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The Good Life and the Pursuit of Pleasures: Reconciling Socrates and Callicles in Plato’s ‘Gorgias’

SOCRATES: To fear death, gentlemen, is no other than to think oneself wise when one is not, to think one knows what one does not know. No one knows whether death may not be the greatest of all blessings for a man, yet men fear it as if they knew that it is the greatest of evils (Apology, 29a).

SOCRATES: I believe that I’m one of a few Athenians—so as not to say I’m the only, but the one among our contemporaries—to take up the true political craft and practice the true politics. (Gorgias, 521d)

The question of teachability of virtue, is summed up in the question posed in Protagoras as “can virtue be thought” (Protagoras, 320b). It compels Socrates to question the rhetorician’s function of persuading through sentiment and thus changing people’s beliefs through myths (muthos) and rhetorical (rhetorike) devices. As a response, Socrates embraces the view regarding the teachability of virtue, but holds that it must be done primarily through argument (logos) as a method of nurturing the soul rather than it being merely persuaded and moved by passions as it is frequently the case with the rhetorical method of persuasion. This position ultimately resonates with Socrate’s justification for the immortality of the soul given in Phaedo, where one’s comportment in life in accordance to the ideal of eudaimonia is rewarded in the afterlife. While Plato takes certain stances towards poets and rhetoricians, his dialogues open up a conversation regarding the role of philosophy while driving his dialogues into a number of aporias that raise questions in regards to Socratic virtue, thus allowing for various interpretive resolutions to these questions.

The subject of this essay will be therefore twofold: first, is the paradox the lies in Plato’s use of argument (logos) in conjunction with myths (muthos) and even in some cases, rhetorical devices—towards the end of justifying the good life (eudaimonia), where the immortality of the soul and the afterlife serve as a guarantor for living a good finite mortal life. This can be largely regarded as Plato’s attempt to reconcile the opposition between muthos and logos, where myths are deemed to be devices capable of revealing a truth in a manner that the Socratic argumentative dialogue solely cannot1. This reconcilement also follows the bridging of the mind/soul dichotomy that becomes highlighted at the end of Gorgias with the conversation between Socrates and Callicles. This dichotomy is demonstrated by the metaphor of the leaky jar given in Gorgias (494a), that places Callicles’s priorities of fulfillment of pleasures over the good, whereas for Socrates the priorities are reversed. Finally, the Socratic theme regarding the immortality of the soul as a ground for living a good life and preparing one’s soul for death, that latently resonates in Plato’s Gorgias, will be a topic explicated and brought to surface. While the ways in which such a justification of the good life is not altogether alien from becoming manifest in reality—this for Socrates is namely, through political matters consisting of individuals engaging in dialogue, persuasion, and logos.

The stance that Socrates takes in justifying his own death in the name of the eudaimonia is expounded in Apology where he justifies his own prosecution in the face of the Athenian law. This stance can be extensively contrasted with the hedonistic conception of the good that Callicles demonstrates in Gorgias. The incommensurability between Callicles’s and Socrates’s notion of the good, led Plato to entertain the idea that the antagony between logos and its oppositional forms of persuasion such as myth and rhetoric, is not a question of a necessarily binary opposite, but a question of the correct usage of myth and rhetoric to move the soul in ways that logos might fail to do solely on its own terms. If this compromising stance is extended and developed further, one can derive a notion of the good that is both material and immaterial rather than one that takes the monist position consisting of either the good based on the priorities of the soul or the body. This opens up the possibility of demonstrating a good that it is not solely grounded based on the immortality of the soul, but a good that can be realized and justified in the actual political, material, and social realm.2 For Socrates, one of the ways in which virtue can become materialized, is in teaching politics where people like Socrates led individuals to attain and practice the good life. It is precisely in this aspect that Socratic virtue becomes not solely a matter of a reward in the immaterial afterlife, but a matter of tangibility in political matters. It is in this sense that the dichotomies between mind/soul, pleasure/good and nomos/physis (law/nature) can become bridged in Socratic virtue; where logos and rhetoric can both have an equal stake in educating the soul if the later is applied in a justifiable manner. This point will be returned to below.

