Independence of judiciary

This article is written by Monesh Mehndiratta, a student of BA LLB, Graphic Era Hill University, Dehradun. This article explains the Theory of Justice given by Plato. It further highlights the criticism and the Socratic influence on Plato. 

This article has been published by Sneha Mahawar.


Plato was the son of noble parents and was born in 427 B.C. He was highly influenced by Socrates. He received his education from his master, Socrates, and later went on a journey to observe the ways of life of people and social and political structures. He also established an institution named the Academy or Gymnasium. He gave various theories on the most important subjects and wrote the famous “The Republic.” While interpreting the nature of justice, he followed the dialectic method. In this method, a person talks with an expert and then tries to understand his ideas, assumptions, and concepts so that he can come to a conclusion and form his own concepts or theories. Plato went on a journey to understand the ways of life of people by conversing with them and understanding their thoughts. The theory given by Plato is also called the theory of social justice because Plato pointed out that the state was a means for the whole of society. Before giving his own theory, Plato evaluated some theories on justice prevalent during his time. 

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Evaluation of theories by Plato

Plato evaluated certain theories of his time on justice and found loopholes in each, and subsequently presented his ideas. The theories are:


This theory was given by Polymarchus. According to this theory, justice means giving a man what is good for him. In simple words, it means gains to the friends and evils to the enemies. However, Plato criticized this theory on the ground that it is hard to differentiate between friend and enemy, and so on this basis we cannot decide our conduct towards people. For example, treating someone the way they treat us is what this theory says. 


This theory was supported by the Sophists, and according to the theory, justice is in the interest of the stronger. One should act as per his capacity and strength and achieve what is possible. It also meant that since the state is the strongest of will, whatever is done by the state is just, and thus, justice is the will of the ruler. One who has power or authority can make justice work according to their whims. Plato argued that:

  • This theory cannot explain the different behaviors and activities of different rulers in different times and the concept of  justice varied from place to place. 
  • It does not give any universal idea of justice. 
  • It is not a rational principle.  
  • It cannot guide a person who wants to achieve justice in his own way. 


Glaucon gave this theory, followed by the theory of Social Contract by Hobbes and Rousseau. This theory states that justice is the child of fear and born out of tradition. The people who suffered injustice at the hands of strong people decided as a result of the social contract that they would never do injustice nor tolerate it. For example, punishing a criminal will create fear in his mind and thus, in this way justice will be served to the sufferer. Also, a victim who suffered a loss will probably not commit the crime as he suffered the pain himself. However, Plato opposed this theory by saying that any contract between people is tacit and implied and that if a law is obligatory, one accepts it because it is not imposed by force. Also, people were under the misconception that the state resulted from a social contract between the ruler and the general public.


Justice, as seen by Socrates, is an art. The ruler tries to bring justice by removing the defects from the general public. Since Plato was highly influenced by Socrates and his ideas, he gave the ‘rule of king’ for achieving the ideal of republic. What Socrates tried to say is that not everyone can rule or serve justice. One who knows how to deal with the interests of the people and works for their benefit in a welfare state can be a ruler. 

Plato’s Theory of Justice

His work discusses the concept of justice, its characteristics, and how it is dispensed in society. He developed his theory based on the imagination of an ideal state and not on any actual survey of any particular area, making it mostly philosophical. Many criticized his idea of justice, but for some, it was a torch bearer in this regard. 

Quality of soul 

According to Plato, in a society different classes must be given what is due to them and that no class shall be allowed to dominate other classes. To him, justice is the quality of the soul. It does not depend upon any external source or power and is the voice of conscience of the man. He stated that human personality is a result of three tendencies: knowledge, physical tendency, and spiritual tendency. The tendency of spirit should rule the other tendencies. In a society, people with high spiritual tendencies must rule the state and follow the ideals of reason, justice, courage, and temperance. Justice means harmony among the people and between people and society. 

Organic theory of society 

Plato considers justice as an ethical concept and stresses on following one’s duties with morality. His theory of justice on the basis of organic theory of society resulted in totalitarianism which infringes all the freedom of a person. In his ideal republic, guardians were given the power to rule and people could not criticize them in any way. This concept is, however, against the principles of liberty in a democracy. He tried to create an ideal society with the help of social justice but could not do so as it created practices that contradicted his idea. 

Integral approach 

Plato opted for an integral approach that analyzes all the attributes of the personality of a person and the body politic. It aims to achieve justice for every individual in every class of society. Talking about the varna system in India or a hierarchy in any society, he said the concept was opposite to his initial idea of justice.

Characteristics of justice 

Social stratification 

  • His theory of justice is based on the social stratification given by him. On the basis of elements of soul, he gave three social stratifications namely:
    • Guardians 
    • Soldiers
    • General people like artisans, farmers, etc. 
  • Justice meant fulfilling all the duties by people belonging to each social strata without interfering in the duty of another. 

