Plato’s goal in the Republic is to answer Glaucon’s challenge. The challenge appears to be straightforward. Socrates has to show that justice falls into the category of things that are valued both for their own sakes and also for what comes from them.
Glaucon himself makes the case for thinking that justice belongs to a different category of things, namely, the ones that are valued only for what comes from them. Being just is like taking medicine or engaging in unpleasant physical training: if you could get the results you wanted without it, you would not do it (357).
I asked two questions about Glaucon’s challenge.
Why do the participants in the dialogue all agree that Glaucon and Thrasymachus are basically saying the same thing?
How does Glaucon characterize an unjust person?
Thrasymachus and Glaucon
Thrasymachus portrays justice as a fraud. It is either imposed by the strong on the weak or it is a constraint that the weak respect that the strong ignore.
Glaucon, by contrast, describes justice as a reasonable looking deal. People found it impossible to get along without rules, so they made some rules, and that’s what we call justice.
Those two stories look quite different to me. But Plato treats them as being the same thing. Why?
August said that both emphasize how doing the just thing can involve acting against your own interests. Sean added that both Thrasymachus and Glaucon agree that the ideal is to be unjust while everyone else is just. Justice is something you would not care about if you could get away with it.
I think that all these remarks correctly characterize the way the characters in the book see things. That said, I still think there is an important difference between Glaucon and Thrasymachus. Suppose you came to this book as a basically good person. If you were convinced by Thrasymachus, you should be convinced that you were mistaken and what you thought was a basically good life actually doesn’t make any sense. If you were convinced by Glaucon, you would also conclude that you were mistaken about what justice is really like. But I don’t see how coming to that conclusion would obviously lead you to reject justice altogether. You can still see the rules as good and worthy of your compliance even if they aren’t the way you thought they were.
Plato doesn’t see it that way, of course. But this is a point on which I think I disagree with him.
What is an unjust person like?
I said that Glaucon characterized the unjust person in two different ways.
As someone who is exclusively concerned with outdoing others and always acquiring more of anything (359c). On this way of understanding injustice, unjust people are competitive or greedy (or both).
As someone who is indifferent towards the rules of justice in pursuing his or her aims (362b-c). Here, unjust people are amoral concerning the means they use to achieve their ends but their ends are not necessarily competitive or greedy.
At the end of the book, Plato is going to argue that the life of the first kind of person is miserable. That person’s life is governed by what others do or by a mindless drive to acquire things. He will make a good case for thinking that this kind of life is empty and out of control. At least, I am persuaded.
However I am not convinced that Plato ever comes to grips with the second way of being unjust. Since that kind of unjust life seems much more attractive to me, I think it’s the one to beat. But I also think it’s left standing at the end of the book.
- What is Glaucon’s challenge?
- How is it related to Thrasymachus’s attacks on justice?
- What is an unjust person like, according to Glaucon?
Plato. 1997. “Republic.” In Complete Works, edited by John M. Cooper, translated by G. M. A. Grube and C. D. C Reeve. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company.