Plato and Judge John Roberts III
Bill Long 9/16/05
Coming to an Understanding of Justice
The thesis of the previous two essays is that the Senate Judiciary Committee, in examining Judge Roberts, wanted to know two things: his approach to certain "hot button" issue in law, such as the right to privacy or the extent of the commerce clause, and his overall "judicial philosophy." As part of the latter inquiry, at least two Senators commented or raised questions about "John Roberts the man." My contention is that because the Senators are not used to questioning people about their inner lives or what makes them who they are, they went about this process in a very unskilled manner. My purpose here is not to say how they could have done better--there are certain hints in my previous essay where I tip my hand on that one. Rather, my purpose is to show how the leading figure in Western philosophy who wrote about justice (Plato) would argue that the probe into the inner life is the most important part of discerning a person's understanding of justice and, in fact, the inner life is where justice actually "resides" in a person.
Understanding the Early Flow of the Republic
Most scholars think Plato wrote the Republic when he was about 40 (ca. 388 BCE). In some of his earlier dialogues he took up large questions such as 'What is piety?' but in the Republic he explores the question of what justice is. Book I of Republic presents three definitions of justice, which Socrates ("S") tries to refute. Cephalus argued that justice was paying your debts and telling the truth; Polemarchus contended that it was, following the poet Simonides, giving each person his/her due; Thrasymachus argued that justice was simply "the advantage of the stronger." Even though S seemingly confutes all three interlocutors in Book I, at the end of the book he and his conversation partners remain dissatisfied.
Then, in Book II, Glaucon takes up the argument of Thrasymachus again but does it in a different way: through the method of "parallel speech" rather than the Socratic elenchus. He contrasts the just and unjust man through "pictures" of each, and then argues that no one of us is willingly just, but we adopt the philosophy and practice of acting justly only because we are too weak to live unjustly with impunity. S is impressed with these arguments and decides that in order to answer Glaucon he must take a long intellectual journey and construct a "beautiful" or "happy" city in his mind and then inquire about where justice is in this city. After finding it on this 'large canvas' he will then ask where it resides in the individual.
Plato/S's Understanding of Justice
By the time we get to the middle of Book IV, S has come up with a preliminary definition of justice. It is, seemingly anticlimactically, where each person does his/her own trade and doesn't attempt to do the work of another. Justice is also defined as the power that preserves a city when all things are working together in harmony. Yet after he completes this definition, S still isn't satisfied, and so he goes into an explanation of the makeup of the human person. Our souls are tripartite, including ruling, spirited and appetitive parts. These parts correspond to the three leading classes of people in the beautiful city: the rulers, the guardians/auxiliaries and the craftspeople. But finally, S will come up with his understanding of justice by contrasting what he calls the external and inner or internal views of justice. Here are his words:
"And in truth justice is, it seems, something of this sort. However it isn't concerned with someone doing his own externally, but with what is inside him, with what is truly himself and his own."
That is, justice is not primarily concerned with all the definitions that were put forward by the interlocutors in Books I and II; it is, in contrast an internal concept, focusing on the nature of how the soul is arranged. He goes on to explain this as the quotation continues:
"One who is just does not allow any part of himself to do the work of another part or allow the various classes within him to meddle with each other. He regulates well what is really his own and rules himself. He puts himself in order, is his own friend, and harmonizes the three parts of himself like three limiting notes in a musical scale--high, low, and middle. He binds together those parts and any others there may be in between, and from having been many things he becomes entirely one, moderate and harmonious."
Notice the language that Plato/S uses to describe this inner nature of justice. It has to do with how things are blended or harmonized within. It has to do with each part of the soul not "meddling" with the other. It stresses the self-regulatory nature of the inner life. What Plato is doing, then, is stressing that the essence of justice is to be found in how the person's inner life is structured. While I think that Plato undervalues, and perhaps doesn't understand at this point of his life the central importance of laws and constitutions, I think that his emphasis on inner justice is a brilliant insight.
Conclusion--Back to the Roberts Hearing
So, when Senators DeWine and Feinstein were either probing or commenting on John Roberts the "man" rather than the judge, they were searching for ways to explore the way that justice relates to the inner life of a person. But they didn't have the vocabulary or questioning skill to get at those issues in the life of John Roberts. But they (and others, too) recognized that this was an important thing to discover before voting to confirm his nomination. Plato would have told these Senators that they were precisely on the right track when they wanted to probe this "inner" life of the judge. Unfortunately they didn't quite know how to do it. As a result, we didn't really get to understand Roberts the "man" and are the poorer for it.
That lack, however, didn't stop me from speculating on some of this inner life through the stories Roberts told.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long