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AS/POLS 2900.6A
  Perspectives on Politics

Plato, Thrasymachus and the Crisis of Justice

Plato is the founder of political philosophy. The Republic is the first attempt to give a thorough and systematic account of how the common life of women and men ought to be structured. For Plato this means, above all, raising and answering the question of justice: what is justice and why should it be preferred to injustice? Answering this question would also mean describing injustice and showing why it is to be rejected.

The Republic is more than a work on politics in our narrower sense of the term. It is also more than a work on ethics, that is, on how the individual should live rightly and happily. It is also a work (in many cases the founding work in the Western tradition) on psychology, education, aesthetics, on what today we would call “sociology”, and on philosophy in its more restricted meaning as epistemology (theory of knowledge) and ontology (which concerns itself with the nature of being).  It is one of the relatively few books, philosophical or otherwise, that attempts a complete account of human life – of what it means to be a human being living well or living poorly.  In it a complete philosophy of life is offered and defended. It is not merely the expression of an attitude. It is an attempt to demonstrate the one best or right way, or at least to show what must be proven and how it might be proven in order to reach this goal of knowing what is to be done.

Although often referred to as a “utopian” work, Plato is doing anything but building castles in the air. He is investigating as seriously as it has ever been done the question of justice – what does it mean in and for the individual, and in and for the city? But Plato’s seriousness is not heavy-handed or pedantic. His writing is extremely elegant, and he is a master – again the first, and much imitated – of the dramatic form of the dialog. (Plato, after encountering Socrates, gave up a promising career as a poet in order to devote himself to what he felt to be the higher calling of philosophy). The action of the Republic takes place during an overnight party of a dozen or so Athenian aristocrats, and does in fact have something of the dreamlike quality of such gatherings.

Plato is deadly serious, in at least two ways:  He is the most radical of conservative philosophers. Radical means aiming at the root of things, the deepest, the ultimate explanation. Second, he is serious in the sense of practical, because all of Plato’s philosophy is aimed at action, at going as far as possible in determining what can and must be done. The Republic has all these characteristics because Plato perceived himself  and his society to be in the midst of an acute and deadly crisis. Don’t let the calm tones and tremendous attention sometimes paid to the details of philosophic argumentation lull you into the false impression that Plato was a dreamy-eyed idealist. One reason Plato is sometimes not unhappy to project such an impression is because he knew himself to be, in the context of Athenian society, a dangerous subversive. (conservatives can be subversive, too – it is not only the prerogative of the left). Because of this he took care not to simply lay out his thoughts in bare point form. He wrote for those he thought capable of understanding, and his writing works on several levels.

Plato was in danger because he was the known pupil of Socrates, whom we know was executed for what today we might call “morally subversive behaviour”. He was an avowed elitist living in the midst of one of the most democratic societies known to history. He was a member of an important family well-known for its anti-democratic politics. Two of Plato’s uncles  participated in a short –lived oligarchic coup-d’etat (the 30 tyrants mentioned in the Apology) sponsored by Sparta – a foreign (though Greek) power then locked in a lengthy, bitter war with Athens.

In order to understand Plato, it is essential to place him in this context of crisis. It was a double crisis, at once socio-political and philosophical. The crisis that Socrates and Plato thought they faced was a crisis of the polis itself. From Plato’s perspective, the polis was disintegrating and, perhaps even worse, was abandoning and forgetting its role in educating and perfecting human beings. This was taking place as the traditional morality of the polis was being undermined by a growing intellectual sophistication. As this sophistication (perhaps the etymology itself suggests the Sophists) grew it tended to undermine the shared basis of belief that the ways of the community were natural, permanent and good.

The century preceding Socrates’ death saw two crucial series of developments that in a way together constituted the crisis Socrates and Plato felt. The first was political and social, the second was cultural.
Plato was born at Athens at the height of its imperial expansion following upon the Persian wars. Democratic Athens was also imperial Athens . Its empire began as the leadership of a league of cities (the Delian League) organized for the purpose of defending Greece against Persia. But this league turned into a device to collect tribute from Athens’ allies – which wealth went into the enlargement of the Athenian naval power and into magnificent public works, like a number whose ruins remain on the Acropolis in Athens today. As Athenian leadership turned into domination and empire, its power became too great for its chief Greek rival, Sparta, to countenance. Eventually, the Spartans and Athenians came to blows over the pretext of a revolt staged by one of Athens’ allies (The Spartans came to this ally’s aid). What followed was the Peloponnesian War, which went on for about 30 years, a war that exhausted both antagonists, even though Sparta won it in 405 BC.

