In Book I of Plato’s Republic, the sophist Thrasymachus asserts that ‘justice is the advantage of the stronger’. At this stage in the Republic, a number of characters have offered their own definitions of ‘justice’, so Thrasymachus has now decided to enter the picture with his own version. This post will consider Socrates’s response to this argument, as well as the counter-arguments of Thrasymachus that are intended to clarify his position.
Before Thrasymachus begins explaining his own definition, both Cephalus and Polemarchus have offered definitions of justice, largely based on ‘popular’ notions. That is, justice is paying back one’s debts (Cephalus) or treating your friends with kindness and your enemies with harm (Polemarchus). However, both Socrates and Thrasymachus are dissatisfied with these definitions. Socrates believes that Cephalus and Polemarchus are offering a rules-based version of justice, which is just a case of obeying a set of laws. This makes it seem that justice isn’t so important then. It’s merely an onerous duty one has to perform.
At this point Thrasymachus steps forward with his own definition. Justice is simply the advantage of the stronger. Many forms of government exist – democratic, aristocratic, and tyrannical – and each type of government passes laws that support the continued existence of that form of government. Therefore, justice is a duty placed on the citizens to obey the law, and hence serve the needs of the stronger party.
Socrates objects to this line of argument with the following counter-argument. He asks Thrasymachus: isn’t it possible for the rulers to occasionally make a mistake and pass bad laws? By ‘bad law’, we mean a law that is actually against the interests of the rulers and would cause them harm. Thrasymachus agrees that mistakes are possible. So what are the citizens to do in this case? If they obey the law, then they are doing harm to the rulers, which is not justice. However, if they don’t obey the law, then are also acting unjustly by refusing to follow the law. In other words, a contradiction has occurred in that if the citizens obey the law, they are acting both justly and unjustly at the same time.
Cleitophon enters the discussion with a possible solution to Socrates’ challenge. It is only necessary for the citizens to obey laws that the rulers believe are in their interest. So even if the law turns out to have adverse consequences for the rulers, the citizens cannot be blamed if they obey the law, for the rulers truly believed that the law was beneficial.
Although Cleitophon’s argument might seem like a reasonable way for Thrasymachus to escape the dilemma, he rejects the argument. If a ruler happens to make a mistake and pass a bad law, then he was not acting as a legitimate ruler at the time of making the law. It would be similar to the case of a surgeon making a mistake with a patient. When the mistake occurred, the surgeon wasn’t acting as a proper surgeon. Thrasymachus here is assuming that leadership is a ‘skill’ on par with surgery or shoemaking, but this it never properly explored. Even Socrates himself seems to accept the ‘skill’ notion without offering any supporting argument.
Socrates nevertheless rejects Thrasymachus’s argument. Any person who exercises a skill is not doing it out of self-interest. Rather, other people are receiving the benefit of the skill. The doctor does not practice medicine for the sake of medicine but to heal the sick. Therefore, self-interest alone is never the reason why a craftsperson exercises a skill. This means that a good ruler does not act out of self-interest but for the benefit of those being ruled. So justice cannot be any sort of advantage to the stronger party. If anything, justice imposes a burden on the stronger party, to look out for the welfare of the weaker party.
Thrasymachus does not agree with the notion that the ruler acts for the benefit of others. He uses an example of a shepherd looking after a flock of sheep. The shepherd acts in this way not for the benefit of the sheep but for his own benefit. However, Thrasymachus seems to accept at this point that his ‘justice is the advantage of the stronger’ argument might not be correct in all circumstances. He offers a second line of argument, one that suggests that injustice is better than justice in any case. The unjust man always has a better and more rewarding life than the just man. Only the weak man is interested in justice. The strong man looks after his own interests first, disregarding social conventions if it helps to achieve his goals.
Socrates responds with a number of arguments to show that the unjust man is worse than the just man. For instance, for a group of people to function and achieve some measure of success – even if the group of people were thieves – there has to be some sense of justice and shared purpose among the group. A community of unjust people would never be able to function as no one would trust anyone else, and nothing would ever be achieved.
Although Thrasymachus eventually accepts defeat and steps out of the discussion, his arguments will continue to be relevant for future parts of the Republic. Glaucon admits to finding Thrasymachus’s argument persuasive. He believes that Socrates has not done enough to persuade the group that justice is good in itself and good for its consequences. This will lead into an extensive discussion of the city-state and the notion of justice as harmony.
Overall, we can conclude that the notion that ‘justice is the advantage of the stronger’ is a fair starting point for a discussion of justice, but it cannot be the final word. The fact that Thrasymachus himself changed tack half-way through shows that even he accepts that justice is much more than an interest held by one party over another. With his second argument, Thrasymachus also contends that it actually doesn’t matter whether justice is or is not the advantage of the stronger. Either way, it is better to pursue injustice than justice. Although Thrasymachus’s argument are quickly disposed of in Book I, his ‘spirit’ will continue to pervade the ongoing discussion. Even for someone with the intellect of Socrates, it is not easy to dismiss Thrasymachus’s assertions entirely.