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Thrasmymachus and Justice: A Reply

Author(s): G. B. Kerferd
Source: Phronesis, Vol. 9, No. 1 (1964), pp. 12-16
Published by: BRILL
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4181729
Accessed: 21-05-2015 02:11 UTC

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andJustice:a Rep(y
Thrasmymachus
G.B. KERFERD

In

my article written in 19471 I argued that the true position held by

Thrasymachus in Republic I was that 'Justice is (the promotion of)
another's good'. The initial statement that 'Justice is the interest
of the stronger' was an incomplete statement of Thrasymachus'
position, intended to shock and provoke, but correct for all cases where
a subject (the ruled) was seen in relation to someone stronger than
himself who ruled over him, since in such cases 'another's good' for
the ruled is the interest of the stronger. I contended also that 'Justice
is obedience to the laws' was likewise an imperfect statement of
Thrasymachus' position, correct only for those cases where obedience
to the laws involved seeking another's good. G. F. Hourani agrees2 that
the first statement, 'Justice is the interest of the stronger', does not
correctly state Thrasymachus' position, but he argues that the statement 'Justice is obedience to the laws' does represent his real position.
I do not think that he proves his case, and I remain satisfied that my
original analysis is correct, provided that we assume, as Hourani is
prepared to assume with me, that there is a unitary doctrine which
Thrasymachus holds, and he is not simply being driven from pillar to
post in the course of argument.
Hourani begins by assuming that when Thrasymachus makes two
partially inconsistent statements about justice, namely 'Justice is
serving the interest of the stronger' and 'Just action is obedience to
the laws of one's state', one of these statements must represent what
Thrasymachus really means. He then argues that as the first cannot
be Thrasymachus' definition, the second must be so intended. This is
quite unjustified. There is no more reason to suppose that the second
constitutes a definition intended by Thrasymachus than that the first
does. The question in each case must be whether the supposed definition accords with what Thrasymachus subsequently says. Hourani
next makes a further assumption which seems to me not only wrong
but dangerously wrong when used in the interpretation of Plato. He
maintains that a 'synthetic' proposition or one resting on empirical
I

'The Doctrine of Thrasymachus
Journal n.s. ix (1947-8) 19-27.

in Plato's Republic' in Durham University
2 Phronesis
VII (1962) 110-120.

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premisses cannot be a definition - a definition for Hourani is concerned
with the meaning of words, and for a definition he says 'no other facts
could be relevant but the usages of language' - p. 15. Now since
J. S.Mill this has been a very common view, perhaps the most usual
view, of what constitutes a definition. But it cannot be too frequently
repeated that when Plato asks questions in the form 'What is x' he is
not asking questions about the meaning of a word or about linguistic
usage - he is asking questions about something which he regarded as a
thing. Consequently synthetic statements conveying factual information is exactly what he is looking for in such cases, and any answer
which did not contain such information would not satisfy him.' We
can say if we wish that it follows that he is not really searching for
definitions, or we can say that he is searching for definitions in a sense
different from that in which we use or ought to use the term. This is as
we choose. But it follows that the introduction of 'non-synthetic' as a
criterion for identifying the intended answer to a 'What is x' question
in Plato is completely wrong. Yet this is what Hourani does. He
argues that 'Justice is the interest of the stronger' cannot be the definition intended because it involves or rests upon synthetic premisses,
whereas 'Justice as obedience to the laws' is non-synthetic and so is
appropriate as a definition.
To this I would answer that it is not because it involves or rests upon
synthetic premisses that 'Justice is the interest of the stronger' cannot
be intended as a definition of justice - the objection is that it does not
cover all the cases of 'seeking another's interest' which is eventually
found to be the true view of Thrasymachus. It is the same test which
must be applied to 'Justice is obedience to the laws'. But it may be
noted that the statement 'Justice is obedience to the laws' as attributed
to Thrasymachus is in fact just as much synthetic as the statement
'Justice is the interest of the stronger', for 'Justice is obedience to the
laws' is something which the rulers have brought about by declaring
it to be the case, cf. &7ryvcpvXV
in 338 e 3, Ovop.Oaoacu
in 359 a 3, and Laws
714 d. It is presented as a 'fact of politics' that the rulers require their
subjects to treat the laws they have made as a source of justice - they
declare that what the laws prescribe is just for their subjects to do.
Here a possible objection may be forestalled. It might be said that
this is a 'stipulative' definition of justice by the rulers which would
have the effect of determining the meaning of the word for the future,
1 For the whole question of Platonic 'definitions' in relation to modern views
of definition see R. Robinson, Definition, Oxford 1954.

