Ethics Study Guide: Socrates in Republic I

"You disgust me, Socrates. Your trick is to take hold of the argument at the point where you can do it the most harm."

The first book of Plato’s Republic is often treated as a stand-alone Socratic dialogue in its own right (we’ll talk about why later on), and we shall so treat it here. Like the Laches, it is an attempt to define a particular virtue, though in this case the virtue is not courage but justice.

The dialogue begins with a threat of violence: Polemarchus and his friends warn Socrates that they are prepared to force Socrates to come visit them, since they outnumber him. The threat is only a joke, and not meant seriously; but this reference to the power of majority rule is no doubt Plato’s way of reminding us of Socrates’ eventual fate.

This dialogue bears a certain similarity to the Gorgias, in that Socrates converses with a series of three interlocutors (Cephalus, Polemarchus, and Thrasymachus -- whose names incidentally mean “head,” “war leader,” and “angry fighter”), each more radically anti-Socratic than the predecessor. And the third interlocutor, the Sophist Thrasymachus, defends an anti-moralist position strikingly similar to that of Callicles.

In the Gorgias, each of the interlocutors was described as embracing more explicitly what the previous interlocutor was implicitly committed to. Is this true of Republic I as well? If so, then the condemnation of the anti-moralist Thrasymachus is implictly a condemnation of the first interlocutor; and this might seem implausible, since Cephalus is represented as likable and harmless. But I think there is a connection. Cephalus clearly thinks of justice in terms of external actions, i.e. as a matter of behaving properly toward others, rather than as a matter of the health of one’s own soul. Perhaps Plato is suggesting that thinking of justice in this way opens the door to the Thrasymachean view that justice always involves sacrificing our own self-interest to the interests of others.

Thrasymachus defines justice as the advantage of the stronger; what he means is that injustice always involves acting so as to benefit whoever is in power. (His evidence for this is that things that benefit the majority are called “just” in a democracy, while things that benefit the elite are called “just” in an aristocracy.) His claim is easily misunderstood. Since he thinks that the ruled act justly whenever they benefit the rulers, one might suppose that he will also think that the rulers are acting justly when they benefit themselves -- if the standard of justice is “benefit to the rulers.” But in fact Thrasymachus thinks that rulers who benefit themselves are acting unjustly. The secret to understanding his view is this: there’s a reason he describes his view in comparative terms (“the stronger“) rather than absolute terms (“the strong”). To act justly is to benefit a stronger-than-oneself. In other words, justice is always a matter of subordinating your own interests to the interests of someone in authority over you. So when the ruled act to benefit the rulers, they are acting justly, but the rulers themselves are not subordinating their interests to anyone else, so they are acting unjustly. (If rulers were to act in the interest of the ruled, they would be subordinating their interests to those of the ruled, and so would in effect be putting the ruled in the position of authority and so would not themselvs be genuine rulers any more. Hence one cannot genuinely exercise the art of rulership without ipso facto behaving unjustly.) Like Callicles, Thrasymachus believes that only a fool would sacrifice his own interests to those of others, so Thrasymachus rejects justice as a con game for suckers.

At 348 e, Socrates tells Thrasymachus: “If you had declared that injustice is more profitable, but agreed that it is a vice or shameful, as some others do, we could have discussed the matter on the basis of conventional beliefs.” In other words, Socrates could have refuted Thrasymachus in the same way he refuted Alcibiades and Polus, by appealing to their acceptance of the conventional belief that injustice is shameful; for if justice is admirable and injustice is shameful, then justice is good and injustice is bad, in which case injustice cannot, after all, be more advantageous than justice. But Thrasymachus, like Callicles, denies that injustice is shameful, and so he, again like Callicles, requires some more sophisticated refutation. What he needs to do is find some value his opponent holds that Socrates can use as a premise for his own conclusions. In the Gorgias, Socrates appealed to Callicles’ preference for courage over cowardice, activity over passivity, and order over disorder. In Republic I, Socrates appeals to Thrasymachus’ positive evaluation of expertise. Thrasymachus sings the praises of the art of rulership, which Thrasymachus sees as an expertise in advancing its possessor’s self-interest at the expense of the ruled. So Socrates tries to refute Thrasymachus by proving that it is justice rather than injustice that has the features of a genuine expertise. (We have seen Socrates appealing to the nature of expertise to make ethical points before, e.g. in the Laches and Gorgias.)

One of Socrates’ strategies is to try to show that an expertise by its nature always acts to bring whatever it operates on into a better condition; hence rulership too must act to benefit the ruled rather than exploit them. Another is to show that someone who possesses an expertise does not have a comparative notion of success. That is, an expert does not measure his own success by whether he is outdoing other people, but rather by whether he is living up to objective standards of what is best. (Compare Mikhail Baryshnikov’s remark: “I do not try to dance better than anyone else. I only try to dance better than myself.") The nonexpert, however, has no knowledge of the objective standard and so can only estimate his success in comparative terms. Since it is the unjust rather than the just who seek to gain an advantage over everybody, it is justice rather than injustice that has the most in common with expertise. The dialogue ends with an argument that anticipates Aristotle’s appeal to the human function.

Study Questions

1. In what way does Cephalus think the virtue of moderation is a matter of luck rather than in one’s own control? (328 c-329 d)

2. In what way does Cephalus think the virtue of justice is a matter of luck rather than in one’s own control? (330 d-331 b)

3. What is Socrates’ objection to Cephalus’ (implicit) definition of justice as speaking the truth and paying one’s debts? (331 b-d)

4. How does Socrates argue that Polemarchus is committed to regarding justice as useful only for what is useless? (332 d-333 e)

5. How does Socrates argue that Polemarchus is committed to regarding the just person as a thief? (333 d-334 b) How might Socrates’ views about moral motivation (as expressed in the Protagoras) serve as a reply to this objection?

6. What is Socrates’ objection to Polemarchus’ definition of justice as benefiting friends and harming enemies? (334 b-d)

7. What is Socrates’ objection to Polemarchus’ definition of justice as benefiting good people and harming bad people? (334 d-e)

8. What is Socrates’ objection to Polemarchus’ definition of justice as benefiting good friends and harming bad enemies? (334 e-335 e)

9. What is Socrates’ objection to Thrasymachus definition of justice as the advantage of the stronger? (339 a-340 b)

10. How does Thrasymachus use the notion of “expertise in the strict sense” to reply to this objection? (340 b-341 b)

11. How does Socrates appeal to the other-benefiting nature of expertise to answer this reply? (341 c-342 e)

12. How does Thrasymachus use the art of shepherding as a counter-reply? (343 a-344 c)

13. How does Socrates use Thrasymachus’ own notion of “expertise in the strict sense” to defeat the counter-reply? (345 b-347 a) What might Socrates say if Thrasymachus were to bring up the art of the butcher as a counterexample? (What does Socrates say about the arts of oratory and pastry-cooking at Gorgias 462 b-466 a?)

14. What wages, according to Socrates, do the true rulers receive? (346 e-347 e)

15. How does Socrates argue that justice must be classed with wisdom and virtue, and injustice with vice and ignorance? (348 b-350 d)

16. How does Socrates argue that justice is more powerful than injustice? (351 b-352 d)

17. How does Socrates argue that justice is always more profitable than injustice? (352 d-354 a)

18. What are we to make of Socrates’ final confession of ignorance? (354 a-b) He seems to think that he can’t know whether justice is beneficial unless he first knows what the essence of justice is, and he claims he doesn’t know that. But then what is the status of the arguments he’s just been making to show that justice is beneficial?

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