Monday, March 23, 2015

The challenge of Thrasymachus.

"And each ruling group sets down laws for its own advantage."
Justice is a social convention, differing from place to place, but created by rulers for their own advantage. The strong do what they can and the weak suffer as they must.

These sentiments can be found in a cultural studies text book or read on an activists blog; yet they are found in a famous work of philosophy called 'The Republic' by Plato.

The Sophist Thrasymachus (459-400 BC) was a renown teacher of rhetoric who created and perfected several rhetorical styles. Plato (disapprovingly) claimed Thrasymachus could emotionally manipulate large crowds and Aristotle credited him as one of the original founders of rhetoric whose work revolutionized the fledgling field.

In The Republic Plato portrays Thrasymachus (whose name means 'bold-fighter') as a fiery young man who forces his way into a philosophical defense of Justice by Socrates:
Now Thrasymachus start out many times to take over the argument in the midst of our discussion, but he had been restrained by the men sitting near him, who wanted to hear the argument out. But when we paused and I said this, he could no longer keep quiet; hunched up like a wild beast, he flung himself at us as if to tear us to pieces. 
His anger is important. It is the frustrated anger of a young man challenging the traditions and beliefs of his elders and finding them wanting. Virtue and Justice are just lies to trick fools into accepting laws which benefit their rulers. Look to nature, Thrasymachus demands, where we see dominance of the weak by the strong; look to our cities where the unjust and the dishonest prosper while the honest and just suffer. Does Socrates really believe shepherds toil for the benefit of their sheep and rulers toil for our welfare?

Many of us, I suspect, are cynical enough to agree with Thrasymachus. The political Right is comfortable deploying the grammar of universal ethics defended by Plato and yet so often fall far short of their professed ideals, sometimes to the point of outright corruption. Meanwhile the Left has largely abandoned such moralistic language for sociological analysis of power relationships between gender and class groupings.

If Thrasymachus is correct, only the weak follow laws while the wise seek to twist them to their own advantage. Is this an unpalatable truth or simply fatalistic pessimism of the world weary? 

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