It is the task of the wise ruler to seek to transform the city based on force into one based on speech (if only on myths and noble lies). This is no different for a founder of a community of discourse than for a founder of cities. This is the primary task of the first book of “The Republic.”

Even the wolf . . . Phaedrus, has a right to an advocate, as they say.
—Plato, Phaedrus

Practical wisdom makes provisions
to secure theoretical wisdom.
—Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics

The Greeks were
superficial . . . out of profundity.
—Nietzsche, Joyful Wisdom


1. The Deed of Book I

The Republic opens with an act of force.[1] Socrates is prevented from returning to Athens, restrained by the others to remain below and join them in viewing a novel religious procession after dinner (I 327a-8b, V 450a, VII 514a-515c; cf. X 614e). He cannot prudently protest. He is outnumbered. But nor, they say, will they listen to him. Polemarchus challenges Socrates to prove that he is stronger than they are (I 327c; cf. 341b, V 449b, 450a, 451b, 474a, VI 500d, 509c). The community of interlocutors here constituted is initially founded on force, the fundamental fact of politics.

Nevertheless Socrates will try to persuade them of an alternative course of action (I 327c, II 357af.). Otherwise he will have to pay the penalty of being ruled by lesser men than himself (I 347c). It is the task of the wise ruler to seek to transform the city based on force into one based on speech (if only on myths and noble lies). This is no different for a founder of a community of discourse than for a founder of cities. The primary task of Book I of The Republic, then, is the foundation of a human mutuality based on an openness to speeches (logical moderation).[2] Socrates’ efforts toward this end, however, are complex and, on the surface, quite puzzling.

2. Thrasymachean Justice

Following the discussion of Polemarchus’s common, partisan understanding of justice as “helping one’s friends and harming one’s enemies” (I 33ld-336a, IV 442e), Thrasymachus, no longer able to restrain himself (cf. I 352c), protests that Socrates’ view renders one defenseless and vulnerable. Harming one’s enemies, according to Socrates, was said to be incompatible with justice. Far from sometimes having to inflict harm, as Polemarchus thought, justice should seek to make us all better.

“Hunched up like a wild beast,” Thrasymachus flings himself into the discussion ready “to tear [the interlocutors] to pieces” (I 336b). It would appear that Thrasymachus is himself an enemy of logos and that Socrates is up against a “wild beast” (cf. III 411d-e, VI 493b-c, 496d). But are Socrates and his city in fact as defenseless as Thrasymachus presumes? Socrates made it plain in the foregoing that one sometimes misidentifies one’s enemies (I 334c; cf. VI 498c-d). The question arises as to what fitting response there is to the Thrasymachuses in our midst.

As the Greek proverb has it, Socrates has had his eye on the wolf all along (I 336d; cf. III 416a, VIII 565d-566a, IX 576d). One could even say that his “nonsensical” and “foolish” argument with Polemarchus was designed in part to incite this wolf. Socrates knows Thrasymachus.[3] He now appeals to him on the (false) grounds that they, Socrates and Polemarchus, must have been incompetent. They need rather to learn from someone who “knows,” correction and betterment being the fitting punishment for mistreatment of arguments. Thrasymachus at first understands this to be yet another case of injustice on Socrates’ part. Socrates, he thinks, is being his usual self, deliberately evasive and disingenuous; he misleads the argument at will.[4] That’s “the habitual irony of Socrates” (I 337a)! Thrasymachus thinks he knows with whom he speaks.

Surprisingly, Socrates’ insistence that the just punishment for ignorance is correction through learning is accepted by Thrasymachus (along with some added compensation). For all his supposed wildness, is Thrasymachus more moderate and tractable than the city of Athens, the city that not only accused but convicted and sentenced to death this man who appears to shrink in the face of hurting anyone, even, it would seem, his real enemies?[5]

Thrasymachus is willing at least to teach the transgressor a lesson, if not of the sort that would make the deficient Socrates better. He says: “Now listen . . . the just is nothing other than the advantage of the stronger” (I 338c; cf. III 412d, IV 442c). This rightly famous statement is definitive. But Socrates knows that it needs a closer look.

3. The Elicitation

The manner of eliciting Thrasymachus’s fuller understanding is surprising. Socrates’ method involves us in an unusual course of reasoning. To begin with, he seems to insult Thrasymachus’s and our intelligence by introducing an apparently inappropriate counter-example: Polydamas the pancratist. Because the latter is strong and eats great quantities of meat, does this mean that we too, the weaklings, must eat large amounts of meat? An oblique example to be sure, but one that makes plain the distinction between equalitarian and distributive justice. Thrasymachus seeks unequal treatment.

In his defense, Thrasymachus makes it first appear that he holds a common view, one shared by many: Governments are the expressions of the strongest group (a theory of comparative legitimacy). However, in such a view, all governments are equally legitimate. Were this his real opinion, Thrasymachus would be a defender of the legal and the status quo.

