Home > Drama, Literature, Philosophy, Plato > How Socrates’ failure grounds Plato’s success in Republic, Book I

How Socrates’ failure grounds Plato’s success in Republic, Book I

The first book of Plato’s Republic, read carefully, serves as a much-needed reminder that there is more to Plato than an obsession with comparing morality to various crafts. Plato was not just a philosopher but also a dramatist, and the two aspects of his work are, I think, inseparable. Reading Plato solely for the arguments in his work entails missing the subtle self-critiques of those arguments, critiques that are rarely made explicit. Rather, they appear in the dramatic flow of the dialogues.

Frequently, the nature of the conversation is itself an example of the points being made—an example, or a critique. Book I of Republic contains both, one obvious and one subtler. Near the beginning, Socrates is quizzing Cephalus, a rich, old man, about how he has remained happy in old age, and the role that money has played. Cephalus at one point says, “It’ll make me happy if I leave these sons of mine not less, but a little more than I inherited” (330b, Waterfield translation). A noble sentiment, and when Cephalus is called away to “attend to the ceremony” (331d), his son Polemarchus begins discussing with Socrates a point Socrates was beginning to dispute when Cephalus left. Plato makes it explicit that Polemarchus has “inherited the discussion” (331e). The very shape of the dialogue, then, exemplifies Cephalus’ point. He has succeeded in leaving behind more than he started with, for now Polemarchus and Socrates have a topic to discuss. Since Plato of course values discussion and philosophy more than money, it indicates that Cephalus truly lives up to his own ideals. Even though Cephalus thinks about the issue in terms of money, he manifests this virtue in other areas as well.

My real interest here, however, is not in Cephalus. Socrates’ discussion with Cephalus is a preliminary to his discussion with Polemarchus, which is itself in many ways a preliminary to his discussion with Thrasymachus. On the surface, that discussion looks something like this: Thrasymachus, the sophist, bursts into the discussion and makes a claim about morality (that it is the advantage of the stronger party) that goes against everything Socrates stands for. Socrates twists him in knots, leading him to clarify his position: the strong are immoral and seek their own advantage, while the weak are moral and disadvantage themselves while working to the advantage of the strong. It is better to be immoral than moral—if one is strong enough. Socrates again proceeds to twist him in knots, until finally Thrasymachus starts pouting and disengages from the discussion, agreeing with everything Socrates says (though he in fact disagrees), and generally being a sore loser. By all appearances, Socrates has thoroughly defeated Thrasymachus. And while it is not terribly difficult to poke holes in Socrates’ arguments, simply in virtue of his childish behavior, Thrasymachus has lost.

There is more to the story, however. We should not be so fast to think that Socrates has won. (I suppose I should mention in passing another reason: Socrates himself would not consider winning to be important, but only arriving at truth, or at least at a recognition of one’s own ignorance.) We can see this by comparing Socrates’ discussion with Polemarchus to his battle with Thrasymachus. At the very beginning of the dialogue, Socrates is approached by Polemarchus and others, who make the friendly threat that he is outnumbered and so has to do as they say (which is just to accompany them). Socrates suggests that he might convince them to let him leave, but they respond that they won’t listen to him, and that it is “impossible” (327c) to convince someone who won’t listen. This underscores the obvious truth that dialogue only works with willing, open participants. Once Thrasymachus closes himself off, dialogue thus becomes impossible, and while Socrates continues to make an argument (conclusion: “immorality is never more rewarding than morality” 354a), really we should think about what is going on as the mere spinning of idle wheels. Socrates establishes that Thrasymachus is wrong, but it doesn’t mean anything because in doing so he hasn’t really engaged with Thrasymachus at all.

