Concept of Justice in Plato’s Political Philosophy Vis-À-Vis Nigerian Situation

Concept of Justice in Plato’s Political Philosophy Vis-À-Vis Nigerian Situation


Historical Background of Plato’s Conception of Justice

X-raying the background from which Plato had his conception of justice; it would be fruitful to refer to the social conditions that prevailed in Greece at that time. Greece was composed of a number of small city-states, which had autonomous governments. These states engaged in constant warfare with one another, and even with such large powerful nations as Persia. Most of them also suffered from a great deal of internal strife, hence, life for the average citizen was precarious. It was in this condition that Plato found his society.

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Plato was born in 428/427 B.C., into an aristocratic Athenian family. Due to his family influence, he learned much about public life and developed at his early stage a sense of responsibility for public political service. Nevertheless, his attitude towards Athenian democracy changed due to what he experienced during the last stages of the poleponnesian war (War between the Athenians and Spartans): he saw how inept the democracy of his era was in producing great leaders. More so, it was within the same democratic milieu that one of the greatest Athenian citizens, Socrates was executed. These entire outward events made him to withdraw from public life. Enoch Stumpf made this point clear when he observed that:

The collapse of Athens and the execution of his master Socrates could well have led Plato to despair of democracy and to begin formulating a new conception of political leadership in which authority and knowledge are appropriately combined.

Plato was influenced by Socrates undying quest for justice. This was most evident during the trial of Socrates which was time when Plato and his three friends offered to pay a substantial fine to the court as an alternative to the death penalty imposed on Socrates but to Plato’s dismay, this attempt failed. More so, his friends represented by Crito came and told him that they were ready to help him escape from prison and go into exile. Crito asked him to escape to Thessaly. But Socrates due to his high sense of justice turned down the plot by his friends to help him escape from the prison for his dear life, with a conviction that the escape would be to defy and injure Athens and its procedural law. Accordingly, he confirmed his respect for the law and its procedure in prosecuting cases by complying with the court sentence. This Socrates’ notion of justice to a great extent influenced Plato. As a result, Plato has to withdraw from public life and service with the conviction that politicians were suffering from ignorance. Socrates’ fate also taught him that good people will not survive unless society itself is transformed. Consequently, many questions haunted him: What kind of society was it that could not tolerate a Socrates in its midst? What kind of society ought we to have if philosophical wisdom is to prevail in human life? What will an ideal society be like if it could be brought into existence? Consequently, he spent the rest of his life trying to answer these questions.

1.2     Statement of the Problem

Can one be just for its own sake? Can action be just and unjust at the same time? What does one mean when he says “I am just”? Is justice a subjective or objective concept? All these questions govern virtually all our civic and cultural lives. For all intents and purposes, the minds of the masses, the oppressed, the down-trodden and the slaves are yearning for justice.

Justice as a term is as old as man; it is a legal, ethical and ontological term. It is a common and living concept. The question of justice is a perennial one. The problem of justice arises as a societal issue in an attempt to settle and reconcile the conflicting claims and interests between individuals. Any given conception of justice is often determined to a large extent by the prevailing worldview concerning the universe, the nature of man, the society and man’s perceived place, and relationship with it; that is why the question of justice is a controversial one. Some justify their actions even when it is unjust, while some others hanker for justice only when it is by all standards advantageous to them. But can each make a legitimate demand for justice?

In the Republic, the question of the concept of justice was also discussed; Socrates refuted a number of false opinions about justice, by examining the current views of his interlocutors. One of them; Cephalus took justice as “honesty in need and indeed”. Socrates refuted this claim. Polemarchus in his bid to improve his father’s definition defines it as “consisting in treating friends well and enemies badly.” Socrates also refuted this with the argument that “it is not the function of a just man to harm a friend or anyone else rather the function of the opposite.”[Thrasymachus’ definition of justice as “advantage of the stronger” was also refuted. Seeing the difficulty involved in this concept, Plato clarified his own concept of justice which seeks to have a consistent universal undertone.

