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The Unequal World of Power and Justice

The debate between Thrasymachus and Socrates, in Book I of the Republic, is a debate between the power philosopher and the philosopher-king. Thrasymachus divides the world among power lines, and states that power makes people unequal. He defines Justice as

nothing other than the advantage of the strong (8c)…Each makes laws to its own advantage. Democracy makes democratic laws; tyranny makes tyrannical laws, and so on with the others. And they declare what they have made � what is to their own advantage � to be just for their subjects, and they punish anyone who goes against this as unjust. This, then, is what I say justice is, the same in all cities, the advantage of the established rule (a).”

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The strong rule because they have the power. The weak serve because they have no recourse. Torn between the strong and the weak, we ask, “What is justice? What is just rule?”

The opening scene of Book I, Socrates and his friend Glaucon meet Polemarchus in open confrontation, on the streets. This confrontation shows the strong and weak, and anticipates issues in the main debate. Confrontations arise when interests conflict. Polemarchus wants Socrates and his companion Glaucon to spend the night in the city of Piraeus. Socrates wants to go home. Given different aims, how do conflicts resolve? As the strong man war chief, Polemarchus brandishes his army and asks “see how many we are? (7c).” He believes that his numbers are sufficient to force Socrates into compliance. Socrates is portrayed as the weak. Not only is he old, but he lacks the numbers to outfight Polemarchus. Nihilistically, nothing stops Polemarchus from pummeling Socrates into submission. Some might enjoy that. He, though, is not one to harm friends. Instead of force he offers “a spectacle, wine, boys and talk.” This wins Glaucon and both he and Socrates follow Polemarchus.

This scene shows that here the strong and the weak are friends. Power does not work in a vacuum. Instead, it exists within human relationships. One cannot overpower a friend the way one would an enemy. Violence destroys the friendship. Because of friendship, Polemarchus’ army proves ineffective in forcing Socrates to comply. Besides being friends, the strong and the weak can be enemies to one another. Seeing and knowing the difference between friends and foe is intrinsic in the education of the philosopher-king, and is heavily developed in later books of the Republic. For our purposes it is important to know that friendly relationships differ radically from hostile relationships. Keep this distinction in mind while reading the exchange between the power-philosopher and the philosopher-king. Besides being friends, the opening scene introduces the strong as the many and the weak as the few. Within friendly circles, one gains compliance not through coercion, but through persuasion. Persuasion proves very important in the power philosopher and philosopher-king debate. In debate, the world is shaped through discourse or logos. If Polemarchus were the power-philosopher and not the war chief, then his ‘strength of numbers’ would be the majority opinion. Is majority opinion sufficient to establish it as the stronger logos then that of the few or the knowledgeable?

Thrasymachus states that the few exerting sufficient power can impose their ideas of the right and the true upon the many. Power cannot be understood as sheer physical power. For example, the Pancratist[1] can beat people with their fists, but they are not rulers. Their brawn is not powerful enough to command obedience from the whole polis. Might here, is the might of the rulers. It is the power to create laws, declare what is just and to punish transgressors. In this scheme, justice is not a virtue, but a power that decrees, self-justifies, and preserves its grounds by eliminating opposing world-views.

In contrast to the power-philosopher, the philosopher-king grounds justice not in power, but in knowledge. To establish this position, Socrates must expose the inherit contradiction of Thrasymachus’ of this view. With power insufficient to ensure justice, Socrates then grounds just rule in the ability of the ruler to know what is best for his subjects. Knowing what is best means knowing the truth about justice. By basing knowledge on truth, Socrates creates a possible objective notion of Justice.

Does truth ground justice? Though the creation of truth is not a concern for either Thrasymachus or Socrates, one can ask, can power create truths? Does Socrates assume that Truth is a precondition for knowledge and that this is “truth” has independent existence? Following the power-philosopher’s reasoning one finds that if (i) knowledge is power, and (ii) might is right, then those who have knowledge have both might and right on their sides. As the intellectual power establishment, the ‘knowers’ create the logos necessary to make knowledge public and intelligible. They manage the vocabulary, control the schools and choose the books to define the fields of knowledge. For example, the language of the ‘wine buffs’, analyze the shapeless taste of wine into “rounded”, “smooth” or “full-bodied”. One drinks wine differently to access these hidden qualities. To separate the ‘palate’ from the ‘finish’ one must hold the wine in your mouth and roll back your tongue. The special language and practices create a mutually supporting society of ‘wine-experts’ able to different otherwise homogenous tasting wine. Their logos excludes other descriptions of wine as legitimate expressions (i.e. religious uses of ceremonial wine). If power creates truths, then by grounding justice in truth, Socrates only delays the ‘truth’ that justice is power. However if power cannot create truth, then justice is something other than power based. Because we are beings-in-the-world, the world in many instances acts indifferently to our best intentions. One way to show the limits of power is by show the consequence of power exercised-in-the-world. While theories may or may not cohere, the veracity of thought should fit world conditions. One truth of being-in-the-world is that people make mistakes.

