Just vs. Unjust Speech: Comparing The Clouds and The Republic

Socrates, a famous ancient Greek philosopher, is depicted as ridiculous in The Clouds by Aristophanes yet as thoughtful in The Republic by Plato. In the former, he runs a Thinkery that educates students, and when Pheidippides enrolls, Just and Unjust Speech bicker about how to best teach him. In the latter, a young man named Thrasymachus debates Socrates. Both are arguments about justice versus injustice; however, in The Clouds, Unjust Speech, who advocates for injustice, wins, while in The Republic, Socrates, who advocates for justice, comes out on top. Key similarities between the two arguments are rhetoric and conviction; the winning sides employ similar techniques, while the losing sides both fail to demonstrate strong conviction in their points.

Through argument by anecdote, the winning sides in both conflicts refute each point their opponent makes. In The Clouds, Unjust Speech employs argument by anecdote to prove his points. He argues that Heracles, the man that Just Speech claims “no man to be better than” (Clouds 1050), is associated with natural hot springs and thus cold baths, which Just Speech claims “are most evil and make a man cowardly” (Clouds 1046), cannot be truly unjust. Unjust Speech then declares that spending time in the marketplace is not wrong, as “[i]f it were villainous, Homer would never have made Nestor an orator” (Clouds 1056 – 1057), in reference to The Iliad. Unjust Speech then demands anecdotal evidence from Just Speech by asking, “For whom have you ever seen anything good happen to because of being moderate? Speak up, and refute me by telling whom” (Clouds 1061 – 1062). Just Speech rises to the challenge and names Peleus, who received a sword from the god Hephaestus for being just. However, Unjust Speech points out that Peleus was ultimately unhappy, as his wife abandoned him afterwards (Clouds 1064 – 1069). Similarly, in The Republic, Socrates refutes Thrasymachus’ arguments by presenting anecdotal arguments. When Thrasymachus accuses Socrates of being purposefully illogical, Socrates replies, “If we were searching for gold we would never willingly make way for one another in the search and ruin our chances of finding it; so don’t suppose that when we are seeking for justice, a thing more precious than a great deal of gold, we would ever foolishly give in to one another and not be as serious as we can be about bringing it to light” (Republic 336e). He also relates a hypothetical in which Thrasymachus asks someone how much twelve is, but refuses any answer that contains an arithmetic expression equivalent to twelve (Republic 337b), in order to prove that Thrasymachus’ standards for a “proper” answer renders all possibilities ineligible. Through these anecdotes, both Unjust Speech and Socrates effectively ground their arguments through stories that are concise, accessible, and appealing.

In addition, as it is the job of the prosecutor to prove guilt in our legal system, it is Just Speech’s and Thrasymachus’ burden to demonstrate their righteousness. Just Speech must prove that warm baths and marketplaces are unjust, and being “buggered” (Clouds 1084) is terrible. When he fails to do so, he loses. Thrasymachus must prove that justice is simply “the advantage of the stronger” (Republic 339a). In fact, it is suggested that these characters are somewhat aware of their burdens, as both get more visibly worked up and seemingly emotionally invested into the arguments. In The Clouds, Just Speech begins by passionately expounding upon all the virtues of justice in long blocks of verse. His replies dwindle in length and frequency as the debate continues and Unjust Speech begins to refute each attack. Finally, when Just Speech realizes that everyone is “buggered”, he reacts by flinging his cloak down and running away, obviously upset by his newfound revelation (Clouds 1102 – 1104). In contrast, Unjust Speech stays calm and levelheaded. Similarly, in The Republic, when Thrasymachus enters the argument, he is described as “hunched up like a wild beast” who “[flings] himself…as if to tear [Socrates] to pieces” (Republic 336b). In addition, instead of logically refuting Socrates’ points, Thrasymachus resorts to ad hominem in order to prove his argument, calling Socrates a “sycophant” (Republic 340d) and suggesting that he is “ironic” (Republic 337a) for asking questions but never giving answers. Thrasymachus looks like an angry child, and cannot be taken seriously. Again, in contrast, Socrates stays calm and rational, and thus he comes out the clear winner. While both Just Speech and Thrasymachus have more daunting tasks of proving their opponents wrong, as opposed to simply refuting criticisms, their high-strung reactions lead to breakdown in their arguments.

Finally, Just Speech and Thrasymachus fail to win their arguments as they themselves do not even truly believe in them wholeheartedly. In The Clouds, Just Speech insists that injustice will lead to being “buggered”, to which Unjust Speech replies, “And if he’s buggered, what evil will he suffer?” (Clouds 1085). Just Speech cannot come up with a satisfactory answer; he instead insists that being “buggered” is the greatest evil, but struggles to explain why. If he truly believed being “buggered” was such a terrible thing, he should be able to explain his reasons for thinking so. Unjust Speech then presents different groups of people, such as public advocates and tragedians, and shows that they are buggered. As Just Speech comes to realize, the majority of people are buggered, and yet they do not appear to be suffering in any visible way. Thus, he adopts a follow-the-herd mentality and flings down his cloak, yelling “I’m deserting to [the debauchees]!” (Clouds 1104). Thus, Just Speech was never truly against injustice from a moral standpoint; rather, he refrained from committing injustices as he was afraid of the consequences, so once the consequences are shown to be milder than expected, he has a change of heart. Similarly, in The Republic, it is seen that Thrasymachus also focuses on the consequences of being unjust than intrinsic moral values. He insists that “injustice is profitable” (Republic 348c) and that individuals should logically strive for injustice, as it will benefit them more. Socrates goads him into agreeing that “the unjust man [is] unlearned and bad” (Republic 350c). He does so, but blushes as he agrees, hinting that while he may believe in injustice on an intellectual level, he is not completely behind it emotionally. Another example of this is when Thrasymachus refuses to oppose Socrates, “as not to irritate these men here” (Republic 352b). If Thrasymachus fully believed in committing injustices, he would not care about harming others or others’ opinions; these instances reveal that he still has some obligation to justice. Therefore, both Just Speech and Thrasymachus lose their arguments because they cannot completely advocate for their opinions with conviction.

Both Socrates and Unjust Speech make use of argument by anecdote, even though this device is often faulty and not comprehensive. However, it serves as an effective way to quiet their opponents, who are unable to discredit this evidence. To be fair, both Just Speech and Thrasymachus are tasked with proving the defendant guilty, which is a more difficult duty. However, their emotional outbursts put them at a disadvantage, and Socrates and Unjust Speech win their respective arguments. Lastly, it is shown that both Just Speech and Thrasymachus do not completely believe in the values they advocate for, which ultimately leads them to lose their arguments. Thus, the more sophisticated speakers win, but the combination of the two debates leads the reader to consider that the world is not black-and-white and being purely just or unjust may not be possible.