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Topic #C25

Plato, Gorgias 481b-505c


5 November 2001

Scribes: Thomas Narsingh and Jacqueline Tsai


These minutes were spoken on 7 November;

for another version, go to the unspoken minutes



              The Gorgias dialogue is full of struggle, disagreement, and even threats of violence.  Since we have jumped into the middle of it, Prof. Hutchinson decided to discuss the events prior to our point of entry.  The dialogue involves three interlocutors (Gorgias, Polus, and Callicles) who carry with them their own arguments.  Each round becomes progressively longer and more fundamental as the next interlocutor takes a more radical position than the previous one.  Yet, Plato is able to attack these arguments with more radical counter arguments.  They are each used to symbolize something that Plato thought was wrong in the competing tradition of education.


              Isocrates was a contemporary of Plato who set up a fee-paying institution of higher education within the first ten years after Socrates’ death.  This would place it in the first decade of the 4th century.  Isocrates claimed to teach ‘philosophy’ that was comprised of writing essays, and speeches, learning rhetoric, history, and literary criticism.  Basically, he taught a ‘soft’ humanities curriculum.  Students graduated with the power to impress future employers and the public.


              Plato was alarmed at the fact that Isocrates set up an institution and claimed to teach ‘philosophy’ as he was not a student of Socrates.  In response to Plato’s hostility, Isocrates wrote a speech called Antidosis at the end of his life in order to attack Plato’s approach to education and philosophy, which also defended his own position.  Aristotle later responded to this speech by writing the Invitation to Philosophy.  The Gorgias portrays the history of rivalry between the two schools of philosophy.  Isocrates was a student of Gorgias and also an Athenian.  So, the animosity in this dialogue is an expression of animosity between Plato and Isocrates.  In the rival approach of Isocrates, the teacher tries to convey increased power to the student through communication.  There is however no effort to improve the student’s power as a moral philosopher.  Students attend class with their morals unexamined just as modern lawyers do not have to pass a test of integrity. 


In the dialogue, the first interlocutor, Gorgias, is made to admit that he ought to teach a student virtue if it is lacking.  Hence, he contradicts his position. ending the fight in a knockout.  Polus then eagerly tries to urge the typical point of view that the general use of power is to increase your interests rather than become better.  This is an interesting argument for which Socrates has a strange answer to.  The argument involves a deeper examination of the values mentioned in the Lesser Hippias.  Polus is eventually forced to give up his argument, and is left without a clue as to how he lost.  This is a common occurrence in the dialogues with Socrates. 


              Callicles, the third interlocutor, expresses the very radical view that self-expression, or self-aggrandizement is not only what is best for the individual, but what is right for society.  This view exemplifies the mind of the aristocratic creed.  487c provides us with a list of friends with whom Callicles socializes.  Andron, who is present in Protagoras 315c, had a son who studied with Isocrates.  These were the golden youth of Athenian society who thought it was irritating that their own class was hedged about by the many.  Even though Athenian society was very egalitarian, there existed a self-conscious upper class.  Callicles’ explanation of the good life is meant to be an aristocratic, oligarchical point of view that Plato rejects. 


              In exploring Callicles’ position, Plato manages to do a few things simultaneously:


1.                   He exemplifies speeches in the style of Isocrates, but surpasses him.  There are long impressive speeches with vitality and life at the beginning of this section of the dialogue.  Both are quite persuasive, and it is hard to know which speech to be persuaded by upon first reading.  Plato’s rhetorical skill is evident here.


2.                   He explores a certain conception of pleasure.  Plato is able to explore the idea that an individual should do what feels good for him.


3.                   He explores a bunch of related themes about consistency and frankness.  Callicles states that the reason the other two (Gorgias and Polus) lost their arguments to Socrates was because they were too embarrassed to tell the truth, and he seems to be correct.  As in the case of Alcibiades, as long as he was made to feel ashamed, it could be shown that what is morally good is no different than serving one’s own interests.


We can see that Callicles progressively withdraws from the discussion as he becomes more cross, and tired of being jerked around.  He is somebody who is meant to show how ugly you have to be to maintain such a self-centred theory.  Plato also wants to show how much Callicles has to give up in order to be consistent with his moral views.  At the end of the dialogue for the first time we find a myth that gives a moral reason for which Plato feels so strongly about. 


