Plato & Aristotle on Social Justice

Plato & Aristotle on Social Justice
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  • 0:01 Justice through Time
  • 1:05 The Republic by Plato
  • 3:42 Aristotle's Politics
  • 5:30 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine is an instructional designer, educator, and writer with a particular interest in the social sciences and American studies.

Go back in time over 2,000 years to consider how justice was understood in ancient Greek society by the philosophers Plato and Aristotle. See how their views compare to one another and to our views of what makes a society just.

Justice Through Time

The concept of justice has changed over time, from the ideas of ancient philosophers to today's various understandings of the term. For instance, you may think that a just society is one in which each person is free to live without too much interference from others, or to speak their minds about the issues. Or, when you think of a system of justice, you might picture a courtroom where a jury determines what punishment is appropriate for a criminal proven to be guilty. This may be your version of justice being served.

Today when we hear the term social justice, we may think of equal opportunities in society. For instance, you may view efforts to fight racism and sexism as movement toward greater social justice in our communities.

This lesson looks at how two ancient philosophers, Plato and Aristotle, thought about justice over 2,000 years ago in ways that differ from our views today. We'll compare the two and consider how they were similar and in what cases they were different from one another, too.

The Republic by Plato

In his text, The Republic, Plato explores how to create a more just society. For Plato, justice is a condition of the soul, a virtue. To him, justice wasn't necessarily a framework that we use to create laws that are fair. For Plato, justice was something that came largely from the inside of a person. If you were a just person, you could help create a just society.

What would motivate a person to live justly, as he describes? Plato considered the virtue of justice to be a key part of living the good life. If you imagine Plato coming up with a list of the essentials for livin' large, justice would definitely be one of his responses. In his ideal society, philosopher kings would rule, preventing an emotional populace from having too much control. Here you might think, what is Plato thinking suggesting kings, when that sounds like the opposite of justice to many of us today?

Well, Plato thought that a monarch acting in the best interests of everyone was much better than citizens who are acting on their own private whims. He was concerned too about division within societies, and so part of his hope was that private property and family would be held in common. Instead of my family and my things, a society would be one big family without the need to own our own things.

Once again, you might wonder what Plato was thinking with this suggestion. No family units? How is that just? To understand his thinking, we have to remember that he didn't view justice in the same way that you and I do. He saw justice as promoting harmony and structure in the individual and had ideas for how an ideal society would work. He did not necessarily believe that individuals need the kinds of freedoms we think of when we imagine a just life in our societies today.

Even among classes of people, like craftsmen, warriors, and rulers, he proposed that there are appropriate divisions and responsibilities for each to keep the society harmonious and just. Doesn't sound particularly equal, right? Though not necessarily progressive to our modern ears, The Republic is still considered by many to be an important exploration into Plato's beliefs about the ideal society.

Aristotle's Politics

Portions of Aristotle's Politics also strike us as less than just. For instance, he promoted the existing view that men were more natural leaders than women. He also found a way to justify the slavery of his time. These are both topics we would find in opposition to our current understanding of justice and equal rights.

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