Although Plato’s stances towards poetry, art, myth and rhetoric consists of a skeptical undertone, there are numerous ways in which myths and rhetorical devices find their way in accompanying logos in Plato’s dialogues. Plato’s attempt to bring technical discussion on philosophical, ethical and political questions usually made by experts—to a form that is more accessible to the public—was in itself a move that can be considered rhetorical, even if diverging significantly from the rhetoric of the Sophists. While the mythical aspect in Plato’s dialogues is evident from the number of different myths and allegories employed throughout Plato’s works. The way in which rhetorical and mythical themes arise in Plato’s works therefore proves that Plato is not against these practices per se, but rather, against the specific ways in which these practices are carried out in public, with Socrates being Plato’s example par excellence, while the Sophists being the rather mediocre one. It is this sense that Plato paradoxically uses and justifies rhetorical and mythical features in his dialogues. As Partenie points out, myths in Plato’s dialogues are for the most part fantastical, but they are not inherently irrational as they do not target the irrational parts of the soul3. This is one of the important elements that distinguishes Socratic rhetoric from Sophistic rhetoric. There are also certain distinctions in the types of myths that Plato employs; for instance, the allegory of the Cave in Plato’s Republic (514a–517a), although fantastical, is rather an analogy than a myth; while the myth provided in Phaedo (102a–107b) regarding the immortality of the soul, resembles an eschatological character, but does not entail a complete lie since a rational truth is revealed through the myth itself. This characteristic of Plato’s myths is well highlighted when contrasted with a myth based on Hesiod given by Protagoras as a defense of a rhetorician who claims to know how to teach people virtue (Protagoras, 320c-323a). Plato’s portrayal of Protagoras’s exposition of the myth promptly becomes repetitive and verbose while gradually passing to a rhetorical form consisting of bombastic, sarcastic and ironical questions4. It is precisely in this way that Plato demonstrates the difference between using myth as logos, and myth that digresses into what he deems as an incompetent form of rhetoric.

In many Plato’s dialogues, muthos and logos act as interchangeable devices for persuasion, which appertains to both the Socratic style of persuasion done thought argument as well the Sophistic style of persuasion done through rhetoric. However, despite Plato’s portrayal of Socrates as one who always penetrates the rational kernel of discussed matters, there always remains a limit to logical persuasion as it ends up being the case with the conversation that Socrates has with Callicles (Gorgias), where the latter admits that Socrates is right argumentatively and logically, but is nevertheless not willing to be persuaded. This is explained by the number of instances where following an exposition of an argument, Socrates arrives at a number of impasses with Callicles, where the later is unwilling to follow the argumentation demonstrated by Socrates in order to bring the discussion to a final logical conclusion. The first impasses can be found in Gorgias, 497a where Socrates accuses Callicles of pretending to not understand the questions posed by Socrates. The second impasse can be found in Gorgias 499c, where Callicles accuses Socrates of thinking that he is incompetent of knowing that some pleasures are better or worse than others. Whereas in Gorgias 505, Callicles blatantly renounces Socrates and tells him to go ask his questions in front of someone else. Even if Callicles is perfectly aware that the argument made by Socrates makes logical sense, he ends up either pretending to not have understood the argument, or simply dismisses the logical exposition of the argument altogether. After one of the first impasses that Socrates had with Callicles, Socrates accuses Callicles of clearly understanding his argumentation, but pretending as if he was not able to. This is then followed with an interjection by Gorgias who forces Callicles to respond to the questions posed by Socrates and to stop all the pretensions:

SOCRATES: So, feeling enjoyment isn’t the same as doing well, and being in pain isn’t the same as doing badly, and the result is that what’s pleasant turns out to be different from what’s good. CALLICLES: I don’t know what your clever remarks amount to, Socrates. SOCRATES: You do know. You’re just pretending you don’t, Callicles. Go just a bit further ahead. CALLICLES: Why do you keep up this nonsense? SOCRATES: So you’ll know how wise you are in scolding me. Doesn’t each of us stop being thirsty and stop feeling pleasure at the same time as a result of drinking? CALLICLES: I don’t know what you mean. GORGIAS: Don’t do that, Callicles! Answer him for our benefit too, so that the discussion may be carried through. (Gorgias, 497a-b, emphasis my own)

This, on one hand, demonstrates that the conversation between Socrates and Callicles arrives to a state of aporia, where both sides encounter a logical impasse with no resolution5; while on the other hand, it is not even a matter of an argumentative impasse that Socrates and Callicles encounter with one another, but rather, an impasse between a view that is logical, and a view that cannot be accurately described as logical.

