Just Ideas? An analysis of the use of political authority to bring about justice in the world

Photo by AJEL on Pixabay


by Benjamin Johnstone

July 2019
(UBC Arts One LB2, Prof. Robert Crawford)



While writers have long pondered what it means to lead a just life, some of the thinkers encountered in our course have argued for a preferred view of justice as a realizable ideal, and used arguments about political authority to bring this conception of justice into being. This essay will explore these uses of political authority beginning with the works of Sophocles, Plato, Hobbes, Hemingway, and Marx. The essay will argue that these deployments of authority find their beginnings in the conceptualization of justice. To argue these points, the essay will first address the conceptualization of justice by Plato in the Republic. Plato sets the stage for a wider evaluation of justice by presenting its seemingly many forms, though he of course only accepts one true form of justice. Nevertheless, the many forms of justice emerge again in the next text under discussion, Antigone. Moving next to an analysis of Hobbes’s Leviathan, it will be argued that justice emerges in yet another role: as the basis for political authority in its creation of a clear division between a just and unjust state. Finally, the essay will investigate the emotional as well as societal consequences of using political authority to bring about justice by using For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Communist Manifesto.

Coming from such a diverse range of backgrounds, it is unsurprising that the above-mentioned authors would present differing views of justice, and accordingly, political authority. Plato sees political authority as a tool for bringing about his preferred conception of justice, explicitly arguing for this use in his work, the Republic. He argues that to produce justice is “to establish the elements in the soul in a natural relation of mastering and being mastered by one another” (Plato, 2004, p. 134), and with this vision of justice in mind he organizes the Kallipolis in like manner, ensuring that the city will in no way fail to embody justice (Plato, 2004, pp. 57, 128, 149). But in Sophocles’ play, Antigone, starkly differing, even mutually exclusive views of justice, emerge and play a central role in the plot and exemplify the use of authority as a way to impose rather than discover justice. Kreon and Antigone come into conflict because of their differing views of justice and, by extension, political authority. Kreon wants to use his authority to desecrate Polyneices’s body because he holds a view of justice where the stability of the state is more important than honouring a person who, although a family member, threatened state power (Sophocles, 1973, p. 28). Conversely, Antigone holds a view of justice where honouring one’s family and the gods is more important than maintaining state power, and therefore rejects Kreon’s use of political authority (Sophocles, 1973, pp. 21, 38). From her perspective Kreon has only power, and no authority. In both cases, the proper use of authority is seen as the enactment of a certain view of justice, and in situations where one completely rejects the foundations of another’s supposed authority, political authority is perceived merely as political power.


Hobbes’ use of political authority is not as simple and explicit as Plato’s. Although Hobbes makes clear that the commonwealth seeks to preserve justice when he states that “conservation of peace and justice [is] the end for which all Commonwealths are instituted” (Hobbes, 1994, p. 115), he also argues that “where there is no Commonwealth, there nothing is unjust” (Hobbes, 1994, p. 89), signaling that the existence of both justice and injustice is contingent on the existence of the Commonwealth. To state that Hobbes seeks to produce justice through political authority is therefore an oversimplification, as political authority not only creates justice but injustice as well. Accordingly, Hobbes declares that the conservation of justice, not creation thereof, is the purpose of instituting a Commonwealth (Hobbes, 1994, p. 115). He also argues that to preserve the covenant, the sovereign must compel all men by “the terror of some punishment greater than the benefit they expect by the breach of their covenant” (Hobbes, 1994, p. 89) not to breach their covenant. If men breach their covenant, he says, that would be injustice.

Therefore, rather than using political authority to bring about his view of justice, Hobbes argues that justice necessarily comes into existence in conjunction with the Commonwealth. With this new dynamic of justice and injustice having appeared, Hobbes seeks to use political authority to ensure that such justice, which can only exist if the commonwealth does too, will be preserved. Altogether, Hobbes creates both justice and injustice through the presence of political authority, and then seeks to preserve justice with political authority by coercing men into keeping their covenant.

Marx’s view of justice is the subject of many essays and intellectual debates. In The Communist Manifesto,[1] Marx argues for a communist society using generally materialistic terms and criticizes those who attack communism from a moral standpoint, arguing that “man’s ideas, views and conceptions, in one word, man’s consciousness, changes with every change in the conditions of his material existence, in his social relations and in his social life” (Marx, 2011, p. 86). Alongside his seemingly relativist view on justice, Marx argues that, if the proletariat “by means of revolution…makes itself the ruling class, and, as such, sweeps away by force the old conditions of production, then it will, along these conditions, have swept away the conditions for the existence of class antagonisms” (Marx, 2011, p. 89).

By looking at Marx’s more philosophical texts, the precise conditions that Marx is discussing above are made clear. In his dissertation, Property Owning Democracy, Socialism and Justice: Rawlsian and Marxist Perspectives on the Content of Social Justice, Valentin Stoian argues that Marx’s work The German Ideology demonstrates that “for Marx morality is indeed dependent on the economic structure of a particular society at a particular time. However, there is such a thing as a ‘true’ morality. This emerges with the appearance of the proletariat in late capitalism. ‘True’ morality is nothing else but the morality of the proletariat. However, when conditions for the implementation of proletarian morality as social policy indeed come about, with the communist revolution, a society of full abundance appears and justice is no longer necessary” (Stoian, 2014, p. 3).

Interestingly, Marx’s view of justice seems to be a near total reversal of Hobbes’. Whereas Hobbes argues that justice and injustice come into existence alongside the Commonwealth, Marx holds the view that insofar as the communist revolution succeeds, justice and injustice will disappear. This makes Marx’s use of political authority complicated. As Stoian argues, Marx does believe in a “true” morality, but rather than using political authority to create or preserve justice, he believes that its final stage will eradicate the concept altogether. Nevertheless, since Marx seeks to use political authority to bring the revolution to this final stage, he is using political authority to create the movement from an unjust to a just or perhaps post-just society, and this movement is justice. Marx’s use of political authority is therefore primarily motivated by his view on justice.

Throughout the works discussed here, justice is found to be directly linked to the use of political authority. To summarize, some seek to use political authority to create justice, as is the case with Plato, who creates the Kallipolis with exactly such a goal in mind. Others use it to protect a certain view of justice, as seen in Antigone, where Kreon uses political authority to desecrate a perceived enemy of the state and warn others. Antigone does not have the opportunity to wield political authority, but demonstrates that she rejects Kreon’s use of it on the basis of her different view of justice, namely that she values the godly traditions over Kreon’s man-made and transient laws. Hobbes and Marx present unique cases within their works. Hobbes creates both injustice and justice through political authority, but also argues that the Commonwealth seeks above all to preserve this justice that came into being alongside it. Finally, Marx—and, by extension, the Republican revolutionaries in For Whom the Bell Tolls—uses political authority to emancipate the proletariat. Although his communist society would lead to the eradication of the duality between justice and injustice, the movement from capitalism to communism, which he perceives as justice, is the motivation for his use of political authority.

A central presumption behind the idea of bringing about “justice” is that there is a universal justice, and that it not only exists conceptually, but is able to be discovered conceptually. This essay will proceed to argue that there is good reason to believe that this presumption is false, and that this mistake eventually leads to the justification of using political authority to try and change the world.[2] To accomplish this, it will first use the Republic to address the foundations of using political authority to bring about justice through conceptualization.[3] It will then use Antigone to highlight the most direct issues that arise from such conceptualization. Then, it will use Leviathan to emphasize the link between conceptualizing justice and creating a distinction between an undesirable or unjust situation, and a desirable or just situation, upon which it will argue that this distinction creates the desire to use political authority to bring about justice. Finally, by using The Communist Manifesto and For Whom the Bell Tolls, it will criticize the consequences of this use of political authority, noting the personal as well as societal issues that arise.

Plato’s Republic begins with a discussion on justice and covers subjects ranging from the content of justice, to how to create a just city. Eventually, Plato begins to elaborate on what he terms “The Good.” He argues that “the form of the good is the greatest thing to learn about, and that it is by their relation to it that just things and the others become useful and beneficial” (Plato, 2004, p. 199). Providing more detail, he states that “we have no adequate knowledge of it. And if we do now know it, you know that even the fullest possible knowledge of other things is of no benefit to us” (Plato, 2004, p. 199).

