that are always good, those things whose specific perfection is eternal and unchanging. [22]   In the end, Socrates says, love is the longing for immortality, but the immortality in question is primarily an attribute of the thing loved, not of the lover. [23]


Let me conclude by considering just two of the many possible objections that one might make to what I have said on Socrates’ behalf.  First, one might object that the above account of justice and beauty has been refuted because it is based on the notion that at least some things do have an intrinsic perfection.  The notion of intrinsic perfection, however, does not hold with respect to artifacts because they exist only because we make them, and whatever functional excellence they have is not intrinsic to them, but must be understood in relation to their usefulness to us.  When one turns to naturally occurring objects, again the above account fails because modern natural science has proven that there is no such thing as intrinsic perfection. 

By way of a brief response to this objection I would say only that modern biology and medicine still use the notion of intrinsic perfection to the extent that the health of a biological organism is still understood in terms of the proper functioning of its parts, or organs.  In other words, I would argue that the notion of health as applied to the functioning of biological organisms is a normative concept and works in just the same way that Socrates’ concept of virtue does.  If this claim is correct, then if you want to do away with the concept of functional excellence, you first have to do away with modern medicine.

The notion of health is particularly appropriate because in the Republic Socrates argues that justice is precisely the health of the human soul, namely, that ordering of the parts of the soul by virtue of which it is able to function properly. [24]   This comparison between justice and health is also relevant to the second objection one might make to the Socratic account of morality and beauty, namely that it does not leave sufficient room for human freedom and creativity.  To this charge I plead no contest.  It is true that Socrates does not leave as much room for individual freedom and creativity as some would wish today.  It is not the case that the independence of political communities and responsibility for individual choices are unimportant to Socrates.  Nevertheless, there is a sense in which he leaves us no choice about what we should do.  Again I would argue that we see the same thing with respect to the health of the human body.  As I understand the dictates of modern medicine, in the end we do not have a choice about what sorts of activities and which forms of nutrition ultimately promote our health.  While it is not the case that there is only one kind of activity or only one kind of food that is conducive to health, still there are certain ways of living and certain diets that are harmful to our health, and about that we have no choice.  Socrates’ position is similar.  We can choose to live the way we want, but we cannot choose to avoid the consequences of living that way.  At the end of the day, we cannot live well without certain virtues.  We can choose to acquire those virtues or not, but without those virtues we will not live happily, and about the latter we have no choice.  In effect, with respect to human morality and happiness the situation is the same as it is in any other area of human endeavour where there is only one right way to perform a particular task.  A good human soul, on Socrates’ account is a just soul, a well-ordered and virtuous soul, and only such a soul is a beautiful soul.  About the latter we have no choice; our only choice is whether or not to have a well-ordered soul.

[1] Plato’s Republic, Bk. I, 336b-344d.

[2] Republic, Bk. I, 351a-352d; Bk. II 369b-370a.

[3] Republic, Bk. II, 372a1-2.

[4] Republic, Bk. I, 352d-354c; most of the rest of the Republic also argues for the intrinsic goodness of justice inasmuch as it is taken up with Socrates' response to the challenge made by Glaucon and Adeimantus, namely to prove that justice is indeed intrinsically good, and not just instrumentally useful:  see Bk. II, 360e-361d, 367a-e.

[5] Republic, Bk. I, 352d-354c.

[6] Republic, Bk. IV, 443c9-444a2.

[7] Republic, Bk. I, 353b2-c8.

[8] Republic, Bk. I, 353a9-11.

[9] Timaeus, 47e3-48a7; 48e2-50b6; 52d2-53b3.

[10] Republic, Bk. II, 370b4-c5.

[11] Republic, Bk. IV, 435b9-436b2; 441c4-442d8; 443c9-444a2.

[12] Republic, Bk. IV, 433a1-b4.

[13] Republic, Bk. IV, 433e3-434a1; 442d10-444a2.

[14] Plato’s Symposium, 178c-179d.

[15] Symposium, 180c-184e.

[16] Symposium, 186a-e; 188a-b.

[17] Symposium, 187d-e.

[18] Symposium, 192a.

[19] Symposium, 194b-c; 196c-197a.

[20] Symposium, 201c.

[21] Symposium, 204e; 206a.

[22] Symposium, 210a-212a.

[23] Symposium, 206e-207a.

[24] Republic, Bk. IV, 444c5-e2.

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