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North American Philosophical Publications

In Defense of Thrasymachus
Author(s): T. Y. Henderson
Source: American Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 7, No. 3 (Jul., 1970), pp. 218-228
Published by: University of Illinois Press on behalf of the North American Philosophical
Publications
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American
Volume

Philosophical
Quarterly
1970
7, Number
3, July

IV. IN DEFENSE
T.

OF THRASYMACHUS

Y. HENDERSON

on the dispute
and commentators
which
Socrates and Thrasymachus
between
CRITICS
occurs in Book I of the Republic come closest to
view
unanimity on two points : that Thrasymachus'
the dispute and that
is not consistent
throughout
Socrates'

are

arguments
all
Not

position.

to

fatal

commentators

was saying. My
understand
what Thrasymachus
I
claim is stronger: I believe that the interpretation
that
shall give is the position Thrasymachus
held,
it in this way, and that in the
Plato understood
Socrates addresses himself to it directly.
dialogue
as I
If his arguments fail to refute Thrasymachus,
are
the disputants
think they do, it is not because

Thrasymachus'
any

by

means,

are in agreement as to just what position
or on what points,
is defending,
Thrasymachus
he is inconsistent. Nor is there general
precisely,
agreement as to how Socrates' arguments refute his
however,

position.
The dispute between Socrates and Thrasymachus
:
centers around two major points of disagreement
or
i
nature
of
essential quality
justice is,
( )what the
the just or the unjust life is the best
and (2) whether
life for men to live.
(in the sense of most profitable)
It

is not

clear

that

every

commentator

Thrasymachus

question

"I declare
that
Ja:
is advantageous
which
Jb:

concentrate

my

attention

almost

entirely

to refute,

or

chus' position.
interpretation
a

even

seriously

to damage,

just

upon

of
( 1). I propose to offer an interpretation
question
the
nature
and
of
of
the
view
justice
Thrasymachus'
in its essential points, is consistent
just life which,
I. It is true that Socrates forces
Book
throughout
in a couple of
his position
him to reformulate
instances, but in so doing, I shall argue, Thrasyma?
chus does not change his basic, or original, position.
is
that Thrasymachus
Not only do I believe
consistent in essentials throughout the dispute with
Socrates over the nature of justice, I shall also argue
that Socrates' most vigorous attacks fail completely

reformulation,"

stronger

the

sense

338CI-2,

tr. A. D.

Lindsay

(London,

1935). All

and

the

that

man,
but

of
of

the governed
and by their
in no way

than

that

of
the good
is really
just
who
the stronger
rules, but
that
the subject who
obeys;
those very
the advantage
contribute
obedience

and

rules

serve

to their

own

simple
of the
to his

(343C2-7)."

here is that Ja can be
alleged inconsistency
a strong man
as
that
whenever
implying
interpreted
or profit to
in
benefit
result
will
this
acts justly
as
can
Jb
be
viewed
whereas
implying that
himself;
such
acts justly, the strong or the weak,
whoever
action never results in profit to the agent, but rather
to

someone

else.

that it ismost often
maintains
(2) Thrasymachus
in the state is the
the case that the strongest man
in
rulers
the
that
and
every
type of state make
ruler,
laws which are to their own advantage
(338 e 1-5).
to Ja, if the subjects obey the law
Thus according
out
be
should
acting justly. But Socrates points
they
in their
that rulers are capable of making mistakes
enact a law
legislation and thus might mistakenly
own
which was not to their
advantage
(339 c 1-38).
be
case
would
the
In such
acting justly if
subjects

of

should
that this is the way Thrasymachus
claiming
am
that
Plato
either
nor
I
have argued;
claiming
misunderstand
had
Socrates
Thrasy?
deliberately
machus' position, or that Plato himself really didn't
1
Republic,

.justice

else

The

Thrasyma?

in

.

souls;

happiness,

Yet I want to be very clear that my
to be
is not meant
of Thrasymachus

"contemporary

".

is nothing
justice
to the stronger."1

the advantage
another,
the self-inflicted
injury
is the opposite,
injustice

of

examination

involved in both of these questions
the arguments
would render this discussion much too lengthy, so I
shall

because

rather

defective.

that

agrees

(1). An

but

cross-purposes,
are

arguments

In regard to the question of the essential nature
is most often accused of
of justice, Thrasymachus
on the following points :
inconsistency
( i ) He offers two formulations of his definition of
as Ja and Jb :
justice, which I shall refer to hereafter

Plato was even aware of the different nature of
these two questions, but in the text he has Socrates
to (2) until he has silenced
attention
postpone
on

at

arguing
Socrates'

quotations

herein

are

taken

from

this translation.

2l8

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IN

DEFENSE

OF

they obeyed the law, but their actions would not
result in benefit to the stronger, thus contradicting
Ja.

(3) Following Socrates' appeal to the analogy of
other arts to the "art of ruling," Thrasymachus
the conclusion
refuses to draw
which
Socrates
believes the argument entails, but instead appeals
to another kind of "art," that of shepherding.
of
then accuses Thrasymachus
Socrates himself
as
he
of
that
in
does
in
speaking
inconsistency,
shepherds, he fails to follow his own recommenda?
tion to discuss only the practitioner,
qua practi?
of

tioner,

an

art

claims

Socrates

exclusively.

that

of discussing
the shepherd "in the strict
is speaking of the shepherd
sense," Thrasymachus
as an earner of wages or fees (345b5~346d7).
Other alleged inconsistencies have to do with the
between
second major
of disagreement
point
the
Socrates and Thrasymachus
(whether
just or
the unjust life is more profitable)
and will, there?
fore, not be discussed in detail.
instead

*

*

*

In defending Thrasymachus
against the above
a
I
bit
of
charges
stage-setting:
require
and
that Thrasymachus
(1) I shall assume
that just action
Socrates are in implicit agreement
some form of human
requires for its occurrence
is
treated
throughout the dispute as
society. Justice
a social phenomenon,
for its instantia?
demanding
tion a context in which people act upon, interact
with, and in various ways deal mutually with each
and

other,

the

same

for

goes

of

injustice,

course.

to in the
The examples of just actions appealed
some form
text are all such as to involve normally
of reciprocal
action by those toward whom just
action is directed : the mutual keeping of contracts
and bargains, business deals, etc. (e.g., 343d i-e5).
(2) It is a truism to observe that genuine dis?
can

agreements

occur

only

within

a

context

of

It is conceivable
that Socrates and
so
share
few
points of agreement
Thrasymachus
that their whole dispute is a series of arguments at
shared views.

explicitly presume
submit that there
this conclusion.
If
serious indictment
Socrates

commentators

Some

cross-purposes.

or

any

or

implicitly

that this is just what happens. I
is no direct textual evidence for
itwere true, itwould constitute a
of Plato, since he nowhere has
other

character

point

this

out.

to do is to assume
I propose
the widest
of
shared
views
between
the two
range
possible

What

2R.

