“If the Wolf Sees You First, You Lose Your Voice”: Proverbs and the Agōn over Definitions of Justice in Book 1 of Plato’s Republic

2022
Author(s)
John Tennant
Publisher
Johns Hopkins University Press

Plato’s use of proverbs often goes unremarked. This article demonstrates how reference to the folk proverb “If a wolf sees you first, you lose your voice” in Republic 1 frames Socrates’ exchange with Thrasymachus as a verbal battle over the definition of justice, with proverbs as weapons. In an agonistic culture that prized the use of quotations in argument and gnomic anthologies in education, Socrates must effectively counter Thrasymachus’s proverb “Justice is the advantage of the stronger” or be rendered voiceless. Socrates defeats Thrasymachus by wielding both folk proverbs and higher-register maxims, clearing the field for his new proverb on justice, “One man, one art.”