The problem that surrounds our study, when contextualized in our country Nigeria seems to be very conspicuous. The problem of injustice ravaging the national fabric results as it were from the ineptitude of our leaders to enthrone responsible leadership; gross insatiability and egocentric desire which are deep seated in both the rulers and the ruled. Anyone who judges the realities encountered in every day life in Nigeria by standard of justice will clearly see the pains and sufferings our country is undergoing. These vices though with many names are the indices of injustice. This, more or less is exemplified in the alarming rate of crimes, lawlessness, and displacement of values, insecurity, marginalization caused by certain denial of rights that characterize the system of governance in Nigeria. The underlying reason for these is that there is an institutionalized injustice in all facets of the Nigerian sector; this is simply because the system made it to be so, as Achebe rightly pointed out that “Nigerians are corrupt because the systems under which they live today make corruption easy and profitable.”

We will make a comprehensive exposé of injustice; that has eaten deep into the fabrics of our nation with particular reference to her political, socio-economic and educational system in chapter four of this work

1.3     Explication of Terms

Since words can have diverse meanings depending on the context and language game, there arises the requisite need that certain terms used in this work be defined in accordance with the context of our discussion. To this effect, it is a merit to give a brief explanation of what certain terms like virtue, justice, harmony, philosopher King and ideal state will precisely mean all through this work.

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Generally speaking, virtue is a habit which makes both the possessor and his actions unqualifiably good. According to Oxford Dictionary, virtue is behaviour or attitudes that show high moral standard. For Plato, knowledge is the common element in all virtues; the faculties of the soul must operate within the limits set by knowledge. Virtue is therefore one and since it is knowledge, it can be taught.


Justice is a virtue that inclines us to give to each one his own (due). Oxford Dictionary defines it simply as fair treatment of people. Plato takes justice to mean each doing one’s own work which one is naturally best suited without meddling in the others. On individual level, the term also refers to the quality within a person who has a well-ordered soul. In this sense, a just person is truly moral person.


It is a state of peaceful existence and agreement according to Oxford Dictionary. Plato regards it as a sort of fine and good character that is developed in accordance with an intelligent plan, which is achieved by finest blending of music and physical training that impresses the soul in the most measured way.


He is the best of guardians, knowledgeable and capable of guarding the city; charged with the function of attaining justice in the state. He is skilled in guardianship which is possessed by those rulers we just now called complete guardians.

Ideal State

It is an imaginary state, that is like a giant ruled by philosopher-King; and which is characterized by and works with the principle of justice. It is attained only when the three classes of artisans, guardians and the rulers that make up the state fulfill their specific functions, and are subordinate to the rational rule of reason.

1.34  The Rationale Behind the Work

Throughout the course of Nigeria history, there have been indices of injustice which seems to be indispensable in all sectors of Nigerian life. One will be forced to wonder what Nigeria holds to be justice; especially in the wake of awful assassinations such as the case of Bola Ige and the raging Niger Delta crises. Any critical observer will be forced to ask: what is more than injustice when the minister of Justice, the Attorney General of the Federation was assassinated and eight years after his death, no answer was given as to who the perpetrators of this evil act were? What is more than injustice when the Niger Delta zone from where the nation gets 85% of its GDP, 95% of its budget spending and 80% of its national wealth, is marked with high level of poverty occasioned by the oil exploration which degrades the environment?

These two major events guided and motivated my choice of the topic: Concept of Justice in Plato’s Political Philosophy vis-à-vis Nigerian situation. It is the task of this work therefore, to expose the concept of justice in Plato’s Republic and Nigeria with the aim of the former serving as a guide for the latter, in order to achieve a better society.

1.5     The Methodology

This project will adopt a critical expository analysis of both the concept of justice in Plato’s Republic and concept of justice in Nigeria. This preoccupation will gear towards a better understanding of Platonic justice and justice in Nigeria.