What was especially frightening to sincere conservatives like Plato was the way that moral scruples came to be abandoned in the course of the fighting, both in the wars between the states and in the civil struggles within individual poleis that were connected to their foreign entanglements. Athens, as you know from reading the selections from Thucydides in the course Kit, almost wiped out its former ally Mytilene, which was reprieved at the last moment; and Athens did actually destroy, annihilate the population of  the island of Melos. Within cities, the foreign wars occasioned civil wars, coups-d’etats, the rise of factional leaders to a momentary power which would end in the failure of some stupid military adventure or in assassination, to judicial murder (Socrates in the Apology recalls how he refused to participate in the judicial murder of the democratic politician, Leon), to suspicion and fear among factions and classes of citizen.

Along with war and revolution also came a commercialization of the Athenian economy and a revolution in opinions and ideas.  In the traditional polis, as we’ve seen, the laws, customs and conventions which the state upheld and enforced were felt to be of natural, if not divine origin. The way things were were the way they always had been. The laws – and law itself – were accepted without question and without reflection. The great aristocratic poet Pindar put it this way: “custom (nomos) was lord of all things”. Law and nature were held to coincide. But gradually from the sixth century onward custom and nature were, as we’ve seen with the Sophists, separated and then opposed to each other. Much, if not all of what had been taken for granted as the true, right, natural way of acting , the solidary way of acting as a good citizen who respected the laws and strove towards the traditional virtues was brought into question. This gradual development perhaps began with the early Greek philosophers (the Ionian “natural philosophers’), but reached its peak with the Sophists.

The Ionians, in their various theories of the material world had called into question the reality of the Greek religion. For the wills of the gods and godesses of Olympus, they substituted the operation of purely natural, impersonal and predictable forces. The early philosopher (not an Ionian) Parmenides developed a doctrine of the nature of reality based purely on the properties of logic that brought into question the reality of the entire realm of the senses and  of change. If the Ionians swept away belief in the gods and Parmenides’ logic undermined the evidence of the sense, what was left?

What was left seemed to be convention itself. Law and the state came to be seen as purely human inventions, and interested ones, at that. They were not neutral or objective, but simply devices to be used by particular individuals or groups for their own purposes, not in the common interest, or for the common good.  The evidence given by travelers (and the Greeks had become great travelers and traders by then) only tended to confirm this belief that law and convention were artificial and non-natural. Protagoras was supposed to have summed up much of this attitude and orientation in his famous epigram “man is the measure of all things…” In the hands of some of the Sophists, as we’ve seen, the emphasis on humans as the makers of the world of knowledge and belief (as the originators of ideas and rules whose value was to be measured relative to human nature) turned into an antithesis between nature and convention. Everything was now open to question, including the proper relation of individuals to the polis. For Sophists like Hippias (according to Plato), law was a  tyrant over nature; following nature meant pursuing power and pleasure against the morality of custom, which seemed to command the reverse. If there were a natural law in the moral world, it would seem to be that might is right.

The political and cultural developments seemed to dovetail. As politics became more vicious and unscrupulous, the arguments and rhetorical techniques of the Sophists came more and more into vogue. As the new ideas about nature and law became more widely and firmly entrenched , the less reason there seemed to be to conceive of the polis as a united ethical community.

So, at least, it seemed to Plato, whose aim it became to found morality and politics on a new and firm intellectual (and spiritual) basis. The crisis of Greek political life  in the eyes of an enlightened conservative like Plato was primarily a moral and intellectual crisis. Men did not believe in the old morality any more because they did not know what to believe. Most of them could barely distinguish between opinion and knowledge. Because one belief seemed to be as good or valid as another, why not take as true that which seemed to best served my own interest at the moment (no matter how little I understood about what my best interest might be)? For Plato, this was a crisis of relativism and individualism and was displayed not only in the excesses of democracy in the Athenian state (which seemed to consider one man’s opinion to be as good as another’s) but also in the  tyrannical excesses of the oligarchy which Plato watched degenerate and fall .

