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PLATO, THE REPUBLIC
DEBATE BETWEEN SOCRATES AND THRASYMACHUS ON THE NATURE OF JUSTICE
SELECTION FROM BOOK ONE
THRASYMACHUS; I say that if you want really to know what justice is,
you should not only ask but answer, and you should not seek honour
to yourself from the refutation of an opponent, but have your own
answer; for there is many a one who can ask and cannot answer. And
now I will not have you say that justice is duty or advantage or profit
or gain or interest, for this sort of nonsense will not do for me;
I must have clearness and accuracy.
I was panic-stricken at his words, and could not look at him without
trembling. Indeed I believe that if I had not fixed my eye upon him,
I should have been struck dumb: but when I saw his fury rising, I
looked at him first, and was therefore able to reply to him.
Thrasymachus, I said, with a quiver, don't be hard upon us. Polemarchus
and I may have been guilty of a little mistake in the argument, but
I can assure you that the error was not intentional. If we were seeking
for a piece of gold, you would not imagine that we were 'knocking
under to one another,' and so losing our chance of finding it. And
why, when we are seeking for justice, a thing more precious than many
pieces of gold, do you say that we are weakly yielding to one another
and not doing our utmost to get at the truth? Nay, my good friend,
we are most willing and anxious to do so, but the fact is that we
cannot. And if so, you people who know all things should pity us and
not be angry with us.
How characteristic of Socrates! he replied, with a bitter laugh; --that's
your ironical style! Did I not foresee --have I not already told you,
that whatever he was asked he would refuse to answer, and try irony
or any other shuffle, in order that he might avoid answering?
You are a philosopher, Thrasymachus, I replied, and well know that
if you ask a person what numbers make up twelve, taking care to prohibit
him whom you ask from answering twice six, or three times four, or
six times two, or four times three, 'for this sort of nonsense will
not do for me,' --then obviously, that is your way of putting the
question, no one can answer you. But suppose that he were to retort,
'Thrasymachus, what do you mean? If one of these numbers which you
interdict be the true answer to the question, am I falsely to say
some other number which is not the right one? --is that your meaning?'
-How would you answer him?
Just as if the two cases were at all alike! he said.
Why should they not be? I replied; and even if they are not, but only
appear to be so to the person who is asked, ought he not to say what
he thinks, whether you and I forbid him or not?
I presume then that you are going to make one of the interdicted answers?
I dare say that I may, notwithstanding the danger, if upon reflection
I approve of any of them.
But what if I give you an answer about justice other and better, he
said, than any of these? What do you deserve to have done to you?
Done to me! --as becomes the ignorant, I must learn from the wise
--that is what I deserve to have done to me.
What, and no payment! a pleasant notion!
I will pay when I have the money, I replied.
Socrates - THRASYMACHUS - GLAUCON
But you have, Socrates, said Glaucon: and you, Thrasymachus, need
be under no anxiety about money, for we will all make a contribution
Yes, he replied, and then Socrates will do as he always does --refuse
to answer himself, but take and pull to pieces the answer of some
Why, my good friend, I said, how can any one answer who knows, and
says that he knows, just nothing; and who, even if he has some faint
notions of his own, is told by a man of authority not to utter them?
The natural thing is, that the speaker should be some one like yourself
who professes to know and can tell what he knows. Will you then kindly
answer, for the edification of the company and of myself ?
Glaucon and the rest of the company joined in my request and Thrasymachus,
as any one might see, was in reality eager to speak; for he thought
that he had an excellent answer, and would distinguish himself. But
at first he to insist on my answering; at length he consented to begin.
Behold, he said, the wisdom of Socrates; he refuses to teach himself,
and goes about learning of others, to whom he never even says thank
That I learn of others, I replied, is quite true; but that I am ungrateful
I wholly deny. Money I have none, and therefore I pay in praise, which
is all I have: and how ready I am to praise any one who appears to
me to speak well you will very soon find out when you answer; for
I expect that you will answer well.
