Essay: Socrates Refutation of Thrasymachus
I take it that at this stage in book 1 Socrates fully understands the core Thrasymachean thesis he needs to address – that justice is not profitable. That he gives Thrasymachus no chance to respond need indicate nothing more than that the just issues raised were tangential. This makes plausible the following interpretive hypothesis.
It is important to remember and properly acknowledge that Thrasymachus offers Socrates at least one more sincere judgment in this context. Almost immediately after he ‘bows out’, Socrates elicits Thrasymachus’s sincere judgment that:
- If Socrates is right about justice (i.e., that it is a kind of wisdom) then groups will not succeed in their goals without justice. Whereas
- 2. If Thrasymachus is correct about justice (i.e., that it is a pathetic kind ignorance), then groups will succeed without justice, they will need only injustice .
Thrasymachus takes the question of whether a person can succeed without justice as a ‘crucial test’ for the disagreement between himself and Socrates. And it is widely recognized that this commitment is an honest reflection of Thrasymachus’s views. Nevertheless, the fact’s importance to Socrates’ main argument has not been adequately incorporated in our understanding of the text.
In light of this admission Socrates goes on to mount a plausible argument that even groups devoted to unjust ends need the help of justice to succeed, to attain their ends. This argument relies on the sincere Thrasymachean admission from the previous exchange, the thesis that the unjust always seek to get the better of everyone. Socrates establishes that no group, regardless of the justice of their ultimate goals, can succeed if they follow this policy consistently. All groups need to display enough justice in their proximate actions toward one another (though given Socrates’ choice of examples obviously not with regard to their ultimate goal) to generate and maintain, at least temporarily, a system of cooperation robust enough to secure their goals. Thus, Socrates establishes that on Thrasymachus’s conception of injustice even the unjust need the help of justice to succeed.
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