Emotionally Healthy Discipleship: A Study Worth the Time

This week, I return to a theme that has been covered in the past. I am convinced that the most important gift pastors and leaders can give to their churches is developing disciples who exhibit authentic Christian spirituality. In the past, I have reviewed the work of Peter Scazzaro and this emotionally healthy series. For the record, Scazzaro and his wife, Geri, are the leaders of a ministry known as “Emotionally Healthy Discipleship, the title of his latest book. [1] The Emotionally Healthy website is https://www.emotionallyhealthy.org/. The materials necessary to lead folks through emotionally healthy discipleship training are available on their website and most Christian and secular internet book sales sites.

Peter and Geri Scazzero

Years ago, Peter and Geri Scazzero reached a crisis in their marriage, ministry, and lives. The Emotionally Healthy series of books and studies emerged from their commitment to seeking healing and wholeness. In a series of books and programs, the couple has covered such areas as emotionally healthy spirituality, emotionally healthy relationships, emotionally healthy discipleship, emotionally healthy churches, and emotionally healthy leadership. For women, they have developed a course known as “The Emotionally Healthy Woman.” Once again, all these studies are readily available.

One great value of their books has to do with the transparency of Peter as he describes his journey. Peter came from an Italian immigrant family. His father worked hard, and his mother raised the children. He was not from the perfect family. However, his family life left him with an innate desire to please people and solve problems. Those character traits and intellectual gifts made him ideally suited for ministry. However, there was an element of brokenness as well.

Eventually, Peter became active in a campus ministry program. He went to seminary and became a missionary in Costa Rica with Geri, by now his wife. After a time in mission work, the couple moved to New York City and founded what is today New Life Fellowship Church. It grew and prospered. By 1986, Peter and Geri were experiencing problems that many pastors experience: chronic overwork, emotional exhaustion, family stress, staff and interpersonal issues, betrayals, etc. In the end, after a church split, Peter had to come to grips with the fact that he was angry, bitter, tired, and depressed. Geri had to come to grips with the fact that she felt like a single mother because of the programming of her husband’s life, and no longer felt a call to be a part of Peter’s ministry. You must read their books to hear the story in their own words, but it’s a wonderful and potentially life-changing read.

The Emotionally Healthy Series

Some years ago, during a difficult time in my ministry, one of our children gave me Scazzero’s book, The Emotionally Healthy Church. [2] I read the book with great interest. Subsequently, I purchased and went through his major work, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality. [3] Kathy, my wife, and I have later taught Emotionally Healthy Spirituality and used Emotionally Healthy Relationships in our churches and marriage. In at least two churches, I have had the opportunity to put to work the principles of Emotionally Healthy Discipleship and The Emotionally Healthy Leader. [4] We have personally seen the results in our marriage and congregations. Today, the Emotionally Healthy Spirituality and Relationship Courses are available as the “Emotionally Healthy Disciples Course,” which includes books, study guides, teaching videos, devotional guides, and teaching helps.

The fundamental principle that lies at the base of all the studies is quite simple: Many Christians and their leaders cannot experience the joy of their salvation or attain the level of discipleship of which they are capable of because of unaddressed emotional problems, usually stemming from their childhood. Addressing those issues releases a Christian’s emotionally-stymied discipleship capacities, promotes emotional healing, and unlocks hidden potential for churches, leaders, and individual Christians. Since churches are made up of human beings, creating an emotionally healthy congregation increases effectiveness in making and maturing disciples.

Emotionally Healthy Discipleship

Emotionally Healthy Discipleship leads students through seven marks of healthy discipleship:

  1. Become Emotionally and Spiritually Formed as a Person
  2. Follow the Crucified Lord, not the Americanized
  3. Embrace God’s Gift of your Personal Limits
  4. Discover the Treasures Hidden in Grief and Loss
  5. Break Free of the Power of Your Past
  6. Lead out of Weakness and Vulnerability

Emotionally Healthy Discipleship can be contrasted with Emotionally Unhealthy Discipleship, which is characterized by the following:

  1. Using God to run from God
  2. Ignoring the emotions of anger, sadness, and fear
  3. Dying to the wrong things
  4. Denying the past’s impact on the present
  5. Dividing our lives into “secular” and “sacred” compartments
  6. Doing for God instead of being with God
  7. Spiritualizing away conflict
  8. Covering over brokenness, weakness, and failure
  9. Living without limits
  10. Judging other people’s spiritual journey. [5]

Many of us in professional ministry can identify with the list personally and from observing our own, staff, and congregant lives.

Biblical Background

In Matthew, Jesus gives the Great Commandment, which forms the basic characteristic of Emotionally Healthy Disciples:

An expert in the law tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”  Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. The second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (See Matthew 22:35-40, Mark 12: 28-34, and Luke 10:27).

Over and over, the command to love God and other people is repeated in one way or another in the Old and New Testaments. Unfortunately, the problem for some people is that they need more emotional maturity and health in order to be able to obey the command. Addressing emotional blockages to spiritual maturity and discipleship is, therefore, essential. If we are going to love God, and especially if we are going to love other people, we must have the emotional capacity to do so.

Why This Blog This Week?

This coming Sunday is Palm Sunday. I spent much time deciding whether to post strictly on a Palm Sunday theme, continue with the blogs on political theology, or do this blog on emotional health and discipleship. Finally, I decided that this particular blog was important. As a deacon, elder, pastor, transitional pastor, and now as a retired pastor and spiritual friend, I have seen in the lives of people I care for the terrible scars that we human beings can inflict and carry from our past into the present. I have also seen the way less terrible scars most of us carry can warp lives, promote personal and professional failure, cause unnecessary suffering, and harm families, friends, small groups, and congregations.

