Philosophy Political Philosophy Politics

Plato vs. Glaucon: What is the Purpose of the Social Contract?

Glaucon is Plato’s older brother and one of the many sophists that we encounter in the many dialogues.  He is given a fairly prominent position in the early books of The Republic, coming to prominence in Book II where Glaucon defends an early account of what we call the “Social Contract” in philosophy.  The social contract is a theory in political philosophy that seeks to understand what the purpose of civil society and governance is, and to whom does this contract benefit.  Glaucon, as a sophist, argues that the social contract is essentially a necessary evil, but that it still permits the advancement of the sophists in society, but some concessions have to be made to keep the common people satisfied.

Book II begins with Glaucon’s definition of the Good.  He differs radically from Plato, as we shall soon see.  Where Plato see’s the Good as desirable because seeking the Good is part of the human want for wisdom and happiness (and this is the only reason why it’s good for Plato), Glaucon turns this on its head by arguing that the Good is desirable for hedonistic reasons: pleasure, delight, physical stimulation, etc.  This is the same view of the Good as Epicurus.  But Glaucon doesn’t stop there.  One can commit injustice, such as dominating another, because he gets a stimulation of feeling good from this (i.e. sadism).  So Glaucon’s Good for making oneself feel pleasure is not simply the benign hedonism of Epicurus, it can in fact take a much darker turn (this is what St. Augustine will later call libido dominandi – the lust for domination because we think we will gain some level of happiness from said domination).  His second definition of the Good is that the Good is that which is desirable in of itself but also for achieving results.  Here Glaucon is talking about knowledge, sight, health, etc.  These are goods in of themselves, but they are also good for the results that come from it.  Thus, Glaucon’s definition of the pursuit of wisdom is not Plato’s definition – Plato defends the pursuit of wisdom for the purposes of a satiated soul, intellectual happiness, and contentment with oneself with one’s soul, but Glaucon’s idea of knowledge is purely utilitarian – knowledge is what produces result.  Finally, and most importantly, Glaucon’s third definition is that the Good is that which produces only results.  We see Glaucon moving from Epicurean hedonism (first definition of the Good), to a proto-utilitarianism (second definition), to an outright utilitarianism (third definition).  Thus, Glaucon ultimately concludes that the best form of the Good is that which produces the highest results: money-making, physical strength (athletics), crafting talents, etc.  Therefore, we can see Glaucon’s pursuit of knowledge is entirely correlated to utilitarian output.  The reason to have knowledge is not for wisdom’s sake but for utilitarian ends.

Glaucon then argues that the social contract is one something that is established in society for the purposes of a utilitarian end.  The contract grants certain concessions that are the result of human weakness – hence a necessary evil in Glaucon’s eyes – where people agree upon the contract for mutual preservation.  That said the contract is still crafted to allow the utilitarian to exert himself (with only some constrictions) that allows him to advance in society.

Glaucon subsequently turns to his arguments for injustice.  Just as there were three definitions of the Good, there are three arguments for injustice he makes alongside Adeimantus (another one of Plato’s brothers).  First they argue that “moral men” and “good men” only put on an appearance of justice.  In reality, they remain unjust.  They only appear to be just for public praise because winning public praise allows them to advance themselves in society.  Thus, the “just man” isn’t just at all; he just stokes the passions of the masses and wins their praise to primarily benefit himself.  Second is the argument concerning the benefits that come from being unjust.  Glaucon and Adeimantus argue that injustice brings many benefits, and moreover it is self-advantageous to be unjust.  They also make the argument, in correlation with the first, that parents teach their children “to be just” because they will receive a reward for being just.  Thus, they’re not really being just at all.  They’re only interested in being just for the promise of self-gain that comes from being publically just.  At every level, it is better to be “out for oneself,” so to speak, than to concern oneself with others.  Lastly, both argue that appeasement and promises of an afterlife actually perpetuate injustice.  The unjust can always just sacrifice a bull or some other animal to atone for their “injustice” and they end up in heaven just like the poor do.  Glaucon and Adeimantus argue that religion is really an unjust scheme established by the rich for the rich to keep the poor content.

