CHAPTER 4: PLATO: THE GORGIAS

I HAVE already said that it is impossible to produce more than a plausible account of the historical Socrates; and the most obvious reason for this is that it is impossible to say at what point in Plato’s dialogues the character called Socrates became merely a mouthpiece for the mature Plato. But so far as the philosophical import of what is said in the dialogues is concerned, this need not trouble us. For a clear pattern of argument can be discerned. In the Gorgias, which is certainly a fairly early dialogue, we see Plato set most of his central problems in ethics. In the Meno and the Phaedo a metaphysical background is being constructed, which in the Republic provides an essential part of a proposed solution to problems which are a restatement of those in the Gorgias. In the dialogues after the Republic there is a sustained critique of the metaphysics, but there are also two substantial afterthoughts on the problems of ethics, the Philebus, on pleasure, and the Laws.

The Gorgias falls into three sections, in each of which Socrates has a different interlocutor, and each of which establishes certain positions once and for all before passing on. The function of the first part is to dispose of the claims of rhetoric to be the τέχνη whereby virtue is taught and also to establish a distinction between two senses of persuasion. Gorgias himself is the upholder of the view that rhetoric, as the art of persuasion, is the means to man’s supreme good. For the supreme good is freedom (ἐλενθερία), and by freedom is meant the freedom to have one’s own way in everything. In order to have one’s own way in the city-state, one must be able to sway one’s fellow citizens. Socrates introduces a distinction between the kind of persuasion which produces knowledge in the man who is persuaded and the kind that does not. In the first case persuasion consists in offering reasons for holding a belief, and if the belief is accepted, an account can be given to back it up in terms of those reasons; in the second case persuasion consists in subjecting the audience to a psychological pressure which produces an ungrounded conviction. Now Gorgias makes it plain that rhetoric is persuasion not of the former, but of the latter kind. One of the praises of the orator is that he can persuade audiences upon topics on which he himself is unskilled; Gorgias’ example is the success of Themistocles and Pericles in persuading the Athenians to build the docks, harbors, and defense works necessary for Athenian imperialism, although they themselves were politicians and neither naval nor military engineers. Socrates inquires whether the orator needs a knowledge of right and wrong, any more than he needs a knowledge of engineering. Gorgias is not entirely consistent on this point; he appears to suggest that an orator will on occasion need to be a just man, but is vague as to how he may become just. Rhetoric itself he presents as a morally neutral technique which can be used for either right or wrong purposes: to blame a teacher of rhetoric for its misuse by his pupils would be as silly as to blame a teacher of boxing for the uses to which pupils may put their craft afterwards.

The idea that techniques of persuasion are morally neutral is a recurrent one in human society. But in order to hold that such techniques are neutral, it is necessary also to hold that it is morally irrelevant whether a man comes to a given belief by reasoning or in some nonrational way. And in order to hold that this is morally irrelevant, one would have to hold also that a man’s exercise of his rationality is irrelevant to his standing as a moral agent, irrelevant, that is, to deciding whether he is entitled to be called “responsible” and his actions “voluntary.” Thus different elucidations of the concepts of responsibility and voluntary actions are presupposed by different moral attitudes to the standing of the techniques of persuasion. The philosophical task of elucidation cannot therefore be morally irrelevant. And one of the more obscurantist features of a sophist like Gorgias-and indeed of his later successors among the electioneering politicians of liberal democracy, the advertising executives, and other open and hidden persuaders-is the willingness to assume a whole philosophical psychology. It is this which leads Socrates to develop an argument to show that rhetoric is not a genuine art at all but a mere spurious imitation of an art.

By this time Gorgias has been replaced in the argument by his pupil Polus. Polus reiterates that the moral point of the use of rhetoric is the acquisition of power. The successful orator can do whatever he wants. Socrates’ retort to this is that a man may do whatever he thinks it good to do, and nonetheless not be doing what he desires. Here Socrates’ point is that where a man does one thing for the sake of another, if he is intellectually mistaken as to the character of the connection between what he does and that for the sake of which he does it, he may in fact be defeating his own ends. The despot who inflicts injury and death upon others may be doing what appears to him to minister to his own good, but he is mistaken. For, says Socrates, it is worse for a man to inflict wrong than to suffer it.

