Education Ethics / Social Issues Literature / Literary Review Philosophy / Wisdom Research Papers

Justice in the Tripartite Soul through Virtuous Education: A Study in Plato’s Republic

Plato’s Republic is a complex dialogue that is transcendent in emphasis and yet highly practical.  Its various topics circle around the singular theme of the book, like planets orbiting the sun.  This theme at the heart of the conversation is the meaning of justice, or what Waterfield translates more broadly as morality (xii).  This attempt at defining justice leads to a thought experiment in the construction of a good city (kallipolis), as Plato, through Socrates,[1] thinks discerning justice in the individual will be more easily achieved if first seen in larger scale; then the two can be compared (368d-369a).[2]  After all, we can see the varied elements of a city but not those of the soul (Lane xxvii).  The good city consists of three parts or classes, and is therefore tripartite – guardians or philosopher-kings (who rule), auxiliaries (who serve as warriors and assist the guardians), and workers or craftsmen (who farm, craft, etc.).  Justice is defined as each class performing their proper function, or what is according to their nature and ability (434c).  Additionally, Plato sets forth an educational system that leads to the production of this good city, although the education is primarily for those who will become guardians.  Book IV argues that the soul, like the good city, is tripartite – consisting of reason (logos), spirit/spiritedness (thymos), and appetite (epithymia).  Spiritedness, notes Lane, is a complex notion consisting of indignation, love of honor (e.g. 581c), pride and combativeness (xxiv).  Therefore, the guardians correspond to reason, auxiliaries to spiritedness, and workers to appetite.  Earlier, Plato had defined justice in relation to the soul as “the excellence of the soul” (353e); or, according to Waterfield’s translation, “a good mental state”.  By this is meant harmony of the soul (e.g. 351d), which is borne throughout the conversation to mean each part of the soul functioning as it should, with reason and spirit ruling the appetites.

Scholars and commentators have articulated the primary purpose of the Republic in different ways, though considerable overlap exists.  White understands Plato to be showing the “fully just man” as being better off than the “fully unjust man” (48).  Waterfield sees Plato establishing happiness as the internal benefit of morality, regardless of external benefits that may or may not accrue.  In addition to defining justice, Scharffenberger (xv) notes how the Republic explores the relationship between right behavior and happiness.  Rosen sees Plato laying out the requisites of the “good life” (1).  Smith, in a somewhat different way of putting it, says Plato focuses on the “decentering of the soul” (away from self-assertive power) and a centering on the Good (34).

Justice, a city/soul parallel, and education.  These are the primary elements that frame the RepublicThe good city is to be understood primarily as a paradigm for the tripartite soul and how one can live a well-ordered life.  This means that the education of the good city is really an education for the forming of justice in the soul – a virtuous education.  The rest of this paper seeks to establish this paradigmatic interpretation, describe the nature of Platonic education as relates the tripartite soul, and explain the benefits of Platonic education contra modern education.


McPherran notes the divide among commentators over the role politics plays in the Republic.  Some view it as primarily a political philosophy text, whereas others view the political element as imaginative instruction in the way of virtue (66-67).  While Durant recognizes that Plato understands his good city to be on the whole impractical, he nonetheless seems to take Plato seriously, as if Plato was forming a political regime that he wished to be realized.  This understanding of Durant’s interpretation is arrived at by the fact that he has a section entitled “The Political Solution” (28-32), as if Plato’s focus was on developing a political solution.  Bertrand Russell, too, saw it as possibly intended to be founded, noting the implementation of similar features of the city by others (e.g. Sparta) (120).  However, Waterfield seems to be more on point when he says that the Republic “is not primarily interested in politics in the real world: [Plato] is constructing an imaginary community, to serve as a paradigm” (xvii, Emphasis is his.).  Instead of viewing it as a political manifesto, he says we should view it as a metaphor.  He notes several oddities and absurdities if the city metaphor is taken too seriously, such as only guardians being capable of thinking beyond self-interest (401n428d).  We could also add the absurdity of thinking that courage and wisdom could not exist in any who constitute the working class (432a).   Plato’s emphasis throughout is “the city which is within” (608b).  The city is therefore not to be taken too seriously as something to be implemented but is to be looked upon as “the icon of the soul” leading to an encounter with the Good (Smith 37).

