Long-haired preachers come out every night,
Try to tell you what's wrong and what's right;
But when asked how 'bout something to eat
They will answer with voices so sweet:
You will eat, bye and bye,
In that glorious land above the sky;
Work and pray live on hay,
You'll get pie in the sky when you die.
I want to expose Socrates' argument for the meaning of "knowledge," "value," and "justice," among others, for the bad bit of reasoning that it is. He tells us that knowledge and values, and the specific case of justice, are a matter of logical argument. I claim that his primary rival on this claim is not Thrasymachus, or other characters who support the claim that "...justice is nothing but the advantage of the stronger." Instead, his main rival is the claim that knowledge and values, along with justice, are a matter of both rhetorical and logical argument. The major fact to acknowledge about the definition that Socrates offers us is that on his view knowledge and values, and justice amongst others, would be impossible. The question arising from recognizing that fact is why Socrates would have pushed such a claim. I have offered the explanation that unlike my hero, the Teacher of Righteousness, who believes the life of words is important for getting done our goals, Socrates believes that the sword is more powerful than words and better able to assure security and prosperity. Therefore, Socrates offers his argument as a way of destroying the life of words so that life can then be based on the exercise of lethal force.
I suspect that most philosophers will resist my characterization of Socrates. They will think that I have perversely misread him by ignoring many obvious facts, not the least being that Socrates pushes to understand what justice is and spends all of the Republic giving an account of how we can know justice and thereby make it an active part in our lives. So, Socrates can be seen to overtly object to Thrasymachus's claim about justice being just what the strong decide, and proceed to discuss the fact that there is justice and what it might be like,
I can in no way agree with Thrasymachus that the just is the advantage of the stronger. But this we shall consider again at another time. What Thrasymachus now says is in my opinion a far bigger thing - he asserts that the life of the unjust man is stronger than that of the just man. (347d)
The objection would be, I presume, that it makes no sense to claim that Socrates really offers us a view that would make justice, et al, impossible because, I claim, he thought it inadequately provided for our survival and prosperity, when he is here seen to dispute with Thrasymachus and others about what justice, in fact is, and goes on to give an account of it.
Furthermore, in the account that I want to pin on Socrates, it would seem the powerful would rule not by words but by violence, stealth, and deceit, in the same way that's seemingly advocated by Thrasymachus, which Socrates tells us he rejects. I want to quote Kelly L. Ross, who describes this view,
...Robbery and violence are normally called "injustice," but when they are practiced wholesale by rulers, they are justice, i.e., the interest of the stronger, the rulers. Thus, when we consider ordinary citizens, "the just man comes off worse than an unjust man everywhere" (343d). Since the rulers do not obey the principles they impose on the citizens, they are in those terms "unjust." So Thrasymachus says, "You will understand it most easily, if you come to the most perfect injustice, which makes the unjust man most happy, and makes those who are wronged and will not be unjust most miserable" (344a).
"...Tyranny is not a matter of minor theft and violence, but of wholesale plunder, sacred and profane, private or public. If you are caught committing such crimes in detail you are punished and disgraced; sacrilege, kidnapping, burglary, fraud, theft are the names we give to such petty forms of wrongdoing. But when a man succeeds in robbing the whole body of citizens and reducing them to slavery, they forget these ugly names and call him happy and fortunate, as do all others who hear of his unmitigated wrongdoing. (Republic 344a-c, H.D.P. Lee translation, Penguin Books, 1955, p.73)"
Thus to Thrasymachus the tyrant is happy and fortunate, and he is so precisely because he breaks the rules ("justice") that he imposes on the weak. What the weak call "justice" is really slavery, and no one truly strong would act that way. Such sentiments are familiar in modern philosophy from the still popular and influential German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900).
In Book 1 Socrates preceeds to refute Thrasymachus and does so.
The objection I suspect could be coming my way will point out that Thrasymachus pretty much sums up the view I'm trying to pin on Socrates himself, and Socrates refutes it. Therefore, there is no basis for my reading of the Socratic position.
In response to such an objection I want to be clear that I need not back down from the claims that I am making about Socrates. I am saying he needs to make two points if he desires to establish his account of knowledge, value, and justice. He needs to establish that these subjects are to be understood as a matter of either rhetorical arguments or logical arguments. One or the other. The second point he must make is that they are a matter of logical arguments alone.
When Thrasymachus describes the rule of the strong, as described by Prof. Ross, he supposedly does it on behalf of rhetoric, as though it was an insight derived from rhetoric. He describes a view that in many ways would be rejected by Socrates' audience in Athens, and by people who have read these dialogues in the two thousand plus years since. Prof. Ross tells us Socrates refutes this view. The question I raise here is what exactly Socrates rejects in Thrasymachus's view? Does he reject the conclusion, for example, that "...justice is nothing but the advantage of the strong?" Does he reject the premises for the conclusion, that rhetoric tells us truths about the nature of justice? Or, does he reject something about the argument that presumably makes true premises give a true conclusion?