Polus’ counterexample is the tyrant Archelaus of Macedon, who had acquired power by successive episodes of treachery and assassination; everybody, says Polus, would like to be Archelaus if he could. Socrates’ point is, however, that whether that is what people wish or not is irrelevant. For if that is what they wish, it can only be because of a mistake on their part as to what is for their own good. He now proceeds to convict Polus of such a mistake, but he is able to do so only because of the state of the moral vocabulary which has already been described. Polus is not prepared to admit that it is worse (κακιόν) to inflict injury without due cause than to suffer it, but he is prepared to concede that it is more disgraceful (αἰσχιόν). In order to understand this we must recall the contrast between the pairs of adjectives, good- bad (ἀγαθός-κακός) and honorable-disgraceful (καλός-αἰσχρός). What is καλός is what is well thought of. To be the Athenian ideal of a gentleman (καλὸς κἀγαθός) one had both to be and to be thought good. The reference of καλός and of αἰσχρός is to how a man appears. Polus is prepared to redefine ἀγαθός because the customary sense has become unclear. But because precisely of his commitment to winning popular favor, he is committed to popular estimations of reputation. He cannot commend his own valuations to his hearers unless at some point at least he appears to accept theirs. (This is why Plato is able to observe later in the dialogue that the man who seeks to master the people by persuading them is forced in order to do this to accept their standards and so is mastered by them.)

Polus therefore accepts the view that it is more disgraceful to inflict injury undeservedly than it is to suffer it. But Socrates forces upon him the recognition that the predicates καλός and αἰσχρός are not criterionless. Socrates takes examples of these predicates applied elsewhere (note that once again there is a translation difficulty; καλός means both “beautiful” and “honorable,” αἰσχρός both “ugly” and “disgraceful”)-namely, to sounds and colors, to ways of life, and to sciences. From these examples he draws the conclusion that we are entitled to call something καλός if it is useful or pleasant, or both, in the eyes of a disinterested spectator. Thus if Polus agrees that to suffer injury undeservedly is more honorable, it must be because it is pleasanter and more beneficial. But for Polus these define the content of “what a man wants,” so he can no longer consistently dissent from Socrates’ view.

A further very simple conceptual point is at issue here which Plato does not bring out explicitly. Anyone who tries to explain good as meaning “what X thinks to be good” is involved in a vicious-because both vacuous and interminable-regress. For in order to understand this elucidation, we must already understand good in some other way; if not, we are involved in writing out our definition as “what X thinks to be ‘what X thinks to be “what X thinks to. . .”’” Now, to attempt to define moral terms by reference to how people in general define them presupposes likewise that if one is not to be involved in such a regress, one already grasps the moral concepts possessed by people in general. And it is this that traps Polus.

His successor in the dialogue, Callicles, is not prepared to be trapped. He grasps that what betraved both Polus and Gorgias was their insufficiently systematic redefinition of moral terms. For Callicles the supreme good is power to satisfy all desires. Callicles’ position is indeed a complex one. He is contemptuous of the life of theorizing and contemptuous therefore of Socrates. He is involved at once in two disagreements with Socrates. The first is over the concept of desire. Socrates argues that the man of boundless desires is like a leaky sieve, never filled, never satisfied; therefore, to have great and violent desires is to make it certain that you will not get what you want. Unless our desires are delimited, they are not satisfiable. Callicles refuses to accept this. All that we need to do at this point is to underline the fact that the concepts of desire and of satisfaction present problems which Callicles’ analysis passes by.

Secondly, when Callicles at an earlier stage in the dialogue proclaimed the right of the strong man to rule, he clearly intended by this to glorify the despot. Socrates, however, points out that the populace are in an obvious sense stronger than the tyrant, and therefore on Callicles’ view ought to rule. Callicles has therefore to redefine the concept of the “stronger” as meaning the “more intelligent.” And this at once raises for him the problem of what intelligence in a ruler consists in. Before Socrates can compare his answer on this point to that of Callicles, he clarifies certain key philosophical differences between them. The first of Socrates’ points is that the pair of concepts “good-bad” differs from the concepts “pleasure-pain” in that the former are contradictories, the latter not. If I assert that something is in some respect good, then it follows that I am committed to the view that the same thing is not bad in the same respect; but according to Socrates if I assert that something is pleasant in some respect, it does not follow that it is not painful or unpleasant in the same respect. This unfortunate argument depends upon a thoroughly misleading example. If I am taking pleasure in eating because I am not yet satisfied, my discomfort at not yet being satisfied and my pleasure coexist. So I enjoy pleasure and pain simultaneously. But of course the pleasure is and derives from one thing, the pain is and derives from another.