We must be careful not to make the metaphor the object.  This is not to say, of course, that justice in the city, or in society in general, is of no concern.  After all, justice in the soul manifests itself in the day-to-day interactions with fellow man (372a).  This is why Gamble can assert that justice in the literal city is in fact present in the Republic, but it is the city of the soul, “an inner city attuned with the order of the heavenly city,” that is of primary concern (Gamble 4).  It is important to note, however, that to be concerned with justice in the literal city does not mean the city constructed in dialogue is to be understood as the literal city.

The just are those who possess a well-ordered or harmonious soul, like the harmony established in the city by everyone doing their part according to their nature.  This harmony of the tripartite soul is largely established by means of an education that can only be described as virtuous, just as the education of the guardians (and their auxiliaries) prepares them to rule in the city, keeping it in order.  In the context of discussing the good city, Plato remarks on the two principles within man and of the sort of education and association that feeds those principles, thereby further establishing the city as a paradigm for the soul:

The meaning is, I believe, that in the human soul there is a better and also a worse principle; and when the better has the worse under control, then a man is said to be master of himself; and this is a term of praise: but when, owing to evil education or association, the better principle, which is also the smaller, is overwhelmed by the greater mass of the worse—in this case he is blamed and is called the slave of self and unprincipled. (431a-b)

Again, this is not to say that the Republic is all-together unconcerned with politics in the real world.  In fact, Plato views the condition of the soul of a people manifesting itself in different forms of government (Books VIII and IX).  Politics within gives rise to politics without.  The political aspect is still largely meant as a means of communicating justice in the soul and its ethical outworking (Kreeft 9).

Lastly, when discussing the analogy of the cave (see below), Plato refers to justice in this world (the shadowy cave) as “the shadows of images of justice,” whereas “absolute justice” is found outside the cave (the upward journey of the soul).  The cave depicts the purpose of education, where the light represents knowledge of ultimate reality from which the world of shadows derives its meaning (Campbell 686).  The emphasis on kallipolis as paradigm for the soul seems to be the most consistent way of understanding the cave analogy.  Though some of his interlocutors may have had their minds “in the shadows” when discussing justice, Plato’s concern remains knowledge of the real, and his method of guiding his conversational partners to this destination is none other than dialectic.  It is, after all, the “gentle hand” of dialectic that brings “the eye of the soul” up out of the “outlandish slough” (533d).


In this section, we will look at the purpose, stages, elements, and censorship of the educational system Plato details in the Republic.  It concludes with a further development of the cave analogy, which represents the educational journey.

Its Purpose.  Plato does not view education as primarily a means for building practical skills, which is the emphasis of today’s education with its orientation toward career.  If distilled to a motto, Plato’s would be, “Souls first; careers second”.  We especially see this contrast in his treatment of mathematics (see below).  Instead, he wants to produce good citizens who will exhibit the virtues of courage, temperance, wisdom and justice (Santos 3, see especially Book IV).  Further, justice, more than being just another virtue, is thought of as the overarching virtue (LeBar), putting each of the other virtues in their proper place (Clark and Jain 221n20).  This virtuous education produces harmony in the soul, of which temperance especially plays a part (430e, 432a).  Indeed, temperance results in spirit and appetite submitting to the “ruling principle of reason” (442c-d).

Its Stages.  The guardians of the good city are to be educated in two stages, with the first stage being described in Books II-IV and constituting what was considered traditional Greek education (Nightingale 136).  The first stage is divided into two parts, “gymnastics for the body, and music for the soul” (376e).  The terms gymnastic and music are somewhat misleading, communicating only a part of what is originally intended.  According to White, gymnastic is better understood as “physical training” and music as “training in the arts” (91).  Plato’s emphasis on gymnastic and music, especially in the early stage of education, shows his recognition of man as both body and soul, which both require cultivation if the whole person is to be addressed (Clark and Jain 26-27).  The second stage consists of mathematics.

Music.  The term “music” is derived from the ancient Greek belief in the Muses, the goddesses who bestowed knowledge of the arts.  This training in the arts consisted of poetry, drama, the fine arts, literature, and of course music (Clark and Jain 25-26).

The order in which I am treating music and gymnastic is intentional; for Plato thought music should be taught first.  His reasoning was that “we begin by telling children stories which, though not wholly destitute of truth, are in the main fictitious; and these stories are told them when they are not of an age to learn gymnastics” (377a).  According to Nightingale, the emphasis placed on poetry is due to it being the most influential in the formation of character (137).  This is interesting considering our culture’s emphasis on sport in the formation of character.

