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Everyone deserves to be treated in a just manner. However, and unfortunately, the concept of justice seems to mean different things to different people. This essay seeks to explain and defend the concept of justice according to one Thrasymachus.
Life of Thrasymachus
The exact year of birth of Thrasymachus remains unclear. Dionysius intimated that Thrasymachus was younger than Lysias. Dionysius wrongly believed that Lysias was born in 459 BC. According to Aristotle, Thrasymachus lived between the times of Tisias and those of Theodorus although he did not state the exact dates. Cicero indicated that Thrasymachus and Gorgias lived around the same time.
Aristophanes seems to give an exact reference for Thrasymachus life in the mention of his play, Banqueters which was performed in the year 427 BC. It is therefore probable that Thrasymachus had been a teacher in Athens for some period before the play was performed. In his writings, Thrasymachus makes reference to Archelaos, the King of Macedonia between 413 and 399 BC. Rightly so, Thrasymachus was on the scene in the fifth century BC (Rauhut).
The Concept of Justice according to Thrasymachus
Other than his date of birth being unclear, his philosophical ideas are also not clear. Some people believe that he was a Sophist. It is in the Book One of Plato’s Republic that Thrasymachus becomes visible. His encounter with Socrates is dramatic and emotional as he attacks the position taken by Socrates that justice is a vital good (Rauhut). Thrasymachus asserts that ‘injustice, if it is on a large enough scale, is stronger, freer, and more masterly than justice’ (Rauhut).
As they argue with Socrates on the issue of injustice, Thrasymachus says that justice “is nothing more than the advantage of the stronger” (sparknotes). In other words, justice for the poor does not exist. As we know it, justice is a preserve of the stronger. This could be stronger in terms of wealth or power.
According to him, it pays not to be just and it is not the person who behaves justly who benefits but the person who acts unjustly. The assumption here is that those in power are always unjust but they access justice at the expense of the weak. The only just thing that we can do to justice is to ignore it in totality.
From the long discussion with Socrates, three major issues are raised by Thrasymachus, three attempts at defining the concept of justice. Thrasymachus sees justice as the advantage that the stronger have over the weak. By strong is meant those in power, the rulers, and the rich and so on. Secondly, Thrasymachus perceives justice as an imposing laws on people; obedience to the laws of the land. Lastly, Thrasymachus sees justice as that advantage that one has over another.
Defence for his Conception of justice
Let us start with the first conception of justice: advantage of the stronger. The stronger refer to the ruling party, the government of the day, the leaders and any other person who is in a privileged position either due to power or affluence. In every society, it is the same people who make laws which always work to their advantage. The weak will call it injustice but to the strong, it is just to follow those laws that favor them (sparknotes).
It is not so clear why the weak must always follow the rules set by the strong and why such following is always in the interest of the strong. Some scholars, among them Wilamowitz, Zeller and Strauss have treated Thrasymachus as a natural right crusader. The scholars argue that it is only natural that the weak are ruled by the stronger (Rauhut). This is rightly so in almost every society.
Another group of scholars comprising of Hourani and Grote have dealt with the second conception of justice by Thrasymachus. According to them, justice is all about obeying of laws.
They seem to vouch for legalism and accordingly, Thrasymachus is portrayed as a relativist who believes that justice cannot be thought of outside the body of laws. It is all about observing existing laws. As such, any good deeds performed outside the set rules cannot be seen as elements of justice. One wonders where acts like obedience to parents fall if it is not defined as justice.
The third group of Kerferd and Nicholson observes that the third conception of justice by Thrasymachus is his main part in the justice issue. In this regard, Thrasymachus is “an ethical egoist who stresses that justice is the good of another and thus incompatible with the pursuit of one’s self interest” (Rauhut). This qualifies Thrasymachus under ethics more than in politics. In other words, Thrasymachus thrives more in ethical arguments than political ones.
Taylor and Burnet look at Thrasymachus as an ethical nihilist. According to them, the cardinal aim of Thrasymachus is to prove that justice does not exist. This argument can lead to a back and forth argument. If Thrasymachus believes that justice does not exist, are we to take that as the truth? This would go against the Principle of Non Contradiction (Cliffnotes). The mere mention of justice implies that justice indeed exists.
Barney and Johnson have suggested that Thrasymachus should not be taken for what he is not. He is a sociologist cum political scientist who offers observable facts that equals to a “cynical commentary on those who follow a traditional, Hesiodic conception of justice (Rauhut).
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Lastly, another group treats Thrasymachus as a confused thinker. This arises from the fact that even his own conceptions of justice do not marry, they don’t support each other yet they are from once person (Rauhut).
Thrasymachus may have been treated as seen in the above discussion yet his input cannot be wished away. His ideas are very crucial in ethical and moral theory. Where ethics is concerned, his views have majorly been seen as the “first fundamental critique of moral values” (Rauhut).
In addition, he seems to foreshadow Nietzsche when he insists that “moral values are socially constructed and are nothing but the reflection of the interests of particular political communities” (Cliffnotes). He is seen as propagating cynical realism in political theory that states that might is right.
Thrasymachus is such a pillar in ethics and political philosophy. He cannot be wished away, he can only be studied deeper from his fragments so that a better understanding of Thrasymachus is sought and used to enhance the said fields of ethics and political philosophy or theory. Strong people have the courage to do wrong.
Cliffnotes. Republic by Plato: Summary and Analysis. 1 March 2013. 14 March 2013
Rauhut, Nils. Thrasymachus (fl. 427 BCE). 9 August 2011. 13 March 2013 sparknotes. Republic Book I: Summary. 5 February 2013. 13 March 2013