Ancient History & Civilisation


Thrasymachus was evidently a famous and well-respected orator in his own day, who like all the major Sophists made his name in Athens. Although T1–4 testify to his fame in this respect, we have only a few phrases from his speeches, and one extended fragment from a model speech, which I translate despite its lack of philosophical interest (F1). As well as composing speeches, it looks as though he also taught others to defeat opponents through argumentation in speeches, if the title of a book of his, preserved by Plutarch inT5, is genuine. But his lasting fame has come about because of his memorable place in the first book of Plato’s Republic. Were it not for T6, however, we would have cause to wonder about the veracity of Plato’s use of Thrasymachus, since we would know of the Sophist only as an orator. But T6 shows that he was also a philosopher, and was a critic of culture along with many other Sophists. T6 is a trace of a common agnostic or atheistic argument that there is injustice in the world, but the gods would not tolerate injustice, from which it follows either that the gods do not exist,1 or that even if they do they are not interested in human affairs. The latter conclusion seems to have been the one Thrasymachus arrived at.

Although, as usual, it is not clear how much Plato is embellishing any genuine views of the historical Thrasymachus, I have included the most relevant parts of his speeches from Plato as T7, since they are certainly representative of a trend of thought current in the last quarter of the fifth century. However, the precise interpretation of what Thrasymachus meant is controversial. In particular, he makes two claims which are not entirely consistent with each other. At one point he says that ‘Justice is nothing other than the advantage of the stronger party’; at another that ‘Justice is the promotion of someone else’s good.’ For the weaker party in a transaction, the two statements are equivalent; but for the stronger party they are contradictory, since if a strong person acts to his own advantage he is acting justly according to the first statement, but unjustly according to the second statement.

One interpretation privileges the first of these statements and makes Thrasymachus an ethical nihilist, in the sense that there is no such thing as justice beyond what rulers lay down as just; another privileges the second and makes Thrasymachus a supporter of natural right. But the ethical nihilist view cannot be right, because it limits justice to being something only the ruled do, whereas Thrasymachus clearly wants it to be something rulers do as well. Moreover, the ethical nihilist view focuses on political justice, whereas the terms of Thrasymachus’ whole speech are not confined only to politics, but also to business transactions and human intercourse in general. And finally, if justice is only the advantage of the stronger, then it would be a good and praiseworthy thing for Thrasymachus, but in fact he praises injustice.

I believe that the first statement is meant to be a shocking entrée into the discussion (the Sophists often played to the crowd and sought applause), while the second statement represents the view of the character Thrasymachus in Plato’s dialogue (and most probably that of the historical Sophist too). Thrasymachus believed, then, that justice was the promotion of someone else’s good. It is only because the other party is invariably the stronger party that the two statements coincide.

Leaving aside this controversy, what is important for our purposes about Thrasymachus’ position in Republic is that it illustrates a trend of fifth-century thought. Although it is hard to say whether the Sophists were symptoms or causes,2 conventional moral standards were under attack, and the reasons for the attack were well and forcefully formulated, as here by Thrasymachus, or by Callicles in Plato’s Gorgias (T1, pp. 303–5). Only a fool, Thrasymachus says, would adhere to the norms of Greek culture, since they bring no advantage to oneself. Natural right demands that one follows one’s own advantage wherever it may lead, and whoever might get trampled on in the process. Years of unthinking acceptance of what in F1 (and with apparent approbation) Thrasymachus calls ‘the ancestral constitution’ came to an end with these attacks, and in the future the norms of society required argued justification. This is the kind of justification which Plato was to give in the following century.

T1 (DK 85A2) Today’s celebrities [in rhetoric] are the heirs of a long succession of people whose piecemeal advances gradually made the subject grow, with Tisias following in the footsteps of the first pioneers, Thrasymachus following Tisias, Theodorus following Thrasymachus, and a lot of people making partial contributions.