Gymnastic.  Lawlessness creeps into the mannerisms and habits of children who engage in lawless amusement – lacking rules or boundaries.  These early-developed habits follow them into their adulthood, negatively influencing their engagements with others.  Therefore, there must be rules to be followed in children’s activities if they are to grow up being law-abiding citizens (424e, Reid).  In short, sport is a means of producing discipline in children, which follows them into their adult years.  This recognition that lessons learned (or not learned) in youth create a character within us that is difficult to shake in adulthood is a key aspect behind Plato’s censorship (see below).

It is important to note that Plato did not see the result of sport – a good body – as improving the soul, but the soul improving the body (403d), although he does not supply an immediate argument for thinking in this way.  Plato’s later development of the politics within (of the soul) giving rise to politics without seems to follow this same line of thought, however.  While sport has its place of importance, and like musical education is to be continued throughout life, music is of first importance (403d-e).

Mathematics.  This constitutes the second stage of Platonic education.  The second stage is different from the first in that its purpose is to guide the soul “to an apprehension of the Forms” (Nightingale 148).  The mathematical education consists of arithmetic, plane and solid geometry, astronomy, and harmonics.  Mathematics, as Plato intends its use, is again different from the modern usage.  We tend to think of mathematics in a purely practical manner.  Plato’s concern was primarily contemplative, leading the mind, not the eyes, to look up and arrive at reality (529b-c).  The philosopher’s vision, then, is not sensual or physical but mental or soulish (Nightingale 146).

Arithmetic, for instance, is to be studied, not only for its military use, but especially for its philosophical use – assisting one to pass “from becoming [or changing things] to truth and being [or eternal/unchanging things]” (525c).  Geometry, too, can guide us toward the idea of the Good, as it pertains to eternal things, as opposed to transient things (527b).  “Geometry turns us away from perception and towards the intelligible, eternal nature, contemplation of which is the goal of philosophy” (Mueller 103).  No wonder Plato required those wishing to enter his Academy to be skilled in geometry.  Harmonics is included with mathematics because of its mathematical nature, both in music and in the world/creation.  The mathematical nature of music is related to the mathematical proportionality (or harmony) of the universe (Clark and Jain 88-92).

Virtuous Censorship.  It must be borne in mind that Plato’s censorship is not quite a political censorship in the way that we often think of it today – “I disagree with your political view on this, therefore you should be banned from speaking at this college or posting your view on social media.”  He did not want to censor the poets because of contrary thought, but due to certain negative ethical implications.  He saw certain elements of epic and poetic literature as potentially disrupting the souls of youth, encouraging vice rather than virtue.  It should, therefore, be understood as a virtuous censorship.

The poets are called out, so to speak, because of the special place poetry held in the education and formation of youth.  Youth tend to mimic, or act like, those around them, especially those they look up to.  This is as much true of the ancient Greeks as it is of us today; human nature has not changed.  His concern is with youth mimicking the vice-like aspects of poetry; and therefore, certain portions of poems, such as those by Homer, should be expunged due to their falsehoods about the gods and heroes (377d-e).  After all, the lying and murdering committed by the gods may appear to justify the same actions by man.  This is one of the elements of Plato’s educational philosophy that makes him unconventional (Nightingale 137-38, Naddaff 12).

Naddaff asserts that Plato saw censorship as an opening up rather than a closing down of new forms of discourse by counteracting “the poets’ own exclusion and the silencing of all other voices,” particularly the philosopher’s voice (6).  By this she is referring to the cultural stigma of philosophers as contributing little or nothing to society (487e).

Plato recognized how impressionable children are, that the early years are those in which character is formed (377b).  In his Politics, Aristotle articulated a similar concern: “We always prefer what we come across first.  The young must therefore be kept from an early familiarity with anything that is low, and especially anything that may suggest depravity or malice” (1336b22).  Since children lack discernment, censorship is to be the mechanism by which children are exposed to model behavior and safeguarded from reprehensible behavior (Naddaff 30).

The things we learn through song, story, and art contribute to the formation of our souls (Clark and Jain 32).  Virtuous censorship is therefore a part of virtuous education that promotes justice in the soul.  Whether or not one agrees with the particular application or extent of Plato’s censorship, there is certainly something worth considering in its recognition that the youthful mind is highly impressionable, and therefore wisdom should be used in discerning what they should and should not be exposed to, especially in an educational context.