Listen, then, he said; I proclaim that justice is nothing else than
the interest of the stronger. And now why do you not me? But of course
Let me first understand you, I replied. justice, as you say, is the
interest of the stronger. What, Thrasymachus, is the meaning of this?
You cannot mean to say that because Polydamas, the pancratiast, is
stronger than we are, and finds the eating of beef conducive to his
bodily strength, that to eat beef is therefore equally for our good
who are weaker than he is, and right and just for us?
That's abominable of you, Socrates; you take the words in the sense
which is most damaging to the argument.
Not at all, my good sir, I said; I am trying to understand them; and
I wish that you would be a little clearer.
Well, he said, have you never heard that forms of government differ;
there are tyrannies, and there are democracies, and there are
Yes, I know.
And the government is the ruling power in each state?
And the different forms of government make laws democratical,
tyrannical, with a view to their several interests; and these laws,
which are made by them for their own interests, are the justice which
they deliver to their subjects, and him who transgresses them they
punish as a breaker of the law, and unjust. And that is what I mean
when I say that in all states there is the same principle of justice,
which is the interest of the government; and as the government must
be supposed to have power, the only reasonable conclusion is, that
everywhere there is one principle of justice, which is the interest
of the stronger.
Now I understand you, I said; and whether you are right or not I will
try to discover. But let me remark, that in defining justice you have
yourself used the word 'interest' which you forbade me to use. It
is true, however, that in your definition the words 'of the stronger'
A small addition, you must allow, he said.
Great or small, never mind about that: we must first enquire whether
what you are saying is the truth. Now we are both agreed that justice
is interest of some sort, but you go on to say 'of the stronger';
about this addition I am not so sure, and must therefore consider
I will; and first tell me, Do you admit that it is just or subjects
to obey their rulers?
But are the rulers of states absolutely infallible, or are they sometimes
liable to err?
To be sure, he replied, they are liable to err.
Then in making their laws they may sometimes make them rightly, and
When they make them rightly, they make them agreeably to their interest;
when they are mistaken, contrary to their interest; you admit that?
And the laws which they make must be obeyed by their subjects, --and
that is what you call justice?
Then justice, according to your argument, is not only obedience to
the interest of the stronger but the reverse?
What is that you are saying? he asked.
I am only repeating what you are saying, I believe. But let us consider:
Have we not admitted that the rulers may be mistaken about their own
interest in what they command, and also that to obey them is justice?
Has not that been admitted?
Then you must also have acknowledged justice not to be for the interest
of the stronger, when the rulers unintentionally command things to
be done which are to their own injury. For if, as you say, justice
is the obedience which the subject renders to their commands, in that
case, O wisest of men, is there any escape from the conclusion that
the weaker are commanded to do, not what is for the interest, but
what is for the injury of the stronger?
Nothing can be clearer, Socrates, said Polemarchus.
Socrates - CLEITOPHON - POLEMARCHUS - THRASYMACHUS
Yes, said Cleitophon, interposing, if you are allowed to be his witness.
But there is no need of any witness, said Polemarchus, for Thrasymachus
himself acknowledges that rulers may sometimes command what is not
for their own interest, and that for subjects to obey them is justice.
Yes, Polemarchus, --Thrasymachus said that for subjects to do what
was commanded by their rulers is just.
Yes, Cleitophon, but he also said that justice is the interest of
the stronger, and, while admitting both these propositions, he further
acknowledged that the stronger may command the weaker who are his
subjects to do what is not for his own interest; whence follows that
justice is the injury quite as much as the interest of the stronger.
But, said Cleitophon, he meant by the interest of the stronger what
the stronger thought to be his interest, --this was what the weaker
had to do; and this was affirmed by him to be justice.
Those were not his words, rejoined Polemarchus.
Socrates - THRASYMACHUS
Never mind, I replied, if he now says that they are, let us accept
his statement. Tell me, Thrasymachus, I said, did you mean by justice
what the stronger thought to be his interest, whether really so or
Certainly not, he said. Do you suppose that I call him who is mistaken
the stronger at the time when he is mistaken?
