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How Have Ideas of Social Justice Changed From Ancient to Modern Philosophers in the Attempt to Envision the Ideal or Just Society?

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But what is justice? The classic definition—the “constant and perpetual will to render to each what is due him” (Justinian n.d.)—is a solid foundation on which to build. But what is social justice? At this point, there is considerable disagreement. For many, the term social justice is baffling and useless, with no real meaning

Most who use it argue that social justice is the moral fairness of the system of rules and norms that govern society. Do these rules work so that all persons get what is due to them as human beings and as members of the community? Shifting from the will of individuals in rendering justice to the outcome of the system of rules in achieving justice can be a dangerous leap. To some, it suggests that virtually every inequality arises because the rules of the game are unfair and that the state must intervene whenever there are unequal outcomes.

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Plato’s definition, however, lacks an important component of happiness – passion. True human happiness involves the active and passionate pursuit of a goal. Plato’s student Aristotle was also one of his earliest critics. Aristotle recognized the weaknesses of Plato’s concept of happiness and introduced a much-needed layer of empiricism to Plato’s philosophy. Aristotle was critical of Plato’s reliance on intuitive reason and a supposedly immutable world of ideas. Instead, Aristotle believed that knowledge should be anchored in real experiences that can be perceived by the senses. Plato thus viewed happiness as an abstract, a fringe benefit of living a virtuous life and facilitating a harmonious social organization. Like Plato, Aristotle also placed emphasis on the virtuous life. However, Aristotle’s concept of happiness also differed significantly from his predecessor. In contrast to Plato’s tripartite soul, Aristotle divided the human soul into two elements — the rational and the irrational. While humans share irrational elements with animals, they also possess faculties that are distinctly human

For example, humans have the ability to control their bodily desires through reason. In addition, only humans are capable of logical calculation and intellectual activities, which Aristotle defines as intellectual virtue

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We find the etymological origins of two key terms in the title of this article, “political” and “philosophy”, in ancient Greek: the former originally pertaining to the polis or city-state; the latter being the practice of a particular kind of inquiry conceived literally as the “love of wisdom” (philosophia). These ideas were transmitted beyond the confines of the classical polis as the Greek city-states came under the suzerainty of larger kingdoms after an initial Macedonian conquest at the end of the fourth century B.C; those kingdoms in turn were eventually conquered and significantly assimilated by the Roman republic, later transmuted into an empire. Philosophers writing in Latin engaged self-consciously with the earlier and continuing traditions of writing about philosophy in Greek (Duvall, T., and P. Dotson, 1998)

Already from its origins, Greek political philosophy put the question of the forms of regimes or “constitutions” (politeia, singular) at the center of its concerns. The classification of types of constitutions already found in Herodotus, fleshed out by Plato, and further adapted by Aristotle— in Aristotle’s version, there were three “good” good regimes:monarchy, aristocracy, and a moderate form of democracy; and their three “perversions”: tyranny, oligarchy, and a bad form of democracy—would continue to inform the discussion of politics into the context of the “mixed regime” of the Roman republic, held to combine elements of all three of the good regimes (Frank, J., 2005). These discussions were indexed to the particular historical setting under consideration while also offering general principles that remain relevant in many ways, even as the questions and contexts for political philosophy have changed.

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For the most part, the concept of justice has changed over time, from the ideas of ancient philosophers to today's various understandings of the term. For instance, you may think that a just society is one in which each person is free to live without too much interference from others, or to speak their minds about the issues

Or, when you think of a system of justice, you might picture a courtroom where a jury determines what punishment is appropriate for a criminal proven to be guilty. This may be your version of justice being served. Today when we hear the term social justice, we may think of equal opportunities in society. For instance, you may view efforts to fight racism and sexism as movement toward greater social justice in our communities.

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Duvall, T., and P. Dotson, 1998, “Political Participation and Eudaimonia in Aristotle’s Politics” History of Political Thought, 29: 21–34.

Dyck, A.R., 1996, A Commentary on Cicero, De Officiis, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

El Murr, D., 2014, Savoir et gouverner: essai sur la science politique platonicienne, Paris: J. Vrin.

Frank, J., 2005, A Democracy of Distinction: Aristotle and the work of politics, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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