I suspect that a defender of the traditional reading of what Socrates was doing would claim that he was not only disputing whether rhetoric could give us any truths about justice, but also the truths that Thrasymachus supposedly drew from rhetoric, i.e., that justice is about the strong. I claim, in defense of my position, that Socrates had to agree to Thrasymachus's conclusion, and his rejection of Thrasymachus's view was based on his rejection of rhetoric as the basis for justice.
So, the fact that Thrasymachus is made to defend the rule of the strong in such a way Socrates audience would find him objectionable, makes it possible for Socrates to establish his claim that knowledge, values, and justice are not a matter of rhetorical argument, but only a matter of logical argument. The point he has made, however, does not go toward establishing his more important point, on my view, that justice, as well as knowledge and value, in general, are a matter of either rhetoric or logic instead of being a matter of both.
We can see Socrates does not establish this first claim by pointing out what arguments he uses against Thrasymachus. When Thrasymachus claims that "...justice is nothing but the advantage of the stronger," Socrates replies that if this were the case, then the many weak people could get together, and through group effort, they could defeat the plans of the strong, and then be themselves the strong. Supposedly, this objection quiets Thrasymachus.
Notice, however, that Socrates does not complain that justice could not be something that allows the abuses of people that Thrasymachus claimed is prevailent on his view. The suggestion that justice involves slavery, murder and theft, on Thrasymachus's view, does not seem to bother Socrates. Rather, the more important problem seems to be consistency, where what is said to be just would involve the ox of justice goring different folks depending on who controlled the beast at the moment. The problem with Thrasymachus's view, so far, is that it makes justice too much a matter of who's pulling the strings, and the fact that he wants to make this a too publicly exposed process.
In other words, Socrates is not concerned about the end result of his argument, so long as he gets his way and his audience agrees that knowledge, values, and justice are a matter of logical argument. He is really concerned that we see that justice, et al, could not be a matter of rhetorical argument, whatever that might be.
I think that it is interesting to note that Thrasymachus should not have been surprised that on his view, if the weak got together and overpowered the rulers who had been the strong, then the group of the weak would have become the strong. The fact that the dictates of justice and who gets gored would thereby change is one of the implications of Thrasymachus's view. This fact would only be troubling to an advocate of the view that justice was a matter of logical arguments alone, where dissent over the dictates of the powerful is impossible and a rebellion motivated by suffering is made to be unreasonable.
So, to return to the objection facing my view, I am supposed to have ignored the fact that Socrates rejects the Thrasymachean view that "... justice is nothing but the advantage of the stronger." I should not be able to get my view out of the barn because Socrates explicitly rejects the view I have intended to pin on him. I have responded by arguing that Socrates does not reject the view that I have wanted to pin on him, he has only rejected the argument in support of that view, the one that the rhetorician Thrasymachus provided. I argued, on the contrary, there is evidence that Socrates had to be simpathetic to the rule of the strong. It was this respect for lethal force that's behind his adoption of the view that justice, et al, are a matter of either rhetorical or logical argument.
The other part of the objection that I have imagined coming my way is the claim that Socrates couldn't possibly advocate a view that makes knowledge, values, and justice impossible. He couldn't do such a thing because we see him disputing with Thrasymachus over whether, for example, a life of injustice is better or worse, stronger or weaker, than one of justice. His dispute over how we are to understand what justice can do for us is supposed to show that he cannot believe justice is impossible.
I can only reply that the view he adopts, that justice, et al, is a matter of logical argument, as a result of displaying the many faults of rhetoric, does indeed imply that justice, as well as knowledge and values, are impossible. The fact that he goes on to dispute Thrasymachus and others about what justice can do for people, or how we might understand it, does not contradict this surprising but intended implication of Socrates' view. The only way what he says about justice could contradict the implications of his account of justice, knowledge, and value would be for him to mount some kind of challenge to the argument of his own view. That is, once Socrates established his account of justice, et al, in smashing up Thrasymachus, he spent no effort whatsoever reconsidering it in light of the implications his audience might have drawn after more complete consideration. So, he did not challenge the claim that knowledge and values are a matter of either rhetorical or logical argument. He did not dispute his claim that knowledge and values were not a matter of rhetorical argument, but only logical argument.
The things he said about justice, et al, in disputing Thrasymachus's claims about the relative worth of justice, whether the just are happier than the unjust, and so forth, are therefore based on considerations other than his argument for what we mean by knowledge, value, justice, et al.
Don Levi tells us the difference between an argument and an explanation in his book Critical Thinking and Logic. He first tells us about arguments,
An argument is given when an arguer takes a position or stand on an issue and offers support or backing for it."
"An argument is given in connection with a controversy, but the controversy is not the argument. We are talking about an argument given for or against a position in the controversy: to be giving an argument, arguers must be doing more than merely taking a stand; they must offer support for it.