The Good, the Shadow and the Cave.  The analogy of the cave (Book VII) is the Mount Olympus of the Republic’s discourse.  Though it begins in darkness and shadows, as we do (515a), it ends with a basking in the sunlight of the Good.  It represents the educational journey of the guardian (the philosopher-king), of the soul ascending upward to the intellectual world.  In this world of knowledge is attained, although with difficulty, a vision of the idea of the Good, from which all things beautiful and right derive their being; and “this is the power upon which he who would act rationally either in public or private life must have his eye fixed” (517b-c).  Put more colloquially, the well-ordered life is not achieved by a fixation on what is seen in this world, but by an enthrallment and knowledge of the ultimate Good that is behind it.  A similar exhortation is found on the pages of the New Testament: “Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth” (Col. 3:2, NKJV).

The cave is a picture of the mind’s ascension to comprehend the reality of things (cf. Lee 375).  It is about encountering the truth, goodness, and beauty of “realities not of our making” (Smith 58), teaching us to choose the life of substance and meaning over the life of shadows and images.  It is to go from the world of becoming to the world of being (521c-d).  That is, if we are to reason aright, our minds must be enraptured by the transcendent.  As Rosen articulates it, the cave depicts the state of the soul both without education (chained inside the cave) – particularly philosophical education – and with education (the ascent outside the cave) (269).  As the guardian is compelled to descend back into the cave to communicate the truth to those yet in chains, so reason must descend to the lower parts of our soul to enlighten and rule.  The return is, in other words, not political but epistemological (Rosen 270), and I would add ethical.


We are a nation in the Western civilization tradition.  This is something to be proud of, not balked at.  The Platonic tradition is central to Western civilization, and the continuance of our heritage largely depends on its continual embrace (Kreeft 3).

The seven liberal arts – the Trivium: Grammar, Dialectic, Rhetoric; and the Quadrivium: Arithmetic, Geometry, Astronomy, Music – are rooted in the educational philosophy we just reviewed from the Republic.  Indeed, “Plato’s Dialogues are the original textbook for the art of dialectic” (Clark and Jain 56).  Platonic education is simply a classical education, though others have built upon it.  Thankfully, classical education has been on the rise, in large part due to figures like Mortimer Adler, C. S. Lewis, and especially Dorothy Sayers (Barnes).

A classical education, contrary to the specialization education that dominates our schools, recognizes that man is a soulish creature in need of a moral order.  This, again, is what Plato means by justice in the tripartite soul – the higher part of reason ruling the lower parts of spiritedness and appetite, resulting in a life that is well-lived in relation to the Good.  By nature, children are not reasonable, but appetitive and spirited.  They must learn through song, story, and art to be virtuous boys and girls who have a proper sense of duty and respect for God, parents, communal authorities, and their heritage – what the ancients called piety (Clark and Jain 15-16).  It is this kind of education that produces virtuous people – courageous, wise, temperate, and just – who may then become honest leaders in society (Kirk 401).  The early stage of education should seek to instill in the child a wonder of the created order, drawing on their inborn imagination.  Wonder will create in them a desire for learning, thereby opening the heart and mind to future educational pursuits and the accumulation of wisdom: “Wonder is the beginning of wisdom in learning from books as well as from nature” (Adler and van Doren 123).  This is what classical education cultivates in young minds.

Classical education awakens the moral imagination that lies dormant in young souls.  Using the same imagery found in Plato’s Republic, Russell Kirk defines the moral imagination as aspiring “to the apprehending of right order in the soul and right order in the commonwealth” (Kirk 207).  It transcends personal experience for the accumulated wisdom of past generations.  Bildad understood this long ago, calling on Job to inquire of ages past who could impart to him wisdom, for we are but of yesterday (Job 8:8-10).

In a nation steeped in the slough of vice, a virtuous education can help lead us out onto solid ground yet again.  We must stop trying to cut our own paths, being always feverish for something new.  Instead, let us return to the well-worn, ancient paths.  Wisdom resides there.  She calls to us, waiting to bestow on her companions bountiful gifts.  Awe and wonder are with her.  As Kreeft has said, we do not think of awe and wonder when we think of modern philosophers (6).  No, they have forsaken and forgotten the transcendental nature of life.  If we wish to experience such things, we must go back, way back.  Why not start with Plato’s Republic and the virtuous education found there?  In an age of vice, Plato calls us back to a discovery of justice in the soul by means of a rigorous, wonderful, and virtuous education.  Clark and Jain’s words are therefore a fitting exhortation to our educational leaders: “The seven liberal arts [the Trivium and Quadrivium] are the established paths that tutor the reason and train the mind in virtue.  Our schools would do well to hearken to them” (43).