Yes, I said, my impression was that you did so, when you admitted
that the ruler was not infallible but might be sometimes mistaken.
You argue like an informer, Socrates. Do you mean, for example, that
he who is mistaken about the sick is a physician in that he is mistaken?
or that he who errs in arithmetic or grammar is an arithmetician or
grammarian at the me when he is making the mistake, in respect of
the mistake? True, we say that the physician or arithmetician or grammarian
has made a mistake, but this is only a way of speaking; for the fact
is that neither the grammarian nor any other person of skill ever
makes a mistake in so far as he is what his name implies; they none
of them err unless their skill fails them, and then they cease to
be skilled artists. No artist or sage or ruler errs at the time when
he is what his name implies; though he is commonly said to err, and
I adopted the common mode of speaking. But to be perfectly accurate,
since you are such a lover of accuracy, we should say that the ruler,
in so far as he is the ruler, is unerring, and, being unerring, always
commands that which is for his own interest; and the subject is required
to execute his commands; and therefore, as I said at first and now
repeat, justice is the interest of the stronger.
Indeed, Thrasymachus, and do I really appear to you to argue like
Certainly, he replied.
And you suppose that I ask these questions with any design of injuring
you in the argument?
Nay, he replied, 'suppose' is not the word --I know it; but you will
be found out, and by sheer force of argument you will never prevail.
I shall not make the attempt, my dear man; but to avoid any misunderstanding
occurring between us in future, let me ask, in what sense do you speak
of a ruler or stronger whose interest, as you were saying, he being
the superior, it is just that the inferior should execute --is he
a ruler in the popular or in the strict sense of the term?
In the strictest of all senses, he said. And now cheat and play the
informer if you can; I ask no quarter at your hands. But you never
will be able, never.
And do you imagine, I said, that I am such a madman as to try and
cheat, Thrasymachus? I might as well shave a lion.
Why, he said, you made the attempt a minute ago, and you failed.
Enough, I said, of these civilities. It will be better that I should
ask you a question: Is the physician, taken in that strict sense of
which you are speaking, a healer of the sick or a maker of money?
And remember that I am now speaking of the true physician.
A healer of the sick, he replied.
And the pilot --that is to say, the true pilot --is he a captain of
sailors or a mere sailor?
A captain of sailors.
The circumstance that he sails in the ship is not to be taken into
account; neither is he to be called a sailor; the name pilot by which
he is distinguished has nothing to do with sailing, but is significant
of his skill and of his authority over the sailors.
Very true, he said.
Now, I said, every art has an interest?
For which the art has to consider and provide?
Yes, that is the aim of art.
And the interest of any art is the perfection of it --this and nothing
What do you mean?
I mean what I may illustrate negatively by the example of the body.
Suppose you were to ask me whether the body is self-sufficing or has
wants, I should reply: Certainly the body has wants; for the body
may be ill and require to be cured, and has therefore interests to
which the art of medicine ministers; and this is the origin and intention
of medicine, as you will acknowledge. Am I not right?
Quite right, he replied.
But is the art of medicine or any other art faulty or deficient in
any quality in the same way that the eye may be deficient in sight
or the ear fail of hearing, and therefore requires another art to
provide for the interests of seeing and hearing --has art in itself,
I say, any similar liability to fault or defect, and does every art
require another supplementary art to provide for its interests, and
that another and another without end? Or have the arts to look only
after their own interests? Or have they no need either of themselves
or of another? --having no faults or defects, they have no need to
correct them, either by the exercise of their own art or of any other;
they have only to consider the interest of their subject-matter. For
every art remains pure and faultless while remaining true --that is
to say, while perfect and unimpaired. Take the words in your precise
sense, and tell me whether I am not right."
Then medicine does not consider the interest of medicine, but the
interest of the body?
True, he said.
Nor does the art of horsemanship consider the interests of the art
of horsemanship, but the interests of the horse; neither do any other
arts care for themselves, for they have no needs; they care only for
that which is the subject of their art?
