The Challenge of Thrasymachus: Making a Grown Man Blush

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7. A Pit Stop on Good Rulers

Socrates remains unpersuaded. Socrates recapitulates his previous argument about political rule: the same way a doctor cares not for his benefit as a doctor but for his patient, a ruler cares not for his own benefit but for the people over which he rules. Political rule seen this way looks like a hassle: you have to involve yourself in the care of others and their troubles. And that’s why, Socrates goes on, people ask for payment to rule — whether in money or honor. But there’s an intriguing third kind of payment: “penalty if he should not rule,” (347a).

Glaucon’s response should be ours: “What do you mean by that, Socrates?” (347a).

Asking that question reveals to Socrates that Glaucon doesn’t “understand the wages of the best men.” Ruling for love of money or honor is a reproach. It’s clear to Socrates that the best do not rule out of greed or ambition, but “they enter on it as a necessity and because they have no one better than or like themselves to whom to turn it over,” (347c). The penalty good men would suffer for not shouldering the yoke of leadership would be to shoulder the burden of a corrupt polity.

But then Socrates makes a strange argument: “For it is likely that if a city of good men came to be, there would be a fight over not ruling, just as a there is now overruling; and there it would become manifest that a true ruler really does not naturally consider his own advantage but rather that of the one who is ruled,” (347d). Instead, everyone would rather be benefited by those who rule than do the benefiting. One might be skeptical of this entirely. Wouldn’t ruling be made easier by ruling over good men? Also, do we really believe men aspire to political office out of moral duty? Two respective replies present themselves. First, Plato’s forwarding the idea here that to be ruled is ultimately better than to rule. We encounter this position more often than we think. “This is going to hurt me more than it hurts you, but it’s for your own good,” might be the best commonplace to elucidate the political vision articulated here. Secondly, I don’t believe Plato’s so naive as to think that the majority of politicians, especially in Athens, have strong moral motivations to rule. In fact, I think this goodness is exceedingly rare and thus rulers must be exceedingly few. And, because it’s better to be ruled than to rule, they must somehow be compelled to rule — a lot more on which later.

But hasn’t Socrates left a flank open to Thrasymachus? He’s just openly admitted that it’s burdensome to rule. And while he’s diametrically opposed to Thrasymachus’ claim that justice is the benefit of the stronger, hasn’t he implicitly argued that to be just is to live a more difficult life than to be unjust? That he hasn’t is what remains to be proved.

8. Making a Grown Man Blush

Why does Thrasymachus blush? It happens after Socrates catches him in a fatal contradiction. In a roundabout way, Socrates has taken Thrasymachus’ claim that the unjust man is both wiser and smarter than the just man, and so a better man, and upended it. Thrasymachus blushes because he’s been chastened by Socrates. His provocations haven’t held up under interrogation. Certainly, Socrates deploys a confusing chain of thought to arrive at his conclusion.

“[T]he just man does not get the better of what is like, but of what is unlike, while the unjust man gets the better of like and unlike?” Socrates asks (349d). Thrasymachus agrees. The just man seeks only to outdo or have an advantage, over the unjust man. Whereas the unjust man seeks to have the advantage overall. But then Thrasymachus accepts that knowledgeable men won’t seek to take advantage over other practitioners or the branch of knowledge itself, whether in music or in medicine. They will only try to gain advantage over those who aren’t musical or practiced in medicine. But then Thrasymachus said that those who know are wise, those who are ignorant unwise. And that those who are ignorant try to get the better of those like and unlike them, whereas those who are knowledgeable only try to get the better of their opposite, i.e. the ignorant. But the just man only gets the better of his opposite, as was said before, therefore the just man is knowledgeable, the just man ignorant. This contradicts Thrasymachus’ earlier position. And he gives in to Socrates when Socrates points it out.

Whether or not Socrates’ line of thinking makes sense, it reinforces an earlier assumption that will shape much of the rest of the book: justice as a form of knowledge. And it firmly anchors the question of justice in the question of personal ethics rather than in legal or proto-sociological questions. It’s important to read the scene of Thrasymachus’ blush dramaturgically as well. More than just a vessel for a set of ideas, he’s both a historical figure and a character with his own suite of emotional responses to the interaction he’s having with Socrates. His blush should be read as the provocateur’s humiliation before reason. No longer can he, beast-like, press his argument because his argument doesn’t hold water. The force of his argument has sundered. His failure to press his case against Socrates isn’t just intellectual: it’s a folly born of ethical unseriousness. His immodesty and boldness cost him his pride and his thought.

For the remainder of the book, Thrasymachus hardly puts up a fight as Socrates argues two additional planks: injustice breeds disharmony and stymies effective action. Take, for example, the idea of “honor among thieves.” Could they really form a society knowing that each is angling for his own advantage over the others? Rather, justice should hold the society together, allowing each to act and each group to exist in harmony with the other. The second plank is that the just man is happier than the unjust man. It’s a question of excellence or virtue. If living is the work of the soul, then living, like all work, has a standard of excellence. How could the soul work well if deprived of virtue? It couldn’t. And if justice is a virtue of the soul and not a vice, then it seems fair that the just man lives a better life than the unjust man.

This reads as a serious routing of Thrasymachus. But there’s only crucial question left unanswered: what is justice? And it’s this question that Adeimantus and Glaucon take up in book two.



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