The Socratic Method: Dialogue on Justice between Socrates & Thrasymachus the Chalcedonian
(From Plato, The Republic, Book 1, ca. 390 BCE)

    Thrasymachus defines justice as what is beneficial to the stronger (338c).  Justice is different under different political regimes according to the laws, which are made to serve the interests of the strong (the ruling class in each regime, 338e-339a).  Socrates requires clarification of the definition: does it mean that justice is what the stronger think is beneficial to them or what is actually beneficial to them (339b)?  And don’t strong rulers make mistakes and sometimes create laws that do not serve their advantage (339c)?  Thrasymachus points out that the stronger are really only those who do not make mistakes as to what is to their advantage (340d).  Socrates responds with a discussion of art or craft and points out that its aim is to do what is good for its subjects, not what is good for the practitioner (341c).  Thrasymachus suggests that some arts, such as that of shepherds, do not do this but rather aim at the advantage of the practitioner (343c). He also adds the claim that injustice is in every way better than justice and that the unjust person who commits injustice undetected is always happier than the just person (343e-344c).  The paradigm of the happy unjust person is the tyrant who is able to satisfy all his desires (344a-b).  Socrates points out that the shepherd’s concern for his sheep is different from his concern to make money from the wool, which is extraneous to the art (345c), and that no power or art provides what is beneficial to itself (346e).  Socrates claims that the best rulers are reluctant to rule but do so out of necessity: they do not wish to be ruled by someone inferior (347a-c).

    Thrasymachus' definition of justice as the interest of the stronger falls apart under Socrates' questioning. First, may not the rulers' actual interest be other than what they think it is?  Second, is not the art of ruling directed to the good of the subjects? Thrasymachus' error
has been called "The tyranny of the baby." A newborn may seem to get everything s/he demands, but this is true only insofar as the parents judge those things to be of actual benefit to the child, since true parents are those whose concern is for the child's welfare rather than their own.

    As a contemporary example, a ruler who wishes to cancel a trade agreement, or arrange for the assassination of a foreign ruler, may be thwarted when the order is removed from his desk by aides with a better understanding of what is in the best interests of the country.

Text []; Emphasis & commentary © 2019 by Steven M. Carr