Thrasymachus Essay

Socrates And Thrasymachus In Republic Essay

Socrates and Thrasymachus in Republic

Socrates and Thrasymachus have a dialogue in Chapter 2 of Republic which progresses from a discussion of the definition of morality, to an understanding of the expertise of ruling, and eventually to a debate on the state of human nature. The Thrasymachian view of human nature has interesting implications in regards to Thomas Nagel’s ideal of egalitarianism, and Barbara Ehrenreich’s discontentment with the economic disparity in our democratic society. Although Thrasymachus is thwarted in conversation, Glaucon finds the outcome not entirely conclusive and directs Socrates to proving that morality, in and of itself, is a worthwhile pursuit.

Thrasymachus opens the discussion with Socrates claiming, “morality is the advantage of the stronger party.” (Republic 338c) By this he means ‘moral’ actions are those in accordance with the laws of the stronger party. He explicates his position by saying, “each government passes laws with a view to its own advantage: a democracy makes democratic laws, a dictatorship makes dictatorial laws… In so doing, each government makes it clear that what is right and moral for its subjects is what is to its own advantage.” (Republic 338e) In this example Thrasymachus claims that “morality is the advantage of the current government.” (Republic 339a) In giving this claim Thrasymachus implies that:

1. Morality is not objective.

2. Morality is defined as compliance with the laws given by the governing party.

3. The governing party creates laws based on what (it thinks!) will serve its own advantage.

4. The governing party creates morality for its subjects with the purpose of serving its own advantage.

Thrasymachus defines ‘right’ as acting ‘morally’, in “obedience [with] the government”. (Republic 339c) He affirms that, “subjects must act in accordance with any law that is passed, and… this constitutes doing right”. (Republic 339c) In defining ‘right’ and ‘moral’ on such grounds, it is clear that he holds a radically different view than Socrates.

Socrates’ rebuttal cites that Thrasymachus’ claim is inconsistent. Socrates claims that morality is not necessarily the advantage of the stronger party as Thrasymachus claimed because rulers could make laws that serve as disadvantages. Socrates says, “you have agreed that it is right to do things which are not to the advantage of the government and the stronger party. When the rulers mistakenly issue orders which are bad for themselves, and since you claim that it is right for people to act in conformity with all the government’s orders, then… doesn’t it necessarily follow that it is right to do the opposite of what your position affirmed?” (Republic 339e) In giving this line of reasoning, Socrates has not taken into account that Thrasymachus’ claim is based on morality being subjective, created by those in power.

The question is then begged of Thrasymachus, whether or not he views the stronger...

