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The Republic by Plato - Barron's Booknotes
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THE ADVANTAGE OF THE STRONGER (336b-347e)

Thrasymachus roars "like a wild beast" into the discussion. He angrily accuses Socrates and Polemarchus of talking rubbish- all this question and answer business! He wants to know why Socrates does not just say what he means. Thrasymachus, a sophist, likes to give long speeches without being interrupted by questions. Any other form of teaching, he believes, shows weakness.

This scene provides comic relief from the seriousness of the preceding discussion. Socrates describes himself as trembling and frightened by Thrasymachus' outburst. But you know better. Socrates is setting Thrasymachus up for the kill.

The long argument of this section can be divided into four parts: 1. an attempt to arrive at a precise definition of "ruler" (337d-341b); 2. a comparison between leadership and other crafts (341c-342e); 3. a speech by Thrasymachus on justice (343a-344c); and 4. a discussion on why rulers choose to rule (344d-347e).

1. Socrates begins his calm, methodical attack on the snarling Thrasymachus by luring the sophist into presenting his own view on justice. But first Thrasymachus wants to be paid for his information. The young men, not wanting to be denied a good fight, agree to put up the money.

Like Polemarchus before him, Thrasymachus thinks that the notion of justice can be summed up in a few words. He says "the just is nothing else but the advantage of the stronger." As is the philosopher's fashion, Socrates inquires into the meaning of Thrasymachus' definition. Thus begins a lively discussion, again exemplifying the Socratic method, on what is and is not to the advantage of the stronger.



Socrates and Thrasymachus agree that the "stronger" are those who rule and establish law, and that being just is advantageous. But they disagree on to whom being just is advantageous. Is it to the just man himself? Or is it to the ruler who determines what is and is not just?

Thrasymachus puts forth an extreme form of the doctrine "might is right." For him being just is obeying the laws of rulers. Further, he claims that rulers make laws for the purpose of increasing their own power and wealth. Just men, therefore, are weak and powerless in comparison to rulers. But Socrates soon has Thrasymachus agreeing that sometimes rulers make errors of judgment and that, in such circumstances, the rulers' advantage may be thwarted if their orders are obeyed. Thrasymachus finds that he must qualify his claim: Rulers who make mistakes are not rulers, in the precise sense of the term.

2. At this point Thrasymachus unwittingly lets into the argument a thoroughly Socratic notion: Rulers of any kind-of states, of arts, of crafts-must be guided by knowledge. Rulers can be considered rulers only when they are performing their proper function. But what is their function? Is it not similar to the function of other useful arts? Doctors serve the sick; ship captains serve sailors; horse trainers serve horses. Knowing how to serve well, Socrates implies, is the special knowledge of each profession. Rulers must know how to serve the interests of the entire state. Thus, like other professionals, rulers seek not their own advantage, but the advantage of those who need their help.

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