The Challenge of Thrasymachus: The Virgin Just Man vs. The Chad Unjust Man
6. The Virgin Just Man vs. The Chad Unjust Man
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the discussion of paternalism transitions to a discussion of the shepherd, the age-old archetype of benevolent, paternal authority. But Thrasymachus subverts the image. Socrates has been going on about the captain of the state who governs out of care and concern for his subjects. But doesn’t he recognize the difference between sheep and shepherd?
Thrasymachus points out, as a metaphor between governor and governed, shepherds care for their sheep out of self-interest. Socrates thus makes a mistake about the self-interest of rulership, which means he is “far off about the just and justice, and the unjust and injustice,” (343c). Here we get a re-articulation of Thrasymachus’s understanding of justice and injustice. Justice is “the advantage of the man who is stronger and rules, and a personal harm to the man who obeys and serves,” (343d). Injustice is a little trickier: when the subjects of the strong man “do what is advantageous for him who is stronger, and they make him whom they serve happy but themselves not at all,” (343d). This principle “rules the truly simple and just,” (343d). In other words, those who follow the rules do so in service of their “betters” at their own expense. But why is this an injustice?
Thrasymachus says the quiet part loud here. Ruling as such doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with ethics. In fact, those who rule likely do so because they’re strong and cruel as opposed to those in their thrall. At an empirical level, we can understand that political justice is a ruling class ideology. However, such an ideology commits an ethical injustice against those who are forced to serve.
But Thrasymachus takes this a step further. “[T]he just man,” he says, “everywhere has less than the unjust man,” (343d). This is clear in three cases: contracts, taxes, and office-holding. When it comes to contracts, the unjust man always ends up with more than the just man. When it comes to taxes, the unjust man always finds a way to pay less. And when it comes to office-holding, the just man suffers all the responsibilities and consequences of office without availing himself of “the public store,” (343e). In brief, nice guys finish last.
A dazzling defense of injustice, and thus of tyranny, concludes Thrasymachus’ argument. “So, Socrates,” Thrasymachus says, “injustice, when it comes into being on a sufficient scale, is lighter, freer, and more masterful than justice,” (344c). In other words, when ambitiously pushed beyond the realm of petty chiseling, injustice makes for the taproot of power and advantage. Thrasymachus touches on an uncomfortable truth here: the obscenity of power. One can imagine that even in the most democratic and neutral political system that once someone assumes power, regardless of who they were beforehand, a suite of temptations and advantages and abilities offer themselves up for abuse. And political power is often nothing but that advantage. But in making this cynical point Thrasymachus has left the door open for a greater discussion on what it means to be a just man or unjust man. And, more importantly, which type of man it’s better to be and why. This last question makes for the remainder of their discussion and launches the rest of The Republic’s action.