Interestingly, as Scazzero points out, Jesus over and over again demonstrated his human emotional maturity as well as his spiritual presence as the Light of the World. Jesus accepted the gift of limits. He was willing to be born in human form, live an ordinary childhood, delay his ministry until the right time, resist temptation, pray, rest when needed, and disappoint followers who expected the mistaken things from him. Ultimately, he was willing to accept the grief and suffering of betrayal, desertion, injustice, violence, and death—a terrible death on a cross.

Imagine the temptation Jesus experienced on Palm Sunday. He rode into Jerusalem on a donkey as had kings of Israel in the past. He was surrounded by crowds cheering him on and waving palm leaves, a symbol of the entry of the Messiah into the city. He knew everyone in the crowd expected him to raise an army, begin a Civil War, defeat the Romans, and re-institute the kingdom of David. All he had to do was the “human thing,” the “natural thing,” and give the crowd what they wanted. Instead, he gave them what they needed—a suffering and rising Messiah for the Nation of Israel and the Jews and Gentiles alike. Jesus was willing to live in relative poverty, minister in a relatively small group in an unimportant nation at the fringe of the Roman Empire, and die in relative obscurity for the love of the human race and to glorify God. Resisting the temptations he faced required human emotional strength as well as a divine character.


I cannot speak for all pastors, but I spent much of my ministry trying to be successful by the standards of the American Evangelical movement. Church growth, good Biblical programming, the exemplary leadership structure, and a thousand other semi-important things crowded my days and nights with ceaseless activity. In the end, when it was over, like many pastors, I had to ask the tough questions, “Did I do any good?” and “Was it worth it? “Were all the nights spent away from family and friends really necessary?” I had to face some critical personal and social failures.

The Emotionally Healthy series of books is not without weaknesses, but the failings are minor when compared with the strengths of the series. Though using secular psychological models and tools, Scazzarro is careful to remain grounded in Scripture and the Christian tradition. One of the series’ strengths is the wide range of thinkers quoted and used, especially in the devotional guides, names stretching from the Desert Fathers to contemporary writers like Henri Nouwen. The devotional guides, designed to introduce readers to the notion of the Daily Office, are significant and many people who take the courses read and use them.

The books and video guides are well crafted and helpful, as are the workbooks. I have found myself returning to the devotional guides and workbooks to think about certain questions again and again, they are so meaningful.

I recommend The Emotionally Healthy Discipleship courses for church leaders, my dear churches, and the many congregants I love for one simple, straightforward reason: I love you and regret that I did not do more to help members, visitors, leaders, and churches in the way Peter and Geri Scazzero recommend in their writings. Doing the work the studies require will change your life, improve your walk with Christ, and unlock your hidden potential for joy in Christ.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Peter Scazzero, Emotionally Healthy Discipleship: Moving from Shallow Christianity to Deep Transformation (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2021).

[2] Peter Scazzero, The Emotionally Healthy Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003, 2010).

[3] Peter Scazzero, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality updated ed (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017)

[4] Peter Scazzero, The Emotionally Healthy Leader: How Transforming your Inner Life will Deeply Transform your Church, Team, and World (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017)

[5] See, Peter Scazzero, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, at 22 and Chuck Olson, Lead with Your Life at https://leadwithyourlife.com/book/emotionally-healthy-spirituality/ (Downloaded March 28, 2023).

Plato No. 6: Critique of Democracy

I have already given space to Karl Popper and his critique of Plato, particularly his opposition to democracy. However, one cannot summarily dismiss the ideas of the founder of Western philosophy without a sympathetic look at his critique. In so doing, it allows one to look more critically at his critics, such as Popper.

Background to Republic

As previously indicated, Plato came from an aristocratic family, well connected in Athens, and was active in its political life over generations. His life experience enabled him to see some of the worst aspects of political life, including the degeneration of democracy into mob rule. The result was a pessimistic view of political life. His experience with the various regimes of Athens, some of which he initially supported, ended with disappointment and despair:

Consequently, although at first I was filled with an ardent desire to engage in public affairs, when I considered all this and saw how things were shifting about anyhow in all directions, I finally became dizzy; and although I continued to consider by what means some betterment could be brought about not only in these matters but also in the government as a whole, yet as regards political action I kept constantly waiting for an opportune moment; until, finally, looking at all the States which now exist, I perceived that one and all they are poorly governed; for the state of their laws is such as to be almost incurable without some marvelous overhauling and good-luck to boot. [1]

Plato’s conclusion, repeated in the Republic, was that political life was hopelessly evil and could not be cured unless philosophers acquired political power, presumably including Plato. [2] Without such a divine intervention into political life, political society was doomed to endless decline into tyrannies, oligarchies, and democracies, and those “who hold power in them cannot endure so much as the mention of the name of a just government with equal laws.”[3]

The Republic

An excellent place to begin this blog is with a story, like the story of the cave included in the Republic. Plato imagines a ship or even Aa number of ships under common ownership. Although the ship owner is bigger and stronger than everyone else, everyone on board, he deaf, a bit blind, not intelligent, and does not understand seafaring. The sailors constantly quarrel, each trying to become the captain. Unfortunately, they have no relevant experience, education, or talent in ship management. They continually crowd around the owner, trying to get the ship owner to give them the captaincy. If they can’t persuade the owner to give them control of the ship, they execute whoever is elected or will throw them overboard. As to the ship owner, if they cannot corrupt the ship owner or stupefy the ship owner with drugs, they take over the ship violently, wasting its cargo and sailing recklessly. [4]

To Plato, this story describes the Greek city-state of his day. Like seafaring, it takes a particular kind of education, experience, and ability to guide the ship of state. Unfortunately, even though citizens have some degree of education and involvement in public life, they do not have the requisite talent, education, or ability to guide the ship of state. Worse, many people involved in politics need more capacity for the task of government. Nevertheless, many of them, especially in a democracy, think they can guide the shape of state. The result is wasteful constant strife, violence, political upheaval, and poor decision-making regarding governance matters.