Plato’s answer to all of this would  depend on knowledge, on philosophy as the love of wisdom. And this philosophy would issue in the notion that for men to enjoy justice and happiness in their common life, knowledge and power would have to be united, that philosophers must rule or that rulers must become true philosophers. This notion, that only  knowledge of objective truth is capable of reforming and establishing a just society is something that Plato will have derived from Socrates’ central belief that virtue is knowledge. The aim of the Republic will, in the most general sense, be twofold. Plato will aim to restore a new version of the old harmony of the state and the individual, but on a new and higher level because this unity and common interest will now be conscious, will now be understood and comprehended. Secondly, as part of this, Plato will aim to define the relation between philosophy and politics, the relation, that is, between power and knowledge that he feels is somehow embodied in the life of Socrates. Plato will aim to show that that laws of morality are not against nature, but rooted in the nature of the human soul.

The disease of the polis which Plato thinks he is facing he interprets as a disease of ignorance and selfishness engendering each other. To fight this disease, Plato will propose specialization and unification. Plato is opposed to the many-sidedness, tolerance and variety of democratic culture and its “selfishness” – he will see it (although not in its best moments) as also a device to “soak the rich” or bring down those who are better and more noble.  The remedy that will issue from knowledge will be a unity of specialized parts, coordinated by that part most suitable and specialized in the arts of ruling, the part with the most appropriate and reliable  knowledge. In this unification, there will be no room for struggle, for even the peaceful clash of contending forces. Each person and group will be doing its appointed, necessary, dignified and honourable function based upon the special capacity or talent they have.  A large part of the Republic deals with the education of the rulers, and much of this education, involving long periods of training and testing, will be a training against the possibility of falling into selfishness. Some of the main institutions of the rulers’ lives are also geared to head off the possibility that they might rule in their own selfish interests. These are the institutions, which we’ll come to, of communal property and the so-called “communal marriage”.

The first parts of Book I of the Republic do not concern us much here. In these initial discussions, Socrates (who is to be Plato’s  mouthpiece throughout the book) quickly demolishes, in his usual way, several common opinions about the nature of Justice. Cephalus, the old master of the house Socrates is visiting, is allowed, being close to death and perhaps too old to try new ways, to leave with his belief that justice is repaying one’s debts more or less intact. His son Polemarchus takes up his father’s side of the argument, but is quickly persuaded this view is insufficient. Socrates will then destroy another view that Polemarchus offers – one that comes from the poets, not from his father’s religious piety – that justice is doing good to one’s friends and harm to one’s enemies.

At this point Thrasymachus the Sophist breaks into the discussion. He has been impatient for quite some time and challenges Socrates to offer not merely criticism of other suggestions, but something positive and better about justice. To illustrate what he has in mind, Thrasymachus will offer his own definition of justice.  Thrasymachus will offer two positions on justice, both of which will be attacked by Socrates in the remainder of Book I.

First, according to Thrasymchus, justice is the interest of the stronger. He starts from the observation of fact. In any and every community it is the strongest who rule. This is so by definition; those who rule, are by that very fact the strongest. They make the rules to serve their own interests and to follow these rules means to act justly. I would be acting justly when I follow the rules laid down by the rulers in my community, who by definition are the strongest and whose rules serve their interests ahead of or in spite of mine. According to Thrasymachus, for everyone except the ruler, justice means acting in someone else’s interests and injustice would mean to act in one’s own interest. But the real standard of action, according to Thrasymachus is to satisfy oneself. Therefore, he concludes, injustice is the real virtue; injustice will lead to happiness. Thrasymachus’ second position will therefore be that injustice is better than justice.

Plato’s refutation of this argument will in reality take up the remainder of the Republic. Ultimately, in the words of a very good interpreter of Plato, Sir Ernest Barker, it will come down to this: “The self is not an isolated unti, but part of an order with a ‘station’ in that order , and… fullness of expression and true consciousness of pleasure are to be found in doing one’s own duty in the station to which one is called.” But at this stage, Thrasymachus’ argument is attacked by Socrates on simply logical grounds.

