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How Socrates Trumps Trump

They’re all trying to trump Trump, and maybe with the latest flap, this may have finally happened. I’m referring, of course, to Trump stumbling into the absurd claim that women ought to be “punished” for having abortions, and then predictably retreating from it. If this proves true, then the trumping of Trump didn’t happen by argumentation from an adversary. It happened through a dialectical encounter—in this instance, with MSNBC commentator, Chris Matthews. And that brings to mind, of all things, Socrates’s encounter with the famous Sophist, the Trump-equivalent in ancient Athens, Thrasymachus.

What might Socrates’ silencing of Thrasymachus say about the trumping of Trump? Well, consider the fact that what happens in Book One of Plato’s Republic, where this encounter takes place, is indeed a kind of silencing. Socrates does what he is famous for: he questions with relentless precision. And through that questioning, he doesn’t actually out-debate Thrasymachus; rather, he renders him absurd. Ultimately, with all sophists—and Trump-the-politician is an uber-sophist—they can only be silenced, not out-debated, through the rendering of them absurd. Not surprisingly, Trump went into a kind of uncharacteristic silent retreat the day after his monumental faux pas.

Let’s look more closely at the highlights of the Socrates-Thrasymachus encounter with an eye towards seeing the parallels more clearly. First, what is the essential characteristic of a sophist? A sophist in ancient Greece was a paid rhetorician, akin to a modern-day courtroom litigator or public-relations mouthpiece. To a sophist, there is no distinction between reality and appearance, between being and seeming. Seeming to be a just person, according to a sophist, is no different than being a just person. Faking is just as good as being real, so long as no one can tell you’re faking. To Socrates, this collapsing of the distinction is an abomination. Indeed, the execution of Socrates hinged on that collapse: amidst the sophistry, he seemed to be a corrupter of the youth in Athens when in fact integrity was the true essence of his being. The democratic city-state fell victim to sophistry because it could not discern the difference between reality and appearance, between what something seems to be and what it actually is.

I think it’s quite evident that for Trump, what seems to be the case and what is the case really doesn’t matter. He’ll take either, depending on his momentary advantage-seeking calculation.

Thrasymachus enters the scene while Socrates is conversing with two others. The subject is justice. Thrasymachus is described as intruding on the conversation like “a wolf” and “wild beast” prepared to “tear us to pieces.” Aggressiveness, indefatigable attacks, intimidation—that is what Socrates faces here. And sophists like Thrasymachus are masters at positioning their adversaries so that they are susceptible to wolf-like attacks. The most notable technique: bait the adversary to set forth a position without committing to a position of his own (Sound familiar?).

From the get-go, Thrasymachus ridicules Socrates to bait him to lay out a full-blown theory of justice so that: (1) he is off the hook in committing to a substantive position, and (2) he creates an opportunity to take the offensive. He ridicules Socrates for the claim that a just man “never harms anyone,” that justice itself commands the unwavering principle of non-harm (which puts Socrates in the same camp as Jesus and the Buddha, among other spiritual leaders). Herein is an important feature of Thrasymachus-the-Sophist: the use of ridicule as a rhetorical technique. There really is no floor to the ridicule—at one point, Thrasymachus asks Socrates if he has a “nurse” to wipe his nose. Socrates is too wise to take the bait because, like all wise persons, he takes nothing personally.


Pressured by onlookers, Thrasymachus reluctantly capitulates—he does so to save face, because Thrasymachus, like Trump, cannot abide appearing weak—and he aggressively offers to give his own account of justice. But on one condition: Socrates is to be “punished” if Thrasymachus prevails in the argument. Punished? How so? Here again, Thrasymachus is like Trump—the measure of all things is money. So if he prevails, Socrates must hand over some unspecified sum of money. Socrates doesn’t agree, after all he’s poor, but the excited onlookers offer to pay on his behalf.

It is then that Thrasymachus offers his famous account of justice—that might makes right; that what is “just” boils down to what is in the interest of the stronger; that morality and ethics are empty of content; that all politics is therefore power politics, where the only meaningful currency is anything that permits the vanquishing of enemies and the return of winning. Winning is what politics is all about, and it’s the only thing it is about. Why? Because the political world is just an extension of the physical world. The physical world operates on no moral laws; it is restricted to physics, chemistry, and the evolutionary principles of survival. Especially the latter. In the unforgiving natural world, survival (through reproduction) is all that matters; in the hardscrabble world of politics, winning is an end in itself.

The power-politics model is predicated on something more fundamental. And it’s this: To Socrates, cultivation of the intellect, the nurturing of one’s contemplative capacities, is the most ennobling of human practices. To Thrasymachus, desire, not thought, is the bedrock of human experience. And so the gratification of desire is the ultimate human experience. And when that is the mental model directing one’s life, then Life is nothing more than a ceaseless calculation for advantage-seeking. Which is to say: Winning (Sound familiar?). Show me a person who elevates desire-gratification over all else and I’ll show you a tyrannical human being. That is what this encounter reveals, the essential features of a tyrannical person. And when the populace itself, the prevailing value system of the culture, rests on desire-gratification as the ultimate aim, then the society itself becomes tyrannical.

Socrates knows that there is no refuting a sophist like Thrasymachus. He understands the nihilism and solipsism at the foundation of sophistry. He understands that people like Thrasymachaus (and Trump) can therefore never partake in genuine dialogue, that they must insist on monologue and pontifications, because all discourse collapses when there is no distinction between seeming and being, reality and appearance. The only thing to do in response to such nihilists is use irony. Throughout the encounter, we find Socrates not marshaling the most compelling logical arguments—in fact, some are actually quite thin; rather, he invokes irony over and over again, which leads to Thrasymachus tying himself up in knots.. And the more this happens, the more thrashing we see. Thrasymachus responds with ever-increasing petulance, nonsensical ridicule, and bluster. He eventually exhausts himself in the never-ending game of one-upmanship against a superior intellect who knows that the tyrannical human being is immune to evidence and reason and, as Marco Rubio discovered, cannot be defeated by his own game.

What we see happen with Thrasymachus, we saw happen to Joseph McCarthy and many others. Perhaps we are now witnessing this with Trump.  You cannot out-debate a tyrannical person. You can only silence them. But here’s the real question: what of the tyrannical person within us all? What about the culture that feeds on the pernicious ideology that desire-gratification, dressed up in the garb of success, fame, consumerism, is the ultimate human experience? Trumping Trump may not be the real story here.

Dan Williams
An honors graduate of Harvard Law School, Dan Williams has taught law at Harvard and Northeastern University, after twenty years as a prominent courtroom litigator. Among his many high-profile cases is the litigation that led to the ending of capital punishment in New York. His book, Executing Justice (St. Martin’s Press), was described as “one of the most important books on race in America.” Dan is currently a practicing psychotherapist.

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