Three works about Plato; democracy and justice by Margaux Schmit


Comme promis et à la demande d’un certain nombre de lecteurs, Margaux Schmit a accepté de nous confier son Mid-Term essay sur Platon. J’en suis particulièrement heureux et particulièrement fier. Une fois de plus Margaux éploie son réel talent, sa capacité d’analyse et surtout une vraie vision des problèmes posés par nos démocraties.
J’avoue avoir eu de l’engouement devant ses capacités intellectuelles et son esprit de synthèse implacable et elle n’a que 23 printemps.
Son essai, brillantissime, est tout sauf facile. Mais elle maîtrise à merveille son sujet et ses concepts.
Plongez-vous dans sa lecture, vous en sortirez éblouis et qui sait peut-être plus éclairés dans votre réflexion sur les choix de société proposés aujourd’hui. Pour son dernier papier au collège de Queens Mary à Londres, collège d’excellence s’il en est, Margaux a obtenu 67 % ce qui correspond dans le monde universitaire anglo-saxon à l’équivalent de la mention « summa cum laude. »
Très prochainement Margaux nous livrera une analyse des premiers pas de la présidence Trump sous un angle dont elle garde le secret.
À toutes et à tous, bonne lecture de son article écrit dans un anglais impeccable.

Leo Keller
Neuilly le 22/02/2017


Mid-Term Essay  by Margaux Schmit

With reference to at least three of the following works—Euthyphro, Meno, Apology, Crito and Gorgias—critically discuss the following Essay Thesis: ‘For Plato, immediate appearances are always odds with – even diametrically opposed to – fundamental realities. That is why democratic legislation and adjudication can never produce real justice.’

According to Plato, Justice is the ἀρετὴ of the ἀρεταί, the moral excellence ruling the world. However, this concept can only be understood through reasoning to overcome the immediate appearances presented by our senses from everyday life and finally be seen as a fundamental reality. Plato, through Socrates’ voice, expresses his disgust for the sophists and their rhetorical method framing the society in its immediate appearances and then persuading them democracy rhymes with Justice when it rhymes with demagogy. But is it really Plato against Athens? First, we will see that the theory shows that indeed, democratic legislation and adjudication can never produce real justice. And secondly that Plato is maybe not realistic enough when he wants to apply real Justice in Athens and then loses his main argument.

I. In theory, democracy can never produce real justice

A. Justice, the harmony of the cosmos and the path to the truth

Before being a legal or moral concept, the notion of justice is a mathematical concept; a “proportionate equality has great power among both gods and men” (Gorgias, 507d-508a). This is the same order that must be found in all things. If the Gorgias doesn’t talk about Gorgias’ design of ἀρετὴ, it provides us an idea about what Socrates thought of it (Gorgias, 506d-e): Socrates concludes that “the best way of life is to practice justice and the rest of the ἀρετὴ” (Gorgias, 527e), highlighting the central role held by justice in the good of man, which constitute the health of the soul.

A healthy body is a body in balance, in order, where each organ plays its role according to the balance and harmony of the whole. A healthy soul is not one that removes all desire, but one that is able to direct his desire towards his true object through the light of reason. If we are sick, we will see a doctor , meaning someone that has not an opinion but a skill (Crito, 47b-c). It must be the same concerning the health of our soul and its ability to be as fair as possible.

In the Platonic perspective, the meaning of “just” resides more in the truth than in its justification. But for Socrates truth can only be established through dialogue and refutation: “For the things I say I certainly don’t say with any knowledge at all; no, I’m searching together with you so that if my opponent clearly has a point, I’ll be the first to concede it” (Gorgias, 506a). This is the exact purpose of dialectics. Therefore the refutation is not a game but the essence of the dialogue, which is why the work is so long: nothing should be advanced that has not been tested, established and recognized true by each party, and so “if you occur with what my soul believes, then that is the very truth” (Gorgias, 487a). As Socrates said in the Apology: “If I engage in anything that’s improper in my own life, please know well that I do not make this mistake intentionally but out of my ignorance” (Gorgias, 488a; Apology, 25c-26a).

Therefore, when it comes to determine what is right and what is not, this is not the crowd that we need to solicit, but those, if they do exist, who have knowledge good and just. Of course, these people are not judges, but the Sages (Crito, 48a). This is why, in the just city-state in the Republic, leadership should be left to philosophers, sages who practice reason. And according to the Apology, the “Pythia replied that no one was wiser” than Socrates (Apology, 21a).

For Crito and for the pubic opinion, to hurt someone or hurt oneself is to harm his reputation, his fortune or his life. For Socrates, to hurt is to commit injustice, because it is detrimental to the health of his soul (Gorgias, 476c, 508c-509C). Socrates will show that he is not just a smooth talker by deciding not to flee prison for personal reasons on behalf of his idea of justice, to the extent that, although very probably unfair, his death sentence was made in legal form that he had accepted as a citizen of Athens (Crito). We understand better that to Socrates, the real politician, the only one that shows concern for his contemporaries, it is not Pericles and Themistocles, but him: “I believe that I’m one of a few Athenians – so as not to say I’m the only one, but the only one among our contemporaries – to take up the true political craft and practice the true politics” (Gorgias, 521d).

