Plato Republic
Conversation held on Monday, March 26th 2018, 8 pm Central (9 EST/6 Pacific) 

“I went down to the Piraeus yesterday with Glaucon son of Ariston, to pray to the goddess; and at the same time, I wanted to observe how they would put on the festival, since they were now holding it for the first time…”

Opening Quesion: 

Tonight we attempted to think through Book I as a whole. A Platonic dialogue exhibits an unfolding argument in the context of actions or deeds. What is the argument and action of Book I? And – presuming we have a sense of what both of these are –  how do we read them together? For example, what light does the action of Book I shed on the unfolding argument of Book I?

Observations:  

While there are many important actions of Book I, we regarded the central action of Book I as the appearance and presence of Thrasymachus: he comes onto the scene at 335b like a wild beast.

Thrasymachus’ aggressiveness is a most obvious trait of his character at this point. After this, Thrasymachus insults Socrates several times, until his final acquiescence near the end of Book I. This change that has come over him presents a striking contrast to his initial entry into the conversation.

Someone wondered what is underlying this change: was Thrasymachus tamed, because Socrates managed to (by refuting his argument) win him over? Or did he just give up? And if he just gave up, what light does this shed on the argument near the end of Book I?

Casting a glance forward to the very beginning of Book II, Glaucon is himself not satisfied with Thrasymachus’ easy surrendering. This might suggest the latter, that Thrasymachus has merely given up. Evidently he believes that Socrates will just play unfairly anyway with his cowardly questioning (playing ‘shell games’ as some like to call it). And – in his view – if only he had a fair chance to respond with a big speech, that is, to say as much as he likes – instead of being chopped up and cut down to size by Socratic questioning.  On this reading, Thrasymachus still holds fast to his convictions in his heart about the best way of life, and has not been moved from his initial position. No learning has taken place.

What are his convictions? On the face of it we might easily be led to assume, then, that preaching a doctrine of power or tryanny as the best means to happiness, Thrasymachus believes himself to be one of these strong human beings. Could it be rather that he is not one of the strongest, but the opposite: one who has been on the receiving-end of injustice, who has suffered at the hands of injustice? He would thus be espousing a doctrine of the ‘real world’.  His impatience with Socrates could then be the impatience with one who is naive, a ‘high-minded innocent’, willfully overlooking the ‘real world’ facts of life.

A question was raised: What insight might Thrasymachus be bringing into the discussion of Book I?  If we are to think through, down to the roots, the problem of justice, we might come to see that, sooner or later, it will be necessary to come to terms with the Thrasymachean insight: the ‘reality’ that those who follow the path of justice suffer harm at the hands of the unjust, that they are the ‘losers’, while  those who a really good at being unjust – who seek only their own advantage and get away with it ‘big time’ – are the ‘winners’.

Socrates apparently does not accept the conclusion that “therefore” injustice is acceptable or justified, and we ourselves ought to follow the path of the perfectly unjust man if we know what is good for us.   

While not accepting the Thrasymachean conclusion (that therefore injustice is the mightiest and best, and therefore justified), Socrates seems to accept the Thrasymachean problem – and even the most fundamental terms of that problem. The core conflict between Thrasymachus and Socrates is a conflict of visions about the best way of life and how to get it: what is the best way to accomplish great things, that is, the happiness of the individual or of the city?

Thrasymachus seems to think that only the happiness of the individual is possible, in the form of the most perfect tyrant, making the city subservient to his own advantage. A clever form of injustice – that manages to fool everyone – is the best means to individual happiness. Socrates’ argument, on the other hand, defies this, and says that happiness is – rather – the just man’s province, because he is most able to accomplish things (and justice is the power of accomplishing things).

But the suggestion that it could also serve the city’s happiness, that the just man’s happiness could lead to the city’s happiness, is only implied by 352a, but is left unsaid t the conclusion of the argument.

This loose end, then, suggests that there is a question whether the good of the individual person and the good of the city can be harmonized, or whether there is a fundamental tension between the two aims, the aims of the individual and the aims of the city in its question for the good life.

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