By the Dog

M.F. Burnyeat

  • The Play of Character in Plato's Dialogues by Ruby Blondell
    Cambridge, 452 pp, £55.00, June 2002, ISBN 0 521 79300 9

Thrasymachus, a well-known teacher of rhetoric, has listened with growing impatience to the discussion of justice in the first Book of Plato’s Republic. ‘What balderdash you two have been talking,’ he says to Socrates and Polemarchus. He cannot wait to astound the company, and win their acclaim, by unmasking justice as nothing but the advantage of the stronger, dominant group in society. Consider the facts. In each city the ruling class – which could be many individuals in a democracy, a few oligarchs, or a single tyrant – has fixed the laws to serve its own interests. The rest of us, if we obey these laws as justice requires, are simply profiting the rulers. And profiting them means harming ourselves. Thrasymachus sees all human life – not only interactions between rulers and ruled, but also dealings between one individual and another – as a zero-sum game. Every gain is someone else’s loss.

Socrates wonders whether rulers ever make mistakes about what is in their interest: obedience to an erroneous law would be to the rulers’ disadvantage, yet Thrasymachus insists that obeying the law is just. In such a case, surely, justice and the rulers’ interests come apart?

Cleitophon intervenes to defend his teacher: Thrasymachus meant that justice consists in obeying laws which prescribe what the rulers suppose to be advantageous to themselves. But no, says Thrasymachus, that is not what he meant at all, and Socrates is guilty of defamatory misrepresentation of his words. Certainly, in everyday speech we allow that on occasion a doctor, for example, may make a mistake. But what qualifies a doctor as a doctor is his medical knowledge. Qua doctor, therefore, no doctor makes mistakes. So it is with rulers:

The most precise way to formulate my position is to say that the ruler, insofar as he is a ruler, makes no mistakes, but unerringly legislates what is best for himself, and this his subject must do. Thus my claim, and it is what I meant all along, is that it is just to do what is to the advantage of the stronger.

This is an exceedingly complicated way to present a philosophical controversy. Clearly, much more is going on than arguments for and against Thrasymachus’ unsettling diagnosis of what gives rise to the hallowed notion of justice. That ‘more’, as exhibited in the Republic and four other Platonic dialogues (Hippias Minor, Theaetetus, Sophist and Statesman), is the subject of Ruby Blondell’s important, stimulating, yet uneven new book.

The need has long been felt for ways of reading Plato that adequately reflect the unique combination in his writing of supreme literary art and extraordinary philosophical daring. Much Platonic scholarship focuses exclusively on the arguments without reference to the people arguing, and abstracts the theories stated from the dramatic context in which they are put forward. In reaction to this, whole books are written to insist that Plato composed dialogues, not treatises – but their authors are usually incompetent at philosophy. A curious alliance exists in this second camp between conservative followers of Leo Strauss and radical Postmodernists. Both are forever claiming that Plato subverts the conclusions reached by his characters, since a certain type of literary criticism shares with Straussian political thought a longing to trump philosophy and dethrone it from its traditional position as the most general form of reflection on human life and the world around us.

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