B. The rhetoric of the sophists and therefore the democracy: an immediate appearance and then a lie

Unlike the philosophical dialogue, rhetoric is not to search for truth: its sole purpose is to win power through speeches. The rhetorician tries to manipulate his audience through a persuasion technique based on imposture and flattery. By his fine words, he manages to “make itself appear to those who don’t have knowledge that it knows more than those who actually do have it” (Gorgias, 459c), while he does not know more about the subject than those he addresses to. Socrates and Gorgias agree on the fact that rhetoric is the art of this kind of speech that gives “ability to persuade judges in a law court and assembly men in an assembly” (Gorgias, 453e)on all issues where you have to know what is right or unjust (Gorgias, 455a). But Socrates accuses: this power resides in the ability to pretend. Behind every art indeed hide counterfeits taking the mask of the arts for which they want to pass (Gorgias, 464d). Similarly, rhetoric, taking the mask of politics, is not trying to make them better citizens, which should be the aim of the policy; it only seeks to flatter them: it is the school of demagogy.

The Gorgias expresses one of the most radical criticisms that have been addressed to the Athenian democracy (G455a, 471st-472a-b, 473rd, 515th, 516d), to its dominant values and to its policy of prestige. This Government of liberty is a government of the people, i.e. of illusion, sham and seduction by the sophists (called “deficient” in Meno, 45b). Criticism towards rhetoric thus leads directly to the critic of democracy. The government will have to please the crowd, instead of looking for what it is actually useful and advantageous. Furthermore, in the Euthyphro 3b, Plato, Socrates begins by defining the accusation of impiety: Socrates says Euthyphro manufactures (ποιει) gods. Euthyphro is the kind of citizen who supports democracy the same way he supports the gods. As a chiasm, we can observe the legalisation of the religious matter and a sacralisation of the judiciary. Therefore, democracy appears as only manufactured by ignorant citizens seeking for the good when in fact they only do devotion.

Yet, it is the failure of justice on which the Athenian city (Apology, 26a « the law requires one to bring Those Who are in need of punishment, not of instruction ») rather than disobedience to the laws which explains the behavior of Socrates in the Apology. Later on, Socrates tries to show Crito that to obey the judgment of the city-state, even to an unjust order, is right. Athens, the freest city in Greece, offers the possibility for unsatisfied citizens to assert in court, and gives them the opportunity to persuade the legality of their act or their innocence (Crito, 51b-c). However, if the attempt of persuasion fails, the person has to obey. In other words, it is the interpretation of justice of democratic Athens, which takes the form of the « rules of the many” (Gorgias, 488d), that Socrates rejects and not the law itself. Thus, by accepting to drink hemlock in the Crito, Socrates keeps intact his interpretation of justice, inseparable with justice of the law.

According to Socrates, the sophists want the Athenian justice to pose as the real one, which should be based on reason and not on rhetoric. To support this point, Socrates enounces the myth of the judgment of the dead to the underworld. Wealth and prestige acquired during terrestrial life are of no value, but only the quality of the soul and the habit of Justice decide the destination of the dead. In this court of the dead, concealment, illusions and rhetoric are helpless; it all depends on justice as a fundamental reality.


II. But is real justice for us?

A. The imperfection of this exclusive binarism between justice and injustice

Gorgias doesn’t consider himself as a teacher of ἀρετὴ but as a rhetoric teacher, teaching people to speak and to be able to persuade their audience. It’s up to them to make good use of this oratory skill (τέχνη), neutral in itself, good or bad only by the use made of the disciple (Gorgias, 456c-457c). This position is confirmed by Meno at the end of the dialogue (Meno, 95b9-c4). The man himself finally seems to hold a central and active role to determine how to practice justice and what concept of justice he wants to see applied.

In Euthyphro, piety is presented as part of the justice that is religious and pious, which is associated with the care of the gods (Euthyphro, 12d-e). Then, with the agreement of Socrates, Euthyphro also mentioned that another part of the court deals exclusively with relations between men. The part of the justice which regulates relations between men would be the law (also Gorgias, 464b-465d). Therefore, Socrates implicitely admits that there is a justice for men, although it is not a perfect one . However, on might say the justice of the men is just a reflect of their own and natural imperfection.

Only philosophers seem to be perfect human beings and Socrates tend to forget the rest of humanity is not as evolved as he is. According to Socrates (Meno, 90a), Anytos’s father became wealthy because he stucked to his competence and took care of his business, without trying, like his son, to disperse and mingle things (the policy) for which it was not competent. Insofar Socrates define justice in the city like the fact that everyone is engaged in the activity for which it has jurisdiction and that one only (also IV Republic, 433a-d) and will consider as a harmful injustice for the city a mix of genres where, for example, an artisan trying to lead the city by engaging in politics (also IV Rep, 434b-c). This is why Socrates pejoratively introduces Anytos in the Apology, 23e6 as the « artisans and representative politicians”, compared to Athemion who was a “wise” man, remaining an artisan tanner instead, the appropriate wisdom of his condition. But is Socrate born a philosohper? The same way Socrates became one, Anytos should be able to leave the condition assigned to him at birth and share his opinion with others. Similarly, if the slave-boy in Meno is considered like another man, then Anytos should not be condemned for debating with others.

