Sunday, June 22, 2014

Gorgias (Part IV: The Philosopher and the Jury of Children)

Socrates' response to Callicles ties everything together, so there's no way to fit everything in this part of the dialogue into a post. What follows is an outline I give my students, with additional comments.


Socrates’ Response to Callicles

Remember: Callicles has argued that what is just by nature, which is that the stronger or better do what they like, is different from what is just by convention. Pressed by Socrates, Callicles specified what he meant by the stronger or better people: those who have the courage (andreia) and practical intelligence (phronesis) to control the city (491d). Pressed by Socrates again, he denies that this includes self-control (sophrosyne); it requires letting your desires grow great and then having the competence to achieve them (491e-492c). This connects with the understanding of success we found in the Gorgias and Polus discussions. If the good or successful life is a life in which you get what you like or do whatever seems good to you, the most successful life is the one constantly devoted to the satisfaction of desires (i.e., pleasure). The good life and the pleasant life are the same thing.

I. The Leaky Jars

The orderly life vs. the insatiable life

If success is found in having more desires so you can satisfy them, you should want to itch as much as possible so you can enjoy the pleasure of scratching.

If success consists merely of greater pleasure, then it wouldn’t matter how shameful the pleasure is (the catamite).

By leading the argument in this direction, Socrates is showing that Callicles, like Gorgias and Polus, is also capable of shame.

II. Good and pleasant are not the same.

First point: Good and evil are opposites, and you cannot be good and evil at the same time. But you can experience pain and pleasure at the same time. In satisfying thirst, we experience both thirst (pain) and the satisfaction of it (pleasure) at the same time, and the same goes for hunger. Therefore what is pleasant and what is good are different.

Second point: By Callicles’s account of pleasure, you stop having pleasure if you stop desiring more than you have. But good and evil aren’t related in this way; if you take away evil, you don’t take away good at the same time.

Third point: Callicles has said that the better people are those who have andreia and phronesis. This means that good people are not cowardly or foolish. But the cowardly and the brave feel the same kind of pleasure in retreating from an enemy, with the cowards perhaps feeling it even more. But if good and pleasant are the same, this would mean that the cowardly are at least as good as the brave, and maybe better, because they can have as much or more pleasure than the brave.

III. Justice requires self-control and the successful life is the just life.

At this point Callicles insists that some kinds of pleasure are better or worse than others (499b). There are good and bad pleasures, good and bad pains. This implies that the good life is a life of having good pleasures and avoiding bad pains. Note that this means Callicles is changing his argument; in effect, he has conceded Socrates’s point that goodness and pleasure are not the same. Pressed by Socrates to clarify, Callicles agrees that good pleasures are those that benefit, and bad pleasures are those that harm.

But note that this gets us right back to Socrates’s arguments in the discussion with Polus! It assumes that some things are really good and some things only seem good because they are pleasant, and that pleasant things are only good if they are done for the sake of things that are really good. This is why Socrates summarizes the discussion up to this point (500a and following).

For oratory to be good, it must produce good pleasures, that is, things that really do benefit people, and not merely flatter them by giving them what only seems good. But the real good of a thing is to have the order appropriate to it: health is the order appropriate to the body, justice is the order appropriate to human life in society. But this requires discipline or self-control. Therefore all justice requires self-control, and to have injustice is bad. And from this it follows that the person who wants success or happiness or the good life must “pursue and practice self-control” (507c). This requires, however, that we accept discipline, including punishment, when we have done wrong.

From all that has been said, the worst and most shameful thing is to do what is unjust, not to have to endure injustice. Neither Polus nor Callicles has been able to come up with a consistent position that rejects this claim. But then consider two kinds of power: the kind that comes from the craft/skill that lets you avoid doing evil, and the kind that comes from the craft/skill that lets you avoid suffering it. The latter is the kind Polus and Callicles have been talking about; the only way to avoid suffering is to control society or else be with those who control it. This, however, often requires injustice; and therefore it is not genuine power.

