Republic Slow Reading project, day 3

Today, we begin discussing the spirited and testy exchange between Socrates and Thrasymachus (336b – 342e). If you haven’t looked at the previous days of slow reading, catch up and come back. Same rules apply as before. Be sure to read the comments, since that is where the conversation is.

Be courageous and post a comment — participate in the conversation!


1. Thrasymachus was a notorious sophist from Chalcedon, located right on the Bosphorus straits in what is now Turkey. He is credited in ancient sources with having advanced rhetoric as a science. His name means something like “bold in battle.”

2. Sophists were itinerant teachers who professed to teach human wisdom and would charge a fee to do so. In many ways they were the first great innovators in the practice of education and so subsequent cultures owe them a great debt. Their primary subject was oratory/debate and they were notorious for teaching methods of persuasion that aimed not at the truth of a matter but on how to dupe juries, assemblies and audiences. They would usually attract students by performing speeches that made a case for something not otherwise easy to believe. They tended to scandalous, radical ideas and were often despised as enemies of tradition and decency. It is clear that Socrates was often understood to be a sophist by those traditionalists who knew what he did by reputation only.

3. Cleitophon, who has one short interchange with Polemarchus, was a student of Socrates who left him to become a student of Thrasymachus. Since the theme of cultural transmission seems so central to the Republic, pay attention to the way that Cleitophon represents Thrasymachus’ argument. Likewise with Polemarchus representing Socrates — how they are “fighting as partners”? (335e)

4. Thrasymachus accuses Socrates of his “usual irony” (337a) Is it clear that Socrates is being ironic in the exchange?

5. Notice that Socrates says that the “appropriate penalty for one who doesn’t know” is “to learn from the one who does know.” (337d) Does this have any relation to Socrates/Polemarchus’ agreement that the just man confers a benefit on both friend and foe? (335d)

6. Is justice the “advantage of the stronger”? Is there anything true in this conception or is it totally off base?

7. Is there merit in Thrasymachus’ distinction between “ruler in a loose sense” and “ruler in a strict sense”?

8. Thrasymachus says to Socrates that “it is easier to ask questions than to answer them.” Is that true?

I think I will stop there — that is enough to chew on!

19 thoughts on “Republic Slow Reading project, day 3

  1. The dispute between Socrates and Thrasymachus is over whether a ruler looks to his own advantage or to the advantage of the ruled. I think we can discern an analogous difference in the way that Socrates and Thrasymachus conduct themselves in the argument. Thrasymachus is clearly trying to impose his will on the definition of justice and is interested in gaining an advantage over Socrates and over the traditional understnding of justice. (He also suspects Socrates of having a similar motive.) Socrates by contrast seems to be interested in being of service to the idea of justice. He is willing to be corrected, even invites correction, if it will aid in the flourishing of true justice. I mention this so that you can notice that the topics of discussion (justice and rule) are present not just in *what* they say but in *how* they say it.

  2. In Book 1, we are given roughly three different conceptions of justice: (1) A *traditional* conception: that justice is paying back what is owed, meaning harm to enemies and benefits to friends; (2) a *radical* conception: that justice only gives benefit, both to friends and enemies; and (3) a *cynical* conception: that justice is just a tool of control for the advantage of those in power. I would think that someone who holds a traditional view would see both Socrates and Thrasymachus as dangerously subversive.

      • Billy,

        When you say you “take the cynical” side, do you mean that you think Thrasymachus is right in the sense that it is a true picture of how things operate in the real world? Let’s call that version “descriptive cynicism.” Or, do you mean that you also agree with Thrasymachus that there is no real virtue of justice, binding on us all as a norm of right behavior, such that I can rightly blame/praise another for behaving unjustly/justly — that justice is just a word and that to think there is such a thing as justice in the moral sense is to be a dupe? Let’s call that version “prescriptive cynicism.” So do you agree with Thrasymachus in just the descriptive or also the prescriptive sense? (You’re last question suggests you mean only the former.)

  3. (Note: I coincidentally posted this comment at the same time that herm5 posted his. This is not a response to that comment but a continuation of my previous comment. I see that it could create confusion if you were to think I was responding directly to him.) One of the common tendencies that I see in almost every beginning philosophy student, and which I must fight to correct, is the habit of paying attention only to the conclusion of an argument without grappling with the argument that led to that conclusion. Instead of accepting/denying a conclusion because of an argument, bad thinkers accept/deny the argument based on what they think of the conclusion. This is to abandon reason in favor of mere impression/opinion. (Spot check: have you been grappling with the arguments?)