Various Kinds of Polity and their Decline

As mentioned in prior writings, Plato analyzed the various ways political life is organized. Shared by Aristotle and others. In his dialogue, The Statesman, Plato names three main types: monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, with each type having a degenerate form: tyranny, oligarchy (plutocracy), and mob rule. Plato, like Aristotle, sees the best form of government as an aristocracy. This is consistent with his social location and, perhaps even more importantly, his experience of his day’s politics. He had seen the decline of Athenian democracy into a terrible and violent tyranny.

In the Republic, Plato analyzes how various forms of government decline into tyranny, which he regards as the worst possible form of government. He begins with a process view of how governments rise and fall. His entire program starts with the assumption that all governments, indeed all human creations, are subject to flux and change, so the only permanently stable government must be ideal, as close to the perfect form of government as human knowledge permits.[5] Furthermore, Plato’s Kallipolis depends upon the existence of ideal individuals, the philosopher-kings or guardians, who would be educated and bred to be immune to the changes, corruption, temptations, and difficulties of political life.

One indication of this is the story told in the Seventh Letter concerning Plato’s unsuccessful attempt to create a version of his ideal city in Sicily by educating its ruler and his son in the nature of ideal government. The experiment failed. At one point in his letter, Plato observes:

Of necessity, these States never cease changing into tyrannies, oligarchies, and democracies, and the men who hold power in them cannot endure so much as the mention of the name of a just government with equal laws. [6]

In the end, Plato’s political philosophy is pessimistic.

Even assuming a perfect state could be formed, such states are subject to decline, decay, and division. [7]Just as humans age, decay, and die, the ideal state cannot escape the law of change implanted in the physical universe. Therefore, once a perfect state is established, there will still be the desire for money, violence, and division. In particular, the warrior class will be tempted to take power, and it is from this fact that a timocracy arises. For all of its virtues, the warrior class is violent and attached to honor rather than truth. The result is that such a form of government decays.

This timocracy resembles the ideal state and will be devoted to many of the ideals of the perfect state. Still, because philosophy has been abandoned, the rulers will ultimately develop an extravagant desire for wealth. This, in turn, results in the emergence of oligarchy, the rule of the wealthy. Once the ancient virtues of the philosopher-king and the warrior class are extinguished, the love of money takes the place of the love of honor. In time, wealth is concentrated in political power devolved upon the rich.

The rule of the rich is inherently unstable, resulting in the development of two classes: the rich and the poor. The rich desire to maintain and defend their wealth and prosperity. The poor desire to become rich. In the end, the result is social chaos. It does not take much imagination to see the situation developing in American democracy today. Wealth has become increasingly concentrated in a wealthy few who have significant control over our government.

In the end, as Plato analyzes the situation, oligarchies are doomed to become democracies. The cause is the decline in morals, love of extravagance, and love of money endemic to such a society. [8] Eventually, democracy evolves out of an oligarchy as the poor revolt out of opposition to the rule of the rich, giving power to the poor and unqualified to rule wisely. [9] Initially, when the masses take over, there is great freedom of speech and action. [10] Paradoxically, in a democracy, the rich continue to rule, but the rulership depends upon placating the mass of people. [11]

In a democracy, the result of the love of money, extravagance, lack of restraint, and the necessity to redistribute wealth to the masses to retain power eventually results in tyranny. When democratic leaders redistribute wealth, they always retain as much as possible for themselves. [12]  The result is another corrupt oligarchy of the political class. Eventually, there arises a man who flatters the masses, claims to be their selfless champion, and makes all kinds of promises to gain power. [13] In response, the people choose a champion, a man with the character of a tyrant, and the result is tyranny.

Tyranny is the worst form of government, and tyrants are the worst sort of person. As mentioned earlier, tyrants come to power by making promises to the people that cannot be sustained. Because of how they gain political power, tyrants always fear the rich, the powerful, the honorable, and the moral. They live in a constant state of fear and paranoia:

He must, therefore, keep a sharp lookout for anyone brave, large-minded, knowledgeable, or rich. And so happy is he that he must be the enemy of them all, whether he wants to be or not, and plot against them until he has purged them from the city. [14]

The natural result of this situation is the development of an unjust, unfair, and unwise government, far worse than any other form imaginable. As Plato puts it:

You mean that the tyrant is a parricide and a harsh nurse of old age, that his rule has become an acknowledged tyranny at last, and that –as the saying goes—by trying to avoid the firing pan of enslavement to free men, the people have fallen into the fire of enslaving people as their masters, and that in place of great but inappropriate freedom, they enjoyed under democracy, they have put upon themselves the harshest and most bitter slavery to slaves. [15]

Analysis and Conclusion

Fairness to Plato requires stepping away from the defense of democracy to which this blog is devoted, seeing the potential fairness of his critique, even seeing in our current state of political decline the operation of forces that wise people have seen operative in other societies. Plato sees several factors as contributing to the decay of a social order:

  1. The power of money corrupts those who possess it.
  2. The temptation to use public funds to purchase political influence.
  3. The potential for liberty to turn into license.
  4. The ability of people lacking knowledge or experience to gain power in democracies.
  5. The ability of certain personality types to manipulate people to gain control.