To make it clear that this is not so, Socrates reverts to the problem of mistakes earlier raised in connection with Polemarchus’s understanding of justice. Thrasymachus is no less prone to trip over this than Polemarchus, for neither considers adequately the role that knowledge must play. Thrasymachus is led to make the extraordinary claim that he intends “the ruler in the precise sense” only, that is, one who not only intends but achieves his own benefit. Socrates cannot but wonder what is at the heart of this understanding of human excellence.

Indeed Thrasymachus now insists on this “precise” ruler. The presumption implicit in the notion of the precise sense is that of total mastery: The perfect ruler, infallible, simply does whatever he or she thinks. But taken in this way, the ideal of pure action, of acting out one’s intentions faultlessly, is dangerously ambiguous.[6] Present in Thrasymachus’s formulation are the ideals both of the philosopher-king (the knowledgeable ruler) and the tyrant (the knowledgeable exploiter) (I 336a, II 361b, III 409c-d, V 477e, VII 517c, 518d-e, 519a).

Though abstracting from the problem of the imprecision of the world—one of the fundamental political problems is precisely that people do not know their own good, their own advantage, with precision—this formulation will require that we rethink our ambiguous thoughtfulness.

To bring the problem of Thrasymachean justice to a head, Socrates introduces the analogy of the arts. Now art might be seen as concerned with its object exclusively, other interests being inessential and ancillary. As such, an art can be understood (ambiguously) to oversee or “rule over” its subject matter. This Thrasymachus readily concedes, but in so doing he does not realize that the notion of selfless dedication entailed in such a view leads to the opposite of his real intention. Add to this Socrates’ hasty generalization—“there is no kind of knowledge that considers or commands the advantage of the stronger, but rather of what is weaker and ruled by it” (I 342c)—which in turn is hastily generalized still again as “therefore . . . there isn’t ever anyone who holds any position of rule, insofar as he is ruler, who considers or commands his own advantage” (I 342e), and we have a conclusion that confounds not only Thrasymachus, but us as well.

Unable to see his way clear of this thicket of tacit presuppositions and hasty generalizations, Thrasymachus resorts to defamation of character: The sniveling Socrates must have been overprotected by his wet-nurse (I 343a). Of all men, Socrates would appear to be ignorant of what in Thrasymachus’s view—and not only his—is the most significant fact of life: the fundamental difference between the shepherd and the sheep. It is clear to everyone who has not lost his good sense (I 348d) and his way amidst the tangle of abstract arguments that the shepherd fattens his sheep for slaughter, for dinner and for his and his master’s bank account—in short, “for his own advantage.”

While appearing blind, Socrates’ obtuseness yet forces Thrasymachus to be more explicit. Indeed, only now is the latter candid. As Socrates suspected all along, Thrasymachus here admits that it is rather injustice that leads to happiness: Justice only leads to “getting less” (I 343d). Not the higher ground of comparative governments, then, but the lower ground of acquisitiveness and “getting more” (pleonexia) recommends his view.

By leading Thrasymachus to think that justice understood as an art can only serve the good of that over which it is an art “in the precise sense,” Socrates has forced him to say what he really thinks but had been reluctant to put into words (cf. I 336c and 338b). Thrasymachus now declares: “As I have said from the beginning”—that is, as he has secretly thought and intended from the beginning—injustice is “freer, mightier, and more masterful than justice” (I 344c). This is his final word. So, having made known his “better opinion” (I 337d), and with no sense of obligation to others’ advantage (I 344e), he prepares to leave this community of discourse.

4. A Questionable Analysis

The justice of Socrates and the others, however, prevents Thrasymachus from leaving (cf. I 327a-c). The question of injustice after all is not an indifferent one (cf. IX 545f). Tyranny is a deep human temptation (the dialogue proper is framed by the question of tyranny, cf. II 358-367, IX 57lb-d, 592b, X 615a-6b, 618a, 619a, b-d). Behind our uncertain conviction that justice is a good lies our experience and doubts to the contrary, as well as the indiscriminateness of our desires (cf. I 347e, II 359bf., IX 572b, 588c-9a).[7] Socrates is especially concerned with the effect that such praise would have on Glaucon and the others (i.e. their advantage) (I 347e). He must do what he can.

Socrates begins his exposition by pointing out a contradiction that follows from Thrasymachus’s newly revised view. The secret admiration of the unjust man clearly violates their earlier agreement to think of the artisan in Socrates’ precise sense. Precise speech divorces the other-concern of the arts from the accompanying self-concern of the artisan. Moreover, it makes it appear that the former cannot be a means to the latter but is exclusively an end in itself. By appearing blind to what in Thrasymachus’s view is man’s underlying essence—his acquisitiveness and desire for more—Socrates again flabbergasts his interlocutor.[8] He perplexes him still further when he makes it appear that the sought-after offices of the rulers are not only not choice worthy in themselves, but actually onerous burdens, the precise opposite of what Thrasymachus holds. Socrates’ arguments are stunning; the wolf ceases to howl.

