Durant 1926: The Ethical Problem (Plato)

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter I, Section 4 (The Ethical Problem) from the book THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY by WILL DURANT. The contents are from the 1933 reprint of this book by TIME INCORPORATED by arrangement with Simon and Schuster, Inc.

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.  Feedback on these comments is appreciated.

The heading below is linked to the original materials.


IV. The Ethical Problem 

The discussion takes place in the house of Cephalus, a wealthy aristocrat. In the group are Glaucon and Adeimantus, brothers of Plato; and Thrasymachus, a gruff and excitable Sophist. Socrates, who serves as the mouthpiece of Plato in the dialogue, asks Cephalus: 

“What do you consider to be the greatest blessing which you have reaped from wealth?” 

Cephalus answers that wealth is a blessing to him chiefly because it enables him to be generous and honest and just. Socrates, after his sly fashion, asks him just what he means by justice; and therewith lets loose the dogs of philosophic war. For nothing is so difficult as definition, nor anything so severe a test and exercise of mental clarity and skill. Socrates finds it a simple matter to destroy one after another the definitions offered him; until at last Thrasymachus, less patient than the rest, breaks out “with a roar”:

“What folly has possessed you, Socrates? And why do you others all drop down at one another’s feet in this silly way? I say that if you want to know what justice is, you should answer and not ask, and shouldn’t pride yourself on refuting others. … For there are many who can ask but cannot answer” (336). 

Socrates is not frightened; he continues to ask rather than answer; and after a minute of parry and thrust he provokes the unwary Thrasymachus to commit himself to a definition: 

Listen, then,” says the angry Sophist, “I proclaim that might is right, and justice is the interest of the stronger. … The different forms of government make laws, democratic, aristocratic, or autocratic, with a view to their respective interests; and these laws, so made by them to serve their interests, they deliver to their subjects as ‘justice,’ and punish as ‘unjust’ anyone who transgresses them. … I am speaking of injustice on a large scale; and my meaning will be most clearly seen in autocracy, which by fraud and force takes away the property of others, not retail but wholesale. Now when a man has taken away the money of the citizens and made slaves of them, then, instead of swindler and thief he is called happy and blessed by all. For injustice is censured because those who censure it are afraid of suffering, and not from any scruple they might have of doing injustice themselves” (338-44). 

Plato points out that the human nature is such that the strong has his way with the weak. This underlies the problem with justice.

This, of course, is the doctrine which our own day more or less correctly associates with the name of Nietzsche. “Verily I laughed many a time over the weaklings who thought themselves good because they had lame paws.” Stirner expressed the idea briefly when he said that “a handful of might is better than a bagful of right.” Perhaps nowhere in the history of philosophy is the doctrine better formulated than by Plato himself in another dialogue, Gorgias, (483 f), where the Sophist Callicles denounces morality as an invention of the weak to neutralize the strength of the strong. 

They distribute praise and censure with a view to their own interests; they say that dishonesty is shameful and unjust—meaning by dishonesty the desire to have more than their neighbors; for knowing their own inferiority, they would be only too glad to have equality. … But if there were a man who had sufficient force (enter the Superman), he would shake off and break through and escape from all this; he would trample under foot all our formulas and spells and charms, and all our laws, that sin against nature. … He who would truly live ought to allow his desires to wax to the uttermost; but when they have grown to their greatest he should have courage and intelligence to minister to them, and to satisfy all his longings. And this I affirm to be natural justice and nobility. But the many cannot do this; and therefore they blame such persons, because they are ashamed of their own inability, which they desire to conceal; and hence they call intemperance base. … They enslave the nobler natures, and they praise justice only because. they are cowards. 

This justice is a morality not for men but for foot-men (oude gar andros all’ andrapodou tinos) ; it is a slave-morality, not a hero-morality; the real virtues of a man are courage (andreia) and intelligence (phronesis).

Justice is approached with the idea that morality is an invention of the weak to neutralize the strength of the strong. This is a problem.

Perhaps this hard “immoralism” reflects the development of imperialism in the foreign policy of Athens, and its ruthless treatment of weaker states. “Your empire,” said Pericles in the oration which Thucydides invents for him, “is based on your own strength rather than the .good will of your subjects.” And the same historian reports the Athenian envoys coercing Melos into joining Athens in the war against Sparta: “You know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question for equals in power; the strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.” We have here the fundamental problem of ethics, the crux of the theory of moral conduct. What is justice?—shall we seek righteousness, or shall we seek power?—is it better to be good, or to be strong?

Plato asks—What is justice?—shall we seek righteousness, or shall we seek power?—is it better to be good, or to be strong?

How does Socrates—i.e., Plato—meet the challenge of this theory? At first he does not meet it at all. He points out that justice is a relation among individuals, depending on social organization; and that in consequence it can be studied better as part of the structure of a community than as a quality of personal conduct. If, he suggests, we can picture a just state, we shall be in a better position to describe a just individual. Plato excuses himself for this digression on the score that in testing a man’s vision we make him read first large type, then smaller; so, he argues, it is easier to analyze justice on a large scale than on the small scale of individual behavior. But we need not be deceived: in truth the Master is patching two books together, and uses the argument as a seam. He wishes not only to discuss the problems of personal morality, but the problems of social and political reconstruction as well. He has a Utopia up his sleeve, and is resolved to produce it. It is easy to forgive him, for the digression forms the core and value of his book. 

Plato wishes not only to discuss the problems of personal morality, but the problems of social and political reconstruction as well.


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  • Chris Thompson  On February 19, 2021 at 11:30 AM

    Hi Vinny,

    Good job on this! I love Socrates dogged determination to never answer but to reinterate the question, reminds me of you! LOL!

    My own definition of justice is one of fairness. The retrograde of “fairness,” being infinite, allows us an infinite amount of pleasure to argue what it is! Welcome once more to my Tautological Universe! We talk and talk and talk it to death, but do we move civilization along?

    The same as those before me, I see definitions for philosophical ideals, and then alternately, I see how humans’ situational ethics, egos, and “to the victor go the spoils” mentality come into play and wreck the ideals. Thousands of years pass while these arguments are made and yet our “news” cycles today are still full of examples of injustice.

    Idealists may think of justice definitions such as Thrasymachus’ and Nietzsche’s to be harsh and they are. They are as harsh as Mother Nature is harsh. To be fair, does fairness need to be harsh? I do not see them arguing precisely that. As you wrote, Plato observed that the strong have their way with the weak and that was an underlying problem to justice.

    If we looked to Star Trek’s Klingon Culture’s sense of justice, how would that compare? Vulcan Ambassador Sarek said in court, “Klingon justice is a unique point of view, Mr. President. Genesis was perfectly named- the creation of life, not death. The Klingons shed the first blood while attempting to possess its secrets.” Again, a possibly harsh point of view.

    Where would Will Durant, Socrates, and Thrasymachus place this attitude on mine on their scale of justice? I prefer to live in a world of peace and fairness, so I carry a weapon. As the old saw goes, “The Declaration of Independence did not ‘create all men equal,’ Colonel Colt did.”

    I have read and heard it said that on the day when men can trust one another, there will be peace on earth. If Socrates were here, would he ask, “What do you mean by peace?”


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