“I say that justice is nothing other than the advantage of the stronger [and] injustice on a sufficiently large scale is a stronger, freer, and a more masterful thing than justice.”
Thus Thrasymachus, in Plato’s Republic.
In recent discussions I have imagined a brazen young mercenary, a cynic given over to his acquisitive impulse, a member in good standing of the Thrasymachan Party, in the form of a modern financier. Probably he works for a big bank, or once did and now plies his trade by his own lights, by the skills and connections built up over a career of sharp-dealing and success. Maybe he did a stint with Treasury or the New York Fed or the IMF — a little strategic public service after he left Princeton. Now he can get the Secretary of Treasury (an old classmate maybe) on the horn in two minutes flat. The Chairman of the China Construction Bank consults with him regularly. He is master of the universe.
The financier stands before us and declares “My position gives me strength; I can see nothing in the world that suggests I owe anything to weakness, so I intend to perpetuate my strength.”
Now to this mercenary creed one of our liberals, Step2, gave a very interesting answer: “Depending upon the degree of arrogance and harm he could inflict, I'd be willing to sacrifice plenty to make [the financier] pay an immediate price.”
It seems that the Thrasymachan Party’s naked acquisition, this “crass and ignorant” creed of moral rejection, has the power to make liberals sound a lot like conservatives.
Step2 has crossed an important line, as I understand liberalism. In this statement, the public square is no longer neutral as regards moral systems. Public authority, according to this statement, must be willing to take sides and make people “pay an immediate price” for the promoting Thrasymachan ideas. The liberal posture of neutrality as regards philosophical systems cannot coexist with this principle of proscription that Step2 has announced.
For of course, as I said elsewhere, a whole hell of a lot can be packed into that “depending upon” phrase in Step2’s statement: It is not altogether rare that when a materialist comes under pressure of events, he shows, despite his theory, evidence of character. The financier may say he owes nothing to weakness, but when push comes to shove he may prove a better man than his creed. He may be too decent to embrace the logic his philosophy promotes.
So the financier in front of you may well be a law abiding man, even a charitable man in a sentimental way that belies his materialism. He may not be a good man, but neither is he a through and through wicked one, so he cannot live out his materialism. His actions prove that he believes in justice despite what he says about it.
So I say again that as a liberal Step2 has crossed a pretty important line if liberalism is what it claims to be concerning moral philosophy in the public square: neutral, procedural, offering all parties a free claim, not burdening private beliefs with prohibitions or privileges.
Here Step2 emphatically wants to privilege moral character, and punish those who repudiate it. And since a statement of materialism like the one I have put in the mouth of the poor financier constitutes a very cynical but difficult to answer repudiation of character, any liberal petition to erect social, political, or legal proscription against this doctrine is a bracing sort of statement. It is statement which, if uttered by someone like me, might well provoke in liberals a brief seizure of reproach for its authoritarianism.
In a word, we’re well beyond liberalism when we’re discussing the question of how best to proscribe dangerous or harmful doctrines. Recall that Step2 already said he’s prepared to “sacrifice plenty” to effect these proscriptions. In other words, he’s prepared to give up a lot of liberalism in order to get moral obligation.
So if Socrates is truly debasing the young with Thrasymachan ideas, by golly we’re not going to hesitate to arrest, try and finally throw that teacher of evil into prison.
Secondly, Step2 appears to have taken my remark concerning “the vain hope that enough people will grow bitter about this that one day, through the magic of plebiscitary democracy, the Left will reign and the plutocracy can be plundered” — taken this to evince some sympathy for plutocrats.
Most likely this misinterpretation suggests an error on my part in conveying my view. Plutocracy is simply the power that materialism makes in the world. It is acquisition as a political principle. The financier says he intends to perpetuate his strength because he believes in the Thrasymachus rule, that justice is the advantage of the stronger. Plutocracy is the social instantiation of that reductionist creed.
I have no sympathy for this materialism. My politics regards the acquisitive impulse as a capricious and destruction tendency in most cases. It is only beneficial when strongly fettered by a code of moral obligation. Ayn Rand was mostly a lunatic whose negations of all that is outside the material compass lead her into ruin, as Whittaker Chambers so elegantly explained.
In a word, I want to plunder the Thrasymachan Party too — after a trial or public examination exposes its ill-gotten gains and its misbegotten creed of materialism.
But the key phrase in the quotation of me is “the vain hope.” The chance of actually managing to plunder the Thrasymachans, given the constellations of political forces and philosophical systems, and plunder them in a just way — i.e., not by lawless violence but by legislation and reform — seems to me very remote.
Commenter Al’s narrow system compels him interpret this as me saying “roll over and die” — a counsel of despair. But of course what I am saying is that we have to repudiate falsehood before we can expect reform of the social and political fruits of that falsehood.
Once materialism is set aside, many good reforms will be possible. Once men acknowledge that justice is not the advantage of the stronger but rather an ancient and enduring Reality, even insidious evils may yield to wise statecraft. Once men see that a transcendent structure of moral obligation binds them; that this system is not, in fact, malleable according to their desires; that, indeed, their deepest desires may at times long for vice and pillage, which means that life must often consist of a struggle against the native desires in them, an lifelong effort to fetter those desires with exterior discipline, discipline that comes by way of counsels from beyond our material world — why, once men embrace Christianity, they will find that reforming the plutocracy, far from a vain hope, is a task rather easier than they remembered.
For it is the Christian philosophy, not the reform of plutocracy, which has been found difficult and left untried.