The Beginning of Justice: Socrates Speaks With Cephalus (3)

Emmet Penney
2 min readJul 27, 2020


3. The Arrival of Justice

Socrates wants to know what Cephalus considers to be the “greatest good” he has “enjoyed from possessing great wealth?” If wealth isn’t everything, what’s the upper limit on what it does provide? And in his response, justice makes its debut as it’s opposite: injustice.

Cephalus responds that, in keeping with his previous comments, what he has to say “wouldn’t persuade many perhaps.” But that, when a man comes to the end of his life, he starts looking back and considering the mythos, or “tales,” about what happens in the afterlife to those who have perpetrated “unjust deeds.” Men who’ve committed many sins, for lack of a better term, may even bolt upright in the night afeared of what awaits them in Hades. Thus, having money is indispensable. Why? Because:

the possession of money contributes a great deal to not cheating or lying to any man against one’s will, and, moreover, to not departing for that other place frightened because one owes some sacrifices to a god or money to a human being.

So here we have our first definition of justice: paying what one owes, never cheating, and (it follows) being honest. We might add piety to the list.

Who could disagree? Well, Socrates. But before we turn to the gadfly-in-chief, it’s important to ask ourselves whose ethics are these? A merchant’s — a pious merchant’s. And it’s interesting that the trouble with justice begins here, with Cephalus, one of whose sons, Polemarchus, was murdered by the Thirty and takes his place in the dialogue very shortly. I don’t believe Plato’s arguing against merchants. Instead, he’s troubling the foundations of justice’s typical conceptions: the commonsense contractual honestly of the business world; the inherited wisdom of piety.

So what’s in the offing if these kinds of “everyday ethics” aren’t? Socrates tells Cephalus that his speech was “fine,” elegant and thoughtful, but not necessarily true (a distinction to hold onto for when we must confront the problem of poets later on). The rub in Cephalus argument lies in the capacity to judge: certainly we wouldn’t want to return weapons to a newly mentally unstable friend for fear of what he might do. Technically, we “owe” him the weapons. But the capacity to judge it inappropriate to return him his arms suggests a standard beyond the common sense Cephalus has offered.

Upon hearing this, Cephalus departs to tend to his sacrifices and leave Polemarchus to “inherit” his argument. More on which next time.

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