Yet the claims for injustice, though silenced for the moment, have not in fact been refuted (II 358-367). The question remains whether “the life of the unjust man is [indeed] stronger than that of the just man” (I 347e). Socrates therefore undertakes to counter this.

In Thrasymachus’s view what we call justice is, quite frankly, a kind of “noble innocence.” By contrast, injustice is “prudent counsel” (I 348c; cf. X 598d). The implicit equation here of the unjust with the good and the wise needs to be put into question. Socrates does this by interpreting him to mean that “the unjust tries to get the better of the like and the unlike” (I 350b), therewith highlighting its implicit claims to domination. With the very questionable, indeed false, premise that “each is such as those of whom it is like” (I 349d)—just because this looks like a good argument surely does not mean that it is a good argument (cf. V 476c)—along with the ambiguous use of the expression “to get the better of,” Socrates manages to invert the matter and conclude that “the just man is like the wise and the good and the unjust man like the bad and the unlearned” (I 350c). Again the very opposite of what Thrasymachus holds is made to appear to be so.

Thrasymachus, silenced again, now sweats, indeed even blushes.[9] He feels what he cannot see for himself, the lack of sufficiency of his views. But the cause of the reddening is not logic, the victory not one of reason. He blushes because he has been defeated by rhetoric, by his own craft. He has been “gotten the better of.” Thrasymachus has been given a taste of his own justice and he doesn’t like it. The “advantage of the stronger” all of a sudden doesn’t feel like justice to him (cf. IX 582a). Nevertheless we witness a surprising reversal of aggression. Thrasymachus surrenders. From now on, he says, he’ll just “nod” like an old woman listening to tales (I 350e).

This is not the end of Socrates’ logical rapaciousness, however. Next he considers whether injustice is “more powerful and mightier” than justice (I 351a). Shunting the question of the injustice of others from view, Socrates points out that injustice seems to lead to “factions, hatreds and quarrels.” In light of this it would appear that an unjust society is inherently unstable, indeed bent on self-destruction. Applying this to an individual, it would seem to follow that injustice renders one “not of one mind with himself” and “unable to accomplish anything” (I 351e-352a). History notwithstanding, the unjust would seem to be intrinsically ineffective. Tyrants are not capable of the enslavement of whole peoples. Indeed it is made to appear to be a logical impossibility.

Socrates’ amazing resourcefulness—his word wizardry—proves too much for Thrasymachus (and us?). If Thrasymachus was compliant before, he is totally acquiescent now. The wolf bares his belly. Recognizing Socrates’ logical ravenousness, Thrasymachus concedes yet again: “Feast yourself on the argument, for I won’t oppose you” (I 352b). He is defenseless (an oblique proof that tyrants are inefficacious?). Yet he should oppose Socrates. That there is some measure of disorder among thieves surely does not mean that thieves are totally ineffective. Socrates has only shown that it is not the injustice in the “precise sense” that Thrasymachus imagines. This is hardly decisive (as Socrates admits at I 352b-c, II 361a).

The banquet and the feasting are not quite over, though. “Come . . . fill out the rest of the banquet for me,” is all the word-weary Thrasymachus can now muster. His innermost thoughts have been made a meal of. The last argument in this three-course dinner concerns the question of whether the unjust “live better.” “They look as though they [do],” Socrates grants (I 352d; cf. II 358-367, III 379c, X 613a). His reply turns on the meaning of the middle term aretē, or human excellence. Socrates would have it that each species, indeed each functioning being, has a special “work” (ergon) that “one can only do with it or best with it.” Indeed the soul has its excellence as well. The good life, then, is not possible without it. Therefore the life of injustice cannot be better than that of justice. Clearly the argument rests on ambiguity: the ambiguity of “the good life” and of excellence itself.[10]

After such a dizzying argument, Thrasymachus can only hope that Socrates’ logical indulgence is at its end, that he has had, as he says, “his fill at the festival of Bendis” (I 354a). Socrates’ eagerness has led him to gluttony, however. Indeed he even regrets what he has done:

I am like the gluttons who grab at whatever is set before them to get a taste of it, before they have in proper measure enjoyed what went before . . . I have not had a fine banquet . . . it’s my own fault. (I 354b; cf. I 337a, 340d, II 357a, 358b, III 413b)

Above all, the question of the superiority of justice to injustice remains. The claims for injustice are only further accented by Socrates’ own actions. Hasn’t Socrates unjustly treated the arguments, unjustly treated Thrasymachus?


5. Socrates’ Self-indictment

What is one to conclude from this strange business? Socrates was indiscriminate, Thrasymachus undiscriminating. Socrates’ own self—assessment is categorical: “As a result of the discussion, I know nothing” (1354c). This is neither modesty nor irony. Indeed, the fearful prospect that we are in an even worse position with respect to the question of injustice than when we began presents itself (as Glaucon and Adeimantus see well, II 357aff).