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so that Justice came to mean 'obedience to the laws'. In other words
this is a statement about the origin of the word's meaning, and perhaps
it really does mean in Republic I 'obedience to the laws'. But surely to
this the answer is no. It is of course true enough that some meaning
must be understood for the word 'justice' before it can be intelligibly
used in discussion by Thrasymachus or anyone else, and it certainly
has such a 'non-synthetic' meaning in Republic I. But the term has
already been discussed before Thrasymachus speaks, and the argument
with Polemarchus shows clearly that the meaning of the term is not
'obedience to the laws' but something like 'what a person ought to do'.
This meaning continues to be important in the discussion with Thrasymachus. Most of the time the meaning is simply 7toL'reQov - Justice is
that which ought to be done. So 7rouYrov can be substituted for
Justice - 339 c 10, 340 b 7-8, 341 a 2, cf. the frequent use of 8LXCXLOv
7UOLSLV - 339 d 1-2, 8-9, e 1-2, 4, 6, 340 a 6. But this meaning is no
longer appropriate for Thrasymachus when he has condemned Justice
as Folly, and we then find another basic meaning of the word coming
to the fore, namely Justice as doing acts which people ordinarily call
just, such as doing good to friends and so on. Obedience to the laws
would no doubt be included in the list of things which people suppose
ought to be done, but it is only one among such things.
On Hourani's view, if 'Justice is obedience to the laws' is synthetic,
it cannot have been Thrasymachus' definition of justice. But on my
view it could be both synthetic and Thrasymachean. I have maintained
however that the rejection of Clitophon's proferred assistance shows
that Thrasymachus does not in fact hold that Justice is obedience to
the laws. Thrasymachus says that the subject must obey what the
ruler prescribes as law when the ruler is not making a mistake as to his
interests, and not otherwise. He rejects the view of Clitophon according
to which he should obey the laws made by the ruler whether they
actually prescribe what is in the interest of the ruler or not. He admits
that actual rulers do make mistakes just as actual doctors make mistakes. It follows that in cases of mistake it is not just to obey the
laws which they make. This proves conclusively that justice does
not consist in obedience to the laws.
It is no answer to say, as Hourani does, (p. 114) the sophist has merely
restricted the laws that define justice to certain laws'. Even if true
this admission would be fatal to the definition of justice as obedience
to the laws, since it now appears that it is only obedience to some laws
and not to others. This might appear to be no more than a further
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sub-division of the genus, but in fact it would be more than that since
the new criterion would have a more fundamental relation to the real
nature of justice than the supposed genus. But in any case the statement is not true - what we have is not a mere restriction of the laws
that define justice. Justice, it is now clear, will involve actually disobeying the laws, if by so doing one is promoting the interest of the
ruler. And this clearly involves doing actions which are just which
are not in obedience to the laws at all. What we have is no mere
restriction of the supposed definition but its complete destruction.
Quite clearly Thrasymachus wishes to save the contention 'Justice is
the interest of the stronger' by preferring it to 'justice is obedience to
the laws' in cases where they conflict. It is the extreme of paradox
to try to maintain that it is the sacrificed view which Thrasymachus
really holds. The 'strange consequences' which Hourani says would
follow (p. 115) do in fact certainly follow for Thrasymachus, and
there is nothing strange about them. They are exactly in the spirit
of Thrasymachus, and this can be seen when we remember that Thrasymachus scorned Justice as something silly. He makes it clear that his
own ideal is for everyone to seek his own interest, and he regards justice
as always involving the contrary, namely seeking another's interest,
and injustice as always involving seeking one's own interest. He would
be departing from this principle if he did not think that it would be
just for subjects to disobey the laws when they were not really in
the interest of the stronger, as otherwise they would not be seeking
the interest of another. In fact the principle that justice is obedience
to the laws is inconsistent with the principle that justice consists in
seeking the interest of another, and if Thrasymachus is asserting the
first of these principles in reply to Clitophon's suggestion, then he
cannot have an overall consistent account of justice to offer. For the
argument from mistake establishes that in obeying the laws one will
not always be seeking the interest of another. Here is an inconsistency
between justice as obedience to the laws and justice as another's
interest, which does not apply between justice as the interest of the
stronger and justice as another's interest, and there should be no
doubt that Thrasymachus prefers the view that justice is the interest
of the stronger. Justice as the interest of the stronger however is
inconsistent with justice as seeking another's interest, when looked
at from the point of view of actions to be done by the stronger, since
for him to seek another's interest will involve seeking not the interest
of the stronger who is himself, but of the weaker who is his subject.
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Finally it may be noted that the statement that Justice is another's
interest is no doubt a synthetic statement, but in Plato's eyes it would
be none the worse for that. This is the sort of answer he is looking for,
though it is not in fact an answer he can accept. When in due course he
comes to his own account of justice as ro rz muToirCp&crrvthis also is
a synthetic statement, and not a statement about the meaning of the
word justice. It is a statement about what Plato regarded as a thing.
University College, Swansea

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