Justice is Not the Interest of the Stronger

Socrates I think that Periander, Perdiccas, Xerxes or Ismenias the Theban, or some other rich, proud, and mighty man, was the first to say that justice is “doing good to your friends and harm to your enemies.” But if this definition of justice also breaks down, what other can be offered?

Several times, Thrasymachus tried to get the argument into his own hands. He had been put down by the rest of the company. They wanted to hear the end.

But when Polemarchus and I had done speaking, he could no longer hold his peace. He came at us like a wild beast, seeking to devour us. We were quite panic-stricken at the sight of him.


If you want really to know what justice is, you should not only ask but answer. You should not seek honour to yourself from the refutation of an opponent.

Many ask but cannot answer. I will not let you say that justice is duty, advantage, profit, gain, or interest. This nonsense will not do for me. I must have clearness and accuracy.


(I was panic-stricken) Thrasymachus, don’t be hard upon us. Polemarchus and I might have had a little mistake in the argument. But that error was not intentional. If we were looking for gold, you would not imagine that we were ‘knocking under to one another’ and so losing our chance of finding it.

Justice is more precious than gold. When we look for justice, we are not doing it weakly but are doing our best. But we still fail to find it. That’s why you people who know all things should pity us and not be angry with us.

Thrasymachus You ask but you refuse to answer. You try irony or any other shuffle to avoid answering.

You are a philosopher.

If you ask a person what numbers make up 12 and prohibit him from answering 6 x 2, 3 x 4, 6 x 2, or 4 x 3, saying ’that sort of nonsense will not do for me’, then obviously no one can answer you.

But if he responded by asking: “What do you mean? If one of these numbers were the true answer, then some other number is the right one.” How would you answer him?

Thrasymachus The answer must make up 12!
Socrates Even if they are not 12, but only appear 12 to the person asked, he should be able to say what he thinks.
Thrasymachus But what if I give you a better answer about justice, and what should we do to you?
Socrates Then I will learn from you and even pay you money for it.
Glaucon But you have, Socrates. Thrasymachus does not need be anxious about money because we will all contribute to pay for Socrates.
Thrasymachus Yes, and then Socrates will do as he always does—refuse to answer himself and then destroy the answer of someone else.
Socrates How can anyone who knows nothing make an answer? How can anyone who has faint ideas utter them, when a man of authority tells him not to? The proper responder should profess to know and can tell what he knows. Will you then kindly answer, for the instruction of myself and the others?

(Glaucon and the rest of the company joined in my request. Thrasymachus thought that he had an excellent answer, and would distinguish himself.)

Thrasymachus Behold the wisdom of Socrates. He refuses to teach himself, and goes about learning of others, to whom he never even says ‘Thank you’.
Socrates I do learn from others, but I am always grateful. I do not have money, so I pay in praise, which is all I have.
Thrasymachus Justice is nothing else than the interest of the stronger. Why don’t you praise me? But of course you won’t.
Socrates But you cannot mean to say that. Polydamas, the pancratiast, is stronger than us. He finds the beef conducive to his bodily strength. Does that mean that beef is equally good and just for us who are weaker?

That’s abominable of you, Socrates. You take the words in the sense which is most damaging to the argument. The forms of government differ. There are tyrannies, democracies, and aristocracies.

The government is the ruling power in each state. The different forms of government make laws democratical, aristocratical, tyrannical, with a view to their several interests. These laws, which are made by them for their own interests, are the justice which they deliver to their subjects.

Those who transgress them they punish as a breaker of the law, and as the unjust. That is what I mean in justice being the interest of all governments and the government having that power. Thus, everywhere there is one principle of justice, which is the interest of the stronger.


In defining justice you have yourself used the word ‘interest’ which you forbade me to use. We both agreed that justice is interest of some sort, but you go on to say ‘of the stronger’. I am not so sure of this.

But the rulers sometimes make mistakes in making laws which then make those laws contrary to their interest. If justice is the citizens obeying the laws, then justice is not only obedience to the interest of the stronger, but the reverse.

If rulers make mistakes, then obeying those mistakes is also justice. Then you must also acknowledge that justice is not for the interest of the stronger, when the rulers unintentionally command things which injure themselves.

Polemarchus Thrasymachus acknowledges that justice sometimes is not for the interest of the rulers.
Socrates Yes Polemarchus. So it follows that justice can be the injury of the stronger just as it is the interest of the stronger.
Cleitophon Justice is what the strong think is in their interest.
Polemarchus Those were not his words. Thrasymachus, did not mean justice to be what the strong thought was their interest.
Thrasymachus A person that is mistaken is not called “strong”.
Socrates Yes, this is consistent with you saying that the ruler was not infallible, but might be sometimes mistaken.
Thrasymachus You argue like an informer, Socrates.