True, he said.
But surely, Thrasymachus, the arts are the superiors and rulers of
their own subjects?
To this he assented with a good deal of reluctance.
Then, I said, no science or art considers or enjoins the interest
of the stronger or superior, but only the interest of the subject
He made an attempt to contest this proposition also, but finally acquiesced.
Then, I continued, no physician, in so far as he is a physician, considers
his own good in what he prescribes, but the good of his patient; for
the true physician is also a ruler having the human body as a subject,
and is not a mere money-maker; that has been admitted?
And the pilot likewise, in the strict sense of the term, is a ruler
of sailors and not a mere sailor?
That has been admitted.
And such a pilot and ruler will provide and prescribe for the interest
of the sailor who is under him, and not for his own or the ruler's
He gave a reluctant 'Yes.'
Then, I said, Thrasymachus, there is no one in any rule who, in so
far as he is a ruler, considers or enjoins what is for his own interest,
but always what is for the interest of his subject or suitable to
his art; to that he looks, and that alone he considers in everything
which he says and does.
When we had got to this point in the argument, and every one saw that
the definition of justice had been completely upset, Thrasymachus,
instead of replying to me, said: Tell me, Socrates, have you got a
Why do you ask such a question, I said, when you ought rather to be
Because she leaves you to snivel, and never wipes your nose: she has
not even taught you to know the shepherd from the sheep.
What makes you say that? I replied.
Because you fancy that the shepherd or neatherd fattens of tends the
sheep or oxen with a view to their own good and not to the good of
himself or his master; and you further imagine that the rulers of
states, if they are true rulers, never think of their subjects as
sheep, and that they are not studying their own advantage day and
night. Oh, no; and so entirely astray are you in your ideas about
the just and unjust as not even to know that justice and the just
are in reality another's good; that is to say, the interest of the
ruler and stronger, and the loss of the subject and servant; and injustice
the opposite; for 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. Consider further, most foolish Socrates, that the just is always
a loser in comparison with the unjust. First of all, in private contracts:
wherever the unjust is the partner of the just you will find that,
when the partnership is dissolved, the unjust man has always more
and the just less. Secondly, in their dealings with the State: when
there is an income tax, the just man will pay more and the unjust
less on the same amount of income; and when there is anything to be
received the one gains nothing and the other much. Observe also what
happens when they take an office; there is the just man neglecting
his affairs and perhaps suffering other losses, and getting nothing
out of the public, because he is just; moreover he is hated by his
friends and acquaintance for refusing to serve them in unlawful ways.
But all this is reversed in the case of the unjust man. I am speaking,
as before, of injustice on a large scale in which the advantage of
the unjust is more apparent; and my meaning will be most clearly seen
if we turn to that highest form of injustice in which the criminal
is the happiest of men, and the sufferers or those who refuse to do
injustice are the most miserable --that is to say tyranny, which by
fraud and force takes away the property of others, not little by little
but wholesale; comprehending in one, things sacred as well as profane,
private and public; for which acts of wrong, if he were detected
any one of them singly, he would be punished and incur great disgrace
--they who do such wrong in particular
temples, and man-stealers and burglars
But when a man besides taking away the
slaves of them, then, instead of these
cases are called robbers of
and swindlers and thieves.
money of the citizens has made
names of reproach, he is termed
happy and blessed, not only by the citizens but by all who hear of
his having achieved the consummation of injustice. For mankind censure
injustice, fearing that they may be the victims of it and not because
they shrink from committing it. And thus, as I have shown, Socrates,
injustice, when on a sufficient scale, has more strength and freedom
and mastery than justice; and, as I said at first, justice is the
interest of the stronger, whereas injustice is a man's own profit
Thrasymachus, when he had thus spoken, having, like a bathman, deluged
our ears with his words, had a mind to go away. But the company would
not let him; they insisted that he should remain and defend his position;
and I myself added my own humble request that he would not leave us.