If power creates truth, then can rulers err? If they can, then rulers cannot create truth. Socrates asks “are rulers in all cities infallible, or are they liable to error (c)?” Thrasymachus answers, “In giving orders, rulers are sometimes in error as to what is best for themselves, yet it is still just for the subject to obey (d).” If a ruler errs to his disadvantage, and the subjects obey the bad order, then the ruler is disadvantaged. By stating that justice is defined by the rulers to promote their advantage, and maintaining that it is always just to obey rulers, Thrasymachus contradicts when rulers make mistakes and subjects perpetuate that mistake. In this situation, justice is both for the advantage and to disadvantage of the ruler. To clear this contradiction and save Thrasymachus’ thesis, we can pursue three strategies (i) drop the condition that requires the subject to obey blindly, (ii) change the definition of ‘advantage’ or (iii) redefine ‘ruler’.

Personally, I prefer the first strategy. Though the single subject is weak, as a group the subjects make the overwhelming majority. Being the many, we should spend some time talking about them. Oddly, the subject of ‘the subject’ is silent in the Republic. The attention is focused on the ruler and their education. What can we make of the character of the ideal subject? From the Symposium, the contrast between the oppressed and free subject is clear. Tyranny dwells between the oppression of the ruler and the servile compliance of the ruled. The tyrant is the ruler who does not allow his people to indulge in high thinking or in staunch fellowship and friendship (Symp. 18b). Because he fears his people, the tyrant requires them to be absolutely obedient. He cannot grant them the freedom to defy orders, because he does not trust his subjects to act in his best interests. His distrust forces him to prevent his subjects from gathering and talking � else they would plot to overthrow his power! He cannot rely on his people to protect him from his own mistakes. With this type of work relationship, the tyrant must maintain that it is just for subjects to obey. In the ideal world, the ruler must be able to rely on his people. To do this, I reject the assumption that it is just for the subject to obey the orders of the rulers - always. Given the freedom to disobey, the good subject will help the ruler. The Socratic subject is “anyone who is prepared to devote himself to the service of another, in the belief that through him will find increase wisdom or some other virtue, we hold that such willing servitude is neither base nor abject (Symp. 18c).” The good ruler inspires loyalty because his subjects are “touched by moral beauties and [thus] is constant all of his life (Symp. 18c).” If Thrasymachus demands obedience from his people, then Socrates inspires loyalty. Loyalty backed with firm intelligence makes the ideal subject.

Instead of reaching this conclusion, the dialogue travels different paths. Cleitophon, a young man listening to the debate, answers for Thrasymachus. He wants to change ‘advantage’ to mean what the stronger ‘believes to be his advantage’ whether it is truly advantageous or not (40b). To accept the change one collapses the distinction between reality and appearance. If truth is what the ruler creates, then what appearances of truth the ruler creates must be really true. By denying all standards, except those sanctioned by the ruler, the ruler can exempt himself from those standards. This way, the ruler escapes all criticism. Socrates asks Thrasymachus if he accepts this revision. Does Thrasymachus mean that the advantage is what seems to be the advantage and not what is the advantage? Thrasymachus refuses this maneuver. He asks ironically, “Do you think I’d call someone who is in error stronger at the moment he errs (40c)?” Thrasymachus recognizes mistakes. As a being-in-the-world, he cannot escape the consequences of his own actions. To act incorrectly is to err. To make a mistake means to go against intentions and create harm to ones self. For the self-interested ruler, he must act according to what is truly his advantage and not on what only seems to be advantageous. Acting true to his words, Thrasymachus rejects the apparent advantage Cleitophon offers.

