Power and the Pursuit of Justice
Corey Robin makes the case that we tend to associate virtue with powerlessness and to see power as a vice, a position which leads us to suppose that to be good we must be without power and that, as he says, “strongmen are strong.” I think he’s right, and I think this view of virtue as powerlessness follows from an association of power with self-interest that can be traced back to Plato.
As I argue in my last post, the problem of political nihilism is that it seeks power for its own sake, and justifies all power just by virtue of being power. As Thrasymachus (and Judge Jeanine Pirro) argues, everyone knows you do what you do in order to get power and it is right as long as you can get away with it. Socrates does not argue that power is bad, but that justice should have the power, rather than pure self-interest, which is divided against itself since lacking knowledge of what is good, one pursues only power. I’ve long thought that Socrates makes an argument that is itself will-to-power–the power of the philosopher, a power legitimated by the positing of the good, which the philosopher pursues. Seeking to set up the philosopher as the ruler, Socrates is subject to Thrasymachus’ complaint–he too seems to be acting and arguing for the sake of his own power, just as everyone does.
The difference between Socrates and Thrasymachus is that Socrates thinks that justice should have power, rather than any old person who can get the power. This point leads to several difficulties. The philosopher making this case in the cave that justice should rule rather than whoever achieves the rule has to appeal to those who just want power. The philosopher does not even claim to have access to that justice–or at least there’s a case to be made that Socrates denying that he knows is distinguished from his fellow citizens only in his concern to pursue justice and to pursue the rule of justice rather than power alone. He has to appeal to the desire of his fellow citizens for power in order to make the case that justice should be the ruling authority. The lack of knowledge and the lack of desire for justice in his audience requires him to appeal to their desire for power in order to get them to desire justice. Not being able to directly impute knowledge of justice, not least because Socrates does not have it, Socrates only posits the idea that there is such a thing, and that such a thing would be better for those who rule and those who are ruled. Again and again, Socrates makes this case to Glaucon and Adiemantus who get on board with a depiction of a city some would call absurd because they think they will rule in this city because they think they can have such knowledge. Socrates then uses the desire for power to motivate a desire for knowledge and for justice.
Justice then is proposed as a better sovereign in a way, but ultimately justice just as much as the pursuit of self-interested power is an illegitimate sovereign. The philosopher pursues it, but does not have the access to it–down in the Piraeus telling this story, Socrates is just as much still in the cave as his interlocutors. The audience does not yet even pursue it. Yet they seem willing to acknowledge that they should pursue justice and that other power is illegitimate. What then becomes under dispute is what is justice? Perhaps it just is just for the most powerful to rule. Perhaps what makes a person powerful must go beyond force and the power to compel. My impulse is to think that justice is a matter of making things right for those who are powerless and for resisting those who wish to hoard power for themselves. Positing justice as better than the pursuit of power introduces the idea that there should be some standard for power rather than power itself. The introduction of such a standard then introduces a debate over what the standard should be. But once we begin to have that debate we have already conceded that power alone is not sufficient. Of course, we have introduced this standard itself without ground–sure, arguments are made but the structure in which they are all in the cave without knowledge of justice shows how the appeal to those without knowledge by one whose only difference is that he pursues knowledge shows that the suggestion that justice is better than power alone is a means to implement a better yet still ultimately ungrounded power.
It is for this reason that Nietzsche thinks Socrates elevates the weak over the powerful, but I think that concedes that justice or the pursuit of knowledge is elevated purely out of ressentiment, purely for the sake of power rather than for the sake of good. I think Socrates could be said to suggest that justice itself can be for the sake of power. In Books VIII and IX of the Republic, Socrates argues that justice is a better strategy for power than injustice even if what a person wants is solely power, because injustice will ultimately set the people against the ruler and take away the ruler’s power. Socrates might be more comfortable with power that Nietzsche allows him.
No political argument can satisfy the question of whether positing a notion of the good or of justice beyond self-interest really is good and just or if it just elevates those who claim to be closer to it. Thus there always the risk that those who could pursue power for its own end are being suckers if they pursue justice and distribute what we hold in common to all rather than just to themselves. There is always the risk that we who pursue what we take to be the good and the just and who aim to make goodness and justice powerful are really just making those who claim to have more access to the good and the just powerful and so we ourselves are being suckers. This possibility is what makes justice look weak. But I think this way of looking at it also suggests that we cannot know whether justice really is some real thing out there that we are aiming to know or not, and if it is not then we are being manipulated by such an argument that it is and that we should pursue it. Rather, we should think that justice is something that in pursuing we can make real in the world.