Thrasymachus was right: Socrates feasted himself on the arguments. And although it was the case that he saw what Socrates had done to the other interlocutors better than he was able to see what Socrates did to him, still it was true, as Thrasymachus observed, that Socrates did not come out from behind his questions (cf. I 338b). And if one can infer the intention from the result, one might suspect with Thrasymachus that Socrates was bent on victory and advantage after all. This supports the popular suspicion of Socrates’ dialectic as essentially dissembling and destructive. But do Thrasymachus and the populace know Socrates?

This master of the logos and of question and answer astonished us with his numerous fallacies and paralogisms, yet he was victorious. (If we could offer a casual list, it would include: oblique examples, deflecting abstractions, rampant ambiguity, obtuseness, evasion of the issue, and, for want of a better phrase, preposterous counterfactualism.) Although elements of his arguments were defective, the argument proved overwhelming as a whole (cf. VI 487b-c). We cannot avoid the conclusion that Socrates not only knows rhetoric in the abstract, but that he is a master of it in practice.[11] Horrible to think, he knows how “to make the weaker argument the stronger.” This disappoints our modern expectations. We would rather have seen Thrasymachus defenseless before the onslaught of a rapier-like and trenchant logic.[12] This wasn’t what happened. Thrasymachus “was torn to pieces” (cf. I 336b) to be sure, but he is a victim of his own sophisticated trade (not his advantage).

This is potentially disillusioning. We are made to wonder about this figure before us. Was the respect we had for Socrates not based on careful insight into who he is? He used word wizardry; he violated logical rules. The question is: What does he do with this ambiguous knowledge? Has he committed an act of injustice? If so, should we not join with the people of Athens and indict Socrates for—sophistry? But “like” is not the same as “is,” no matter what Socrates may have said earlier to the contrary (cf. V 476c, X 596e, 598a, 601b, 607a).

6. Prelogical Prologue

Indeed before we condemn him, let us recall the circumstances and context of the discussion. At the very outset of the dialogue, we encountered the basic fact of political life: force. There it was made clear that unless people are willing to listen, force will rule unchallenged.[12.5] In this way we were brought to realize too that a community of discourse should never be taken as a preexistent given, for it is not “by nature,” but is a human accomplishment and as such is precarious. A community of speech is always vulnerable to deteriorating into a community of force. Logos, then, is not the uncontested ruler of human affairs. There are preconditions to its holding sway. Socrates, then, has first to attempt to lay the foundations of an alternative, more rational, and more just community.

And it was the figure of Thrasymachus, more than any of the others, who threatened the openness and mutuality necessary for discussion. Thus, before Socrates could persuade Thrasymachus of any truths—and before logic in its refined and schematic forms could have any appropriateness and reasonable effectiveness—the “wild beast” either had to be done away with (cf. the treatment of Cephalus) or “tamed” (cf. I 354b, V 470e). Socrates chose the less violent, alternative course. He knows Thrasymachus (cf. I 327c, VI 498c-d). But even so, one does not, indeed cannot, tame with logic those who do not listen. In this political sense, logic is not an independent science, nor is it first in the order of human things. Even it presupposes the political arts.[13]

We need, then, to acknowledge the political function of speech, the founding function of speech above all. Without it there exists no arena for dialogue or for thought. A contextless speech fails to communicate; “mere words” do not speak “to” anyone. It is thus a very great reduction to think that logos can be properly translated by “reason” or “logic.” There is more to logos than in our overly abstract and reductively narrowed sense of philosophy.

Otherwise, we will not be able to see that, despite the “blunders,” what is enacted here is a just logos indeed. Book One of The Republic is precisely what it is, the first and preparatory book to that which follows. As such it is also an indispensable primer in political founding.

7. The Logos of Force

One may object that Socrates has gone too far in his forceful “taming” of the “wild beast.” Even accepting the necessity of moderating and taming that which, if given enough rein, would overthrow the very basis of the life of dialogue, we might yet regret that the vital Thrasymachus has not only been logically reproached but, further, denatured and incapacitated (cf. VII 519e, IX 590c-d).

Such a view rests on an underestimate of opinion. Despite the fact that Socrates everywhere insists on a distinction between opinion and knowledge, it is yet a significant misunderstanding to think that for him opinions are ever “mere opinions.” Although knowledge has “a greater reality” (V 477e-8a), opinions should not be discounted to the point that we no longer see their consequential natures and human or political significance. Above all, they are not things of the mind alone, confined to some restricted sphere of self-relation called “subjectivity” and thus a matter of “personal perspective” with no bearing on life and action. The medium of the polis and of human life is opinion. We are doxastic beings.