One of the beautiful and clever aspects of the Republic is Plato’s ability to speak of the transcendent and unseen through that which is readily seen, or at least visualized in the mind.  Plato’s concern throughout the Republic is not political but ethical.  The political element is a means of getting under the skin to the soul, which we cannot see.  This soul is tripartite, consisting of reason, spirit, and appetite.  The just soul is the well-ordered soul – reason ruling – resulting in a well-ordered life after the Good.  A life ruled by appetite is an anarchic or licentious life.  An imbalance of spirit results in a raucous and self-glorifying life.  It is only when reason rules the lower parts, trained through an education in virtue and philosophy (love of wisdom), that justice of the soul is experienced; and justice within gives rise to justice without.

Works Cited

Adler, Mortimer J. and Charles van Doren. How To Read a Book. Touchstone, 1972.

Aristotle. Politics. Oxford University Press, 1995.

Barnes, Alyssan. “Today’s Trivium: The Comeback of Classical Education”. The Arts of Liberty Project, University of Dallas, 2020. Accessed 1 November, 2020.

Bloom, Allan. “Interpretive Essay”. The Republic of Plato. Basic Books, 1968.

Campbell, W. John. The Book of Great Books: A Guide to 100 World Classics. The Wonderland Press, 2000.

Clark, Kevin and Ravi Scott Jain. The Liberal Arts Tradition: A Philosophy of Christian Classical Education. Classical Academic Press, 2019.

Durant, Will. The Story of Philosophy. Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2005.

Jonas, Mark E. and Yoshiaki Nakazawa. A Platonic Theory of Moral Education: Cultivating Virtue in Contemporary Democratic Classrooms. Routledge, 2021.

Kreeft, Peter. The Platonic Tradition. St. Augustine’s Press, 2018.

Kirk, Russell. The Essential Russell Kirk. Edited by George A. Panichas. ISI Books, 2017.

Lane, Melissa. Introduction. The Republic, by Plato, Penguin Books, 2007, pp. xi-xxxix.

LeBar, Mark. “Justice as a Virtue.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2020.,under%20the%20notion%20of%20justice.&text=Individual%20justice%20first%20and%20most,distributions%20of%20goods%20or%20property.  Accessed 28 October, 2020.

Lee, Desmond. “The Philosophical Passages in the Republic”. Republic, by Plato, Penguin Books, 1987.

McPherran, Mark L. Plato’s ‘Republic’: A Critical Guide. Cambridge University Press, 2010. ProQuest Ebook Central,

Meuller, Ian. “Mathematics and the Divine in Plato”. Mathematics and the Divine: A Historical Study, ed. By T. Koetsier and L. Bergmans. Elsevier, 2005.

Naddaff, Ramona A. Exiling the Poets: The Production of Censorship in Plato’s Republic. The University of Chicago Press, 2002.

Nightingale, Andrea Wilson. “Liberal Education in Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Politics.” Education in Greek and Roman Antiquity, ed. by Yun Lee Too, BRILL, 2001. ProQuest Ebook Central,

Rosen, Stanley. Plato’s Republic: A Study. Yale University Press, 2005. ProQuest Ebook Central,

Russell, Bertrand. History of Western Philosophy. Vol. [New ed.], Routledge, 2004. EBSCOhost,

Scharffenberger, Elizabeth Watson. Introduction. Republic, by Plato, Barnes & Noble Classics, 2004, xv-li.

Smith, Thomas W. “Love of the Good as the Cure for Spiritedness in Plato’s Republic.” The Review of Metaphysics, vol. 70, no. 1, 2016, pp. 33-58. ProQuest,

White, Nicholas P. A Companion to Plato’s Republic. Hackett Publishing, 1979.

[1] For the sake of simplicity, I refer to Plato both when I’m speaking of the Republic in general and when I’m referencing something Socrates says in the Republic.

[2] All Republic citations are taken from Plato, Republic, trans. Benjamin Jowett (NY: Barnes & Noble Books, 2004).

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