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1 The Meaning of Justice: Thrasymachus’ Undefined Terms in The Republic In Book I of Plato’s The Republic, Socrates meets with his interlocutors and together they set out to arrive at an absolute definition of justice. Thrasymachus argues that justice is based on the interest of the strong. He furthers his argument by relating justice to that which benefits someone else—using the analogy that the just subject serves the interest of the ruler, and therefore hurts himself. Thrasymachus contends that the dynamics of justice are such that they work to the favor of the ruler, never to the favor of the subjects. Socrates refutes Thrasymachus’ argument by first pointing out that rulers do not always know what’s in their best interest. Then he claims that injustice is weaker than justice for justice equals wisdom and virtue and they are stronger than ignorance, which injustice represents. Also, he notes that injustice brings about divisions amongst people while justice creates unity and love. Socrates seems to succeed in refuting Thrasymuchus’ intermediate argument, however, the initial argument of justice in relation to the interest of the strong, is not fully addressed, nor does it naturally connect to the argument that justice is that which benefits another. Initially, Thrasymachus contends that he has a viable definition of justice. He argues that justice is whatever is in the interest of the ruling class, “justice is simply the interest of the stronger” (338c) since the ruling class make the laws, and therefore they set the standard for justice. This standard is based on whatever is in their interest. Their subjects are expected to uphold the laws or be punished for obstructing the interest of the stronger (justice). Once thrown off by Socrates, Thrasymachus abandons that initial position in favor of justice as that which benefits another. This position is riddled with assumptions, which Socrates easily bats down. However, Socrates does not attempt to 2 examine whether or not the two positions naturally fit together. The initial argument of justice as that which is in the interest of the stronger and injustice is an obedience to laws, does not naturally connect with justice as that which benefits another. The interest of the stronger does not necessarily coincide with the other’s benefit. What works to the ruler’s interest may not be a good, or an evil for that matter, but simply a necessity that must be addressed. Conversely, what is for the good of the other may benefit the whole of society, not only the ruler, therefore it does not necessarily follow that injustice will be brought on the subject when he is just. This leads to how the second part of Thrasymachus’ initial argument, that justice is following laws, does not lead to justice as the benefit of another. Even if justice is following laws, lawfulness does not only benefit the stronger or the ruler, it helps maintain an orderly society, which benefits most in society. However, some laws are stacked against certain individuals and therefore, following laws can actually lead to injustice. These points lead to the most glaring separation between the two positions Thrasymachus holds—the broad terms of “another” versus the more specific term of the “stronger.” It is inferred or extrapolated that the other is a ruler, however, that is not necessarily the case when stating very broadly that justice is “whatever is good for someone else” (343c). Thrasymachus has changed his position by broadening it. Socrates offers the counter claim to Thrasymachus’ initial argument—rulers possibly setting laws that are the opposite of what’s in their best interest, “rulers may sometimes be mistaken about their best interests…” (339d). The powerful are human and capable of misjudging their needs for specific laws. Since the subjects are required to follow the judgment of the rulers, they must support the policies and laws handed down. 3 The people, in honoring said laws, will be directly inhibiting the interests of the stronger. Socrates notes that, “…it follows from your argument that it is just to serve the interest of the stronger but equally just not to.” (339d). Thrasymachus’ argument contradicts itself by putting the rulers in the hands of the weak, while the weak are at the command of the rulers. Hence, justice is either for or against the interest of the stronger depending on the their wisdom. If Socrates had moved on to refuting Thrasymachus’ claims on justice as whatever is good for another, he would have noted that the broadness of the terminology naturally leads the claim open to the potential interpretation that the ruler is also being just when he creates laws that are for the good of society. Socrates could also note that as a ruler may be creating laws that do not serve his own self-interest, he is being treated unjustly. In fact, the imprecise definition of terms by Thrasymachus essentially allows Socrates the tract that he takes, allows him to take control of the argument and lead it to his own advantage. Let us suppose that Thrasymachus chooses to define “someone else” as someone who is wise, since Socrates initially offers the counterclaim of wisdom as justice. This would help promote and unit Thrasymachus’ claims, as expands his argument by stating that the main objective of the unjust man is to get all that he can for himself and that is wise. The unjust man is wise because he goes after whatever is in his interest. Socrates refutes this by first calling Thrasymachus’ attention to the ignorant, “What about the ignorant? Would he not make indiscriminate claims to superiority over the intelligent and the unintelligent alike?” (350b). If one is ignorant, they will claim to be superior to anyone, not knowing that they are in fact inferior to the intelligent. By boasting, the 4 ignorant prove that they are unwise. But the man of knowledge knows not to make indiscriminate claims. He is wise. Socrates and Thrasymachus agree that to be wise is to be good and that the intelligent will not try to finds ways to get the better of others. They will only do injustice to the unjust. “So […]” Socrates states, “[…] it finally turns out that the just man is good and wise after all, and the unjust man is bad and ignorant.” (350d). He concludes that injustice is ignorance. The ignorant are by nature weaker than the wise. This makes injustice weaker than justice. Socrates sums up with “Since ignorance is inferior to wisdom, injustice must then be weaker than justice.” (351). The unjust prove they are ignorant and weak by driving a wedge between themselves and others through trying to get the better of all men. Socrates argues that injustice separates people. In this section Thrasymachus’ broad infirm terminology of “someone else” could have worked to his advantage, as he could have replied that injustice, as that which does not benefit oneself, is an unnatural state that most would attempt to avoid. If injustice creates factions and disunion, which can be within a city, family, two individuals, or a single individual, then doing what is benefits “someone else” would be the natural thing to do. Divisions inhibit the group (or individual) from realizing a common purpose. Socrates claims that, “[…] wherever injustice appears – in the city, in the family, or in the individual – it first spawns factions and disunion and then excites enmity among the divided parts.” (351e). The only way to succeed at common goals is for people to work together. Injustice drives people apart, so no one profits from it. Socrates argues that since injustices generate hatred and disunion, then “Only justice can create unity and love.” (351d). Justice benefits everyone, and 5 through justice people can live happy, profitable lives. This could fit Thrasymachus’ claims perfectly, and prove his argument. Unfortunately, what neither man knows or does in The Republic is come to an absolute definition of justice. While Socrates is able to refute Thrasymachus’ argument of justice being the interest of the stronger, neither he nor his interlocutors develop a sound alternative. This means that they are no closer to knowing how to live an upright life. Socrates admits as much, “So I must confess that the outcome of the discussion is that I know nothing […] if justice remains undefined, I can hardly know whether it is in fact a virtue or a vice.” (354b).


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