Plato’s profound early writing on politics, ethics and education discussed in the Republic are the foundations of today’s governments, nations and discourses. At least that is what I am told. Plato’s ideology and reasoning are not always the most believable and desirable, it makes me wonder which part of today’s government practices must give due to the Republic (to be discovered in Gov 101). While it is easy to be disgusted with Plato’s idealism and philosophy, which seems to deter any type of an acceptable nightlife, it does leave the reader with a desire to keep trudging through endless mounds of self-indulged prose to discover Plato’s reasoning. One such view, that I’ve been asked to dissect, is Plato’s idea of justice. Before I read the Republic justice always seemed like such a simple thing, what is right, however now it’s more than that. I shall examine Plato’s description of a discussion between Socrates and Thrasymachus on justice in order to understand some of Plato’s views.
Thrasymachus defines justice as “nothing other than the advantage of the stronger” (Book I, 338c). This bold ignorant statement causes Socrates to spring in and draws Thrasymachus into a debate on what true justice entails. Thrasymachus expands his statement with the example of tyranny; the tyrant, the strongest, is able to enforce all their wants on the citizens, the weaker. Therefore the tyrant will always get what he desires, justice for himself, and injustice for the weaker. Socrates envisions justice as something more than the advantage of the stronger and pulls Thrasymachus into a lengthy argument on the subject.
Socrates’ arguments usually involve a large amount of word twisting and manipulating Thrasymachus’ original statement to mean something never intended. But this strategy works well for Socrates, so he sticks with it. In this, Socrates discusses the natural errors every human is liable to make. Thrasymachus, of course, agrees that every human makes errors, and that yes, every tyrant is human, therefore they are inclined to make errors, and yes, they may by error make unjust laws that the citizens follow. Therefore these citizens in order to be just, must follow laws that are unjust to the tyrant which is than not the advantage of the stronger.
This reasoning does not settle well with me, I believe the only thing Plato proves through this line of logic is that justice is not always the advantage of the strong, because sometimes people make mistakes, but when everything is going well and there are no mistakes, then yes, justice is the advantage of the stronger. As Thrasymachus asks “Do you think I’d call someone who is in error stronger at the very moment he errs” (Book I 340c). He makes the point that when a ruler makes a mistake he ceases to be a ruler at that moment, therefor he is not the strongest and not just. Thrasymachus has himself fallen prey to the use of Socrates’ tricky line of logic, but unfortunately it just gives one more idea for Socrates to run with.
Following the idea of what one is, by their career, Socrates leads Thrasymachus through a line of questioning that leads to the idea that one’s craft is, is their career. A doctor’s craft is healing the sick, therefore his career is to heal the weak, so what he does is to the advantage of the sick. A ruler’s craft is to rule the weak, his career is to rule the weak, so what he does is advantage to the weak, not to himself. I find this to be one of Socrates’ strongest arguments. To be a great ruler, the ruler must want to create a great city, where those being ruled are happy and feel they have justice. As Socrates puts it, “no one in any position of rule, insofar as he is a ruler, seeks or orders what is advantageous to himself, but what is advantageous to his subjects; the ones of whom he is himself the craftsman.” So who is in advantage here, the strong or the weak? It would seem to be the weak, because the strong are creating laws and conditions to the advantage of the weak. In my opinion, at this point, Thrasymachus should throw in the towel and realize that his argument is impossible to win, but alas he does no such thing, he instead makes one last attempt to curve justice in his direction.
Thrasymachus makes a decent point when he compares the ruler, to a shepherd. A shepherd does not care about the welfare of his sheep, but rather cares to use the sheep to his own well. He explains “that justice is really the good of another, the advantage of the stronger and the ruler, and harmful to the one who obeys and serves” (Book I 343c). Here, Socrates is able to use Thrasymachus’ previous statements to prove he is wrong. A shepherd’s job is to look over the sheep, not to sell them and the same is true for a ruler, he is there to rule; or as Socrates explains it, “every kind of rule, insofar as it rules, doesn’t seek anything other than what is best for the things it rules and cares for,” (Book I 345d). A ruler receives a wage to rule, therefore he is ruling for the people, and receiving a wage for him, each craft has a different function, but they all have the same wage earning function.
It is this final argument that closes the book for me. I see Socrates argument as making the most sense, a man seeking justice only for himself would not rule, because he could get that same justice through lying and cheating. But only a man who seeks justice for the citizens can be a true ruler, and that man must be stronger than those he rules, in order to be a true ruler; “a true ruler doesn’t by nature seek his own advantage but that of the subjects” (Book I 347d). So the stronger does not always receive more justice than the weaker, the concern should lie with the weak. This is the conclusion that must be drawn if one is to agree and follow Socrates’ discourse on craftsmen and their jobs.
I think Plato’s dialogue between Thrasymachus and Socrates allows the reader to dismiss the idea that justice is the advantage of the stronger, but I still do not believe he clearly describes what justice is by the end of Book I. As the reader, I know what justice is not, but still what is justice? I am lead to believe that justice is everyone following their own craft and doing what they know to be right. Therefore those who rule, will be the best rulers; those who sew, will be the best sewers, and so on. But unfortunately it does not give any picture of justice, instead it shows the road that will lead to justice.