DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.

Salma Yehia

Dr. Coffman

Humanities 201

December 10, 2012

Plato and Hobbes: War’s Persistent Role in Justice

“War, in one form or another, appeared with the first man. At the dawn of history, its morality was not questioned; it was simply a fact, like drought or disease – the manner which tribes and then civilizations sought power and settled their differences.”

~ Barack Obama


      War is an inevitable part of civilization. It will eternally haunt the crevices of every society. However, it is a necessary evil that contributes to the greater good of humanity. Wherever injustice may lurk, war becomes the most practical and efficient method by which justice can prevail. Although peace and war have long been understood as mutually exclusive, the truth is that war leads nations to a higher sense of peace—and therefore justice. War is the ultimate way that people can relieve oppressors and remove unjust rulers. It can also be a path by which we can stop unjust actions and eliminate corrupt ideologies. Thomas Hobbes and Plato donate much of their time formulating their perceptions of a just society—Plato through the ideal city and Hobbes through the social contract.  The method by which they reach a city that holds the upmost peace and justice is by intertwining war and justice into the roots of their conversation. Left unnoticed, in comparison to Hobbes’s strong warlike pessimistic views on human nature, is Plato’s emphasize on war. Although both have their own twist on the definition of justice, their choice on who should exert force is more so polarized.

     Hobbes and Plato create two different frameworks for speaking about justice that instigate two separate but equally important ways of understanding war’s persistent role in justice. The Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes is a forceful piece that emphasizes how justice and injustice exclusively exist within the realm of the social contract. Justice for Hobbes resides in keeping the promises made within the social contract. Therefore, the citizens must follow the rules within the contract in order for justice to be upheld. So, it is in the citizen’s best self-interest to be just because if they act unjust they break the social contract—and the protection granted under it that they had sought is destroyed.

However, to comprehend war’s existence within the realm of justice one must regard war as the “fundamental fact of political life, indeed of all life, and that every decision of consequence must be made with that fact in mind” (Craig 17).  Knowing this fact, we can understand how war can influence justice in extraordinary ways as Hobbes saw within his own lifetime during the execution of King Charles. For Hobbes, the state was created for the primary function of security for its people. But, security can’t exist without the initial threat of war and conflict.  Hence, Hobbes formulated the idea that “the warfare of civilized states is the continuation of the wars of savages”(Dawson 3).  He emphasizes that war’s remains still exist within the just society. Therefore, under the social contract, war is continuous and eternally looming over society and it’s citizens—even when physical warfare isn’t present. Hobbes’s definition of war in Chapter XIII of the Leviathan explains the existence of war as a time period rather than a physical battle:

War consisteth not in battle only, or the act of fighting; but in a tract of time, wherein the will to contend by battle is sufficiently known; and therefore the notion of time, is to be considered in the nature of war; as it is in the nature of weather…So the nature of war, consisteth not in actual fighting; but in the known disposition thereto, during all the time there is no assurance to the contrary. (Hobbes 240)

Hobbes’s definition of war is important in understanding war’s coexistence with justice. That is because although there will be times when fighting is not occurring within the state, war silently exists and is only noticed when security is outwardly threatened and physical fighting breaks out. Since justice is only significant within the social contract because it “ relate[s] to men in society, not in solitude”, and since war is continuous within the social contract, we can conclude that war and justice coexist in the Hobbes’s realm (Hobbes 241).

        Plato’s Republic incorporates the creation of an ideal city to understand why justice is desirable to injustice. For Plato, justice is good in of itself because it embodies the highest form of knowledge that will help create order and peace. So, if citizens encompass justice into their lives, then they have the ability to achieve and understand the greatest good. Although many may see Plato as someone with a more optimistic view on human nature than Hobbes, war still resides as a strong theme within the Republic. An ideal society for Plato is one that depicts the highest form of justice but, to obtain justice, there are many stages in the creation of the city that require the involvement of war. In the Republic, “each discussion of the city at war comes at a crucial point in Socrates’ praise for justice” (Kochin 405). For example, in book two, the philosophers decide that the city needs to engage in war to expand which leads to a complex and more just state. This expansion is required for any luxurious and healthy city and so the citizens must “cut [their]selves a slice of [their] neighbor’s territory, if [they] are to have land enough both for pasture and tillage” (Plato 76).  However expansion requires acquisition of land and the neighboring territories will also have the same idea so the city will be in constant danger of attack. Therefore, war is desirable for the outcome of justice. Also, in book three, in order to prevent internal war due to class difference, each class in the hierarchy is educated with justice in mind. For example, the auxiliaries and rulers are especially educated to be spirited and philosophical. They are also given certain rules on how to live so that their power—inherited from their spirited warlike nature—can be used to establish the most just city. So, although Plato and Hobbes’s discussion of justice differs, war emerges as a consistent theme throughout the Leviathan and the Republic.

