Plato Republic

Summary of 336b-339a

Thrasymachus here bursts onto the scene. Socrates, narrating the entire dialogue, describes Thrasymachus as a wild beast who has unleashed himself on the group. Several in the group who had gathered with Polemarchus (the list of names is in the beginning of the dialogue) had restrained him up until this point, but he could stand it no longer.

After an initial confrontation between the two, and Thrasymachus’ accusation that Socrates is habitual ironist who never says what he thinks, who “gratifies his love of honor” by always asking questions and never answering, Socrates manages to get Thrasymachus to provide his answer to the question of justice: it is, he says, “nothing other than the advantage of the stronger.”  Socrates responds by testing the meaning of the word “stronger” at 338d – in what seems to be an absurd example.  Thrasymachus calls Socrates ‘disgusting’, but Socrates cooly asks for clarification. Just tell me what you mean, he says. Thrasymachus then gives it to him, and proceeds to lay out his idea that the stronger is the ruling class of any political regime, whether tyranny, democracy or aristocracy.

Opening Question

Why has Thrasymachus entered the discussion at this point? What exactly has provoked Thrasymachus to enter at this point, to throw off his restraints, and ‘attack’?

Observations 

Conversations expose things, just as readings do. Our conversation tonight exposed two sharply opposed readings of the relationship between Socrates and Thrasymachus at this juncture.

The first way of reading granted Socrates a certain amount of success to begin to reign in Thrasymachus. By 338c, it would seem that Thrasymachus has officially joined the discussion, by offering his answer to the question of justice. And soon after, Socrates gets Thrasymachus to clarify himself.

Socrates’ “irony” appears to have worked (according to this way of reading) in reigning in Thrasymachus, in his transformation, as it were, from a wild beast to a tame one. To be sure, the process has not yet been completed by the end of our reading for tonight; but we might expect to see it at some point in the dialogue.

But suppose that Socrates really is an “habitual ironist”, as Thrasymachus says, and merely playing word games with people just to win an easy victory, then what Thrasymachus does and says, in word and deed, seems to make sense. He attacks the man, because the man really appears to be shameful. It is at least understandable that he might be frustrated with Socrates. Why doesn’t Socrates just come with out and say what justice is? Why does he downplay his own competence and knowledge, understating and overstating things in what appears to be an unfair, rude or absurd manner?

One person in the group raised the question – what would you do if someone burst in like Thrasymachus? How would one best deal with such a situation – someone who, by all appearances, has a chip on their shoulder. Wouldn’t irony be the best response? Wouldn’t simple un-ironic answers be the wrong response?

But the same could be said of Thrasymachus’ whole confrontational manner. He had been listening to Socrates’ “habitual irony” (Thrasymachus’ interpretation) and his habit of only asking questions and never answering himself. Was Thrasymachus’ confrontational manner, then, not the fitting response to Socrates’ “habitual irony”?

Thrasymachus’ substantive answer to the question of justice, moreover, doesn’t seem entirely unreasonable: ‘the guy who drives the bus makes the rules for the bus,’ interpreted one person. Maybe it’s not ultimately right, but it’s not a crazy answer.

Pushing this even further, Thrasymachus may even himself be a figure of irony – Socrates in disguise, someone suggested. He may not be as big and scary as he appears, but is just doing this, to push back at Socrates in a way that matches Socrates own methods, although in reverse – that is, by giving a pretense to be “unironic” and trying to say exactly what he means, he is in fact doing this to oppose Socratic irony. In this way of reading, we have Thrasymachean irony toe-to-toe with Socratic irony.

Thus the conversation comes down to understanding the meaning of “habitual (or customary) irony”. What is at stake in this qualification? The alternative might be that Socrates’ irony was deliberate, or conscious – rather than habitual or customary. In this case, he was using irony for a purpose, with intelligent use, with a specific end in mind, besides being merely habitual or customary with the ulterior motive of winning a victory (as Thrasymachus seems to think)

However we understand “habitual irony”, we have been led to the question of the nature and the value, worth or good of Socrates’ whole manner and his activity – even his existence or his life. This section has managed to thrust not only Thrasymachus onto the scene, but has brought out into open conflict the question (and even the questionableness) of  Socrates’ own life lived in “philosophizing” (as he calls it in the Apology) – even the nature of philosophy as he lived it.

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