Constitutional Slavery and the US Congress

I’ve mentioned before that Gouverneur Morris thought the US Congress, as formulated after the Connecticut Compromise, would be controlled by the “special interests”, especially the interests of the wealthy. This is one of the reasons Morris so forcefully (and successfully) argued for a strong, independent executive. But why did Morris think that the national legislature would be tyrannical without such a check?

Well first of all, Morris understood that although legislative authority looks more popular, it can still be tyrannical. Morris claimed that there were numerous examples of this in the states between 1776-1787. Even though the institutions of the young states looked radically democratic, Morris thought in reality the “democratic” legislatures were captured by a few powerful individuals acting against the general welfare. In other words, contrary to the common belief of the time, Morris argued that the states were oligarchic in the extreme.

But even more powerful than Morris’s general critiques of state constitutions was his understanding that real tyranny was found in the institution of slavery. Ironically, one of the principle apologists for slavery at the Convention, Charles Pinkney of South Carolina, was also one of the foremost critics of Morris’s vision of mixed government, saying it couldn’t work because there was no aristocracy in America.

Pinckney clearly missed Morris’s point that hereditary or titled nobility is not the only form of institutional tyranny: when accused of favoring aristocracy, Morris said “It was the thing, not the name, to which he was opposed.”   There was no greater evidence of an oppressive upper class than the slave-owners that dominated the Southern states.   It was not by accident that Morris critiqued oligarchy in those terms: “The rich will always attempt to establish dominion and enslave the rest.”   While in most cases the rich “enslaved” the poor through political manipulation, cronyism, unjust wages, etc., real slavery – control over the life, liberty and property of another human being – was the very worst of “aristocracy”. No other oppression could be as harmful, or as complete. Though Morris thought some division between classes was inevitable, the institution of slavery needlessly and unjustly exaggerated that distinction.

Morris had always criticized the institution of slavery, going back to his days writing the constitution for New York in 1777, where he argued vehemently for the proposition “that every being who breathes the air of this State shall enjoy the privileges of a freeman”,  and asked for a constitutional provision to abolish slavery. His principled opposition to slavery didn’t end, and Morris was the foremost critic of slavery at the Constitutional Convention.  It’s worth quoting him at length:

“He never would concur in upholding domestic slavery. It was a nefarious institution–It was the curse of heaven on the States where it prevailed. Compare the free regions of the Middle States, where a rich and noble cultivation marks the prosperity and happiness of the people, with the misery and poverty which overspread the barren wastes of Virginia., Maryland, and the other States having slaves. Travel thro’ the whole Continent and you behold the prospect continually varying with the appearance and disappearance of slavery. The moment you leave the Eastern States and enter New York the effects of the institution become visible; passing thro’ the Jerseys and entering Pennsylvania every criterion of superior improvement witnesses the change. Proceed Southwardly and every step you take thro’ the great regions of slaves, presents a desert increasing with the increasing proportion of these wretched beings.”

Although it wasn’t strictly a North vs. South issue (notice above Morris singles out New York, which enslaved the most people of any Northern state), at the Convention just a few states, especially the Carolinas and Georgia, opposed a national trend towards abolition of slavery. At first Morris expressed his frustration with this situation, saying he was “compelled to declare himself reduced to the dilemma of doing injustice to the Southern States or to human nature, and he must therefore do it to the former.”   If the new Constitution was to allow the slave trade, and thus do injustice to humanity, Morris wanted it to include a clause explicitly blaming the states that wanted it: “This he said would be most fair and would avoid the ambiguity…He wished it to be known also that this part of the Constitution was a compliance with those States.”

Therefore not only was Morris opposed to slavery as the primary instance of actual oppression in the United States, but he also saw the institution as inherently tied to special interests in opposition to the national interest. It is no surprise therefore, that he connected state control of the national legislature with a tyrannical oligarchy in that body, and saw the need to balance it.

Note: Some quotations are edited for clarity, and are from the Records of the Convention.