The founders of American democracy read Plato and others previously covered in this series. They were aware of the dangers inherent in a democratic constitution. One reason the checks and balances were placed in the Constitution was to create barriers against the potential excesses of democracy, which they knew to be prone to degeneration into mob rule and then tyranny. Over time, the public commitment to these checks and balances has declined, and the electorate has become unaware of the reasons behind the limitations on political power they felt necessary for a functional democracy.

Perhaps even more troubling is how the power of the media has enabled people with little or no experience in government to serve at high levels in the executive and legislative branches of government. As a result, our government’s fundamental structure may need to account for changes in our society and the dangers of a world in which nuclear weapons exist and can be used by rogue nation-states. Again, this is a matter for study, conversation, and dialogue.

As mentioned before, the Republic has as its theme justice and the best structure for a just society. In Plato’s mind, a society characterized by unceasing political strife could not be or remain a just one. He lived through times of upheaval and social change. Although he could not have known it, the days of Athenian democracy were over, and the rule of Macedonian warrior kings was just over the horizon. His attempt to maintain the virtues of the society where he grew up was perhaps noble. But it was also doomed.

Our nation’s founders tried as best they could to avoid the dangers of the forms of the political organization of which they were aware. They were children of the Enlightenment, and their times preceded the industrial, service, and information revolutions. The society of some 350 million we live in is far from the agricultural communities of 2,500,000 with which the founders were familiar. It is our duty to preserve and adapt our inheritance for the sake of our children and children’s children.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Plato, Seventh Letter Section 325e www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0164%3Aletter%3D7 (downloaded March 16, 2023), hereinafter, “Seventh Letter”.

[2] Id, at 326a.

[3] Id, at 326c.

[4] Plato, Republic tr. G. M.A. Grube rev. C.D.C Reeve (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1992), at 162. This is found at section 489. Future cites will be to this number.

[5] I believe that Plato must have understood that no ideal, even his Kallipolis, could not be permanently established within human history, for all created, substantial things, unlike ideal Forms, are subject to inevitable change. This conclusion flows logically and obviously from his premises about the relationship between Forms and reality.

[6] Seventh Letter, at 326d

[7] Republic. at 546.

[8] Id, at 560.

[9] Id, at 557.

[10] Id, at 557.

[11] Id, at 564.

[12] Id, at 565.

[13] Id. at 566.

[14] Id, at 567.

[15] Id, at 569.

Plato 5: Justice, Leadership, and a (Misguided) Utopia

In the Republic, Plato spends a lot of time talking about the nature of a perfect Greek city-state (aKallipolis” in Greek) [1] and the education and character of such perfect rulers for such a perfect city. In so doing, he sheds additional light upon his view of justice and sets himself up as a defender of a fundamentally aristocratic form of government. Some scholars view his position as supportive of tyranny. Plato’s purpose in the Republic was, however, not to promote tyranny but to develop an ideal form of government.

Plato came from an aristocratic family, a life situation that probably impacted his political views. [2] On both his mother’s and father’s sides, he was descended from very prominent families with historical involvement in Athenian politics. The political instability young Plato observed, and the death of Socrates deeply impacted Plato during his youth and early adulthood. Plato experienced the end of one constitution, the emergence of a dictatorship (the dictatorship of the Thirty), and the subsequent democratic excesses that ended with the death of Socrates.

During his travels and sojourns outside of Athens, he observed the limitations of other states in Italy and Sicily. He experienced the uncertainty and unfairness of much political life. Although attracted to politics, Plato ultimately preferred the philosophical life to the life of action and practical politics. Nevertheless, his early interest in politics never deserted him. His greatest work, the Republic, is dominated by the search for a stable definition of justice and a means by which a completely just city-state might be created.

Karl Popper, in his great work, The Open Society and its Enemies, puts the issue this way:

Plato lived in a period of wars and political strife, which was, for all we know, even more unsettled than that which had troubled Heraclitus. While he grew up, the breakdown of the tribal life of the Greeks had led in Athens, his native city, to a period of tyranny and later to the establishment of a democracy which tried to jealously guard itself against any attempts to reintroduce either a tyranny or an oligarchy, i.e. a rule of the leading aristocratic families. [3]

Popper and other thinkers believe that Plato was haunted by these experiences and by the philosophy of Heraclitus, with its emphasis on change. He never entirely escaped the instability of his youth and the challenge of Heraclitus, both of which were motiving factors for his attempt to create a model for a perfect society in the Republic.

Plato’s Forms

In the Republic, Plato relates his famous “Allegory of the Cave.” [4] According to Socrates, the human race is pictured as living imprisoned in a dimly lit cave in which only shadows of reality can be seen. The light is far above them. Most people live and think in the shadows. To reach the light, one must undertake a journey towards the light. Those who seek freedom from the shadows must endure both the journey and the pain of enlightenment, but those who escape the cave realize that the shadow realities to which they are accustomed are shadows.

