back to PHL200Y home page

back to course outline

Topic #C26

Plato, Gorgias 505c-527e


7 November 2001

Scribes: Sarah Minchom and Leigh Cunningham


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


This lecture concentrated on the beginning of this section of the Gorgias and the end of the dialogue. At this point in the dialogue we know that Callicles does not like losing, and here he withdraws from the discussion, telling Socrates to finish the discussion by himself. Socrates offers to give up but Callicles, being curious, urges him to continue. Socrates’ conversation with himself relates the familiar theme that we do not need to impress particular people but should evaluate our own ideas to see where the self is consistent. However, Professor Hutchinson says this interpretation is misleading because Callicles’ withdrawal marks the end of the actual discussion, with the dialogue undergoing a transition from a dialectical enquiry to a series of statements; from discussion back and forth between two people to a myth that Socrates really believes. 


In the last quarter of Gorgias we can observe four modes of discourse: myth, fake internal dialogue, discussion and literary speeches. It was through the latter that Plato’s fame was founded.  While it is not the case that all modern readers like these long speeches, they were focused on, in ancient times, as literary gems, as works of philosophical poetry, due to an ancient orientation towards rhetorical display.  Some scholars think that Platonic dialogues were performed, possibly at fringe festivals outside of official festivals like Dionysus. At these fringe festivals there were mimes that performed impressionistic plays, and it is quite possible that Plato wrote his dialogues in imitation of Sophron’s mimes, to be performed in such a context. Some of the dialogues that would be performed well include Meno, Euthyphro, Rival Lovers, however, dialogues like the Republic, a work of far greater length and complexity, are unimaginable to perform. Gorgias is at the limit in terms of length and complexity, leaving it deemed performable and unperformable at the same time.  It is likely that it was not a performance piece though, as it works well as a complex literary entity.


Beginning at 506c, Socrates is given the chance to say what he wishes without any resistance from his listeners.  This marks the start of where Socrates and Plato agree, as is emphasised with the remark, “this is how I set down the matter, and I say that this is true”(507c), which can be taken as a declaration from Plato himself. Socrates is talking to himself making dogmatic statements about order, organization and knowledge. A person is good because of the state of their soul. The state of the soul depends on the soul’s order. Only an ordered soul can have power, thus gaining knowledge. This goodness has nothing to do with pleasure. Therefore, the self-controlled soul is good, whereas the undisciplined soul is bad and foolish.  Socrates lists virtues and how they relate to each other (507a-b).  The self-controlled soul will be just towards others and towards the gods. The key towards the other virtues (bravery, justice, wisdom) is self-control. Therefore, a person who possesses one virtue actually has them all, and Plato agrees with this. 


Socrates then argues that it is much better to suffer injustice than to commit injustice. Even though we lose pleasure when we suffer, it is worse to damage oneself with unjust actions. Professor Hutchinson spoke about how he disciplines his son, saying that it is not a question of whether the child will like the punishment, but how to best minimise the damage the child does to himself. Punishment is the most direct action that communicates how one feels about a bad act and leads to acknowledgement, reconciliation and forgiveness- three things that help the soul and prevent permanent damage to the soul. Aristotle maintains that the longer you persist in a bad habit, the more that habit is ingrained on your soul. Punishment, therefore, by helping to minimise the trend toward bad behaviour, minimises the damage done to the soul.  Socrates says that doing and suffering bad deeds are both bad and that we do not have the ability to prevent ourselves from suffering or committing bad things. One cannot rely on just wanting not to commit these acts, but rather has to develop a power to avoid committing them.


Lesser Hippias seems to focus on the idea that a person who lies has more ability because he has the will to do so, thus it is the existence of the will that controls lying. However, Plato believes that it is not enough to have a will to do good or bad, but that we need a power to do so.  Similarly, in Republic Socrates shows the same knowledge; power brings of it its own will.  In fact, the first book of Republic speaks only of power.


Socrates proceeds to claim that he is the only politician of the city; not even Pericles, considered by most to be the greatest politician, is a good politician in Socrates’ view. Pericles failed to meet Socrates’ high ideals because he had caused the people to lose patience with him, and ostracise him late in life - a shepherd of the people, herded by the flock.  Socrates thinks this because he is the only one leading people to virtue. In Xenophon’s Memoirs of Socrates 3.9, Socrates says that the leader is not necessarily the one with the sceptre but the one who knows what is valuable. Callicles rejects this, saying that Socrates just converses with a few friends in the corner, while Callicles and others actually carry out practical accomplishments. This discussion ties in with Socrates’ earlier idea that Gorgias should teach virtue; otherwise Gorgias may be ashamed of his students if they act unjustly. 


English speaking students largely neglect the myth that appears at the end of Gorgias. The myth is very influential and has spawned many imitations. It is a story of the judgment of good and bad souls in Hades. There are obvious Pythagorean roots relating to the idea of the reincarnation of good souls into higher positions, whereas the bad souls are demoted into lower life forms. Plato largely agrees with this and stresses the issue of rewards; the central issue of the Gorgias is about making the choice between a life of virtue and a life of self-indulgence. 


This myth was taken over by Christians. It is not widely realized that in the New Testament there is no reference to an immortal soul, rather that bodies would rise from their graves and live again. Also in early Christianity there was no reference to heaven or hell. This needed to be modified after the 3rd century when Christian folk realized that the dead were not rising. These ideas were reinterpreted to a metaphorical story of the judgment of immortal souls followed by rewards and punishments. Therefore, modern Christianity (the last seventeen centuries) has largely been grafted onto ancient philosophical traditions.  The ancient rootstock of Christian faith could not survive on its own, needing bolstering by others, like Plato.