Do you mean that:

  • a person who is mistaken about the sick is a physician?
  • or that he who errs in arithmetic or grammar is an arithmetician or grammarian?

We say that the physician, arithmetician, or grammarian has made a mistake, but this is only a way of speaking. This is because neither the physician, arithmetician, or grammarian ever makes a mistake. If they made mistakes then they would not be called as such. Likewise, no sage or ruler errs when he is supposed to give wisdom or to rule, even if he commonly errs.

Thrasymachus I have used the common mode of speaking. To be perfectly accurate, since you are such a lover of accuracy, we should say that the ruler is unerring. But to be unerring, he must always command that which is for his own interest. Therefore, justice is the interest of the stronger.
Socrates But in what sense do you speak of a ruler whose interest is superior? Is he a ruler in the popular, or in the strict sense?
Thrasymachus He is a ruler in the strictest of all senses. Now cheat and play the informer if you can. I ask no quarter at your hands, but you never will be able to.
Socrates Is the physician, taken in that strict sense of which you are speaking, a healer of the sick or a maker of money?
Thrasymachus I am now speaking of the true physician. A healer of the sick.

Justice is the Interest of the Subjects

Socrates So if follows that the true pilot is a captain of sailors and not a mere sailor. His title as ‘pilot’ has nothing to do with sailing, but signifies his skill and of his authority over the sailors. It means that every art has an interest and the interest of any art is the perfection of that art and nothing else.
Thrasymachus Very true.

The body is not self-sufficing. It has needs. A body may get sick and need the cure from medicine. Medicine addresses this need as its intention and interest. But medicine or any other art has defects just as the eye may be deficient in sight. It therefore needs another art to address this defect.

Does every art then need another art, with its own interest and intention, without end? Or do they have no defects and do not need correction?

Thrasymachus They have only to consider the interest of their subject-matter. For every art remains pure and faultless while remaining true, while perfect and unimpaired.

So medicine does not consider the interest of medicine, but the interest of the body. The art of horsemanship does not consider the interests of the art of horsemanship, but the interests of the horse. The arts do not care for themselves, for they have no needs. They care only for that which is the subject of their art.

But surely, Thrasymachus, the arts are the superiors and rulers of their own subjects?

To this he assented with a good deal of reluctance.

Socrates Then, science or art only considers the interest of the stronger in order to consider the interest of the subject and weaker?

He tried to contest this proposition also, but finally acquiesced.

Socrates Then, no physician considers his own good in what he prescribes, but the good of his patient. The true physician is also a ruler having the human body as a subject, and is not a mere money-maker. The pilot likewise is a ruler of sailors and not a mere sailor. Such a pilot and ruler will provide and prescribe for the interest of the sailor who is under him, and not for his own or the ruler’s interest?

He gave a reluctant ‘Yes.’

Socrates Then there is no ruler who considers what is for his own interest. All rulers always consider what is for the interest of his subjects.

Everyone saw that the definition of justice had been completely upset.


Socrates, do you have a nurse? She leaves you to snivel and never wipes your nose. She has not even taught you to know the shepherd from the sheep.

You imagine that the shepherd fattens his sheep with a view to their own good and not for himself. You imagine that the rulers of states:

  • never think of their subjects as sheep, and
  • do not study their own advantage day and night.

You are totally wrong in your ideas about the just and unjust. You do not even know that justice and the just are in reality another’s good. Justice is the interest of the strong, and the loss of the weak. Injustice is the opposite. The unjust is lord over the truly simple and just. The ruler is the stronger. His subjects do what is for his interest, which is very far from being their own. Most foolish Socrates, the just is always a loser in comparison with the unjust.

  1. In private contracts= wherever the unjust is the partner of the just, the unjust man has always more than the just after the partnership is dissolved.
  2. In their dealings with the State= when there is an income-tax, the just man will pay more and the unjust less on the same income. The just gains nothing and the unjust gains much.
  3. When they take an office= there is the just man suffering losses but getting nothing out of the public because he is just. Moreover, he is hated by his friends for refusing to serve them in unlawful ways. But all this is reversed in the case of the unjust man.

The advantage of the unjust is most apparent on a large scale. This injustice has the highest form when the criminal is the happiest of men. Those who refuse to do injustice are the most miserable. Tyrants steal not little by little but wholesale.

People who do small wrong acts, such as burglars and swindlers, are punished and incur great disgrace. But when a man steals all the people’s money and has made slaves of them, he is called happy and blessed by the people and by those who hear of his injustice. This is because if people censure injustice, they fear that they may be the victims of it and not because they shrink from committing it.

Thus, injustice, when on a sufficient scale, has more strength and freedom and mastery than justice. That is why justice is the interest of the stronger, whereas injustice is a man’s own profit and interest.

Thrasymachus spoke like a bath-man, deluged our ears with his words, then went away. But the company would not let him. They insisted that he remain and defend his position.

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