Opinions, then, are not disengaged abstractions but first of all expressions of a particular opiner. Truly candid opinions (those not interposed to camouflage our secret thoughts), once elicited, are revelations of the being of the speaker, who he or she is. We choose what we think; we act out what we think; we live what we think; we are what we think (the multiple difficulties therewith notwithstanding). Opinions define the person, then. They are formative—preforming, informing, transforming, deforming—and thus they bespeak and perform a life (IX 574d). Socratic discussions seek to go to the quick and expose the deeper “logic” beneath: the defining logos of a soul, and thus constitute a philosophical psychoanalysis (“the art of creeping into souls”: IX 576a-7b, 578d, 579e; cf. VI 500d).

Thus it is not a matter of abstracted definitions, but of the lives they bespeak—here the secret admiration for the tyrant—that needs to be our principal focus. And it is this “opinion,” given its potential for immoderation and anti-political “getting more” (a more serious form of ravenousness) that has to be called up short, not for Socrates’ “advantage,” but for others, for the community of those around him, especially the young Glaucon. Beneath the appearance of a defense of what is properly “one’s own,” the city, is hidden Thrasymachus’s profound longing for that which would ravish the city, an offensive and gluttonous self-assertion (a more serious form of dissembling). It is thus just punishment and necessary corrective therapy that such persons be stunned, deflated, and dispirited, at best as a preliminary step toward their improvement, but if not as a way of preventing harm to others. And this is what Socrates seeks to do at every turn by demonstrating that not only is Thrasymachus wrong, but that the very opposite of what he says is true.

Despite the fallacies, can such a therapeutic and prudential logos be considered unjust, indeed illicit?[14] At the very least it is dedicated to the well-being of “that toward which the art is directed” and thus epitomizes the true art of the guardian “in the precise sense.”[15] The just guardian, we learn later, cares for the city as a whole (V11 519d-e, IX 586d-e). Is this the “foolish shepherd’s art” of which Thrasymachus was so contemptuous?

8. Socrates’ Contrariness

Socrates then is not simply being contrary. True, every time Thrasymachus asserted something, Socrates sought to “prove” the very opposite, and this even if it meant proving the contrary of what everyone knows to be true.[16] The term “contentious” thus fails to describe his activity. Socrates appeared to deny the importance of such central issues as self-defense, human error, and self-interest for this discussion of justice (and by extension for political philosophy).

Socrates began by appearing to deny the right of self-defense. He seemed to deny the traditional conviction that the city must protect itself and restrain, indeed punish, wrongdoers. The ever-present threat of external enemies did not ever seem to warrant doing them harm. From this it appeared that there was no such thing as a just restraint. This rightly infuriated Thrasymachus’s sense of order (if only that of the rule of the stronger), for such a view undermines the security of any city.

Then Socrates proceeded to deny the political importance of human error (despite I 334cf and 339bf, VI and VII). The discussion of the arts “in the precise sense” eclipsed the matter of misjudgment and errancy. Would that errors were not a serious problem and we did not have to pay for the consequences of people’s mistakes.

But above all, the discussion of the arts and their total dedication to that toward which they are directed eclipsed the fundamental question of self-interest. The result was that human acquisitiveness and pleonexia were rendered secondary in this, a discussion of political philosophy. The human being was equated with the artisan and thus confined to a single, selfless interest in the good of his subject matter alone. There are numerous consequences of such a simplification of human intentions (IX 571b, 572b, 573a, 588b-589b), but by far the most significant is the apparent denial of any human desire for domination (cf. X 615bf. and 619bf). He denied, on the one hand, that rule could ever be to anyone’s advantage and thus was not choice worthy, and on the other hand, that rule, if ever secured, could ever be harmful. Sheep are not ever the victims, in short, of anyone’s self-interest. As such he totally obscures what in Thrasymachus’s view, and not only his, is the fundamental fact of politics. Such, then, were Socrates’ arguments.

Thus the question emerges, why would anyone interested in political philosophy ever want to consult The Republic? Why such political innocence, if not blindness?[17] The answer is not simple. Formally this is the price one has to pay for premises that demonstrate that injustice is not simply to be equated with worldly wisdom or human excellence of any sort, that human history and experience notwithstanding, injustice is not mightier than justice but is the opposite, impotent and incapable of wreaking havoc on us all (II 358b, 367d-e, III 392b, V 472e, VI 497c, X 612c). This is a comforting thought, worth hanging one’s hopes on (II 368b). The overall effect of this section, then, is to quiet our concerns about the injustice of the world and to temper our political ambitions to get for ourselves what we would not, in our unjust world, otherwise receive. Is this not an act of justice in its noblest, if innocent, sense?

