The Challenge of Thrasymachus: Art and Interest

Emmet Penney
2 min readSep 15, 2020

5. Art and Interest

Socrates accepts Thrasymachus’ repositioning. But Socrates has a request: “[M]ake it clear whether you meant by the ruler and stronger the man who is such only in common parlance or the man who is such in precise speech, whose advantage you said a moment ago it will be just for the weaker to serve because he is stronger?” (341b). Socrates wants to take up the idea of the stronger “in the precise sense” for two reasons. First, it appears to Thrasymachus that Socrates finally understands what he’s saying. When Thrasymachus spoke of “the stronger” he meant a precise, ideal type — ruler as ruler, nothing else. Second, it also gives Socrates the space to undermine Thrasymachus’ meaning and pivot back to techne, or art.

Because once Thrasymachus assents that he meant rulers “in the precise sense,” then Socrates can narrow the task of the ruler, as we see from his next questions. Are pilots — captains of ships — pilots because they sail, or because they rule over the sailors? In asking a question like this, Socrates covertly asks about the nature of political leadership. As a naval empire who enfranchised its soldiers, the metaphor of pilot for ruler abounded in Athenian discourse. The pilots of Athens guided the ship of the state towards its right direction. But what’s at the heart of Socrates’ question is this: is it the aim of the art of piloting to guide the sailors or to serve the pilot’s ambition? To put it more straightforwardly: if an art aims beyond itself, and if leadership is an art, then it aims for the benefit of something other than the leader. In unspooling this line of questioning, Thrasymachus comes to agree with Socrates: “Then such a pilot and ruler,” he says, “will consider or command the benefit not of the pilot, but of the man who is a sailor and is ruled,” (342e).

But if this is true, how can justice be the advantage of the stronger? This question suggests two possibilities for political rule: paternalism or cynicism. One could object there might be more options, but that those stand as the only offerings suggests an intense focus on the lives of the rulers. In effect, posing these two options inspires wonder at which is better or worse, and perhaps whether it's better to be a paternalistic ruler or a cynical, self-interested one. And it’s this framing that allows for the ethical questions soon embarked upon.