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aus: Santas, Gerasimos (Hg.): The Blackwell Guide to Plato's Republic, S. 44-62

Thrasymachus on Justice

  • "Justice is the advantage of the stronger" (338c2-3): different ruling parties in each city make the laws for their own advantage, and decree that following those laws is "just"
  • treats "the advantage of the stronger" and "the advantage of the ruler" as equivalent (338e6-339a4)
  • justice is "the advantage of another person" rather than oneself (343c3-4): if you behave justly, others will reap the benefits of your behavior

these definitions are not equivalent (ruling for your own advantage x advantage of another person; tyranny is "the most complete injustice" (344a4)) - Thrasymachus is not giving a definition of justice, but rather is debunking it by pointing out the standard effects of justice as usually understood

cf Hesiod: justice is understood to be a matter of obeying the law, it is the virtue which makes us good citizens and neighbors

two different ways to challenge such a normative concept:

  • revise the scope of the term (Callicles in Gorgias: "according to nature, " it is just for the strong to take whatever they want from the weak)
  • leave the traditional extension of the term in place while changing its value (Thrasymachus: justice, understood as Hesiod does, is worthless to the person who possesses it)

"amoralist"/"immoralist": injustice contributes to making a person happy, that talk of "justice" is no more than a tool of exploitation

central assumption: a person's "advantage" = "good" = "happiness" must be understood in worldly terms, and in particular as a function of money and power; goods are assumed to be "zero-sum" (for one member of a community to have more of them is for another to have less); everyone is naturally motivated by pleonexia (greed), the drive to "have more" (pleon echein) of these goods

Thrasymachus thus silently excludes two related possibilities:

  • justice might have other effects as important as those he reports (psychological effects of justice on the just person, its operation within the family and on personal relations, how it affects our relations with the gods)
  • other goods than wealth and power could matter at least as much to us

Thrasymachus most bold and important claim is that his analysis of justice captures the most important facts about it

Thrasymachus and the Ruler in the Strict Sense

Socrates begins by getting Thrasymachus to agree that,

  1. justice is the advantage of the stronger, aka the rulers
  2. it is just to obey the rulers
  3. rulers sometimes err, and command what is not to their own advantage - this yields the contradictory result that
  4. it both is (2) and is not (1) just to do what the rulers command in such a situation (339d-e)

(Cleitophon: surely what Thrasymachus means is that justice consists in what the stronger or ruler believes to be his advantage)

Thrasymachus pointedly rejects this option and (3) by claiming that a "ruler" is an expert who never makes a mistake - no longer description of the empirical realm, but putting forward a norm for our approval (the perfect scientific tyrant of his imagination)

while Socrates and Thrasymachus are polar opposites, they can agree on a single crucial point: ruling is a craft (techné), and only the ruler who exercises power in a fully expert way deserves the name

Socrates' Refutation of Thrasymachus

five arguments; first group (I-III) investigate the shared hypothesis, that ruling "in the strict sense" is a craft; second round (IV, V) sets out some central properties of justice which explain why this is so - attempt not only to undermine Thrasymachus' attack on justice but to establish the opposed Socratic position: it is justice, not injustice, which makes us happy

I The "nature of craft" argument (341c-342e)

every craft has a distinctive object or subject matter and is "by nature set over this to seek and provide what is advantageous to it" (341d8-9)

  1. Every craft has a distinctive end, which consists in serving the good of its subject matter; thus the craft practitioner "in the strict sense" serves the good of the subject matter, not his own.
  2. A Thrasymachean ruler (i.e., an unjust, self-serving tyrant) serves his own good, not that of his subject matter (the ruled).
  3. Therefore, a Thrasymachean ruler ist not practicing a real craft.

the crucial thesis is (1); real craft is not self-interested but disinterested; nonetheless, (1) is eminently debatable; Socrates depends heavily on an "induction" (a survey of cases belonging to some general kind, leading to a general conclusion about that kind) - limitations of induction are obvious: the fact that a few examples of crafts are disinterested does not entail that all crafts are

Thrasymachus: "injustice, if it is on a large enough scale, is stronger, freer, and more masterly than justice. And, as I said from the first, the just ist what is advantageous to the stronger, while injustice is to one's own profit and advantage" - strong views, how an intelligent man should live - example of the shepherd shows, that Socrates' induction was unreliable

Socrates: even in the case of the shepherding, any benefit to the practitioner of the craft is incidental to it

-> we are left with a stalemate between two radically different conceptions of craft; the conflict between these conceptions endures today (e.g. in the field of journalism or medecine: making money or serving the public good?)