But our first response may not be adequate. If we look at the dramatic argument as a whole, and not simply at some abstracted segment, we see that Socrates, far from denying these things, has in fact defended himself quite well (V 464e), that he has ensured that his greater self-interest is not denied, all in his overall attempt to forestall the destructiveness of human error. To illustrate how the deed may well be different from the word, let us recall the logos that seemed to argue against any restraint, even a just restraint. Was not its effect an exemplification of the proper exercise of such restraint? Wasn’t its intent to restrain logically Thrasymachus’s excessive readiness to inflict harm on others and dominate the discussion? Indeed its consequence was the suppression of his dialogic ambition or thumos. Thus only on the surface did the logos make it appear that political life is to be disarmed and rendered vulnerable. The deed makes manifest what the words shrink from overemphasizing for fear of fanning the indiscriminate fires of righteous indignation.[18] The argument at its core and taken as a whole is fully cognizant of the need for a just restraint, but aware also of the possible abuse to which such a conviction could lead in the hands of some. Justice is more than right arguments or over-generalized principles.

9. Friendship and Community

Socrates knows Thrasymachus. Above all he knows that he is not an irreconcilable opponent (V 470e, VI 498c-d). Thrasymachus, a professional rhetorician, is open to, indeed vulnerable to, logos. Socrates has thus sought to tame him with words. Once confuted, the beast grew gentle. Thrasymachus is thus susceptible to a persuasion of a higher sort than brute force, susceptible therefore to an act of helping and moderating justice (his advantage) (V 471a, X 599c-600e, 604c-d).

Because of this, Socrates in this case could defend himself without hurting others (cf. VII 525b). Justice, then, is not a matter of the extremes, “helping one’s friends and harming one’s enemies.” Socrates demonstrates a third possibility (1327c): He turns an apparent adversary into a potential, if precarious, compatriot (VI 498c-d, 598d). Sophists are not always the unalterable opponents of the city they are sometimes made out to be (cf. VI 492a). In some cases there is an alternative.

The capacity of speech to influence others is thus broader and more manifold than we are accustomed to grant. As we saw, it is not the trenchant cutting of an incisive logic but that of his own craft that brings about the reversal. Though self-conscious, Thrasymachus is not fully self-knowing. Despite his profession, he does not realize the full potency of logos. Above all, he does not realize that questions can be as devastating as any authoritative declaration: They may not have the face of wolfish boldness, yet they can go for the jugular.

What is undeniable about Socrates’ peculiar manner of speech and argumentation is that it opens up opinions and reveals their innermost intentions. He brings the interlocutors to say what they think but would not otherwise say, and to say what they did not expressly think but harbored deep within. He pries open what is sealed with embarrassment, lack of candor, self-ignorance, or by our numerous mechanisms for not facing ourselves or the truth. His irony, his feigned obtuseness, his purported incompetence, his exaggerated self-depreciation—all serve as negative pressure, so to speak, to force into the open those cherished and protected self-defining opinions that we would prefer to remain behind the scenes. Such a diagnostic logos is worth our attention.

Such an exposition, then, is undertaken by Socrates, also in the interests of friendship or justice (I 351d, X 621c). This is not sufficiently appreciated. The most unexpected and significant event of the whole of The Republic is Thrasymachus’s staying and growing involvement in the common task of disclosing this complex thing called justice. Logos has had a moderating effect even on him and has thus made it possible for him to become a participating member of the very community that he earlier sought to abandon, if not also to dominate (cf. I 336d, V 450b, VII 521a, X 600d). This is both good for him and for those around him. For now at least, this city won’t have this wolf threatening its fold (III 415e-6a, V 450c).

10. Socratic Justice

It is thus the case that throughout the discussion Socrates’ phronesis and justice are more outstanding than his truthfulness. The reasons begin to emerge.

Above all we recall the lesson of the discussion with Cephalus. There it becomes plain that simple truthfulness fails to fulfill the greater demands of human responsibility. Simple truthfulness can be indiscriminate and lead to harm (V 459c-d). Opinions, too, can be harmful, as we saw from the exposition of Thrasymachus’s secret intention. If aretē follows logos, then discretion is the better part of nurture and politikē. Socrates’ argument was thus at pains to conceal that wherein danger was to be found. The action of the conversation exemplifies the broader notion of justice and responsibility implicit in Socrates’ criticism of Cephalus’s traditional view. Justice is surely not something that can be indifferent to human consequences.

So too we see that the careful notion of justice implicit in Socrates’ actions is imbued with the positive element of Polemarchus’s definition of justice. Socrates seeks to help his friends and not let them harm themselves (nor does he precipitously and falsely judge as an enemy one who isn’t [III 414b, V 450 a-b, 451a, 470b-c, VI 498d, IX 589e, X 62lc]). It was for their well-being that Socrates obscured the problems of human nature and power (or in the modern sense, of politics as such). He has sought to prevent the excesses of an unreflective self-interest and partisanship, that is to make his friends and us better, not worse.

And, lastly, in seeking the true advantage of those over whom he rules in speech, and not his own advantage narrowly conceived, he is the just ruler “in the precise sense” (cf. VI 503b). Thus he even fulfills the unintended truth of Thrasymachus’s definition. In every way that the discussion considered, in short, Socrates’ logos is a just speech.