Plato creates a distinction between the Good and everything that receives its positive traits from being related to the Good. Anything that is not absolute is not the Good, as the Good is more honorable than something that is not all encompassing. For example, Plato states that “it is right to think of knowledge and truth as goodlike, but wrong to think that either of them is the good—for the state of the good is yet more honorable” (Plato, 2004). Plato makes it clear that, rather than everything being the Good, things can be “goodlike” but only the Good itself is “absolute.” To cement his argument, he uses the line analogy, arguing that “students of geometry, calculation, and the like […] make their arguments with a view to the square itself and the diagonal itself, not the diagonal they draw” (Plato, 2004, p. 206); therefore, the soul too must climb from image to image, “in order to arrive at what is unhypothetical and the first principle of everything” (Plato, 2004, p. 207).

Rather than being able to access the Good, Plato makes this reality impossible due to his very conceptualization of the Good. Plato argues that “any measure of such things that falls short in any way of what is, is not a good measure at all, since nothing incomplete is a measure of anything” (Plato, 2004, p. 199), but arguably fails to create an idea of the Good which is complete. By declaring that the Good “is in the intelligible realm in relation to understanding and intelligible things” (Plato, 2004, p. 204), whereas the observable is “in the visible realm in relation to sight and visible things” (Plato, 2004, p. 204), which although related to the Good, is not the Good itself, he creates a duality between the Good and everything else. This duality implies that the Good is not totally complete, as there is a division between the Good and things which are related to the good, and being complete entails being one, not two.

Furthermore, by conceptualizing the Good, Plato creates a division between the conceptual and the observable; but by only allowing the Good to be discovered conceptually, he allows for the possibility of a multitude of different conceptions of the Good. If Plato’s conception of the Good was absolute, an impossibility seeing as his very conceptualization of it renders this impossible, anybody who strives to discover to find the Good should be just as able as Plato to find it. Plato shows that he does not believe this to be the case, as rather than promoting a society in which every individual is encouraged to discover the Good, he creates a rigid authoritarian society where “a guardian, one who knows [of the Good], oversees it” (Plato, 2004, p. 201), and goes out of his way to ensure the ignorance rather than education of the citizens of Kallipolis, deeming this “a natural relation of mastering and being mastered” (Plato, 2004, p. 134) and therefore “justice.”

Although Plato is the only author that goes into such detail over his conceptualization of the Good,[4] the basis for his view of justice, all of the works presented feature a conceptualization of justice as well. The simple use of the term justice likely confirms that it has been conceptualized, and that therefore it is not absolute. It may seem impossible to avoid conceptualization; the way ideas are typically understood is with the presumption that they accurately reflect reality and allow for a deeper understanding of the world. There are traditions, however, such as Daoism, that strive to eliminate any conceptualization, rejecting it for direct experience. In the Daoist text, the Tao Te Ching, this attitude is reflected in the passage “The ways that can be walked are not the eternal Way; The names that can be named are not the eternal name” (Mair, 1990, p. 59). This is alongside a philosophy of the absolute, where everything is understood as being of the same content: “Always be without desire […] Always have desire […] They have different names but the same designation” (Mair, 1990, p. 59). The Daoists treated concepts with immense skepticism, arguing that any description led to a reduction of the reality of a concept, and that concepts divided the world into different artificial categories, whereas in reality there is but the “nameless Dao.”

Validity for this Daoist world view can be found in the texts discussed here. For example, the conceptualization of justice creates the immediate issue of multiple conflicting views of justice, which is most obvious in Antigone, where two different views of justice come into conflict. A central point of the play, even modern readers struggle to confidently declare that either Antigone or Kreon is the one in the right. In an article about justice in Antigone, professor Matthew Santirocco argues that “The death of a woman named ‘Wide-Justice’ may seem, to some readers at least, entirely fitting as a symbolic enactment of the play, an emblem of the fact that, while absolute justice exists, the conceptions of it by which men act are, finally, too narrow” (Santirocco, 1980, p. 194), alluding to the issue of concepts of justice that are not absolute, which as I argue above is likely due to conceptualization in the first place, allowing for differences in opinion and therefore clashes such as in Antigone.

Another factor that arises due to conceptualization of justice is the identification between a state that is desirable and a state that is undesirable, typically as just and unjust respectively. This division ultimately leads to a necessity for political authority to preserve or create the just state, a trait shared across all five works discussed. This distinction occurs because conceptualization creates concepts which are not absolute and have an opposite form, a negative version of the concept described. In the context of justice, this negative form is injustice which, as argued earlier, all five works aim to avoid using political authority.

