Might is Right – Lecture 2

October 10, 2012

The difficulty with the first book of the Republic is that the reader cannot be sure whether to take the argument seriously or not. It is clear that many of Socrates’ responses to his interlocutors are unconvincing. If we are unimpressed by the first book, then we might not be persuaded to read on.[1] The way to read it, therefore, is not to take it as Plato’s last word but as an introduction to many of the themes of the dialogue as a whole. Indeed Plato himself has Socrates say that he himself is not convinced by what has been said:

For we started off to inquire what justice is, but gave up before we had found the answer, and went on to ask whether it was excellence and knowledge or their opposites, and then when we stumbled on the view that injustice pays better then justice, instead of letting it alone off we went in pursuit, so that I still don’t know nothing after all our discussion. For so long as I don’t know what justice is I’m hardly likely to find out whether it is an excellence or not, or whether it make a man happy or unhappy. (354a-b)

The style of the first book is also written in the form of Plato’s early dialogues. That is, its content is morality (in this case justice), and its form is in the manner of Socrates’ method of asking questions. Finally it ends in aporias as Plato’s entire early dialogues do. Is this because, as some commentators think, that he had written this part first, and then later added the rest of book? I think it is more plausible, as Pappas suggests, that Plato wrote a pastiche of his early work so as to demonstrate that Socrates’ method of philosophising was not adequate to answer questions like ‘what is justice?’ and they he required his own method that is clearly different in the rest of the Republic. (Pappas, 2003, pp. 29-30).

The dialogue opens, as many of them do in the middle of things and the narrator (who is Socrates) tells us that yesterday in had gone down to the festival of Bendis (a Thracian Goddess) in Piraeus, which was the port of ancient Athens. When they were on their way back to town they were stopped by Polemarchus who said that they ought to stay because later there was to be a torch race and carnival. They agree and decide to wait at his house where Socrates falls into his first conversation with Cephalus.

As in all early dialogues the character of the speaker and what they say mirror one another. Cephalus is an old man. His views perhaps reflect the common held conservative beliefs of Athens.[2] It is clear that he doesn’t wish to engage in philosophical debate with Socrates and he soon uses the excuse of having to go to his sacrifice, but none the less he does introduce the theme of justice. Cephalus tells Socrates that when old men meet up together rather than speaking about the wisdom they might have learnt about life, what they talk about is their youth and how much they miss it. But if they were telling the truth and old age were to blame, then every person who was old would feel the same. He recounts the story about someone who asked Sophocles (the great tragic poet of Greece) whether he missed sex, and he replied that he was glad to be rid of a ‘fierce and frenzied master’ (329c). Socrates responds that maybe it is not old age that has given him tranquillity but wealth. Maybe there is some truth to that, Cephalus responds, but the usefulness of wealth is not where most people might think it is. As one gets older one thinks of the afterlife more than when one is young, and being rich allows one to avoid cheating and lying, and also to pay off one’s debts both to men and the gods. Thus one avoids eternal punishment. It is at this point that Socrates asks whether this is best definition of ‘doing right’, which in Greek is δικαιοσύνη (dikaiosyne), and which is usually translated as ‘justice’ in the sense of what is right, fair or appropriate (Walker, 2000, p. 129). The problem with his definition is that it is not broad enough. Thus it is quite easy for Socrates to find counter examples. Thus if justice is to give back what one owes others, would it be right to give back a spear to a madman from whom you had borrowed it? Quite clearly this would not be just.

Though Cephalus does not stay to defend his views his little discussion with Socrates has already introduced some of the important themes of the Republic: the afterlife, that dualism of the mind of the body, and the higher importance of the former, and of course the question of justice, which his son Polemarchus now takes up on his father’s behalf. He will give a much broader definition of justice so his argument will not be open to counter examples as his father’s was. Socrates’ method will therefore be different. He will attempt to show that the very various premises that support his definition are self-contradictory.

