Plato Republic

Conversation of Monday, March 5th, 8 pm Central

Summary of 334e-349b

Thrasymachus has just poured out a shower of speech like a bathman - Socrates and the others refuse to let him get away after such a provocative speech about justice.

From 344e to 347e, the conversation has the character of reviewing what has just been said – with the added insistence on Socrates’ part that he – and perhaps others – are not convinced that the life of justice is as Thrasymachus says. Thrasymachus hurls yet another insult at Socrates: if you aren’t persuaded by what I have just now said, then perhaps you need a “force-feeding,” Socrates.  Thrasymachus continue his line of attack on Socrates at 343a, when he suggests that Socrates’ deficiency in understanding is due to the neglect of his wet-nurse.

To clarify things, Socrates starts out asking Thrasymachus whether those who rule rule willingly or not.  Thrasymachus not only thinks so, but says he knows so. Socrates proceeds to demonstrate that nothing could be further from the truth, that any ruling art applies the wage earner’s art in addition – a fact which implies that the ruling itself not only looks after the advantage of the ‘weaker’, but the practice of the art itself is not sufficient for ones own good.

Glaucon becomes startled when Socrates suggests at 347a that, besides money or honor, there could also be a penalty, in order to compel a person to rule willingly – and that all of these together would be called “wages.” Glaucon doesn’t understand what penalty Socrates has in mind, or why he would call it a wage.

Socrates clarifies by pointing out that the best men, the most decent ones, would never rule for money or honors – that both things would be considered reproaches.  The greatest of penalties, he says, is being ruled by a worse man if one is not willing to rule oneself.   He goes on to say that “if a city of  good men came to be, there would be a fight over not ruling, just as there now is over ruling; and there it would become manifest that a true ruler really does not naturally consider is own advantage but rather the one who is ruled.” (347d)

But at this point Socrates sets the argument aside for “another time” and turns to what he takes to be the “far bigger thing” – that Thrasymachus “asserts that the life of the unjust man is stronger than that of the just man.” He asks Glaucon which does he choose, and Glaucon chooses the just life.

Rallying the inquiry back onto track, Socrates begin asking Thrasymachus to clarify what he was trying to say – so that everyone has an understanding of what he means to say, or so that he is saying what he means, and is not at all joking or withholding his true thoughts. (349b).

Here he gets Thrasymachus to reveal that he thinks injustice is not only profitable, but that it is in fact the truly honorable and good counsel – whereas justice is “high-minded naivete”.  This is much harder to deal with, Socrates says, than if Thrasymachus had said, as most do, that while injustice is profitable, nevertheless it is shameful or vicious.

 Opening Question

Let’s turn to Socrates’ starting point in this section – the question he suddenly asks Thrasymachus at 345e, after reasserting the conclusion of the argument (that says that the best rulers consider nothing other than for what I ruled over and cared for): “do you think that rulers of cities, those whole truly rule, rule willingly?”

Where does this question come from? Why does Socrates start here?


Socrates reviews the disagreement that has come to light with Thrasymachus up until this point – and reasserts what he thinks is amply demonstrated as true. His question here (at 345e) seems to be aiming to get at the bottom of this disagreement. Thrasymachus thinks (or rather knows) that rulers do so willingly, whereas Socrates’ argument intends to show that the best rulers do not, that they need some additional thing besides – some sort of “wage”.

It looked to us that only when Socrates turns the argument toward the “far bigger thing” do we begin to get to the nerve of Thrasymachus’ core contention about the “strongest” way of life.   We reviewed the “bath of speech” and compared it with today’s reading to try to appreciate Thrasymachus’ vision of justice and injustice.

What Thrasymachus says leaves Socrates at a loss, even though it is a “more solid” thing to say. Thrasymachus does not hold (as we have seen) a common view that a life of injustice would be a vicious  and shameful way of life, but he “really seems to think” that it could be the most honorable – or the one deserving of the highest honors –  and thus characterized by wisdom and a sort of virtue of effectiveness. Justice, he says, is “high-minded innocence”, whereas injustice is simply “good counsel” –  realistic is a word we might use today to describe this.  

Thrasymachus seems to believe that the just man isn’t very good at life: he’s unaware, innocent, or unrealistic about how the world really works. He is easily exploited. Whereas the one Thrasymachus is calling “unjust”  is someone for whom justice simply does not enter into his calculations for life. He has, as it were, mastered an art of effective living: he lives guided by calculations of self-interest, and is self-protective, manages to avoid being exploited by others. But his calculations of self-interest are not aimed at small things, like merely surviving.  Rather, he looks to getting the better in the biggest way of all. The largest thing imaginable would be the task of subjugating whole cities to oneself – and getting away with it, that is, taking what is other people’s good by “stealth and force”, not bit by bit, but all at once – what Thrasymachus calls “perfect injustice” or complete injustice.

At 347a, Socrates introduced the notion that the best ruler is also the most decent human being, a notion that is also implied by his “city of good men”.  Here we’ve arrived at part of the core difference between Thrasymachus and Socrates: Thrasymachus thinks the best ruler is the master of the particular art of ruling, whichever one it happens to be – especially the kingly art, regardless of what kind of person he is. The art makes the man, rather than the man the art.   Socrates, by contrast, has the best ruler being identical to the best man, in the sense of the most decent human being, quite distinct from his ability to rule. 

At 348c, then, Socrates sets aside the previous disagreement to take up the far larger question –  that is, which is the “stronger” way of life, justice or injustice? As Socrates gets Thrasymachus to take up the questioning again, he opposes “perfect (or complete) justice” to Thrasymachus’ “perfect (or complete) injustice”: “Do you assert that perfect injustice is more profitable than perfect justice?”     

We may see here already the tantalizing seeds of what is to come.  

Socrates asks Glaucon what he prefers, as though he might be asking which one he would vote for. Glaucon prefers the life of justice, and doesn’t buy Thrasymachus’ vision (does Cleitophon?)  At this point, two sides are now pitted against each other – on one side, the life of perfect justice, and, on the other, the life of injustice. It might make sense, then, to present competing speeches, and have judges vote which one is best. Voting on the best speech would be tantamount to determining the best way of life.  Socrates, instead, urges them on in the same direction, at 348d – that is, the practice of coming to agreements, step-by-step, rather than pitting speech against speech, so that it would be easier to judge for themselves which is the better.

We reflected a little on this – why this way might yield better judgments than the other way. The other way, we thought, might be more difficult to come to any common ground on the issue of the best or the strongest way of life. Would a judgment made by many judges be at all reliable if it has not been able to establish firm common ground (in the definitions of key terms for example)? Someone suggested that Socrates’ approach might be more like the method that diplomats use to work through urgent matters. With such a large issue at stake, we would surely want our judgements to be sound, the most reliable ones possible. 

On the other hand, given the winding nature of dialogues, and our own conversations and reflections on these dialogues, it is tempting to conclude that Socrates’ way threatens to weaken or even undermines the ability to make sound judgments – a danger Thrasymachus himself (and perhaps even Cleitophon) is evidently concerned about.  We might reasonably wonder what Socrates takes to be “common agreements” and whether these are a sound basis for judgments about “far larger” matters like the strongest or best way of life.  

In one of the last observations of the evening, someone suggested that Socrates practices argument by stealth, undermining people’s beliefs and opinions, bit-by-bit, whereas Thrasymachus practices argument by force, trying to take it all at once.         

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