Waterfield, in his helpful notes, points out that this discussion is unlike most discussions that occur in Plato’s dialogues, in which Socrates and his interlocutors share the assumption that morality is good, and go on to attempt to discover what, exactly, morality is. In this discussion, on the other hand, Thrasymachus challenges this core assumption (note to 348e). So this discussion is in that sense quite unlike Plato’s standard fare. The conclusion of Book I is Plato’s usual starting place: Socrates has established that morality is superior to immorality, but he still doesn’t “know what morality actually is” (354c). But, because this usual starting point is able to be established only because Thrasymachus in effect drops out of the discussion, replaced by a mere yes-man with Thrasymachus’ face, Plato in fact forces us to ask to what extent Socrates’ starting point can be established, and to what extent it must merely be shared. (I am reminded here of Aristotle’s claim, at the beginning of the Nicomachean Ethics, that he only intends to speak to those who have been brought up to appreciate fine and just things, for only with them will his investigation get off the ground. One might see Plato here as, in a cleverer way, making the same sort of point in Republic Book I. I will have more to say about this at the end of the post.)

Socrates and Thrasymachus are so far apart in their starting assumptions that discussion literally becomes impossible for them. Even before Thrasymachus shuts off, he accuses Socrates of being a bully and of picking on the least important parts of his view to make it look more ridiculous than it actually is—and Thrasymachus is by and large right in these criticisms. Even when Thrasymachus is engaged, they are talking past each other much more than actually having a proper dialogue. Considered against this backdrop, Socrates’ arguments aren’t worth much.

This is especially so because of Socrates’ method. Socrates frequently makes arguments that adopt the assumptions of his interlocutors, in order to show that there are flaws and tensions internal to their positions, and this occasion is no exception. (Gadamer discusses this method helpfully in his essay on Plato’s Lysis, found in his Dialogue and Dialectic. Gadamer’s magnificent method of reading Plato deserves mention also for inspiring by example my reading of Republic here.) One of Thrasymachus’ assumptions is that immorality is superior to morality because it leads to material advantages. Socrates, too, adopts this assumption—it is central to his attempts to show that immorality leads to discord and morality to concord. Thus, when Socrates purports to show that morality is always more rewarding than immorality, he has only shown that morality is more socially advantageous than immorality, a conclusion far too utilitarian to really be what Plato is ultimately after (which would be showing that morality is good for its own sake). At one point in the Lysis, Socrates describes the bad as out of kilter with themselves—this is the conclusion that Socrates is really after here. But he has only shown that immorality makes one out of kilter with other people, not with oneself. Establishing this could perhaps be helpful for showing a tension internal to Thrasymachus’ position, but since Thrasymachus isn’t really present anymore, it’s hard to say that Socrates has accomplished much of anything.

Indeed, the closest thing to a satisfactory argument against Thrasymachus in Book I is not anything Socrates says, but the differences in their character. Thrasymachus is petty and a sore loser; Socrates is interested in discussion and knowledge. At the same time, however, Thrasymachus is wiser than Socrates in just this respect: he recognizes the futility of their discussion, whereas Socrates doesn’t, and keeps it going even after Thrasymachus disengages. Socrates thus could learn from Thrasymachus a lesson about the dialectical art for which he is so famous.

In this sense, then, Socrates has not defeated Thrasymachus in argument—he has simply been better behaved. Here, however, we might be puzzled: just why is Plato doing this, if the end point is so unsatisfactory. To understand why, we need to dig deeper, looking at the shape of the discussion in another light. Just as Socrates’ exchange with Cephalus itself embodied certain points raised in the discussion, so too does the shape of Socrates’ quarrel with Thrasymachus show Thrasymachus’ position in action—and in a way that reflects how impoverished it is.

Thrasymachus, recall, views morality as behavior of the weak acting to the advantage of the strong—those strong enough to compel them to be moral. The strong, on the other hand, work to their own advantage, without regard for others. We have already seen that Socrates and Thrasymachus, by the end of Book I, are no longer engaging one another in true discussion—which requires that both parties be equal and open to what the other has to say (as we saw at the beginning of Book I). If what we have is not dialogue, however, what is it? Plato here is very clever: what we see is an interaction between two very unequal participants: Socrates, the stronger, and Thrasymachus, the weaker, the yes-man. Moreover, Socrates is explicitly working only for his own edification at this point—Thrasymachus is merely treating him “to all the food I still need to be satisfied” (352b). The situation is thus this: the dialectically stronger (Socrates) is working to his own advantage without consideration of the other party, while the weaker (Thrasymachus) is serving the advantage of the stronger. The discussion has transformed from dialogue to an embodiment of Thrasymachus’ picture of morality.