This opposition between Socrates and Callicles that reveals opposition between their views in regards to the notion of the good, which can be be summed up in the question posed by Socrates that attempts to delineate the priorities between the notions of pleasure and the good: “Is the pleasant to be done for the sake of the good. Or the good for the sake of pleasant?” (Gorgias, 506c) This question generally outlines the priorities that both Socrates and Callicles have; for the former the good life is primary while pleasure is secondary, for the later it is vice versa. In order to ground this Callicles’s stance, Socrates gives the metaphor of the leaky jar, which demonstrates that pleasure consists of constant production of lack that necessitates constant fulfillment of pleasures (Gorgias, 494a). If however this pursuit of lack and fulfillment ceases, then what is left is not ability to derive happiness, which is a good in itself for Callicles. For if things that have no need to pursue pleasures are most happy, then as Callicles states, stones and corpses would be happiest (Gorgias, 492e). While Socrate’s view does consist of prioritizing the good over pleasure, it does not altogether consist of abstainment from pleasures in the Stoic sense, but distinguishing good pleasures from bad pleasures, in conjunction with moderation.

This regard towards pleasure then proceeds to demonstrating the outcome of this Callicles’s view in interpersonal matters. For if the pursuit of individual pleasures is taking at face value, then that can be translated into a circumstance where everyone pursues their pleasures for their own benefit simply out of the necessity of being strong by nature. This leads to Callicles to take a position the stance that favors nature (physis) over law(nomis)—which translates to an analogues favorability of body over soul and pleasure over the good. As he proclaims, “these contracts of men that go against nature, they are worthless nonsense!”(Gorgias, 492c) Callicles view consists of securing material possessions and power for as long as it lies within an individual’s capacities resulting in a form of tyranny with order being enforced through force and coercion, as was in the case of Sparta and the Thirty Tyrants who ruled over Athens following its defeat in the Peloponnesian War. This contrasts of Socrate’s stance who proclaims that the law must be respected even if comes to the point where one’s life may be put on trail as is in the case of Socrates in the Apology. For Callicles however, laws are made for the benefit of the weak and non-courageous that in turn, causes individuals “who are better by nature” to become repressed by these very laws; this translates into strong individuals being curtailed by the law in fulfilling what they are capable of by being strong and courageous by nature—securing material possessions and power (Gorgias, 492a-b). This is the reason for Socrates to conclude with a counteractive claim in justifying the good life and justice, for it is better to commit injustice rather than suffer from it (Gorgias, 527b)—largely resonating with Socrates in the Apology. However, this stance that Socrates pursues in the name of virtue does not solely translate into a morality an individual alone partakes in apolitically, but must rather be practiced and translated onto the realm shared with other individuals, for as he declares:

I believe that I’m one of a few Athenians—so as not to say I’m the only, but the one among our contemporaries—to take up the true political craft and practice the true politics. (Gorgias, 521d)

The distinction between Socrates’s and Callicle’s points of views ultimately arrives at a point of deadlock and incommensurability; Callicles himself acknowledges that there is a dead end in his and Socrates’s methods of persuasion when he finally declares “I’m not really persuaded by you” (Gorgias, 513c). It is here that the themes developed in Apology and Phaedo regarding the immortality of soul begin to resonate: it makes Socrates entertain the idea that there is a fundamental distinction between the body and the soul (Gorgias, 513e); the latter can be persuaded logically and argumentatively, while for the former, although can be moved to numerous extents by the latter, nevertheless encounters a limit causing it to remain unmoved, which follows that the soul must be moved in ways that are other than logical and argumentative, in a manner that is rather passionate, sentimental and emotional. This is one of the reasons why Gorgias is a dialogue that challenges the strict mind/soul duality that is prevalent in the early Socratic dialogues; in Gorgias the mind appears to require not solely argumentation to be persuaded, but passion as well. This is one of the motivations for Plato to make Socrates employ numerous myths and rhetorical devices in order to teach virtue in conjunction with logos. Plato relies on myths in a number of his dialogues as forms of persuasion, in cases where argument solely cannot: a person may be needed to be “charmed” and moved in order to put them “into agreement” (Laws X, 903b) in cases where logos and argument fail to do so.

