Against Thrasymachus (Republic Book I)

Against Thrasymachus (Republic Book I)

Plato is one of the most influential philosophers in the history of western philosophy and the Republic is one of his most memorable works. New readers of Plato’s Republic are often surprised to learn that while it does contain important reflections about what constitutes an ideal city, they are not the primary subject matter of the book. Rather, the Republic is concerned with understanding the nature of justice (δίκαιος) and whether it is an intrinsic or merely instrumental good.

Though the dialogue begins with a discussion between Socrates and Cephalus, and then Polymarchus (his son) about a few putative definitions of justice, the more important argument begins when Thrasymachus tears into the discussion like a beast of prey (336b). He claims that Socrates is a charlatan and that justice is merely “the advantage of the stronger” (338c).[1] Rather than designating a real feature of persons, cities, laws, or actions, justice, claims Thrasymachus, is merely a matter of convention. To better understand this distinction between real and conventional properties consider the example of a quarter. A quarter, considered as a natural object, has a variety of properties. For example, it is made out of copper and nickel, weighs 5.67 grams, and is circular in shape. These are real properties. The object possesses them regardless of which cultural context it is examined in. If we travelled back in time and gave the quarter to a cavemen, it would still be composed of the same materials and retain its weight and shape. But, in addition to these real properties, quarters also have conventional properties, viz. carrying the monetary value of $.25 or 25 cents. You won’t find this property by looking to the quarter’s natural features. You won’t discover its monetary value by weighing it or determining its chemical composition. This is because monetary value is conferred externally by social conventions. Quarters are worth $.25 because those with the power to make that determination in our society have proclaimed them to be so.

            Thasymachus claims that the same holds for justice. Just as you won’t find the monetary value of a quarter by examining its material composition, weight, or shape, so you won’t find justice by looking at the characters of people or cities. Justice is a conventional property determined externally by those in power. Specifically, claims Thrasymachus, justice designates whatever benefits those who have the power to designate what justice is. So, justice, for Thrasymachus, is not just a conventional property, but a conventional property used by the strong to exploit the weak. It is “the advantage of established rule.” Rulers “declare what they have made–what is to their own advantage–to be just for their subjects, and they punish anyone who goes against this as lawless and unjust” (338e-339d). Whatever is advantageous to the ruling elites, they label just, while whatever is disadvantageous, they call unjust. Thrasymachus explains:

“Justice is really the good of another, the advantage of the stronger and the ruler, and harmful to the one who obeys and serves. Injustice is the opposite, it rules the truly simple and just, and those it rules do what is to the advantage of the other and stronger, and they make the one they serve happy, but themselves not at all” (343b-c).

            Thrasymachus claims that this is brought about by exerting total control over a population. Whereas if people exploit others on a small-scale they will likely be caught and punished “as temple robbers, kidnappers, housebreakers, robbers, and thieves when they commit these crimes”, when they exert full spectrum dominance and systematically exploit their subjects they will be praised as righteous. Thrasymachus observes,

“but when someone, in addition to appropriating their possessions, kidnaps and enslaves citizens as well, instead of these shameful names he is called happy and blessed, not only by the citizens themselves, but by all who learn that he has done the whole of injustice…. Injustice, if it is on a large enough scale, is stronger, freer, and more masterly than justice” (343d-344c).

            Thrasymachus’s position reverberates through the history of Western Philosophy. It echoes in Nietzsche’s genealogy of good and evil (as opposed to good and bad), in Marx’s critique of bourgeois ideology, in the feminist criticism of justice as a product of patriarchy and their attempt to replace it with an ethics of care, and in the myriad of critical theories rapidly being enshrined as orthodox dogma in many fields. Given that Thrasymachus’s position has now been declared orthodoxy and that to challenge it can lead one to be slandered, reviled, and canceled by one’s woke inquisitors, it is worth exploring Plato’s criticism of it.[2]

            Plato’s argument against Thrasymachus turns on the nature of craft or τέχνη and the analysis of its intentional structure.  τέχνη is an essential component of human culture. We raise crops, tend sheep, sail boats, build houses, and heal the sick. In each case, we direct our skills towards a particular subject matter. Skills and their subject matters stand in a symbiotic relation. On the one hand, the subject matter, considered in isolation, is imperfect and incomplete. Skill must be applied to bring it to completion and let it appear in its perfection. Without the farmer’s ploughing and planting, grains of wheat will not blossom into full fields. Timber will not become a house fit to dwell in save for the housebuilder fashioning it into one. And boats will not safely navigate from one point to another without a sailor to apply his craft. But, on the other hand, skill must be fitted to the nature of the subject matter. The farmer chooses his land, prepares it, and picks the right time to sow in virtue of the kind of seed sown. If one treated wheat as one did grapes in a vineyard, one would not reap a full harvest.

