Polemarchus, Thrasymachus, Glaucon and Socrates:

Conflicting Perspectives in Plato's Republic I and II

Revised October 11, 2002
This web page was originally prepared for use in an Introduction to Philosophy Course that spent up to five weeks on Plato's Republic. It may also be of use to students who are reading parts of the Republic in other contexts.

Citations from the Republic are based upon the Grube/Reeve translation (Hackett Publishing Company, 1992).

Another translation is available online. See The Republic by Plato.

1. Polemarchus
2. Thrasymachus
3. Glaucon
4. Socrates


Key Concepts: Friends and Enemies, Doing Good and Harming, Believing to be... v. Being...

Basic ideas: 332a-332b, 334e (State in sentence form.)

Polemarchus' view is a common view illustrated by a lot of human conduct, as well as many of the actions of the gods and heroes in Greek mythology. It involves the notion of reciprocity or "pay back." It may not be your idea of justice (it's not Plato's either), but it is not mere self-interestedness. We see illustrated it often, and we've seen it illustrated recently, in political life and international affairs.

To elaborate: The view that Polemarchus supports is sometimes called "tit for tat" or, in negative form, "An eye for an eye, a life for a life." If party A does a favor for party B, then party B ought to return the favor. If party A does something to injure party B, then party B ought to injure party A in return. We see this on a small scale in everyday life--in the petty quarrels between family members, neighborhood gangs, etc.

We see it in much of what happens in the social and political arena. Certain individuals or groups may believe that they have been injured by other individuals or groups, e.g., the poor and laid off by the rich and the corporations who formerly employed them. So they may favor lawsuits or tax policies that would reduce the wealth or power of their enemies. The rich in turn may support policies that reduce the political clout of the poor and working class elements--for example, make it more difficult for people to register to vote, or allow unlimited campaign contributions to politicians (knowing well that the poor and working class cannot compete with the rich and the corporations when it comes to bidding for the attention of politicians).

We see it especially in international politics. During the Cold War (about 1947-1990), the U.S. supported a number of vicious dictatorships (the government of South Vietnam whose "defense" by the U.S. produced the Vietnam War, the Shah of Iran whose overthrow produced a regime fundamentally hostile to the United States, to mention two of many examples). The U.S. did this because these dictatorships announced that they stood with the U.S. against the Soviet Union, its major opponent during this period. (The Soviet Union tended to behave in a similar way when it supported the Idi Amin regime in Uganda.)

We see it in the way the U.S. responded in the 1990's to the bombings of U.S. embassies in eastern Africa. The U.S. struck violently against a factory in Sudan and a camp in Afghanistan supposedly associated with those responsible for the bombings in eastern Africa. Even more recently, persons or groups who identify with the (mostly Muslim) victims of the U.S. "counter-strike" have answered with more violence.

Polemarchus would have been familiar with this sort of thing from family rivalries in Greek politics, from the history of relationships between the Greek city states, and between Greeks and non-Greek powers (such as the Persians). He would have been familiar with this sort of thing from the stories told by Homer about the Greek gods and heroes. The goddess Aphrodite supported the Trojans during the war between them and the Greeks because the Trojan prince Paris had once awarded Aphrodite the prize in a beauty contest of which he was judge. The goddesses Hera and Athena supported the Greeks against the Trojans because Paris had selected Aphrodite instead of one of them. In the Odyssey, the Greek hero Odysseus is almost drowned and is delayed ten years in getting home across the Mediterranean Sea because he did something to anger the sea god Poseidon.

What are some of the dangers associated with this approach to right and wrong? Does it involve revenge? Can it lead to a "war of each against all"? A "cycle of violence"? Is that good for human well-being? For social order? For civilization?

Judaeo-Christian parallels

In the context of ancient Hebrew culture, the Old Testament advocates "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life." In that context, it is not advocating revenge on the individual or small-group scale. It is advocating that the society (we would say the government) carry out punishment in proportion to the crime. To some extent, this is still a popular theory of punishment in our own society.

In the New Testament (first century or so AD), Jesus is portrayed as advocating an different ethic, the love (or directed kindness) ethic: Love thy neighbor as thyself; turn the other cheek. This is combined with the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Notice that the Golden Rule does not say: Do unto others as they have done (or are likely to do) unto you.

How is Socrates' opposition to Polemarchus similar to the criticism you might expect friends of the love ethic to make of the Old Testament notion of "an eye for an eye"?


Key Concepts: rulers and ruled; the laws; who benefits; who doesn't; the stronger party (the rulers or the ruled?); the relation of happiness (or unhappiness) to being just (or being unjust).

Key Passages: 338d4-339a, 343b-344c (What are his main ideas? State in sentence form.)

State T's interpretation of the relation between the shepherd and the sheep. (Keep in mind that he opposes Socrates' interpretation (given at 345c5-e2) and that all this is related to the ideal relation between ruler and ruled.)