C. Cross

and A. D. Woozley,

Plato's

Republic:

THRASYMACHUS

219

antagonists which is consonant with the text; that
if there
is, on each point relevant to the argument,
is not some textual reference precluding
it, I shall
are in
assume that Socrates and Thrasymachus
For

agreement.

general

example,

it

since

is

denied, I shall assume that on the whole
types of actions
they agree as to the general
normally designated "just" and "unjust." Honoring
taxes, keeping
contracts,
debts, paying
paying
be some examples of
bargains and so on would
actions which they could, and apparently do, agree
are just actions and their opposites unjust. Their
is not, or need not be, as to which
disagreement
are
acts
of
types
just, but rather as to the essential
all
which
property
just acts share.
assume
also
I
shall
that Socrates
and
(3)
both understand what is meant by
Thrasymachus
an essential property, and that they are not arguing
nowhere

at

in

cross-purposes

their

to arrive

attempt

at

the

essential

shared by all just action, and
property
is designated
which
actions,
only by just
by the
universal term "justice." It might be objected that
is not seeking a definition of justice,
Thrasymachus
but rather presents his conclusion
baldly at the
to argue for
he
is
beginning. Nevertheless,
willing
the truth of his contention
and to abide by the
outcome of the argument.
It is no logical error to
state

one's

conclusion

first

and

then

present

one's

arguments.
*

*

*

Does Thrasymachus'
formulation of his definition
of justice in Jb contradict Ja? Perhaps, but not
and it is surely not poor scholarship to
necessarily,
the benefit of the doubt. Cross
give Thrasymachus
and Woozley
interpret Ja to mean that every time
anyone acts justly the consequences of such acts will
be in the form of some benefit or profit to the
does not
strong man.2 But in Ja Thrasymachus
of just actions; he says
refer to the consequences
that justice is nothing else than . . . etc. Why not
take him at his word and assume that he is desig?
nating what he believes to be the essential feature
of just action itself, rather than the consequences
which accrue from performance
of just action?
If
Cross and Woozley's
is accepted,
interpretation
then Thrasymachus'
account of justice can be a
definition only if one interprets him as a subjectivist
who is claiming
that any action which results in
benefit or profit to the stronger is, for that reason,
just. The only reasonable alternative would be that

A Philosophical

Commentary

(London,

1964),

cf. pp.

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27, 37, 38 ff.

AMERICAN

220

PHILOSOPHICAL

QUARTERLY

is not giving a definition at all, but
tion, just action always gives others, just and unjust,
Thrasymachus
an empirical generalization.
is simply presenting
weak and strong, the opportunity
to take unjust
In either case Thrasymachus'
view ismuch weaker
advantage of the just agent. Just action is said to be
to the stronger,
than it need be.
the stronger
because
advantageous
to say of just action itself
is the one who will always seize the opportunity
But what does itmean
for
to the stronger? Nothing
that it is advantageous
afforded him by the just actions of
exploitation
means
others.
that in
very esoteric. I think Thrasymachus
the context of an ongoing, dynamic
when
In contrasting
of Thrasy?
my
society,
interpretation
two or more people (or groups) have dealings with
machus'
view with that of Cross and Woozley,
one
one another,
if one person
acts
not
to
should
be
careful
confuse
causal
with
(or group)
justly
logical
toward another or others, the very act of justice
relations. From their examples, Cross and Woozley
seem to be taking Thrasymachus
renders the just agent vulnerable and susceptible to
to mean that just
to
that
terms
taken
action
in
is
of
defined
its
is,
exploited;
being unjustly
being
(causal) conse?
It
be
that
quences.
my interpretation
advantage
of.
might
argued
Consider Thrasymachus'
does not differ
from
for
theirs,
examples
(343di-e5):
significantly
are business
a just and an unjust man
to it, just action is also defined in terms
when
according
the unjust partner always profits exces?
of its (logical) consequences;
that is, that it is a
partners,
his
with
Out
of
in
of
that one
consequence
just partner.
comparison
acting justly
sively
(logical)
more
man
or
taxes
to
the
than
becomes
vulnerable
unfair
incomes,
pays
just
equal
unjust
exploitation.
to be got the just
there ismoney
I am willing
to accept this observation as true of
the unjust. Where
man gets nothing,
the unjust much. Why ? Because
that it trivializes
the
my view, while
denying
distinction
between my interpretation
and that of
by acting justly toward his fellow citizens, his ruler,
or his business associates, the just man provides the Cross and Woozley.
The difference between
them
as
man
as
to
the
for
take
is
between
the
claim
that
the
that,
e.g.,
great
advantage
opportunity
unjust
results of my throwing a stone was that it broke a
of him.
on one
the assertion
that
and
the
window,
hand,
Suppose that two men, A and B, each have $50
a
was
a
stone
to
was
barter
stone
results
of
worth of goods and mutually
that
agree
my
$25
throwing
worth of goods with each other. If A performs his
thrown, on the other hand. Cross and Woozley
of
worth
the
of
has inmind
bargain by delivering
$25
part
apparently assume that Thrasymachus
the obvious
fact that all actions have
goods to B, he would be acting justly with respect
(causal)
even if only in the minimal
sense that
to B, and I think Socrates
and Thrasymachus
consequences,
would
agree. But in so doing, A thereby places
something in the world must be different from what
it would
have been if the action had not been
himself in a position where he can be (unjustly or
taken advantage of by B. IfB acts unjustly
performed, and that he is asserting that all actions
unfairly)
have
of a certain
which
and reneges on his part of the bargain, he emerges,
(causal) consequences
as
as A,
are
am correct,
as
not
but
actions.
three
times
If
I
twice
type
general
wealthy
just
is concerned
instead with
however, Thrasymachus
wealthy.
of just actions with
In this example it should be noted, first, that A,
the (logical)
consequences
to their agents,
the types of
and with
in performing his part of the bargain, places himself
respect
a
to
in
at a tactical disadvantage
be
actions
others
render
which
responses
position
just
by
(i.e.,
B
in
his
with
whether
taken advantage
dealings
possible.
of)
to confuse
must
or not B decides to act justly. Secondly,
it is obviously
not
three
One
be careful
concepts
to act unjustly toward
account:
true that B is not compelled
in Thrasymachus'
the unjust
mentioned
one
turn over to A a full $25 worth
the
the
ruler.
No
of
and
A :B might willingly
man,
man,
strong
to any other. Strong
these is identical in meaning
of goods as agreed. If B does so, then no one benefits
or
in

