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Topic #C26

Plato, Gorgias 505c-527e


7 November 2001

Scribes: John Kohler and Jennie Lin


These minutes were spoken on 12 November;

for another version, go to the unspoken minutes



At the beginning of the assigned reading, Callicles progressively withdraws from the dialogue with Socrates because he is losing.  This is seen when Callicles (at the end of his patience) asks Socrates sullenly in 505d, “Couldn’t you go through the discussion by yourself, either by speaking in your own person or by answering your own questions?”  At this point, Socrates offers to give up, but is urged to continue the discussion on his own, after which follows a “curious, curious episode” where we find Socrates asking and answering his own questions.


              A notion of self-interrogation for the purpose of discovering the consistency of one’s beliefs might be the one interpreted by readers; however, Socrates is not actually interrogating himself.  This point in the text plays an important part; Callicles’ withdrawal marks a transition in the dialogue from dialectical inquiry (or conversation between two people) to statement, where most of what Socrates says is not called into question. 


              Plato uses several different literary modes in Gorgias as relevant mediums to communicate his message. The grand speeches in the dialogue can be identified as one mode of discourse.  The discussions amongst Socrates, Gorgias, Polus and Callicles, are the second literary form in the work.  The statement is the third literary discourse used by Plato to display his considerable skill in composing philosophical poetry.  Although the grandiose speeches may not appeal to modern readers, this is what gained Plato fame in the ancient world, because they were considered highlights for the ancient audience and were thought to enrich the text. The last method exploited in the Gorgias is the use of myth (discussed later).     


              A student inquired whether Plato’s dialogues were performed.  Prof. Hutchinson replied that some scholars believe Plato’s dialogues could have been staged for an audience in an arena similar to the fringe festivals at Edinburgh.  At these festivals, mimes like those of Sophron re-enacted readings and poetry.  Some modern scholars maintain that, as Aristotle noted, Plato seemed to write his dialogues in this dramatic performance style.  Prof. Hutchinson believes that much of Plato’s work could be performed in this context, since he himself has observed the enjoyment of audiences during live readings of Plato’s text.  It is probable the dialogues Laws, the Republic, and Timaeus were not performed due to their length, although it is likely that shorter dialogues such as Meno were.  He added that he has had success re-enacting similar dialogues (i.e. Rival Lovers) and dreams of adapting Euthyphro for the modern stage, but the Gorgias may not have been performed due to its complexity and length.  


              In the Gorgias, the opening statement of 506c implies significant consequences for the rest of the work.  The statement in 506c to 507c should be taken to be declarations made by both Plato and Socrates.  Socrates rarely declares his beliefs so explicitly, reading: “So this is how I set down the matter, and I say that this is true.  And if it is true, then a person who wants to be happy must practice self-control”(507c).  Hutchinson then read 506c-507a, where Socrates outlines just what it is he says is true:

Is the pleasant the same as the good?—It isn’t, as Callicles and I have agreed.—Is the pleasant to be done for the sake of the good, or the good for the sake of the pleasant?—The pleasant for the sake of the good.—And pleasant is that by which, when it’s come to be present in us, we feel pleasure, and good that by which, when it’s present in us, we are good?—That’s right.—But surely we are good, both we and everything else that’s good, when some excellence has come to be present in us?—Yes, I do think that that’s necessarily so, Callicles.—But the best way in which the excellence of each thing comes to be present in it, whether it’s that of an artifact or of a body or a soul as well, or of any animal, is not just any old way, but is due to whatever organization, correctness, and craftsmanship is bestowed on each of them.  Is that right?—Yes , I agree.—So it’s due to organization that the excellence of each thing is something which is organized and has order?—Yes, I’d say so.—So it’s when a certain order, the proper one for each thing, comes to be present in it that it makes each of the things there are, good?—Yes, I think so.—So also a soul which has its own order is better than a disordered one?—Necessarily so.—But surely one that has order is an orderly one?—Absolutely.—So a self-controlled soul is a good one.  I for one can’t say anything else beyond that, Callicles my friend; if you can, please teach me.