The price of such justice, however, is not small; his cause for dissatisfaction is genuine. The gain is not small either. His salutary distortions allow those present to think of politics, not in its most reduced form as a matter simply of self-preservation (cf. VIII 547e)—a negative and defensive form of politics (realpolitik)—but in a positive and formative way, as the precondition of human excellence. By obscuring the threat from without and from within, we can now look undistracted to ourselves and consider what is necessary, not simply for survival, but for higher human accomplishments (a partial antidote to cynicism, estrangement, and disaffection). Socrates’ discussion with Thrasymachus thus shows that, while he is not blind to the truth, neither is he blind to the good.[19]

Book One of The Republic is thus an act of political justice as well as political founding. Socrates has laid the foundations for a community of speech and human excellence (VI 540a-b, X 613d). As part of its founding and refounding, a city requires the continual reintegration of centrifugal individuals. Polemarchus, in contrast to his father, has stayed, and so has, to our great surprise, Thrasymachus. Though not disposed to at first, people have been opened up and are listening. They can now become participating citizens of their community. We are in the company, after all, of the sons of the Best (VI 500d).[20]

But even more than that has been accomplished. By eclipsing certain issues for now, Socrates has simplified and moderated the participating reader’s thumos; by pricking our logical interest, he has at the same time engaged our thumos (IX 581a, 586d). Ever since we too have been committed to the perpetuation of this community of speech (cf. V 450a-b). The high art of the founder, psychagōgia or the leading of souls, works its powers on us as well (VI 500d, VII 519c-d, X 599c-600e, 604c-d).[21]

Republished by permission of the author. (St. John’s Review, August 2, 1995) For further reading from this author, see Profound Ignorance: Plato’s Charmides and the Saving of Wisdom (2015).

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[1] All quotations are from The Republic of Plato, translated by Allan Bloom, (New York, 1968). On the title see; The Republic I 348c; also II 377d et passim, 378d; III 409a and VII 539a. This interpretation has sought to follow the commentators in the dialogue, Socrates, Glaucon, Adeimantus, and even Thrasymachus, noting their dissatisfaction with the course of the discussion in particular (I 337a, 340d, 341b, 354b, II 357a, 358b, III 413b). Our premise is Jacob Klein’s great insight into the mimetic character of the dialogues: a dialogue about justice has also to be an instance of justice. Cf. Aristotle, Poetics 1447b9-10; Klein, A Commentary on Plato’s Meno, (Chapel Hill, 1965). 3-31; Levine, “Plato’s Arithmological Ordering of Being,” The Southwestern Journal of Philosophy, XI (Summer 1980), 109-128.

[2] This community at the very least needs to be one that will free Socrates from the restraints of others and at its best do justice to his and our natures (VI 497).

[3] By contrast, Charmides and Critias, far less dedicated to speeches, are not so resistible, and thus their dialogic future (the one to be numbered among the Ten of the Piraeus, the other among the Thirty Tyrants). Cf. Charmides 157c, 176d; and this author’s Profound Ignorance, Plato’s Charmides and the Saving of Wisdom, Lantham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2016.

[4] Cf. The Republic III 394d where Socrates says ambiguously that he is following wherever the argument, compared to a wind, leads. But an unpredictable wind can in no way serve as an image of logical necessity or prudential guidance. Openness to new implications is not the same as insight therein.

[5] Apology of Socrates, 18a-19a.

[6] That this is an exaggerated response, Glaucon makes plain at II 361a.

[7] Cf. The Republic X 619b-d.

[8] The distinction between a self-interested and a selfless or other—directed art is odd (I 345d-7b). How can one serve one’s own interest without doing something in particular? Thus, although they are distinguishable in speech, are they separate in being?

By distinguishing the art of moneymaking or the wage-earner’s art, Socrates does acknowledge that there is at least one self-interested art. Moreover, as the city in speech is constructed, there is not a separate sub-class of moneymakers, but all artisans are “wage-earners.” And given the extraordinary restrictions placed on the guardians (above all V 457d-471d), one comes to see that one of the foremost problems dealt with by the founders is the self-interest of all the citizens. The soul, uniquely self-relating, is an essentially self-referential, if not also a self-interested being. While a complicating factor, the issue is thus unavoidable (cf. III 409d-e, 411c, IV 430e-2b; Timaeus 98a, Phaedrus 245c-6d, Laws X 895e).

The introduction of the distinction does invert Thrasymachus’s self-priority, making what he thinks primary, self-interest, supplemental at best to the non-self-serving aspect of the arts, that for him are but the means to his securing his advantage.

[9] Blushing might be thought the quintessential self-reflexive human act. Is it not Montaigne who gives us the epigram, “Man is the animal that blushes”? (Nietzsche’s Zarathustra also says that “Man is the beast with red cheeks.”) While this moment of uncontrollable self—demonstration shows that Thrasymachus is no more than a man, the question remains how deep and defining his or anyone’s sense of shame is. Is it more than a momentary or situational reddening?