Grant was a better general than Lee

It’s the 150th anniversary of Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, so I thought I would share some reflections on the two generals. For more on this, I suggest reading JFC Fuller’s study of Grant and Lee, which inspired much of this post.

The popular understanding of the Civil War goes something like this: Lee was a brilliant general, Grant was a moron. But Grant had lots of troops and didn’t care if they died. So he threw his troops haphazardly at Lee until through brute force, he won. The noble and brilliant Lee was defeated by a drunken idiot.  Life is unfair.

In reality, it was not mere accident or luck. Grant defeated Lee, and the rebels, through superior generalship, specifically through innovative tactics and strategy.  Lee was stuck in the past, and ultimately his inability to adapt tactically and strategically contributed to his demise.

Tactics versus strategy: Tactics is the art of utilizing troops and technology to win battles. This has to do with the small picture – where, when, how should troops be placed or moved, weapons deployed, etc. to win a particular battle. Strategy is the art of using a series of battles or campaigns to win a war. This has to do with the big picture, and requires not only an understanding of tactics, but also a comprehensive plan for utilization of various tactics. In the context of the Civil War, new weapons technologies made innovative tactical and strategic thought especially important.

Tactics: Lee was a classical tactician, and within the context of particular battles, he was often able to secure victory through creatively outmaneuvering the enemy. This is why Lee seems so brilliant – we think of him coming up with creative devices, winning battle after battle through repeated strokes of genius. But Lee failed to see that maneuver warfare was on its way out, because new technology rendered small surprise attacks and cavalry charges far less effective. Grant, on the other hand, understood the tactics that were appropriate for modern warfare with modern weapons. Furthermore, he knew that Lee was useless when entrenched, because Lee was over-reliant on the not-so-brilliant-anymore maneuvering.

Strategy: Which leads us to the difference in their strategic plans. Lee’s strategy was poorly conceived at best. All along his plan was to win a single, decisive battle, probably by capturing Washington, D.C. (although it is unlikely the rebels actually could have taken the heavily fortified city), and thus to win the war. He refused to engage in guerrilla warfare to weaken the Union’s resolve. Grant on the other hand, understood how to link battles together and use modern tactics to win a war. Rather than attempt a single winner-take-all battle, he coordinated his armies, pinned down Lee and sent Sherman off to burn Atlanta. Far from being simplistic, this was a brilliant strategy, which innovatively employed modern tactics to actually win the war.

If we’re looking for glory and excitement, Lee seems like the better general. He was certainly better at tactical maneuvering than Grant. But generalship requires a winning strategy, an understanding of available technologies, a willingness to compromise and to innovate in order to win the war. Lee never understood modern warfare, and never had a winning strategy. Grant didn’t just understand, but helped pioneer modern warfare by beating Lee head-to-head. It’s shocking how under-recognized this is.

I suspect we like Lee precisely because he is romantic and old-worldy, and we remember Grant’s drinking problem. But it’s worth pointing out that many of Lee’s noble qualities detract from him as a general. His loyalty to Virginia in particular, his gentlemanly tendencies, his distance from rebel politics all seem admirable, but they also contributed to his defeat. We shouldn’t claim he was a great general just because he was a good guy.

Grant, on the other hand, was strengthened by his political acumen, by his partnership and shared vision with Lincoln, and his willingness to make harsh choices. He was a brilliant general. Let’s not hold the drunkenness against him too much 😉

Shakespeare and Machiavelli

I’ve discussed the Roman legend of the rape of Lucretia in a previous post.  Tarquin, seeing Lucretia’s great virtue and beauty, wanted to sleep with her.  When neither threat of death nor Tarquin’s pleading was effective, he threatened to kill her with the body of a male slave in her bed, making it appear that she had been killed in the act of adultery.  At this threat, Lucretia agreed lest she die dishonored. Afterwards, Lucretia sent for her husband and family, and proclaiming her innocence, killed herself. This incident, which sparked the revolt against the Tarquin monarchy and the establishment of the republic, reveals the tragedy of Rome – Lucretia was innocent, but had to die to preserve her public honor.

