Can Plato Adequately Respond To Thrasymachus

’s Immoralist View Of Justice? Essay, Research Paper

In Book 1 of the ‘Republic’, Socrates, in answer to the question ‘What is Justice?’ is presented with a real and dangerous alternative to what he thinks to be the truth about Justice. Julia Annas believes Thrasymachus thinks Justice and Injustice do have a real existence that is independent of human institutions; and that Thrasymachus makes a decided commitment to Injustice. She calls this view ‘Immoralism’: “the immoralist holds that there is an important question about justice, to be answered by showing that injustice is better.” This essay identifies this ‘Immoral’ view before understanding if and how Plato can respond to it. How does Plato attempt to refute Thrasymachus’s argument? Is he successful?

Initially Thrasymachus states that Justice is ‘nothing else but the interest of the stronger’. Cross and Woozley identify four possible interpretations; the Naturalistic definition, Nihilistic view, Incidental comment, and the more useful Essential analysis. The ‘Essential Analysis’: “An action is just if and only if it serves the interest of the stronger,” with Thrasymachus stating the disadvantages of Justice and advantages of Injustice. This leads to problems with the stronger man, is it merely the promotion of self-interests? If Justice favours the interests of the stronger, is this simply from the perception of the weak with morality not concerning the stronger? Cross re-formulates Thrasymachus’s view as ‘Justice is the promotion of the ‘strongers’ interest’, therefore both weak and strong can act justly in furthering the strongers interests. However, complication occurs when we understand that Justice is another’s good: “You are not aware that justice or right is really what is good for someone else.” This entails Justice supports the interests of the strong from the weak, but additionally the interest of the subjects from the ruler. Confusion lies in Thrasymachus’s argument; can Plato adequately respond to Thrasymachus?

Inconsistency creeps into Thrasymachus’s argument, a) that Justice is in the interest of the stronger, and b) justice is another’s good, concluding that Justice is confined to the weaker. This view is demolished when Thrasymachus claims that a ruler can be either just or unjust; the inconsistency cannot be resolved. The two possibilities coincide in the weaker person not the stronger. As he favours injustice as the pursuit of one’s own interest, to paraphrase Cross, when Thrasymachus thinks about the just and unjust ruler, it is in terms of another’s good rather than in the interest of the stronger.

Socrates agrees with Thrasymachus: “what is right is an interest.” , but he reveals the inconsistency between obeying the rulers and what promotes the rulers’ interests by introducing a ‘wrong law’. With Thrasymachus’s admission that Rulers are not infallible another dilemma appears. Must a subject disobey a wrong law, thus serving the rulers interest, or obey it and disobey the ruler’s interests? He later states that in the true sense, a ruler that is mistaken is not really a ruler; similarly a mistaken doctor ceases in the true sense to be a doctor. Thus, a ruler/expert can never be wrong about his interests, as when mistaken they cease to be an expert. Hence, Thrasymachus avoids Socrates’s dilemma, leaving no possibility for the subject to act contrary to the ruler’s interests. Plato misses an opportunity to ridicule Thrasymachus’s argument. Not only is Thrasymachus’s ‘mistake’ analogy ridiculous, i.e. a doctor simply becomes a bad doctor; moreover, it implies the subject can decide the rulers interests, and thus only obey the ruler if he thinks it’s in his [rulers] interest. Thus making the subject the stronger and in control. Plato could have used Thrasymachus’s own argument to refute him but instead, as Cross identifies, attacks him on three lines of Socratic attack. Did Plato have an opportunity to adequately respond to Thrasymachus?

Firstly, Socrates uses an analogy of the doctor, showing that a ruler does not govern in his own interest. Socrates states that the art of medicine is not for self-interest but for the patient; he is not a doctor because he makes money but because he helps the sick. From this example, Socrates says, “no science studies or enforces the interest of the controlling party or stronger party, but rather that of the weaker party subjected to it.” Socrates assumes the political ruler practices his art of ruling in the interest of his subjects. Annas criticizes Socrates’s statements, saying that to believe skills are practiced solely for the benefit of others is “absurdly optimistic.” She also claims that moneymaking, as a separate skill, is a very artificial argument.

Thrasymachus responds with a shepherd. The art of the shepherd, fattening the sheep, is not done for the sheep’s benefit. Similarly, rulers look after themselves (seemingly benevolent) but realistically exploit the subjects as the shepherd exploits his sheep. Socrates made a fatal error by introducing the doctor analogy, as both arguments hinge upon the same premises. If Socrates is right then so is Thrasymachus as they both argue from two specific points to huge generalizations. In addition, Socrates, by stating a skill is fulfilled in the interests of that which it rules, encourages fatuous assumptions e.g. that the sculptor acts for the good of the stone, the painter for the good of the canvas, and so on. Socrates is guilty of over-generalizing and thus does not offer an adequate response to Thrasymachus.