In the Apology, Socrates goes as far as to argue on behalf of justifying his own death if it is deemed good to do so: “Indeed, men of Athens, I am far from making a defense now on my own behalf, as might be thought, but on yours, to prevent you from wrongdoing by mistreating the god’s gift to you by condemning me” (Apology, 30e). In this passage from the Apology converges with the proclamation made by Socrates that in Gorigas that it is better to suffer injustice than to commit it. Socrates renounces the fear of death because life is not worth living unless it is a just and good one: “the most important thing is not life, but the good life” (Crito, 48b). As Socrates declares in Gorgias, “Death, I think, is actually nothing but the separation of two things from each other, the soul and the body” (Gorgias, 524b). For Socrates, philosophy consist of guiding oneself towards a way of life that is best, where justice and excellence is practiced both in the material life and in the immaterial afterlife. When the soul separates from the body upon a person’s death, their deeds separate from their kinsman ties, possessions and material reality, and therefore what remains, is the judgment of the immaterial soul (Gorgias, 523e).

Despite this view, one of the most significant implications of Plato’s Gorgias, is the implicated failure of Socratic moral virtue. The dichotomy between Socrates and Callicles therefore entertains that idea that it is not enough to live and examine life while preparing for death; rather, to examine life but also change the material circumstances of one’s own conditions, through the practice of politics through the practice of of dialogue, persuasion, and logos. This position also aligns with Socrate’s position that pleasures can nevertheless be pursued, but in moderation and those from which a notion of good can be derived; whereas for Callicles, the good is reduced solely based on the appropriation of power and fulfillment of pleasures. Although Callicles offers a ‘might makes right’ doctrine based power and fulfillment of pleasures; its reconcilement with Socratic virtue might entail an account of material circumstances and politics in conjunction with a good life that nurtures an immaterial virtuous soul. The formula would entail that is not enough to examine, live and die a good life; the point would also entail of changing it, where everyone has an equal ability to pursue pleasures to moderate extents, according to notion of the good. It is in this way that the deadlock between Socrates’s and Callicle’s points of views ultimately offers the condition of possibility to resolve. A view, that perhaps, can only be derived from Socrate’s stance in the Gorgias, which cannot so much be derived from the view expressed by Plato in the Republic which is Plato’s attempt to reconcile the impasses encountered in the Gorgias.

  1. Partenie, Catalin, “Plato’s Myths”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2018/entries/plato-myths/

  2. The way in which rhetoric has been applied, offers a counter-argument to this supposition. Here, an assimilation to theatric can be made with what in modern times is referred to ‘propaganda’, more specifically, in cases where propaganda and various other forms of rhetorical devices have been used in conjunction with art, poetry, music, film and other mediums in order to propagate a re-imagined form of political and ethical existence. Such examples include various 20th century movements such as Socialist Realism, Soviet Agitprop, Vladimir Mayakovsky’s poetry, New-Wave film, and various agitational folk songs such as the one that was sung by Italian partisans during the Italian Civil War: “Goodbye beautiful” [Italian: “Bella ciao”]—a propaganda piece in particular, that offers an ethical reconcilement with one’s own death after one has sacrificed their life in a battle with the invading enemy. It is precisely here where rhetoric and logos find their similarity: rhetoric and propaganda offers an ethical dimension in which one’s death can be reconciled just as Socrates employs logos in the name of justifying his own death (Apology, 28a-30a) in the face of prosecution by the Athenian law—while also proving the immortality of the soul in Phaedo, 104d-106d. What distinguishes the role that rhetoric plays in comparison to the justification made by Socrates, is that the good is justified on a material basis rather than an immaterial one. While at the same time, this good that expresses its basis in material reality, is also contingent to a promise whose basis lies at the end of one’s own mortal life. 

  3. Partenie, Catalin, “Plato’s Myths”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2018/entries/plato-myths/

  4. Dillon, John & Gergel, Tanya; The Greek Sophists (New York: Penguin, 2003), p.22. 

  5. Kerferd G.B., The Sophistic Movement (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), p. 82, 90.