(Aristotle, On Sophistic Refutations 183b29–33 Ross)

T2 (DK 85A11) [Of the kinds of rhythm employed in speeches] there remains the paean, which speakers have used since the time of Thrasymachus, but without being able to define it.* (Aristotle, Rhetoric 1409a2–3 Ross)

T3 (DK 85B6) [Socrates speaking] Then there are speeches filled with lamentation and dwelling at length on the miseries of old age and poverty. It seems to me that the power of the Chalcedonian has scientifically mastered this technique, and also that he has become expert at rousing a crowd to anger and then, when they are angry, at soothing them with incantations, as he put it. And there is no one better than him both at casting aspersions and at dispelling them, whatever their source. (Plato, Phaedrus 267C7–d2 Burnet)

T4 (DK 85A13) Of those with a professional interest in accuracy of expression and who trained themselves in argumentative rhetoric … Thrasymachus was clear and refined, and was particularly inventive and good at expressing himself in a terse and striking fashion. But his surviving works are all examples of technique and showpieces, with none of his forensic speeches extant. (Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Isaeus 20.4–6, 16–20 Usener/Radermacher)

T5 (DK 85B7) [In the course of a debate about whether dinner-guests should be allowed to take any old place at table, or should be placed by the host] In any case, the decision is hard, given how guests differ in age, power, intimacy, and kinship. One would have to have available, like someone studying a problem of comparison, Aristotle’s Topics or Thrasymachus’ Overwhelming Arguments. (Plutarch, Table Talk 616d1–6 Clement)

F1 (DK 85B1) The third kind of diction was the mixed, a compound of the previous two [the ‘severe’ and the ‘simple’]. I am not in a position to say whether it was (as Theophrastus says) Thrasymachus, or whether it was someone else, who originally formed and arranged it in its current form … Anyway, Thrasymachus’ diction, if it really was one of the sources of the intermediate style, seems to have a claim on our interest even if only for his principles, because it is a good blend of the other two and has taken over from them exactly what is useful. But that his abilities fell short of his intentions is shown by the following example, from one of his political speeches:

‘Gentlemen of Athens, I wish I had been alive in the old days, when the younger generation could happily remain silent, since matters did not force them to make speeches and their elders were looking after the city in an appropriate manner. But since it is our fate to find ourselves alive now, at a time when we submit to others ruling the city, but endure its disasters ourselves, and since the greatest of these disasters are due not to the gods or to fortune, but to those who are in charge, I have no choice but to speak. It takes either insensitivity or extraordinary patience to keep allowing oneself to suffer wrong at the hands of all and sundry and to take the blame oneself for the treachery and cowardice of others, because what has already happened in the past is enough for us. Instead of peace, we are now at war; we have fought our way through danger to a time when our hearts go out to the day that is past and we face the day to come with terror; instead of concord we have reached a state of mutual hostility and chaos. Insolence and discord, for everyone else, are consequent on an abundance of blessings, but we behaved with moderation in the good times, and it is during the bad times, which usually teach people moderation, that we have gone insane. Why, then, should a man hesitate to speak his mind when he is distressed at the present situation and thinks he has a solution to prevent this kind of thing happening again?

‘In the first place, then, I will show that those people—and they include some of our politicians—who have spoken out against one another have simply experienced what people who thoughtlessly strive to outdo one another are bound to experience. That is, although they think they are contradicting one another, it has escaped their notice that they are pursuing the same policies and that their own ideas incorporate those of their opponents. I mean, take a step back and consider what the aims of both sides are. In the first place, the ancestral constitution is a source of confusion for them, although it is very easy to understand and is shared by every citizen. Whatever lies beyond our own understanding requires us to listen to our ancestors’ words, and whatever our elders have seen of their own accord we must learn from their firsthand knowledge.’

This will serve to illustrate Thrasymachus’ expression, which was intermediate between the other two, a good blend of them both, and a valuable starting-point for approaching both styles. (Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Demosthenes 3 Usener/Radermacher)

T6 (DK 85B8) In one of his own books, Thrasymachus said something along the following lines: ‘The gods pay no attention to human affairs; if they did, they would not have ignored justice, which is the greatest good for men; for we see that men do not act with justice.’ (Hermias, Notes on Plato’s ‘Phaedrus’ 239.21.4 Couvreur)

T7 ‘All right, then, listen to this,’ Thrasymachus said. ‘My claim is that justice is nothing other than the advantage of the stronger party. Well, why aren’t you applauding?’ …

[Socrates then proceeds to argue against this idea, until …]

Once we’d reached this point in the discussion, it was perfectly clear to everyone that the definition of justice had been turned upside down. Thrasymachus didn’t respond to my last remarks, but instead said, ‘Tell me, Socrates, do you have a nurse?’