IV. The practice of philosophy is worthwhile even if it leads to death.

From everything that has been said it also follows that surviving is not the greatest good; just like pleasure, it is less good than justice: “Perhaps one who is truly a man should stop thinking about how long he will live” (512e). The true craft/skill of justice is not the one that keeps you alive at any cost, but the one that benefits society with what is really good by bringing order to it. Merely giving the citizens what they’d like to have is not enough; the good politician will be the one who helps the citizens to be better people, with the self-discipline that makes justice and truly good life possible. It follows from this that the true craft/skill of politics is not oratory but the kind of craft/skill practiced by Socrates, which is concerned not with flattering the people but with improving their self-control and justice (cf. 521d).

But if people in society are unjust, they might indeed put the person who practices true politics to death. (The Jury of Children.) Socrates agrees with Callicles that this is likely to happen to him. But it is better to be put to death unjustly than to do what is unjust. If someone unjustly puts a just person to death, the just person is still better off than the person doing the injustice.

This brings us back to phronesis and andreia: “For no one who isn’t totally bereft of reason and courage is afraid to die; doing what’s unjust is what he’s afraid of. For of all evils, the ultimate is that of arriving in Hades with one’s soul stuffed full of unjust actions.” (522e)

V. The Myth of the Last Judgment


Additional Comments

* The attribution of the interpretation of the Leaky Jars to "a Sicilian, perhaps, or an Italian" is a bit mysterious; the interpretation is usually taken to be Pythagorean in character or simply made up by Plato/Socrates. Note, however, that both Gorgias and Polus are Sicilians, and that the interpretation directly links it to persuasion. Assuming for a moment that Socrates is simply making it up, one could see this attribution as a sly way of keeping Gorgias and Polus in the conversation.

* Gorgias at 497b suddenly jumps into the discussion and forces Callicles to continue the discussion. Perhaps he's returning the favor for Callicles pressuring him to go on when he tried to back out at 458b?

Also, note that Callicles at 458d said that Socrates will be gratifying him if he will discuss, even if it's all day long. That attitude changes pretty drastically when he's the one who has to discuss things with Socrates! At 505d he recommends that Socrates simply drop the discussion or find someone else, and then suggests that Socrates finish the discussion by arguing with himself. Note, interestingly, that Gorgias, in his last speaking part at 506b, insists that the discussion be finished. His urging is a little ambiguous -- it isn't clear from what he says whether he's really interested, or just wants to see Socrates argue with himself. In any case, Socrates starts out taking up Callicles' part, and then transitions into a long speech, then manages to get Callicles back into the conversation.

* If you recall the analogy Socrates used with Polus, the true counterpart of which rhetoric was the flattering imitation was justice itself; this is what is meant by the dialogue's occasional hints at a true rhetoric. We can see the brief discussion of true politics, which moves directly into the jury image he had used with Polus, as a confirmation of this.

* The Jury of Children, of course, combined with Socrates' response to Callicles' insistence that because he philosophizes he could be condemned by some no-good wretch of an accuser, turns this dialogue into an extended meditation on the meaning of Socrates' condemnation and death. Callicles was in one sense exactly right -- a no-good wretch of an accuser brought charges against him, and his defense speech (as found in either Plato's Apology or Xenophon's) was not the sort of thing to get a man off by ingratiating the jury, and he was put to death. And Socrates here concedes that Callicles is right thus far -- and that this does not matter.

* A number of people are mentioned as being in Tartarus in the myth of the Last Judgment. Tantalus cut up his son and served him in a stew to the gods; the gods were not amused. Sisyphus regularly killed his guests, then kidnapped Death in an attempt to live forever. Tityus attempted to rape Leto, the mother of Artemis and Apollo, who killed him.