in Cross
profits
neither
this sense,

have

been
men

strong
not
does

and Woozley's
A's action

that

in
a man

and

2?'s action

no mention

just.3 Thirdly,
is made

sense,
nor

thus,

of weak

or

the

example.
Thrasymachus
is strong
because just action
the present
On
interpreta

men

are

to be

could

say
to him.
is advantageous
3
one might
say that, on Cross and Woozley's
Or, alternatively,
than
that each is stronger
consequence
tailing the inconsistent

besides

always

a

strong
being

are

there
To

unjust.

but
for Thrasymachus,
other
requirements

men,

unjust
man

be

a

first possess Thrasymachus'
advantageous

possess

to

the

A and B perform

man

as agreed,

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one

Second,

to practice

one

must

that justice

insight

stronger.

the intelligence

view, if both
the other.

strong

injustice
then

is

must

on a

both profit,

en?

IN

OF

DEFENSE

one
it. Finally,
grand scale and get away with
needs the courage to engage in and pursue such a
program.

Thrasymachus

to

points

of

examples

unjust men who lack either the wit or the courage
or both
to practice
scale
injustice on a grand
cutpurses,

(pickpockets,

temple-breakers,

and

etc.),

although he thinks of these as stronger than their
of similar station among just men,
counterparts
fall
of the ideal strong man
short
(348d5~9).
they
The just man, on the other hand, could never be a
for

man,

strong

he

at

lacks

: the understanding

quality
to

geous

the

one

necessary

is advanta?

stronger.

ruler

The

least

that justice

"in

sense"

the strict

as

Thrasymachus

one

who

is defined

by

makes

always

laws

which are to the ruler's advantage
(34069-34 ia2).
He is defined, be it noted, neither as an unjust, nor
as

a

strong

man.

view,
Finally, the unjust man, on Thrasymachus'
is simply a man who performs unjust actions, and
as I pointed out above, since there seems to be no
textual considerations precluding
it, I am assuming
that Thrasymachus
and Socrates are in general
agreement as to which actions unjust actions would
be.

It is true that Thrasymachus
argues that rulers
of countries, whatever
the form of government
might be, are the real strong men. Yet, there is no
the
textual reason to believe that for Thrasymachus
ruler is the strongest man because he is the ruler
of a state. Rather,
the strongest man in the state is
most likely to be, or to become the ruler. He rises
to the top naturally because he takes advantage of
every
further

an

to make

opportunity
own
his

cause

at

the

unjust

profit
of
expense

THRASYMACHUS

to the stronger, for the stronger by definition is one
to benefit
who takes advantage of all opportunities
himself. Justice is the good of another, in that acts
of justice afford others the opportunity
to cheat and
defraud the just agent. Injustice is advantageous
to
oneself, in that acts of injustice are those in which
one takes unfair advantage
of others. Ja does not
on
that if the strong man
my interpretation,
imply,
acts justly it is to his own advantage. Rather, Ja
entails that just action always creates opportunities
for the unjust exploitation
of just agents, which
is
in
in
words
different
Jb.
repeated
slightly
Let us consider in more detail what the life and
character of the completely unjust ruler might be
view of the nature of
like, given Thrasymachus'
seem to
justice and injustice. Some commentators
think that the only sort of man who could fulfill
Thrasymachus'
conception of such a ruler would be
an absolute dictator who rules his country with an
iron fist, stealing, killing, and imprisoning whenever
his slightest whim
is opposed.
It is possible
that
a
that
would
such
ruler
agree
would,
Thrasymachus
or could, be a strong man in his sense of the term.
But it should not be forgotten that he claims that
the rulers in every state, no matter what the form
of government,
of the
usually fit his conception
strong

hardly

the

case,

as

some

laws for its own
lays down
a
democratic,
democracy
tyranny
these
laws
laws, and so on. In laying down
tyrannical
that what
it plain
is to their advantage
they have made
is just. They
him who
this as a
from
punish
departs
law-breaker

ment.

sense

machus'
in

this

sense,

of
be

indeed

"strong":
strong

at

all.

For

he

would

not,

Thrasymachus

says that the just ruler loses on all counts: his
business suffers through neglect, and he loses the
respect of his friends and relatives because he will
not grant them special privileges during his tenure
of

office.

It should be obvious by this time that if the above
interpretation

there

cepted,
Jb. Just action,

of

Thrasymachus'

is no

position

is

ac?

between Ja and
inconsistency
its
is advantageous
nature,
very
by

government

But

an

And
unjust man.
this, my
good
In every
is the same.
city justice
is advantageous
to the established
govern?
the established
is master
and
government
and

I mean.

so sound

reasoning
gives
is always
thing
just?namely,
the stronger
(338e).

have

suggested, that the ruler isby definition the stronger,
the possibility
admits
because Thrasymachus
of
there being a just ruler (343a). A just ruler would
not be the strongest man in the state in Thrasy?

every

sir, is what
It is what

others.

