Thrasymachus is the most intelligent and interesting of Socrates' interlocutors in Book I of Plato's Republic. At the point at which he begins to get involved in the conversation, Socrates has recently demolished several guesses about what 'justice' means, made by other speakers (Polymarchus and Cephalus, I think)--in the process making them seem rather foolish. However, because he was not himself suggesting what he believed justice to be (since he claimed to know nothing except the miniscule extent of his otherwise nonexistent knowledge--a claim which was probably sincere, since he was himself able to effectively criticise so many positions--it might make sense for him to do the same to any position he considered taking), Socrates was not subject to the same sort of criticism by others. This method of argument can seem unfair, and maddening to a fallen idealist.

Rather than attempting to approximate the ideas shared by all about justice, Thrasymachus decided to go entirely the other way, and define justice in a completely pragmatic manner, as, "the interest of the stronger." To say that another way, whatever is best for those who have the power to enforce their will is what is just. Furthermore, he attacks Socrates for arguing in the manner he does, attempting to bait him into producing a guess which would, itself, be subject to criticism. I think his idea here is that he'd like to see Socrates, who was known for making others look stupid but never for allowing them the opportunity to do the same to him, get a taste of his own rather obnoxious medicine.

Thrasymachus is a young and intelligent man, and I think his actions suggest that he was quite disappointed with the world. As is often the case with the young (to make a foolishly grand generalization), his concept of the way things ought to be was brittle; seeing justice fail in many situations likely caused him to feel betrayed, and lose faith with the notion completely. This attempt to retain consistency, rather than embracing the contradictions and hypocrisy inherent in the behavior of humans in society, seems to have led him to abandon rules as unrelated to real life. Imagine a little boy who believed in Santa Claus learning that he does not exist, and, as a reaction to his disappointment and the amusement (that must be harsh--realizing that a treasured belief is false, and having your peers and even authority figures smile indulgently or laugh at you rather than sympathize) he faces, attempting to divest himself of all childish notions. Such a person will still act in ways that are strongly influenced by these black-and-white concepts, and I think that's why Thrasymachus has such a big problem with the perceived unfairness of the way Socrates treats the people he questions. However, he will also deny any expectation that these ideals affect the real world in any way, or that they are relevant to his life.

Somewhat sadly, Thrasymachus' account of justice is also torn down by Socrates, though it is somewhat better defended than the ideas which came before it. By the end of their conversation, Thrasymachus has completely lost patience, but is still a good-hearted enough person that, rather than acting violently or aggressively, he finally gives up and remains entirely passive. His last few responses to the questions of Socrates, rather than being honest attempts to defend his stated ideas, are simply his way of getting Socrates to make his point so the dialogue can end. "Of course," "So be it," "Certainly," and, "That is what your argument proves," are the last few responses made by Thrasymachus in the discussion (in reverse order).

I guess I just like the guy. Not that I don't like Socrates, too, of course, but Thrasymachus has a sort of underdog charisma, combined with an innocence of mind that is still dealing with the realities of the world.

I should also mention, I used MIT's online classics when looking a few things up for this node, and the character of Thrasymachus was brought to my attention by a former TA of mine and very bright guy, Kelly Trogdon.

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