Instead he pursues a course that really is to his advantage. He asks, “When someone makes an error in the treatment of patients, do you call him a doctor in regards to that very error? Or when someone makes a error in accounting, do you call him an accountant in regards to that very error in calculation (40d)?” In other words, would a doctor act like a true doctor if he fails his practice? The answer is no. “No craftsman ever errs. Its’ when his knowledge fails him that he makes an error, and in regards to that error he is no craftsman. A ruler insofar as he is ruler, never makes errors and unerringly decrees what is best for himself, and this his subject must do (41a).” Thrasymachus wants to preserve the absolute power of the ruler. What undermine the ruler is not his power, but his mistakes. To solve this problem, all we need is the perfect ruler. This move is subtle. By speaking of the perfect ruler, this ‘ruler’ now is the ruler qua ruler or the ruler as he should be, if he were to epitomize ruling. By debating on the ideal ruler and they also debate on the ideal form of rule. To verify this switch, Socrates asks whether the sense of ruler used is “in the ordinary sense or in the precise sense (41b).” Thrasymachus says the precise.

If a perfect ruler can exist, then it follows that there must be a perfect way to rule. With perfection in sight two consequences develop � the possibility for knowledge and standards. First, possessing that perfected vision means having knowledge or episteme. All understanding short of that knowledge is mere doxa or belief. This distinction between episteme and doxa gets developed in the central books of the Republic, during the middle stages the philosopher-king’s education. The distinction opens grounds towards establishing truth as logos of that perfection or possibility of making truth independent from human beliefs. Secondly, By speaking of a perfect rule it becomes possible to establish objective standards and disciplines or arts, which strive towards knowing that standard.

Given that objective truths exists, this does not exclude the possibility that it is the artist and not the art which determines the perfection of that truth. To answer this concern we should understand art. An art or a craft is a human endeavor, which seeks the perfection of its art object. Arts are defined by its object and by the methods towards that object. Shoe making has shoes as its object and the techniques of making shoes as its methods. Biology has life forms and physics the physical world as their objects, and the experiments and theory formation as its methods in trying to study these objects. Arts without objects are not arts at all. Different arts have different objects if they are independent arts. To understand an art, one must understand the art, artist, object and the relationship to one another. We can understand this interrelationship through metaphor and myth. In the next exchanges, Socrates and Thrasymachus present different metaphors for understanding the art of ruling.

While Socrates’ models gives priority to the arts, Thrasymachus’ favors the artist.

First, Socrates says that ruling is like doctoring. The ruler must preserve the health of the social body. He does so by preventing sickness, and removing it once it occurs. Here the ruler is the social surgeon. We encounter this metaphor in our daily life. Crime and poverty are called ‘social diseases’. We constantly seek ‘cures’ for our conditions. We require the government to ‘remove’ unwanted elements from our streets. As a surgeon, the ruler cannot indiscriminately remove organs and institutions. He must know what to cut, and what tools to use. Removing healthy elements is harmful; as is amputation, when a small slit will suffice. Next Socrates compares the ruler to a ship captain. Besides maintaining the health of the body politics, the ruler must lead his people. In this capacity, the body politics is very much a ‘ship of state’ and ruler the captain. This metaphor is important first because the captain knows how to sail. As a sailor himself, he is part of the group that he leads. He is not an alienated ruler, or an outsider. Also, his knowledge of ruling sailors marks him as being different than the mere sailors. By being part of the group, he should not use the sailors for selfish benefit, but to the benefit of everyone on the ship of state. In both instances, the art as art, serves not as the tool for the artisan, but exists to service the object of the art. Medicine serves the sick, while captaining serves the sailors. With a single stroke, Socrates inverts Thrasymachus’ thesis. Instead of the weak serving the strong, if the strong practiced the art of ruling, the strong serves the weak.

To defend his position, Thrasymachus invokes different metaphors. Instead of doctoring or steering society, the ruler actually is the herdsman and the shepherd. People are herd animals who need a strong leader to tell them what to do. By subsuming yourself by the constraints the herd constrains themselves the herdsman becomes no better then the herd, stupid animals who cannot think independently. Besides stupidity, people are ruled by fear. Fear turns people into sheep. Meekness and mildness are thin disguises for weakness. The strong have no need to flock. The strong who are smart become shepherds. Shepherds to not tend flock for the flock’s benefit. They do so, so that they can eat the sheep and use their wool.