commentators

:

advantage?a

Everyone and every group who deal with him justly
are exploited by him for his own profit. It could
be

man

Well,

to

and

221

the

conclusion
what

that

the

same

is advantageous

to

It follows that even in a country where the ruler
is elected by majority vote, and where to retain his
position as ruler, he must retain the esteem of the
the ruler may still be, and usually is,
electorate,
the strongest man in the state. This means that such
a

ruler

could

be

a

complete

villain,

a man

who

believes that the unjust life is the best life for man,
and that justice is advantageous
to the stronger.
us
this
in
let
a possible
consider
mind,
Bearing
to the view that Thrasymachus'
alternative
ruler
to be an iron-fisted dictator.
have
type would
Imagine the following rather extended hypothetical
case:

Early

in life a politically

ambitious

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man

named

AMERICAN

222

PHILOSOPHICAL

QUARTERLY

comes
to believe
him as a ruler in ways which both Thrasymachus
that
Thrasymachus'
are
correct.
and
that
Socrates
would
For
is
Setarcos
is
Setarcos
agree
just.
position
entirely
Suppose
with
that
both
and
While
if
the
holds,
courageous.
taking
Thrasymachus,
subjects
intelligent
to profit unfairly
believe that the just life is the most profitable, and
of every opportunity
advantage
in their dealings with
thus are just and law-abiding
and to advance his own fortunes at the expense of
one
a
to
is
clever
maintain
another and with their government,
others, Setarcos
enough
they will
to exploitation by the ruler. All
be most vulnerable
public facade of honesty and integrity. He publicly
states must
taxes to finance
his absolute faith in the view that the
collect
legitimate
proclaims
man.
most
is
best
and
for
for example. If the citizens
life
the
life
functions,
governmental
just
profitable
realize this fact and willingly
"Mutual trust is the cornerstone of society," he tells
obey the tax laws of
trust is possible only when
the state, they place themselves in a perfect position
everyone, "and mutual
to be unjustly exploited by the ruler. It is often
the citizens of a state deal justly with one another."
of every unjust
His voice is loudest in condemnation
very hard for the subjects in a country to determine
whether all of their tax money
is being spent wisely
and dishonest act by an official in power. He ferrets
out or, if need be, manufactures
evidence of im? and justly for the purposes for which it is collected.
the people that they
and corruption
Furthermore,
by convincing
against all those who
morality
are
own
or
to
in
their
of
his
him
stand
the
rise
interests
way
power.
oppose
serving
by living completely
a major
source of
for the highest office in just lives, Setarcos eliminates
he campaigns
Eventually
the land on a reform ticket, pleading for a return
expense and anxiety which often plagues
tyrants:
to honesty, justice, and fair dealing in government.
he does not have to employ nearly as large an
internal security force to preserve order, enforce his
of graft and
He pledges himself to the elimination
When
he
achieves
in
laws, and suppress possible rebellions.
power,
corruption
high places.
to note in passing that Thrasy?
an
to
It is interesting
is too
about-face
clever
and
he
perform
machus might well have argued that Socrates, who
his rule by force.
become a tyrant, perpetuating
is known for his attempts to defend the just life as
Rather, he decries the fraud, waste, ineptitude, and
best and most profitable life for man, is actually
the
is
his
claims
from
which
he
the
legacy
corruption
his
and
reiterates
belief
administration,
playing into the hands of the unjust ruler. Setarcos
previous
in the state (except himself
would want everyone
that justice is the best policy. After all, he is a just
who knows better) to act justly, to live just lives,
man, and hasn't he become ruler of the land?
and to believe sincerely that in so doing they were
he becomes
the ruler,
Setarcos
be able,
Once
may
if he is clever enough and bold enough, tomaintain
serving their own best interests.
It is not merely
because one sees clearly that
his public facade of justice and honesty for a long
to
a
while
time or even
acting justly renders the just agent vulnerable
indefinitely,
remaining
a
can become
ruler
that one
of
strong
exploitation
thoroughly unjust man.
a state. He might
to effect a
lack the intelligence
But is this at all a plausible account ? If Thrasy?
or else
of
and
is correct, such a ruler, to the best of his master
machus
injustice
power-seeking,
plan
he might
lack the courage for such a large-scale
ability, would always enact only those laws which
are advantageous
to himself. Do we have to imagine
operation. In the context of the present hypothetical
as
our
be ranked
an entire citizenry so incredibly naive and innocent
case,
ruler,
Setarcos,
might
unjust
to his degree of "strength,"
in Thrasymachus'
as to overlook this fact indefinitely ? For if people
were to notice that the laws of the land are of this
sense, on the basis of how well he was able to
the populace
of the folly of living un?
convince
reveal Setarcos
nature, would this not immediately
in
their
as a completely unjust man ?
dealings with the govern?
justly, especially
ment
able to
of their state. If Setarcos were
The answer to both questions is :Not at all. One
a com?
state
is
in
he
that
the
reasons for acceptance
convince
of my
of the strongest
everyone
he
is
he
is
that
because
that
is
it
view
of
man,
just
happy,
just
pletely
Thrasymachus'
interpretation
that justice in general ismost profitable toman as a
that a completely
would entail the possibility
just
at the same time being able,
and a completely unjust ruler might enact exactly
way of life, while
to
and steal from the people
cheat
that
similar sets of laws! Thrasymachus
says
covertly,
justice,
so
he would
conform perfectly
then
to the
is
not
stronger,
systematically,
advantageous
injustice,
Setarcos

that

an

unjust

ruler

would

repressive or discriminatory
the citizens to act toward

be

foolish

to enact,

e.g.,

laws. He would want
each other and toward

to Thrasymachus'

conception

of

the

strong

man.

were to prove his case that the
If Thrasymachus
is
the
life
good life for man, would this entail
unjust

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IN

that

or

Socrates,

you,

or

I, or

DEFENSE

who

anyone

OF

under?