    I stated in my last comment (I seem to be having a conversation with myself — who will rescue me?) three rival conceptions of justice: the traditional, the radical and the cynical. It seems to me, and you can verify this yourself if you’d like, that only the radical version (335d-e) was actually argued for and agreed upon based on real argument. It is also the only instance in which a character (Polemarchus) changed his mind. Does Thrasymachus provide arguments for, or merely assert, that justice is the will of the stronger?

    By the way, there is a Greek term for the devaluing of argument — “misology.”

  4. My belief is that there is a “real virtue of justice”. And that in a perfect world we would all understand and follow this virtue. However in our flawed human existence this virtue is rarely, if ever, followed. Greed, desire for power or comfort, covetousness, etc. all lead us away from true justice. For instance, Is it just for us to allow abortion? Just for whom, the fetus or the woman? Is it just to require motorcyclist to wear helmets? To prohibit smoking in restaurants? What is just for person A might not be just for person B. Am I going off in the wrong direction on this thinking or is this what Socrates is addressing?

    • Yes, I think you are on the right track. The Socratic conception of justice is one that makes claims on us regardless of whether there is power to enforce it. Legitimate power gets it authority from justice, and not justice from authority. Justice is always binding on the just person; power may or may not be.

  5. Re: justice comes from power….A thought: There is something unjust (in my opinion) about Hitler killing Jews. Assuming Hitler was sane and that he thought it through and sincerely felt the Jews were the cause of all problems of the world… to me it is still unjust. But maybe justice is a matter of opinion.

  6. Justice is *not* a matter of opinion. An opinion about justice is not justice. If it were, then power could ground justice and therefore justice would have no claim on us aside from assertions of power. Hitler’s actions were unjust. Any theory that claims otherwise is simply and morally wrong.

  7. Let me argue for this last assertion that justice is not an opinion. An opinion is determined partially by its object and partially by its holder. Opinion/doxa is something that seems to be the case, so I treat it as true. Something that seems one way to me and another way to you may be no different in itself, but the difference is in our our perspectives that inform the seeming. Seeming, i.e. opinion, can therefore make no binding claim on the other since agreement/disagreement is not controlled by the object of our opinion. For justice to be binding, as morally I “know” it to be, then you and I and Hitler must be referred to the object justice, which is, as it is, independent of whatever we think it to be. (See my two previous blog posts: “What is opinion?” and “What grounds opinion?”) To put it into a syllogism:

    Justice cannot be an opinion and still ground moral judgments, but justice does ground moral judgements, therefore justice is not an opinion. QED.

    Understand that I am not talking about justice in the descriptive sense — I believe that Thrasymachus has genuine insight about how the word “justice” is employed in our world — I can be talked into that vision at least in part. But I am talking about justice in the prescriptive sense. I may be wrong about what *seems* to me to be just, but I am not wrong that there is some binding claim called justice against which I can be measured as right or wrong by the just person. It is *wrong* in the moral sense to argue otherwise.

  8. Glad the word “moral” or “morality” has come up. Is morality necessary for justice? Is the death penalty just and moral? Is there such a thing as a “just” war?

    (Woody, looks like you and I are only ones left standing!)

  9. Billy,

    I guess I would say that what I meant by morality is anything that makes a normative claim on us. Justice does, so it is moral. But I don’t think there is a thing called “morality” that is separate from its specific manifestations. As Lonergan says, the good is always concrete, never abstract.

    As for your other questions, I hope you are not just asking me for my opinions…

  10. No!! im here I just got distracted, bad internet one day and no quiet time the other, im here. I disagree with the three definations so far, I think there will be a better conclusion. it seems that soc. conclusions so far are just to show the falicy of the other opnion. Though I do think ther is an absolute justice, im curious to how close the final argument can define it. “Justice cannot be an opinion and still ground moral judgments, but justice does ground moral judgements, therefore justice is not an opinion” makes since to me. Though we might not be able to get a clear picture of what justice is our opnions come from the existence of justice not the other way around.

    • I’m glad you showed up! Thanks for your comment.

      One thing I would like to correct from my previous comments: I think it is too much to say that the “radical” conclusion of Socrates/Polemarchus — that justice always confers benefit on the good and bad alike — is a “definition.” I think it is more like a criterion that any adequate conception of justice has to satisfy in order to be justice. Make sense? Both the traditional and cynical conceptions fail that test.

  11. I’m sorry to be late to the party. I keep thinking about this idea of power not being the ground for justice. But we talk about justice binding us. Does justice, then have it’s own power? And if so, what is the source of that power? It seems like the reality that Thrasymachus describes points toward a justice with no power (if we continue to assume he is incorrect in his argument). Perhaps if I could see how justice binds us, from whence it derives it’s power, I would be able to see justice itself with more clarity.

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