What then is Polemarchus’ definition of justice? As was the custom in Athens, he introduces his theme by quoting a poet, Simonides: ‘that it is right to give everyman his due.’ (331e).[3] Socrates replies that he does not really understand what the poet means by this, so Polemarchus offers a further explanation. It means giving to everyone what is appropriate. Thus to one’s friends what is good, and to one’s enemies what is bad. Socrates answer to this definition is to introduce one of the key concepts of the dialogue which is ‘skill’ (τέχνη in Greek – technē). The issue here is whether justice is a skill like any other, such as the skill of being a doctor, who making ships or cooking a meal.[4] If we think of justice as a skill then it is hard to see what it is adding to any activity. Thus a doctor is meant to treat an unhealthy body, and the skill one presumes is medicine. But what would justice add to this? Surely he is either a good doctor or a bad one. Polemarchus responds by giving a more detailed definition of justice: it is to be useful in business and money. And yet again Socrates asks whether this really is that specific to justice. Surely if I want to sell a horse, then it would be better to have the skill of horse selling rather than justice. To answer this criticism, Polemarchus is even more precise: justice is putting money on deposit. But then this would be to make justice something useless, since when money is on deposit, as when a knife is in a drawer, it is not being used. Also if I think about skills generally, then to be skilled in one thing, is also to he skilled in its opposite. A doctor who can make be well also knows how to make me ill. This would seem to imply that the just man would be a thief, which cannot be right. Polemarchus is now no longer sure what he means by justice, but he goes back to his original definition: justice is to help one’s friends and to harm one’s enemies. But is it not possible to be confused by whether someone is one’s friend or enemy? Thus one could end up harming one’s friend and doing well for one’s enemy. In response, Polemarchus improves his definition, by saying that one does well to whom one thinks and is one’s friend, and does harm for those who one thinks are one’s enemy. Thus the more precise definition of justice is: ‘It is just to do good to one’s friend if he is good, and to harm one’s enemy if he is evil.’ (355a). And yet if we harm something, do we not make it worse, and how can justice be associated with making something worse, even if that is making evil men more evil.

At this point in the dialogue, Thrasymachus interrupts, though he has wanted to do so for some time. Unlike Polemarchus he is not respectful of Socrates. In fact he is quite the opposite and it is important to note that in real life he was a Sophist, so Plato wants to portray him harshly.[5] And yet for all that, he does give him the stronger argument, and the whole of the Republic is an attempt to answer his objections to justice. Thrasymachus’ argument has two parts. In one part he wants to say that justice has a non-moral origin (he has therefore a natural theory of justice), and in the other, he is an immoralist. The second follows from the first, since if the only justice is natural justice, then the best thing to be is unjust.

Let us first look, therefore, at Thrasymachus’ idea that all justice is natural. What is important is that his definition of justice is the broadest and just an expression of the common morality of Athens, as expressed fitfully by Cephalus and with a bit more panache by Polemarchus, but without much sophistication. For this reason, it gives Plato something to get his philosophical teeth in to. His definition of justice is famously that might is right: ‘I say that justice or right (diakaiosunē) is simply what is in the interest of the stronger party.’ (338c) Socrates asks him in whose interest this is, and Thrasymachus replies that it is in the interests of the ‘ruling classes’. It is they who make the laws of the city (whether it is a tyranny, aristocracy or democracy) and therefore it is they who say what is right or wrong. In other words morality is just a screen for power.[6] Again with Thrasymachus Socrates will aim to show is that the premises of his argument are contradictory, though he will be a lot less willing partner in this enterprise than Polemarchus. First of all he asks him whether it is the case that rulers are always infallible and Thrasymachus replies that they are not. This means they could act not in their self-interest because they could pass poor laws which their subjects would have to obey even though they would fatally undermine the power of their rulers, which would contradict Thrasymachus’ original definition. He replies that Socrates, as usual is being absurd, and that to be a ruler is to rule well, just as we would not call someone a doctor who had no medical skill.  Even if that is the case, Socrates asks, are we clear what we mean by a ruler. Does a ruler rule in the same way that a doctor is a medical practitioner, and captain commands a ship. Thrasymachus says he does. Well in these cases it is clear that it is the subject matter of the skill that the person is interested in and not the skill for its own sake. If this is the case, then a skill seeks the interest of the weaker rather than the stronger (the doctor aims to heal the sick not the well), which again would contradict Thrasymachus’ definition. But he replies that the shepherd does not look after the flock for their interest but his own in order to sell them at the market for meat. He then adds a further definition of justice that unjust will always do better than the just. At first this might appear to be a contradiction, since he earlier asserted that justice is power, so the powerful would appear to be just not unjust. In reality, however, he has only changed his perspective from the ruler to the ruled. In a world where the powerful rule, then it is your best interest to be immoral. Socrates counter to this view is that justice cannot be a matter of self interest and indeed this is what the rest of the Republic will argue.

