We’ve reached the point in Plato’s Republic where Socrates has dismissed the definitions of his first two interlocutors – Cephalus and Polemarchus – on what it means to live a just life. (Refer to post 0010 for details of this discussion.)
However, one of the other participants in the conversation decides he can no longer hold his peace. Thrasymachus suddenly enters the scene. The sophist – as he is often called due to his profession – has been feeling quite aggrieved with the progress of the conversation to date. He believes that Socrates is leading everyone astray with his ‘drivel’.
After prompted by Socrates and the others, Thrasymachus puts forward an alternative definition of ‘justice’. Justice is simply the advantage of the strong.
To explain this further, Thrasymachus asks the group to consider justice from the point-of-view of an entire government. A democratic government will pass democratic laws, a dictatorship will pass dictatorial laws, and so on. In each case, the rulers decide what is ‘just’ behaviour and then it’s up to the rest of the community to heed this advice. So under this definition then, there is no such thing as ‘universal justice’. Each society and each ruler must devise their own sense of justice. Justice, in other words, is relative.
Socrates immediately refutes this argument by pointing out a logical flaw. If Thrasymachus is correct, all laws must be obeyed as they presumably work to the ruler’s advantage. But what if the ruler makes a mistake and creates a law that works against his or her advantage? Would a citizen still have to obey the law, even if it ends up causing harm to the ruler?
Socrates believes Thrasymachus is contradicting himself. He is saying that justice is both an advantage and a disadvantage to the ruler, which cannot possibly be the case.
At this point, another participant in the dialogue speaks up for the first time. Cleitophon suggests altering the previous definition by saying that justice is what the strong believeis to their advantage. So even if the rulers make a mistake, the citizens would still be acting justly in following the law, as the rulers thought the law would work to their advantage.
Thrasymachus himself is not so keen on the definition, believing that Socrates is making too much of a big deal about the ‘mistake’. If a doctor makes a mistake, this was due to a lack of professional knowledge, so strictly speaking then, he or she was not a truly qualified doctor at the time of making the mistake. Similarly the ruler was not a true ruler when he or she passed the mistaken law. The general principle – a true expert never makes mistakes – applies for any profession or craft, including leadership.
Once again, Socrates will have none of it. A craft is carried out in order to provide benefit to other people. A doctor learns medicine not for the sake of medicine itself, but for the welfare of his or her patients. The craft is never for the advantage of the craftsperson or the craft itself but for the advantage of the weaker party. Therefore, justice cannot possibly be for the benefit of the stronger party. In Thrasymachus’s dog-eat-dog world, a selfish, tyrannical ruler cannot be engaged in a craft if he only thinks of himself.
Thrasymachus decides to change tack by making a second proposition. Regardless of what justice is, it’s nowhere near as effective as injustice. The moral person always ends up in a worse state than the immoral one: ‘The wrongdoer lords it over those moral simpletons.’ The best way to bring benefit to yourself is to act unjustly by exploiting others.
Socrates, however, isn’t quite done with the ‘craft’ argument. Before responding to the latest claim of Thrasymachus, Socrates has one further point to make about craft-work.
As a result of practicing any craft, the craftsperson receives a wage. This is further evidence that the purpose of carrying out a craft is to provide benefit to others. If the benefit only came to yourself, why would anyone bother paying you? Even Thrasymachus has to agree that apart from the wages, the practitioner receives no other benefit from plying a trade. Therefore, a trade is more concerned with creating an advantage for the weaker party.
Finally, Socrates returns to the Thrasymachus’s second proposition. Is immorality better than morality? Socrates makes a general point that the expert in any field is not interested in setting him- or herself as superior to other experts, only non-experts. However, the ignorant person wants to comes as superior to everyone, experts and non-experts like. The conclusion is therefore that the good and clever person doesn’t want to come across as superior to others of their kind. The moral person represents the good and clever person, while the immoral person represents the bad and ignorant one.
Socrates then indicates a practical problem of acting immorally. It would be impossible to get anything done in a group of immoral people as each would be constantly thinking of themselves and trying to outsmart the others. Even if there is such a concept as ‘honour among thieves’, this only succeeds because the thieves are actually acting morally a certain amount of the time. So immorality leads to two problems: (1) an inability to carry out any co-ordinated activity with others, and (2) an increased level of hatred and hostility.
Furthermore, the group have already agreed that the moral person is good while the immoral person is bad. Is there anything in the world – a horse, a set of eyes, a knife – that performs its main function better when it is bad? Things only perform their function well due to their special state of ‘goodness’. The same must apply for morality and the good mind. These carry out their functions better than the bad and corrupted mind.
With that Thrasymachus is defeated once and for all. However, as Glaucon will point out shortly, despite all the verbal sparring they’ve been through so far, no progress has been made on answering the two primary questions: (1) what is justice, and (2) why is living justly superior to living unjustly?
Socrates can forget about returning home anytime soon. He’s got a very long evening ahead of him.