Thersites is from the Iliad; Socrates almost certainly takes him to be a peasant or commoner because the Iliad does not say what his father's name is, although his behavior is in any case presented by Homer as quite coarse. He was an extremely ugly man who insulted Agamemnon and was beaten down by Odysseus with Agamemnon's scepter. By insisting that he is better off than kings and potentates -- like Agamemnon and Odysseus -- Socrates is turning the world upside down, as Callicles said his position would.

* Aristides son of Lysimachus, who is praised here at 526b as just, opposed Themistocles's expansion of Athenian naval power. He was an excellent general, admired by the allies of Athens, and was a key figure in the creation of the Delian League. In Meno, Socrates praises him as a good man, but says he was unable to teach his son to be so.

* In William Altman's "Reading Order and Authenticity: The Place of Theages and Cleitophon in Platonic Pedagogy", Altman has an interesting comment linking Gorgias and Theages:

Unlike either Laches or Charmides, Theages refers to Gorgias and Polus (127e8-128a1), a reference suggesting that Theages also follows Gorgias. The statesmen Pericles, Cimon, and Themistocles are likewise used as negative examples in both Theages (126a9-10) and Gorgias (515d1). More importantly, Socrates’ suggestion (at Theages 125a2) that Theages enter εἰς διδασκάλου τυραννοδιδασκάλου τινός (“into [the lair] of a teacher, a kind of tyrant-teacher”) is thematically connected with Gorgias: the question of Gorgias’ responsibility qua teacher for the unjust actions of his students may be said to be one of that dialogue’s principal themes (Gorgias 456e2-457e4). When Theages follows Gorgias in the reconstructed reading order, the student already knows that Socrates is not serious about sending young Theages to Polus and Gorgias: he is more inclined to entertain the crippled boy’s suit—of course we do not learn until Republic that Theages is crippled and that Socrates did entertain his suit—than he might otherwise appear.


Quotations from Plato, Gorgias, Donald J. Zeyl, tr. Hackett (Indianapolis: 1987).


  1. MrsDarwin7:56 AM

    I am grieved that I haven't been able to follow along with this series this summer, but if you were ever to assemble all these Plato posts into book form, even if it was just print-on-demand, I would gladly by a copy for future reference. Same with the modal logic posts.

  2. Enbrethiliel6:37 AM


    I finished this very late last night and slept on it . . . and now I can't remember what the world was like before I knew it. Like the slave in the Meno (Spoiler alert?--LOL!), who both didn't know and already knew geometry, I both didn't know and already knew all of this.

    I like the way Socrates got around Callicles by saying that the best way to keep yourself from suffering injustice is to act justly all the time--and if within your power, to form society so that it is also as just as possible.

    But now I'm wondering about this "order" that Socrates is talking about. How do we know what the right order for society is?

  3. branemrys9:53 AM

    We'll get gestures at that (not, unfortunately, a direct or full examination) when we get to Timaeus and Critias later this week to finish this June sprint up. The real full examination is in the Gorgias's big sister dialogue, the 12-book Republic, which I'll probably look at toward the end of the summer.

  4. I enjoyed Enbrethiliel's comment about the world not being the same after reading Gorgias - and agree, this pertains also to a rereading. This is such a great series.
    This time, I was struck by how useful some of these arguments are - one may know one's own Callicles or good people who are unsure about making the effort to retain their goodness. (One may also feel like Socrates as one gets older "gaping and feeling dizzy" in this world when it departs so far from making good sense.)
    One of Socrates' admirable ways of handling less just points of view is his inviting correction of his own views, saying he would not be vexed by correction but glad to be gaining a great benefactor: showing by example how one should wish to learn in life (also showing how his two other interlocutors might have comported themselves). Or how he twists the 'courage' issue around to talk about boldness to do what is right.
    Just a quick thanks of detail: I have not taken the time to go through this in Greek and I really appreciated your note re. kolokeia.

