Justice; Condensed into Five Words

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Revised paper

Dr. Sarah Harasym


                                     Justice; Condensed into Five Words

         In an attempt for Thrasymachus to reclaim some of the dignity that Socrates had stripped away

from him by refuting many of his arguments and thereby making him look inferior, he claimed that “Justice

is the advantage of the stronger,” (338c). At first, this statement appeared to make little sense, and since he

also claimed that justice is both “The good of another” and “Harmful to the one who obeys and serves”,

some critics have interpreted his primary statement (“… The advantage of the stronger”) and these

supporting statements as being not only confusing and inconsonant, but also incorrect. However, the

purpose of this paper is to ensure all that Thrasymachus' definition of justice iand his supporting arguments

can all be true, and his argument, when its full depth is properly understood, is beautifully cogent.

         Establishing a working definition of justice is a topic that should concern everyone because it is a

significant portion of each and everyone’s personal morals and conducts. If we can understand what justice

is, we can in turn understand why we live in societies and how we derive laws and a government that

makes, executes, and uses those laws to its own advantage. We also can understand how that government

in turn takes advantage of the productive society it organized and prevent chaos through the control of the

very people who formed it. If Thrasymachus’ definition is unfolded enough, it reveals many of these

sought for answers, and even though he may have presented his confusing arguments out of anger towards

Socrates, they still provide a very powerful explanation for what the very core of justice is. That is exactly

what Thrasymachus’ definition seemed to have required, further explanation. If his argument is interpreted

differently than will be stated, it is easy to see that it quickly becomes too confusing and contradictory to

make any sense, which is why the upcoming explanation could be assumed to be the one Thrasymachus

was attempting to convey; the one that makes sense.

         Although Thrasymachus’ five-word definition of justice (“the advantage of the stronger”) appears

to be quite vague, it is actually just a dramatically condensed version of one far deeper. When his brief
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statement is taken literally and apart from any further explanation or assumptions, many holes are easily

found within it, such as those that Socrates instantly pointed out, “Surely you don’t mean something like

this: Polydamus, the pancratist, is stronger than we are, it is to his advantage to eat beef to build up his

physical strength; therefore, this food is also advantageous and just for us who are weaker than he is?”

There are more, in fact. If a person does any seemingly neutral action that does not somehow benefit

someone or something stronger, such as recreational activities, or even talking to friends, they are

technically considered unjust actions by definition. Also, the ruler can never be argued as being just or

unjust because nothing he does ever benefits someone stronger than he, and so he is always unjust, whereas

in many of today’s uses, the word ‘just’ is applied to distinguish good actions, governments, and rulers

from bad ones. Laws are also technically unclassifiable by his definition because a law is not comparable

in “strength” to a ruler. Which is technically “stronger”, a ruler or a law? Thrasymachus’ definition is also

inadequate when applied to social issues involving individuals with relatively insubstantial power

differences, such as two friends arguing over something. Who is the just one, the physically stronger or the

intellectually stronger? If it is somehow established clearly that one person is more powerful than the

other, what if what is advantageous to him is not to an even more powerful person, such as a king?

Because of the implicative ambiguities, it is obvious that his definition must have a far more lengthy

explanation beyond its literal translation.

         Thrasymachus’ view of justice was a far more political definition in comparison to the moral one

that most freely associate with it today. For instance, many base their view of justice on religion or on

what seems fair and deserving. However, each of these bases for justice is purely opinion, and so differs

from one person to the next. However, Thrasymachus’ definition compensates for this. According to his

logic, when a ruling body makes laws, they are almost always advantageous to themselves and harmful to

those who are ruled by them. However, the ruled automatically assume that these laws are ones that benefit

them and their society. As a result, the laws that they are governed by mirror one’s definition of justice.

Since the laws are assumed to be just, and are also made because the ruling body (defined as ‘the stronger’

by Thrasymachus) sees them as advantageous to themselves, the drawn conclusion is that justice is

whatever is advantageous to the stronger (338c). So an expanded version of his definition would be; justice

is obeying any laws that the ruling body has made to its advantage [over its people and other societies].
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         Every civilization that has ever existed has had its own definition of justice and as the ages have

passed, those perceptions have changed. For instance, human sacrifices and cannibalism were just and

even ordinary occurrences in some societies long ago, but now, most of the world would agree that to

practice these rituals would be barbarically unjust. Christians, today are often known for their support of

loving all and respecting everyone’s right to live, but long ago, they were encouraged to slaughter any Jew

they could find during the crusade era (for being the ones who crucified their Christ) under the English rule.