Unlike Socrates, Thrasymachus does not argue that the just ruler is one who serves his people. Instead he argues that this man is a fool � “a just man, always gets less than an unjust one in partnerships… in matters relating to the city, those that follow the rules pay more taxes and receive smaller refunds. Finally, in public matters the just man loses his private life and gains no advantage, because he does not rob the public purse (4d).” Instead of speaking of the art, Thrasymachus places priority on the artist. This time he speaks in the ordinary sense. In his original definition, the ruler is constrained by error. To rectify this, he creates the definition of ruler qua ruler. For Socrates, the ideal ruler knows the ruling craft and thus cannot make errors. In contrast, the Thrasymachus’ ruler is infallible because he is infallible. He possesses talents and strengths that free from the constraints of ‘truth’ and ‘justice’ which bind the herd and flock. This conception holds that power “is stronger, freer and more masterly than justice (44c).” Not only is the world unequal, but injustice is the norm! Only a fool subsumes himself under the art.

With so may fine points arrayed against him, the philosopher-king reigns in the power-philosopher. In the initial confrontation between Socrates and Polemarchus the conflict between the strong and the weak, the many and the few is a conflict between friends. The philosopher-king spends a large part of his education as learning to distinguish the difference between friends and enemies. This power-dynamics reenters the debate as Socrates compares the society of friends to the society of foes. Socrates asserts that not only is justice stronger than power, but that justice is good. First “injustice has the power to make whatever arises in it incapable of achieving as a unit. Second, it makes the unit an enemy of itself (5a).” At the individual level, injustice makes “one not of one mind” and makes enemies of just people (5a). The enemy is schizophrenic and so is the society of enemies. We see this dis-integrated will in Thrasymachus. He demands absolute obedience from his subjects and yet, absolute freedom for himself. In a society of full of Thrasymachus’, the tensions created from the will to absolute obedience and freedom create irreconcilable conflicts. The tyrant must insist that he is right, by force of might. Furthermore, the tyrant demands obedience because he cannot stand to reason with people. A ruler of oppressed, ignorant subjects, the tyrant fears that his people will riot or turn against him. He also fears that his smarter minions will tire of servitude, and try to usurp his unique position of freedom. With so much strife, enemies are incapable of accomplishing anything at all. Friends, on the other hand, trust friends. Friends can put aside personal preferences and work towards a common good. Friends can bind together to form a whole much greater than the sum of their parts. Friendships require just actions from not only themselves but from others. A society of friends through joint effort can overcome a society of enemies. To maintain the polis of friends requires justice.

What is Justice amongst a polis or body of friends? For Socrates, Justice is not power, but an excellence. Everything has its excellences or virtues. Things reveal their virtues through their acts and functions. Excellences are the best possible qualities, or the best possible states. If ones natural talents and inclinations are promoted and perfected to the highest degree, one is happy. If happiness is being in harmony with excellences, then people are happier being in a society which recognizes their excellences, then in one where they are repressed and denied. To develop an excellent society, not only must the individual talents be nurtured, but that there must be ways of weave this talented people together in an efficient and harmonious way. As an excellence Justice is possible in both the individual and the polis.

Book I of the Republic seek to establish a concept of Justice based on virtues derived from ideas of friendship. To prove that Justice is a virtue and not a power. If power creates justice, then it can also create truth. To defeat this thesis Socrates establishes that truth is objective and not constructed. He does this by pointing out to the fact that people make mistakes. If people do make mistakes then there is a right and wrong way to do things. Right conduct means acting with reason and truth. To eradicate the distinction between right and wrong means eradicating the distinction between reality and appearance. This move is untenable, so Truth as perfection becomes possible. With perfection a ground, knowledge as having vision of perfection becomes possible. Crafts capture the perfection or the virtues of its studied object. Though a craftsman may seek to pervert the craft for his own use, for a craftsman to act the craftsman, he must follow the guidelines of his craft. To preserve the perfect polis, the ruling craft requires that the ruler serve his people. If the ruler refuses his craft he becomes the tyrant. The tyrant believes he has absolute power. In truth he has little power, as he must constantly fight to retain his hold on power. This drains him and makes it hard for him to fulfill his agenda. If the tyrant makes enemies of his people, the philosopher-king makes them into friends. By serving friends he acts not only within the virtues of his craft, but also he himself becomes virtuous.

[1] Greek boxers.

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