The Just Man: Jesus and Plato’s Republic
by Martin Pierce
There’s a part of Plato’s Republic (c. 380 BC) which is fascinating because it resembles a prophecy about Jesus. It appears in this dialog by Socrates about the just man, especially in the italicized portion:
And at [the unjust man’s] side let us place the just man in his nobleness and simplicity, wishing, as Aeschylus says, to be and not to seem good. There must be no seeming, for if he seem to be just he will be honoured and rewarded, and then we shall not know whether he is just for the sake of justice or for the sake of honours and rewards; therefore, let him be clothed in justice only, and have no other covering; and he must be imagined in a state of life the opposite of the former. Let him be the best of men, and let him be thought the worst; then he will have been put to the proof; and we shall see whether he will be affected by the fear of infamy and its consequences. And let him continue thus to the hour of death; being just and seeming to be unjust. When both have reached the uttermost extreme, the one of justice and the other of injustice, let judgment be given which of them is the happier of the two.
I’m surprised that Christian apologists don’t seem to have said much about this. Some of the church fathers identified Jesus as matching this earlier concept of the just man, and I think this can also be fertile ground for ourselves.
I will summarize, in my own words, some parts of Book 2 of The Republic related to justice. Before I start, please be aware that I am using this text only as a launching point, not as an exact blueprint, for Christians to explain how Jesus matched reasonable expectations (especially for His time) of what a just man might be expected to look like.
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Nobody Is Truly Just
Before Socrates began to talk about the perfectly just man, he argued that nobody is truly just. As proof of this, he theorized that if we were able to become invisible and do as we wished without fear of consequences, we would all choose to do evil.
Socrates observed that we have laws and authorities to punish injustice. However, if there were no law and order, we would regard unjust actions as more rewarding overall than just ones. Thus, even if most of us obey laws, we do so against our will..
I feel that Christians can find these arguments useful when we meet unbelievers who think that some people are basically good. In order to lead someone Christ, we need to establish that all people are sinners.
The Bible affirms that people have no natural desire to obey moral laws. Even God’s chosen people didn’t obey laws that were written by His own hand, and which were sometimes enforced by the government under just rulers such as King David.
The Bible tells us there was one just man. He exemplified God’s perfect justice and righteousness because He was (and is) the Son of God.
We can become good and just people, but not through our own strength or will. This is only possible if we submit to God’s righteousness through Jesus Christ. Externally imposed laws can’t make anyone just, but God writes His law on the hearts of believers…