Innate tendency

  • According to Plato, Justice is innate.
  •  It is the quality of soul and voice of one’s conscience. 

Functional specialisation

  • He classified society into three classes:
    • Cognitive represented by guardians
    • Conative is represented by soldiers. 
    • Affective which was represented by the general public. 

Philosopher King 

  • He believed that justice was possible only if the state was ruled by a philosopher. 
  • He considered philosophers the wisest among all. 


  • He suggested the communism of women and property among guardians and soldiers. 
  • This was done to keep them away from any kind of emotions, worries and envies. 


  • He considered the principle of justice universal. 
  • It is the same for everyone in any place or society at any time. 

Moral concept 

  • His concept of justice is not jural but moral. 
  • While achieving justice, it is mandatory to fulfill the moral obligations and not jural duties. 

Freedom of women and education for justice  

  • He said that in order to achieve justice, it is necessary to provide freedom to women. 
  • They should be given equal rights to participate as men. 
  • He suggested an advanced scheme of education to help people realize the importance of justice. 

Types of justice 

Plato classified justice into 2 types, which related to each other to a great extent. 

  • Individual justice 
  • Social justice 

Individual justice 

  • Justice, according to him, is the spirit that helps the individual to fulfill his duties. 
  • There are three elements in the human mind:
    • Reason 
    • Spirit
    • Appetite 
  • Wisdom is the virtue of reason; the courage of spirit; and temperance, which is of appetite. 
  • Justice maintains harmony among the three. 
  • He believed that each part of the human mind must be satisfied so that there is harmony in every part. 
  • People who are harmonious can create a harmonious and peaceful state. 
  • According to him, when a person is able to serve all his needs according to his virtue, spirit and appetite, he would be satisfied. For example, the basic needs of an individual in the contemporary world are to have a stable job with good pay, own a house, and a family. He would be satisfied and live a decent life. 

Social justice

  • It is dependent on individual justice. A society where there is individual justice can achieve social justice. 
  • Like the three elements in an individual, there are three types of men in society:
    • Rational: these have strong reasons or rationale. 
    • Spiritual: these are strong in spirit and active. 
    • Passionate: neither strong in reason nor in spirit and are controlled by the other two. 
  • He classified people in society and gave a 3-fold functional social stratification. 
    • Philosophers 
    • Soldiers 
    • Artisans, farmers, etc. 
  • He believed that man should carry on the activity which is best suited for him. 
  • Where in a society, people belonging to each strata fulfill their duties honestly without disturbing and interfering with people in other strata, social justice is achieved. 
  • He recommended that philosophers must rule the state as they are wisest of all and wisdom is the virtue of the ruler and justice is the virtue of the wise. 
  • He considered individuals as a complex whole and not a single unit. His aim must not be a personal pleasure but should realize the importance of satisfaction which results in the harmony of all his parts. 
  • This theory can be easily related to the caste system in India.  In earlier times, people in India used to believe that a son of Brahmin must be a Brahmin and a son of Kshatriya must only fight for the country. So, if analysed this theory says that if people belonging to different castes perform their functions without interfering with the work of a person belonging to another caste, then social justice will be achieved.

Criticism of Plato’s Theory of Justice

  • Plato laid more emphasis on the duties rather than the rights enjoyed by the people in a society. Rights keep the society united and bring solidarity among the people. Thus, both rights and duties are important and interconnected in a state. 
  • He gave enormous powers to the philosopher-king but failed to realize the principle that absolute power corrupts absolutely. Thus, even the wisest king can become corrupt if given absolute powers. 
  • He divided society on the basis of tendencies of the personality. But heredity is not solely responsible for personality traits. As a result, he laid the foundation of such a system of education in the society which develops one-sided personalities and does not give any importance to the environment which is yet another important feature responsible for the personality of a person. 
  • The theory given by Plato lays the foundation for facism according to which each citizen is expected to show loyalty towards the state. On the other hand, modern thinkers suggest that the state must not be given absolute powers which might also curb the rights and freedom of people in a society. 
  • He considered guardians above law. What Plato calls justice is the dictate of guardians in the state. His theory does not provide a reasonable basis for law and justice cannot be dependent on personal will and conscience. He also neglected to differentiate between moral and legal obligations. 
  • His concept of justice is passive and cannot form a basis for jural regulation. He does not provide any solution if there is any conflict between the desire and duty or duties and rights. 
  • He laid too much stress on the unity of state and thus, gave absurd ideas of communism of women and abolition of marriage and family. 

Influence of Socrates on Plato 

Socrates was the teacher and master of Plato. His image never faded from the mind of Plato and was highly influenced by his master, so much so that it is reflected in his work. The ideas of Socrates can be easily determined by the ideas of Plato and his thinking. 

