Thrasymachus and Machiavelli on Politics
Politics has been the most favorite object of debate since the ancient period. As an evidence of such, the great Greek philosopher Plato included and elaborated his immediate notions and arguments about politics and his ideal way of government (the Kallipolis) in his book the Republic. Among the characters that Plato used throughout his book is Thrasymachus, especially in his quest to establish the concept of justice and proving that just life is far more beneficial than the unjust life.
Thrasymachus provides his initial political thought in his distinction of “the ruler and the ruled (Plato, 345c5-e2).” He also talks about the nature and function of laws, the beneficiaries of laws, and those who do not benefit from them. Above all his arguments, he emphasizes the idea of “the strong party” – that which implies that justice is the advantage of the stronger (Plato, 343b-344c). His arguments are directed towards his attempt to defend the idea that justice is not really something that is naturally pursued by human beings.
However, it is something that is sought for the attainment of more advantages. In this regard, he sets up two classes, the rulers, who are consisted of the stronger class of people, and the ruled, who are the weaker class of people. It is lucid that as a ruler, he is the one who sets the rule or the laws; while the ruled are the follower of those established rules.
In 3388c-339a, Thrasymachus attempts to defend his assertion that “justice is nothing other than the advantage of the stronger (Plato).” He uses the analogy about the shepherd and the sheep in which the shepherd is the one who commands the sheep; and the latter is the one who is being commanded by the shepherd and the one who follows the former. This is so because the shepherd has the better knowledge of what things are best not only for himself but also for the good of the sheep. Perhaps it is due to the fact that he benefits from tending the sheep (like getting money from selling them). At the same time, the sheep are benefited because they eat the good kind of grasses, and they are secured from some voracious wild animals such as wolves. By ruling them, the ruler gets particular advantages and the ruled also gets their own interests.
In a more profound explanation, what Thrasymachus suggests is that because of the fact that the stronger is the ruler and the ruler sets the laws or rules in the society, it is understandable that what interests them or what gives them the highest pleasure and utmost advantages is the which is right and the opposite is that which is wrong. The ruler imposes which is the right thing to do. The ruler sets the distribution of wealth, etc. Thus, justice, which generally means giving what is due to a one person, is really something that is made in the interest of the ruler. Then if the law states that the half of the tribute for the government should be given to the ruler then complying in such rule is a just act.
Thrasymachus also recognizes what Socrates named as “three kinds of regime (Plato).” The tyrant way of government states that there is only one who rules the society. The oligarchic affirms that the rich families rule the society. And the democratic way makes the majority of the people as the ruler in the society. The oligarchy and democracy illustrates the dividing line which separates the rich and the poor as well the way the government is run. Though in democracy, the ruler is the majority and does not literally state that the poor rules; it is obvious and evident the poor is the dominant type of population thus they are really the majority. This really show how his line the stronger rules and gets the most advantages works. This is because the ruler says what is just and what is not. Whoever holds the power or whatever group or class holds the power is the so called trend-setter of which action is just and which is not.
Speaking of power and the idea of “the stronger-rules”, there is another famous modern philosopher who argues that because power sets what is just and what is not, and power assures the greatest advantages in life, the ruler must be able to have the appropriate knowledge on how to maintain or remain in power. Niccolo Machiavelli asserts that it is important that the ruler knows the things that would secure his position in the society as a ruler. In his book The Prince, he sets guides on how to stay in power – even by means of doing unjust acts.
“The end justifies the mean,” is the most popular statement of Machiavelli which became very influential political thought since the Renaissance period and even up to this point. The statement suggests that the ruler must do whatever it takes in order to maintain his power. Such that Machiavelli argues that the ruler may use deception to mislead the people – that the ruler might act as if he is really a virtuous person but the truth is that he is not or the ruler might behave like he is a compassionate ruler yet he is not. But all for the sake of power – for power makes what is just and might makes what is right. Moreover, he tries to teach the ruler (the Prince in his book) to show no mercy on his adversaries so as to keep his subordinates obedient to him and to the laws. As he suggests,
“…a prince must not care about the infamy of cruelty in order to keep his subjects united and faithful; because with very few examples he will be more merciful than those who, because of too much mercy, allow disorders to go on, from which spring killings or depredations: because these normally offend a whole collectivity, while those executions which come from the prince offend an individual (Machiavelli.).”
This explains that it is better to be feared than to be loved because those who love the ruler might abuse his kindness and might attempt to go against the rules and, worst, might try to overthrow the ruler and make themselves as the new ruler. For Machiavelli, it is something that the ruler must be always cautious of. By inflicting fear towards his subordinates, he does not only help himself or gain benefits from it but also benefits the society and his subjects because they are always in compliance with his orders or laws; thus order in the society is maintained.
The main points of Machiavelli throughout his book are that the ruler must do everything, even if his actions appear unjust (as viewed by other society or as perceived by other cultures). In the first place, justice is shaped by whoever holds the power – in this case, the ruler. Politics then, for Machiavelli, is being able to manage and maintain the power (authority), and being able to keep all the subordinates under the ruler’s rule. He emphasizes that power is not always available and not accessible to all people. By “fortune or by treachery (Machiavelli)” is the means in which power is acquired. The key point to keep the position of the ruler is for him to be able to have the knowledge of how to conquer his neighbors and control them throughout his regime. And the more the conquered and controlled neighbors, the more powerful is the ruler; and the more advantages that he obtains.
At any rate, Thrasymachus and Machiavellian way of looking at politics is strange; highlighting the importance of being in power. For Thrasymachus justice is that which benefits the stronger but this does not mean that it is for the disadvantage of the weak; only that the weak has to follow what the stronger class sets as rules or laws in order to get something good in them. For Machiavelli, order in the society is achieved if the ruler has managed to keep his power and has able to conquer his enemies – for allowing the existence of the ruler’s enemies means disobedience and divergence on the part of the subordinates; and disorder on the part of the society. War, at the same time, is justified, in order to expand the sphere of power of the ruler and to reduce the number of potential adversaries of the ruler.
Both Thrasymachus and Machiavelli stress out the importance of power in managing the politics in the society. In the first place, politics is all about power. The only complication that politics brings forth onto the society is its potential opposition to the moral standard by which the society is founded. Nevertheless, as the two points out in their arguments, Morality and politics are somewhat founded on the same basis where justice is set by whatever the stronger says or by whoever who holds the power. Hence, the moral background or foundations of a society which is politically-oriented is rooted on the laws that the ruler implements – as far as Thrasymachus and Machiavelli are concerned.
To conclude, Thrasymachus and Machiavelli’s arguments are directed towards the concept of power. Eventually, upon establishing their tenets concerning power, they attempted to include discussions about morality, particularly about justice – that might is or makes right. But as how others provide new ways of looking at politics, one could claim that justice or morality is not solely based on power but is affected by other factors.
Palto. The Republic of Plato. Trans. by Allan Bloom. Basic Books, 1991.
Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Prince. Trans. by Rufus Goodwin. Dante University of America Press, 2003.
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