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Plato on Inequalities, Justice, and Democracy

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Democracy, Justice, and Equality in Ancient Greece

Part of the book series: Philosophical Studies Series ((PSSP,volume 132))


The paper focuses on Plato’s treatment of equality and inequalities in his best constitution in the Republic and in the second best constitution in the Laws. Plato was aware of the equality solution and various inequalities solutions to the problem of distributing political offices, the burdens of defense, other careers, and property and wealth. In his best constitution he rejected participatory democracy’s solution of equality of political offices, and also rejected inequality distributions of political office on the bases of courage only or wealth only or on force only. He opted for proportional inequality in the distribution of all careers, including ruling, defense, and the provision of goods and services, on the basis of inborn inequalities in intelligence, spirit, abilities in the arts/crafts, and appropriate education. Such a distribution is directed by his principle of social or city justice and justified by his belief that only with such distributions would the city function best. In the economic domain he opted for radical inequality, the abolition of private property and wealth for the ruling classes and the military—a radical divorce between power and wealth, which is his solution to the political problem posed by Thrasymachus. For the remaining and largest class, the providers of basic goods and services, he proposed functional economic floors and ceilings—allowing farmers and craftsmen what they needed, and not more, for doing their jobs well. Later, in his second best constitution, Plato opted for democratic equality in the distribution of the main political offices, for absolute equality in the division of land, and very measured inequalities in other goods and other offices. Plato now seems to think that the very great inequalities of his best constitution/city would create conflicts and factions too difficult to assuage or overcome, since he now cites repeatedly the avoidance of faction as the main reason for his newly found political and economic equality and for the avoidance of extreme inequalities. At the same time, he lowers his earlier and very high standard of the knowledge required for ruling well, which allows many more citizens to participate in ruling the city well; they no longer need to know the form of the Good, but it is sufficient to know the goods of the soul, the goods of the body, the social goods, and the teleological priority of the goods of the soul over all other goods—all the others to be pursued for the sake of the goods of the soul. Looking at both books, it is rather remarkable that all the solutions to the distribution problem of social justice that Plato discusses—equality, proportional inequality, floors and ceilings, and distance between the best off and the worst off—find an echo in modern solutions to the distributions of similar social advantages and burdens.

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I wish to thank Professor Georgios Anagnostopoulos for many helpful comments and for inviting me to participate in his graduate seminars at UC San Diego, where many of the topics in this volume were discussed.

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Correspondence to Gerasimos Santas .

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Santas, G. (2018). Plato on Inequalities, Justice, and Democracy. In: Anagnostopoulos, G., Santas, G. (eds) Democracy, Justice, and Equality in Ancient Greece. Philosophical Studies Series, vol 132. Springer, Cham.

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