Plato on Justice and Slavery

Plato was an Ancient Greek philosopher who was born on 399 BCE. His views on justice were significantly different from other philosophers at the time, because he felt that justice was an internal concept, not the external principle that other philosophers considered it to be. According to Plato, justice is a natural human virtue that makes a person good and “self consistent”1. This concept of justice permits the assumption that for Plato, justice and morality are almost interchangeable; because his definition of justice could just as easily be a definition for morality.

For an individual to act in a just manner does not necessarily require them to conform to all legislation and laws of the state. A just individual is one whose soul guides them to work toward “a vision of the Good”2 (a morally good society) and who uses reason to direct their passion and ambition towards this vision.  Only when this occurs, can a person’s soul be “harmonious, strong, beautiful and healthy”2. For an action to be considered just, they must fall in line with these stipulations. Essentially, this means that how just you are depends on your internal goodness, not how well you conform to societal norms or laws.

The reason this is such a radical view on justice is because it gives permission to break laws if one determines them unjust. It begs the question as to whether a just person should to refrain from lying, stealing or killing; simply because those actions are prohibited in our society. Plato counters this objection by saying that a person who was truly just, and had a “healthy harmonious soul”2 would not have the need to lie, steal or kill.

When studying Plato it is also important to keep in mind the basic principles of ancient justice, which Plato subscribe to. Many views on ancient justice rest on the foundation that treating equals equally and unequals unequally is a just action in itself. As a common view at the time was that people naturally had specific status, which could not be altered with. The way you treat others would be affected as to whether they were your equal or your unequal.

When examining Plato’s view on justice one should also consider the fact that the Athenian democracy was on the verge of ruin while he was developing his philosophies, and that many of his views surrounding justice are based on “Utopian Ideals”1; or how he thought society should be, compared to how it actually was. According to Plato, in the ideal society justice would have to “reign supreme”1.

Plato had a very specific view on what the ideal state should be. In Plato’s opinion, philosopher kings, who were also members the highest social class, would rule the just state. These kings would have the support of soldiers, who would keep the common people in line, and allow the philosopher kings absolute rule. These philosopher kings would be the only ones in society who could properly determine what was just and what was unjust; so their views on justice should be followed. Plato was of the opinion that every state had a destination, and that this destination should be justice.

Because of these views, one might assume that Plato would oppose slavery, because we in this modern society consider slavery to be inherently evil. But to Plato, slavery was natural, as it was natural for the superior to rule over the inferior. Plato saw what he considered evidence of people’s inherent inferiority, or superiority in nature, and to him this justified slavery.

In fact, in his book “Gorgias” Plato says:

“Nature herself intimates that it is just for the better to have more than the worse, the more powerful than the weaker; and in many ways she shows, among men as well as among animals, and indeed among whole cities and races, that justice consists in the superior ruling over and having more than the inferior” 3

And because slavery in ancient Athens doesn’t’ appear to be any less brutal than the slavery that occurred in Bermuda, we can assume that Plato would also have supported it; especially because slavery in Bermuda was based off of the same principles of superiority and inferiority that occurred in Ancient Athens.

While Plato supports slavery, it was only because he saw no injustice in it; because of the slaves “inherent inferiority”. In Plato’s perspective, slaves were essential in the running of a state, and there were no moral conflicts towards owning slaves. Following this line of thinking, it is only logical that Plato would support slavery. However; all of Plato’s views on justice point towards acting in a way that is morally just. So, one could easily apply those views and determine slavery is wrong. But you would have to discount Plato’s apparent supremicism and blatant support of slavery to do so.











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