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Fr. 415

October 16, 2013

Throughout Plato’s Republic, Socrates wrestles with the difficulties posed by Thrasymachus’ account of justice, a position later renewed by Adeimantus and Glaucon. Although this account motivates the investigation of justice lying at the heart of the Republic, the precise manner in which to understand Thrasymachus’ initial position remains a contentious issue. The details that require clarification are numerous in Thrasymachus’ account: interpreting Thrasymachus’ underlying beliefs about justice, the relation of Thrasymachus’ various definitions, among others. Indeed, there are even concerns over the extent to which the reader should view Thrasymachus as a reliable portrayal of the historical figure Thrasymachus or simply as another of Plato’s dramatis personae.

I will address these issues by analyzing two articles that appeared in Phronesis in 1971 and 1974 respectively. They offer widely divergent views on how the reader should interpret Thrasymachus’ account of justice. The first, J. P. Maguire’s ‘Thrasymachus…or Plato?’ analyzes the consistency of the three definitions of justice provided by Thrasymachus. Given their apparent inconsistency, Maguire suggests that the decidedly “moral” third definition offered by Thrasymachus is, in fact, the insertion of Plato; that is, Plato inserts himself in such a way as to turn the conversation towards more productive (and relevant) ends. The second article, P. P. Nicholson’s ‘Unravelling Thrasymachus’ Arguments in the Republic’, presents a different light in which to understand Thrasymachus’ arguments. Building off of G. B. Kerferd’s 1947 article, ‘The Doctrine of Thrasymachus in Plato’s Republic’, Nicholson suggests that Thrasymachus’ argument can be viewed as internally consistent with careful reading. Specifically, scrutiny of Thrasymachus’ examples and descriptions in his discussion with Socrates can yield suggestive, albeit inconclusive, results.

Maguire begins by discussing briefly the various attempts by other authors to reconcile the views of the Thrasymachus of history with the Thrasymachus of Book I of the Republic. Is Thrasymachus’ position that of a legalist? Is he a subdued proponent of natural right? A disillusioned moralist? A moral nihilist? In the end, Maguire suggests that the point of historical accuracy is a moot one. Moreover, he indicates that this disagreement stems from the inconsistent definitions of justice offered successively by Thrasymachus in Book I. Maguire classes them as follows:

1) the advantage of the stronger (which, due to Thrasymachus’ explication in 338d, can be read as the advantage of the ruler, stronger and ruler being, here, synonymous) (338c)

2) the just is obedience to the laws (or “rulers1”) (339b)

3) another’s good, one’s own hurt (or “the good of another, the advantage of the stronger and the ruler, and harmful to the one who obeys and serves”) (343c)

These definitions comprise the set from which Maguire attempts to work out a consistent interpretation. He then contends that, although (1) and (2) can be made consistent, the conjunction of (1) and (2) can never be made consistent with (3). Maguire contends that the context of (1) and (3) and their illustrative cases are different in kind; (1) and, likewise, (2) offer a decidedly political context, whereas (3) can be seen as a definition framed by moral considerations of interactions between private citizens, devoid of a political context. Maguire teases out this distinction by appeal to Adeimantus’ recapitulation of Thrasymachus’ definitions of justice:

It seems clear that between I 338 c ff. and II 367 c, not only “stronger” and “weaker”, but also “justice” and “injustice”, and “advantage” and “disadvantage”, have radically shifted meanings. “Stronger” now means, not the ruler-legislator but whichever of the parties in any transaction, private or public, “gets the better of” the other. “Justice” means, no longer obedience to the laws of what Plato would call a “faction-government”, but either conformity to generally recognized rules of moral conduct, or acceptance of the principles of “fairness”,…as opposed to the principle of “getting the lion’s share”,…or both. And, finally, “advantage” no longer means the self-preservation of (any) sovereign power, but simply “coming out ahead” in any transaction. (148-9)

Simply, the reason for which (1) and (3) are incompatible consists in their being definitions of two fundamentally different types: that of the political and that of the moral. Specifically, the contrast between “stronger” and “weaker” in (1) and (2) had been a contrast between ruler and subject (or political inferior) respectively; now, it consists in a distinction oneself and another. This divergence precludes any possibility of subordinating (3) to (1). The definitions refer to two different sets of individuals that may or may not overlap2. Yet it is the fact that these two sets do not overlap of necessity that prevents a coherent formulation of Thrasymachus’ position.

Moreover, Maguire holds that this shift in meaning informs the discussion to follow in Book II through Book IX. “The new formula, ‘justice is the advantage of the stronger = the other fellow who wins out’ has been silently substituted for the original formula, ‘justice is the advantage of the stronger = ruler’; and it is this new formula, as has already been said, which will be combated from 348a to the end of the book” (150). According to Maguire, this “silent substitution” marks the point at which Plato moves the discussion from the realm of politics to that of morality or “justice as obedience to accepted moral rules” (152). That is, Plato is the source of the third definition of justice rather than Thrasymachus as either historical figure or dramatis personae.

This attribution to Plato would qualify the apparent inconsistency in Thrasymachus’ position. Maguire contends that Plato inserts a definition of his own under the guise of Thrasymachus so that the discussion might transition more naturally to the conception of justice that Socrates will consider and test for the remainder of the book. Indeed, Maguire views Glaucon’s “renewal” of Thrasymachus’ position as a tacit admission of Plato’s recasting of the discussion. Therein, Glaucon states:

I’ll renew the argument of Thrasymachus. First I’ll state what kind of thing people consider justice to be and what its origins are. Second, I’ll argue that all who practice it do so unwillingly, as something necessary, not as something good. Third, I’ll argue that they have good reason to act as they do, for the life of an unjust person is, they say, much better than that of a just one (358 b-c).

Glaucon’s renewal of the position of Thrasymachus seems rather selective. It excludes the political elements of justice that inhere in (1) and (2), eschewing them for those moral elements central to (3). Maguire interprets this selective rendering of Thrasymachus’ objection as proof that “Plato is fundamentally concerned with the “the superiority of justice to injustice, ‘justice’ being something quite different from simple subservience to the political decrees of a sovereign power” (155). This conception is bound up with the theme of “outdoing another” or “overreaching” that is introduced in the explication of (3). This is precisely the reason for which the cases of contracts, taxes, and public offices are introduced in 343 d-e. Simply, as Maguire sees it, “we have moved to a moral context because that is where Plato wants to be” (152).


1 As the text reads in the G.M.A. Grube translation (C.D.C. Reeve revision) from which I am reading.

2 For instance, the political and moral sense might converge in the figure of the tyrant, who is also mentioned in the explication of (3). But this convergence is merely accidental.

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