            Plato notes that when we analyze the structure of craft, we see that skill is exercised in the service of its subject matter. As a famous religious text observes:

“The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep” (John 10:12-13 ESV).

One practicing a craft cares for the subject matter of that craft. He is devoted to it and serves it. In other words, crafts are practiced for the benefit of their subject matters. Plato notes that “medicine does not seek its own advantage.. but that of the body…. And Horse-breeding doesn’t seek its own advantage but that of horses” (342c). Furthermore, since craft is active in applying skill to a subject matter while that subject matter itself is passive, a craft rules over its subject matter. Plato observes, “no kind of knowledge seeks or orders what is advantageous to itself, … but what is advantageous to the weaker, which is subject to it….No doctor, insofar as he is a doctor, seeks or orders what is advantageous to himself, but what is advantageous to his patient….” (342d). Thus, concludes Plato, since political rule is itself a craft, the ruler rules for the benefit of the ruled, and not the other way around as Thasymachus claimed.

“So, then, Thrasymachus, no one in any position of rule, insofar as he is a ruler, seeks or orders what is advantageous to himself, but what is advantageous to his subject, that on which he practices his craft. It is to his subject and what is advantageous and proper to it that he looks, and everything he says and does he says and does for it” (342e).

            Thrasymachus objects that Socrates’ analysis of craft is misguided, pointing to the case of shepherding. He contends:

“You think that shepherds and cowherds seek the good of their sheep and cattle, and fatten them and take care of them, looking to something other than their master’s good and their own. Moreover, you believe that rulers in cities–true rulers, that is–think about their subjects differently than one does about sheep, and that night and day they think of something besides their own advantage” (343b).

According to Thrasymachus, a shepherd tends his sheep not for their betterment, but for his belly. He doesn’t care about bringing them to perfection, but for his mutton dinner. Socrates responds by once more pointing out that Thrasymachus has misunderstood the nature of craft, conflating the craft of money making with that of shepherding. He observes:

“You [Thasymachus] think that, insofar as he’s a shepherd, he fattens sheep, not looking to what is best for the sheep but to a banquet, like a guest about to be entertained at a feast, or to a future sale, like a money-maker rather than a shepherd. Shepherding is concerned only to provide what is best for that which it is set over, and it is itself adequately provided with all its needs to be at its best when it doesn’t fall short in any way of being the craft of shepherding.” (345c-d).

Insofar as a man is a shepherd, he cares for his sheep, but insofar as he is a money-maker, he is concerned with acquiring as much profit as possible from the resources before him. So, the man Thrasymachus has described is not a shepherd, but a money-maker. And Thrasymachus has thus failed to undermine Socrates’ original argument. Craftsmen serve their subject matter. This is so even in the case of the craft of wage earning. Because craftsmen gain no benefit for practicing their particular crafts, another craft is needed which takes them as its subject matter. This is the craft of wage earning, “the additional craft…which benefits the craftsmen by earning them wages.” (356c).

            Within the confines of Plato’s Republic, Thrasymachus is convinced by the argument. But note that Socrates’ argument turns on the reality of craft. What if today we live under a regime, for one cannot in good faith call it a world, without craft. What if money-making, rather than being a subordinate craft, parasitic upon the others for its legitimacy, was enthroned as the highest, indeed the only, craft. What if technicity replaced τέχνη? One recalls Heidegger’s reflections on the way in which nature is set upon by the demands of modern technology:

“In contrast, a tract of land is challenged in the hauling out of coal and ore. The earth now reveals itself as a coal mining district, the soil as a mineral deposit. The field that the peasant formerly cultivated and set in order appears differently than it did when to set in order still meant to take care of and maintain. The work of the peasant does not challenge the soil of the field. In sowing grain it places seed in the keeping of the forces of growth and watches over its increase. But meanwhile even the cultivation of the field has come under the grip of another kind of setting-in-order, which sets upon nature. It sets upon it in the sense of challenging it. Agriculture is now the mechanized food industry. Air is now set upon to yield nitrogen, the earth to yield ore, ore to yield uranium, for example; uranium is set upon to yield atomic energy, which can be unleashed either from destructive or for peaceful purposes.

