The Gorgias is the most ‘modern’ of Plato’s dialogues. The twin problems which it exposes–how to control the power of propaganda in a democracy, how to re-establish moral standards in a world whose traditional standards have disintegrated–these are the central problems of the twentieth century. (1959:386) –E.R. Dodds
Although the Gorgias is still not as often discussed among non-specialists as Republic or Symposium, it is increasing read in courses taught in Communication and English departments throughout the United States. Its popularity is increasing because, as is pointed out by Dodds in the passage quoted above, it deals with the related problems of civic standards and the ethics of mass persuasion that still trouble us today. What the Gorgias has to teach us about these problems has been well explored in any number of commentaries (Dodds 1959; Plochmann and Robinson; Benardete). In this essay, I propose a reading of the Gorgias from a somewhat different, but complementary, angle. I will propose that the Gorgias has an underlying theme that is also strikingly modern: the nature of the self. A disagreement about the nature of the self, I will argue, is at the root of the dispute between Socrates and Callicles about the nature of justice.
The Debate About Justice in the Gorgias
Plato’s dialogues are generally divided into three chronological groups–early, middle, and late–and the Gorgias is generally acknowledged to have been written towards the end of the first group of dialogues (Brandwood), during which Plato was most defensive of Socrates and most hostile toward the Athenian democratic order that had condemned him to death. The Gorgias contains one of the rawest confrontations with the negative side of populist democracy, embodied in the person of Callicles, that one finds anywhere in Plato’s dialogues.
Gorgias, after whom the dialogue was named, was an eminent personage from the city of Leontini on the island of Sicily, a teacher of the art of rhetoric or political speech (prominent speakers in assembly were called rhetores). Gorgias’ speaking style combined hypnotic rhyme and rhythm with a powerful kind of situational logic and antithesis. It so impressed Periclean Athens and the rest of the Greek world that he was able to build a solid gold statue of himself at Delphi with the money he earned in instruction fees (DK A 7; see Sprague 34), a feat that is well beyond the means of most speech instructors today. Although Gorgias himself has only a relatively minor role in the conversation, the dialogue as a whole investigates the relationship between Gorgias’ style of political rhetoric and justice.
The dialogue begins with a mild conversation between Socrates and Gorgias about the substance of the art of rhetoric. Gorgias takes the position that persuasive speech is a morally neutral technique which, like any instrument, can be used either for good or ill. Socrates easily gets Gorgias to admit that the good political orator must know the difference between justice and the appearance of justice. If the end of politics is a just society, Socrates argues, and if rhetoric is political speech, how could one excel at rhetoric without knowing what justice is? Gorgias’ young student Polus is incensed by the mild submission of his master and takes up the argument. Justice be damned, he says, rhetoric is a way to power. But he is soon cornered into making an admission that it is even more difficult than Gorgias’: that a rhetoric that makes injustice seem just is bad for both the speaker and the audience because it is better to suffer than to commit injustice.
Now Callicles, a leading citizen of democratic Athens in whose house the conversation is taking place, thinks that Socrates’ claim that it is better to suffer than to commit injustice is utter nonsense, and is angered that Socrates would dare to teach such foolishness. Callicles makes a counter-argument that might strike us as having been uttered by a social Darwinist run amok:
In my view nature herself makes it plain that it is right for the better to have the advantage over the worse, the more able over the less...For what justification had Xerxes in invading Greece or his father Scythia? And there are countless other similar instances one might mention. But I imagine that these men act in accordance to nature’s own law, though not perhaps by the law we frame. We mold the best and strongest among ourselves, catching them like young lion cubs, and by spells and incantations we make slaves of them, saying that they must be content with equality and that this is right and fair. But if a man arises endowed with a nature sufficiently strong, he will, I believe, shake off all these controls, burst his fetters, and break loose. And trampling on our scraps of paper, our spells and incantations, and our unnatural conventions, he rises up and reveals himself our master who was once our slave, and there shines forth nature’s true justice (483d-484a, W.D. Woodhead’s translation).
Laws are written by the weak to protect themselves from the strong, according to Callicles. But these laws are not the justice of nature, and cannot stand forever against it. In Callicles’ view, Socrates’ excessive concern to avoid committing injustice leaves him easy prey for those who would do him injury:
For now if anyone should seize you or any others like you and drag you off to prison, claiming you are guilty when you are not, you would realize that you would not know what to do, but would reel to and fro and gape openmouthed, without a word to say... (486a-b).