Socrates states that the goodness of the soul is the presence of order, structure, organization and craftsmanship; pleasure has nothing to do with this.  Plato and Socrates share the belief that this good of the soul, and not body, makes a good person, and it provides one with power – knowledge power – over other things.  In 506c to 507b of Gorgias, there is a listing of each of these main virtues and how they relate to the good as well as each other:

I say that if the self-controlled soul is a good one, then a soul that’s been affected the opposite way of the self-controlled one is a bad one.  And this, it’s turned out, is the foolish and undisciplined one.—That’s right.—And surely the self-controlled person would do what’s appropriate with respect to both gods and human beings.  For if he does what’s inappropriate, he wouldn’t be self-controlled.—That’s necessarily how it is.—And of course if he did what’s just, and with respect to human beings, he would be doing what’s just, and with respect to gods he would be doing what’s pious, and one who does what’s just and pious must necessarily be just and pious.—That’s so.—Yes, and he would also necessarily be brave, for it’s not like a self-controlled man to either pursue or avoid what isn’t appropriate, but to avoid and pursue what he should, whether these are things to do, or people, or pleasures and pains, and to stand fast and endure them where he should.


Thus, if you are self-controlled, then wisdom will follow; and justice will follow from wisdom, and bravery as a result of wisdom.  This thesis is held by Socrates and Plato; they believe that a person who has just one of the virtues must have all the others as well, and there are some strange consequences to these beliefs.  For example, it is bad to suffer an injustice; but it is worse to be a bad person and act unjustly.  Therefore, it is better to be abused by a “weirdo” than to commit a crime of injustice yourself, because in committing the crime, you damage and soil your soul. 


              Professor Hutchinson declared that this belief is consistent with his own experience as a father.  He explained that when he teaches his son how to control his anger, he tries to minimize the damage his son will do to himself in pursuing vicious ways, by minimizing his son’s aggressive behavior.  He continued that it would be misguided to attempt to provide the most pleasurable educational experience for his son; instead, he should aim at correcting this behavior so it doesn’t become ingrained.  Aristotle and Plato were in agreement with this view, claiming that the longer you do “bad,” the more it will become ingrained in your being. Plato used the metaphor of steering using the rudders of pleasure and pain to say that you should steer the “boat” to activities you want the child to experience, and avoid those you don’t want the child to experience.


              We should note another odd consequence of Socrates’ concept of the virtues: he believes himself to be the only great politician in Athens.  Plato thus denounces through Socrates the great politician Pericles, who is not a truly great politician if we measure him against Socratic ideals; Pericles was ostracized and made an outcast at the end of his rule by the very people he was trying to govern.  The claim that Socrates himself is the only true politician is a response to Callicles’ criticism that Socrates is wasting his life with adolescents, when he should be attending to practical work and intervening in the public arena with a respectable role in society, like Callicles.  According to Socrates, however, a politician must not only know how to rule, but every skill, including the skill of oratory, should be used only in conjunction with the goal to lead the people to virtue and moderation.  This entails a true knowledge about how to make the people “good,” and about what is truly valuable.  Since Socrates seems to be the sole one who understands this, he necessarily concludes that he is the only true politician.


              In 509c-e we can see themes common also to the Lesser Hippias and the Republic.  In this passage Socrates points out that one needs power both to commit harm against someone and to protect yourself from harm.  Wanting not to be harmed is not enough; you must have the power not to be harmed, and the way to gain this power is through political strength. Likewise, you not only need the will to commit a crime, you need power to commit it. Plato thought that the same knowledge resulting in power and will also allows you to do either good or bad, since you have knowledge of what is good, and what is bad.


              The myth in Gorgias was the last topic of the lecture.  The legend in the myth is the story of the judgment of dead souls by Rhadamanthus (the king of the underworld), and it is a myth with Pythagorean implications.  Plato has accepted Pythagorean notions of reincarnation, which are consistent with the myth, that all souls would be judged at the end of life: if they got a good judgement the soul would pass to the next level, if the soul was not judged favourably, a demotion would result.  The description of the eschatological myth in the Gorgias dialogue stresses the reward aspect, manifesting the fact that it is good to live a life of virtue; good would be rewarded with good, bad with bad.  This Platonic view on reward and judgment after death was seized by third-century Christian thinkers, who took the ideas of the immortal soul and “stitched” them on to the Christian faith.  The Greek eschatological ideas were adopted by Christian doctrine at a time when original beliefs in their faith failed to come true, forcing them to re-interpret their religious text.  This was like the grafting of the old-world grapes to new-world rootstocks to prevent the originals from dying out.  It was not until the fourth and fifth centuries that the Greek ideas of the judgment of immortal souls became official doctrine in the Christian tradition.