Socrates’ Critique of Cephalus and Polemarchus Essay

September 21, 2021 by Essay Writer


Justice is one of the most essential moral and political notions in both contemporary and traditional worlds. According to the modern definition of the term, the concept refers to actions that are morally right. They are also those acts that respect the freedoms and rights of all individuals in society. On their part, philosophers define justice in both moral and political aspects. The scholars try to understand how the notion applies to social and ethical decision making processes in society (Plato 140). In Greek philosophy, for example, justice was termed as a virtue in action. To most philosophers, such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, the concept was used in reference to goodness and the desire to abide by laws. It was regarded as the true principle of social life.

In this paper, the author will look at justice by highlighting Socrates’ critique of Cephalus and Polemarchu’s view of the concept. To this end, the author will address two key questions. They include the view of justice that forms the basis of Socrates’ criticism and the reason why the philosopher found Cephalus and Polemarchus definitions and views of justice unsatisfactory.

The View of Justice that Forms the Basis of Socrates Critique

The idea of justice forming the basis of Socrates’ criticism is the varying definitions by different philosophers in his time. There were various views and theories of justice that were formulated and promoted by a number of scholars. Plato saw justice as a virtue that involves developing a rational order. Each ‘branch’ of this virtue carries out the ‘right’ duty without interfering with the functioning of other parts (Plato 45). According to Aristotle, justice is a concept used to refer to lawful and fair actions carried out by individuals in society. The just acts entail equal distributions and correction of what is unfair.

Cephalus was a rich and highly respected elder of Socrates City. He was a scholar in his own right. He defines justice as an endeavor to express the basic Hesiodic conception (Plato 128). The elder believed that the notion means living up to one’s legal obligations. In addition, he viewed honesty as an important aspect of justice. On the other hand, Polemarchus defines the concept as the idea of owing friends’ help and enemies’ harm. It is clear that the definition differs from that of Cephalus. However, the two descriptions also have a close relationship. The reason is that they have a similar imperative of depicting what is due to all persons in society.

The imperative forms the basis of Socrates’ principle of justice. To get a clear picture of the view of justice, which is at the core of his criticism, Socrates demolishes both Cephalus and Polemarchus’ simplistic views with counter-examples. In spite of the fact that he makes an effort to counter the two views, Socrates does not completely reject Cephalus and Polemarchus’ definitions of justice (Plato 130). The reason is that each explanation has a common-sense conception of fairness. Socrates uses the notions in later discussions about the concept of justice.

Why Socrates Finds Cephalus and Polemarchus Views of Justice Unsatisfactory

Socrates regards Cephalus and Polemarchus’ views of justice unsatisfactory for a number of reasons. For example, he argues that the two arguments have numerous inherent inconsistencies (Plato 88). The discrepancies are made apparent in the counter-examples used by Socrates in his writings. In the case of Cephalus, the elder defines justice as being honest and living up to one’s legal responsibilities. Socrates finds the view of inadequate and unconvincing. He uses the example of the mad man and the weapon to counter this view. Socrates asks Cephalus whether it would be right or not to give an insane man back his weapon (Plato 131).

Socrates claims that you owe the mad man his weapon. The reason is that it legally belongs to him. However, giving it back to him would be unjust. The ‘unjustness’ comes into play given that the action would put the lives of other people in danger (Plato 100). Cephalus agrees with Socrates that giving back the weapon to the mad man would not be the right course of action. As a result, Cephalus’ view is found to be unsatisfactory because justice, in this case, is seen as being dishonest and failing to honor expected legal duties.

According to Polemarchus’ conceptualization and way of thinking, justice entails the act of giving people what is owed to them. When this definition is used, it becomes clear that individuals are obliged to do good to their friends, while harming their enemies (Plato 22).

Socrates finds the view unconvincing. He criticizes it by analyzing its core tenets. He argues that treating one’s enemies harshly may make them more unjust. In addition, Socrates claims that people do make mistakes. As a result, judging others and attempting to differentiate between an enemy and a friend can lead to a situation where the bad are helped whereas the good are harmed. In the view of Socrates, people become worse in terms of virtues when they are harmed (Plato 33). The philosopher drives his point home using the analogy of the behavior expressed by a harmed horse. The counter-example makes Polemarchus concur with Socrates’ view that justice should not be used to harm anyone regardless of their standing in society.

In spite of the fact that Polemarchus view is deemed as unsatisfactory, the view may be justified by the actions of most people. For example, the actions of heroes and gods in Greek mythology seem to reflect this argument of justice (Plato 99). The main idea supported by Polemarchus’ argument is paying back. It is what people would call ‘tit-for-tat’ and an eye-for-an-eye. For instance, if individual A does a favor to person B, then the latter owes the former a favor in return.

Similarly, if party C does harm to D, then D should hit back or revenge on C. The concept of justice as expressed by Polemarchus was evident in both social and political arenas of the time. Some of the areas where the form of justice was witnessed include family rivalry in politics and hostile relationships between cities in ancient Greek. According to Socrates, the form of justice as explained by Polemarchus involves revenge, which may result in war. In addition, the view leads to a cycle of violence, which is not suitable for the wellbeing of people in society (Plato 81).

Another reason why Socrates found Cephalus and Polemarchus’ views unsatisfactory is because they did not define the nature of justice itself. Socrates explained the concept of working towards what is naturally best suited to the welfare of the community. In addition, he claimed that fairness involves minding one’s business and not being a ‘busybody’ (Plato 78). Socrates felt that Cephalus and Polemarchus’ views did not portray the three cardinal virtues. The virtues are wisdom, temperance, and courage. According to the notions supported by Cephalus and Polemarchus, justice exists within the human soul. On his part, Socrates believes that justice is a result of a well-prearranged soul.

As a result, humans and their actions can be put into three groups. The categories include a ruler, soldier, and producer. Socrates believes that if a leader makes just laws, a warrior administers the rules. Consequently, the ‘producers’ would abide by the regulations as required, leading to the creation of a just community (Plato 78). According to this explanation, justice in individual lives entails the existence of different parts of the soul, which are situated in the right place. In social life, fairness is a situation where each person and class is placed in their proper ‘situates’. Polemarchus and Cephalus’ views did not take these factors into consideration.


The definition and view of justice was a subject of raging debate during the Socrates era. In this paper, the author highlighted the dispute witnessed in the dialogue between Socrates, Cephalus, and Polemarchus. Cephalus’ view of justice represents the outlook of an established and elderly business person. On the other hand, Polemarchus’ definition reflects the thoughts of a young politician. In the dialogue, Socrates finds the views of Polemarchus and Cephalus as unsatisfactory. In his critique, Socrates gives examples of a horse and a mad man. In addition, he considers justice to be like a form of art or craft.

Work Cited

Plato, The Republic, London: Digireads, 2008. Print.

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