The division is very clear in Hobbes’ Leviathan, where a contrast is formed between a state of nature and a Commonwealth (Hobbes, 1994, p. 89), with the Commonwealth clearly being the desirable state. Hobbes’ conception of justice is therefore the keeping of the covenant between men to form the Commonwealth, whereas injustice is the breaking of said covenant. It is from this division into two states that the argument for political authority arises. In order to preserve the Commonwealth and keep the citizens out of a state of nature, Hobbes encourages the people to “confer all their power and strength upon one man, or assembly of men” (Hobbes, 1994, p. 109), and recommends the sovereign of this Commonwealth be granted much power, power which “ought to be greater than that of any or all the subjects” (Hobbes, 1994, p. 117).

The use of political authority to preserve justice comes under criticism from the Daoist thinker Chuang Tzu. In a series of responses to emperors and kings, Chuang Tzu recounts a short parable: “the ruler is one who issues canons, patterns, rules, and regulations on his own authority. What men would dare not obey them and be transformed by them?” “That’s deceptive virtue,” said Mad Chieh Yii. “Using it to govern all under heaven is like trying to channel a river through the ocean or making a flea carry a mountain on its back. When the sage governs, does he govern externals? No” (Mair, 1994, p. 67). Far from showing a simple aversion to the burden of having to govern, Daoist texts blame governance for disorder and therefore reject the idea altogether. This is clearly shown in a passage from The Biography of Master Great Man, which recounts “In the past, […] the bright did not win because of their knowledge; the ignorant were not overcome because of their stupidity. The weak were not cowed by oppression, nor did the strong prevail by their force. For then there was no ruler, and all beings were peaceful; no officials, and all affairs were well ordered” (Rapp, 2012, p. 262).

This Daoist critique is insightful as it questions the very foundations of the idea that political authority is a legitimate means of bringing about justice. Although the sentiment in these passages seems to reflect an apathy toward changing the world, one which may seem irresponsible and self-concerned, the critique nevertheless holds much validity when some of the real-world repercussions of political authority are analyzed. For example, the idea that political authority creates injustice, war, and disorder rather than justice and peace finds much backing when looking at the works of Hemingway and Marx. In For Whom the Bell Tolls, Pilar recounts the brutal story of the start of the war in Pablo’s hometown (Hemingway, 2003, p. 98). In her story, she speaks of the brutality of the drunkards in the square, who murdered the fascists screaming “Kill them! Club them! Club them! That’s it. Club them! Kill them! Cabrones! Cabrones! Cabrones! (Hemingway, 2003, p. 125). These drunkards had suffered for years under the landowners of the town, landowners who were backed by the political authority of the Spanish republic, and this pent-up rage manifested into a brutal rebellion and slaughter.

Furthermore, some of the Spanish guerilla fighters struggle with the morality of killing enemy fascist troops, aware that they are simply men who have fallen under the yoke of a different political authority. Anselmo thinks to himself, “Those men are not fascists. I call them so, but they are not. They are poor men as we are” (Hemingway, 2003, p. 193), and struggles deeply with the notion of having to kill. Likewise, Robert Jordan shows hints of an internal moral struggle over for his actions: “How many is that you have killed? He asked himself. I don’t know. Do you think you have a right to kill anyone? No. But I have to. How many of those you have killed have been real fascists? Very few” (Hemingway, 2003, p. 304). Both Robert Jordan and Anselmo are victims to the false divisions and arbitrary conflicts that arose due to political authority. They show the human element coming into conflict with the divisions ceded by political authority, divisions which led to much violence in their lives and in Spain.

The consequences of Marx’s The Communist Manifesto show a larger scale example of the adverse effects of political authority. Although it would be difficult to blame Marx specifically for the deaths that occurred under his name, there is no doubt that various regimes claimed to have been acting in accordance with his ideas. The most obvious example is the Soviet Union, which used political authority in an attempt to bring about the ideas outlined by Marx. S.G. Wheatcroft estimates that 4-5 million excess deaths occurred during the 1932-1933 famine in the Soviet Union (Wheatcroft, 1990, p. 366), and although the specific number of deaths that occurred is a hotly debated topic, such low estimates still demonstrate the large-scale repercussions of political authority.

