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Fr. 416

October 17, 2013

Yet there are, however, several ways in which Maguire’s account of Thrasymachus’ position proves deeply unsatisfying, some of which are addressed in Nicholson (1974), to be addressed in Part II. In addition to these, one central objection to Maguire’s interpretation is that Plato does not seem to regard the sort of political considerations bound up in (1) and (2) as irrelevant in the way that Maguire regards them. Part of Plato’s reasoning in “building” an ideal city lays in an attempt to develop a society in which the relationship between that of rulers and subjects is both benevolent and equitable. Plato wants to demonstrate that the rulers of the kallipolis are not motivated to rule well by the same considerations that motivate shepherds to tend their flocks well. Indeed, he notes that “in establishing our city we aren’t aiming to make any one group outstandingly happy but to make the whole city so, as far as possible (420 b). As such, “with the whole city developing and being governed well, we must leave it to nature to provide each group with its share of happiness” (421 c).

Thus, Plato’s practical philosophy is motivated by fundamentally utilitarian concerns, i.e. the happiness of the city considered as a whole, rather than as a loose-knit organization of individuals for which an administrator seeks different levels of utility for different groups. More importantly, Plato is advocating a particular political constitution, a positive practical claim. Although this political constitution doubles as an analogue for the “just” individual, the importance of the political presentation should not be dismissed simply as a means by which Plato proves that justice is valuable in itself. In sum, Plato does not, at any point, completely abandon the questions of fairness and happiness raised by Thrasymachus’ descriptive account of justice.

As mentioned in the introduction, P. P. Nicholson renders Thrasymachus’ account of justice in a way that is incompatible with Maguire’s view. In fact, Nicholson’s article extends and reinforces certain aspects of Kerferd (1947), a position that Maguire rejects out of hand. Regardless, like Maguire, Nicholson begins by describing the confusion surrounding how a reader should understand Thrasymachus’ position. Given Thrasymachus’ initial position, most commentators contend that Thrasymachus views “justice as a political relationship between rulers and subjects, and asserts that justice is the advantage of the stronger” (211). And like Maguire, Nicholson contends that this interpretation is objectionable for several reasons. First, it does not accord well with other elements of Socrates’ account of justice, namely, the conception of justice as a substantive moral issue rather than a political one. Second, this political doctrine is not a position that Thrasymachus holds consistently; as seen in Maguire’s article, his definition of justice shifts from a political context to a moral context.

Unlike Maguire, Nicholson does not, however, explain this apparent inconsistency as Plato’s attempt to guide the discussion towards the moral conception of justice that figures prominently in the discussion to follow. Nicholson believes instead that the present impasse is due to an incorrect interpretation of Thrasymachus’ terms and sequencing; indeed, the account of justice as “the advantage of the stronger” and “the advantage of another” can be made internally consistent. The author points to three possible interpretations that resolve this internal tension of Thrasymachus’ account.

The first interpretation proposes that “the advantage of another” is roughly synonymous with “the advantage of the stronger.” This initial proposal fails, however, in its application to Thrasymachus’ talk of business contracts and paying taxes. Here it is clear, as Nicholson indicates, that Thrasymachus’ “examples of just and unjust acts…include other relations besides those between ruler and subject” (214). Indeed, “another” can be another subject or political inferior, as well as the ruler. All instantiations of this definition of justice do not coincide necessarily with a ruler-subject relation and interaction.

The second and third interpretations are similar in one important respect. If “the stronger” and “another” are not synonymous terms, then a contradiction can only be avoided by subordinating one principle to the other. Consequently, the second interpretation renders the first account primary (“the advantage of the stronger, i.e. ruler”), subordinating the second (“the advantage of another”) to it. Indeed, if one strictly interprets “another” as the ruler in a given political constitution, then this interpretation gains some traction. Yet two major difficulties still face it.

First, it plainly conflicts with Thrasymachus’ example of “business contracts”, wherein the unjust individual comes out ahead of the just individual; it is in this way that the reader can understand how justice is “the advantage of another.” If private transactions of this sort involve subjects, but not the ruler, then it becomes difficult to see how this interpretation might remain consistent with the text. Nicholson does offer a further caveat by which the primacy of “the advantage of the stronger, i.e. ruler” might be maintained. The author suggests that “it might be argued that although in private transactions what is to the advantage of another is not to the advantage of the ruler(s) directly, indirectly it is.” This can further be understood in either of two ways. The observance of moral rules consistently might tend to benefit the ruler in one way or another. Additionally, it might be that morality is determined in such a way that it always works to benefit the rulers. These contentions are, however, rather more articulated and complex than the text can be seen to support.

In fact, as Nicholson notes, the addenda suggested above run counter to the text, namely 338 d-e. Therein, Thrasymachus speaks of the variety of political constitutions (e.g. democracy, tyranny, oligarchy, etc.) and the manner in which the type of political establishment determines the types of laws enacted; after all, “democracy makes democratic laws, tyranny makes tyrannical laws, and so on with the others” (338 d-e). Yet the types of moral conventions to be found in these different political systems are not nearly as divergent. Simply, were the reader to accept the suggested addenda, one would find moral norms to be as varied as the laws and enactments of the different political establishments; democratic rulers would have democratic moral norms, tyrannical rulers would have tyrannical moral norms, and so forth. Thrasymachus suggests nothing of the kind in his discussion of political constitutions. Moreover, Nicholson notes that “Thrasymachus conceives of advantage in terms of private goods which can be enjoyed only by one person exclusively (343 d-344 b)” (215). Private goods of this sort would, thus, have no benefits to any party save those directly privilege to them.

The second objection facing the second interpretation offered is more compact, albeit equally compelling. Nicholson presents this as the following question: what does is justice then for the ruler herself if Thrasymachus speaks only of everyone other than the ruler? If the reader is to understand that justice is, primarily, “the advantage of the stronger, i.e. ruler” then justice is the ruler’s pursuing her own advantage. Yet this does not accord with Thrasymachus’ own account, for injustice is that which “is to one’s own profit and advantage” (344 c). Any conflation of these two positions would, first, entail a ruler’s being simultaneously just and unjust and, second, directly contradict the text.

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