In view of this intention, the writer decided to picture the general work in five chapters. Chapter one portrays the historical background and the statement of the problem with reference to the objective of the study, its approach and explication of terms. In chapter two, consideration of other philosopher’s view of the concept was attended. Chapter three offers us the exposition of Platonic justice. Chapter four exposes the face of justice in Nigeria socio-economic, political and educational system. Then the final chapter critically evaluates Plato’s notion of justice and its application to Nigeria situation. This is followed by the conclusion.

In summary, our method of study shall take after the Hegelian triadic formular of thesis, antithesis and synthesis.Chapter one will be the introductory part of the work, chapter two and three will serve as the thesis; chapter four serves as the antithesis while chapter five will serve as the synthesis of chapter two, three and four. The synthesis becomes the thesis of my discourse


5.1     Critical Evaluation of Plato’s Notion of Justice

What is outstanding in Plato’s notion of justice is that it operates within a principle; in his Republic, he is more interested in the principle than mere conception of it. Thus, his notion of justice can be realized only when we know the principles with which it operates. The following principles, among others, are deducible from the foregoing analysis of Platonic justice – principle of order and harmony, educational principle, division of labour (specialization) and fulfilment of function. These principles form the basis of Plato’s ideal society. .

Plato’s idea is not without some loopholes. The greatest critics of Plato’s ideal state is that it is weaken by its utopianism, anti-empirical theory of knowledge by a certain picture of mathematical knowledge. In addition, one can argue that the justice which Plato, envisaged in the Republic may not after all be a reality because man is not always propelled by reason.

More so, the basic assumption of Plato’s political and moral philosophy is that if a person has knowledge of the good life, he/she will never act immorally. In other words, knowledge is a sufficient reason for one to act morally. But, we know that to know the good is not enough to do the good. Thus, one can argue using Kant’s phraseology that knowledge is a necessary condition but not sufficient condition to doing good; for one can despite his knowledge of the good decide to do the contrary. This is the stand of Aristotle.

Further more, he believed that ruling is a skill and therefore should be reserved for the few gifted individuals. But the problem of finding a collection of “wise” men and leaving the government to them is thus an insoluble one. We know that aristocracies are not always wise; kings can err. Or are we to entrust the government to university graduates or even to doctors? Moreover, in such situation, who will guard the guardians? One can further argue that, although ruling is a skill, nevertheless, that does not mean that these rulers ought to be given absolute authority because power corrupts, but absolute power corrupts absolutely. Plato can attest to this fact in his fruitless effort in training of the younger Dionysus. It is clear therefore that no legally definable selection of citizens is likely to be wiser in practice, than the whole body. It was due to tyrannical nature of monarchical rule that Rawls laid down a kind of justice, which recognizes the dignity of man and can operate only in a democratic setting. This is the ultimate reason for democracy. In addition to this, man by nature is a free and rational being; democracy naturally depicts the nature of man and the only system that can work in any human society.

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However, considering Plato’s social milieu, his influence and time element when he opined his imaginary state; one will know that he does not have in mind modern liberal and representative democracy. What he saw in his day was rather a type of direct popular government that clearly violated his notion. Thus, Plato’s conception of democracy and his criticism of it, were based upon his first hand experience with the special form that democracy took in the small city-state of Athens, for this reason therefore, he opines that ruling should be left in the hands of wise men.

Generally, despite all the criticisms levelled against Plato, his theories turnout to be one of the most profound and far-reaching ideas in the history of political philosophy. His theory of form has received outstanding attention, since; this theory is central on his view of knowledge, ethics and politics. The theory is a testimony to Plato’s greatness as a philosopher; for this reason the philosopher and a historian Alfred Whitehead has said that the safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of the series of footnote of Plato.

More so, his theory of ideal state though exists at the level of concept, is most memorable widely read and pioneering theory for political philosophy. Thus, can help us as a standard in achieving a well and ordered state. Plato does not say that such a state can be perfectly realised rather adopting one or more principles of such as ideal state will amount a great change in a real society. Let’s read him: “the ideal is a standard only which can never be perfectly realized,” he argued further; “although the ideal can’t be realized one or two changes or rather a single change might revolutionalize a state.” In other words, although this is only an ideal, it is nevertheless a significant target to aim at.