‘What?’ I asked. ‘Shouldn’t you come up with some response rather than this question?’

‘The point is,’ he said, ‘that she takes no notice of your runny nose and lets it dribble on when it needs wiping, when you can’t even tell her the difference between sheep and shepherd.’

‘I haven’t the faintest idea what you’re getting at,’ I said.

‘What I’m getting at is your notion that shepherds or cowherds consider what is good for their sheep or their cows, and fatten them up and look after them, with any aim in mind other than what is good for their masters or for themselves; and also at your supposition that the attitude which people with political authority—who are the real rulers—have towards their subjects differs in the slightest from how one might feel about sheep, and that what they consider day and night is anything other than their own advantage and how to gain it. You’re so far off understanding right and wrong, justice and injustice, that you don’t even realize that justice and right are actually good for someone else—they are the advantage of the stronger party, the ruler—and bad for the underling at the receiving end of the orders. Nor do you realize that the opposite is true for injustice: the wrongdoer lords it over those moral simpletons—that’s what they are, really—while his subjects do what is to his advantage, since he is stronger, and make him happy by doing his bidding, but don’t further their own happiness in the slightest.

‘You fool, Socrates, don’t you see? In any and every situation, a just person is worse off than an unjust one. Suppose, for instance, that they’re doing some business together, which involves one of them entering into association with the other: by the time the association is dissolved, you’ll never find the just person up on the unjust one—he’ll be worse off. Or again, in civic matters, if there’s a tax on property, then a just person pays more tax than an unjust one even when they’re equally well off; and if there’s a handout, the one gets nothing, while the other makes a lot. And when each of them holds political office, even if a just person loses out financially in no other way, his personal affairs deteriorate through neglect, while his justice stops him making any profit from public funds, and moreover his family and friends fall out with him over his refusal to help them out in unfair ways; in all these respects, however, an unjust person’s experience is the opposite.

‘I’m talking about the person I described a short while ago, the one with the power to secure huge advantages for himself. This is the person you should consider, if you want to assess the extent to which injustice rather than justice is personally advantageous—and this is something you’ll appreciate most easily if you look at injustice in its most perfect form and see how it enhances a wrongdoer’s life beyond measure, but ruins the lives of his victims, who haven’t the stomach for crime, to the same degree. It’s dictatorship I mean, because whether it takes stealth or overt violence, a dictator steals what doesn’t belong to him—consecrated and unconsecrated objects, private possessions, and public property—and does so not on a small scale, but comprehensively. Anyone who is caught committing the merest fraction of these crimes is not only punished, but thoroughly stigmatized as well: small-scale criminals who commit these kinds of crimes are called temple-robbers, kidnappers, burglars, thieves, and robbers. On the other hand, when someone appropriates the assets of the citizen body and then goes on to rob them of their very freedom and enslave them, denigration gives way to congratulation, and it isn’t only his fellow citizens who call him happy, but anyone else who hears about his consummate wrongdoing does so as well. The point is that injustice has a bad name because people are afraid of being at the receiving end of it, not of doing it.

‘So you see, Socrates, injustice—if practised on a large enough scale—has more power, licence, and authority than justice. And as I said at the beginning, justice is really the advantage of the stronger party, while injustice is profitable and advantageous to oneself.’ (Plato, Republic 338c1–3, 343a1–344c8 Burnet)

T. D. J. Chappell, ‘The Virtues of Thrasymachus’, Phronesis, 38 (1993), 1–17.

G. B. Kerferd, ‘The Doctrine of Thrasymachus in Plato’s Republic’, Durham University Journal, 9 (1947), 19–27.

P. P. Nicholson, ‘Unravelling Thrasymachus’ Arguments in the Republic’, Phronesis, 19 (1974), 210–32.

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