Socrates’ refutation goes something like this:

Re Thrasymachus’ first point – that justice is the interest of the stronger, Socrates gets Thrasymachus to agree that ruling is an art, that different arts exist because of defects in their objects. The aim of an art is the perfection of its material.  Money-making  is merely a separate art that gets attached to the other arts and does not detract from their nature of having the perfection of their different materials as their aim. Therefore, if ruling is an art, or skill, the perfect ruler is absolutely unselfish, in his capacity as a ruler.

Re Thrasymachus’ second point – that injustice is better than justice, Socrates’ counter-argument will try to show that the just (i.e. unselfish) man is stronger, wiser and happier than the unjust man. The just man, to begin with, is wiser because, being wise he acknowledges the necessity of a limit to acts. (Unless acts have some sort of limit built into them, they can too easily turn into their opposites). Limit is used here not in the sense of an external constraint, but of a guide to the accomplishment of an action. The wiser man, acknowledging the limits built into different kinds of acts, will not rush headlong after every pleasure.

Being wiser, the just man will also be stronger. Those who are wise will act justly in relation to each other, and will therefore be able to multiply strength through combination. Even those who as a group act unjustly towards outsiders must be able to act justly with respect to each other.

Finally, and this is very important to Socrates’ counter-argument, because the just man is wiser, he will also be better. He will, that is, possess virtue/goodness/excellence (arete) which, you will remember, is the quality of ideally discharging a function. There are many different excellences, depending on the function being performed, but the function of a human being is to live. Therefore, the just man, being wiser, having excellence, will live better than the unjust man, will be happier.

Now these refutations of Thrasymachus’ defense of injustice have not been very satisfying to anybody (even in the dialog Plato is writing). And neither is Plato satisfied, although these arguments do lead in, or begin to suggest the general direction he will take later on. Here he is having Socrates once again beat the Sophists at their own game of “turning the worse opinion into the better”. The question or problem posed by Thrasymachus’ views on justice will be posed again, and even more sharply in Book II. Socrates’ answer in Book I does not do away with the feeling that Thrasymachus is on to something, that justice is ultimately unnatural, present because only put there by force.

Also, Thrasymachus may  be also raising  a different problem or issue than the one Socrates addresses in his refutation. Thrasymachus may not be raising the question of what justice is in itself; he may not be aking for and offering a pure philosophical conception, an essence. He may instead be talking about the problem of legitimacy: insofar as politics is  factually a struggle among unequals, “justice” always operates more to the advantage of some than of others. And insofar as  “justice” works, the weaker party must accept that it is good to serve others.

The main issue is given a different form, however, in Book II --- which is for the next time.


Study Questions for Topic II – Plato’s Republic

  1. Identify and describe the main characters in Book  1. What are their definitions of justice? What is inadequate about each definition?
  1. What is Thrasymachus’ objection to Socrates treatment of justice?  What does this objection seemed to be based upon?
  1. Book 2 opens with Glaucon and Adeimantus challenging Socrates for a better account of and defense of justice. What is it they want him to defend? How is the myth of the ring of Gyges used to set up their challenge?
  1. Why do you think Socrates moves on from the simple city to construct a “feverish” city?
  1. What is the ‘noble lie’ of the “Myth of the Metals”? Why does Plato introduce it? Do you think he believes it? If he does not, what purpose does it serve?
  1. What are the main questions about or problems with the possibility of the “city of words”, the so-called Ideal city, that are brought up in the dialogue?
  1. By the end of book 4 Socrates has constructed a model of the ideal city that is also a model of the ideal soul. What is the structure of this ideal city/soul? What are its parts and their possible relations to each other? How are the four key virtues defined through the use of this model?
  1. Why does Socrates double back on the question of the status and role of women guardians?
  1. What points is Plato trying to make with the metaphor of the ship in Book 6?
  1. In book 6 the metaphor of the divided line is crucial in showing the difference between real knowledge and mere opinion. What is this difference? What are, according to Plato, the requirements for the acquisition of knowledge?
  1. What does Plato imply in the metaphor of the cave? By the end of Book 6 has Socrates finally answered the challenge put to him in Book 2 to define the nature of justice and defend  the life of justice?

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