Why Did Plato Think that Education Could Replace Law?

Plato’s Republic presents a vision of the ideal society. How would law look like in Plato’s utopia?

Sep 26, 2023By Nick Scott, Bachelor of Law (in-progress)

law in plato republic


Authored around 375 BCE, The Republic was the first utopia, laying the groundwork for countless influential texts that explore the same concept. Written against the backdrop of a tumultuous period in Athenian history, the text directly addresses many of the issues that beleaguered the city. Plato’s teacher Socrates had been executed 25 years earlier, and he features as the central character in the text, which takes the format of a (Socratic) dialogue.


The Republic examines concepts of justice and discusses the role of an individual within a society. The text begins by exploring how individuals can live happy, fulfilled lives concluding that placing justice at the center of their behavior is necessary for fulfillment. Having established this principle, Plato then proposes a structure for a society focused on promoting and facilitating just actions. The central idea is that the character of the city-state is reflected in the character of the individual.


The Acropolis At Athens, Leo Von Klenze, 1846 via Neue Pinakothek


Although a legal framework is not explicitly outlined in The Republic, it is implicit in the suggestions that are put forward within the text. Kallipolis, the utopian state presented in The Republic, included a focus on education, a system for deciding rulers, and a clear philosophy of the role of the state. The primary consideration was promoting virtue to encourage just actions contributing to the common good. One of the focuses of this text is that effective education rather than strict law is the key to a stable society arguing that without good education, laws will not be followed.


For more on the legal framework implicit in history’s first utopian text, read below.

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Defining Justice in Plato’s ‘Republic’

Bust of Socrates, copy of Lysippos, 1st Century CE, via The Louvre


The Republic opens with Socrates discussing a range of issues with Thrasymachus, Cephalus, and Polemarchus. One of these issues is the definition of justice. In the context of this text, the word justice is applied with a broader meaning than its use in a modern context. In this context, justice is discussed as one of four cardinal virtues and is interpreted to describe a sense of moral actions. The other cardinal virtues were prudence, temperance, and courage. The prevailing view in classical Athens was that it was necessary to embody these virtues in order to achieve happiness and fulfillment, described in ancient Greek as eudaimonia. Defining justice is therefore important in order to achieve this.


In the first book of The Republic, the group put various definitions of justice to Socrates, which he finds to be inadequate. Polemarchus categorized justice as good behavior towards friends and bad behavior towards enemies. This is dismissed by Socrates on the basis that causing harm to others is incompatible with the concept of justice. Thrasymachus categorized justice as advantageous to stronger parties whilst stating that injustice involves parties acting in their own interests. Socrates uses a series of logical arguments to show this definition is contradictory.


Exploring Justice Through Kallipolis

Statue of Plato, Athens, Greece, via World History Encyclopedia


Although both these definitions are dismissed, the first book concludes with uncertainty about the true definition of justice. Socrates’ discussion of justice continues into the second book, this time with Adeimantus and Glaucon. Socrates’ companions challenge him by putting forward arguments that a just life is not necessarily better than an unjust life as individuals can benefit through acting unjustly. Glaucon illustrates this point by considering a scenario described as the Ring of Gyges. Gyges uses a ring to become invisible, and using this power unjustly enriches himself. Book 2 centers on arguments similar to this that challenge Socrates’ position that acting justly is inherently positive.


Without reaching a conclusion, Socrates suggests that the group take a different route to arrive at a definition of justice, considering how city-states engender a concept of justice in individuals. This approach assumes a direct link between the moral character of a society and of individuals. Individual justice in Plato’s Republic is ultimately defined in the context of a wider community. Within this concept of justice, individuals have defined roles and balance their own interests with the wider interests of their community.


Replacing Law?

A Dream Of Ancient Athens, Sydney Herbert, 1881 via Art UK


One of the central contentions made in The Republic is that law is not necessary if proper education takes place. In the text, Socrates makes the argument that inadequate education is the central cause of lawlessness. This introduces a discussion in the text on the structure and focus of an education system in the ideal city. The discussion covers the form that education should take for the Guardian class ruling a city-state. An agreement is reached that this education should focus on instilling the four cardinal virtues and gaining an understanding of the forms.