Prof. Levi then contrasts giving an argument with giving an explanation. He thinks that the comparison will help his reader understand better what he's trying to teach them about arguments. He says,
When you consider what is at issue, you can see what the difference is between, for example, an explanation and an argument.
"I can tell you why your car is overheating. There is a leak in your radiator."
When the mechanic tells me this she is not arguing for the claim that the car is overheating. I brought the car to her because it was overheating; there is no controversy over that. When she explains to me why it is overheating, she is not giving an argument to establish that it is overheating. There may be a conflict over her explanation - that is something we can argue about. But then an argument needs to be given for or against that explanation. However, the explanation itself is not an argument. The mechanic is not arguing that it is overheating, she is explaining why it is. (Levi, Critical Thinking and Logic, page 27)
I have appealed to Prof. Levi's explanation of the difference between argument and explanation because I think it's important in order to understand the point I want to make about Socrates. As a result of the argument Socrates had with Thrasymachus where he rejects rhetoric and adopts logical argument as the basis of justice, Socrates settles on his account of these things. There is then for him no more disputing that knowledge and values, as well as justice, are a matter of logical argument. On my account, a question is raised. On the one hand Socrates has just established that knowledge and values, and justice as well are to be understood in such a way that they are impossible. On the other, his audience will find such an implication contradicting their own understanding that they know and value all kinds of things and find that justice plays a huge role in their lives. A modern audience might be sympathetic with Athenians if they imagine Descartes telling them that despite what the normal person thinks, the external world does not exist, or G.E. Moore telling them that it takes a philosopher's best efforts to prove that he, or anyone else, has a hand on the end of one's uninjured arm.
The account that is then needed is not an argument to establish what knowledge, value, or justice means. The definitions are not then at issue. Rather, an explanation is needed to explain something else, like how these words could mean what they do and yet we use them the way we do and have lives where they play a part. Furthermore, one may find that the explanation Socrates gives isn't quite right, it may be faulty or incomplete. Work could be done on these issues and arguments could be made on behalf of certain changes or improvements. But, we are then disputing only the explanation of , for example, how we can have lives involving justice on the one hand but adopt the account of justice provided by Socrates that makes it impossible on the other.
I can think of at least three traditional explanations for this contradiction. We can look at the one that Plato elaborates involving the Allegory of the Cave and the theory of Forms. So, on this explanation, it only seems that we have lives where we use words, make decisions, get work done, have people we care about, and so on. The fact is our lives are a matter of shadows and echoes where nothing is related to reality. Socrates was right in his definition of knowledge and values being a matter of logical argument, and we were wrong to think there was a real contradiction between what he claimed and what our lives told us.
There's an account given by Aristotle where not only Socrates was correct in his account of knowledge and values as being a matter of logical argument, but we are right in thinking our lives are about real things going on in a real world. The solution is then to deny that Socrates' account of knowledge and values as a matter of logical argument actually has the grim implications I claim for it. So, we do have knowledge, it is a matter of logic, and our inability to find a refutation of the sceptic's doubts is only a matter of our lackings and fuzzy thoughts. Philosophical scepticism is like digestion, where at one time it might have been a puzzle, but the puzzle of it would not have justified concluding that digestion doesn't take place. So, the puzzle of knowledge and values does not justify our concluding that we just do not have it.
The third explanation involves adopting the Socratic account of knowledge and values, but realizing the suffering that is caused by relying on logical arguments. After all, knowledge, values, and language are impossible, argument is futile, and a life where you can't tell the difference between what you care about and what you do not is not worth living. Follow Gautama who argued that since life is suffering in this way, one should give up on the attachments of logical arguments.
There is a fourth way which argues that these three provide explanations of how we should understand the conflict between Socrtaes' account of knowledge and values as a matter of logical argument on the one hand, and our insistance that we have lives that stand in conflict to Socrates' claim on the other. This fourth position just says that the other three beg the question whether Socrates establishes his contention that knowledge and values, as well as justice, et al, are a matter of either rhetorical or logical argument. The advocate of this view, the Teacher, will argue that Socrates' position was never established. The explanations that are offered to reconcile Socrates and our lives are based on the lie that we have to take Socrates' account seriously.
We don't have to take it seriously because it's a bad argument.
Now, the preachers come out and harangue the poor about the way the poor live. When the poor try to get the preachers to help them with something to eat, the preachers refuse to examine the system that creates so much suffering. Instead of challenging Capitalism, ...or Socrates, on my account, they choose to appeal to a promise made that something will be done eventually by somebody - after the poor die. The appeal Socrates makes about how the just man is happier than the unjust man, and so it is better to be just than unjust, is based on the same kind of story provided by the preachers to the slaves.
You will eat, bye and bye,
When you've learned how to cook and to fry
Chop some wood, 'twill do you good,
And you'll eat in the sweet bye and bye.