Socrates

stands what he is talking about ought to begin living
the unjust life ? This conclusion would at least not
follow from such a proof. I find no textual evidence
that

was

Thrasymachus

In fact, the
injustice as a way of life for everyone.
greater the ratio of just to unjust people in a state,
the better life can be for the unjust few. Even if
everyone were to begin to live completely
unjust
not negate Thrasy?
this would
lives, however,
machus'
of the
claim that justice is the advantage
then be acting justly.
stronger, only no one would
At any rate, to describe a certain way of life as the
best life for man is not equivalent
to, nor does it
entail

that

should,

everyone

or even

live

can,

such

a

life. Thrasymachus
could be implying no more than
that Socrates and the others ought to wake up and
realize that they are like sheep being kept for the
profit of the unjust man, and that sheep-like, they
assume naively that to be fleeced and slaughtered
for mutton
is better than wearing warm clothes and
being well-fed.
It is important to understand
that Thrasymachus
does not argue that the ruler of a country ought to
live an unjust life for the following reason: when
defines the "ruler in the strict sense"
Thrasymachus
as the one who infallibly enacts laws which
are
to the ruler, he might be interpreted
advantageous
as meaning
that it is logically impossible for a just
man to be a ruler in the strict sense. If so, then of
course he would be inconsistent,
for he has ad?
mitted
that a just man could be a ruler. But it
as
to interpret Thrasymachus
would be a mistake
that

claiming

a ruler

when

makes

laws

which

give

him the opportunity
to exploit the people for his
own profit, that he ought to exploit them, and that
if he does not, he is not a ruler in the strict sense
at all. On the contrary, the just man certainly could
be a ruler in the strict sense, ifwe do not read into
definition
isn't
something which
Thrasymachus'
there in the text. The laws which
the just ruler
as pointed
out above, might
be exactly
makes,
an unjust ruler
similar to the set of laws which
would make
(even if neither made any legislative
Thus the just ruler's laws, like those of
mistakes).
the unjust ruler, would afford him the opportunity
of taking unfair advantage of the citizens when they
act justly. Being just, however, he would not do so.
But in failing to cheat the populace
he is not
failing to do something which he ought to do, if he
is

to

be

a

ruler

in

the

strict

sense.

On

Thrasy?

machus' view, he ismerely being stupid.
To sum up briefly, I interpret the dispute between
?

and

223
as a

Thrasymachus

disagree?

genuine

on

are quite important,
issues which
his?
a
It
is
for
moral
genuine
torically,
philosophy.
in the sense that it arises within a
disagreement,

ment

context

universal

advocating

THRASYMACHUS

are

of

they

shared

arguing

no

on

and
opinion,
at cross-purposes.

major
point
I view
Socrates

as being in broadly
and Thrasymachus
general
as to the practical
content of the just
agreement
and the unjust lives?that
is, as to the types or kinds
of actions which
are correctly called "just" and
"unjust." The dispute between them is not a simple
semantic one regarding the correct moral designa?
tion of various types of actions. There is nothing in
the text to suggest that they would not both con?
sider just such actions as honoring contracts, paying
and
taxes, obeying the law, giving honest measure,
so on.

as claiming
I interpret Thrasymachus
that just
to the
action
is intrinsically
disadvantageous
nature
it
its
because
very
performer
by
places the
a
in
with
vulnerable
just agent
respect to
position
those with whom
life. By
he deals in practical
acting justly toward one's fellow man, ipsofacto, one
to be unjustly
taken
places oneself in a position
of.
When
says that
advantage
Thrasymachus
"justice is nothing else than that which is advanta?
to the stronger" he is referring
to this
geous
of justice, which he believes to be its
characteristic
essential property. By the "stronger," he means the
person who sees justice and the just life for what he,
believes it to be, and who has the
Thrasymachus,
and
the courage to practice injustice on
intelligence
a grand scale. One who is truly a strong man in his
sense

would

thus

never

*

live

voluntarily
*

a

just

life.

*

Let us now consider the major criticisms which
Socrates offers to Thrasymachus'
view:
If an unjust ruler makes a law which he mis?
to be advantageous
to himself,
takenly believes
aren't the subjects acting justly when
they obey
this law ? If so, then justice, in this case, would not
to the stronger. Cleitophon
be advantageous
and
Polemarchus
that
this
conclude
immediately
criticism
is devastating
to Thrasymachus'
stated
If the essential quality of
position
(339e9~340C4).
is
to the
that
it
is
justice
always advantageous
stronger, then there could not be a case of justice
which
Socrates'

was

not
criticism

counter-example
nature
of justice.

advantageous
seems
to
to

to
them

Thrasymachus'

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the

stronger.
a
perfect
account
of the

to offer

AMERICAN

224

PHILOSOPHICAL

QUARTERLY

inappropriate way if we were to answer by saying
that a doctor is one whose job it is tomake mistaken
to the stronger
that
is advantageous
"...
what
diagnoses of people's illnesses.
by
he meant
thinks is to his
There is still an important question at stake here,
fiwhat the stronger
: If a doctor prescribed a certain medicine
must
is
what
This
the
weaker
and
however
do,
advantage.'
on the basis of a mistaken
this is his definition of justice (34ob5~7)."
diagnosis of a patient's
Cross and Woozley
the patient be acting as a patient
illness, would
argue that Thrasymachus
to accept Cleitophon's
would
have done well
should if he obeyed his doctor? By analogy, we
in order to escape inconsistency,
"for might ask Thrasymachus:
reformulation
If the unjust ruler makes
a ruler
a mistake
a law which he mistakenly
as
to what
while
make
believes to be advanta?
may
geous to himself, would the subjects be acting justly
actually is his interest he will hardly make a mistake
as to what he believes to be his interest; and if it is
if they obeyed this law ?
to
to
for
We
the
ruler
be
that normally what
do
what
believes
the
know, of course,
right
subjects
in his interest, it will not matter
that the ruler is doctor prescribes is what a patient ought to do to
treat his particular
mistaken
in believing
illness or affliction.
It is the
so."4
the types of
Sparshott5 disagrees with this suggestion, and I proper job of the doctor to prescribe
treatment which are appropriate
to the particular
believe rightly so. If Thrasymachus
had agreed with
ills
his
he
have
been
inconsistent.
For
and
afflictions
of
Thus
would
Cleitophon
patients.
"doing what
to the
he has claimed that justice is advantageous
the doctor orders" is commonly accepted as roughly
treat?
the appropriate
synonymous with "applying
stronger, and Cleitophon's
suggestion entails that
to the law. If justice is nothing
ment
to the proper illness or affliction." But this
justice is obedience
more nor less than obedience
to the law, however,
treatment for any
does not mean
that appropriate
or
then the grounds or reasons for enacting
is
the laws
affliction
disease
given
correctly defined as
out
as
If I smashed my
of
"whatever
the
the
doctor
stronger)
(the advantage
prescribes."
drop
toe with a hammer and immediately
irrelevant.
consulted a
however,
doctor, his advice to have my leg cut off at the hip
emphatically
rejects
Thrasymachus,
(at least not if the smashed
suggestion on the grounds that in the would not be acceptable
Cleitophon's
never
a ruler
sense
toe were all that was wrong with me).
strict
makes
mistakes
of ruler,
we could
of course, is not
in the case of Thrasymachus,
Hence,
(34odi~34ia2).
Thrasymachus,
that Thrasy?
believes
however,
Gleitophon,
machus has merely misstated his view, and suggests