  5. Enbrethiliel1:06 PM


    Now that it's really starting to sink in (Who knew that these things take time? =P), I see Callicles everywhere I look even in modern politics. People vote for certain candidates not because the latter are virtuous or have just platforms, but because we think that we need "people like us" in positions of power in order to survive. And maybe we do . . . but as Socrates has argued, survival is not the highest good and being victims of injustice is not the worst evil.

    I may even be crazy enough to attempt The Republic, just to see what the answers to my questions will be!

  6. branemrys6:38 PM

    One of the reasons I like using the Gorgias in an Intro course is precisely this -- we live in a world in which the principles of the rhetors are lived out, sometimes deliberately and sometimes without even thinking about it. And you're right -- we do politics on the principle that we all want a Callicles who agrees with us.

    The Republic is definitely a lot of fun -- Plato's dialogues all have their little interesting twists, and the Republic is pretty much twelve short dialogues, worth of twists, joined together in such a way as to make one large dialogue with its own twists. I've talked a little bit about it here.

  7. branemrys6:42 PM

    You're welcome! My Greek is not great, but I find myself that just getting a sense of some of the key terms is sometimes extremely enlightening.

    I know what you mean about "gaping and feeling dizzy".

  8. branemrys10:44 PM

    I don't know how bookable it will end up being, but I'll keep it in mind.

  9. Enbrethiliel1:31 PM


    BRANDON!!! I know that the next Frankenstein readalong post is very late and that the Gorgias was so "last summer," but I remembered it today when discussing hell and retributive justice with someone and I hoped that I could ask you what you think of my answer to her.

    She was saying that she can't square the idea of retributive justice with a merciful, loving God, because it means that some souls will suffer more than others for eternity, although it does them no more good than a lesser punishment would. The loss of the beatific vision is awful enough as an eternal punishment, she argued, and anything extra is needlessly cruel.

    It took a few days of back and forth, but finally I was reminded of this dialogue and wrote to her, in part:

    The exact issue that you have with retributive justice seems to be that it doesn't do any good . . . to the soul. Well, yes, in the sense that he no longer has a shot at Heaven. But that doesn't mean there is no good done at all. It is to the glory of God that the universe is ordered with perfect justice. And it may be that getting less justice would actually torture a soul more!

    Socrates has argued--and as far as I can tell, Catholic philosophy totally agrees with him here--that it is better for us to be punished for crimes that we committed than to get away with those crimes, because despite all the suffering involved in the first case, justice is being done. So in a state of full awareness of good and evil and the will of God, it could conceivably hurt a soul
    more to be denied perfect justice. Giving everyone the exact same generic punishment would turn out to be another agony--and one that nobody deserved. In that sense, retributive justice is also a mercy.

    What do you think? Does it work or did I miss something? And since you're currently grading stuff, what letter of the alphabet would you stamp on this one? (No need to answer the last question if it's not part of the "A" family. My heart wouldn't be able to bear it. =P)

  10. branemrys6:52 PM

    Grading would require having a specific problematic to grade in light of! But it's pretty good. There's a potential ambiguity with the term 'retributive justice'. Plato (and his Socrates) holds that punishment is a form of teaching (one reason why Socrates insists on it against the Sophists, since one way to read the Gorgias is as two opposed approaches to teaching). So punishment should either (1) correct the offender or (2) at least make clear what the priorities of justice are, if that's not possible. Not all accounts of retributive justice are corrective in this way, and it could be that she's using the term in a narrower sense. (Plato's account fits the definition of 'retributive justice' in the SEP article, but I find people often have a narrower group of things in mind when they use the phrase.) But it's very definitely the case that Socrates argues that we are benefited by receiving the penalty for our crimes and at least strongly suggests that denying punishment to wrongdoers can harm them. And, of course, while Plato's afterlife myths can't be taken literally, the Gorgias ends with an afterlife myth that explicitly requires that not everyone get the same punishment, because their punishments have to show the wrongness of the crime (and show the worseness of worse crimes).


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