Prophetic words indeed, as Plato intended, for that are very nearly a description of Socrates’ ultimate fate. Callicles saw such vulnerability as unmanly and shameful.
Socrates’ reply is that in doing injustice one injures one’s own soul. Not primarily in the sense that it might be punished in some afterlife, but in the sense that doing injustice leads to the soul becoming disorderly and chaotic, leads to becoming a slave of desires that can never be fulfilled, and thus leads to deep misery in this life.
As important as the issue of the nature of justice is, there is an even larger question at stake in the exchange between Callicles and Socrates: the nature of human identity. Socrates agrees with Callicles that one must do whatever is necessary to avoid serious injury to one’s self. Their basic disagreement is about the nature of the self, and secondarily about the sort of things that can do it the greatest injury. Neither Socrates nor Callicles is a coward. Both would rather die than submit themselves to disfiguring injury of the self. Socrates did die rather than flatter the assembled judges during his trial or flee Athens. Callicles and men like him would rather die than have injury done to their honor. On a deep level, the conflict between Socrates and Callicles is not between the selfless and the selfish, for both men sought to care for their selves, as they understood them. Instead, it is a confrontation between someone with a highly introverted sense of self (Socrates) and someone with a highly extroverted sense of self (Callicles). Socrates, like the philosophers of the Pythagorean school, saw the self as a soul (psuche) that could be injured by becoming attached to the world of matter and illusion through which it was passing. Callicles understood the self as a public reputation that could be injured by the shameful vulnerability to humiliation.
The Heroic Self and the Cosmopolitan Self
Socrates was in the vanguard of a revolution of the ego (Greek for “I”). Where the traditional heroic values of the Greek aristocracy conceived of the self primarily in terms of social reputation, Socrates and Plato grounded the self not in social status but in cosmic destiny of the soul and argued on this basis that there is more to being a good and just leader than power and popularity. Although there were precedents for the Platonic deconstruction of self as reputation, it definitely went against the grain of the Hellenic culture of competitive display, whose roots ran deep into the twilight of prehistory.
The preservation of the reputation of the public self was of utmost importance to early Greeks because the only meaningful forms of immortality were remembrance in songs and stories, and remembrance by one’s descendants. Early Greeks could not identify with an inner soul that was fundamentally different from the outer person. The immortal part of the self was the reputation: the socially known self. Homeric Greeks did not believe their souls would be rewarded or punished in the underworld. Souls simply ceased to change, retaining the identity they had last possessed while alive. They lacked consciousness and had to be given blood to drink in order to recollect who they had been in life and speak (Od. 10.495; 11.207; 24.6-9). Like characters in stories told again and again, they repeated endlessly in Hades the words and deeds, triumphs and tragedies, of life. The reputation one died with was one’s destiny for all eternity (Burkert 194-7). When Callicles is defending what he takes to be the principles of natural justice, he is defending the very ground upon which he believes his immortality rests. Anything that damages the reputation damages the immortal part of the self.
In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt argued that the main function of the polis (city-state) was to provide for the doing and saying of great things and the remembrance of great things done and said (22-78). Callicles certainly saw his political career in this light. The Hellenic polis-culture was built around ancient rituals of public display that were designed to promulgate the reputations of the strong, the well-born, the wealthy, and the wise–those who possessed the quality of general excellence the Greeks called arete. Athletic, military, and even musical and oratorical excellence were tested in public contests and rewarded with public recognition. Public sacrifices and festivals were sponsored by wealthy nobles. Like the Potlatch ceremonies of the Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest, these festivals were opportunities to earn the gratitude of the population. Nobles displayed their power not only in athletic and oratorical contests, but also by providing the sacrificial animals. In the classical period, it was the responsibility of wealthy individuals to sponsor "liturgies" (leitourgia), public services such as financing dramas or building boats for the navy. For these services, they were awarded tripods and allowed to build monuments to publicly display them. It was in this field of competitive generosity and display that the Greeks constituted their selves.
