On virtue, the ethics of dialogue, and biography

It has been very insightfully noted in respect to the exchange between Socrates and Thrasymachus at the outset of Plato’s Republic that: Though Thrasymachus claims that this is offering a definition of justice, what he says is not really meant as a definition of justice as much as it is a delegitimization of justice.

This is a very keen observation. One way that Thrasymachus flouts the ethics of dialogue is by controverting the meanings of words and then refusing to take responsibility for the implications of his statements. We think of “justice” as a virtue almost by definition. But then Thrasymachus says injustice is a virtue and justice is a vice. Symbolically, somebody who worships the Devil is doing the same thing as Thrasymachus, since by definition, the Devil is not a being that we should worship. If he were a being who deserved our worship, he would not be the Devil. Similarly, if justice were a vice, it would not be justice but something else.

Part of the difficulty comes from an artificial duality between self interest and social interest. They are not exclusive except in abstraction. Thrasymachus, like so many of us, fails to really understand how in reality, each of us also belongs to the body of our community. As a result, he appears as an advocate of “cancer-consciousness,” which is to say, “maximize my own advantage without heed to the larger order and ecology.” It deserves emphasis that it is just this larger ecology that provides the opportunity and resources for a person to maximize his own advantage in the first place.

Perhaps most importantly, Thrasymachus also fails to comprehend that getting what we want is often not the best thing even for us. In fact, we should be happy to be prevented from getting what we want until we have instructed ourselves to want the right things. The solution, it seems, is to prefer wisdom over pleasure. As Solomon, “the Wise King” writes:

…and the spirit of wisdom (Sophia, in Greek) came to me.
I preferred her before sceptres and thrones, and esteemed riches nothing in comparison of her.
Neither compared I unto her any precious stone, because all gold in respect of her is as a little sand, and silver shall be counted as clay before her.
I loved her above health and beauty, and chose to have her instead of light: for the light that cometh from her never goeth out.
All good things together came to me with her, and innumerable riches in her hands.
And I rejoiced in them all, because wisdom goeth before them: and I knew not that she was the mother of them. (Wisdom of Solomon 7)

The converse of the same notion is that personal enrichment is not antithetical to the welfare of our community. In fact, it is in some way its sine qua non. What I mean is that the community benefits from individuals who have striven to cultivate and develop their talents. “The lily that adorns itself adorns the countryside,” as it were. The sky offers the sun, the clouds offer the rain. We offer the blossom of our individuality. This is a flower in time—a song—since an individual biography requires a lifetime to unfold.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Hesiod says:

    Very nice short reflection here Max. Very timely and appropriate too.


    Liked by 1 person

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