A Just Man Cannot Harm Anyone (Republic 17)

A Just Man Cannot Harm Anyone (Republic 17) June 21, 2018

A just man cannot harm anyone.

That command seems impossible or at least Utopian: the kind of goo-goo idea that comes up in college discussions that cannot work in the world. Yet a Christian cannot just ignore the possibility this idea is true, since the Lord Jesus Himself said we are to love our enemies!

How can we love someone and cause them harm. In the West of the world, one of the first times an argument is made that a just man cannot harm anyone is in Plato’s Republic. A young man whose very name indicates his warlike character, Polemarchus, is talking to Socrates. Polemarchus is convinced he should harm his enemies if he is going to be just. Socrates asks him a some questions and Polemarchus has the courage to answer them honestly:

But is it right for the just person to inflict injury on anyone?

Of course. He is right to injure bad men who are his enemies.

But what about injury itself?

If you injure, say, horses or dogs, will you not make them less excellent animals?


Does that not also hold for human beings? If you injure them, will they not be less excellent as men?


Is justice a human excellence, Polemarchus?


So if you injure a man you make him less just?

I guess so.

Now consider musicians or riding masters. Are their purposes achieved if their students become less musical or less able to ride horseback?


How about the just man? Will it be his purpose to behave justly in order to make other men less just? Will the virtuous behavior of good men make other men bad?


Then the good cannot corrupt any more than heat can generate cold or dryness water. If justice and goodness are the same, then the just man injures no one. It is his opposite, the unjust man, who inflicts injury on his fellows.

There are obvious ways for Polemarchus to avoid the conclusion. To give one example: he could deny that a physical injury, say punishing a criminal makes him less just even if it makes him less excellent as a human. One might decrease physical excellence in order to increase mental excellence.

He does not make this move, I think, for two reasons. First, Polemarchus consistently views harm of any kind as immoral. Justice is a human virtue, excellence, but so is physical health. He does not think good can follow from bad. There is a great deal to be said for his unwillingness to do something harmful that good may come! Second, Polemarchus does not separate physical harm from mental harm: harm is bad, all sorts.

Obviously, one can physically restrain a “madman” in order to keep him from doing even greater harm to himself. Both Socrates and Polemarchus were not pacifists. A citizen can defend his city, but the goal is to reduce harm to the enemy, not to do harm.

This sounds like a tricksy way of getting to harm enemies, while piously sounding like one is helping them. Sometimes, tyrants will do harm while pretending to “help.” However, both a doctor and a sadist inflict pain, but the doctor does so to heal and the sadist to harm. The example of a riding master is a good one. The horseman must flourish if the riding master is to suceed. He might push the student, causing some growing pains, but only to leave the student permanently  better off. He cannot make the student permanently less.

Good, virtue, cannot corrupt, only heal. Justice is always medicine, never hemlock.***

For a Christian, the priority is always to help each human flourish. We must do as little harm as possible: acting as doctors more than judges. Our actions will not be weak, but just because love and justice are compatible.

God help us.


*I begin an informal summer reading of Republic using Scott/Sterling (a new translation for me). Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4. Part 5. Part 6. Part 7. Part 8. Part 9. Part 10. Part 11. Part 12. Part 13. Part 14. Part 15. Part 16. Part 17.

**I have no idea how much of what I know is just Professor Al Geier filtered through my eccentricity. Here is to you Al!

***This is consistent, perhaps, with some executions of some criminals, but nobody following the argument will be eager or hasty to try this radical cure. Like chemo, the cure is almost worse than the disease, but not quite if an imminent hanging concentrates the mind of the condemned. (Samuel Johnson)

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