Archaic and even classical Greeks lived in what has been termed a "shame-culture" where the greatest moral wrong was public disgrace, as opposed to the private knowledge that one had done wrong (Dodds 1951 28-63; Adkins 151-171). In fact, there were no private wrongs. As Alister MacIntyre explains in After Virtue "morality and social structure are in fact one and the same in heroic society (116)." This is to say that to possess status and reputation is to be good, and to not have these is to be bad. The word for a noble, the agathos, actually meant good, as the word for one of lower class, kakos, meant bad. In a shame-culture the only moral evil is failure to live up to one’s status, and the only moral sanction is a reduction in status. In such a world, any failure of others to acknowledge the rightful status of an individual is a great slight that demands retribution. The "anger of Achilles" which is the subject of the Iliad is prompted by the highly public slight of Achilles by Agamemnon, a slight that causes him to withdraw from the battle. Why fight and die if one would not be honored for it? The warrior fights for the sake of honor and remembrance, not because his cause is "right" in any abstract moral sense.
The values of the shame culture are speaking through both Polus and Callicles as they assert that it is better to commit injustice than to suffer it. To suffer injustice shows weakness and is a shame; to commit injustice is less of a shame.
Immortal reputation for most, however, was an elusive and tragic dream. Herodotus, the historian of the Persian War, tells a story about a meeting of the sixth century Athenian leader Solon with Croesus, the legendarily wealthy ruler of Sardis. This story dramatizes how heartbreaking an attachment to the changeable world of public opinion can be. Croesus asked Solon which man he considered the most fortunate in the world, expecting Solon to give that distinction to Croesus himself. Instead, Solon said that it was Tellus of Athens, who was wealthy for an Athenian (surely not nearly as wealthy as Croesus, though), lived in a stable polis, had fine sons, died honorably in battle, and was buried at a great polis funeral. Croesus asked on, thinking that, if he was not first, he must at least rank highly on the list of the blessed. But Solon next gave the names of two dead Athenian brothers. Baited still further by Croesus, Solon answered: "The whole of life is but chance, Croesus. Now if I am to speak of you, I say that I see you are very rich and the king of many men. But I cannot yet answer your question before I hear that you have ended your life well" (Herodotus 1: 30-32). Solon and Croesus agreed on what made a person fortunate: wealth, position, and strong children were signs of honor and portents of a lasting reputation. But where Croesus took only present reputation into his accounting, the wise Solon understood that reputation and honor are precarious and can be destroyed by misfortune at any time.
The tragic dream of achieving immortal reputation in the world of change eventually proved too heartbreaking for many Greeks to pursue. In the sixth century, some segments of Greeks society began to reject the culture of competitive display and turn to mystery religions that promised a meaningful kind of immortality for the individual psuche.
The new religious beliefs of Orphics, Dionysians, and Pythagoreans laid the foundations for the idea of self as soul rather than reputation. There was, first of all, the belief that the psuche will be judged and receive reward or punishment in the afterlife. Second, there was a belief in the transmigration of souls, in which one’s psyche, after death, would pass to another body. Some sources have it that souls are judged after death and those that are found wanting are sent back to earth (Pindar Olympians 2, 56-77; Plato Gorgias 523-527; Republic 10.614-621). Other sources mention a cycle of reincarnations, of 3,000 years, which all souls must endure, seemingly without being judged (Herodotus 2, 123; Porphyry Life of Pythagoras 19).
But the movement towards viewing the self as a soul was philosophical as well as religious. While Orphics, Dionysians, and other mystery cults created new rituals centered around secrecy and initiation, Pythagorean, Eleatic, and Platonic philosophers reversed the very ontology of the culture of display, regarding appearance and reputation as unreal and ephemeral, and what was hidden as immortal and real.
In all these new doctrines, a new vision of the self was taking shape. "I" was no longer only a social reputation, but more importantly, was the possessor of a psuche. The fate of the psyche was not connected to the reputation of the man. The psuche was not essentially tied to any family or city, nor was it social or political in nature. Whether it was judged by Rhadamanthys or continued on in a cycle of reincarnations, its fate was intelligible in the order of the cosmos, not in the order of the polis. Those who believed in these doctrines of the psuche would appear to have a new sort of individuality, at least to those who did not share their beliefs. They might live in the polis, but care nothing for what the polis thought of them, being citizens of the cosmos, following what they took to be the universal laws rather than the laws of their state.
While Callicles invokes nature (phusis) to legitimate his position, it is Socrates whose argument is most coherently underwritten by Greek cosmology, specifically Pythagorean cosmology:
Wise men, Callicles, say that the heavens and the earth, gods and men, are bound together by fellowship and friendship, and order and temperance and justice, and for this reason they call the sum of ordered thing the "ordered universe" [cosmos–which means “order”], my friend, not the world of disorder and riot. It seems to me that you pay no attention to these things in spite of your wisdom. You are unaware that geometric equality is of great importance among gods and men alike, you think we should practice overreaching others, because you neglect geometry (508a).