The consequences of using political authority to bring about justice may seem inevitable. If man has progressed in the past centuries, he has undoubtedly done so alongside massive conflict and suffering. Whether such suffering is a necessary sacrifice for trying to improve social conditions is a difficult question, but nevertheless an important one. Rather than addressing the content of different views of political authority, addressing the foundations may bring some insight into the reasons for human conflict.

Taking a step out of the western cannon, the Daoist world view brings some wisdom into the debate as it questions the very premise of using political authority to bring about justice through conceptualization. Diverging from the five works discussed, the Daoists reject both conceptualization and the use of political authority altogether, revealing a link between conceptualization and such a use of political authority. Conceptualization may not only render the discovery of justice impossible through its very use, as observed in Republic, but also cause complex conflicts such as within Antigone, where two contradictory views come into contention. Furthermore, conceptualization leads to the distinction between two states, such as the state of nature and the Commonwealth described within Leviathan. Although not necessarily an issue in and of itself, this distinction encourages the use of political authority to maintain or produce the positive state. Such a use of political authority has potentially disastrous consequences, ranging from the emotional toil suffered by the guerilla fighters in For Whom the Bell Tolls, to massive human loss due to the ideas Marx partially lays out in The Communist Manifesto.

This brings into question whether there is an alternative to political authority. Chuang Tzu recalls, “When the sage governs, does he govern externals? No” (Mair, 1994, p. 67), reflecting the sentiment that internal rather than external change is the key to true progress. This sentiment is shared by many, one notable example being Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti, who preaches “Let us put aside the whole thought of reform; let us wipe it out of our blood. Let us completely forget this idea of wanting to reform the world. […] We are always talking about political action as being a most important action, but political action is not the way. Let us put it out of our minds. […] when one […] puts aside the political formulas—what is left, and what is one to do? Naturally civic order must be maintained: you have to have water in the taps. If you destroy civic order you have to start again from the beginning. So, what is one to do?” (Krishnamurti, 1975).

As this passage reflects, the alternative to political action is uncertain. Although the idea of changing the world internally rather than externally may provide a utopic sentiment rather than a practical method of bringing about concrete change, critiques of political authority nevertheless inform our understanding of the subject and cause us to deeply question whether we should be trying to wield such a potentially dangerous weapon simply for the hopes of enacting a view of justice that is non-universal. The effectiveness of conceptualizing ideas is rarely brought into question in an academic setting, but a rigorous investigation into this subject may lay the foundations for a radical change in the way we hope to shape the world.




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Hobbes, T., & Curley, E. M. (1994). Leviathan: With selected variants from the Latin edition of 1688. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub.

Krishnamurti, J. (2017, October 31). ‘The New Human Being’. Retrieved from


Laozi, Mair, V. H., & Heitkamp, D. (1998). Tao te ching: The classic book of integrity and the way. New York: Quality Paperback Book Club.

Marx, K., & Engels, F. (2011). The communist manifesto. New York: Penguin Books.

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Wheatcroft, S. G. (1990). More light on the scale of repression and excess mortality in the Soviet Union in the 1930s. Soviet Studies, 42(2), 355-367. doi:10.1080/09668139008411872

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Chuang Tzu. Honolulu: Univ. of Hawaiʻi Press.


[1] Since the republican cause for which the protagonists fight for follows a Marxist agenda (Hemingway, 2003, pp. 244, 302, 305), the purpose of political authority presented within Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls is treated within this essay as being identical to that within The Communist Manifesto.

[2] It is important to be clear that the works are not being treated as identical, featuring the same flaws and susceptible to the same critiques. Rather, the common feature argued above, namely that all the works view the primary purpose of political authority as the creation or preservation of justice, is critiqued, and this is accomplished by using different works to highlight different features of this use of political authority.

[3] In the context of this essay, conceptualizing justice is understood as the act of forming a concept of justice that is distinct from any other concept. In other words, the concept of “justice” is not only conceived, but distinct from other ideas, and is not total and all-encompassing. It describes a specific set of conditions and criteria to be met to be considered “just”.

[4] Conceptualization of the Good by Plato is treated as being the same as conceptualization of justice in the other works. This is because Plato goes one step further into the origins of his perception of justice, whereas the other authors do not elaborate on a concept superior to justice within their works. In other words, this essay uses the highest common denominator of each author’s idea: for Plato it is the good, for the others it is justice.