Even though the Christian religion holds the same Bible they did centuries ago, their perception of justice

has changed with time. Long ago in Athens, one deserved death if they believed in gods other than the city

believed in. Whereas today in the United States, words such as heterodoxy have virtually gone extinct.

Not only are the rights to believe in different religions protected by law, but in many ways they are

encouraged in order to diversify America’s populations, tolerances, and ideas. Everyone who has come to

live in America generally believes in the same concepts of tolerance and therefore the same laws are able to

govern all. Many Muslims, Jews, Protestants, Catholics, Buddhists, Hindus, Russians, Puerto Ricans,

Australians, South Africans, Germans, and Chinese who have come to the United States all agree that they

can benefit from one another and the common law. However, some nations today, such as Iran and Iraq,

believe it is unjust to believe in a faith outside of Islamic religion. Many societies’ views of justice

contradict, and if a universal definition is to be made, it must apply to all civilizations.

         Everyone who is governed is raised to automatically believe that all laws pertaining to them are

just. Murdering, stealing, raping, doing illegal drugs, and purposely harming one’s own children are all

considered wrong by Americans (even most violating criminals), but only because these have been

persistently ingrained in their heads from birth as being ‘bad’ and unacceptable by parents and older peers.

If one was devoid of ingrained morals and had only basic human instincts, then like an insentient tick, one

would see stealing as a good and profitable necessity. Instead of such potential chaos, all have been taught

since their youth to see justice as the government does.

         In many civilizations, most feel that the government is designed to benefit them. However, the

government is telling its people exactly what is ‘bad’ and unacceptable because the much stronger

government wishes to maximize what is advantageous to it. For example, many governments appear to

cater to the desires of their people, but they do this only because they have realized that happy workers are
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the most productive workers. They know that if their people fear being killed, they will not perform nearly

as efficiently as when they feel comfortable in their society. Therefore, a law forbidding murder is

essential under most governments to keep their people secure and productive and also to prevent them, and

those in governing body themselves, from being slaughtered and thereby reducing production. Injustice in

a society causes the general population to feel threatened and insecure. People today worry about things all

of the time; for example, the safety of their family, friends, money, and home. How productive would

people be if their worries were complicated much more by acts of injustice done to them? If a society is

directed towards preserving justice, the people spend less on protection of their positions and worrying

about them, and more towards making and buying them because they are not in so much fear of them being

harmed or taken from them. Many have had the experience of having to go to work while being

desperately preoccupied with worries about someone or something at another place. One can say that being

worried is a chronic interference to one’s motivation to work because they are consumed with dreadful

thoughts of other matters. After people suffer from a practice of injustice, such as their house being

robbed, they angrily wonder, “why me?” Soon after, they become so overwhelmed with thoughts of the

injustice (which deprives individuals of the fruits of their labor) and the overall corruptness of the society in

which they live that they have no will to work. Perhaps many have asked themselves, why work for it if it

is just going to be damaged or taken away from me anyhow? Why work when I benefit the same corrupt

society and government that allows harm to me? These governments, through trial and error, have learned

a sort of motto from such considerations; the more laws of justice applied to society, the happier most of

the people are. The happier people are, the more advantageous they are it. Therefore, so long as

supporting justice encourages productivity, justice is strictly a political use to the government, just as

Thrasymachus had attempted to explain. Since the people are always raised believe that the majority of

what the government says reflects their own personal values and virtues, one cannot easily refute

Thrasymachus’ argument because that one person is presumably already disillusioned by the virtues

impressed by the government, just like everyone else. The end result of this is that mankind is unable to

find true virtue and each individual’s vision justice is shaped according to what is believed to be to the

advantage of the established rule.
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         Anyone’s definition of justice ultimately reflects what the stronger governing body (a

government) believes and this definition changes to accommodate for the time of its implementation.

Every civilization may have its individual definition of justice that essentially dictates what is tolerated and

what is not. However, a universal definition would most rightly be one that associates each governing body

and its laws to the people and their morals, and therefore applies to each and every civilization. Hence, the

political definition offered by Thrasymachus, “the advantage of the stronger,” is at the very top of the

hierarchy of justice, and every society’s moral definition falling underneath it. “… some cities are ruled by

a tyranny, some by democracy, and some by an aristocracy … in each city this element is stronger, namely,

the ruler… what is to their own advantage – to be just for their subjects.” Anyone’s definition for justice

will inevitably clash with another’s. Not all actions that are considered just by one person are the same just

actions of another from a different sort of society. Consider the atrocities of Nazi Germany, for example.

