Plato Republic

Conversation held on 2/26/18, 8pm central. 

Summary of 341c-341e

Thrasymachus has just hurled another insult at Socrates, saying that he is a “nonentity” in argument, after correcting Socrates with his restriction of meaning, his precise speech about the ruler: the ruler as such doesn’t make mistakes.

Socrates says “Enough…” and then, step-by-step, proceeds to turn Thrasymachus’ argument around in the other direction (443a). All along he gets Thrasymachus’ assent. Although, as the argument proceeds, Thrasymachus throws up more and more resistance, but he can’t deny the conclusion: that rulers – and the masters of the arts on Thrasymachu’s analogy – all the arts look to benefit the things over which their art rules.   So on the analogy the Thrasymachus himself offers, the art of rulership looks to benefit the things over which it rules, namely the people, and does not look to advantage of itself or to the ruler.

When the argument reaches this point, Socrates narrates that it became evident to everyone what had happened, and then Thrasymachus hurled yet another insult at Socrates: He asks him if he has a wet nurse who wipes his sniveling nose…because it must be her fault that he can’t see the truth about the matter. He then goes on to “pour a great shower of speech” over everyone (344d). Here it is, in full:

“Because of what, in particular?” I said.

“Because you suppose shepherds or cowherds consider the good of the sheep or the cows and fatten them and take care of them looking to something other than their masters’ good and their own; and so you also believe that the rulers in the cities, those who truly rule, think about the ruled differently from the way a man would regard sheep, and that night and day they consider anything else than how they will benefit themselves. And you are so far off about the just and justice, and the unjust and injustice, that you are unaware that justice and the just are really someone else’s good, the advantage of the man who is stronger and rules, and a personal harm to the man who obeys and serves. Injustice is the opposite, and it rules the truly simple and just; and those who are ruled do what is advantageous for him who is stronger, and they make him whom they serve happy but themselves not at all. And this must be considered, most simple Socrates: the just man everywhere has less than the unjust man. First, in contracts, when the just man is a partner of the unjust man, you will always find that at the dissolution of the partnership the just man does not have more than the unjust man, but less. Second, in matters pertaining to the city, when there are taxes, the just man pays more on the basis of equal proper­ty, the unjust man less; and when there are distributions, the one makes no profit, the other much. And, further, when each holds some ruling office, even if the just man suffers no other penalty, it is his lot to see his domestic affairs deteriorate from neglect, while he gets no ad­vantage from the public store, thanks to his being just; in addition to this, he incurs the ill will of his relatives and his acquaintances when he is unwilling to serve them against what is just. The unjust man’s sit­uation is the opposite in all of these respects. I am speaking of the man I just now spoke of, the one who is able to get the better in a big way. Consider him, if you want to judge how much more to his private advantage the unjust is than the just. You will learn most easily of all if you tum to the most perfect injustice, which makes the one who does injustice most happy, and those who suffer it and who would not be willing to do injustice, most wretched. And that is tyranny, which by stealth and force takes away what belongs to others, both what is sacred and profane, private and public, not bit by bit, but all at once. When someone does some part of this injustice and doesn’t get away with it, he is punished and endures the greatest reproaches-temple robbers, kidnappers, housebreakers, defrauders, and thieves are what they call those partially unjust men who do such evil deeds. But when some­one, in addition to the money of the citizens, kidnaps and enslaves them too, instead of these shameful names, he gets called happy and blessed, not only by the citizens but also by whomever else hears that he has done injustice entire. For it is not because they fear doing unjust deeds, but because they fear suffering them, that those who blame in­justice do so. So, Socrates, injustice, when it comes into being on a sufficient scale, is mightier, freer, and more masterful than justice; and, as I have said from the beginning, the just is the advantage of the stronger, and the unjust is what is profitable and advantageous for oneself.”

After this “shower of speech”, Socrates says Thrasymachus tries to leave “like a bathman”, but no one lets him – he is forced to stay.  Socrates exhorts him to teach everyone the meaning of his extraordinary statement. (444e)

Opening Question

Let’s begin by understanding what happens to Thrasymachus’ initial argument – how and why it gets turned in the opposite direction – and then try to unpack Thrasymachus’ “shower of speech”.


