The Polemarchus Maneuver

The opening scene of Plato’s Republic is under appreciated.

Socrates and his buddy Glaucon have spent the day in Piraeus, the port city of Athens, checking out a festival. It’s now afternoon and the two are ready to get back home to Athens.

But they’re spotted by their mutual friend Polemarchus, who lives in Piraeus. Polemarchus wants to hang out with Socrates and he asks Socrates to stay. Socrates says he’d rather go home. Polemarchus points out that his posse is stronger than Socrates’s posse — so he could compel Socrates to stay. Socrates doesn’t like the idea of physical power deciding the matter, and he asks if he could perhaps persuade Polemarchus to let him go.

“But can you persuade us, if we refuse to listen to you?” asks Polemarchus.

“Certainly not,” replies Glaucon, Socrates’s traveling companion.

“Then we are not going to listen; of that you may be assured.”

I expect that Plato opened the work with this scene for a reason: willingness to listen and update is the starting point for philosophical discourse. But it’s also ironic: the entire conversation that follows from this moment happens as a result of Polemarchus’s bad-faith maneuver.


[Socrates:] I went down yesterday to the Piraeus with Glaucon the son of Ariston, that I might offer up my prayers to the goddess (Bendis, the Thracian Artemis.); and also because I wanted to see in what manner they would celebrate the festival, which was a new thing. I was delighted with the procession of the inhabitants; but that of the Thracians was equally, if not more, beautiful. When we had finished our prayers and viewed the spectacle, we turned in the direction of the city; and at that instant Polemarchus the son of Cephalus chanced to catch sight of us from a distance as we were starting on our way home, and told his servant to run and bid us wait for him. The servant took hold of me by the cloak behind, and said: Polemarchus desires you to wait.

I turned round, and asked him where his master was.

There he is, said the youth, coming after you, if you will only wait.

Certainly we will, said Glaucon; and in a few minutes Polemarchus appeared, and with him Adeimantus, Glaucon’s brother, Niceratus the son of Nicias, and several others who had been at the procession.

Polemarchus said to me: I perceive, Socrates, that you and your companion are already on your way to the city.

You are not far wrong, I said.

But do you see, he rejoined, how many we are?

Of course.

And are you stronger than all these? for if not, you will have to remain where you are.

May there not be the alternative, I said, that we may persuade you to let us go?

But can you persuade us, if we refuse to listen to you? he said.

Certainly not, replied Glaucon.

Then we are not going to listen; of that you may be assured.