Polemarchus The Problem of Power

Emmet Penney
3 min readAug 18, 2020
Photo by Iuliia Isakova on Unsplash

2. The Problem of Power

We learn from their back and forth that justice doesn’t make lyre players better lyre players, carpenters better carpenters, etc. Polemarchus states that justice might be good for guarding things, like money or weapons. Socrates counters that justice only becomes useful when tools are useless. Socrates suggests they take a different tack: “Let’s look at it this way. Isn’t the man who is cleverest at landing a blow in boxing, or any other kind of fight, also the one cleverest at guarding against it?” (333e).

Anyone who’s done some fighting might take issue with the premise — I’ve sparred with plenty of people who could take my head off but couldn’t keep their hands up or move their head off the centerline to save their lives. But as he develops this line of thought it becomes clear what he’s aiming at. If the good boxer understands both offense and defense, a good guardian both how to protect and how best to steal, then we start to see that a subtle distinction is being drawn between power and justice. If one’s enemies are bad, and one’s friends are good, then visiting harm upon your enemies and helping your friends gives you broad license. Socrates puts a fine point on it by taking Polemarchus’ conception of justice to its conclusion: “Justice, then, seems […] to be a certain art of stealing, for the benefit, to be sure, of friends and the harm of enemies,” (334b).

Polemarchus denies that this is the case. But this marks an important juncture in the dialogue, one that will be taken up with Thrasymachus takes the stage. Justice can’t be reduced, Plato suggests, to the power of the strong over the weak, in the friction between friend and enemy. Justice is a different capacity altogether. But of what kind?

3. Friends and Enemies: Take Two

Polemarchus hopes to save his point by pointing that it’s about helping friends who are good and hurting enemies who are bad. His hopes evaporate when Socrates reminds him people often make mistakes about who seems good and who seems bad. And if the good do justly and the bad unjustly, then doing right by one’s friends and wrong by one’s enemies can’t satisfy us as it relies on another level of discernment: whether one’s friends are good and whether one’s enemies are, in fact, bad.

This puts the conversation in an awkward place, as now it seems that it’s “just to harm the unjust and help the just,” (334b). Polemarchus suggests revising their definition of friend and enemy, even if it means abandoning Simonides, to accommodate the new definition of justice. Friends are those who both seem and are good. Enemies include those who seem good, but are bad, and those who seem bad and are bad — absent it seems, are those who might seem bad but are good. Thus, justice seems to be rewarding those who are good and punishing those who are bad.

But this won’t do either. And here we see the Greek word “arete,” translated as “virtue,” arrive. Socrates asks Polemarchus if, when you harm dogs and horses, it harms their “virtue,” or their essential excellence as dogs and horses. Polemarchus then agrees a step further: what goes for dogs and horses goes for humans. Hurting someone doesn’t necessarily make them better and often makes them worse. How could making someone less excellent as a human being count as justice? Justice, then, can’t be administering harm. The just man, Socrates asserts, never does harm.

So if justice isn’t power and it isn’t punitive, what is it? So far, it’s a skill and it’s a skill that has to do with human excellence, i.e. virtue, or “arete.”

But just as Polemarchus and Socrates agree to “do battle” with any who might contend that justice is power, the stage is set for perhaps the most important man in the dialogue: the sophist Thrasymachus, who won’t let them off the hook.