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Socrates vs. Thrasymachus


Philosophy is an exciting discipline and when studying Republic I by Plato, one cannot help but feel amazed by the division of opinions between Socrates and Thrasymachus. In the reading, Thrasymachus presents his definitions of justice, to which Socrates replies with great craft, revealing that the nature of justice is not easy to decipher. First, Thrasymachus starts by defining justice, a start that looks straightforward enough.


Thrasymachus defines justice with the statement that it is nothing but the advantage of the stronger party. This statement implies that justice can be understood to be what is most beneficial to the stronger party. To drive his point home, Thrasymachus uses an example that most of us understand too well, that the ruling class sets the rules that are followed by their subordinates, who are weaker. Since justice is that which creates the most advantages for the strong (rulers), then anything that benefits them is just. For the weak followers, adhering to these rules is considered the just thing to do in society.


Socrates responds to this argument by Thrasymachus by saying that since rulers are humans, they are bound to make mistakes too. Thus, since human beings can make mistakes, their advantages cannot be considered to be just. Sometimes, even following the laws that rulers have introduced in error might even create disadvantages to them. Thrasymachus responds to this response with another analogy, that of a craftsman. Thrasymachus explains that since a craftsman is an expert, then when working, they cannot make any mistakes and everything they do is technically right. Thus, in line with the ruler analogy, no ruler makes mistakes since when they make decisions, they do so rightfully. In response to the Thrasymachus, Socrates poses that ruling is an art and like all other art, the artisan intends their creation to benefit the subject. Therefore, in this logic, the ruler’s decisions are aimed to benefit the subjects, which means that what rules can achieve is not beneficial to the strong, but the weak.


Thrasymachus’s second argument is a revision of the original statement, as he claimed that injustice is “freer and stronger” than justice and that it leads to a happier life. One fact to note is that for Thrasymachus, the meaning of justice and what it does is not considered, as he focuses on its consequences alone. To enforce the previous point that justice is a preserve of the strong, Thrasymachus uses the example of a tyrant. He expounds that if a tyrant wins his status as a ruler through injustice, he remains powerful and happy. Injustice, in this sense, is stronger and creates happiness. To undermine Socrates’ previous response, Thrasymachus adds that any craftsman or ruler in this sense aims to benefit themselves. When a ruler is unjust, they are happy since this way; they stand to gain more at the expense of their subordinates.


Socrates responds to this argument with a question, “Would any just man want to surpass other men?” the agreement from Socrates’ viewpoint is that no just man would want to surpass other just men, except they are unjust themselves. Returning to the craftsman’s analogy, Socrates adds that no true artisan would want to surpass another since they would not be able to do so. True artists respect each other’s craft and the uniqueness that every artisan puts in their work. The conclusion for Socrates’ argument, therefore, is that anyone who desires to surpass others of similar status is ignorant of the art, hence unjust, weak, and wrong.


From their arguments, therefore, it can be argued that justice is not a craft, but rather a manner of acting. However, can any action be judged to be just or unjust? While the argument for justice saw no natural conclusion between Thrasymachus and Socrates, the debate formed a premise for further discussion on the topic. In the end, what could be agreed upon by both philosophers is that justice can be measured in how an action is performed and not in the specific action itself. Socrates would later explore the topic in other books as he attempted to answer Thrasymachus’s arguments on whether injustice is better than justice.


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