here

some

that

either

claiming

rulers

have

are,

say

in one

that

a

sense,

vulgar

or

loose

sense,

a man

been, or might be infallible, or that any ruler who
is unjust will be infallible. His case does not depend
upon the actual existence of an infallible ruler. He

would be acting justly if he obeys a law which a
thinks to be to his own advantage,
ruler mistakenly

never

says,

wrong

medicine

not. One might
to contest the
today want
legitimacy of such a distinction, but obviously Plato
would not, since this is a characteristically
Platonic

on

a doctor,
really
an accountant

nor

for

a doctor
a
that

if he

He

calculation.
grounds

that

e.g.,

calling

particular
an accountant

sometimes

simply
a man

who

says,
a doctor

the

prescribes
occasion

is not

is not

makes

really

mistakes

in effect,
or an

that

in

our

are not that he makes,
or is capable of making,
mistakes
in the practice of his profession, and the
same holds true for rulers.
is, I suggest, doing something here
Thrasymachus
which
is quite common
in contemporary
moral
a
or
role
office
is
from
he
distinguishing
philosophy:
the man who holds the office or plays the role. If
someone were to ask what a doctor is, and if we
know

of

a

particular

doctor

who

has

made

a

in the diagnosis
of a certain patient's
we
and
be
would
illness,
responding in a misleading
4 Gross and
Woozley,
op. cit., p. 46.
5F.
and Thrasymachus,"
"Socrates
E. Sparshott,
6Richard
Lectures on theRepublic
L. Nettleship,

more

another

of

way
At
answer

accountant

mistake

in

but

strict

or

absolute

he

sense,

would

of

arguing.
any
as

practitioner,

accepts

Subsequently,

Thrasymachus'
he speaks

only

strict sense, and indeed, as
out, he thereafter identifies the

in the

the ruler

Nettleship6

Socrates

rate,

satisfactory.

points

qua practitioner,

of an

or

art

profession

with the art or profession.
Socrates next asks Thrasymachus
whether
the
a
an
is
qua physician,
physician,
"money maker,
earner of fees, or a healer of the sick," and Thrasy?
of course, says the last (341C2 ff.). And if
machus,
a man is sick, it is obviously
to his benefit to have
the

services

of

a

healer

refers to other examples,

available.

Socrates

each of which

The Monist,
Vol.
50 (1966), pp. 424 ff.
2nd ed. (London,
1964), p. 30.

of Plato,

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then

is designed

IN

DEFENSE

OF

to show that it is the subject matter of an art, which
is benefited by the perfect practicing
of the art.
in
each case.
agrees
Thrasymachus
grudgingly
Thus
in regard to the ruling of a state, which
has agreed is an art, it would seem
Thrasymachus
that
it is the subjects as "subject matter"
by analogy
of the art of ruling, who benefit from the perfect
practice of this art, rather than the ruler who
practices it.
It seems obvious in the text that Socrates believes
that his argument from analogy of the other arts to
account
the art of ruling has dealt Thrasymachus'
a death blow. It is at first difficult to see why he
should think so. The principle question at issue has
to do with the nature of justice. Even if it is true
that the perfect practice
of the art of ruling is
to the subjects, why should this force
beneficial7
to give up his claim that justice is
Thrasymachus
to the stronger? After all, he has not
advantageous
claimed that the ruler is a strong man, by definition,
nor has he argued that in order to be a ruler, qua
he would
ruler, one must be unjust. Admittedly
have to give ground on some points, but even so,
why could he not rebut Socrates' argument success?
fully by saying, "All right, if a strong man becomes
he

ruler,

act

won't

as

a

ruler

should,

strictly

speaking, but he could still be a great strategist and
an unparalleled
grafter"?
I believe that the reason why Thrasymachus
does
not take this line is that Socrates (or perhaps Plato)
has accepted a suppressed premiss which Thrasy?
machus
fails to question : it is that the only reason
of an art would fail to manifest
why a practitioner
the
definition
of that art in his practice is
perfectly
that he is ignorant. Either he does not know the
or else he doesn't know in every case
definition,
which action instantiates
the definition
(although
in the actual dispute, the latter kind of ignorance is
seldom touched upon). When Thrasymachus
first
the

makes
the

vulgar-sense
he uses

examples

diagnoses

a

patient's

vs.
are
illness

strict-sense

those

distinction,
of a doctor
who mis

and

an

accountant

who

THRASYMACHUS

225

Because

accepts this suppressed
Thrasymachus
to be in the following
he
himself
believes
premiss,
dilemma :Insofar as aman is unjust, he is concerned
anyone who prac?
only with self-aggrandizement;
tices an art less than perfectly
does so out of
nature
of
the
of
ignorance
perfect practice of that
of the art of ruling is
art; the perfect practice
to the subjects, and not to the ruler.
advantageous
an unjust ruler, to the extent that he is
Therefore,
unjust, and in virtue of the fact that he is unjust,
a com?
is ignorant of the nature of ruling. Hence
ruler
would
be
ignorant
pletely unjust
completely
of the art of ruling. He would be directly analogous
to the man who knows absolutely nothing about
or musical

music

instruments,

yet

who

to

attempts

a stringed instrument properly
(cf. 349e).
can see no way out of
Although Thrasymachus
seems to fly in
this dilemma,
Socrates' conclusion
the face of obvious facts. Thrasymachus
believes
that the vast majority
of actual rulers are grossly
unjust men, and, far from being ignorant of the
nature of ruling, they seem to him much more
than the ruler who has the oppor?
knowledgeable
tunity to defraud his subjects on a grand scale, but
refrains from doing so. Socrates' view
deliberately
seems
to him
naive.
An
analogy
incredibly
have
used
would
be that of a
Thrasymachus
might
an honest man
and a
game between
gambling
the
the cheat wins (by cheating)
cheat, in which
attune

money,

lands,

servants,

possessions,

slaves,

titles,

even the clothes on the back of the honest man. By
seem to imply
Socrates' position would
analogy,
that

the

honest

man

comes

actually

out

ahead,

because he plays the game as it should be played,
and that every time the cheater cheats, he thereby
merely reveals his ignorance of the game.
have
should
rejected
Surely Thrasymachus
in Thrasy?
Socrates' suppressed premiss. Nothing
machus'

account

requires

it. To

accept

would be to place in the same category
a young,
inexperienced
physician
diagnoses

an

a mistake

in calculation.

