Hobbes Versus Plato: The Paradox of Punishment

In my Philosophy 160 class we just finished reading and discussing the implications of chapters 17 and 18 of The Laws by Plato. In these passages we focused on the paradox of punishment that Plato perceives. The paradox simply put is as follows: if nobody is voluntarily unjust (meaning they do socially unacceptable and horrendous actions on purpose) due to a diseased soul how can both voluntary and involuntary crimes exist and be punished differently? Voluntary crimes meaning they are done purposefully such as assassination and involuntary such as when a child runs in front of your car. This paradox connects to Hobbes’ theory on the state of nature: is fear of a violent death or repercussions all that binds us to the covenant of the law? At first glance, Hobbes would most likely seem to be in complete disagreement with Plato and suggest that the majority of us have diseased souls and with civility, simply chose not to be wicked. This would be an incorrect assumption.

Sisyphus’s Punishment

The general solution to Plato’s paradox is that unjust people (those with “diseased souls”) voluntarily chose to do terrible things even though they did not chose to have wicked souls. When stated this way, Hobbes and Plato seem to be in agreement. Hobbes believes that humans are naturally self-centered (intrinsically motivated), cowards, and logical. This directly corresponds to how Plato categorizes diseased souls. The wicked can chose to do good because they are afraid of the punishments that come with being bad. Yet they can simultaneously and rationally understand that they are in the wrong when they fail to continue being good but the self-centeredness of the diseased soul still persists.


Where Plato and Hobbes seem to be in disagreement is the natural state of society. In The Laws, Plato asserts that even in a perfectly virtuous society there will be those born that fail to conform and will rebel due to their diseased soul. This he states as truth before debating with himself on whether their actions are voluntary or not. Comparatively, Hobbes believes that society is naturally made up of wild and broken souls; docility and virtues are manifested only with the aid of a powerful sovereign. However, if in the paradox of punishment the diseased soul’s actions and misdeeds are voluntary committed then the powerful sovereign is in fact not the solution to the natural menace of humanity.

Hobbes asserts that the nature of man that yields conflict is: competition, diffidence, and a yearning for glory. Plato prefers to hypothetically assume all people are virtuous and that the exceptions are “diseased souls” not the preset of humanity. The nature of man Hobbes and Plato disagree over. However, both perceive the paradox of punishment that amounts to whether evil actions are truly voluntary or not and whether punishment as a deterrent proves that the sometimes-horrible actions of humanity are voluntary. Or is punishment merely a false implement of power wielded by a sovereign in order to prevent the majority of society from reforming back to the Hobbe’s state of nature?