Thrasymachus: Irony, Cowardice, and Strength

Emmet Penney
3 min readSep 1, 2020
Photo by Enric Domas on Unsplash

2. Irony as Cowardice

Thrasymachus bursts into the conversation having held his tongue for most of Socrates’ and Polemarchus’ discussion. And he’s frustrated. “If you truly want to know what the just is, don’t only ask and gratify your love of honor by refuting whatever someone answers — you know that is is easier to ask then to answer — but answers yourself and say what you assert the just to be,” (336c). Socrates, according to Thrasymachus, hides behind a veil of irony, always disingenuous so as to trap his interlocutors thus winning honor over them by defeating their arguments without ever stating his own. A power indictment. It puts Socrates on the backfoot.

As they spar, the language shifts. Suddenly, it takes on the style of a trial before the assembly. This is, perhaps, a reference to Socrates' eventual trial and death sentence. But it’s also a callback to the language of the assembly that opened Book I when the question of persuasion versus force was first broached. So, what happens next happens at two levels. First, Socrates defeats the trained rhetorician in a mock trial, thus undermining the necessity for rhetoric and oratory as an aesthetic practice. Those, it turns out, have little to do with the truth. Which brings us to our second level: the theoretical. Thrasymachus cannot mount a successful defense of his ideas when he’s put to the test. Thus, the sophistic approach is dethroned by the Socratic.

Of course, Thrasymachus, by demanding Socrates define justice without synonym, without the game of comparisons to different techne he and Polemarchus committed themselves to, gets himself into trouble. Socrates refuses to supply such a definition. The task falls to Thrasymachus.

3. The Advantage of the Strong

Thrasymachus defines the just as “nothing other than the advantage of the stronger,” (338c). Of course, as Bloom notes, the definition of strong is fuzzy. Literally, the Greek translates to stronger, or superior, but then it could also mean something like excellence. Socrates immediately plays with this ambiguity by asking if a famous fighter is stronger than us and “beef is advantageous for his body, this food is also advantageous and just for us who are weaker than he is,” (338d). Obviously, Thrasymachus objects to this leap in logic and clarifies.

Take a democracy, and aristocracy, or a tyranny. In all three forms of government what is conventionally called “justice” can be understood as whatever serves the ruling class. As Thrasymachus himself puts it, “[I]n every city the same thing is just, the advantage of the established ruling body,” (338d). This should be taken as a sociological claim rather than a moral one. Thrasymachus isn’t claiming that it’s “good” that the abiding political system in a given society serves its ruling social strata. He’s pointing out a practical point of convergence among all societies: every political arrangement has a standard of justice and because it tends to serve the interests of those who govern “everywhere justice is the same thing, the advantage of the stronger,” (339a). It seems hard to argue with him. So, Socrates must shift the ground beneath him to best him.

Socrates first moves against Thrasymachus by asking him if obedience to the law is just. Thrasymachus consents. Some argue this can’t be true at the same time as Thrasymachus’ previous statement, but it’s important to remember Thrasymachus was initially identifying a ubiquitous convention of justice. Certainly, the ruling class sees the practical variant of justice they’ve institutionalized as just. If Socrates doesn’t catch him in a contradiction, then something else must be afoot.

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