Literary Readings of Plato
May 25, 2010

Cover of "Republic (Oxford World's Classi...
Cover of Republic (Oxford World’s Classics)

A lot of commenters have been offering up very smart readings of Platonic dialogues, and particularly the Republic, that understand the arguments Socrates, Glaucon, Thrasymachus and others offer up as standing for more than just the arguments themselves. I’ve heard a lot of similar readings of Plato; for example, in Grand Strategies, Charles Hill insists that the Republic is obviously a satire, and Plato meant to satirize, not endorse, the vision Socrates offers up of a nation-state run by philosopher-kings.

I’m not so sure about that. But regardless of the merits of what Hill says, it’s not so much a philosophical critique as it is a literary one. When one argues that the debate between Socrates and Thrasymachus over the nature of justice is a metaphor for something else, that, too, is a literary critique.

Obviously literary readings of the Republic have a lot of value, and the text is, among many other things, a great work of literature. But I think attempts to read it like this expose some of the limitations of philosophy: in order to do a philosophical analysis of the arguments in the Republic, we pretty much have to take them at face value and assume that the participating parties mean exactly what they say and no more. Otherwise, the argument gets so mired in  ambiguity that there’s no clearly defined logical progression of ideas to break down and evaluate.

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May 25, 2010

Since I don’t think that Thrasymachus’ argument is about philosophy of law, it’s time for me to attach a definition to what I think is really going on: he and Socrates are engaging in one of the earliest, and most well-known, metaethical debates.

Metaethics, for reasons that have a lot to do with this argument, is the philosophical topic I’m most fixated on. My metaethics professor put the central question of the discipline in this way: “When we discuss, or argue about, ethics, what is it we’re doing?”

The Socrates of the Republic is what you might call a moral realist. He thinks that when one debates ethics, one is debating over a set of mind-independent facts about the world.

Me, I’m not so sure. And, in fact, I found his conception of ethics as relating to these universal forms of justice and the good that exist on a higher plane than mere physical objects wholly unpersuasive.

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Thrasymachus and Philosophy of Law
May 24, 2010

Welcome, readers of Matthew Yglesias, and thanks to my friend Young Zeitlin for the link.

In response to my last post on Thrasymachus, a couple of commenters brought up the notion that Thrasymachus’s response to Socrates was aimed more at human law than the ideal of justice. This isn’t an uncommon interpretation, but it is an important one; depending on what you think Thrasymachus intends to rebut, he is either a nihilist or a mere legal realist.

I never got around to studying philosophy of law, but my understanding of legal realism is that it’s the belief that law is constructed through practice, precedent, and text, and is therefore subject to the whims and errors of those who write and practice it. This is in contrast to any theory that attempts to understand the law through reference to natural law or laws that supposedly stem from anything other than human practice.

I don’t really have a whole lot to say about this—I don’t think legal realism is terribly controversial in this day and age, but I also don’t think it was what Thrasymachus was getting at. Recall that while he does argue that “justice” is something that is in the interests of the ruling class, when pressed by Socrates he insists that even then the ruling class doesn’t necessarily know what justice is. So it is not necessarily something that they create as it is something that automatically favors power, a sort of “might makes right” philosophical doctrine.

So it seems to me that Thrasymachus is making an overtly amoral argument.

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Thrasymachus’ Challenge
May 24, 2010

Plato along with Socrates and Aristotle were f...
Image via Wikipedia

Alright, enough preamble; let’s do some philosophy.

When I took Ethics, almost the entirety of the class was spent reading Plato’s The Republic, in which Socrates is portrayed as having a series of dialogues regarding the nature of justice and the ideal state. The one that always stuck with me—and troubled me for long after the end of the semester—was the dialogue that concludes Book I, between Socrates and Thrasymachus.

At this point, Socrates is still trying to come up with a satisfactory definition for the word “justice,” and Thrasymachus responds by sneering at his naïve attempts. He offers up two definitions. First, he says that, “the unjust is lord over the truly simple and just: he is the stronger, and his subjects do what is for his interest, and minister to his happiness, which is very far from being their own.”

Later, he argues that “justice” is a social construct—it is whatever is to the advantage of the stronger, ruling party.

Obviously, these two definitions are in conflict with one another, and Socrates shoots them both down eventually. It does not help Thrasymachus’ case either that he is, throughout Book I, hectoring, rude, and generally abrasive on a level not seen anywhere else in the text.

So why was the passage so troubling? Maybe because I didn’t find Socrates’ rebuttal persuasive. But before I get into why, I want to hear what you guys think of Thrasymachus’ argument.

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