Mandragola: Machiavelli saw the problem of Rome, and attempted to reverse the tragedy in Mandragola. The basic premise is the same: Callimaco, upon hearing of Lucrezia’s great virtue and beauty, wants to sleep with her. Ligurio, through a series of bait-and-switch deceptions, manages to ensure that Lucrezia and Callimaco consensually sleep together, and everyone ends up happy.

Callimaco poses as a doctor Ligurio introduces him to Nicia, the aged and impotent husband of Lucrezia. They convince Nicia that if he wants a son, Lucrezia must take a potion made from mandragola root, which will unfortunately cause her next lover to die. So they must kidnap some unsuspecting fool from the streets, and make him have sex with Lucrezia before Nicia does.Through deception and bribery Lucrezia’s mother and her confessor, Friar Timoteo, are brought into the plot as well. Lucrezia truly is a woman of great virtue, but the combined efforts of her husband, mother, and confessor finally convince her to sleep with a “kidnapped” man, since her husband wishes it and producing an heir is more important than the life of some fool. Of course the man from the street is really Callimaco in disguise, and once he confesses his love to Lucrezia, she agrees to continue an affair with him. The play ends with Nicia, none the wiser, giving Callimaco a key to their house, and inviting him to visit any time in thanks for his “friendship”.

In Rome, the obsession with honor led to a unification of public and private, interior character and external action. Lucretia had to kill herself so that the public would know her character was pure. Machiavelli’s republic solves this problem by completely separating public and private life. In Mandragola, everyone does what they want in private, while maintaining public appearance (in fact, at the end of the play everyone happily goes to church together). Ligurio uses Machiavellian deception and manipulation to ensure that everyone gets what they want – Nicia will get an heir, Lucrezia and Callimaco get a passionate romance, Timoteo gets paid, and even the outsider Ligurio is raised up into a higher society. Machiavelli’s republic doesn’t rely on virtue or honor, and appearances need not match up with character. This may lead to some hypocrisy, but at least no one has to commit suicide.

Mandragola provides a compelling image of how we might be happy if we follow the principles of The Prince, turning the tragedy of Lucretia into comedy. But in Measure for Measure, Shakespeare takes a step back and asks if Machiavelli’s republic is as happy as it seems. Measure for Measure is often called a “problem comedy” because although everything seems to end well, it has a dark, unsettling tone. This play is a depiction of a Machiavellian republic, but Shakespeare, unlike Machiavelli, leaves it open for the audience to interpret as comedic or not. I don’t see the comedy.

The Duke acts just like Ligurio, but here most characters don’t get what they want. In Act I the Duke acknowledges that part of his plan is to leave someone else to reform and enforce the law, so that he won’t be blamed for it. In fact, he can return and punish Angelo for overreaching, thus enhancing the affections of his people while retaining the benefits of a more orderly city. In this plot, the Duke is literally Machiavellian (see Ch. 7 of The Prince). And frankly, it seems cowardly and a little creepy.

Before long, Angelo (as the Duke intended) goes a bit overboard with the law enforcement, convicting Claudio of fornicating with Juliet. When Isabella comes to plead for her brother’s life, we see a familiar situation – Angelo is attracted to Isabella on account of her great virtue and beauty, but her virtue prevents her from accepting his advances. Isabella is a Christian version of Lucretia – she rebuffs Angelo not only for the sake of her honor, but for the sake of her immortal soul. As a Christian, Isabella cannot “prove” her virtue through suicide.  She must accept her brother’s sentence.

The Duke immediately takes advantage of this situation, and begins manipulating and deceiving Claudio, Isabella, Mariana, and others. Almost all of this is unnecessary to resolve the situation or to test Angelo. In fact, upon hearing of Angelo’s corruption the sensible thing would be to immediately “return” and confront Angelo. Instead, the Duke uses the disguise of a priest to appear trustworthy and authoritative as he eavesdrops, spies, and encourages Mariana to sleep with Angelo in Isabella’s place.