What can we learn from this? If Thrasymachus is right in his picture of morality, then the situation should work out in Socrates’ favor, and to Thrasymachus’ disadvantage. The latter certainly happens: Thrasymachus, as noted, comes across as a whiner and a sore loser. But, as explored above, Socrates does not end up very well off, either: he winds up establishing a position that is not the one he ultimately wants to establish, and because Thrasymachus is no longer engaged in the discussion, Socrates has really accomplished nothing. Of course, the sophists were famous for valuing “winning” debates over arriving at the truth, so it is probable that Thrasymachus would (grudgingly) view Socrates as the winner in the discussion—though only because Socrates is a “bully”. (As Thrasymachus says, “The point is that immorality has a bad name because people are afraid of being at the receiving end of it, not of doing it.” 344c) Socrates, however, cannot consider himself as having achieved what he wished to achieve.

Further, at one point in the dialogue (before Thrasymachus shuts off), Thrasymachus makes the point that “no professional makes mistakes: a mistake is due to a failure of knowledge, and for as long as that lasts he is not a professional” (340e). Because Socrates is making mistakes (by not recognizing the dialectical situation, and how it impacts his ability to employ his usual method), he cannot be considered a professional, cannot be considered as the truly stronger party.

This is, I think, Plato’s aim in setting up the discussion in this way. By allowing the dialogue to degenerate into an embodiment of Thrasymachus’ ideal of the stronger lording over the weaker, to the advantage of the stronger and the disadvantage of the weaker, Plato shows that, in such a situation, there is no one who can really be considered the stronger at all. Thrasymachus’ position—which Socrates does not defeat by argument—defeats itself when put into practice.

But ought we be convinced by this display? I noted that, from Thrasymachus’ point of view, Socrates could be considered the stronger party: he has browbeaten Thrasymachus into submission and has, by public lights, “won” the debate. Thrasymachus, being a sophist, can only see this as victory. So it looks like a stalemate. Thrasymachus’ view, when put into practice, proves internally consistent. But Socrates, engaged in the search for truth rather than in the attempt to win public acclaim for his debating skill, cannot employ Thrasymachus’ methods.

In this sense, then, Plato leaves us in a position akin to that of Aristotle that I mentioned above. Someone interested in winning debates may plausibly adopt a Thrasymachian view in which the stronger force the weaker to acquiesce. What Plato has shown, however, is that if one is interested in the search for truth, if what one cares about is not winning but gaining wisdom, then one simply cannot be Thrasymachian. Plato has not established that one ought to prefer truth to victory. What he has established is that the search for truth is not a struggle for dominance, for power over others. That is an accomplishment, since—one would hope—anyone who reads Plato does so because of an interest in truth.

Independently of the soundness of his arguments, the very shape of Republic Book I cuts off the possibility that Socrates has achieved his aims. Plato turns this fact on its head, however, by using Socrates’ mistakes to paint a vividly negative portrait of Thrasymachus’ views. Not through argument—Plato shows them in action, thereby revealing their emptiness. A sophist would not be persuaded, would necessarily miss the point, but then a sophist would never be open to Plato regardless. After all, as we saw at the very beginning, you cannot convince someone who will not listen. Those who are engaged in the struggle for wisdom, on the other hand, are warmly invited to the rest of Republic.

Addendum 2013.01.07: 300 pages later, after a winding discussion, Plato finally returns to the question addressed so unsatisfyingly in chapter 1. Socrates proposes that the interlocutors “remind ourselves of the original assertion which started us off on our journey here” (588b). And after gaining Glaucon’s assent, Socrates goes on to say, “Well, now that we’ve decided what effect moral and immoral conduct have… we can engage him in conversation.” He is saying this in explicit reference to the assertion of chapter 2, which was defended by Glaucon, but we have to recall that Glaucon was there simply pushing Thrasymachus’ objection further. My argument has been that Socrates in a very deep sense failed to engage with Thrasymachus and Thrasymachus’ position, and I take this claim to be Plato explicitly acknowledging what was previously “hidden” in the structure of chapter 1’s “dialogue”. At the end of chapter 1 and the start of chapter 2, Socrates really was not in a position to engage with the Thrasymachian view. Only after much discussion has this become possible.

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