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Topic #C25

Plato, Gorgias 481b-505c


5 November 2001

Scribes: Ruth Lancashire and Natasha Wall


These minutes were not spoken; for another version, go to the spoken minutes



In Monday’s lecture we looked at Gorgias, the quite contentious dialogue containing violence, struggle and disagreement; Prof. Hutchinson promised to try and keep the lecture peaceful.  We jumped into the middle of the dialogue, so to catch up,the dialogue is formed of three fights involving Gorgias, Polus,and Callicles.  Each round of these arguments is longer and more complex than the one before, as each argument contains a more radical position than the one prior to it, and all arguments consist of fundamental principles.  Socrates disagrees with the more radical principles in this dialogue, as each fight is meant to stand for something that Plato considers as wrong. 


The arguments formed in the dialogue are associated with the school of Isocrates.  This school was set up by Isocrates, an Athenian contemporary of Plato and student of Gorgias, just ten years after the death of Socrates.  This school taught a form of philosophy that involved writing essays, studying the art of rhetoric, making speeches, and literary criticisms; in other words it covered soft humanities type areas.  At this time it was alarming to the followers of Socrates that someone other than a student of Socrates was setting up school and teaching philosophy.  What was especially alarming to Plato was the form of philosophy that Isocrates was teaching, as it was drastically different from the form taught by Socrates.  At the end of his life, Isocrates wrote an essay in which he attacked Plato’s approach to education and philosophy, while defending his own, stating it as superior.  Aristotle replied to this essay with one of his own, entitled Invitation to Philosophy, in which he restated the Platonic approach to education.  There was a competing tradition of education and these two essays strengthened the rivalry between the two schools of philosophy.  Historically the animosity between the two schools was a reflection of that between Plato and Isocrates.  Plato argues that in the school of Isocrates there was no effort to develop students’ powers as moral philosophers or persons; values of morality are unexamined because the issue of morals is a different matter.  Hutchinson compared this idea to the prejudice that we show against lawyers.  We may question their morals, but when we hire them, we do not make them pass a test of integrity.


At the end of the first argument, Gorgias was made to admit that one ought to teach a student virtue if he doesn’t have any to begin with.  At this point Polus takes over the argument.  He asserts that the general use of power is to serve the interest of individuals rather than that of the better good; the individual must be benefited.  This is a deeper examination of what we found in Hippias.  After arguing with Socrates, Polus finds himself, as Hutchinson put it, “on the ground, shoulders pinned to the mat, and he had no idea how he got there.”  Polus, like many other interlocutors of Socrates, found himself losing the argument but not knowing how this had happened.  


Callicles jumps in at this point and asserts that self expression is not only what is best for the individual, but what is best for society; this is called the Aristocratic Creed.  Callicles spent his time with Teisander of Aphidnae, Andron the son of Androtion, as well as Nausicydes of Cholarges. They were all members of the golden youth of the Athenian aristocratic class.  Members of this circle thought it irritating to have the dominance of their own class restricted by the egalitarian system and democracy.  At this time Athens was very egalitarian, but an upper class did exist. Callicles believed that he was the only one not clouded by the egalitarian system and democracy. 


In the dialogue we find impressively persuasive speeches written by Plato in the Isocratean style, which are meant to be a contribution to the skill that Isocrates was said to have mastered.  Plato allows himself to display rhetorical skill and also allows himself to explain a certain conception of pleasure and philosophy.  Plato is clearly opposed to the viewpoint that suggests that one should be doing what feels good.  He also explores related themes about consistency and frankness about discussions.  Callicles claims that the other two, Gorgias and Polus, failed at arguing their point of view because they were afraid to tell the truth. Callicles then progressively withdraws from the conversation, becoming bored and cross with getting “jerked around” by Socrates.  It is safe to say that Callicles lacks intellectual patience.  This dialogue is meant to show how ugly you have to be to maintain self-centered theories, and how much Callicles has to give up to try and maintain his theories. 


Socrates and Callicles are both lovers of two objects. A common love lies with their boyfriends Alcibiades, being Socrates’, and Demos, being Callicles’. The second object of their love differs in their commitments.  Socrates, along with Plato, maintains that his commitment is to philosophy, while Callicles, as well as Isocrates, are more committed to the demos, the people of Athens.  Callicles portrays Socrates as a middle-aged adolescent found whispering in the corner with no place in the arena.  Callicles states that Socrates teaches his students a philosophy that does not help them in the real world. 


Callicles states that laws are inhibitions and restraints which prevent individuals from attaining more than a certain amount in life; they act as equalizers (483e).  The idea of rising above the law is attractive and provocative.  This idea was influential for Friedrich Nietzsche, a classical scholar, who agreed with Callicles about rules and laws which prevent the strong from dominating. In Nietzsche’s work we can find traces of Callicles. It is clear that Plato wants us to disagree with Callicles, but since he gives Callicles the best argument possible, we can see why Nietzsche agreed with him. 


Callicles comes to the conception that the best thing for a person to do is that which brings about pleasure and avoids pain.  Prof. Hutchinson then stated that most people agree that what is good or bad is the same as what is pleasurable and painful.  However, you cannot substitute good and bad with pleasure and pain.  Callicles realized this as he is forced to admit that there are both good and bad pleasures.  Socrates makes reference to some Pythagorean ideas when he sates that perhaps the human body is a tomb (493a).  He uses this reference to try and persuade Callicles to see that those who are orderly are happier than those who are undisciplined.  Those who are driven by appetite and desire are condemned to misery their entire lives because of their insatiability.  Their souls are like leaky jars which make them unable to retain anything and as a result there always exists fresh pleasure and fresh need.  This idea is similar to the story of Tantalus. While trapped in Hades, he was immersed in water which could not be drank because it was out of reach, meanwhile just overhead was a fruit tree which was also out of reach.  Tantalus was unable to fulfill any of his appetites.

Socrates then states that when we have a need, for example thirst, the pleasure is the restoration to a normal condition, therefore a depletion of that normal condition is needed for the pleasure to be felt.  In other words, water tastes better after you have been thirsty.  If one believes merely in satisfaction, as opposed to how one is satisfied, then it must be better to be itchy in order to gain the pleasure from scratching.  Callicles responds to this idea by telling Socrates that he should be ashamed for bringing the discussion to such matters.  Hutchinson then brought up the “question of consistency” which states that the quantity of pleasure that governs whether life is successful is to test whether that pleasure is a good thing to have.  Pleasure may be the basis of decision making, but it is made clear in the Platonic philosophy that we need morality to prevent us from having ugly children; those who grow up and only seek for themselves. 


Prof. Hutchinson then posed the question as to why Plato goes through these experiences with violence and ugliness.  He stated that there are no biographical reasons for this.  He believes that Plato’s response is based on his anxiety that these views could prevail.  Plato considers them dangerous to society.  A student then raised his hand in objection: he disagreed with the Professor, and asserted that Plato’s argument against Callicles was due to his attempt to keep his elevated intellectual status in society.  Hutchinson responded with disagreement saying that he believes Plato's views to be: a) people might gain too much authority; those who have the most skill and knowledge should rule as the public is a source of instability, and b) that he is concerned with the educated upper class who would use their power only for self-satisfaction.  Hutchinson stated that the animosity from Plato is both philosophical and political, and that this passage is a battle ground, not just an idle game.  This represents what was taking place in Athens at that time.