Philosophy Index

Justice and ‘dike’ in Ancient Greek

Translations of Ancient Greek sources, especially those by Plato, usually translate the Greek word δίκη (dike) as ‘justice’. It is important to note when reading Plato and other Ancient Greek sources that the modern English word ‘justice’ has a history full of meanings and connotations that did not exist in ancient Greece.

Instead, the Ancient Greek word dike means something like behaving in accordance with nature, or how your group normally behaves. The word does not have moral implications — it does not speak of how things should be or act, but rather how they normally are and how they usually act. This is evident from a number of ancient Greek sources, including Homer and Hippocrates.[1].

The transition towards dike as ‘justice’ did exist in ancient times. For instance, the Greek goddess Dike was the goddess of justice, and she was equated with the Roman goddess Justitia — the Latin word iustus came from the Old Latin ious, which seems to have been a religious term meaning ‘sacred way’, again related to the correct way.

This translation of dike as ‘justice’ in a modern sense does not fit with Plato’s text. Scholars believe that Plato did mean to describe justice in its original sense, and so when Plato uses the word δικαιοσύνη (dikaiosyne), he simply means acting in the way that one normally does in one’s situation. The Scottish scholar W. K. C. Guthrie describes this as “‘minding your own business’, doing the thing, or following the way, which is properly your own, and not mixing yourself up in the ways of other people and trying to do their jobs for them”[2].

The confusion between the Ancient Greek word dike and its translation as ‘justice’ has led to some significant confusion and difference of interpretation among scholars and students reading Plato’s Republic and other works that use the term.

The modern Greek word δίκη means ‘trial’ in the sense of a legal trial.

  1. Guthrie, W. K. C. The Greek Philosophers: From Thales to Aristotle. New York: Harper & Row, 1975. pp 5–7. return
  2. Ibid. p. 7. return