Virtue is knowledge

Socrates considered virtue and knowledge synonymous with each other. According to him, if knowledge has no impact on the conduct of a person, it is useless and meaningless. On the ideas of Socrates, Plato developed his concept of a philosopher-king in the Republic. Thus, both Plato and Socrates do not differentiate between ethics and politics. 

Theory of reality 

Socrates believed that the virtue of a thing is not in its existence but in its fulfillment. On this basis, Plato gave the idea that the world of ideas is more real than the world of things. 

Theory of knowledge 

Socrates divided knowledge into 2 types: casual and true knowledge. The latter is self-knowledge and is concerned with the conduct and character of an individual and influences the total personality of an individual. 

Philosophical method 

Socrates invented the question-answer method for philosophical discussion, which was followed by Plato to prepare his dialogues. With this method, a person asks questions to thinkers and analyzes their thought processes, and then comes to a conclusion with the help of constructive criticism. 

Art of government 

Socrates considered the ruler as a philosopher. However, this was different from what the Sophists believed. 

  • According to the Sophists, the world is mechanical, but for Scorates it is purposeful. 
  • Sophists believed that goodness is an art and can be achieved by specialized knowledge but Socrates considered it an innate power of man. 
  • The theory of knowledge presented by Socrates is very much different from what Sophists gave. 
  • The Sophists considered that social rules are not based upon natural law and are man-made, while Socrates kept traditional laws above man. 

These ideas of Socrates highly influenced Plato, so much that his work entirely revolves around the thinking and teachings of his master, Socrates. 


Analysis of Plato’s Theory of Justice

Plato was first a philosopher and then a political thinker. His political philosophy is mostly based on social philosophy. However, he does not provide any reasonable and just basis for the law in the state. He mainly connects his theory with morality rather than legality. He believed that justice could be achieved if all the people belonging to different social strata fulfilled their roles and duties in society. However, the society Plato talked about is not legal as it is not based upon the legal rights of individuals. Justice, according to him, guides men in the fulfillment of their duties. The concept is closely related to the self-control of an individual. 

This theory does not find its existence in the present society. Society today is driven by legal rights and duties. People are aware of their power, rights, and duties. Countries mostly follow the democratic system of government where the real power vests with the citizens to choose their representatives who form the government. The President, or the ruler, in the words of Plato, is not given absolute power nor is he an expert in philosophy. There is a system of checks and balances in the society given by the Constitution of each country which is the supreme law of the land. The idea of justice as given by Plato is very much different from what is observed in the present society. 

There are laws for each and every field and one who commits an offence by doing something prohibited by law is punished by the state according to the law and procedure are given in the statutes and Constitution. The citizens of a state enjoy fundamental rights which are not absolute and have reasonable restrictions. Unlike the classification of people given by Plato, there is no such classification in society based on personality traits or tendencies. Every person can do any work or choose any occupation. Thus, the idea and concept of justice given by Plato no longer exist in society and has become obsolete. 


It can be concluded that Plato was highly influenced by his teacher, Socrates, which is visible in his work. He gave various theories on various subject matters. His theory of justice is based upon his own imagination of an ideal body politic or state, which is utopian and hard to find in the real world. Thus, when compared with today’s society, his idea of justice does not prevail. 

Frequently asked questions (FAQs)

What is the famous work of Plato?

The Republic is the most famous work of Plato. The idea of this book is based on the theory and learning of his master Socrates that virtue is the knowledge making it evident that Plato was highly influenced by his master and followed his teachings and learnings. He has 35 dialogues and 13 letters under his name which are mostly philosophical. All the writings of Plato indicate that he was a philosopher and dialectician and showcased the power of logical analysis along with abstract thought through poetic imagination and deep feelings. 

In what types did Plato divide justice?

He divided justice in 2 types:

  • Individual justice – According to him, when a person is able to serve all his needs according to his virtue, spirit, and appetite, he would be satisfied. For Example, the basic needs of an individual in the contemporary world is to have a stable job with good pay, own a house and a family, he would be satisfied and live a decent life. 
  • Social justice – He believed that man should carry on the activity which is best suited for him. Where in a society, people belonging to each strata or class or whatever is the division in the society, fulfill their duties honestly without disturbing and interfering with people in other strata, social justice is achieved. 

What is the classification of people given by Plato in a society?

He classified people in the society and gave 3-fold functional social stratification. 

  • Philosophers – these are experts in knowledge and can rule the state easily. They are the wisest of all according to Plato.  
  • Soldiers – these are physically strong and emotionally and spiritually stable and must protect or guard the country. 
  • Artisans, farmers, etc. – the people left after classifying in the above two categories are put in this category and have talent related to art, culture, farming and many more activities. 

What are the 3 elements of the human mind?

  • Reason – it means to have  strong reasoning power and is termed as rational by Plato 
  • Spirit – this means that people who have spirit as the element are spiritually strong and thus, active. 
  • Appetite – the majority of people are neither strong mentally or physically but have passions and talents. According to Plato, such people are to be controlled by the other two categories of people. 


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