What Thraysmachus Can Teach Us About Self-Examination

By John Antonio Pascarella, Seminar Host

Though only a force to be reckoned with in Book I of Plato’s Republic, Thrasymachus always manages to grab my attention.  The first time I read the Republic, I thought Thrasymachus was a simpleton.  In my second reading, my opinion changed, with great thanks to having some Modern political thought in the back of my mind (particularly Hobbes).  My third reading of Book I of the Republic found me seeing Thrasymachus as being somewhat comedic.  I could see the frustration on Thrasymachus’ face as he was being held back from wanting to jump in like a wolf and set Socrates straight.    

My most recent reading of Book I has brought with it something new (which always seems to be the case when I read Plato, Aristotle, and any other great author, for that matter).  When Thrasymachus finally speaks, he says, “What is this nonsense that has possessed you for so long, Socrates? Why do you [and Polemarchus] act like fools making way for one another?” (336c).  Thrasymachus then accuses Socrates of withholding the answer from all who are listening so that he can gratify his love of honor (336c). What first stood out to me is Thrasymachus’ complete misunderstanding of how dialectic works.  The give and take of dialectic requires those involved to make way for one another, but it is not because they are fools. One engages in dialectic to find the truth, and it is, as Socrates continually shows, the best way of dealing with ignorance.

A deeper misunderstanding of dialectic is Thrasymachus’ call for answer, though the depths of that misunderstanding do not come to light until the end of Book I.  Once Socrates realizes that Thrasymachus has “put injustice in the camp of virtue and wisdom,” he says, “One oughtn’t to hesitate to pursue the consideration of the argument as long as I understand you to say what you think.  For, Thrasymachus, you seem really not to be joking now, but to be speaking the truth as it seems to you” (emphasis added) (348e-349a).  Thrasymachus quickly (and perhaps curtly) responds, “And what difference does it make to you whether it seems so to me or not, and why don’t you refute the argument?” (349a).  Socrates responds (ironically, I believe), “No difference” (349b).

In the final parts of Book I, Socrates raises the stakes of the dialogue by saying, “For the argument is not about just any question, but about the way one should live” (352d).  Thrasymachus’ insistence that Socrates provide an answer and refute the argument shows his refusal to talk about justice in relation to himself. If Thrasymachus can convince Socrates to treat justice merely as an argument, then if the argument is proven wrong, the fault lies with it and not the person who makes it.  But if Thrasymachus considers justice in relation to himself, and Socrates shows him that he is ignorant, it could be devastating to Thrasymachus (and seems to be once he blushes at 350d).

Thrasymachus’ approach would most likely be considered by the modern reader to be objective (and, by implication, perhaps scientific).  But from a Socratic perspective, one could not call Thrasymachus’ way of dealing with the argument as “just an argument” philosophic. If philosophy begins from the command at Delphi to “Know thyself,” then the consideration of ideas simply as arguments and not in relation to ourselves would be avoiding the purpose of philosophy.  

Self-examination is hard, and facing the fact that you are wrong is even harder.  Both tasks are required for Philosophy. To those who are like Thrasymachus, it may seem comfortable to keep an argument at a distance.  In the end, however, they too are bound to blush from their cowardice. Philosophy’s ability to leave us unsettled requires that we have the courage to face ourselves and see the good and bad within us for what it really is.  Ignorance of justice is terrible. Ignorance of oneself is something far worse. Plato’s Republic has a wonderful way of showing us that knowing justice and knowing oneself are woven together in Philosophy, which, if properly pursued, helps one find the best human life. Luckily, OGB is here to help. 

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