II The "wage-earning" argument (345e-347d)

real crafts only benefit their practitioners if extrinsic "wages" are given in return: that is why craft-practitioners get paid - wage-earning ist distinct from the crafts it accompanies

  1. Every distinct craft has a particular distinctive end, different from the ends of the others.
  2. Medicine and navigation are distinct crafts.
  3. Wages can result from the practice of both medicine and navigation.
  4. Therefore, wages are the end of neither medicine nore navigation.
  5. Therefore, wage-earning must be the end of a third craft distinct from medicine and navigation, and practiced by the doctor and navigator in common, namely wage-earning.

((4) does not follow from the previous premises without some further assumptions, (5) bypasses the obvious possibility that, though wages may result from the practice of various crafts they are not the end of any craft at all.)

if crafts as such were beneficial to their practitioners, why would they get paid?

argument does not really do anything to disarm Thrasymachus' counterexample of the shepherd; problem with I (every craft benefits not its practitioner but what it is "set over"), it's the wages who benefit?

III The "non-pleonectic" argument (349b-350c)

a craftsperson does not seek to "outdo" or act pleonetically towards fellow craft-practitioners, but rather to do the same as they do; Socrates' claim is, that injustice is structurally or formally unlike a craft precisely inasmuch as it is pleonectic, whereas justice does have the structure of a craft

  1. In practicing the recognized crafts, one expert does not act pleonectically in relation to another, but only in relation to the non-expert; the non-expert acts pleonectically in relation to everyone.
  2. An unjust person acts pleonectically in relation to everyone, whereas a just person is pleonectic only towards the unjust.
  3. Therefore, the unjust person is not the practitioner of a craft; and inasmuch as he resembles the expert, a just person is like a good and a clever one, and an unjust person like an ignorant and a bad one.
  4. Each person, the just and the unjust, "is such as the one he resembles" (349d, 350c5-8)
  5. Therefore the just person is good and clever, and an unjust one ignorant and bad.
  6. Justice is virtue and wisdom and injustice is vice and ignorance.

pleonektein is here not simply to outdo in competition but to maximize one's possession of some good in a zero-sum context - since the goals aimed at in the practice of a craft do not exclude each other, craft is not competitive in the "win/lose" or "zero-sum" way characteristic of Thrasymachean pleonexia and the practice of injustice

IV The "gang-of-thieves" argument (351b-352b)

injustice is, in groups, a cause of disunity, conflict and impotence

  1. In groups, justice unifies, empowers, and enables successful action, while injustice does the opposite.
  2. Justice within a single individual must have the same effects on the soul as it does in groups.
  3. Therefore, justice within a single person must unify and empower that person's soul, while injustice does the opposite.

Socrates' thesis (2) can apply to an individual only on the assumption that a human being is a system with component parts, analogous to the members of the criminal gang, each of which can be just or unjust towards the other (cf Book IV) - Socrates' argument that we need internal justice has not shown that justice in the traditional, external sense is empowering or otherwise useful for us as individuals

The "function" argument (352d-354a)

this argument begins with a long induction to support the claim that the function of anything is "that which one can do only with it or best with it"

  1. The virtue of anything is what enables it to perform its function well.
  2. The function of the human soul is "taking care of things, ruling, deliberating and the like," and indeed living itself (353d3-10).
  3. Justice is the virtue of the human soul (conclusion of argument III).
  4. Therefore, justice enables a human soul to deliberate and live well.
  5. Whoever lives well is happy.
  6. Therefore, "the just person is happy, and the unjust one wretched" (354a4)

Conclusions: The Function and Limitations of the Arguments

the debate between Socrates and Thrasymachus can be read on many levels:

  • as merely a trailer for the argument to come in the rest of the Republic
    - The Book I arguments are not just gesturing towards Book IV as a nice artistic touch, or softening us up for it as a rhetorical gambit: they are a philosophically necessary preparation for us to recognize justice when we encounter it there.
  • as a deliberate exercise in failure
    - the defects of the arguments, and in particular their failure to address the essential nature of justice, are intrinsic to them precisely because of the role as preparation for the essential account

important to distinguish between arguments "on the way to first principles" (Book I) and "from the first principles" (Book IV): it is like the difference between the race to the turning point and then back to the finish line

The Book I arguments are arguments on the way to the first principles (that is, the full account of justice in Book IV), and we can only really appreciate them when we have seen how they serve that function - which means, when we come to them again after reading the book as a whole. They show that the Republic is (as you already knew) a book to be read more than once.