As we worked though the opening question, our conversation revealed many things, but we walked away tonight with  least two agreements:

The arc of the encounter between Thrasymachus and Socrates, starting at 336b, involves a series of well-founded provocations on Socrates’ part to get Thrasymachus to say more, and thus reveal what he really thinks justice to be in fact.

The first uncovering takes place at 338c. Socrates responds with an absurd example which gets Thrasymachus to reveal his thoughts about politics and ruling at 338e.  Socrates offers a reasonable counter to this, which is that people make mistakes, including rulers. The argument gets turned around in the opposite direction, and the conclusion, which is ‘logical’, but seems facile and unsatisfactory, seems designed to get Thrasyamchus to say something more.  

Thrasymachus is provoked, but he doesn’t develop his idea at 338e. He simply tries to free his argument from its downturn by restricting the meaning of the ruler “in the precise speech” – the ruler in the precise sense, ruler as ruler, does not make mistakes (340d). Socrates takes this precision as his starting point, and manages to prove up its inadequacy.

On the basis of this precise speech, Socrates manages to at least show, that the very opposite of what Thrasymachus is trying to prove follows by necessity. Thrasymachus himself agrees that the arts in their precise sense, practice only the particular arts themselves- medicine, piloting or horsemanship, for example – and not the art of  moneymaking, or the art of personal enrichment.  Presumably, Thrasymachus, being who is, did not have to agree with this. But on the basis of the precise sense he himself offered, he was forced by his own argument to agree.

By agreeing to the precise separation of the two interests, namely, the interest of personal enrichment on the one hand, and the interest of the arts themselves and their various skills and aims, and the connection he makes between these arts and the ruling art, the only conclusion one can possibly come to, is the opposite of the one Thrasymachus wants to make.  So Thrasymachus’ attempt to dodge Socrates’ testing by restricting the meaning of rulership fails in this instance by the time we reach 343a.

The failure of the actual argument Thrasymachus offers, on the basis of the premises he himself offers (the restriction of meaning), is the most provocative of all that has come up in his encounter with Socrates – because he is at this point the most exposed to real or imagined ridicule – and thus Thrasymachus lets loose his torrent of speech, which, on our reading, is the third time Thrasymachus is provoked to say what he really thinks, taking his thought even further from what it was at 339a.  

We read his torrent of speech as getting to the core of a Thrasymachean vision of things. An indication of this is the action of the dialogue: Thrasymachus makes to leave after he’s done, as though indicating that he has said all he needs to say on the matter, or all he can say.  And what he has to say is that a life of perfect tyranny or perfect injustice, if it can even be imagined, is considered the happiest and most blessed life by all people – the person who can get away with the biggest injustice, and get the better in the biggest way and get away with it, is considered the happiest person alive. Now we are getting somewhere! No one wants Thrasymachus to leave, not even us, the readers.

The second agreement we reached tonight is that Socrates and Thrasymachus both seem to be doing each other a service in some way: that is, the argument has managed to reach a point where they are getting down to brass tacks, and getting real. We might think that Polemarchus and Socrates, left to their own devices, without Thrasymachus’ intervention, would never have reached this level of seriousness. Thrasymachus – with all of his behavior, which Socrates describes closely – wants Socrates to take seriously an idea or possibility that seems to have plausibility for a great many people. (And it may even have plausibility for the city of Athens – c.f. Thucydides Melian Dialogue (over a decade after Pericles’ Funeral Oration and the start of the war), and the Athenian response to Corinth’s complaints (to Sparta) in Book I of the Peloponnesian War, before the war had even started.) 

That Socrates has narrated this conversation of the Republic the day after, as precisely as possible, might indicate that he thinks what Thrasymachus has to say warrants serious consideration. It’s not Thrasymachus’ own idea, at least not exclusively his own.  The section for tonight ends at 344e with Socrates bidding Thrasymachus to stay, and not to leave, since something big in our lives clearly is riding on the question of justice – it’s not just an “abstract” thing, but a matter of greatest urgency.

Thus our thoughts are turned in that direction too, regarding the question concerning justice as not a trifling game to play intellectual dolls with, but to try and take it at a level of sufficient seriousness that it would seem to warrant. And we have not only Socrates but Thrasymachus to thank for this turn.

Share →

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>