If war ultimately leads to a greater good, we must question whose authority is best authorized to fight in the war for justice. If everyone fought erratically then war’s good nature would be tarnished. Therefore, there needs to be some standard for judging who should lead the war—those who best understand the concept of justice are the best to help move society forward by taking the lead in war. In Hobbes’s world, the Leviathan is seen as the figurehead of the social contract and is the figure that those within the social contract can give up their power to. The duty of this sovereign power is to provide security and enforce the laws. Less recognized is the sovereign’s responsibility to ease the problems that stem from three kinds of war: competition, diffidence, and glory. For instance, the war of competition or necessity “arises from an objective con´Čéict of needs, where only the use of force can decide the distribution of goods, acting as an arbitrator in the absence of a social institution able to solve the distribution problem”(Thivet 707). Therefore, it is the duty of the sovereign to ensure the safety of his or her subjects and provide adequately through the creation of laws and organized systems. The constant fear of war drives the sovereign to protect its citizens through laws that can create the most just society—whether those threats are internal or external. The Leviathan’s authority is based on a system of checks and balances. Its authority is legitimate only in that its ultimate goal is for the safety and content of its subjects. If it becomes corrupt then the social contract becomes void and justice crumbles.

      Plato, unlike Hobbes, does not transfer all authority on war unto one being or set of beings. Plato distributes this power unto the class of the auxiliary as well as the rulers—the philosophy-kings. Plato assigns the role of the auxiliary class to those who are naturally “philosophic, spirited, swift, and strong” (Plato 78). At first, Socrates is questioned for saying that one can be philosophical and spirited—or aim for justice and yet advocate for war. But, he swiftly responds by explaining that if the guardian can distinguish between friend and foe, and be gentle towards acquaintances, then he must “have a turn for learning and philosophy” (Plato 78) and that they must be spirited and philosophical—therefore aiming for what is just. It is difficult to “provide a model of internal harmony” and yet “external savagery” in the auxiliary class (Kochin 416). That is why education is essential for the auxiliaries so that they can grasp the concept of true knowledge and therefore act in the truest form of Justice. The carefully carved education and upbringing of the warriors is important in ensuring that they be the most legitimate authorities possible for the sake of justice.  They must understand to balance their spirited warlike nature while be gentle to those within the ideal city.  What differentiates the guardians of the city from the regular citizens, from Socrates’s view, is the distancing from frivolous material wealth that will corrupt their main goals of war for justice. Therefore, a higher knowledge and a solid concentration on the auxiliaries’ goals are necessary in order for war and justice to exist simultaneously.

        Furthermore, the philosopher-king rises from the warrior class proving the important role of warlike and spirited features in the ideal city. The rulers of the city are chosen as those who are “prudent and powerful, and whose loving care for the city derives from the conviction that its wellbeing is identical with their own” (Craig 9). The paradoxical term, philosophical-king, suggests s/he must be powerful and strong-willed like the auxiliaries and yet understands the highest form of justice as a philosopher—even more so than the educated auxiliary class. On one side, if the future philosophical rulers of the city can grasp true knowledge through education, their city will be more justly ruled. On the other side, if the ruler is trained to provide and fight for its citizens and not be-self interested, then the city will also then be ruled more justly.  From the auxiliary class to the rulers, philosophy and warfare are linked in Plato’s Republic. Not only that, but war’s necessity has overall proved to help institute justice. 

          Civilizations today rely on different forms of war for their goals and satisfaction to be completed.  Furthermore, war’s continuity exists in direct correlation with the general goal of peace and justice within societies. Hobbes’s vague definition of war gives a rich understanding into today’s paradoxical existence of war and peace. Plato, on the other hand, contributes to the talk on educational practices that may best lead war to fulfill the highest good— the purest justice. War however, needs to be controlled and adjusted for the goal of justice by those most suited for the cause. War’s violent nature must be reined by spirited yet philosophical beings that understand what justice truly is.


Works Cited

Craig, Leon Harold. The War Lover: A Study of Plato's Republic. Toronto: U of Toronto, 1994. Print.


Dawson, Doyne. “ The Origins Of War: Biological and Anthropological Theories.” History & Theory 35.1 (1996):1. Religion and Philosophical Collection. Web 02 Dec. 2012.


Hobbes, Thomas. “Leviathan.” Ethics: History, Theory, and Contemporary Issues. Ed. Steven Cahn. New York: Oxford UP, 2012. 236-47. Print.


Kochin, Michael S. "War, Class, and Justice in Plato's "Republic"" The Review of Metaphysics 53.2 (1999): 403-23. JSTOR. Web. 6 Dec. 2012.


Plato. “Republic." Ethics: History, Theory, and Contemporary Issues. Ed. Steven Cahn. New York: Oxford UP, 2012. 44-123. Print.


Thivet, Delphine. “Thomas Hobbes: A Philosopher of War or Peace?.” British Journal for The History of Philosophy 16.4 (2008):701-721. Religion and Philosophy Collection. Web 2 Dec. 2012.



DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.