Friday, June 20, 2014

Gorgias (Part II: Flattery and Civic Power)

(up to 481b)

Polus jumps into the conversation, claiming that all Socrates has done is take advantage of the fact that Gorgias was too ashamed to make a concession that would have saved him from inconsistency. Socrates replies that he'll be happy to discuss the matter with Polus as long as Polus doesn't use any long speeches. Polus indignantly asks whether or not he has the freedom to say as much as he likes -- to which Socrates replies that he does, and that Socrates has the freedom to leave as soon as he wants. But Socrates offers Polus a choice between questioning and being questioned, and Polus chooses to question, demanding that Socrates say what craft he thinks rhetoric or oratory is. Socrates replies that he thinks it is not a craft (techne) but a knack/familiarity/experience (empeiria) for getting gratification. Socrates, pressed by Polus, builds a complex analogy, which unfortunately is complicated by the difficulty of exact translation. This is my best shot:

  craft of health (knowing, aimed at real good)
  mere flattery [kolokeia] in matters of health (guessing, aimed at getting apparent good)
    haute cuisine [opsopoiia]

political life:
  political craft (knowing, aimed at real good))
    legislation (nomothetic)
    justice [dikaiosyne]
  mere flattery in political matters (guessing, aimed at getting apparent good)

He explains what he means by kolokeia or flattery ('pastry baking' is another possible translation of opsopoiia):

It takes not thought at all of whatever is best; with the lure of what's most pleasant at the moment, it sniffs out folly and hoodwinks it, so that it gives the impression of being most deserving. Pastry baking has put on the mask of medicine, and pretends to know the foods that are best for the body, so that if a pastry baker and a doctor had to compete in front of children, or in front of men just as foolish as children, to determine which of the two, the doctor or the pastry baker, had expert knowledge of good food and bad, the doctor would die of starvation. I call this flattery, and I say that such a thing is shameful. (464d)

Polus is not impressed by the comparison, and demands to know if Socrates really thinks that good orators are held in low regard like flatteries; Socrates replies that they aren't held in any regard. But they have the greatest political power, Polus protests. They have the least political power, Socrates replies. But they have the same power as tyrants, insists Polus. Tyrants also have the least power in their city, Socrates replies, because even though they do what seems good to them, they do not do what they want. Isn't being able to do what seems good to you the same as having great power? Polus asks. Not according to Polus, Socrates replies. Polus is baffled by this, and Socrates responds that Polus thinks that having great power is good for the one who has it, and Polus agrees. But, Socrates says, Polus doesn't think that it's good when a person does what seems good to him without having understanding, and Polus agrees. But, of course, this means that Polus has to prove that orators have understanding so that they do what they want. Polus points out that they do what seems good them; Socrates again states that they do not therefore do what they want -- what we want is genuine good, but what seems good to us might not be genuinely good. (I've summarized this portion of the discussion in detail because it raises lots of ideas that will be at issue for the rest of the dialogue.)

Polus protests that Socrates himself would welcome the ability to do what seems good to him, and would be envious of someone who had the power to put his enemies to death and confiscate their property. Socrates replies that a person who puts someone to death is not to be envied, and if he puts someone to death unjustly he is miserable and pitiable. "It's because doing what what's unjust is actually the greatest of evils," says Socrates (469b). In other words, it is always better to endure what's bad than to do what's bad. This important point will dominate much of the rest of the discussion between Polus and Socrates.

A real-life example comes up in the course of this discussion. The first, raised by Polus, is that of Archelaus son of Perdiccas. Archelaus was the son of the third son of the king of Macedon. He engineered his rise to power by killing his uncle and his cousin, so that his father ascended the throne. Archelaus was only the son of a slave woman, so his seven-year-old half brother became the heir. He then killed his half-brother by throwing him into a well. Polus notes that if Archelaus had only done what was just, he would essentially have just been his uncle's slave; instead, he became king of Macedon -- indeed, a great, wealthy, powerful king. Socrates will respond that, because punishing wrongdoers is good for them (being a correction), for an unjust person not to get their deserts for injustice is a reason to pity them.

Socrates will then conclude that the only value of rhetoric is that if you do something wrong, you can use it to make sure you get punished as you should! This, of course, will startle Callicles into the discussion.


* After the Athenian fleet was devastated in the Syracusan expedition, the Athenians came to Archelaus for timber to build a new one. Archelaus, who could have named any price he wanted, in fact treated the Athenians extraordinarily generously. Because of this he was highly regarded in Athens. That this is at least part of what is in view is strongly suggested by Socrates' passing mention of Nicias son of Niceratus, who died in the Syracusan Expedition.

* Aristocrates son of Scellius, whom Socrates also mentions, would later become one of the oligarchs involved in the overthrow of the democratic government of Athens.

* Socrates mentions in passing the day he was president of the Assembly and refused to put to the vote the illegal resolution to execute the generals from the Aginusae incident, which I discussed in looking at the spurious dialogue Axiochus.

to be continued


  1. Enbrethiliel3:57 PM


    I'm in the middle of this part and I really like Socrates's having a chance to answer questions for a change! When he compared rhetoric to flattery, I nearly fell out of bed (where I had been reclining to read) because it was that startling an insight. I'll be back . . .

  2. branemrys4:35 PM

    If you like Socrates having to answer questions, the dialogue will have another interesting twist when Callicles starts getting surly when he's arguing with Socrates.


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