Socrates explains the meaning of the allegory to Glaucon as follows:

The visible realm should be like into the prison dwelling, and the light a fire inside it to the power of the sun. And if you interpret the upward journey and the study of things above as the inward journey of the soul, to the intelligible realm, you’ll grasp what I hope to convey, since that is what you wanted to hear about. Whether it’s true or not only the god knows. But this is how I see it: in the knowable realm, the form of the good is the last thing to be seen, and it is reached only with difficulty. Once one has seen it, however, one must conclude that it is the cause of all that is correct, and beautiful in anything, that it produces both light, and its source in the visible realm, and that in the intelligible realm it controls and provides truth and understanding, so that anyone who is to ask sensibly in private or public, must see it. [5]

The ascent of the soul from the cave of the shadows of ignorance to the light of wisdom is a journey from the darkness of the visible, material world into the ideal world of forms.

For Plato, true knowledge and wisdom are found in an unchanging ideal world of ideas, which constitutes the form, pattern, essence, and ideal perfection of every actually existing thing. The form is a kind of plan or paradigm of the perfection of the material world of human experience. This includes the political world and our political experience. To comprehend this ideal, human beings must be educated and undergo the difficulties and challenges of leaving a state of ignorance and entering a state of true knowledge. This intelligible realm “controls and provides truth and understanding, so that anyone who is to ask sensibly in private or public, must see it.” [6] In other words, understanding the intelligible realm is necessary in public life and private affairs.

The Kallipolis of Plato, his Ideal State, was an attempt to outline the form, the pattern, and the absolute ideal of what a Greek City-State might be like. It was what I call a “Transcendental Ideal.” [7] While it is certain that Plato would have liked to see Athens approach this ideal, I believe he understood that it could not be achieved. In the Republic, Plato sets out ideas that he believes, if implemented, would create a more stable Greek City-State. And avoid the conflict, revolution, violence, and injustice he had seen in his youth.

His ideas have been criticized much, and I happen to agree with many of the criticisms. A deceptive, unwise, destructive idealism fuels the revolutionary idealism of Marxists, Leninists, Nazis, and others. We see much evidence of this in contemporary society. As Karl Popper shows in his The Open Society and its Enemies, ideas have consequences, and ideas that are unrealistic and revolutionary are dangerous to human life, property, and the public good.

The ideas of Plato, however, cannot be dismissed as simply dangerous. One cannot deny that modern ideals of justice and notions of a “perfect society” have been influenced by Plato, especially his idea of a perfect society. The progress of society needs Transcendental Ideals, which drive human beings to improve the condition of the poor, the outcast, the rejected, and the lost. Our notion of the best kind of political state continues to be influenced by his work, and our ideas of justice are deeply influenced by Plato and those who have extended his work.

Most importantly, I think that the defect of the Republic flow from Plato’s notion of the forms, an ideal world that can be discerned only by pure reason. As we have reflected in these blogs, transcendental ideals are built on the foundation of human experience. We cannot reason or way to a perfect society; we can only work toward a more just and equitable society. The methodology of Plato was flawed from the beginning.

Power and the Ideal State

Plato sees that an ideal state requires ideal rulers who will administer its political and governmental affairs. If these rulers are to be able to rule effectively, then the various social classes that make up any society must be harmonized. Otherwise, there cannot be anything like justice. Any society is made up of different classes of people. Plato was familiar with Greek societies and those of the surrounding area. In these societies, there were six fundamental groups.”

  • Rulers (charches)
  • Soldiers (polymystes)
  • Farmers (perioikoi)
  • Craftsmen (tekton)
  • Laborers (helots)
  • Slaves (douloi)

The first two groups are related, for the rulers generally came from an aristocracy (aristoi) with military training and ability. In the Republic, Plato reduces the various groups to three: rulers, warriors, and everyone else.

 As indicated above, traditional Greek society was highly structured and aristocratic. Homer’s Iliad glorified war, and traditional Greek society was military at its roots. In Athens, the traditional rule of kings was replaced by tyranny and democracy, both of which Plato had seen decay into violence, injustice, and mob rule. [8]  In Plato’s analysis, there can never be peace until philosophers, not the traditional leaders of Greece, rule. Thus, he has Socrates observe in the Republic:

Until philosophers rule as kings in cities or those who are now called kings and leading men genuinely and adequately philosophize, that is, until political power and philosophy coincide, while the many natures who at present pursue either one exclusively are forcibly prevented from doing so, cities will have no rest from evils. [9]

Warriors, who generally seek glory, make poor rules, for they are given to violence and overreaction. Craftsmen are given to greed and wealth accumulation and, therefore, cannot be good rulers. Slaves cannot be rulers, for they are not even citizens. Farmers and laborers lack the education and ability to be rulers. This leaves the need for an ideal philosopher king, which Plato calls “Guardians.” The guardians trained to be philosopher-kings are capable of guarding and maintaining the way of life in the city. [10] Unfortunately, this group of people does not exist, so it must be created.

The Role of Education

If an ideal city-state is to be achieved, leadership must be competent to create and maintain this ideal. A just and stable society cannot be achieved without leadership capable of ruling in a just and stable way. This requires special education. In Plato’s mind, the proper education for society is one in which each member of society is educated for the role they will play. In Plato’s day, Greek society was reasonably well fixed, with little chance for people to move between social classes. Plato’s much-criticized educational views tend to solidify society and limit the potential for positive and negative social change.  This is a much-commented-on weakness in his views.