But this raises numerous difficulties. First, none of the conspirators have reason to think their plan will be successful, because unlike the audience, they don’t know that the friar is actually the Duke himself. Why would Angelo keep his promise and spare Claudio, even if he did sleep with Isabella? The whole plot hinges on Angelo unknowingly sleeping with Mariana, so why would he acknowledge sleeping with her or marry her?  Similarly in Mandragola, the audience knows that no one is going to die, but the characters don’t. They are conned into accepting immoral action.

Second, the Duke, dressed as a friar, pressures Isabella using the same technique as Timoteo, arguing that the benefit outweighs the crime and therefore justifies it. But even the plot as understood by Isabella and Mariana involves taking Mariana’s virginity, trading sex for favors to circumvent the law, and bribing a public official (who stands in for the Duke himself). Seemingly because of his holy appearance, both women agree to the Duke’s plot despite its obvious moral and practical problems.

The Duke tries to be God – he sees everything, he hears everything (even confessions) and works behind the scenes to make everything work out. People must place their trust in him, and everything will be fine. But the Duke isn’t God; he’s creepy, deceptive, and manipulative. This problem is suggested in the title of the play, referencing Matthew: “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you.” The Duke’s attempt at playing God is not comedy – his plan is built on force, including tricking Angelo into sleeping with Mariana without his consent, and forcing at least two marriages at the end of the play.

Initially the Duke admitted that he had another motive besides testing Angelo, and he ends the play by referencing this again. Of course this greater purpose is never revealed to the audience. Shakespeare leaves it up to us to decide. I wonder if one of the Duke’s goals all along was to “test” Isabella’s virtue, and trick her into marrying him instead of becoming a nun. This brings the Duke a little too close to Tarquin for my taste.

You’re Mixing Up My Constitution

I’ve written before that because of Gouverneur Morris, aspects of the ancient mixed regime made it into the US Constitution, and a couple people have asked me to go into more detail about the doctrine of the mixed regime.

Although there have been multiple formulations of the doctrine of the mixed regime, the basic idea underlying them all is that different classes have different interests, and these have to be balanced against each other. This view has been incorporated by many thinkers and governments including Aristotle, the Roman Republic, Machiavelli, British Parliament, Montesquieu, John Adams and Gouverneur Morris, and Charles Beard. We see the enduring relevance of this theory in the debate about the role of “special interests” in American politics.

Aristotle, the “founder” of the mixed regime, described it as a combination of oligarchy and democracy. The mixed regime forms a kind of middle ground between democracy and oligarchy. In comparison to democracy it looks oligarchic, and in comparison to oligarchy it looks democratic. Both classes are given a share in rule, and thus both are protected. (In most descriptions, monarchy is added to the mix as well, as a mediating influence.)

To look at it from another angle: an oligarchy encourages education, refinement, and political acumen, while a democracy encourages strict equality, freedom, and choice. Unfortunately, oligarchy tends toward enslaving the poor, and a democracy tends toward beheading the wealthy. The idea behind the mixed regime is to strike a political balance – when the conflict between classes is controlled, and the extremes of each regime mitigated, it allows the virtues of each regime to flourish.

Therefore on a theoretical level, the mixed regime does not require any particular political institutions. In a simple form, it could be achieved simply by allotting seats in a single deliberative body according to class or, as in the British system, through a bicameral body – one for each class. The Roman Republic was more complicated, with the “mix” occurring in a few different ways. On a elementary level the republic can be understood through the well-known phrase, “Senatus populusque Romanus (The Senate and the people of Rome)” which emphasizes the “mix” of classes. But also, many military and legal offices such as consul and tribunus plebis (tribune of the people) were restricted to a single class. Over the course of hundreds of years of this “mix”, the strict distinction between classes often became muddled, and the qualifications for various offices changed. I’ve argued that the US Constitution includes some aspects of the mixed regime as well.

But even if we leave Gouverneur Morris aside (although I hate to do that), the mixed regime influenced the Constitution in another way.   Although (mostly because of the Constitution) we usually associate checks and balances with separation of powers, it actually evolved out of the mixed regime. At its root checks and balances is simply forcing different parts of government to share power, so that each part prevents the others from accumulating too much power. This is the basic principle of the mixed regime – not to separate, but to create a balance through “mixing”.