Plato’s ideas testify the creative power of his mind by drawing a parallel line between an individual and the world, which is made visible in his comparison of human psychology to the workings of the state. The implication of Plato’s idealism is that ideas are more fundamental than reality. He showed us that everything is possible in the mind. It is this power of mind in breeding ideas as manifested by Plato that one can understand the saying that ideas rule the world.

One thing that cuts across Plato’s notion of justice is that there is a strict adherence to the principles of justice, which constitute the law. For law determines what is just. Thus, in his Republic – there is a kind of natural selection that places everyone in his/her social position; and each happily contributes to the sustenance of the polity. Some may argue that the insatiable nature of human cannot but make them selfish. The answer is that humans are equally characteristically selfless; there is no human who does not also know and appreciate what is good especially living in relation to others; collaborating for maximum result. These Platonic principles as we know operate within democratic setting. Thus, they can be regarded as democratic principles. The central message in Plato’s justice is “everyman doing his own job.” These principles make up the constitution that will ensure justice in the state since law determines what is just and justice deals with the relationship of one another. It is therefore in application of the law that issue of justice comes in

From the foregoing, Plato had placed emphasis on who is to rule while Aristotle placed emphasis on the rule of law. Though both seem to be complementary, but in my judgement, Plato’s emphasis on a virtuous and learned ruler seems to be superior to Aristotle’s emphasis on a good constitution. For no matter how good the constitution may be, if a corrupt and a bad person use it, it may render the constitution useless. Aquinas is of the view that if such a constitution must exist, it must not contradict natural law. For Hobbes, the will of the sovereign should be the constitution; while Rawls is of the opinion that the constitution must follow the principles of fairness. All these notions of standard of justice notwithstanding, one thing that is certain is that we need learned, virtuous and disciplined men to appropriate and apply the constitution before we can be sure of good and responsible governance. This is the stand of Plato.

It is against this backdrop that I venture to maintain that Plato’s idea of justice will be of great help to Nigerian situation in order to attain a truly democratic state.

5.2  Relevance of Plato’s Notion of Justice in Nigeria

Plato holds that justice achieves harmony when each of the three parts of the state or classes of the soul performs their function without each usurping the other. Justice then becomes the harmony of the virtue of temperance, courage, and wisdom. The human nature is the same, in that all people posses a tripartite soul, the kind of people they become depends upon the degree of internal harmony they achieve. As justice is the general virtue of a moral person, so also it is justice that characterizes the good society. The health of the state thus, is analysed whether the classes are performing their functions well and have the proper relationship to one another. In all, education is the bedrock of all these principles of justice; thus, it is prerequisite for attaining an ordered state.

We shall juxtapose the concept of justice in both Plato and Nigeria using the former as a paradigm for the latter, paying particular attention to its socio-political, educational and economic situation.

Political sector

Plato’s Republic with its emphasis on education was devoted to laying foundation for good governance; the guardian-rulers were required to undergo a sort of education that will equip them for public responsibility. Thus, for Nigerian democracy, the candidate to be elected should be one who by education and training is suitable to pilot the state machinery. In other words, a democratic philosopher-king should rule our country. This can be achieved through electoral reform – by making sure that electoral commission is truly independent so as to map out a strategy that will ensure free and fair election. For Plato, competence should be the credible qualification for rulers, if not, merit may be sacrifice at the altar of mediocrity with attendant consequence. Nigeria will attain truly democratic state if the practitioners were educated, honest, self-discipline to render selfless service.

Further more, there should be political enlightenment on the part of the masses for if Nigerian citizens are well educated and grows into reasonable and critical men and women, it will become the duty of the enlightened citizens to lead the way in their discovery of qualified candidate and to create an atmosphere conducive for their emergence. As such, the citizens will no longer fall prey to the manoeuvres and the empty promises of selfish dishonest and incompetent leaders. Lastly, Plato’s idea of state can help to build a viable foundation for true democracy in Nigeria or at least remedy the shortcomings of our state.

