Thrasymachus is perhaps the most important interlocutor Socrates encounters in The Republic. His argument (and it feels more like an argument than a discussion) with Socrates instigates the rest of the action. The conceptions of justice he poses and fails to defend continue to trouble Glaucon and Adeimantus who in turn demand from Socrates greater and deeper explanation. But before we dive into their dispute, we need to understand who he is and why he’s in The Republic.
1. The Wolf of the Republic
A sophist by trade, Thrasymachus hailed from Chalcedon, a vital trading port at the mouth of the Black Sea near modern-day Turkey. Thrasymachus’ had a substantial impact on the practice of rhetoric in Athens. Manipulating strong emotions, mounting accusations, and dispelling them comprised his personal rhetorical style. What we know from fragments indicates that he held particularly conservative political views.
But we also know he served in a diplomatic role for his hometown. In 307 BC, Chalcedon tried and failed to throw off the Athenian imperial yoke. Thrasymachus spent his greatest rhetorical resources to dissuade Athens from seeking harsh reprisals. This might color how we receive his ideas below. But for now, we need to understand his trade: sophistry.
Sophists came to play a vital role in Athenian politics. As the democracy flowered, so did the demand for elite education into the arts of rhetoric and oratory — persuasion and the shaping of opinion being crucial to any democracy, but especially one as direct as Athens’. So, sophists, who traveled from polis to polis teaching the children of the elite in these arts, came to hold a significant station in the Athenian world.
As Ellen Meiksins Wood points out in Citizens to Lord: A Social History of Western Political Thought from Antiquity to the Late Middle Ages, we shouldn’t “misled by the unflattering portraits of these intellectuals pained in particular by Aristophanes and Plato, for whom they represented the decline and corruption of Athens.” The Athenian democracy depreciated the power of its ancestral aristocracy in two ways: farmers didn’t have to produce for the classes above them, which created political (and thus theoretical) wiggle room within the polis; the enfranchisement of their military class. The sum force of these facts placed the aristocracy in the minority. And it also meant that tradition played a smaller role in Athenian political life than elsewhere. Thus, as Wood writes:
What [sophists] generally had in common was a preoccupation with the distinction between physis (nature) and nomos (law, custom, or convention). In a climate in which laws, customs, ethical principles, and social and political arrangements were no longer taken for granted as part of some unchangeable natural order, and the relation between written and unwritten law was a very live practical issue, the antithesis between nomos and physis became the central intellectual problem.
Sophists, then, made for part of the Athenian sense-making apparatus. And the sense they made, from an aristocratic standpoint, looked decadent and contributed to Athens’ decay from aristocratic greatness to common squalor.
It’s easy to see why Thrasymachus duels with Socrates in light of all this. His perspective, which falters under the pressure of the Socratic dialectic, is one of the many intellectual contributions unacceptable to Plato on political and philosophical grounds. In refuting Thrasymachus, a new political theoretical ground for the Athenian polity gets established — if not in practice, then in theory.
Next time, we’ll take being our close reading of Thrasymachus’ challenge to Socrates.
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