Unlike Plato, who believes humans naturally crave some sense of justice, Glaucon believes humans are naturally unjust.  By being naturally unjust, injustice is the natural condition and, following Glaucon’s logic, injustice is actually “moral” because that’s just how humans are.  There’s nothing “unnatural” or “immoral” about acting in an unjust manner.  This is the argument made about Gyges and the Invisible Ring.  Glaucon argues that morality is a social construction, a derivation of the social contract.  With the invisible ring, the so-called “moral” individual (who is moral for the sake of public reputation) will act in accord with his natural desires for self-advancement.  He seduces the queen, kills the king, and seizes the kingdom for himself despite having previously been “a good person.”

The Ring of Gyges, as Glaucon presents it, is an analogy that is tailored to benefit his argument for injustice since it allows – by definition – injustice to occur.  The entire story explains and promotes injustice at every level.  The ring-wearer seduces the queen.  He kills the king.  He seizes the kingdom for his own end.  Basically Glaucon argues that if presented with the option to commit injustice and get away with it will do so.  In fact, deep beneath all the rhetoric, this is precisely what Glaucon’s social contract achieves.  The social contract, according to Glaucon, is a social construction that comes about from a compromise between the powerful and the weak, the powerful grant a few concessions to the weak but in doing so, have caused a sleight of hand over the weak.  The weak are too blind to realize that they are still being taken advantage of with the vague promises of justice, rule of law, and constitutionalism.  In reality, the social contract still allows the powerful to become more powerful – the only difference is that this occurs within a “playing field” as it were, where you can’t kill someone and get away with it.  Laws are established not to “protect the weak,” but to give the impression that they protect the weak.  In actuality, laws allow the powerful to grow in power and are meant to benefit only the powerful.  This is why Glaucon discusses all of the ins and outs of social contract society: Like the rich and powerful doing religious ritual sacrifices to appear as upstanding citizens while, behind the scenes, we all sort of know what they’re really doing and like.  The difference is that Glaucon endorses the lifestyle of the rich and powerful.  The social contract, in a way, guarantees their position in society.

In the end, then, Glaucon argues that all the machinations of the social contract, all the cogs of society, are tailored to the advantage of the unjust.  It only has the public appearance of being just and beneficial to the weak and poor.  The social contract also takes on a very utilitarian impetus.  The purpose of the social contract, from Glaucon’s own admissions, is to achieve material advancement and power.  Every so often one must throw the peasants a bone to keep them happy, and make vague promises about justice and the rule of law, but every aspect of the social contract is still meant to advance the interest of the rich and powerful.

Here we must remember that, unlike the postmodernists of today – who in many respects are also sophists in their claims that knowledge is impossible to attain, that everything is social construction, and thus the only things we can “know” are those social constructions themselves, the sophists do not find anything wrong with this picture.  They promote this view of society and the human.  The “just” human is really the human who is purely out for themselves.  No common good, no common compassion, just pure, unadulterated, self-concerned utilitarianism.

Plato finds the views of his brother to be repugnant.  Moreover, the arguments from Glaucon and Adeimantes are continuations of Thrasymachus’s argument – they are essentially rebutting Socrates’s rebuttal of Thrasymachus from Book I.  Ultimately the dialogue takes a turn toward the guardians of the city, which dominates the discussion in Book III.  However, Plato, through allowing Glaucon and Adeimantus to speak openly, reveals the nature of social contract.  Or at least, what Plato wants us to understand the social contract as really being about.  It’s not about justice, it’s not about liberty, it’s not about common good – it’s about a system crafted and cultivated to primarily benefit the “unjust” while giving the public perception that the society is just.  The view of morality and self-advancement is remembered in philosophy as ethical egoism.  What is moral is what is in the best interest of the self.  And what is in the best interest of the self is to advance oneself in society by acquiring as much money and power as possible before death.


Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Making Sense of Diseases and Disasters. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.


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  1. Have you really represented Glaucon’s position correctly? He seems to imply at the beginning of Book II that he is sympathetic to Socrates’ argument but wishes to be fully convinced of it and hence proposes to “play the devil’s advocate” for the sake of continuing the dialectic once Thrasymachus departs.

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    1. I believe so as a Plato scholar; Plato really despises the Sophists, not to mention the extensive use of irony and satire involved. Plato’s inclusion of the sophists is meant to be seen as revealing the utter barbarity of their system to the educated reader. The “esoteric” reading between the lines argumentation in Platonic scholarship is something I find deeply persuasive.


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