Despite the statement that law is not necessary in an ideal city, Plato rigorously defines the rules governing the structure of the education system that would create the philosophers of the hypothetical city-state. This education process would take 35 years, followed by a period of 15 years serving in more junior political office. By most definitions, this clear constitutional framework would be considered to comprise a set of laws. It would therefore be accurate to describe the philosophical position put forward in Socrates’ argument as stating that if laws are properly constructed governing education, no further laws are required.


This proposal runs into a Catch-22. Socrates acknowledges that there are very few true philosophers due to corruption, and without true philosophers, an ideal city-state could not be created. The challenges of creating the conditions for this city are discussed in The Republic, taking the stance that the corruption of the city has corrupted much of the population. This links back to the purpose of the city in The Republic. Kallipolis, the hypothetical city that is discussed, is brought up as a thought experiment to explore the concept of justice in the individual rather than as a practical proposal.


Nomos and Law

The Parthenon, Frederick Edwin Church, 1871 via The Metropolitan Museum


One of the reasons for the differing interpretations of Socrates’ discussion of law within the case is that there is no direct translation of the Greek term “nomos” that is used by Socrates. Law can generally be defined as a framework of rules that are generally accepted as binding within a community. Nomos has a broader meaning than this. Nomos is used to describe customs and conventions as differentiated from natural laws described by the term physis. In the context of this dialogue, Socrates can be interpreted as saying that this broader definition of conventions and customs, of which law is a subset, is not relevant in the context of an ideal approach to education.


Abandoning Democracy: Philosopher Kings in The Republic

View of the Parthenon from the Propylaea, John Bailey, 1819 via British Museum


In The Republic, Plato argues against democracy, stating that it degenerates into tyranny. Plato’s proposal that a city-state should be ruled by philosopher kings is predicated on his theory of forms. Based on the premise that a true philosopher, as described by Plato, has an understanding of “absolute truth”, they are the only group qualified to make decisions for the good of the city. In the text, Socrates states, “Until philosophers are kings, or the kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy… …cities will never have rest from their evils”. This is the central idea of The Republic: the character of the rule is reflected in the character of the city and, consequently, in the character of the population.


This is illustrated in the text through the metaphor of the Ship of State. Plato compares a democracy (like that of Athens) to a ship with no captain, directed by a mutinous crew. This is then contrasted with a captain who understands how to navigate the ship. In this analogy, the ship’s captain represents Plato’s philosopher king equipped with knowledge of the forms to guide the trajectory of the city-state.


Aristotle’s Response to Plato’s Republic

Athens In Its Flourishing State, engraving after Richard Wilson, 1785 via British Museum


Aristotle critiqued the ideas put forward in The Republic in his philosophy text Politics in which he put forward a more democratic system of governance. Aristotle argued that power should be shared among citizens within a city-state. Politics also categorize the skills required of a successful philosopher as separate from that of a successful ruler. Aristotle also contends that the ideal society does not exist, believing that the best form of government would combine democratic and oligarchic approaches.


One of the issues with directly comparing The Republic with Politics is the differing purposes of the texts. Whereas Politics is a work of political philosophy, The Republic is primarily concerned with justice in the individual as a route to achieving eudaimonia. Kallipolis was discussed as a thought experiment introduced to discuss the way justice within a city impacts justice within the individual. In the text, Socrates frequently acknowledges the unrealistic nature of the city. Rather than putting forward a proposal, the hypothetical city-state discussed only makes sense in relation to the initial dialogue: an attempt to define justice in the individual.


Interpretations of The Republic vary widely, with many debating whether or not Socrates’ statements reflect Plato’s views or are used for a different purpose. Although running counter to the academic consensus, Leo Strauss put forward the view that The Republic is a satire critiquing, amongst other things, the idea that people can consciously redesign the structure of their societies. However, some clarity on interpretation is provided by Aristotle’s response in Politics, after having known Plato for many years, addressing the ideas in The Republic as Plato’s own. Both The Republic and Politics have had a profound impact on political philosophy and reflect the diversity of ideas in Classical Athens.

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By Nick ScottBachelor of Law (in-progress)Nick Scott is a law student with a specific interest in legal history and comparative law. Alongside studying for a law degree, Nick is a contributing writer and has written for The Times and Politics.co.uk.