The opposite point that Socrates makes is that good and bad cannot be synonymous with pleasant and painful, for we use good and bad in evaluating pleasures and pains. Callicles thinks the good man to be intelligent and courageous. But a coward may feel more relief than a courageous man when danger is avoided, and so more pleasure. Callicles is therefore persuaded to concede a distinction between kinds of pleasure, and this is just what the Platonic Socrates needs. Socrates then develops his own positive view, and in so doing, gains certain permanent ground in moral philosophy. Callicles’ ideal is of a good which consists in the pursuit of one’s desires without limit. Socrates had already suggested that limitless desire is unsatisfiable desire; now he argues that the concept of good is necessarily bound up with the concept of observing a limit. And anything that is to count as a “way of living” will necessarily have some order or form, by which we can distinguish it from other ways of living. So any good which we desire can only be specified by specifying the rules which would govern the behavior which would be or procure that particular good.

Toward the close of the Gorgias there are two other important moments. One is when Socrates attacks bitterly the line of Athenian statesmen from Miltiades to Pericles whose expansionist policies taught the Athenians to have desires without teaching them the connection between the goods they might desire and the rule-governed order within which alone goods can be realized. The second is the discussion of the religious myth of judgment and punishment in the after-life; with this myth, Plato symbolizes what is at stake in the choice between different fundamental moral attitudes. Both the political and the religious attitudes exemplified here are recurrent features of Plato’s thought which are treated very misleadingly if conceived of as external to his moral analyses. But in order to understand why this is so, we should have to examine the political and metaphysical background to the dialogues more fully, and before doing this, it is perhaps worth reiterating in summary form a number of conclusions toward which an inspection of the arguments in the Gorgias tends to push us.

The first of these is that the advice “Do whatever you want to” is necessarily useless except in a severely restricted context. When Socrates says that unquenchable desire is unsatisfiable desire, this is not just a matter of there being always something more that is desired. Rather it is that a desire is only satisfiable if it is given a specified object. When we say to people, “Do whatever you want,” this makes sense where there are a number of clearly defined alternatives and we do not wish our preferences to weigh with the agent. But to say to the agent who asks the general moral questions, How shall I live? what shall I do?, “Do whatever you want to,” specifies no goal to be pursued. The problem is to know which wants to to pursue, which to discourage, and so on. The correct retort to the injunction “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may” is, Which rosebuds?

It is a companion error to suppose in any case that my wants are given, fixed, and determinate, while my choices are free. My wants are not simply determinative of my choices; they are often enough the material on which choice has to be exercised. This is blurred by conceiving of moral concepts as part of the realm of convention, but of desires as part of nature. Socrates does not of course pursue any of these points, and he does not answer his own question any more than Gorgias answered it. What he does is to state one necessary condition for an answer to the question, What does a good consist in? The answer is that if anything is to be a good, and a possible object of desire, it must be specifiable in terms of some set of rules which might govern behavior. The Calliclean injunction to break all rules-if you want to, that is- does not make sense. For a man whose behavior was not rule-governed in any way would have ceased to participate as an intelligible agent in human society.

This is brought out not only by the content of the Gorgias but also by its form. Even Callicles and Socrates share certain concepts, and the dialogue form brings out the way in which it is this sharing which enables Socrates to bring home to Callicles the internal incoherence of Callicles’ view. This suggests that badness consists in a breach with a form of life in which certain goods can be attained, for to share concepts is always to share a form of life to some degree. And indeed Socrates affirms explicitly in the Gorgias that what the bad man lacks is an ability to κοινωνειν, to share a common life (κοινωνειν). Thus a necessary step forward in specifying what is good is to specify the kind of common life necessary for the good to be realized. This is the task of the Republic.