Thrasymachus, I said to him, excellent man, how suggestive are your
remarks! And are you going to run away before you have fairly taught
or learned whether they are true or not? Is the attempt to determine
the way of man's life so small a matter in your eyes --to determine
how life may be passed by each one of us to the greatest advantage?
And do I differ from you, he said, as to the importance of the enquiry?
You appear rather, I replied, to have no care or thought about us,
Thrasymachus --whether we live better or worse from not knowing what
you say you know, is to you a matter of indifference. Prithee, friend,
do not keep your knowledge to yourself; we are a large party; and
any benefit which you confer upon us will be amply rewarded. For my
own part I openly declare that I am not convinced, and that I do not
believe injustice to be more gainful than justice, even if uncontrolled
and allowed to have free play. For, granting that there may be an
unjust man who is able to commit injustice either by fraud or force,
still this does not convince me of the superior advantage of injustice,
and there may be others who are in the same predicament with myself.
Perhaps we may be wrong; if so, you in your wisdom should convince
us that we are mistaken in preferring justice to injustice.
And how am I to convince you, he said, if you are not already convinced
by what I have just said; what more can I do for you? Would you have
me put the proof bodily into your souls?
Heaven forbid! I said; I would only ask you to be consistent; or,
if you change, change openly and let there be no deception. For I
must remark, Thrasymachus, if you will recall what was previously
said, that although you began by defining the true physician in an
exact sense, you did not observe a like exactness when speaking of
the shepherd; you thought that the shepherd as a shepherd tends the
sheep not with a view to their own good, but like a mere diner or
banqueter with a view to the pleasures of the table; or, again, as
a trader for sale in the market, and not as a shepherd. Yet surely
the art of the shepherd is concerned only with the good of his subjects;
he has only to provide the best for them, since the perfection of
the art is already ensured whenever all the requirements of it are
satisfied. And that was what I was saying just now about the ruler.
I conceived that the art of the ruler, considered as ruler, whether
in a state or in private life, could only regard the good of his flock
or subjects; whereas you seem to think that the rulers in states,
that is to say, the true rulers, like being in authority.
Think! Nay, I am sure of it.
Then why in the case of lesser offices do men never take them willingly
without payment, unless under the idea that they govern for the advantage
not of themselves but of others? Let me ask you a question: Are not
the several arts different, by reason of their each having a separate
function? And, my dear illustrious friend, do say what you think,
that we may make a little progress.
Yes, that is the difference, he replied.
And each art gives us a particular good and not merely a general one
--medicine, for example, gives us health; navigation, safety at sea,
and so on?
Yes, he said.
And the art of payment has the special function of giving pay: but
we do not confuse this with other arts, any more than the art of the
pilot is to be confused with the art of medicine, because the health
of the pilot may be improved by a sea voyage. You would not be inclined
to say, would you, that navigation is the art of medicine, at least
if we are to adopt your exact use of language?
Or because a man is in good health when he receives pay you would
not say that the art of payment is medicine?
I should say not.
Nor would you say that medicine is the art of receiving pay because
a man takes fees when he is engaged in healing?
And we have admitted, I said, that the good of each art is specially
confined to the art?
Then, if there be any good which all artists have in common, that
is to be attributed to something of which they all have the common
True, he replied.
And when the artist is benefited by receiving pay the advantage is
gained by an additional use of the art of pay, which is not the art
professed by him?
He gave a reluctant assent to this.
Then the pay is not derived by the several artists from their respective
arts. But the truth is, that while the art of medicine gives health,
and the art of the builder builds a house, another art attends them
which is the art of pay. The various arts may be doing their own business
and benefiting that over which they preside, but would the artist
receive any benefit from his art unless he were paid as well?
I suppose not.
But does he therefore confer no benefit when he works for nothing?
Certainly, he confers a benefit.
Then now, Thrasymachus, there is no longer any doubt that neither
arts nor governments provide for their own interests; but, as we were
before saying, they rule and provide for the interests of their subjects
who are the weaker and not th...
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