              Prof. Hutchinson then moved on to the details of the discussion.  It begins with some erotic jockeying between Socrates and Callicles.  Plato mentions that Socrates loves philosophy, while Callicles loves pleasing the crowd.  Callicles then says that we should be more shameless, and expands this into a general approbation of a strong free spirit that is unbridled by inhibitions or laws.  He speaks about Heracles who was beyond law and morality (483e).  Socrates on the other hand, is portrayed as being a middle-aged adolescent.  This was a criticism of Plato’s students by Isocrates who felt that his teachings did not help students in the outside world.


              The positive side to Callicles is that he presented a seductive idea.  In fact, it turned out to be influential on Friedrich Nietzsche, who was a later philosopher and a great classical scholar.  He came to agree with Callicles’ image of Socrates in Gorgias, and criticized all rules that equalize people because they oppresse strong individuals.  In the figure of Nietzche’s “Übermensch”, we can find Callicles’ speech transformed.  However, it is clear that Plato wants us to disagree with Callicles because he takes Callicles’ strongest argument and attacks it.  Funnily enough, the argument was so good that it persuaded Nietzche.


              After some jockeying back and forth, Callicles trips and falls on some “dialectical banana skins.”  Callicles says that the best thing for a person to bring about is the thickest group of pleasures because what is good or bad for a person is about pleasure and pain.  But, we cannot substitute the concepts good and bad for the concepts pleasure and pain.  Callicles is then forced to admit that there are good and bad pleasures. 


Just before this, Socrates introduces information from a foreign source.  Socrates tries to persuade Callicles that a consequence of his argument is that there has to be a whole lot of flow (493a).  An image of a leaking jar that constantly has to be filled with water due to the leak is presented.  This passage is thick with hints that refer to the Pythagorean tradition.  There is mention of a Sicilian and an Italian, and geographically, this is where the Pythagorean tradition originated.  Although the tomb and etymology are also Pythagorean references, the punishment in Hades is not.  Instead, it is a reference to mythology such as the myths of Sisyphus and Tantalus.  Sisyphus was condemned to push a rock up a hill that would constantly roll back down. Tantalus stood waist-high in water that would draw away from him when he tried to drink it, and beneath a fruit tree that would grow up and away when he tried to pick fruit.  The name of the unfortunate Tantalus is the origin of the word ‘tantalize’.  The punishment mentioned in Gorgias is also a futile demand, and the image of the leaky jar is very powerful for Plato. 


              When we feel need for water to quench our thirst, we drink and the water tastes good.  This is a classic, simple pleasure.  If you think that pleasure is the restoration of a normal condition, then the necessary consequence is that in order to get pleasure, there must first be depletion.  It would also follow from this that sex can only be pleasurable if desire has been left unsatisfied.  The theory Callicles propounds that the most amount of pleasure is what the rational person wants thus involves a lot of depletion.  In 494e, Socrates produces a revolting image of itchiness to which Callicles feels he should be ashamed of even mentioning (Prof. Hutchinson feels that this response was perfectly reasonable).  Plato’s response is that this is just a question of consistency.  It is Callicles’ view that contains hideous implications.


It is true that Plato’s view could have been stated more delicately.  Prof. Hutchinson cannot provide a biographical or political reason as to why this dialogue is such a violent, hostile, and ugly experience compared to the rest.  But it does show that there is a kind of hysterical alarm and anxiety on Plato’s part that such views could begin to prevail.  One student mentioned that perhaps Plato was trying to reconcile the fact that he has to have an elevated intellectual status, to which Prof. Hutchinson disagreed.  There are two concerns that Plato had on a political level:

1.      The demos/people/masses might have too much in the way of authority.  He was not an egalitarian or a democrat, but thought that the most skilled and intelligent individuals should rule.  This is because there is instability and foolishness in the masses.


2.      The talented/educated/skilled individuals who pandered to their own interests.  They used politics as a platform for their own self-aggrandizement.


We can see that Plato was in competition with many powerful forces in society.