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Educational sector

One thing that is outstanding in Plato’s educational policy is the recognition of the distinction between intellectual and moral training. It is the division of education, which geared towards the formation of human person in view of his final end and the good of that society to which he belongs and in the duties in which he will, as an adult have a share. The quality of a nation is the quality of its human factors and resources. As such, Nigeria should embark on human capital development. For one to say that Nigerian system of education worth its onions, it entails that both the system and its implementation should be sound, with the main aim of formation of human character instead of certificated crude individual. Such system should place more emphasis on meritocracy at all levels of education, viz., nursery, primary, secondary, technical, teacher training, tertiary and others. The broad objective of Nigerian education should emphasis the inculcation of the right type of value and attitudes for the survival of individual and the society. The educational setting should be conducive for the education needed to produce good citizens capable of contributing their quota to the well being of the society, either as civil servant or self-employed persons irrespective of the field of specialization. Once the government is fully committed to address the problem raised; it will surely give rise to the long expected high standard of education, which will go a long way to aiding the school leavers to be useful to themselves and the society en masse.

Socio- economic sector

From Plato, we read that society grows out of economic needs of individual for no man is sufficient, that is to say, his notion of human needs as the basis of society underlies why co operation was necessary in a given society; hence there is need for government to provide the basic needs of its citizens; so also to provide a scheme that will ensure adequate training of guardians so as to protect the country from internal and external aggression; promote national integration, security of lives and property. Thus, there will be peace and order in all parts of the country; for without peace, no meaningful social programme can be undertaken; a quintessence of this is the ongoing Jos crises and Ezza-Ezzillo and the Ezzillo crises. Without justice, social disorder is constantly threatened.

More so, the Nigerian Judiciary should be really independent and should perform its duties without fear or favour; and the constitutional checks and balances between the three arms of government – the executive, the legislative and the Judiciary – should be respected and promoted. As such, there should be proper delegation of power to different sectors of the country. The principle of division of labour when properly applied in our country will ensure a separation between economic power and political power. This implies that no individual will control both political and economic power. There should be fair distribution of resources in all part of the country so as to attain a happy society. Finally, they should also know that the bedrock of any development is energy without which no country can effectively function.

5.3  Conclusion

It has been the intention of this write-up to expose Platonic justice and injustice in Nigeria so as to draw a synthesis that will ensure true democracy in our country. The concept of justice remains a moral and social formation for any authentic socio-political setting as seen in Plato’s notion of justice with particular emphasis on the intrinsic principles of his justice. Thus, his notion of justice is an incontestable and indisputable means of stifling the widespread of innumerable unjust attitude and ignorance of our society. Plato’s expository procedure of reinstating the virtue of justice in the state, if appropriately applied, definitely will bring enormous change and progress in our country. It will transform socio-economic and political situation of this country for better.

Justice and social stability are desirable and worthwhile ideals. It is when the society is just and stable that meaningful individual and corporate objectives as well as enduring progress can be attained. It is upon this principle of order that Plato built his notion of ideal state. Thus justice is essentially for social stability. A democracy that jokes with such principles does not have the good of the people in mind and is therefore bound to fail; for where injustice is perpetrated on a people, there is bound to be social disorder and disintegration. It is time for all Nigerians both individual and group to stand up together and halt this trend.

Finally, Inscribed in each person’s mind is the moral conscience to promote justice and even fight injustice. By this little strife to establish justice as the basis of our attitudes, all the seemingly inevitable unjust acts which are the indices of Nigerian democracy will be a thing of past. Thus, justice will sustain democracy as needed in a pluralistic country like Nigeria. It is the thesis of this work therefore to state that there is no short cut for our nation to attain a peaceful, serene and ordered society until we imbibe these Platonic principles of justice.

Plato tried to implement the ideal system of education which he proposed in the Republic on the younger Dionysius, tyrant of Syracuse, in order to make him good king. However when he failed, he abandoned it and in the Law produced educational system, which he described as the best in the present circumstances.

The Concept of Justice in Plato’s Political Philosophy Vis-À-Vis Nigerian Situation


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