Sunday, October 24, 2010

Thrasymachus’ Support for Justice Being the Advantage of the Stronger

 Greek sophist Thrasymachus of Chalcedon
(ca. 459 - 400 B.C.E.)

In Book I of Plato’s Republic, Thrasymachus claims that “the just is nothing other than the advantage of the stronger.” Asked by Socrates to explain the statement, Thrasymachus says that in each city that is ruled tyrannically, democratically, or aristocratically, the ruling group is master. He says, “each ruling group sets down laws for its own advantage; a democracy sets down democratic laws, a tyranny, tyrannic laws; and the others do the same. And they declare that what they have set down… is just for the ruled, and the man who departs from it they punish as a breaker of the law and a doer of unjust deeds.” He says, “in every city the same thing is just, the advantage of the established ruling body. It surely is master, so the man who reasons rightly concludes that everywhere justice is the same thing, the advantage of the stronger.”

While Socrates examines Thrasymachus’ point of view, he gets Thrasymachus to say that it is just to obey the rulers, and also that rulers sometimes makes mistakes, setting down some laws correctly and some incorrectly. Thrasymachus agrees that a law that sets down what is advantageous for the rulers is correct, and the law that sets down what is disadvantageous for the rulers is incorrect.

Socrates tells him that, according to his argument, “it’s just to do not only what is advantageous for the stronger but also the opposite, what is disadvantageous”. Thrasymachus defends his statements by saying, “I suppose that each [the doctor and the calculator]…, insofar as he is what we address him as, never makes mistakes.” He says, “The man who makes mistakes makes them on account of failure in knowledge and is in that respect no craftsman.” and “…the ruler, insofar as he is a ruler, does not make mistakes; and not making mistakes, he sets down what is best for himself.”

Socrates and Thrasymachus agree that the doctor is one who cares for the sick and not primarily a money-maker, and that the pilot is a ruler of sailors and not primarily a sailor. They also agree that the art, whether it is medicine or ruling sailors, is “directed toward seeking and providing for the advantage of each”. Socrates says “there isn’t ever anyone who holds any position of rule, insofar as he is a ruler, who considers or commands his own advantage rather than that of what is ruled and of which he himself is the craftsman; and it is looking to this and what is advantageous and fitting for it that he says everything he says and does everything he does.”

Here, Thrasymachus, rather than agreeing, tells Socrates that he thinks that shepherds, cowherds, and rulers only take care of their subjects as it relates to how they themselves, the rulers, will benefit, and that he thinks that Socrates would disagree. Thrasymachus reasons that “the just man everywhere has less than the unjust man”, and he speaks of situations in which the just man suffers more than the unjust. He says there is more advantage in being unjust than there is in being just, and that “injustice… is mightier, freer, and more masterful than justice”, reiterating that the just is the advantage of the stronger, and adding that “the unjust is what is profitable and advantageous for oneself.” He thinks that injustice rules the just, that people who serve make their rulers happy but do not make themselves happy. Socrates responds to this by suggesting that Thrasymachus thinks of the shepherd as primarily a money-maker and not a shepherd, and argues that “art surely cares for nothing but providing the best for what it has been set over”.

They agree that rulers rule willingly, though not voluntarily, as they demand wages. Socrates says, “the benefit the craftsmen derive from receiving wages comes to them from their use of the wage-earner’s art in addition.” Thrasymachus agrees with Socrates that if the craftsman were not paid, he would derive no benefit from practicing his craft, and so Socrates says that “no art or kind of rule provides for its own benefit, but… it provides for and commands the one who is ruled, considering his advantage – that of the weaker – and not that of the stronger.” He says that decent men rule because they fear being ruled by a worse man were they to choose not to rule, and so they rule out of necessity, and the ruled “choose to be benefited by another rather than to take the trouble of benefiting another.”

Thrasymachus maintains that injustice is more profitable than justice, and says that justice is high-minded innocence and injustice is good counsel. He says that “those who can do injustice perfectly… and are able to subjugate cities and tribes” are good and prudent. He says that injustice is among virtue and wisdom, and justice is among their opposites. Socrates says, “if you had set injustice down as profitable but had nevertheless agreed that it is viciousness or shameful… we would have something to say… But as it is… injustice is fair and mighty, and, since you also dared to set it down in the camp of virtue and wisdom, you’ll set down to its account all the other things which we used to set down as belonging to the just”, and Thrasymachus agrees.

When Socrates asks Thrasymachus whether the just man and the unjust man would want to and would claim they deserve to get the better of each other, he says yes. He also says that “the just man is like the wise and good, but the unjust man like the bad and unlearned.” He says that the good and wise man will want to get the better of the unlike, while the bad and unlearned man will want to get the better of both the like and the unlike. Socrates says, “the just man has revealed himself to us as good and wise, and the unjust man unlearned and bad”, and Thrasymachus uneasily agrees to this.

Socrates says, “if justice is indeed both wisdom and virtue… it is also mightier than injustice, since injustice is lack of learning”. Thrasymachus tells Socrates that justice is not wisdom, and therefore a city that enslaves another does so with injustice, but if justice is wisdom, it does so with justice.

Thrasymachus agrees that injustice produces quarrels, justice produces friendship, and that if a group of people with some common unjust enterprise would be more able to accomplish something if they didn’t act unjustly to each other. Likewise, Thrasymachus agrees with Socrates’ assertion that if injustice should come into being within one man, that man will cease to be of one mind with himself, and he would be an enemy to himself, to just men, and to gods.

Socrates and Thrasymachus agree that there is some work and some virtue that belong to a horse, and to eyes and ears. Socrates asks if things could do their work if their virtue were to be replaced with vice, and Thrasymachus says that they would work badly. They agree that the soul must have some virtue, and that it would not accomplish its work were it deprived of its virtue. Socrates reiterates that the virtue of the soul is justice, and argues that this means that the just man and the just soul will have a good life, and that “it is not profitable to be wretched; rather it is profitable to be happy”, and also that “injustice is never more profitable than justice.” Thrasymachus ends the discussion by saying that he does not know what the just is, nor whether it is a virtue or whether a just man is happy or unhappy.

For more entries on justice, crime, and punishment, please visit:

For more entries on theory of government, please visit:

1 comment:

  1. You might enjoy this blog entry on Thrasymachus. If you don't, that's okay too, it's a relatively free country: