Justice is Better than Injustice: Starting Ready to Learn (Summer in the Republic 65)

Justice is Better than Injustice: Starting Ready to Learn (Summer in the Republic 65) August 12, 2018

He was a teacher who would not give up on almost any student. I saw him spend hours helping a student with a very foolish idea about a text to see that his idea was foolish. (Trust me. It was.) In his late seventies, he could still joyfully work with freshmen in college on a text he knew (in Greek) for over thirty hours of class in a weekend! He always was ready for more exploration of the books he loved.

You have to know this to understand my surprise with an answer to a simple question I asked him once. We were sitting over a glass of champagne at the end of another marathon session on Republic, talking about teaching. “What do you do,” I asked, “if you have a student who loves injustice?” 

He pondered and then said: “Run away.” He was kidding, sort of. This Professor knew that many undergraduates pretend to “shocking” views in order to try them out. Push them about their real lives and they are not nearly as fond of injustice! They are just talking and a good tutor has to be patient and let them talk. After all, many of us did the same!

Professor Geier was talking about a student who had developed such bad intuitions that he really believed injustice to be better than justice. This is not the student who hopes that justice is the best way to live, but is unsure if it is. Every so often, there is a student, best a tutor can tell, who is rooting for injustice. That is death to a conversation.


The student who has not gained the proper basic impulses will not be able to be a member of a community of discourse. If you really love injustice, then the rules of reason will be jokes or tools to use for power. The community will never make progress as it will always be on the defensive, trying to keep a potential tyrant from taking over the discussion. A person with the bad intuitions will often think name calling is good or get joy out of insulting other students.

This is hard, but Professor Geier was right: community cannot be built on injustice.

And yet . . .

I pointed out to my teacher that Book I of Republic has a sophist who says that injustice is better than justice. He is loud and obnoxious and brings out the worst in Socrates, but by Book V he is part of the community. Isn’t this an indication that Plato (at least) thinks there is hope for the person with the wrong intuitions?

We talked and eventually saw that for all his bombastic style, Thrasymachus the sophist was willing to talk. He wanted to get his ideas out, held to them, but would admit when he was wrong or was contradicting himself. That’s big and something a person actually dedicated to injustice would never do. Thrasymachus has a very bad idea and that he charged fathers to teach their sons to be tyrants is horrible, yet Thrasymachus has hope.

There are very few people who persist in the love of injustice. You cannot have a dialog with Hitler or Stalin, but thank God such deeply wicked men, beyond discussion or reason, are rare.

The greater danger is that schools will draw lines too narrowly. One hears of religious schools where if a student suggests odd ideas, enrollment is at risk, or very secular schools where the “wrong” politics or ideas, even sincerely held by students willing to listen and learn, can face similar problems. That’s not what Professor Geier meant. In fact, Republic is built around a very bright student, one who wished for justice, but worried that it was just a con put out by the powerful, asking for proof: 

Socrates, do you really want to convince us that justice is preferable to injustice, or will you be content if we only seem to be persuaded?

Pick any topic where people of good will should agree and there must be room for Glaucon.


*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. Part 18. Part 19. Part 20. Part 21. Part 22. Part 23. Part 24. Part 25. Part 26. Part 27. Part 28. Part 29. Part 30. Part 31. Part 32. Part 33. Part 34. Part 35. Part 36. Part 37. Part 38. Part 39. Part 40. Part 41. Part 42. Part 43. Part 44. Part 45. Part 45.5. Part 46. Part 47. Part 48. Part 49. Part 50. Part 51. Part 52. Part 52.5. Part 53. Part 54. Part 55. Part 56. Part 57. Part 58. Part 59. Part 60. Part 61. Part 62. Part 63. Part 64. Part 65.

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