At the beginning of Plato’s Republic, Socrates encounters Thrasymachus, a sophist or wise guy, who argues that “justice” is whatever the person or people with the most power want, and they always want what is to their advantage. Plato heightens the importance of this discussion about justice by setting it in the middle of the Peloponnesian war, a war that lasts for over thirty years, results in Athens downfall, and the deaths of countless young men. Plato, who lived through the war, understands all of the atrocities that occur when regimes focus only on their particular advantages. Some might consider that we are similarly in such a state. Plato’s task is to persuade us that true justice never looks to its own advantage but to the good of others, tending to their needs, while recognizing the degree to which they tend to our own.
To credit, Thrasymachus puts his money where his mouth his. He truly thinks justice is whatever is to the advantage of the stronger. Further, since, he believes he is stronger of intellect than Socrates, he intends to use his strength to persuade the young men listening to become his students rather than Socrates’s, thereby making both a name for himself and a lot of money. Thrasymachus seeks to rule for his own advantage.
When Socrates begins by asking whether a ruler who makes mistakes rules to their own advantage, Thraysmachus believes he has easily routed him. For, as he says, a ruler is only acting as a ruler, when he perfectly executes his work. In other words, insofar as someone is a political leader, they do not make mistakes. As a result, they always rule to their own advantage. When a political leader makes a mistake, and rules to the advantage of someone else, precision of reasoning demands that we call him something else. Such a person is not a ruler at all. Thraysmachus, you see, takes his own profession very seriously – after all the word sophist is derived from the Greek word for wisdom, and if he is to be wise, then he must reason precisely.
This insistence on precision of knowledge, however, is exactly what Socrates needs to refute him. For as Socrates points out doctors, or those who are leaders in the field of medicine, when they are acting precisely as doctors, never look to their own health, but to the health of their patients. When they are paid for their services, they are not at that moment acting as doctors, but as wage earners. And so it is in every profession, including politics that it is only when acting as wage earners and not with respect to their particular expertise, that individuals seek their own advantage.
A larger point, is present behind this explicit exchange. Thraysmachus voices the argument that the Athenians make to the people of Melos just before the Athenians demonstrate that justice does seem to be to the advantage of the stronger by killing all the men of Melos and selling the women and children into slavery. Part of the Athenian’s argument is that they are acting just as the gods do—for they too use their power to their advantage. This is a point that Thraysmachus, who imagines himself as all-knowing and thus as a god, suggests when he argues that the true rulers fatten the people of their cities so that they might later be slaughtered like sheep.
If this is the purpose of political leaders – to wield power and knowledge as though they were divine and we were mere sheep to be used as they liked – then shouldn’t we start scrambling to grasp as much of that power as we can to defend our own interests in exactly the same way?
To answer the fundamental problem – is this the the true nature of justice – we have to go back to Socrates’s argument. Socrates points out that when someone is acting as an expert in their field, it is the subject of their discipline that they cater to, not their own advtanage. Indeed, it is only because we have other needs that we must also act as wage earners, seeking money, recognition, or power to compensate for what we do not have. Those who are self-sufficient, the gods in Plato’s argument, need nothing from anyone else and, instead, their only interest would be in tending to others’s deficiencies. In this way we could imagine a doctor with a passion for medicine and complete knowledge of his art, a doctor who had immense wealth and saw no need for more, such a doctor presumably would tend to the medical needs of others looking for nothing else in return.
Of course this is a silly image. For we always have deficiencies and needs, either imaginary or real. Yet, Thrasymachus claims to be a sophist – a man with complete wisdom. In this context, he claims to have the knowledge of the gods. And yet, rather than trying to teach others, he instead, wants to best them in arguments. In so doing, rather than demonstrating his self-sufficiency, he indicates exactly how deficient. He requires power and recognition because he does not have them. We might consequently question whether he has wisdom either.
Socrates, on the other hand, tells us that he is deficient. In his Apology to the court at his trial, he says that rather than being wise, he knows that he knows nothing. As a result, later in the Republic, he says that he is greedy for images; he is grasping for knowledge. Presumably this is part of the reason why he seems primarily to ask questions or speak in images rather than drawing hard and fast conclusions. In contrast to Thraysmachus, despite his deficiencies, he spends all of his days not seeking power or wealth. He is instead famously poor and has so little power that he is executed as a criminal. Instead, he looks to everyone else to provide him with what he does not have, seeking knowledge from whoever he sees and dependent on his friends for the little material wealth he requires to stay alive, until such point that doing so no longer seems right or good.
Socrates’s spends his entire adult life seeking wisdom of the good and the just. At the end of his life, he only knows that neither of these are achieved in seeking power over others. His quest for wisdom leads him to humility. This might lead us by another path to exactly Thrastmachus’s point – if Socrates can’t figure out what is true and just, then we might as well seek our own interests over and against those of others. Yet, the image that Plato leaves us with us does not take us down this path.
Instead, by means of Socrates’s precise questioning, seeking for truth even in someone as seemingly resistant as Thrasymachus, he manages to make Thrasymachus blush at exactly the right moment. Socrates manages to reveal that despite his claims, Thrasymachus also does not know. And, at least for a moment, Thrasymachus’s attempts to subordinate these young men to his wishes have been forestalled. In bringing Thraysmachus to realize that he too does not know, Socrates, if not achieving justice, at least prevents the occurrence of injustice.
Socrates is in many ways unsuccessful in achieving justice in Athens. They after all kill him exactly because he questions them exactly as he has questioned Thrasymachus. He is bothersome, he explains, like a gadfly. He gets in the way of their pride, forcing them to question their knowledge as well as their intentions. And when approached by any kind of fly, we swat at it and make it go away.
Plato’s image of Socrates, however, will not go away. The Socrates he reminds us of demands that we too courageously pursue what is right and good, not by insisting that what we believe is true, but rather in ever seeking and grasping for wisdom. It seems that in our current state of affairs, we could use a few more gadflies like these.