            This setting-upon that challenges the energies of nature is an expediting, and in two ways. It expedites in that it unlocks and exposes. Yet that expediting is always itself directed from the beginning toward furthering something else, i.e. toward driving on to the maximum yield at the minimum expense. The coal that has been hauled out in some mining district has not been produced in order that it may simply be at hand somewhere or other. It is being stored; that is, it is on call, ready to deliver the sun’s warmth that is stored in it. The sun’s warmth is challenged forth for heat, which in turn is ordered to deliver steam whose pressure turns the wheels that keep a factory running.”[3]

If there is no world, no craft, no natural things at all, then perhaps Socrates’ response falls flat and Thrasymachus is vindicated. If global finance is installed as the craft of all crafts, then, perhaps, there is nothing to craft itself other than an arbitrary exercise of power, where some stand in a position of privilege exploiting those beneath them. One could not, for example, appeal, in such a regime, to the practice of shepherding as an activity that concerns itself with the welfare of sheep and not the avarice of the shepherd. For, here shepherding would itself make sense only as one node in a network of power, one designed to advantage those who control that network. Shepherding would not be concerned with the good of sheep, but with the profit to be extracted from them (or, more properly, from units of their wool or flesh). We would thus have the outlines of a regime in which the Thrasymachean contention holds true: justice, indeed every property whatsoever, is the advantage of the stronger.

            But, thankfully, there are a couple of responses that can be given here. Note first that the contemporary disciple of Thrasymachus has not demonstrated a conceptual problem in Socrates’ position, but has simply asserted that it no longer describes contemporary society. At best, then, the modern day Thrasymachus has proven that the crafts pointed out by Socrates are no longer actual, but he has shown them neither to be impossible nor undesirable. This means that, in our contemporary context, the choice between the Socratic and Thrasymachean position is primarily a question of vision and will. All that is required to overturn to the Thrasymachean regime is to stop believing it and acting according to its demands. Are there any stirrings in your soul that there is something noble to be done, that something is deserving of love, care, and devotion? Start doing it. Care. Regardless of the propaganda coming from school, work, and legacy and social media. Begin to love something and love it sincerely and without apology. Write poetry, dance, make movies, philosophize, tend horses. Each craft you practice and revive is a part of nature reclaimed from the Thrasymachean regime. I’m reminded of another famous religious story of the good shepherd clearing the Temple of moneychangers.

“In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers sitting there. And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. And he told those who sold the pigeons, ‘Take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade’.” (John 2:13-16 ESV).

But, in our case, in contrast to that of the Galilean sage, no whip of cords or physical force is needed to clear the temple of Nature. The clearing comes from consciousness and devotion to craft.

            The second response to the contemporary Thrasymachus contends that his arrangement is contradictory and so destined to collapse. Once moneymaking successfully subverts all other crafts by converting them into profit, it will itself expire, having nothing left to feed upon. Once it has sucked its host dry, the parasite must itself perish. Socrates makes this point when he observes that the total injustice of which Thrasymachus speaks would consume itself. For, injustice “causes civil war, hatred, and fighting” whereas justice “brings friendship and a sense of common purpose” (351c). To the extent that a group practices injustice it will foster animosity between its parts. If each member is looking to betray and exploit the other, they will treat one another as enemies. But, to the extent that a group is just, they will be united in purpose and help each other in their common aim. Socrates observes:

“Injustice has the power, first, to make whatever it arises in–whether it is a city, a family, an army, or anything else–incapable of achieving anything as a unit, because of the civil wars and differences it creates, and, second, it makes that unit an enemy to itself and to what is in every way its opposite, namely, justice” (352a).

This entails that the state described by Thrasymachus in which injustice achieves full spectrum dominance would, in fact, be one of absolute impotence. Even a band of thieves, if it is to work together, must be to some extent just, or they would turn on each other and the band would dissolve. Socrates explains:

“We have shown that just people are cleverer and more capable of doing things, while unjust ones aren’t even able to act together, for when we speak of a powerful achievement by unjust men acting together, what we say isn’t altogether true. They would never have been able to keep their hands off each other if they were completely unjust. But clearly there must have been some sort of justice in them that at least prevented them from doing injustice among themselves at the same time as they were doing it to others. And it was this that enabled them to achieve what they did. When they started doing unjust things, they were only halfway corrupted by their injustice (for those who are all bad and completely unjust are completely incapable of accomplishing anything)” (352c-d).

So, though the Thrasymachean position may seem to be dominant today, it is neither bound to be so nor can exist for long. The world still IS. And what it contains still calls for our love, devotion, and care. The challenge, then, is to answer its call with sincerity and without apology.

Peter Yong, Ph.D.

[The image used in the thumbnail is Christ Driving the Moneychangers from the Temple by Theodoor Romboots and is in the public domain. It can be found here: ]

[1] Cooper’s translation is used throughout.

[2] It is worth observing that attempts have already long been made to cancel Plato. See Popper’s Open Society and Its Enemies.

[3] Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology, trans. Krell.

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