term

in Ja
is the same as that translated
"advantageous"
his claim could have been worded,
"the perfect practice

illness,

and/or

mis-prescribes

this

premiss

of ignorance
who
mis
treat?

ment, on one hand, and an experienced physician
that
to are
the examples
assumed
referred
who prescribes removal of organs and tissue which
examples
of unintentional
errors, and this kind of example is he knows to be healthy
etc.),
(tonsils, appendices,
extended across the board to all the arts, including
to gain an undeserved
fee, on the other hand.
the art of ruling. Thus in the analogy of the arts,
in the text Thrasymachus
does not
Nevertheless,
Socrates assumes without
that
the
Socrates'
but
argument
rather, in
only
reject
suppressed premiss,
in ruling must be in the
deviations from perfection
scorn
turns
full
of
his
the
and
force
frustration,
form of unintentional
errors, due to ignorance of derision upon him (343a!, ff.) : Socrates needs a
the true nature
of ruling.
nurse to wipe his nose. He
is such a child in

makes

7The

(To Xump?ron).

translated
Thus

It is implicitly

in Socrates'
of the arts
"beneficial"
analogy
to its subject matter."
of an art is advantageous

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matters

practical

that

he

PHILOSOPHICAL

AMERICAN

226

see

cannot

that

enhanced

shepherds

and cattle herdsmen tend sheep and cattle for their
own or their masters'
profit, rather than for the
benefit of the sheep and cattle, and that the rulers
of states treat their subjects like sheep, caring for
them only to gain greater profit from them.
Socrates' answer to this attack (345b4, ff.) is to
to draw
for failing
chide Thrasymachus
the
conclusion which follows from the former argument
to the
(i.e., that the art of ruling is advantageous
to
not
to
maintain
the
and
and
that
subjects
ruler),
the same kind of argument applies to the "art" of
:a shepherd is correctly defined, not as
shepherding
an

earner

or

of wages

as one

but

fees,

cares

who

for

sheep. Thus again it is the subject matter of this art
(the sheep) which benefits from excellent practice,
rather than the practitioner.
never
It is interesting to note that Thrasymachus
actually admits that Socrates has refuted his claim
to the stronger. Thus
that justice is advantageous
we are left to decide for ourselves whether he really
believed his view to be defeated, or, alternatively,
to be
whether he still believed his original position
perfectly correct, even though he was unable at the
see

to

time

a mistake

in Socrates'

reasoning.

Even
such a mistake?
Socrates make
if,
purely for the sake of argument, we were to grant
him his suppressed premiss (i.e., that any deviation
in the practice of an art is uninten?
from perfection
Does

tional

and

due

to

entirely

of

ignorance

true

the

of the art), has he indeed shown that, in the
the art of ruling,
sense,
strictly
appropriate
to the
beneficial
is
(advantageous)
speaking,
subjects ?
It is not unimportant
that, in the dispute with

nature

not

does

Socrates

Thrasymachus,

spell

out

the ways

in which
the perfect practice of the art of ruling
to the subjects: he merely
would be advantageous
that it must be so, because in the case of
concludes
the subject matter of the
the other arts examined,
rather

arts,

than

the

artists,

were

the

beneficiaries

of excellent practice. Note also that it is absolutely
vital to Socrates' case that the benefits derivable
from the perfect practice of an art be seen as such
in the sense that the practice
by the subject matter,
of

the

art must

worth?

needful,

something

provide

while, or desirable from the viewpoint of the subject
in
matter. Granted
this presents a real difficulty
those cases in which the subject matter is inanimate,
as

for

in

example,

instruments,

even

the

here,

think of the objective
8This

example

was

manufacture
by

worth

first

suggested

extension,

of musical
one

of, e.g., a violin
to me

by T. G.

QUARTERLY

might

being

the

by

a hack might
an

made
In

inferior

fact,

of a master

skill

whereas

craftsman,

the same materials

used

have

and

instrument.

Socrates

not

does

on

attention

focus

those arts whose subject matter
is inanimate when
he is trying to prove his point about the art of
ruling. His primary example is that of the physician.
as a healer of the sick.
A physician
is defined
an
to
the
sick
is
Healing
activity which is beneficial
a service
in the sense of providing
the patients,
is needful and desirable from the patients'
which
Socrates
point of view. It is this feature which
in all the other arts,
has its analogue
believes
the art of ruling. But even though this
including
to conclude
true
of medicine,
it is a mistake
be
may
are
desirable
that all arts, if practiced
excellently,
or needful from the point of view of the subject
can easily be shown by appeal
to
matter.
This
other sorts of practices which would surely fit into
Socrates' broadly general concept of an art.
The art of torture,8 for example, would surely fit
Socrates' model. As an art, it can be practiced well
or badly. The proficient torturer is the one who can
increasing
keep his victims alive and in constantly
agony for the longest period of time. He is the one
never

who

to

fails

extract

the

or

confession,

the

or the oath of allegiance,
or the
from
It
information
victims.
unwilling
suppressed
follows that, just as in the case of the physician, one
recantation,

cannot
an

earner

Thrasymachus
a
with
which,

to

it were
Suppose
best
the
bring
that

of breath,

constant

very

illustrate

fat

pain

shepherd,

qua shepherd,

for

not

sheep,

sheep

as

another

example
amplifications,
mistake:

Socrates'

an

suffer

fat sheep
Suppose,

from

shortness

in the lungs, aching

nausea.

continual

as

torturer,

qua

the case that extremely
price on the market.

however,

and

torturer,

fees.

himself provides
few hypothetical

serve

also

could

a

define
correctly
or
of wages

As

is defined

earner

ankles,

says,

the

as one who

cares

Socrates

or

of wages

fees.