Readers often get confused by Thrasymachus because they decide too quickly that his initial statement about justice (338c: "justice is nothing other than the advantage of the stronger") is his definition of justice. It's not. It's a conclusion about justice which he gets by combining his real definition of justice with other things that he believes. 338c means: If the ruled section of society is just, that's to the advantage of the stronger (i.e., the rulers).

Thrasymachus' real definition of justice is slipped in (so quickly you might miss it) at 343c3: "Justice is the good of another." The phrase "respecting or serving" needs to be inserted before the words "the good..." Another what? (Person? Section of society? For Thrasymachus there are two main sections of every society.)

If this is T's definition of justice, are the rulers just? Who does T admire more, the rulers or the ruled? Does T admire people who are just, or those who are unjust?

Elaboration of Thrasymachus' Political Sociology: Thrasymachus sees all societies as divided into ruling and ruled groups. He was familiar with three kinds of regime. (All three were represented in Greece at the time Plato's Republic was composed.) In a tyranny, one man ruled over everybody else. In an oligarchy, the rich families (normally, a small minority of the population) rule over everybody else.

In a democracy, however, it is not a minority of citizens that rules but the majority: that's because a democracy tends to support the principle of equality in political participation. Both oligarchies and democracies tend to be divided on rich-poor lines, with greater numbers being poor. As a result, the poor majority are sometimes thought to rule, at least collectively, in democracies.

In fact, even in a Greek democracy only the men could vote; even citizen women could not; there were slaves and non-citizens who could not vote either. Like the other characters in this part of the Republic Thrasymachus ignores them. He seems to assume that they are not important politically. (Later, in Book v, Socrates will include women in the ruling group of his model state.)

Thrasymachus recognizes, then, that there are at least three possible regimes. But in all of them one group rules, and the rest are ruled. Whoever the ruling group is, according to Thrasymachus, it tends to behave in the same essential way. It makes (and effectively enforces) rules in its own interest.

The strong

Make the rules

Serve themselves (only) Are unjustAre happy
The weakFollow the rulesServe the interests of othersAre just Are miserable

GLAUCON (at the beginning of Book II).

Glaucon says he is defending what "most people" believe. For sake of simplicity, however, let us call this Glaucon's view.

Key Concepts: Naturally good (the best), naturally bad (the worst), a mean (middle point, i.e., compromise), justice as an agreement, doing justice unwillingly

Key Passage: 358e-359c7 State Glaucon's view in several sentences.

The material immediately preceding, about three kinds of good, and what kind of good most people think justice is, is also important. (357b-358a)

The story of the Ring of Gyges, which comes after 359c (359c8-360d), is meant to reinforce or illustrate Glaucon's view.


Socrates, who is more or less Plato's mouthpiece in the Republic, does not set forth his entire view in Book I or the beginning of Book II. Much of what he says is designed to show the others that their views lead to contradictions and so need to be revised. Often in Book I he is expressing ideas that seem to result from what the other speaker says. Socrates does not necessarily agree with these ideas.

But some positive aspects of Socrates' (Plato's) views tend to pop up here and there:

335b-e4 (where Socrates convinces Polemarchus that part of Polemarchus' view of justice is wrong).

Note: The key to Socrates' argument against Polemarchus is the assumption that justice is like a craft or art (in Greek this is techne). A craft operates by remedying a deficiency or a lack in something. But this is to do something beneficial to what the craft operates on or for.

341c3-342e9 (where Socrates tries to show what is common to the functions of the various crafts and, assuming that ruling itself is a craft, draws a conclusion that clashes with Thrasymachus' view of the true ruler)

Note: Whereas in his critique of Polemarchus' view, Socrates uses the assumption (accepted by Polemarchus) that justice is significantly like an art or craft, here, in the critique of Thrasymachus, Socrates gets Thrasymachus to admit that ruling itself is an art or craft. The true ruler will exercise this craft.

345c5-e2 (where Socrates gives his view about the shepherd/sheep and ruler/ruled relationship).

There is more on Socrates' view of the crafts at 345e-347a.

Socrates argues (from about 352d-354a) for a connection between justice and happiness that is the exact opposite of Thrasymachus' view. The conclusions are at 354a1-8.

The argument here was probably not persuasive even for Plato's audience in ancient times. What is important for us is to understand the conclusions on which Socrates is insisting. Glaucon's view is essentially a challenge to Socrates' idea concerning the link between happiness and justice. Socrates' response to Glaucon (filling most of books ii-iv) is, in effect, a response to Thrasymachus also.

At the beginning of book II, Glaucon distinguishes three kinds of good (357b-c), and Socrates admits that in his view justice is an example of the "finest" kind. (357d4-358a2)

State Socrates' views in the early part of the Republic in several complete sentences.