This post continues the discussion of Chapter 2 of Julia Annas’s book ‘Introduction to Plato’s Republic’. In this chapter, Annas analyses the ideas of justice proposed by the other characters, as well as Socrates’ responses. At this point in the Republic Book 1, we have heard from Cephalus and Polemarchus. Now it is time for Thrasymachus to enter the scene.
Thrasymachus raises a number of arguments to prove that justice isn’t so important after all. In other words, it is not a virtue that’s worth pursuing. The two main arguments though seem to contradict each other, resulting in much analysis from scholars. His first argument is that justice is merely the advantage of the stronger. To be just is to perform an action that only benefits another person. On the other hand, acting unjustly will benefit the agent. His second argument seems to contradict the first, in that justice is now a case of ‘legalism’, of simply obeying the law. Justice then is all about power and who holds the power.
These two arguments contradict each other in terms of whether justice has any real existence outside of laws. In the first argument (‘advantage of the stronger’, what Annas describes as the ‘immoralist’ position), Thrasymachus argues that justice does exist beyond formal laws, but it is not worth pursuing for its own sake. Only by acting immorally does the agent receive a benefit, so what should stop him from acting in that immoral fashion? But in the second argument (‘legalism’ or ‘conventionalism’), he denies any universal conception of justice, saying that justice is strictly a case of following the law.
One source of Thrasymachus’s confusing according to Socrates is that he mixes up two questions. Firstly, what is justice? And secondly, does justice confer any benefit on the agent? Is it worth having for its own sake? However, as Socrates himself proves in later books, these questions are very closely related. By defining justice, he has to discuss elements of why it’s worth being just in the first place.
Returning to the first argument, Thrasymachus insists that every government sets up laws in its own interest. By doing this, they are telling the citizens that only the government knows what justice is, so the citizens need to obey the law. Since the government is the stronger entity, justice is therefore something to the advantage of the stronger party. This causes Socrates to raise his argument that governments can make mistakes when passing laws, so how should the citizens act when forced to follow a law that will clearly disadvantage the government? What is just in such circumstances – simply obeying the law, or disobeying the law as you know the government will be damaged otherwise?
At this point in the discussion, Cleitophon intervenes for the only time, suggesting that Thrasymachus alter his argument to state that justice is acting in accordance with what the stronger party BELIEVES to be in their interest. However, Thrasymachus rejects this, saying that he would never call someone who makes a mistake the ‘stronger’ party. In a similar vein, if the a doctor makes a mistake, he was technically not a doctor at the time of making the mistake.
Socrates explores the ‘skill’ line of thought further by suggesting that if leadership is a skill, then like other skills, it must be performed for the benefit of other people. Therefore any ruler acting in a self-interested way is not a ruler.
Thrasymachus rejects this, using the example of a shepherd looking after a flock of sheep. The shepherd is not concerned with the sheep but after his own welfare. His attitude is one of exploitation. He wants to do all he can to further his own benefit. This leads to his argument that justice is another party’s good, whereas injustice is acting for one’s own benefit. Since a man is always looking out for his own benefit, acting unjustly is the right course of action. Injustice is ‘stronger and freer and more masterful’ than justice. Thrasymachus’ basic position is that acting justly in not in the agent’s interest.
Annas believes we can reconcile the two arguments in the following way. At first, Thrasymachus was only arguing on the behalf of competent rulers when he said that justice is the advantage of the stronger, which meant it was simply a case of the subjects obeying the law. However, when pressed by Socrates, Thrasymachus refines this definition by saying that justice is another person’s good, so acting unjustly really is the best action after all.
Socrates’ counter-arguments to Thrasymachus’s reworked definition are not so convincing in Book 1 alone. When Glaucon expresses dissatisfaction with Socrates’ responses – believing that Socrates has not adequately explained why justice is a good thing – this will lead to the subsequent discussion in the remining books of the Republic.
The first of Socrates’ Book 1 replies is that anyone exercising a skill does not want to out-do or out-perform others performing the same skill. It is only the ignoramus who wants to out-do both experts and non-experts. In this analogy, the just man is like the man exercising a skill, whereas the unjust man is the ignoramus. The just man is therefore the more intelligent position to have. Thrasymachus has no counter-reply to this argument.
The second of Socrates counter-arguments is that acting unjustly will preclude people from wanting to co-operate with you in the future. And if nobody co-operated, then society as a whole would basically collapse. Thrasymachus could have replied that the stronger leader does not have to actually co-operate. He just needs to give the appearance of being just, fooling other people into thinking that he is acting in the greater good.
Socrates third argument is that justice is the primary excellence of human beings. Only those who live according to excellence will live well and therefore be happy. Justice is not only a sign of intelligence then (the first argument) but it is also a sign of happiness. Thrasymachus could have replied here that it is dubious to suggest that humans have ‘functions’ and that the prime one is justice. What is the evidence for this? Thrasymachus meekly agrees that ‘justice is excellence of the soul’, without even arguing the point.
Book 1 then ends with Socrates having made an unconvincing argument in favour of justice and why it is valuable in itself. Glaucon and Adeimantus will express dissatisfaction with this, believing Socrates has not done enough to prove why acting justly is better than acting unjustly? Maybe Thrasymachus was right and justice is a charade, something that ought to be avoided in favour of personal interest. Socrates will therefore commence his much larger argument in the subsequent books of the Republic.