Though Socrates himself admits some failure in his attempt to define justice, the argument he has with Thrasymachus in the first book of Plato’s Republic demonstrates the superiority of Socrates’ over Thrasymachus as a thinker. Yet, the comparative nature of the term “superior” leads to a situation where, though Socrates’ argument may not have been infallible, it proves unassailable by that which was presented by Thrasymachus. Socrates achieves almost complete success in defeating Thrasymachus’ argument, and in so doing achieves a lower-level of success in defining the term justice, as he had set out to do. The success that Socrates finds is therefore relative, and contingent on the fact that where Thrasymachus was content generalize and argue in the abstract, Socrates made his arguments more concrete by substituting specific cases. The specificity of Socrates’ arguments has the advantage of revealing the flaws inherent in the reasoning put forth by Thrasymachus, and in that sense Socrates’ argument against him is successful.
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Thrasymachus enters an argument begun by Socrates and Polemarchus by belittling their dialectic efforts and asserting his own claim that justice is represented solely in the interest of the stronger entity. This claim is a deterministic one that identifies the ability to subdue with the right to demand what one desires from that which has been subdued. Yet, the awkward and imprecise way in which it is phrased leaves Thrasymachus open to interpretations which he has not intended. Socrates is immediately able to counteract this argument by exemplifying it in the real-life situation of the pancratiast (wrestler) whose need for strength requires that he eat beef (338 d). Socrates’ extension of Thrasymachus’ argument shows that it would require that all men eat beef regardless of their need for it simply because a stronger man necessity for the commodity dictates this. Thrasymachus cannot admit this specific treatment of the matter to be true, and is therefore forced to modify his statement. He says, “That's abominable of you, Socrates; you take hold of the argument in the way you can work it the most harm” (338 e), describing the method through which Socrates is able to confound his argument. In disproving an argument or any theory, Socrates knows that one has only to find one special case in which the theory does not apply. He uses this knowledge to his advantage in succeeding against Thrasymachus, who should have detected these areas of inconsistency on his own before presenting his argument.
Plato subsequently presents a second area in which Socrates is successful in his argument against Thrasymachus. Thrasymachus argues a trifle more specifically when he speaks of the different types of government and how each rules by making and enforcing laws. He emphasizes the similarity of their methods while acknowledging a difference in the types of government that result—yet without any hint as to what might have caused such differing outcomes from such similar methods. Socrates’ pounces upon this weakness by embarking on a dialectical journey toward discovering precisely what causes the common enforcement of laws to result in such different forms of government: democracy, tyranny, and aristocracy. Socrates points toward the fact that these laws can be made rightly and wrongly (in effect, justly or unjustly), and he hints that these are the differences that cause the governments which all rule by law to emerge as different governmental systems.
Socrates further points out that despite the fact that the governments do in fact rule and are therefore strong, their laws may even be contrary to their own desires—if they mistakenly decree an inappropriate law. Thrasymachus admits that “When [rulers] make [laws] rightly, they make them agreeably to their [the rulers’] interest; when they are mistaken, contrary to their interest” (339 d). In so doing, Socrates forces him to admit that his own reasoning leads to a scenario in which the strong makes a law that is not for his benefit. This is in direct contrast to Thrasymachus’ assertion. Furthermore, his premises, which state that justness is to be found only in the interest of the strong, and that obedience to the rule of the strong is just, are thrown into conflict by the successful argument of Socrates. This is further underscored by the fact that Thrasymachus is at that point powerless to rescue his argument, which in order to become revitalized must be rephrased by Cleitophon.