In fact, the clearest examples of checks and balances in the US Constitution are places that seem opposed to “pure” separation of powers. For example, the Senate must approve federal officers’ appointments, and the president has a veto on federal legislation. The “balance” is achieved by mixing the functions, not by separating them. Strict separation of powers would demand that the president do nothing that is not “executive” and that Congress do nothing but write/pass laws. (Because of this, several scholars have argued that strict separation of powers, without checks and balances, is unlikely to work well in practice.)

In summary: the doctrine of the mixed regime is that conflict between class interests is a fundamental problem for politics, and that by “mixing” the classes, a balance can be achieved that mitigates the harm and encourages the virtues of the extreme regimes. The principle of checks and balances evolved out of this, making its way into the US Constitution, and perhaps the class basis did too.

How to learn more about Gouverneur Morris

Gouverneur Morris was one of the foremost Founding Fathers – he helped author the New York state constitution; together with Robert Morris he was credited with rescuing the Revolutionary war finances; he was Minister to France during the Terror; he was even influential in the construction of the Erie Canal and the street plan of New York City.

But his most important contributions came at the Constitutional Convention of 1787. He spoke more than any other delegate, and he was given by the Committee on Style the task of transforming the resolutions of the Convention into the crisp, clean prose Constitution we know today. This allowed him unmatched influence on the language of the Constitution. His influence was particularly felt in the Preamble, which he wrote on his own, and the formation of the Electoral College (and thus the office of the vice-president), which he inserted through the Committee on Postponed Matters.   He wrote most of Article II (which helps explain why much of it is copied from the New York constitution ) and the famous difference in the “vesting clauses” of Articles I and II is due to a change made by Morris.

I wrote my doctoral dissertation on Gouverneur Morris, and have posted about him on this site here and here. If you’d like to learn more about the author of the Constitution, see the list of resources below.


There have been a number of biographies of Gouverneur Morris in the past 10-15 years, of varying depth and insight.

A good short biography: Melanie Randolph Miller’s An Incautious Man is an excellent, albeit brief account of Morris’s life, which focuses on his contributions at the Constitutional Convention and his time in Paris as Minister to France. Although Miller never proposes a coherent theory for explaining Morris’s politics, she described him as particularly interested in moderating democracy, allowing an arena for action by the wealthy, and maintaining executive independence. Miller is especially insightful on Morris’s European stage, and has written another interesting book focusing on Morris in France.

A more detailed biography: James J. Kirschke’s Gouverneur Morris: Author, Statesman, and Man of the World  is probably the best and by far the most comprehensive study of Morris’s life and work. In particular, Kirschke narrates the proceedings of the Constitutional Convention in exhaustive detail, and unabashedly praises Morris for his contributions. He also goes into more detail than most biographers in uncovering Morris’s work during the Revolution, which is helpful for understanding Morris’s economic contributions. Kirschke makes little attempt to discuss Morris’s views on a theoretical level, but this biography is the best description of Morris’s actions.

Two lesser biographies: William Howard Adams’s Gouverneur Morris: An Independent Life and Richard Brookhiser’s Gentleman Revolutionary: Gouverneur Morris, the Rake Who Wrote the Constitution are fine biographies, but I do not recommend them as equals of Miller and Kirschke.  Adams gives a good, detailed account of Morris’s life, although he denies that Morris has any consistent view of politics he acknowledges that Morris had great influence on the Constitution. Brookhiser seems more concerned with Morris’s colorful exploits with the ladies than with his political influence. This might stem from the fact that Brookhiser buys into the myth that Morris was an elitist, anti-democracy snob.

For what it’s worth, Teddy Roosevelt also wrote a biography of Morris.  However, it isn’t well researched and is more interesting for Roosevelt’s theory of politics than for learning anything about Gouverneur Morris.