[10] The latter pervades The Republic. The question from the very beginning has been the question of arête or human excellence: whether natural individual perfection is the same as moral or political excellence, especially conventional moral excellence.

[11] Socrates’ persuasion is not simply for the sake of victory, ornament, or self-aggrandizement. His rhetoric is rather in the service of his newly founded community. Above all it isn’t blind to the consequences of its speech (I 331c). His is a mode of political discourse that first seeks to establish the conditions on the basis of which something like a responsible “rational speech” can have a place in human affairs. One may object to such an instrumental (pre-logical) use of speech. But does the means negate the end? And is a city of force preferable to a more refined community?

[12] This hope has led to a scholarship of rationalization or an attempt to justify and validate invalid and uncogent arguments, a modern version of the ancient skill. Is not one of the principal functions of logic, though, the identification of the weaker argument as weaker?

[12.5] Cf. Xenophon, Memorabilia, I ii 39.

[13] If changing a soul is not the same as refuting an argument, if Socrates is genuinely concerned with his interlocutors and not simply with their abstract “positions,” and if those with whom he speaks aren’t listening (I 327c) and aren’t interested in “the choice of lives” (I 344e, X 608b), then “logical refutation” amounts to “smoke and non-sense” (IX 581d). Socrates’ response, his elenchus, has to find a different mode of access, one that makes dialogue—a community of speech—possible in the first place (IX 582a), Cf. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, VI l 145a6

[14] On the therapeutic logos, see The Republic II-III, X 608a. It is difficult for some to allow that Plato is practicing what he has his character Socrates recommend (cf. III 387c).

[15] Compare the discussion of “the true political artist” at Gorgias 521c.

[16] Cf. Symposium 214d; Klein, J., Greek Mathematics and the Origin of Algebra, translated by E. Brann, (Cambridge, 1968) 97 (also 95).

[17] Cf. Callicles’ criticism of philosophy as politically naive (Gorgias 486f.).

[18] To pacify the overly aggressive is not the same as passivism. Hence Socrates understands Thrasymachus’s criticism of the dream of the latter as dangerous. He proceeds stepwise: first tame the wild, then enlist the moderated, and only thereafter can one prepare the judicious use of what otherwise would be reckless.

[19] Hegel too has seen that the face of the dialogue is a problem, although his account is quite different. For him The Republic is an atavistic document: “the want of subjectivity [in The Republic with its “denial of individuality”] is really the want of [subjectivity in] the Greek moral idea” Lectures on The History of Philosophy, translated by Haldane and Simson, (London,1892; 1968), vol. II 113-114; also “Preface,” The Philosophy of Right, Oxford, 1967), 10. However, as he also recognizes with notable penetration, the introduction of the sophistic principle of individuality comes with great risks (Lectures on the History of Philosophy, I 365, 373, 354-5, 433; also Philosophy of History, New York, 1956, 265, 269). As a result, one might for good reasons not want to overemphasize and promote it. Hence the extraordinary care with which Socrates treats Thrasymachus.

[20] Everybody who will listen has remained. Those who were problematic have been tamed—a wonderful, if improbable, outcome. Justice based on a just rhetoric has brought about an uncommon harmony and friendship (I 351d, 369b, IV 443d). But a city based on friendship is not the typical political community. For this reason, it is emphasized, we are in the company of “the sons of the Best” (cf. II 368a, IV 427c, V 450d, 479a, IX 580b-c, also I 338d, 351d, II 381d, V 477d, VII 536e).

Plato thus poses the prospect that one can be civilized and political without becoming slavish (cf. Nietzsche, Genealogy of Morals, sect. 11).

[21] Alexandre Kojéve’s claim that “history” is the perfecting, i.e. moderating, influence on the tyrant thus appears dangerous wishful thinking (“Tyranny and Wisdom,” in Leo Strauss, On Tyranny, New York, 1963, 143-188). That the tyrant will not remain an island of self-seeking unto himself but will submit to others for “recognition” is a hopeful sentiment. It is optimistically rendered here but not borne out by the rest of the dialogue. Thrasymachus does seek reputation and recognition. But were it not for Socrates’ skill, it would only fuel his desire for mastery. A more extreme case is Critias in the dialogue Charmides. The historical figure’s “tyrannical procedures”—Kojéve’s value-free euphemism for the tyrant’s cruelty—are adopted without reservation precisely because others always remain a means to his private advantage.

If history is allowed to judge for us, then we do not judge for ourselves. “Liberty is endangered when its power finds no obstacles which can retard its course, and give it time to moderate its own vehemence” Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, translated by Reeve and Bowen, (New York, 1945), 260. Dialectically put: Has it not been the sad history of those who have allowed the tyranny of the actual that it led ineluctably to the actuality of tyranny?

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