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Hannah Ransom
February 26, 2010
Govt 219
Paper 1
Justice and the Advantage of the Stronger

In Plato’s Republic one of the many things he attempts to accomplish is to establish his

concept of justice. Plato attempts to enlighten his readers about the concept of justice by having

his main character, Socrates, engage in a debate with many individuals one of which is

Thrasymachus. Thrasymachus attempts to make the argument that justice is whatever is in the

interest of the stronger. Socrates does not believe this to be the case and he attempts to turn

Thrasymachus’ argument on its head. While Socrates makes many valid points to prove that

might does not make right his arguments were at times flawed and at the end of the dialectic it

unclear whether he won the debate or simply outwitted Thrasymachus with his convoluted

reasoning.

The main point of contention between Socrates and Thrasymachus is that the latter

believes that justice consists of whatever is in the interest of the stronger. One attempt that

Socrates makes to dissuade him of this notion is to point out that rulers are imperfect beings and

as such they are prone to error. Therefore, if justice is the advantage of the stronger it is just to

“do not only what is to the advantage of the stronger but also the opposite, what is not to their

advantage.”1 By this logic because rulers are prone to error it is just to do what is

disadvantageous to the rulers, whenever they unintentionally err and order what is bad for them.

Thrasymachus attempts to counter Socrates by questioning that when a doctor makes an error in

patient care, do you consider him a doctor in regard to that error?2 In this sense when a ruler is

being true to his craft his in incapable of making an error, and always decrees what is best for
1
Westphal, Jonathan. (1996). Justice. Hackett Publishing Company. 41
2
Westphal, Jonathan. (1996). Justice. Hackett Publishing Company. 42
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him. Therefore, according to Thrasymachus it is always just to do what is to the advantage of the

stronger. In the last phase of this particular debate Socrates manages to get the upper hand on

Thrasymachus by making parallels between rulers and other crafts. For instance, he asks

Thrasymachus if a doctor ever seeks to order what is advantageous to himself?3 By paralleling

rulers with this particular craft he has left Thrasymachus with little option but to concede that a

doctor, being true to his craft, seeks what is advantageous to his patient. By using specific crafts

as a parallel to the craft of ruling Socrates was able to force Thrasymachus to kowtow to his

argument while failing to ever really give him a straight answer. In short he was outwitted rather

than proved incorrect.

Socrates also managed to silence Thrasymachus without really answering him in regard

to the question of whether or not rulers willingly rule. Thrasymachus believes that rulers

absolutely rule willingly while Socrates believes that rulers need some form of wage in order to

elicit their willingness to rule.4 Socrates believes that if ruling were to their advantage and not the

advantage of their subjects they would have no need for compensation. Therefore, the fact that

ruler’s request wages is an indication that they rule not to their own advantage but rule to the

advantage of their subjects. Socrates furthers his point by stating that, “no one willingly chooses

to rule and to take other people’s troubles in hand and straighten them out”.5 Consequently if

wages aren’t added, then there would be little benefit that any craftsman (not just rulers) would

get from his craft.6 Hence, wages must be supplied in the form of money, honor, or penalty for

those who refuse to rule in order to encourage individuals to want to take up the arduous

position. Socrates goes on to state that in a city of good men its citizens would fight to not have

3
Westphal, Jonathan. (1996). Justice. Hackett Publishing Company. 44
4
Westphal, Jonathan. (1996). Justice. Hackett Publishing Company. 47
5
Westphal, Jonathan. (1996). Justice. Hackett Publishing Company. 48
6
Westphal, Jonathan. (1996). Justice. Hackett Publishing Company. 48
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to rule. In this sense, he approaches ruling not as a privilege or a pleasure, but as a necessity.

Therefore, by nature a true leader rules to the advantage of his subjects and not to the advantage

of himself.

Socrates decides to take the last word here and does not allow—the probably quite

flustered—Thrasymachus to respond. By taking the last word and outwitting Thrasymachus into

agreement he once again has silenced Thrasymachus without really answering him. Perhaps,

Thrasymachus could have countered with a more psychological approach. A flaw in Socrates’

argument is that he attempts to sweep under the rug the role that egos, ambitions and greed play

in politics. While he established that good rulers always rule to the advantage of their subjects he

failed to fully establish that all men who rule are good. This is one aspect of the dialectic that

Thrasymachus perhaps could have taken advantage of to further his point that justice is whatever

is to the advantage of the strong.

While Socrates’ argument was at times flawed he did make valid points about what

constitutes justice. Regardless of the flaws I agree with Socrates that justice is not the will of the

strong but the good of the whole. I don’t necessarily have a better answer to Thrasymachus’

question, except to perhaps ask a question of my own in return. Does Thrasymachus—or anyone

for that matter—want to live in a polis in which justice is considered to be whatever is in the

interest of the strong? While admittedly this is not an answer to Thrasymachus question, his

notion of justice strikes me as being rather undemocratic and I believe that justice at its core

should rest upon more democratic principles.

If justice proves to be conventional rather than natural it might be possible to avoid

Thrasymachus conclusion that might makes right. Conventional justice, unlike natural justice,

implies that the concept of justice is not universal. Therefore different polis’ can view what
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constitutes justice differently.7 In this sense Thrasymachus’ argument that justice is the

advantage of the stronger might not be the case in all societies. While his conclusion might bear

weight in his own society, on the bases of conventional justice it seems unlikely that all societies

view justice the way he does. This can be seen to be the case especially when one takes into

consideration the Greek premise that the constitution of a person is shaped by the constitution of

the city in which live in.8 Owing to the fact that there are multiple types of government it would

serve to reason that under conventional justice each government would interpret the concept of

justice differently. Therefore, on the bases of natural justice, it is possible for some societies to

avoid Thrasymachus conclusion that might makes right.

Throughout the debate of Socrates and Thrasymachus there is an ebb and flow in regard

to who is really ahead in the argument on justice. While in the end Socrates believed that he had

won the argument, one must wonder if he actually ever answered Thrasymachus question. In

several of his key points on justice Socrates used his greater wit and sometimes illogical

reasoning in order to get Thrasymachus to kowtow to his conclusion. While Socrates does have a

valid argument at the end of the debate it is not clear whether he won through rational cogent

argument or was simply able to trick support out of a lesser opponent.

7
Lustig, Jeff. 1/26/2010. Lecture
8
Lustig, Jeff. 2/2/2010. Lecture