Thrasymachus again returns from a new angle in an attempt to expose a flaw in Socrates’ reasoning. He seeks to demonstrate that the errant ruler of which Socrates has just spoken is an imperfect picture of a ruler, and therefore should not enter the discussion. Yet even from this angle, Socrates succeeds in pointing out flaws in his initial assertion concerning the strong entity’s having the right of justice. Thrasymachus’ argument that the errant artist cannot, in his error, be considered an artist is met by an equally strict and ideal description of specific artists: physicians and pilots. Socrates demonstrates that the artist (including the strong ruler) has as his interest the well being of the art which he practices. The ruler’s art is his kingdom or domain, and the ideal ruler, Socrates continues, is represented in the one who seeks office in order to confer good—if only by crowding out the evil. This is a blow to Thrasymachus’ argument in that it demonstrates the strong ruler as one who is necessarily good to his subjects. Subsequently, Socrates forces Thrasymachus to admit that “no science or art considers or enjoins the interest of the stronger or superior, but only the interest of the subject and weaker” (342 e). Using Thrasymachus’ argument that justice is defined by adherence to the rules of the strong, Socrates is able to identify justice with the interest not of the strong, but of the weak over whom he presides.
It is interesting to note that in coming to this argument, Thrasymachus makes a valid point: that “the just is always a loser in comparison with the unjust” (343 c). Though he speaks in the absolute (using the term “always”) one does detect familiarity in the idea he raises. The unjust person is apt to benefit from his unjustness, and this defines the principal reason that he is tempted to act unjustly in the first place. However, Thrasymachus again stumbles into folly because what he describes is not ultimately the result of the actions of the unjust. He merely describes what the unjust person believes to be the result of his actions. Unwittingly, he has again described the person who wrongly believes that the effects of his actions will suit him. The true effects of this unjust person’s actions are discovery of their unjustness and punishment for their actions. Socrates reveals even further that the actions of these unjust rulers whose tyranny is complete cannot be, as Thrasymachus claims, as uniformly unjust as he would have them believe. This is, on the one hand, demonstrated in the fact that the malicious objectives of persons who practice unjustness on a smaller scale are generally uncovered and labelled unjust. On the other hand, those who practice unjustness on a grand scale Socrates proves not to have the luxury of practicing it fully, as they risk being ineffective in so doing. Thrasymachus demonstrates no consciousness of this flaw, but the awareness of the unpersuasive nature of the argument is revealed in Socrates’ subsequent argument which continues Thrasymachus’ defeat.
Socrates again takes specific examples of people who act in a position of dominance—the artist, scientist and ruler. He demonstrates that those who would be tyrannical to their subjects cannot at the same time by tyrannical among themselves. He uses the example of a band of robbers and shows that though they would perpetrate injustice on those whom they rob, they have not the luxury of behaving the same way amongst each other, as no cooperation could result and their missions would end in failure. This Thrasymachus is forced to admit to be true, and once he does, Socrates points out that those types of persons are aware of the benefit that just action conveys upon any situation.
Socrates also takes on Thrasymachus’ argument that unjustness is virtuous and justness evil by using another of the man’s own arguments against him. Thrasymachus had previously argued that the unjust man is apt to want more than all, while the just man is likely to require no more than necessary to fulfill his duty. In taking the specific cases of the musician and the wise man, he leaves Thrasymachus no choice but to admit that the musician and sage who seek no more than to do better than the non-musician and fool (respectively) are the ones who act virtuously. According to this line of reasoning, Thrasymachus is forced to recant his assertion that the unjust man, who desires more than is due, is in fact virtuous. This spells success again for Socrates.
The methods used by Socrates to argue against the assertions made by Thrasymachus allow him to triumph in his arguments. He is able to counteract the different claims by seeking out specific examples of the generalities put forth by Thrasymachus and systematically showing how they do not hold up to the scrutiny under which they must stand in order to uphold his (Thrasymachus’) theories. While Socrates, in the final paragraph of the book, admits of some defeat in his initial attempt at defining the term justice, his defeat cannot be said to have come at the hand of Thrasymachus. As far as the argument with Thrasymachus goes—which has been concerned with determining whether justice should be accorded to the actions of the strong—Socrates does gain success. Nor can Socrates’ self-admitted defeat be considered complete, as some progress in defining justice [as being like the wise and good (335 d)] was in fact made in determining the inaccuracy of Thrasymachus’ claims.
Plato. (2001). Plato’s Republic (Complete). A. A. Anderson & B. Jowett (Trans.) Millis: Agora Publications.
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