Their view of justice would be a direct opposite of nearly every Americans’ view of justice. Because of

these differences in a moral definition, a higher political definition is essential to accommodate for each

society have a different opinion of what is morally correct.

         Some would say that Thrasymachus contradicted himself during the course of the dialogue and

thereby rendering his argument confusing and inconsistent, but any discrepancy found within his argument

can be explained due to the fact that Socrates’ questioning, which was based upon the literal meaning of

Thrasymachus’ definition, had initially confused him, “You disgust me, Socrates. Your trick is to take hold

of the argument at the point where you can do it the most harm.” Because of his quick confusion, it also

appears logical that at first, Thrasymachus may not have initially understand the full depth of his own

definition (which was actually representative of the public’s common definition for justice at the time.) It

would seem that his definition was most likely something that he had long ago memorized in school, but

may have never before analyzed it to the point where he understood its surprisingly complex meaning

enough to defend it. Assuming this is in fact true, Thrasymachus did not know quite how to reply when

Socrates questioned its validity and so he may have been struggling to understand his own definition’s

meaning as he was being questioned. It was not until 338e that he proved that he began to understand

(“Don’t you know that some cities are ruled by a tyranny, some by democracy, and some by an aristocracy?

– Of course. – And in each city this element is stronger, namely, the ruler? – Certainly. – And each makes
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law to its own advantage. Democracy makes democratic laws, tyranny makes tyrannical, and so on with

the others. And they declare what they have made – what is to their own advantage – to be just for their

subjects, and they punish anyone who goes against this as lawless and unjust. This, then, is what I say

justice is, the same in all cities, the advantage of the established rule. Since the established rule is surely

stronger, anyone who reasons correctly will conclude that the just is the same everywhere, namely, the

advantage of the stronger”). Here he gave almost a very brief summary as to what his definition meant, but

still leaves the spectators and Socrates confused and unconvinced. For instance, the lack of depth leaves

ambiguities as to what “advantage” is meant. It was not until later in the book that he appeared to fully

realize its complex meaning and further clarify the definition. At this point, he quite proudly announced it

in further, more explicit depth before he felt satisfied enough to leave. Book One in turn conveyed how his

understanding became more cognitive as he was being questioned and he apparently did not understand his

own definition enough to defend it until the end of their conversation. This in turn makes everything he

said prior to these two primaries arguments not subject to contradictions because they would include

statements before his understanding of his own definition. Only when Thrasymachus understood his own

definition, should he have been responsible for defending it, or else one would be judging an aspect of his

intelligence and not the argument itself. After all, how coherent would Julius Caesar’s argument have been

for defending the validity of the Big Bang Theory? Such judgment should also be applied to Thrasymachus

before he understood his argument. When looking at it from this perspective, no discrepancies become

apparent within his explanations beyond the point where he began to understand exactly what he was

defending in 338e.

         At first when Thrasymachus says, “Justice is the advantage of the ruler and harmful to the one

who obeys and serves,” it appears to some to contradict that each government attempts to keep its people

relatively happy. However, what he means is that it inflicts harm by preventing its people from reaching

their optimal happiness levels. , “The best is to do injustice without paying the penalty; the worst is to

suffer it without being able to take revenge.” The goal of many governments is to make as many of its

people as happy as possible in order to encourage productivity. To do this, it outlaws some personally

profitable actions, such as theft and murder, which would directly harm some of the governed and render

the rest paranoid. If everyone were paranoid about receiving harm, then again, they would be far less
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profitable to the government. However, not allowing people to perform some very profitable actions is in a

way harmful to those people and proves his statement supports justice being defined as, “The advantage of

the stronger.”

         Although Thrasymachus was a bit confused initially as to what his own definition really meant, it

turned out that he eventually understood it and then proudly announced its true meaning. If his definition,

“The advantage of the stronger,” were taken literally without being expanded upon, as Socrates had done, it

is absolutely worthless, but upon its explanation, it is one of the most coherent, irrefutable, and powerful

definitions for justice available to man-kind; covering every society’s moral view of justice from the very

top of the hierarchy of definitions of justice.

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Description: College Essay for Philosophy Class