The Gorgias is Plato’s longest dialogue after the Republic and the Laws. Nominally the subject matter of the dialogue is rhetoric, but the main theme is justice and the part it plays in human happiness. It is the only Platonic dialogue where Socrates fails to convince any of his interlocutors.

Thematically the Gorgias may be placed between the smaller so-called Socratic dialogues and the middle ones that present the doctrine of the Forms. It depicts an imaginary conversation between Socrates and three interlocutors: First Socrates converses with the sophist Gorgias then Gorgias’ student Polus and finally Callicles, also presented in the dialogue as a student of Gorgias. Neither of these interlocutors is trained in philosophy, and Callicles points out later that he is proud that he is not, though he sees some value of engaging in philosophy at young age.

Conversation with Gorgias

Gorgias claims that rhetoric is an art (τέχνη) engaging in the production of conviction (πειθοῦς δημιουργός). It may also produce conviction about what is just and unjust in courts and public meetings. Socrates observes that people may be convinced of both truths and falsehoods. Therefore rhetoric at the service of those ignorant of the truth about justice can be disastrous. To his defense Gorgias replies that the use the student of rhetoric makes of it is not the responsibility of the teacher of rhetoric, but he agrees that he would teach any student of his who happens to be ignorant about justice. He also agrees that those who know about justice want to do the just thing. Socrates’ conversation with Gorgias ends in a genuine dilemma: Though it seems reasonable that people would want to do what is just, it is clear that they do not always do it even though they know it.

Conversation with Polus

Polus opts for the second horn of the dilemma. He holds that people only want to do what they believe is good for them regardless of whether it is just or not, and rhetoric is the finest of arts because it enables them to do just that. Socrates opts for the second horn. He agrees that people want to do what is good for them but good for them is what is just, and this is the reason they want to do it. Rhetoric is not at all the fine. It is not an art, but an empirical knack disguising itself as art. It is the knack of flattery the rhetorician uses to convince the listener of anything that might suit the rhetorician, What the rhetorician ought to be doing instead is use the science of justice to teach the listener what is just.

‘Good’ for both Socrates and Polus is what make its possessor happy. Socrates proposes the thesis that only justice makes a human being happy, and it becomes apparent that this is the reason he held previously that people want to do what is just. Polus disagrees that justice does this, but is not able to articulate a view on what it is exactly that makes humans happy, other than doing as they want. Neither is Socrates able to articulate a view on justice that may convincingly be said to be the only thing that makes its possessor happy. Instead he is trying to support this thesis by proposing a arguing for two controversial claims, namely that it is better to suffer injustice than to commit it and that it is better to receive punishment if one commits injustice than to avoid it. Polus finds both claims unacceptable, but his lack of philosophical training makes him ill equipped to resist them. Still, he makes it clear before his discussion with Socrates is concluded that he does not believe a word Socrates says.

Conversation with Callicles

Socrates was able to force on Polus these two controversial claims by extracting from him the admission that committing injustice is more shameful than suffering it. Callicles complains that Socrates has been using the term ‘justice’ ambiguously, and distinguishes between what he calls conventional and natural justice. According to Callicles, Socrates has been equivocating between the two illegitimately. Only according to the former is it more shameful to commit injustice than suffer it; according to the latter it is always more shameful to suffer it. Natural justice teaches that the superior few have the right to secure a greater share for themselves by subordinating the inferior and treat them in accordance with their own interests. On the other hand, justice by convention is what the many agree to prescribe as law in order to prevent the superior from getting a greater share.

Callicles holds that natural justice has an objective basis, his evidence being the behavior of both beast and men. As a matter of psychological fact, Callicles claims, all human activity has its source in trying to satisfy desires, and satisfying them makes humans happy. The more desires humans satisfy the happier they become. If not restrained desires will grow larger until they peak, and the individual who allows his them to peak and has the ability to provide the resources for satisfying them is truly happy. Superior are the individuals who are naturally endowed with sufficient intelligence to identify recourses for fulfilling enlarged appetites and sufficient courage to do what is necessary in order to acquire these resources. Inferior are those who lack intelligence and courage to serve enlarged desires.

Callicles thus opts for the same horn of the dilemma that concluded Socrates’ discussion with Gorgias as did Socrates. According to Callicles too, people want always to do what is just by nature, which explains also why it appears that they often do not want to what they know is just, which is the statement of the other horn of the dilemma. What they often do not want to do is what is just by convention. Socrates rejects Callicles’ view on justice, but he is unable to present an alternative. In fact he rejects the importance of desires, and hence also the claim that they are the cornerstone of human psychology that any theory of justice must take into account. Instead of argument and a coherent view on justice that can legitimately be said to be a constituent of human happiness, Socrates offers at the end an eschatological myth in which it is claimed that the unjust souls will receive severe punishment after death. Socrates has clearly failed to convince Callicles through argument, and possibly also the unbiased reader.

Conclusion

It seems intuitively plausible that tying to satisfy desires should be considered as the cornerstone of psychic movement, and that satisfying them is essential to human happiness. So Callicles appears to be holding the upper hand. At the same time the life ideal that Callicles espouses will not attract many, whereas Socrates’ ethical stance, if not necessarily argument, is likely to have more appeal. Noticeably, Plato in the Republic is able to uphold the Socratic ethical stance by presenting an elaborate theory of justice that is based on a detailed view of psychology the centerpiece of which is desire.

Author: Panos Dimas
  • Cooper, J. M. Reason and Emotion. Princeton, 1999.
  • Dodds, E.R. Plato Gorgias. Oxford, 1959.
  • Irwin, T, Plato’s Ethics. New York, Oxford, 1995.
  • Kahn, C, Plato and the Socratic Dialogue, The philosophical Use of a Literary Form. Cambridge, 1996.
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