Plato Republic

Summary of 339b-341c

Socrates has managed to provoke Thrasymachus to say more about what he rally means when he says that justice is the advantage of the “stronger”.  He provokes Thrasymachus by recourse to what would be the most obvious misreading of his statement.  ”Of course” Thrasymachus doesn’t mean that if a great deal of meat is fitting for Polydamas the wrestler, then it is fitting for the rest of us. Socrates’ less-than-merciful – or even absurd – interpretation provokes Thrasymachus to say what he means. The just is the advantage of the stronger in the way the rulers of tyrannical, democratic and aristocratic regimes set down laws that are to their own advantage.

Socrates begins to test Thrasymachus’ idea, in order to “consider whether what he is saying is true.”  It seems right to say that the just is something of an advantage, although it is less clear whether it is necessarily the advantage of the stronger.

In the course of testing it, the argument turns on it head:  justice turns out in some cases to be the advantage of the weaker, if it is true that even the stronger, the rulers, sometimes make mistakes.

At this moment, Polemarchus reenters the conversation here, having been shunted aside by Thrasymachus’ entry into the argument, and he blurts out his whole-hearted agreement with Socrates.  But his reentry is troubled by Cleitophon, who interrupts him, disagreeing with Polemarchus.  The two young men tussle for a few moments about what Thrasymachus did say or did in fact mean.  

On Cleitophon’s reading, Thrasymachus said that justice was what the stronger believed to be the advantageous.  Polemarchus correctly denies that Thrasymachus ever said such a thing, and then Socrates settles it by shifting the question to whether Thrasymachus would mean that now – that justice would be what seems to be advantageous to the stronger.

Thrasymachus rejects this entirely and offers a ‘precise speech’ designed to counter Socrates’ argument about rulers making mistakes. A ruler as a ruler, that is, at his best, does not make mistakes. Insofar as he makes mistakes, he is not a ruler.  Before he begins this speech, he calls Socrates a “sycophant” in argument.

When he finishes, Socrates, instead of turning directly to the argument, brings up this charge of sycophancy – so you think I’m being a sycophant in argument? Thrasymachus doubts Socrates can overpower him in argument, so confident is he that he will win a victory. This section ends with Thrasymachus calling Socrates a “nonentity” in argument – which may be worse charge than sycophancy. We have the sense of things getting ugly here.

Opening Question

The ‘drama’ – or the action – and the ‘argument’: how do we read these two together in this section – in particular the ‘insults’, personal innuendo – or the attention away from the arguments to the men themselves?  One place we can zero in on is: What is Thrasymahus doing here in the dialogue? How does it help us understand something of the larger conflicts at stake here?


One of the starting points of our conversation was to see if we can even agree with Socrates that Thrasymachus’ definition requires clarification – regardless of whether it is true, that clarification is needed before deciding whether it is true or not. We’ve seen Thrasymachus already offer clarification three times – which would suggest that it is indeed in need of clarification.  The conclusion at  339e (where the argument is turned on it head) is not intended to be a ‘refutation’ of the Thrasymachean idea, but merely serves as yet another provocation for further clarification from Thrasymachus – and it again succeeds to elicit further explication as we see at 341b.  It looks like Socrates is beginning to succeed in ‘taming’ Thrasymachus, in the sense that he manages to get him to continue saying more – despite the personal innuendo and insults levied.

Despite his evident desire to ‘stick with the point’ (and to make a point) Thrasymachus’ precise speech at 340d does not stick to explicating the strength of “rulers” but opens out onto a series of analogies  or examples as it pertains to arts or skills that might have little to do with rulers, at least not explicitly.  There is a comprehensiveness to these analogies – Thrasymachus is explaining what strength in rulers looks like by means of what strength in the practice of arts looks like.  Someone said this is cleverly Socratic.

Thrasymachus’ attempt to get Socrates to say what justice is has failed – for he is the one speaking. But, nevertheless, might we ourselves wish with Socrates and the others that Socrates would just come out and say what he thinks about justice?  We wonder what Plato has in store for us, in dialogue that is already moving away from Socrates’ examination of others’ opinions, toward a situation that wants to provoke Socrates himself to reveal something of what he himself believes is true.

It became apparent to us that both the action and the argument of this section continues elements already introduced in earlier parts of Book 1.  As to the action, Thrasymachus continues to attempt to ‘arrest’ Socrates here – with insults – and the first one is to call him a sycophant – and then he says Socrates is a ‘nonentity’ a nothing in the argument.  Socrates, we remember, was first arrested or stopped against his will – even plafyully – in the beginning of Book 1, as he was making his way home.

As far as the argument is concerned, Socrates introduces here the possibility that people make “mistakes”,  just as at 334c with Polemarchus. Even before this, when Cephalus was on the scene, Socrates’s ‘case’ of the man of unsound mind is related to this same thinking., that people’s state of mind and/or wisdom is not a stable. constant factor.

To the opening question, the group followed out two possible lines of interpretation:

On the one hand, Thrasymachus seems to impose discipline or order on Socrates. Socratic questioning has a way of unearthing buried opinions or provoking people to honesty. Thrasymachus’s reaction was such an attempt to provoke Socrates to be ‘honest’, to ‘out with it’, to stick to the point and stop playing with words.

On the other hand, Thrasymachus is familiar figure to the reader. There are Thrasymachean types, if you will, but even more than a mere character who behaves in an unseemly fashion, in this case, Thrasymachus is a passionate partisan of a certain idea about justice. There is in the figure of Thrasymachus a deeply cherished conviction that is concomitant with the character of the man. We bear witness to both elements. The question  therefore arises about the relationship between the to elements, between a man’s character on the one hand, and his most cherished beliefs and convictions, on the other.

As to his convictions, the conversation or encounter between Thrasymachus and Socrates has already provoked him to reveal something of these convictions. We might say that his conviction involves some sort of belief in dominion or domination (consider 341b and  his concern about whether or not Socrates will “overpower” him in argument.)

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