In his book, The Open Society and its Enemies, Karl Popper makes a sustained critique of the totalitarian tendencies of Plato’s description of the ideal society and his educational views, which were designed to make it nearly impossible for social evolution to occur. [11] One unfortunate adaptation of Plato’s views in modern education has been his use to justify a kind of education that educates children with the views of the ruling academic class, which have been almost uniformly secular. Plato’s educational theories were unabashedly political and designed to solidify the rule of the Philosopher Kings, which he envisioned world rule in the ideal state.

As to the curriculum Socrates recommends, he begins with stories, not all stories but those which teach virtue to the young. Such stories are to be of a type that encourages courage, moderation, holiness, and thoughtfulness in the young. [12]

Third, an ideal education does not ignore the physical health of those educated. Since the Guardians are taken from the warrior caste, they must be physically hardened for the life of a soldier: Thus, Plato writes:

Then our warrior athletes need a more sophisticated kind of training. They must be like sleepless hounds, able to see and hear as keenly as possible and to endure frequent changes of water and food, as well as summer and winter weather on their campaigns, without faltering in health. [13]

One supposes that Plato has in mind a kind of philosopher-king who spends his early years as a Special Forces officer. In my experience, such people are scarce and not necessarily possessed of the best judgment about matters outside of making war.

The next important for Platonic education is music and mathematics. This may seem odd, but it reflects Plato’s interest in Pythagoras and mathematics as an ideal form. Music is mathematical and rhythmic in harmony, grace, rhythm, meter, etc. For Plato, this harmonic character should be characteristic of the words and the music. Such music and poetry create a harmony of the soul compatible with Plato’s theory of forms, for music and harmony seek perfection in the forms themselves. [14]

Finally, a philosopher-king must be trained in philosophy and dialectic, for dialectic is the path of reason applied to political affairs. Plato’s dialectic is the ability to reason towards the ideal form in every part of life and argue rationally about practical governance matters to maintain the ideal state.

Lest I be unfair, underneath Plato’s educational system is an interest in justice as he perceives it. Since justice requires the achievement of harmony in society, those who can best create that justice will have achieved a certain harmony in their souls created by fine literature, harmonious music, and physical training that Plato believes will allow them to develop a love of order and beauty and perceive the best way forward for society. [15] We might disagree with his exact methods, but we can see that his ideal was well-meaning.


As I mentioned earlier, I think critiques of Plato, such as that mounted by Karl Popper in his works, are valid. In my view, Plato’s idealistic notion that one can create a perfect society or even envision one by using pure reason is a mistaken move. The betterment of society does not depend upon envisioning an ideal in the abstract but by studying the current state of affairs in any society and taking measured, practical steps to improve it. In gathering facts and analyzing the results of particular policy initiatives, one can discern the path of justice and improvement for an actual concrete society. Any other path is foolish and riven with the danger of excess and the unwise and destructive use of power.

[1] Kallipolis in Greek means “beautiful city,” and describes Plato’s vision of a perfectly organized, harmonious, ideal Greek City-State. This city would avoid the calamity of destructive conflict and violent change because it would be ordered in accordance with reason and embody an ideal form. Scholars differ as to whether Plato felt his Kallipolis was likely to be embodied in any existing state.

[2] In the aftermath of Athens’s defeat in the Peloponnesian War (431-405 B.C), a pro-Sparta party was installed in leadership and created a “reign of terror.” They became known as the “Thirty Tyrants” because of their cruelty. Once they were overthrown, because several of the Thirty and their supporters had been students of Socrates, he was arrested, tried, and executed, even though Socrates had served with honor in the Peloponnesian War and refused to support orders of the Thirty Tyrants. He was executed around the year 400 B.C.

[3] Karl Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), 17.

[4] Plato, Republic tr. G. M.A. Grube rev. C.D.C Reeve (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1992), 514-

[5] Id, at 517b-c.

[6] Id.

[7] As I use the term “transcendental ideal,” it refers to an optimal future that cannot be achieved within history but towards which political and other actors can move within history. The Biblical notions of the “Kingdom of God” and the “Heavenly City” of Revelation embody two such ideals. I have dealt with these ideas in “Niebuhr 10: The End and Meaning of History” at gchristopherscruggs.com, published January 17. 2023.

[8] See, Plato’s Seventh Letter, at www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0164%3Aletter%3D7 (downloaded January 30, 2023).

[9] Republic, 473b.

[10] Id, at 384b.

[11] FS&E, at 126-132.

[12] Republic, 395-399.

[13] Id, at 404b.

[14] Id, at 400e.

[15] Id, at 403a.

Plato No. 4: The Republic and Justice

The nature of justice is the central question around which the Republic is structured. [1] In his greatest work, Plato discusses the nature of justice, defends its reality, and indicates the kind of society and polity he views most likely to produce a just social order. Plato was primarily an ethical and social philosopher. His metaphysical speculations were driven by an interest in achieving a good and righteous life amid the fluctuations of political fortunes and the temptations and pressures of practical life.

Plato was born around 348 B.C. into a prominent family. His father was descended from the last king of Athens, and his mother was descended from Solon, the great lawgiver of Athenian history. It was Solon who gave a form to the democratic constitution of the city-state. In a famous letter, Plato describes his various political activities and the disillusionments that resulted from his life experiences. [2] There is no question but that these experiences impacted Plato’s views on Justice.

Justice in the Time of Plato

Before dealing with specifics of the argument in the Republic, it is useful to look at the meaning of dikē, the ancient Greek word for “justice.” By Plato’s day, Dikē was largely replaced by its cognate, dikaiosynē, the word used for Plato’s cardinal virtue, justice. Important for understanding Plato is that Heraclitus used the term “justice” to refer to a proper balance among the forces of strife which he thought fundamental to the functioning of the universe. [3] This is a view held by other Greek philosophers.