Secondly, Socrates tries to refute that injustice is more profitable than justice. Thrasymachus claims “Justice is another’s good, whereas injustice is acting in the vigorous pursuit of your own interests.” Socrates uses the notion of the expert and the analogy of the musician to prove his point. Transported onto justice, the just only outdoes the un-just whilst the un-just tries to outdo both the just and un-just. By deduction, injustice is not more profitable. Annas identifies this Musician argument as being “simply fallacious” and highly ambiguous. The just and unjust man may have different priorities thus evaluating them through means of expertise is pointless. Moreover, by using an analogy of expertise, Plato is carelessly inconsistent with his former argument with Polemarchus, where he states that justice cannot be a skill. Socrates presents the difference between the Just and the Unjust as one of expertise, with the unjust making errors that the just would not. This analogy creates an absurd idea of justice that was earlier refuted.

Thankfully, Plato has a sounder second argument, proving that injustice is a divisive force, not a source of strength. A group of thieves or aggresors must recognise duties to each other, otherwise they would never achieve anything; thus true injustice cannot be more profitable than justice. However, Socrates implies that duty unites a band of thieves irrespective of fear or success, and as Cross states, when fear eases and failures begin, group cohesion disintegrates. Despite implying justice’s superiority, Annas says the argument unsuccessfully refutes Thrasymachus’s position once Socrates’s rhetoric is rejected. However, once Thrasymachus accepts the analogy, posing no counter-argument, Socrates wins through only begging the question.

Thirdly, Socrates tries to refute the claim that the unjust man has a better life than the just man. Socrates answer is unsatisfactory; it leaves the reader confused. Could Plato have refuted Thrasymachus’s claim that injustice provides the better life? Socrates’s argument pivots on two points, Function of a thing and its Excellence (what allows it to carry out its function) e.g. a knife’s function is to cut; its excellence is a sharp blade. Similarly, when the excellence of a thing is diminished, the performance of its function also deteriorates, e.g. bluntness of the knife. Socrates applies this analogy to the human soul. To paraphrase Cross: the soul’s function is to live; therefore, the soul must have an excellence, which is justice. Therefore, the just soul is one that lives well, and the man that lives well is happy. Hence, the man who does not live well is not happy and unjust. Thus the just man has a better life than the not just man. Annas identifies this argument as “scandalous,” stating that people do not have functions unlike artifacts. This also contrasts with Plato’s ideas that the body is the instrument of the soul.

Thrasymachus supposedly agrees with Justice being the excellence of the soul and thus injustice the vice of the soul, but when and how did they agree upon this? Throughout the Socratic dialogues, Socrates refutes the interlockers’ arguments with their own approval, but in this instance Thrasymachus never fully approves. Guthrie identifies Thrasymachus’s sulkiness towards Socrates: “Yes – I won’t contradict you” (351d): “Go on, enjoy your argument…I won’t annoy the company by contradicting you” (352b): “So it appears from your argument,” (353e), “This is your holiday treat, so enjoy it, Socrates.” (354a), proving that Thrasymachus is not convinced, and agrees with Socrates in protest. Thus reader, too, is unconvinced.

Thrasymachus defeats himself by agreeing that Justice is the excellence of the soul, he should never have agreed with it, nor did Socrates have to argue for it. Annas asks why anyone would accept Socrates point, if they thought it true independently they would not need convincing through the function argument, it renders the argument futile. Thrasymachus could have stated injustice as the excellence of the soul, thus fulfilling its function by living badly. The argument from function does not automatically assume that the Just man has a better life. Thus, Thrasymachus could have used Socrates’ own argument to forward his claims.

In conclusion, Socrates does not adequately deal with Thrasymachus’s problem. Socrates’s intentions appear futile from the outset because firstly, as Socrates states in the Meno, how can they decide whether Virtue can be taught when they do not know exactly what virtue is yet: “The fact is that far from knowing whether it can be taught, I have no idea what virtue itself is.” Similarly how can he debate the advantages or disadvantages of Justice versus Injustice when they still do not have a definition of Justice itself? Secondly, to say injustice pays is not such an absurd idea; it is a real and dangerous argument that Socrates fails to counter adequately. His counter-arguments are weak and lack conviction, due to not fully understanding what justice actually is, and concludes by begging the question. Thirdly, most importantly, the nature of Thrasymachus as a philosophical opponent hinders Socrates’s investigation. Thrasymachus is a Moral skeptic, believing injustice pays better than justice. According to Guthrie, Thrasymachus’s purpose is “to unmask the hypocrisy and show how the meaning of Justice is being perverted” . He is not prepared to argue, leaving Socrates victorious. Here, Socrates’s method of argumentative questioning is insufficient and na?ve against a stubborn, powerful and philosophically certain moral skeptic. This is confirmed by the change in investigative approach in the latter books. Thus the ‘earlier’ Plato cannot adequately respond to Thrasymachus’s immoralist view of Justice.


Annas, Introduction to Plato’s Republic. Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1981.

Cross and Woozley, Plato’s Republic. Macmillan, London, 1964.

Guthrie, History of Greek Philosophy. Cambridge Press, Cambridge, 1969.

Plato, Tr. Hamilton, Collected Dialogues. Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 1989.

Plato, Tr. Desmond Lee, The Republic. Penguin Books, London, 1987.


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