Plato’s “Republic” – The Duty to Be Just

Written on November 23, 2007 by Santiago Iñiguez in International Relations, Philosophy


Plato  (427-347 BCE): Republic

Western civilization owes a lot to Plato. His ideas have influenced
philosophers and thinkers of all disciplines. He was the founder of Academia,
a centre of learning in ancient Athens and probably the first
institution of higher education that we know of. The methodology
practiced at Academia and used by Plato in his writings was the
“Socratic method”, in honour of his mentor. It is based on dialectic
dialogue by the participants in a discussion on a certain topic about
which a conclusive result is rarely achieved, and moderated by a master
–Socrates in all of Plato’s dialogues. Incidentally, the case method
used at many business schools is inspired by this learning methodology
as was, for example, recently explained in a Financial Times article on Robert Bruner, Dean of the Darden Business School.

One of the most commented Plato’s dialogues is “Republic”, which is
centred on the discussion of what is justice, both from the individual
and the public or state perspective. In Book II, Glaucon tells the
story of Gyges’ Ring to illustrate his conception of justice. Let me
transcript the tale as it is told in the book:

“Gyges was a shepherd in the service of the king of Lydia; there was
a great storm, and an earthquake made an opening in the earth at the
place where he was feeding his flock. Amazed at the sight, he descended
into the opening, where, among other marvels, he beheld a hollow brazen
horse, having doors, at which he stooping and looking in saw a dead
body of stature, as appeared to him, more than human, and having
nothing on but a gold ring; this he took from the finger of the dead
and reascended. Now the shepherds met together, according to custom,
that they might send their monthly report about the flocks to the king;
into their assembly he came having the ring on his finger, and as he
was sitting among them he chanced to turn the collet of the ring inside
his hand, when instantly he became invisible to the rest of the company
and they began to speak of him as if he were no longer present. He was
astonished at this, and again touching the ring he turned the collet
outwards and reappeared; he made several trials of the ring, and always
with the same result-when he turned the collet inwards he became
invisible, when outwards he reappeared. Whereupon he contrived to be
chosen one of the messengers who were sent to the court; where as soon
as he arrived he seduced the queen, and with her help conspired against
the king and slew him, and took the kingdom.” (Republic, II, 359b-360b).

What would you do if you found a ring with those properties? I hope
you don’t agree with Glaucon’s pessimistic view that “no man is so
virtuous that he could resist the temptation of being able to steal at
will by the ring’s power of invisibility”.  He even goes further and
says that “injustice’s masterpiece is to be seen as a just person
without being so (…) that the perfect injustice consists of committing
the worst crimes and being able to make oneself recognized as the most
Certainly, science has not yet found any object with
the magic effects of the mentioned ring, and you may argue that I am
philosophising “what if”, but power in business and in other spheres of
social life provides its holders with the resources to makeup or hide
wrongdoings. Remember Enron, a recent sad episode in corporate history.
I do not want to take advantage of a case that has been analysed
extensively and judged, their protagonists being imprisoned or sadly
dead, but just to extract a lesson that may be useful to all. The
managers of Enron enjoyed a sort of Gyges ring: they were able to get
the association of accountants, lawyers and major stakeholders and
create a sort of invisibility around their mismanagement. When did
everything start to go wrong at Enron? Glaucon’s fable is useful here:
when the protagonists realised that they were protected by a magic ring
that hided their wrongdoings and, more, they were considered by
business community exemplary, a sample of the perfect injustice
referred above. From there, everything is a slippery slope towards the
worse, like in the story of Gyges.

Regrettably, Plato’s “Republic” does not provide, in my opinion, a
convincing justification for why to be just. You may find prudential
reasons –fear to be punished- or idealistic arguments –the practice of
virtue leads to personal happiness-. For the moment, I still find more
appealing Kant’s
contribution: the duty to be just is a categorical imperative,
something that can not be justified on rational accounts in the way you
show that water evaporates at 100 degrees Celsius.


No comments yet.

Leave a Comment


We use both our own and third-party cookies to enhance our services and to offer you the content that most suits your preferences by analysing your browsing habits. Your continued use of the site means that you accept these cookies. You may change your settings and obtain more information here. Accept