Gouverneur Morris’s Writings

Unfortunately much of Morris’s writing hasn’t been published, or has not been properly edited. There are a few sources that give us some insight into Morris’s life and politics. Melanie R. Miller is currently compiling and annotating Morris’s diaries, although only the first volume is available. More information about that project can be found here.

The best available collection of Gouverneur Morris’s writings: Selected Writings of Gouverneur Morris not only contains many of Morris’s most important and influential speeches and papers (including some that were previously unpublished), it also provides helpful comments before each piece, explaining and contextualizing Morris’s work.. Among other things, this contains some of Morris’s economic writing, which previews Hamilton’s later national financial plan, and Morris’s critiques of French politics and proposals for a new French constitution. This is a must-have for anyone interested in Gouverneur Morris.

Gouverneur Morris’s diaries: There are a number of published volumes of Morris’s diaries (the first was published in 1832 by Jared Sparks) but most of them were heavily censored by his wife, and perhaps by Sparks as well.   Unfortunately most of what’s out there I cannot recommend. As of now, this two-volume set is one of the better reprints, although it isn’t well organized or indexed.

Convention Records

Gouverneur Morris’s greatest contributions occurred at the Constitutional Convention. So although these aren’t specifically geared towards Morris, you can’t help but read the accounts of the Convention without noticing the influence of the delegate who talked the most.

James Madison took extensive notes at the Constitutional Convention, and a few other delegates kept some records as well. These records, as well as numerous related documents were collected by Max Farrand and later reprinted with additional records. It’s worth buying the whole set if you’re interested in seeing how the Constitution was written.

If you’re looking for a free online source, Teaching American History includes Madison’s day-by-day account of the Convention, as well as some commentary and structural guides.

Feel free to contact me if you have any questions about Gouverneur Morris, or if you’d like to be directed to more detailed resources on his life and work.


Who cares if Brutus is an honorable man?

In Julius Caesar, Antony famously repeats that “Brutus is an honorable man”. Obviously Antony’s intention is ironic – he wants to incite the mob – but that doesn’t mean he thinks Brutus is dishonorable. On the contrary, every character in the play, including Antony, seems to agree that Brutus is honorable.  By emphasizing this theme throughout the play, Shakespeare demands that we ask, not just whether Brutus is an honorable man, which seems obvious, but that we ask, what good is this honor?

Brutus repeatedly goes out of his way to maintain his honor, even against his (or Cassius’s) better judgment. In other words, the flip side of his honor appears as a kind of naiveté, a failure or refusal to deal with the reality of political action. In De Regimine Principum, Aquinas emphasized that one of the primary concerns when deposing a tyrant is whether the replacement will be any better, and there’s no evidence that Brutus has a realistic plan regarding the aftermath of Caesar’s assassination. He talks about restoring Rome, but (in the play) Caesar was already offered a crown by the people, and the Senate plans to follow suit. So it isn’t clear that the Rome Brutus represents and intends to preserve even exists any more, but he lost any chance of success, especially by protecting Antony, through his refusal to besmirch his Roman honor. Brutus failed to restore the Roman republic, and this failure was at least partially due to his uncompromising pursuit of honorable action.

Now I suspect we usually feel uncomfortable in criticizing Brutus for being honorable.  It might even be tempting to dismiss his ineptitude by arguing that his virtue is more important than his political acumen.  Aristotle’s discussion of honor in the first book of the Ethics is helpful here. He criticizes the notion that honor could constitute happiness, because, 1) It is unstable, it relies on the opinions of others, and 2) We want to be honored for our virtue, implying that those good qualities are superior to the honor itself.  In other words, if Brutus is honorable it is on account of some good quality in him, so we should have a level of respect for him.

But honor is a dangerously unstable principle, both for the individual and for the city. This is probably best illustrated by the fact that Brutus kills himself, that “no man else hath honor by his death.” There might be a tendency to romanticize the Roman republic, to think of Brutus’s death as noble, and even to argue that his immortalization through Shakespeare is a fitting reward for his honorable life and death. But it should go without saying that a regime and ethical system that causes people to kill themselves is not a wholesome one.