In the New Testament, dikaiosynē refers to righteousness and often translates the Hebrew term “tsadique”. To the traditional Hebrew mind, a just or righteous person follows the law of God (the torah) and the teachings and wisdom of the past regarding proper behavior between people. This traditional usage is close to what might have been the traditional view of the Greeks as to the nature of justice. Perhaps more importantly for understanding Plato, the traditional world implies that justice must be achieved despite political life’s flux, change, and strife.

Three Views of Justice in the Republic

In the Republic, Plato outlines several competing theories of Justice:

Traditional Group Ethics. The dialogue of the Republic begins with the views of Cephalus, an elderly friend of Socrates who represents the traditional wisdom of the Greeks. For Cephalus, justice is speaking truthfully and giving each person their due. It is roughly equivalent to what Jewish wisdom literature considered just or righteous in a human being. A just person gives to each what is their due in society and their social and personal relations. After Cephalus leaves the conversation, his heir, Polemarchus, defends a more sophisticated version of the traditional view. “Justice” for Polemarchus is doing good to your friends and harm to your enemies. This may seem a harsh and limited sense of justice until one understands what Polemarchus is defending. We might call him a defender of a “group” or “tribal” loyalty. [4]For Polemarchus, a just person acts righteously towards family, social class, friends, fellow workers, church, neighborhood, city, and perhaps the nation. Justice is a social virtue practiced within a particular society, in the case of ancient Greece, the city-state.

Socrates argues that this is not necessarily true. For example, if my neighbor should give me some explosives to store in my barn and then later comes and asks for them so that he can blow up his place of employment, justice would not dictate that I give him his due despite our bond of friendship. The argument, which may seem obvious, points to a limitation on any tribal standard of justice: There are times when we are faced with a call to do justice greater than our loyalty to those closest to us.  Therefore, no traditional, tribal, or group ethics can be an infallible guide to action, not even our loyalties to those most important to us.

Power Ethics. Thrasymachus, a prominent sophist, then states his view, which should be familiar to modem people.  For Thrasymachus, justice is what those in power say it is:

This, then,  is what I say justice is, the same in all cities, the advantage of the established rule. Since the established rule is certainly stronger, anyone who reasons correctly will conclude that the just is the same everywhere, namely the advantage of the stronger. [5]

According to this argument, justice is simply that which those in power hold to be in their best interests.

Socrates attacks this argument by stating that the stronger and those in authority do not always know what is in their best interests and make mistakes of judgment, which we all call “injustice.” [6] It simply cannot be that justice is whatever those in power consider it to be at one moment, whether it is a king, a group, or the people.

Socrates also argues against the sophist position by analogizing political leaders to craftsmen. Insofar as they practice their profession, all craftsmen seek something other than their advantage. For example, doctors seek the health of their patients, and if they do not do so, they are poor doctors. Artists seek to create a piece of art desired by their benefactors. By analogy, political leaders are craftsmen in the art of government. Their art involves seeking the public good. If they seek their advantage and not the public good, they are not good craftsmen or use a word appropriate to political affairs, and they are acting unjustly. Thus, justice cannot be simply those in power seeking their advantage.

In response to this argument, Thrasymachus violently argues that Socrates is merely naive. He does not understand how the world operates. Justice is created as those who can dominate others and seek their own benefit. The only people interested in justice are the weak and naïve. They become just by following the dictates of the strong. We call justice simply a name given to the norms the powerful prefer.

For Thrasymachus, Socrates simply refuses to understand that justice and injustice relate to the advantage of the stronger and the ruler. What the ruler desires is automatically just, even though it is detrimental to the subject who obeys and serves. One who serves well is just. Injustice, then, consists in not doing what the rulers desire and serving the advantage of the stronger.[7] “Justice,” according to Thrasymachus, is attributable to only the weak who must serve the strong. They are just when they serve the strong and unjust when they do not.

Socrates replies with an argument applicable to our current society. If the views of Thrasymachus were to be put into practice, the moral fiber of the society would be destroyed, for no citizen would care about justice. Those who believe, like Nietzsche, that power is everything are ultimately unwise and foolish. They destroy the state. A sound political system requires wisdom and virtue, and wisdom and virtue can only exist where there is justice. [8]

A Utilitarian View of Justice. Glaucon presents a view of justice that is communitarian and utilitarian. Originally, societies were formed at the will of the strong. This is the root of Thrasymachus’ view of justice. Human nature is such that our natural competitiveness and desire for honor inevitably cause human beings to act without reference to justice toward others. [9] Justice, then, is not a natural virtue; it exists to place limits on human injustice. As to each person, what is important is to be seen as just for social reasons, but being a just person is not necessary for human happiness:

When fathers speak to their sons, they say that one must be just, as do all the others who have charge of anyone. But they don’t praise justice itself, only the high reputations it leads to, and the consequences of being thought to be just, such as public offices, marriages, and other things…. [10]

Justice is not natural, so to speak, but social in its nature and benefits. It results from our human need to place limits on power. It is unnatural and onerous for those who seek it. [11] Therefore, justice is doing things necessary to maintain the peace in order of a society, protecting the property and rights of those within it.

