Social Justice in the Ancient World

By K. D. Irani; Morris Silver | Go to book overview

6
Justice and the Metaphor of Medicine in Early Greek Thought

MARSHALL S. HURWITZ

The subject of justice (social and otherwise) appears prominently in that masterpiece of Greek literature, the Republic of Plato--a work which is a consummation of many intellectual motifs of early Greek thought. In the Republic, Socrates explains that in order to understand the idea of justice we must first understand what is meant by justice "writ large," that is, before we can understand the abstract idea of justice, we must understand what justice means in society. In Books 2 and 3, Socrates explains how society arises, and he describes some of the component parts. In Book 4, he finally returns to the original quest of trying to define justice. Socrates makes a comparison with medicine; he says that "to produce health is to establish the elements in the body in the natural relation of dominating or being dominated (kratein . . . krateisthai) by one another, while to cause disease is to bring it about that one rules or is ruled (archein . . . archesthai) by the other contrary to nature. . . ." He continues, "Is it not likewise the production of justice . . . to establish its principals in the natural relation of controlling and being controlled by one another, while injustice is to cause the one to rule or be ruled contrary to nature?" ( Plato, Republic 444cd). Two important points are expressed here: (1) what health is in the microcosm of man, justice is in the macrocosm of the state; (2) this health, as justice in the state, is conceived as a balance of forces. Both of these ideas are not new in Plato.

Greek medicine is well known for its "theory of humors," which assumes that there are four liquids in our body (blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile) that exist in a state of equilibrium in the healthy body, and that illness occurs when a state of disequilibrium between these liquids arises. This idea

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