Yet

in

this case, no one could deny that the best shepherd
would be the one who was able to bring the fattest
sheep to market
(i.e., this is what "caring for the
sheep" would consist of, at least in part).
are only
two of many
above
The
possible
the
be
could
which
given to illustrate
examples
an art may not
that
the
of
practicing
perfect
point
be such as to fulfill the needs of, improve, or in
other ways be desirable from the point of view of
the

subject
Socrates

matter.
speaks

of

the

function

Smith.

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of

an

art

as,

in

IN

DEFENSE

OF

one way or another, alleviating
the "defects" of its
art
matter
of medicine
has
The
subject
(342a2, ff.).
come
is
into being because
the human
body
defective.
But this sort of language unjustifiably
sense is the subject
the case. In what
prejudices
matter
in
of the art of torture "defective" ? Only
the sense that various forms of external stimuli are
capable of causing people pain. The art of torture,
then, would never have come into being if people
were unable to feel pain and anguish.
If Socrates' discussion of the function and origins
of the various arts are purged of such question
begging language, what remains ?What conclusion
can one draw from his analogy
of the arts? I
the
value-neutral
suggest, merely
point that for any

THRASYMACHUS

227

ruler if these laws were other than what both
Socrates and Thrasymachus
would agree were just
laws. If a ruler were in this sense infallible, he would
be a just ruler in the strict sense of ruler if he did
not take unfair advantage
of the opportunities
for
are
which
afforded
him
the
law
exploitation
by
abiding acts of his subjects; he would be an unjust
ruler in the strict sense of ruler if he did cheat and
defraud his subjects in their just dealings with him.
*

*

*

A transition in Socrates'
line of argument be?
comes evident at this point. Socrates obviously
believes that the appeal to the analogy of the arts
to exist,
has refuted Thrasymachus'
art or artist
claim that justice is the
there must
be an appropriate
can
on
art
of
the
matter
and
he then turns to the
be
which
the
stronger,
advantage
practiced.
subject
the just life or the unjust life is
For there to be physicians and an art of medicine,
question whether
a very complex
on whom
it can be more
exist patients
there must
but
profitable,
problem,
are
not
and
distinct
from the question
that
with
bodies
of the
i.e., people
separate
practiced;
to disease, accident, or infirmity. For
essential nature of justice, and thus beyond
invulnerable
the
to exist, there must be sheep
the art of shepherding
scope of the present inquiry.
I believe
that Plato
to care for. And for there to be rulers, there must be
views Thrasymachus'
account of the nature of justice as plausible
to rule. Whether
the subject matter
and
subjects
and as one which, as far as it goes, is
"benefits" from the proficient practicing of an art,
persuasive,
accurate. Justice as a way of life is a social pheno?
in the sense of having something needful or desir?
as Socrates and Thrasymachus
able provided for it or done to it (from the stand? menon,
implicitly
interaction
of the
itself, that is), is agree. It requires the mutual
point of the subject matter
of a society or a social group for its
It is members
upon the type of art involved.
contingent
occurrence. And it is surely true that just action,
certainly not true of all the arts.
in the absence of any legal guarantees or collateral
that the perfect practice of
Socrates' argument
to the
the art of ruling is necessarily advantageous
to be
held, does place the just agent in a position
to refute Thrasyma?
it further
And
unfairly
exploited.
subjects thus fails completely
strengthens
case
to point
out
that
in most
chus. All that one is justified in concluding from his
Thrasymachus'
are
on
must
to
is
be
societies
there
that
there
which
such
For
organized
guarantees.
argument
subjects
an
or else neither
art nor artist
this
that
could
is
admission
the
this
involved
art,
practice
vulnerability
in acting justly has to be compensated
exist.
for by the
can now
that even
also draw
the conclusion
One
imposition on society of a system of laws, police,
is granted
if Socrates
his highly
the just from the
courts, and prisons to protect
questionable
to the
that failure to conform perfectly
unjust.
premiss
counter Thrasymachus'
To
definition of an art entails ignorance on the part of
Socrates
insight,
to show that a just man need
could have attempted
the artist, it remains possible that a ruler might be
not be so naive as to believe
that all the people
unjust and still be a ruler in the strict sense.
with whom he deals will be just. He could have
If the textual Thrasymachus
had seen the error
in Socrates' analogy of the arts, he could have
examined
the many ways, both legal and social,
out that
individuals
turned the tables on him by pointing
and societies try to protect
by which
themselves against the depredations
Socrates is not dealing with the ruler, qua ruler, but
of unjust men.
of
rather with
the ruler, qua just man, which,
Indeed, this seems to be the sort of line pursued by
in Book II. Socrates does
is doing. On
Glaucon and Adeimantus
course, is precisely what Socrates
one
not take this line, however, but rather attempts to
strict
is a ruler
in the
view,
Thrasymachus'
sense of this term if he always makes
the much
laws which
defend
is
stronger claim that justice
as a way of life, in that
are
we
to
it
himself.
As
have
seen,
intrinsically advantageous
advantageous
it affords for those who choose it rewards far greater
would be a mark of ineptitude on the part of the

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AMERICAN

228

than could be achieved
how

much

the

former

by unjust men,
are

cheated

by the latter. Insofar as Socrates'

Many

no matter

a refutation

defrauded

of justice,

case depends

account
of Thrasymachus'
it is, unfortunately,

however,

of

the nature
lost.9

upon

version of a paper given at the Western
it contains
with
grew out of discussions
of the Socrates-Thrasymachus
importance

is a revised
of the

complexity

QUARTERLY

of Saskatchewan, SaskatoonReceived July 22, 1969

University

9This

and

PHILOSOPHICAL

ideas

and

Philosophical
colleagues,

in Edmonton,
Colloquium
T. G. Smith, who

especially

Alberta,
first made

dispute.

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in October
me aware

1967.
of the