A Socratic View of Justice

In the end, Socrates defends the view that justice is found in a well-ordered society. In such a society, there is social peace because people of different groups receive what they are due. Only in such a society can the traditional view of justice and a social view of justice be combined so that all people receive their due. In so doing, Socrates tries to achieve the best of the prior theories without their flaws. He rejects the view that justice is merely traditional, the result of power, or utilitarian. Justice is an independent reality based on human nature and the nature of human society.

Socrates argues that justice can be discerned by analogy to what constitutes a just person. A just person keeps the three constituents of the human person, mind, body, and soul in a rational order. By analogy, a just society exists where the major groups of society are in order. Plato divides Greek society into three classes whose characteristics mirror the human psyche: philosophers (mind), honor seekers (soul), and money lovers (body). [12] A just society is, by analogy to the human person, a society in which the instincts of each class can exist in harmony.

Socrates’ view of justice as based on reason indicates that philosophers should rule because the love of wisdom is connected to the human capacity of reason which creates order in personal human affairs. According to Greek thought, the person guided by reason and controls his mind, emotions, and appetites accordingly is righteous. Society must also be ruled by reason to achieve justice. As Socrates put it:

Therefore, when the entire soul follows the philosophical part, and there is no Civil War in it, each part of it does its own work exclusively, and it’s just, and in particular, it enjoys its own pleasures, the best and truest pleasures possible for it. [13]

This conclusion leads Socrates to a consideration of that kind of society would most frequently achieve justice. The ideal city of the Republic is Plato’s answer to that question.


The sophist arguments in the Republic should be familiar to modern people, for it is implicit in all Marxist and Nietzschean views of justice. It sits behind the view of Oliver Wendell Holmes that justice is whatever the majority believes it to be. As Holmes observed in his essay on “Natural Law,” reprinted in Harvard Law Review:

I used to say when I was young, that truth was the majority vote of that nation that could lick all others. Certainly we may expect that the received opinion about the present war will depend a good deal upon which side wins (I hope with all my soul it will be mine), and I think that the statement was correct insofar as it implied that our test of truth is a reference to either a present or an imagined future majority in favor of our view. [14]

Modern people cannot ignore the views of Thrasymachus because they are the views held by many elites: “Justice is nothing other than the advantage of the stronger.[15] The result of such thinking is evident everywhere around us. It is, as Socrates predicted, the result of a sophistic social order is “civil war, hatred, and infighting, while justice brings friendship and a sense of common purpose.” [16] For our society to heal, it will be necessary to recover belief among elites in the reality and importance of justice, not as a slogan to attain power, but as an invisible reality to seek.

Karl Popper, in his great work, The Open Society and its Enemies  makes what I think is a fair critique of the limits of Plato’s analysis and conclusions. Popper points out that the Republic does not deal with certain egalitarian ideals present in Greek society and which had been upheld by its democratic leaders. He begins his critique by pointing out that Plato omits to discuss what we would consider the most important fundamental ideals of justice:

… most of us, especially those whose general outlook is humanitarian, means something like this: (a) equal distribution of the burden of citizenship, i.e. of those limitations of freedom, which are necessary in social life; (b) equal treatment of the citizens before the law, provided, of course, that (c) the laws show neither favor nor disfavor towards individual citizens, or groups or classes; (d) impartiality of the courts of justice; and (e), an equal share in the in the advantages (and not only in the burden) which membership of the state may offer to its citizens. [17]

In Popper’s view, Plato’s omission is due to his fundamentally anti-democratic view of the state, which reduces justice to the convenience and maintenance of what Plato sees as the ideal state. [18] In this sense, Popper sees Plato as fundamentally totalitarian in his view of justice. In particular, this kind of view of justice views the needs of the ruling class of society as paramount and as superior to individual claims to freedom and justice in the sense set out above.

While I agree with Popper’s critique, I would argue that Socrates’ argument in the Republic is fundamentally sound. He considers justice as an independent reality. It cannot be reduced to power, utility, or any other lesser thing. Justice is related to the creation of social peace and harmony, a harmony that requires that society be governed by reason. In this way, Plato upholds basic ideals that may be under attack in the modern world. Plato was, however, limited by his view of the ideal state, which few contemporary thinkers would view as ideal in any meaningful way. His aristocratic leanings and the development of his philosophy from an unachievable and unwise totalitarian ideal reveal his social location.

Copyright 2923, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Plato, Republic tr. G. M.A. Grube rev. C.D.C Reeve (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1992).

[2] The letter in question is the so-called “Seventh Letter of Plato.” Plato’s Seventh Letter, at www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0164%3Aletter%3D7 (downloaded January 30, 2023). Some scholars question its authenticity.

[3] “Justice” at/www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/dike (downloaded January 30, 2023).

[4] It is a view called, “tribal” by some thinkers today. I think this appellation is unfair. The idea is that the society to which I belong has a set of standards that are natural to it, standards that its members uphold. The weakness of this notion is only seen as my standards come into conflict with the standards of others.

[5] Republic, 339.

[6] Id, at 339d. In making this argument, Thrasymachus illustrates a problem that is causing the decline of our own democracy. His view means that tyranny, oligarchy, and mob rule are all equally able to call their decrees “just” even though they harm others. This problem is endemic to modern American politics. Those in power feel justified in doing whatever they please.

[7] Id, at 343c-d.

[8] Id, at 351d.

[9] Id, at 359b-c-d.

[10] Id, at 363a

[11] Id, at 364

[12] Id, at 581c

[13] Id, at 586c

[14] Oliver Wendell Holmes, Natural Law” Harvard Law Review (1918).

[15] Republic, 338c.

[16] Id, at 351d.

[17] Karl Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), 86

[18] Id.