In a terrestrial city-state, the monopoly of wisdom doesn’t belong to philosophers. Equally, it is hard to argue that there is such an ‘exclusive binarism’ between justice and injustice in real life. This dualism leads to eclipse a broader socio-political context and then to injustice. This is precisely why we have laws and judges: a law can cover a large as a very specific scope but judges will be the one deciding case by case on the way to interpret the law. By following Plato’s dualism, there would be no more judges and even no more tribunals: “The truth of Plato’s suggested superiority of philosophy over rhetoric, then, would be nothing like a condemnation of one by another” . The only solution seems to be self-incrimination (Gorgias, 480a-b), certainly possible for the philosopher and yet highly improbable for the common man.

Also, if Socrates says justice comes from the kosmos and that it is understood through the process of reasoning, it comes from the nature according to Callicles and doesn’t need to be analyzed. Callicles argues that true justice means that the law of the strongest prevails: what is right rhymes with inequality, i.e. the domination of the strong over the weak. Justice laws are for him a social convention against nature invented by the weak to force the strong to feel guilty and “done to tame the lions » (Gorgias, 483e). Even ‘real justice’, independantly from the Athenian democracy, can have a different understanding than Socrates’ one. Callicles may not be a “righteous man” but again, the imperfection of human beings shows through this character how Plato’s view is hard to practice and then pointless as an argument when it comes to criticize what happens in real life. In this respect, we might even say that Euthyphro himself understood the reality of this situation in the lights of the sacred concept that piety is. By charging his own father for impiety, Euthyphro shows more respect towards the law than Socrates who thinks it is unacceptable. He then appears to be “as correct and cosmopolitan on the topic of civic justice” but “both forward-thinking and nonetheless intellectually deficient when it comes to rational examination” .

B. The philosopher guilty of not adapting to the real world

Since the philosopher is supposed to show what is right to the society and act as a teacher, he must also act as a pedagogue. However, Socrates rarely adapts to his interlocutor, using the dialectic method that is maieutic but never giving any concrete answer while Meno himself mostly replies ‘in the style of everyday reasoning’ (such as in Meno, 71d-72). Even worse, ‘the initial disillusionment leaves Meno wondering what the point or purpose is to any inquiry into the unknown’, which is called the Meno’s paradox. If you know what you’re looking for, inquiry is unnecessary. If you don’t know what you’re looking for, inquiry is impossible. Therefore, inquiry is either unnecessary or impossible. And ‘the reader can still wonder whether very much progress is made toward reaching an answer to any of these question’ .

Socrates is realistic. Dialetic can’t have the favors of a people accustomed to being flattered and uncorrected. Before an audience of children, it is the cook who is acclaimed and the doctor who is booed (Gorgias, 521e-522a). In fornt of the Athenians fed with demagogy by the Sophists, Socrates knows that he will be condemned: “Yes, children, I was doing all those things in the interest of health”(Gorgias, 522a) and then he refers to the “judges”. The allusion to Socrates’ trial is obvious. Then if Socrates knew he was not clear enough and could even predict he will be charged for ‘annoying’ people around, could one say his role as a philosopher was to teach people was justice is through a more pedagogic method?


As a philosopher, Plato is in charge of teaching the inhabitants of Athens what Justice means and of delivering them from the sophists’ yoke. Indeed, the sophists, through persuasion, present democracy as the political regime where justice reigns. But the basis of democracy isn’t true justice, but flattery. However, since Justice comes from the cosmos and can be understood through the act of reasoning, can we say it’s within the Athenian’s reach? The sophists themselves are not described as bad people but as ignorant. This ignorance shows that democratic legislation and adjudication are the reflection of what men are. Certainly imperfect, but also more practical in real life and more adapted to the context and the circumstances. Finally, we could say that Plato is guilty of not adapting to the Athenians, when he knew his actions was most of the time pointless. Later on in the Republic, he will draw the outlines of the perfect city-state, his utopia, inhabited with perfect citizens, which will finally see the concept of Justice applied.

Margaux Schmit


John M. Cooper, Plato: Complete Works, ed. Hackett, 1997.

Guenter Zoeller, Is the Life in the Law Worth Living? Some Critical Remarks on Plato’s Gorgias, 74 Iowa L. rev. 815 (1989).

Heinze, Eric, The Concept of Injustice, Routledge, 2013.

Kamtekar, R., ed., Plato’s Euthyphro, Apology, and Crito : Critical Essays, Rowman & Littlefield, 2005.

Thomas D. Eisele, The Poverty of Socratic Questioning : Asking and Answering in the Meno, 63 University Cincinnati Law Review 221-67 (1994).

Philippe Raynaud, Stéphane Rials, Dictionnaire de philosophie politique, ed. Broché, 2003.


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