09 December 2010

Thrasymachus and Clamence

One situational ethics theme recurs through the history of philosophy. It is seen as early as Plato, The Republic, his character of Thrasymachus and as late as Camus, his novel The Fall, his character of Clamence. Perhaps you have observed such a character in your own real life; I sure have in mine.

Thrasymachus appears in The Republic to argue for a cynical loser's definition of justice: "justice is what is advantageous to the stronger", which echoes the Melian dialogue from Thucydides:"the strong do as they can and the weak suffer what they must" (although there the part is spoken by a cynical winner.) The modern Clamence is not undone by war, but the story is given that he abandons his ostensibly successful life after a road rage incident. (In 1956 when Camus published his novel they had road rage but they just did not have the name for it yet!)

Since these are fictional characters, the reader is left with freedom to try and untangle what would motivate these guys to adopt such contemptuous attitudes. All of this was brought into my field of thought by a seemingly random comment I read on an internet discussion board, by a seemingly random person. (I don't recall who wrote it and I cannot find the exact comment right now.) The person wrote (approximately): "Every time I have done or said something really stupid it was in a context where I was feeling contempt."

There is no way to explain why Thrasymachus, or anybody else, would feel contemptuous towards Socrates; it is one of the great mysteries of history how such a man of apparent good will could be tried and executed by his fellow citizens. There is also no way to explain why Clamence would appear to feel so much contempt toward apparently everybody. Maybe some day psychiatric genetecists will identify a gene structure which inclines people towards contemptuousness.

My own theory is that it is a sick combination of laziness and attention seeking. It is so difficult to win someone's love, and in comparison it is very easy to earn someone's hatred. Nietzsche was impotent to get us to love him, but had superpowers for earning our hatred. It is isomorphic to Milton's description of Satan: better to rule in hell than serve in heaven.

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About Craig

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Houston, Texas, United States
I have been living in the lovely neighborhood of Spring Branch in the great city of Houston since late in 2005. I started out with the idea of making this blog about my life in this neighborhood. That did not last long. Right now I am posting every five days on the alternating topics of literature, philosophy, psychology, and metaphysics. This project has been ongoing since July 27, 2010 and I believe it will continue for at least a few more months.