Republic By Plato Summary and Analysis Book I: Section III

Summary

Polemarchus seems to accept Socrates' argument, but at this point, Thrasymachus jumps into the conversation. He objects to the manner in which the argument is proceeding. He regards Socrates' questions as being tedious, and he says, professional teacher of argument that he is, that it is time to stop asking questions and to provide some answers. But Socrates says that he knows that he does not know, at this point, what justice is. What, he says, is Thrasymachus' definition of justice?

Thrasymachus says that he will provide the answer if he is provided his fee. He then says that justice is whatever is in the interest of the stronger party in a given state; justice is thus effected through power by people in power. People in power make laws; the weaker party (subjects) are supposed to obey the laws, and that is justice: obedience to laws made by the rulers in the interest of the rulers.

Socrates then argues that rulers can pass bad laws, "bad" in the sense that they do not serve the interest of the rulers. Thrasymachus says that a ruler cannot make mistakes. Thrasymachus' argument is that might makes right.

But Socrates rebuts this argument by demonstrating that, as a ruler, the ruler's chief interest ought to be the interests of his subjects, just as a physician's interest ought to be the welfare of his patient. A doctor may receive a fee for his work, but that means simply that he is also a wage-earner. A ruler may also receive a living wage for his work, but his main purpose is to rule.

Analysis

Thrasymachus is a professional rhetorician; he teaches the art of persuasion. Furthermore, he is a Sophist (he teaches, for a fee, men to win arguments, whether or not the methods employed be valid or logical or to the point of the argument). The ancient Greeks seem to have distrusted the Sophists for their teaching dishonest and specious methods of winning arguments at any cost, and in this dialogue, Thrasymachus seems to exemplify the very sophistry he embraces.

It is clear, from the outset of their conversation, that Socrates and Thrasymachus share a mutual dislike for one another and that the dialogue is likely at any time to degenerate into a petty quarrel. Both speakers employ verbal irony upon one another (they say the opposite of what they mean); both men occasionally smilingly insult one another. At one point, Thrasymachus employs an epithet (he calls Socrates a fool); Thrasymachus in another instance uses a rhetorical question meant to demean Socrates, asking him whether he has a bad nurse who permits Socrates to go sniveling through serious arguments.

Thrasymachus opens his whole argument by pretending to be indignant at Socrates' rhetorical questions he has asked of Polemarchus (Socrates' series of analogies). Socrates, no innocent to rhetoric and the ploys of Sophists, pretends to be frightened after Thrasymachus attacks by pretending to be indignant. So Thrasymachus acts like he is infuriated, for effect, and Socrates acts like he is frightened — for effect. When Socrates validly points out that Thrasymachus has contradicted himself regarding a ruler's fallibility, Thrasymachus, using an epithet, says that Socrates argues like an informer (a spy who talks out of both sides of his mouth). The point of this is that none of it advances the logical or well-reasoned course of the discussion.

For the Greeks, Thrasymachus would seem to lack the virtues of the good man; he appears to be a bad man arguing, and he seems to want to advance his argument by force of verbiage (loud-mouthery) rather than by logic. He is intemperate (out of control); he lacks courage (he will flee the debate); he is blind to justice as an ideal; he makes no distinction between truth and lies; he therefore cannot attain wisdom. Both Cleitophon (hitherto silent) and Polemarchus point out that Thrasymachus contradicts himself at certain stages of the debate. The Greeks would say that Thrasymachus devoids himself of virtue because he is so arrogant (he suffers from hubris); he is a power-seeker who applauds the application of power over other citizens. People like him, we are reminded, murdered the historical Socrates; they killed him in order to silence him. Plato knows this.

But whatever his intent in the discussion, Thrasymachus has shifted the debate from the definition of justice and the just man to a definition of the ruler of a state. And Thrasymachus seems to applaud the devices of a tyrant, a despot (a ruler who exercises absolute power over people), no matter whether or not the tyrant achieves justice for his subjects.

At this juncture in the dialogue, Plato anticipates an important point to be considered at length later in the debate: What ought to be the characteristics of a ruler of state?

Glossary

Xerxes (519?-465 b.c.); king of Persia (486-465): son of Darius I. Here, Xerxes, Bias, and Perdiccas are named as exemplars of very wealthy men.

Theban a native of Thebes (ancient city in southern Egypt, on the Nile, on the site of modern Luxor and Karnak).

Polydamus the name of a contemporary athlete, a pancratiast (see next entry).

pancratiast a participant in the pancratium, an ancient Greek athletic contest combining boxing and wrestling.

tyrranies plural of tyranny, a form of government in which absolute power is vested in a single ruler; this was a common form of government among Greek city-states and did not necessarily have the pejorative connotation it has today, although (as shall be seen) Plato regarded it as the worst kind of government.

democracies plural of democracy, a government in which the people hold the ruling power; democracies in Plato's experience were governments in which the citizens exercised power directly rather than through elected representatives.

aristocracies plural of aristocracy, a government by the best, or by a small, privileged class.

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