The geometry that Socrates is talking about here is more than the working out of the hypotenuse of a triangle; it is principle of the Pythagorean cosmos, a principle with spiritual and moral implications. Socrates understands his self to be a soul with a place in the cosmos, not as a reputation to be maintained. In his vision, injustice is harmful to the self because it puts it at odds with the order of the cosmos, a state which is bound to cause deep unhappiness in the long run.
The Callicles-Socrates Debate as a Product of Differing Vision of the Self
Callicles was admired by Friedrich Nietzsche as someone who did not bow to the “slave-morality” of the masses, and Adkins finds in him a certain expression of traditional Homeric values. These assessments are true enough, but to fully understand Callicles’ position we need to understand the primacy of social status and reputation in the idea of the self that he holds. It is only in light of the extroverted heroic self that some of Callicles’ answers to Socrates become intelligible. When Socrates asks: When you say the best should have the advantage over the worst, what do you mean by “best”? Callicles admits he does not mean those strongest physically, for if that were the case the slaves would be the rulers. The wisest should have the advantage then, says Socrates, but the wisest at what, and what sort of advantage should he be given? Should doctors be given more food and drink? No, says Callicles. Should good farmers be given more land? Certainly not, says Callicles: The best and most courageous rulers should be allowed to rule over their inferiors. But what is a good ruler? Although Callicles cannot answer this directly, he seems to believe that a good ruler is anyone who is able to take power, and the more powerful they are, the better. There is a logical circularity here: rulers should be rulers because they are rulers. This is why Callicles cannot stand against Socrates in debate. But his thinking does make some sense if one considers that for him status is of primary importance: a man is a ruler because he has high social status, but he has status because he is a ruler. The logic of status is circular, but for Callicles status is all-important.
The circularity of the logic of status seems senseless to Socrates. In his conversation with Callicles, Socrates produced an analogy in which the desiring soul is compared to a leaky jar that can never be filled (493a-d). Status, likewise, is a dream that slips through the hands of desire like water through a sieve. He who would be master becomes a prisoner of his own reputation, always needing make it, to live up to it, or restore it. There seems to be no point to the endless pursuit of status unless one understands status as the ultimate good which is an end in itself, as Callicles apparently does. Only then is it worth the struggle.
But if Socrates can not understand status as an end in itself, neither can Callicles understand the Socratic sensibility that discounts reputation entirely in favor of a vision of the self rooted in the cosmic destiny of the soul. "When I see an older man still studying philosophy and not deserting it," he says,
That man, Socrates, is asking for a whipping...such a man, even if exceptionally gifted, is doomed to prove less than a man, shunning the city center and market place, in which the poet said that men win distinction, and living the rest of his life sunk in a corner whispering to three or four boys, and incapable of any utterance that is free and lofty and brilliant. (485 d-e)
For the life of him, Callicles cannot understand why Socrates has not employed his gifts in building a proper political reputation.
Display Culture as a Bridge between Classical Athens and the 21st Century
If we are still faced with the problems of propaganda and the constitution of public morality explored in the Gorgias, we are also still faced with the underlying question of whether the self is a more public reputation or a player in a hidden cosmic drama. Twenty-five hundred years after the writing of the Gorgias the spirits of Socrates and Callicles enjoy an uneasy coexistence in Western culture. Although the monotheistic religions have given it deep resources of interiority, the West is, in many ways, a culture of display. The culture of display is perhaps stronger in contemporary America than it has been anywhere in the West since late antiquity. Americans thrive on the myth that we can be whoever we want, that we can change identity, reinvent ourselves, at will. While we say that it is who one is on the inside that really counts, we spend billions of dollars on cosmetics, plastic surgery, and fashion magazines. Public figures hire image consultants. Corporations employ public relations specialists and invest profits in advertisements and to perform charitable “liturgies.” The products of our culture of display can certainly not be universally condemned. Nor can the products of the culture of interiority be universally lauded, as hidden cosmic dramas have proven time and again the perfect motive and justification for the most bloody kinds of actions. The very fact of our cultural conflictedness over the nature of the self is perhaps the best bridge we have to the world in which Plato wrote the Gorgias.