This problem is not unique to Brutus. As Shakespeare suggests throughout the play, Brutus’s ancestors founded the Roman republic on the blood of Lucretia. She killed herself to regain her honor after she was raped by Sextus Tarquinius, spurring her family, Brutus’s ancestors, to overthrow the Tarquin monarchy. Although she held herself blameless, she nevertheless thought that only her death could restore her honor. As Augustine argued, if Lucretia was innocent, then she did not deserve death, and he criticizes the Roman love of honor on these grounds.   This is the epitome of tragedy – the Roman notion of honor called for Lucretia’s death because of something that happened to her, out of her control. The tragic suicides of Lucretia and Brutus highlight the perversity of a society demanding the death of the innocent for the sake of honor, and provide a damning indictment of the Roman republic.

Shakespeare shows us that the Senate and people of Rome have already moved on.  Brutus is a fitting final hero for the republic – unflinchingly honorable, consummately Roman, and dead.

Invisibility and Creepiness in Plato’s Republic

When you meet someone new, ask them what superpower they would choose. If they say they want to be able to turn invisible, run away. Invisibility is inherently creepy. You can’t do anything good with invisibility, you can only be sleazy or evil.

The creepiness of invisibility comes up in Book II of Plato’s Republic, when Glaucon recounts the myth of the ring of Gyges, a ring that makes the wearer invisible. In the myth, the man who finds the ring uses it to spy on people, seduce the queen, and kill the king. Glaucon employs the myth to illustrate a problem, that justice seems chosen for its consequences and not for its own sake. In other words, even perfectly nice people will succumb to creepiness if they have the power of invisibility, because there is no danger of them being found out. Much of the Republic is devoted to answering this problem in defense of justice. But I want to talk a little about how the myth provides an opportunity to better understand Glaucon.

Glaucon seems to want the power of invisibility.

According to my initial principle, I guess that means we should run away from Glaucon, although I don’t think many readers are affected that way. On the contrary, on a surface reading Thrasymachus seems like the villain, angry and uncouth, and the reader is pleased when Glaucon replaces him as the primary interlocutor. There are good reasons why many readers feel this way, and it’s not simply because Thrasymachus seems to appreciate injustice. Glaucon gives better arguments than Thrasymachus, and presents them in a more pleasing way.

This is not to disparage Thrasymachus – the dialogue needs him to advocate the controversial position in order to get things going, but it also needs Glaucon to illustrate that position in such a way that a truly philosophical conversation can emerge. The beginning of Book II marks the start of the philosophical portion of the dialogue, as Glaucon replaces the unreflective trio of Cephalus, Polemarchus, and Thrasymachus.

Which brings us back to Glaucon and invisibility. He isn’t totally creepy – he doesn’t want to hide himself, rather he wants to see everything. Invisibility would allow him a gods-eye view of the world. There are plenty of well-known signals in the text to support this. Glaucon’s name is derivative of “bright-eyed” or “owl-eyed” suggesting that he is a seeker of wisdom. His speech focuses on the difference between the way things seem and the way they are, and the necessity of revealing the true nature of things. He uses the image of polishing down a statue to reveal its true form. As we get to know Glaucon, we quickly realize that his primary concern is to overcome appearances and uncover reality.

Further comparison with Thrasymachus might be helpful. Although Thrasymachus is cast as the villain, he isn’t evil. He cares about defending the truth and isn’t simply arguing to win. But he also isn’t arguing in order to learn. His motives aren’t bad, but they aren’t philosophic. Glaucon, on the other hand, is primarily concerned with revealing the truth, whatever it may be. He is willing to make an argument he hopes to be untrue (and does so far more persuasively than Thrasymachus) in order to fully reach the truth.

Ultimately, the fact that Glaucon seems more reflective in his attitude, and more skilled in maneuvering through the arguments suggests that he is both a better philosopher and politician than Thrasymachus. It remains to be seen whether Socrates intends to make Glaucon into a philosopher-king.