Socrates is not happy to leave the conversation there though Thrasymachus is not happy to continue either. He wants to know what we really mean by a skill. Each skill, Socrates says has a function (ergon) and the function of every skill is a perfection or an excellence (aretē). Every skill provides benefit for its subject matter and not itself. Thus the doctor brings benefit for the patient. If there is another benefit than the function of the skill itself, like money for example, then this would require another skill (money making). Ruling is not in the interest of the ruler but the ruled. This is why no-one want to rule and have to be paid (which was the custom of the democracy). And yet at the same time it seems dishonourable to be paid, since this is mercenary, so rulers should be compelled to rule against their own self-interest. All of this signals debates of the later Republic, especially the idea of philosophical guardians, but it is not clear that Socrates really has defeated Thrasymachus’ argument, rather than just stating the opposite. It is far more important for Socrates at this stage is to prove that justice is better than injustice. For Thrasymachus, on the contrary, it is clear that injustice is the virtue or excellence (aretē) and justice the vice, since it is injustice which pays. The unjust simply have the common sense, whereas the just are ‘simple’. Socrates responds that it seems strange to make injustice what is wise and good and asks him whether the just man competes with another just man or only with the unjust. Thrasymachus agrees that this is so. And whether, then, on the contrary, that the unjust man competes both with the unjust and the just. Thrasymachus also agrees with this. This means that it cannot be the case the being unjust is the greater advantage then the just, for injustice, even amongst thieves would break of all bonds of trust and honesty, which is the basis of any group functioning well. This again introduces one of the most important themes of the Republic that justice has to do with order and stability, and injustice with disorder and instability. This is also the case, Socrates adds, with the individual. An unjust person is more disordered than a just one, and therefore less happy. He does not tell us why this is the case at the moment, but this psychology will be of great importance later in the Republic.

Further more, Socrates adds, the just man is happy whereas the unjust one is not. ‘Happy’ (εὐδαίμων – eudaimon) here does not mean the psychological state, but well being. Again the strength of Socrates’ argument is based upon how we think about a skill. Each skill has a function (ergon), where it aims at the highest excellence (aretē). The function of the eye is to see, and if it does not have the excellence of sight then it cannot perform. The function of the soul, Socrates asserts, is to live well. Thus the just man must have a better life than the unjust one, because this is the excellence of justice. Again we might think that Socrates is merely asserting the opposite of Thrasymachus rather than showing us why his position is the true one.

The purpose of the first book of the Republic is not to defeat the arguments of Cephalus, Polemarchus and Thrasymachus. If that were the case then it would be failure, for many of Socrates’ arguments are weak just as arguments. Rather what Socrates says is true. Justice is better than injustice. It is the task of the rest of the dialogue to convince us of this in way that the reader might not be so at the end of book 1. Nonetheless all the major themes have been introduced by this mini-dialogue within a dialogue and the reader is ready to listen to the better arguments that occur later.


Graeber, D. (2011) Debt: The First 5,000 Years. Brooklyn, N. Y.: Melville House.

Pappas, N. (2003). Plato and the Republic. London: Routledge.

Steinberger, P. J. (1996). Who is Cehpalus. Political Theory, 24(2), 172-199.

Walker, J. (2000). Rhetoric and Process in Antiquity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[1] The Republic was not originally divided into books. This was done by later editors. Some times these divisions do not make sense, but as we shall see, Book 1 is remarkably uniform in style and content.

[2] Peter J. Steinberger gives us a more detailed investigation of Cephalus’ character in his article ‘Who is Cephalus’ (Steinberger, 1996). It is important to note that he and his sons were part of the Democratic party of Athens. Cephalus’ wealth was seized by the ‘Thirty Tyrants’ who also executed Polemarchus. It is also important to understand the anthropological background to this speech. We have to remember that ancient Athens was a debt culture. Debt was equivalent to morality (Graeber 2011, pp.195–7).

[3] Plato’s argument later on in the Republic that poets should be banned from the ideal city is precisely for this reason. Rather than thinking philosophically, people are happy to quote poetry because it sounds good, but they don’t really have any understanding of the subject matter. This is an attack on the normal Athenian education which was largely based on learning the poets, especially when it came to morality, which in Plato’s views is the last place that one should look for instruction.

[4] This way of thinking about justice as a technē was common to Plato’s early dialogues, but the failure of the first book of the Republic is due precisely to thinking of justice in this way. What Plato will want to show is that justice is not a skill but a way of being, or what he would call a virtue (in Greek, ἀρετή – aretē). Thus one could be a just doctor or an unjust doctor, which is not a difference in skill, but of character.

[5] Indeed he will only give his definition of justice after receiving payment, 337d.

[6] It is interesting here that Thrasymachus’ example is political rather than straightforwardly ethical. This introduces an important theme of the rest of the Republic.