Philosophy Talk: The Virtues and Vice of Thrasymachus

15 March 2017 (Wed), 1.30–3pm
At East Core Board Room

Though he has had his defenders,1 most scholars regard the character of Thrasymachus in Book I of Plato’s Republic as a bad lad. Indeed, in a recent unpublished piece,2 Ralph Wedgwood declares: “In the character, beliefs, and desires of Thrasymachus, Plato aims to personify some of the most diabolical dangers that lurk in human nature,” and to represent a force that Kant would later describe as “radical evil.”3 Rachel Barney also finds Thrasymachus especially defective both morally and intellectually: because he is “opinionated, arrogant, bad-tempered,” he is completely “hopeless” as an interlocutor.4 It is for this reason, Barney explains, Socrates turned to “the talented and tractable” Glaucon and Adeimantus as more suitable interlocutors in Book II. It is for this same reason, according to Dusty Hoesly and Nicholas D. Smith, that Socrates’ response to Thrasymachus in Book I was never intended as a serious argument. For, according to Hoesly and Smith: it is impossible to argue with such “belligerent,” “arrogant,” and “bestial” individuals. Instead, Hoesly and Smith argue, Socrates responded to Thrasymachus’ position in the only way that he could, namely to “chastise and shame”5 rather than to argue rationally.

     I believe that such an assessment of Thrasymachus’s character and intellect, and of Plato’s assessment of Thrasymachus’s character and intellect, is mistaken. While he certainly had significant character flaws and ample room for philosophical growth, like Socrates and unlike Socrates’ other interlocutors in the Republic, Thrasymachus had what Socrates considered the most important virtue of all: a single-minded commitment to discovering the truth. When Thrasymachus enters the conversation, his anger and frustration are entirely justified, even if they muddle his thinking and lead to counter-productive expressions of hostility. Indeed, I will argue that the main lesson we should take from the Republic is that Thrasymachus’s primary vice is not his peevish questioning of conventional moral norms, but instead his failure to go further– to challenge conventional conceptions of the good lifeandtoimaginealternativepossibilitiesforthefuture. Werehetotaketheseadditionalsteps,I argue, he and Socrates would come to the same conclusions. They would be, as Socrates later declares that they are, friends (498d).

Jyl Gentzler
Department of Philosophy Amherst College
Amherst, MA 01002

 

1 J.E.M. Joad, Thrasymachus or The Future of Morals (New York: E.P. Dutton and Co., 1926); C.D.C Reeve, “Socrates Meets Thrasymachus,” Archiv für Geschichte der Philosophy 67 (1985); idem. Philosopher-Kings: The Argument of Plato’s Republic (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989); idem, “Glaucon’s Challenge and Thrasymacheanism,” Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy, 2008; T.D.J. Chappell, “The Virtues of Thrasymachus,” Phronesis 38 (1993).

2 Ralph Wedgwood, “The Coherence of Thrasymachus,” n.d. at <<http://www-bcf.usc.edu/~wedgwood/Thrasymachus.htm>>

3 Ibid., 1.
4 Rachel Barney, “Socrates’ Refutation of Thrasymachus,” in G. Santas, ed., The Blackwell

Guide to Plato’s Republic (London: Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2006), 57.

5 Dusty Hoesly and Nicholas Smith, “Thrasymachus: Diagnosis and Treatment,” Dialogues on Plato’s Politeia: Selected Papers from the Ninth Symposium Platonicum (Sankt Augustin: Academia Verlag, 2013), 61.