Ethics Study Guide: Socrates in the Gorgias

"Please don’t tell me to call for a vote from the people present here. For I do know how to produce one witness to whatever I’m saying, and that’s the man I’m having a discussion with. It’s you alone whom I call on for a vote; the others I disregard."

The Gorgias is the dialogue in which Socrates is the most self-conscious and explicit about his philosophical method. It is also the dialogue in which Socrates’ method is put to the severest test. Socrates’ arguments always start from premises that his opponent will accept; so the fewer Socratic premises an interlocutor will accept, the more difficult it will be for Socrates to refute him. The Gorgias offers us a series of three interlocutors, each of whom holds a more consistently anti-Socratic position than the one before him. The first is Gorgias, a philosopher and teacher of rhetoric (or oratory) who is often described as a Sophist (though Socrates at 465 c seems to distinguish Sophistry from Rhetoric, assigning the former to the realm of the legislature and the latter to the realm of the lawcourt). The second is Polus, Gorgias’ student. The third is the unscrupulous Athenian politician Callicles. Plato presents each of these interlocutors as expressing the real views of his predecessor, but in a more frank and consistent manner than the predecessor was willing to. Since Callicles is the most radically anti-Socratic in his views, a Socratic victory over him will be an impressive vindication of Socrates’ philosophy. But it is a matter of debate whether Socrates does or does not succeed in refuting Callicles.

Socrates’ position in the Gorgias is often interpreted as a rejection of hedonism (the identification of pleasure as the sole good). Hence there has been a lot of dispute over the apparent inconsistency of the Gorgias with the Protagoras, where Socrates seems to endorse hedonism. In fact the inconsistency may be illusory. In the Gorgias itself, Socrates still seems to maintain that pleasure is the only intrinsic good; at any rate, he claims that whatever is good is either pleasant or beneficial (474 d-475 e), where by “beneficial” he clearly means “instrumentally valuable,” leaving pleasure as the only thing that is intrinsically valuable. Socrates’ clash with Callicles, then, turns on a dispute over the nature of pleasure; for Socrates, pleasure is the absence of unsatisfied desires, while for Callicles pleasure is the process of satisfying one’s desires. Since one constantly has to be having desires in order to satisfy them, Socrates compares Callicles’ lifestyle to that of a perpetually leaking sieve, or to that of a bird that excretes as fast as it eats. Callicles, by contrast, compares Socrates’ lifestyle to that of a stone or a corpse, since one need not even be conscious in order to be free from unsatisfied desires. (The comparison may not be an unfair one, since Socrates at Apology 40 c-e describes nonexistence as supremely pleasant.) One might say that Socrates has an anorexic, while Callicles has a bulimic, conception of the good life. (Which is more attractive? Is there a third option?)

The central issue of the Gorgias, however, is that of the relationship between morality and self-interest. Socrates sees no conflict between self-interest and morality, in part because he sees no conflict between self-interest and the interests of others; but Polus and Callicles both deny this “harmony of interests” thesis. Socrates had convinced Alcibiades of the necessity of morality for self-interest, but only because Alcibiades had conceded that morality has some sort of value, and once one concedes that, one can be shown that one will want that sort of value in one’s life. Polus also concedes the value of morality, and so is defeated by a similar argument. But Callicles denies that morality has any value at all, so Socrates must come up with a different argumentative strategy in order to convince him. This project occupies the bulk of the dialogue.

Remember Herodotus’ story about Gyges. Gyges was faced with the choice between committing injustice and suffering injustice, and he chose the former in order to avoid the latter. Socrates is arguing, in effect, that Gyges made the wrong choice -- not just the morally wrong choice, but the wrong choice in terms of self-interest. Moreover, he is arguing that this view is one that everyone, even Callicles, is committed to -- that whatever we may think at the level of our surface beliefs, at the level of our deep beleifs “you and I and everybody else consider doing what’s unjust worse than suffering it.” (474 b) Is he right?

Study Questions

1. Why does Gorgias consider oratory the source of freedom and power for mankind? (452 d-453 a)

2. What is Socrates’ distinction between two kinds of persuasion? (454 b-455 b)

3. Why does Socrates consider a greater benefit to be refuted than to refute somebody else? (458 a-b)

4. Why does Socrates think Gorgias’ account of oratory is inconsistent? (458 e-461 b)

5. What is Polus’ explanation of the inconsistency? (461 b-c)

6. Why does Socrates deny that oratory is a genuine craft or expertise? (462 b-466 a)

7. How does Socrates argue that the ability to do whatever one sees fit is not equivalent to power or doing what one wants? (466 a-468 e)

8. How does Socrates argue that Polus is committed to granting that the ability to put people to death counts as power only when it accords with goodness? (469 c-470 b)

9. Why is Socrates unmoved by Polus’ claim that Socrates’ view is contrary to ordinary beliefs? (473 e-474 b)

10. How does Socrates argue that we are better off committing injustice than suffering injustice? (474 b-475 e)

11. How does Socrates argue that a wrongdoer is better off being punished than not being punished? (475 e-481 b)

12. “If you leave this unrefuted, then Callicles will not agree with you, Callicles, but will be dissonant with you all your life long.” (482 b) What does Socrates mean?

13. According to Callicles, Socrates’ argument against Polus succeeds only because Polus mistakenly grants a crucial premse that Callicles will not grant. (482 c-483 a) What is that premise?

14. What is Callicles’ distinction between natural justice and conventional justice? (483 a-484 d)

15. What is Callicles’ criticism of philosophy? (485 a-486 d) And what is Plato (via Callicles) referring to at 485 e-486 b?

16. Why does Socrates think Callicles’ frankness will enable Socrates to give the strongest proof of his own position? (487 d-e)

17. How does Socrates get Callicles to retract the claim that the superior are the stronger? (488 a-489 e)

18. What is Callicles’ criticism of temperance and self-control? (491 d-492 d)

19. How does Socrates argue against Callicles’ view that the happiest are those who have the greatest wants, and are constantly succeeding in filling them? And what is Callicles’ counter-argument? (492 e-494 b)

20. How does Socrates use Callicles’ adherence to traditional Greek sexual stereotypes about the catamite (the “receptive” role in homosexual intercourse, regarded as less noble than the “active” role) to argue against his identification of the good with the process of desire-satisfaction? (494 c-495 a)

21. How does Socrates use an “argument from opposites” to refute Callicles? (495 e-497 e)

22. How does Socrates use Callicles’ admiration for bravery to argue against his identification of the good with the process of desire-satisfaction? (497 e-499 b)

23. Why does Callicles concede what he earlier denied, that some pleasures (in the sense of desire-staisfaction processes) are good and others are bad? (499 b-c)

24. What is Socrates’ argument for holding that we are better off with temperance and self-control? (503 d-507 d) And why does Callicles refuse to continue the discussion?

25. What is Socrates’ argument against grabbing the greater share for oneself? (507 e-508 a)

26. What is Socrates’ argument that Pericles was not a good politician? (515 c-519 c)

27. Why does Socrates claim that he is the only Athenian who truly practices the art of politics? (521 d-522 e)

28. What are we to make of Socrates’ account of the afterlife? (523 a-527 e) None of his arguments for morality so far have depended on the idea of post-mortem rewards and punishments, so why does he invoke them here -- especially given his claim elsewhere (in the Apology) that he does not know for sure whether there is an afterlife or not?

29. Socrates may have refuted Polus and Callicles, but he doesn’t seem to have convinced them. Why not? See 513 c-d, and compare the closing lines of the Alcibiades. Does this shed light on Socrates’ failure to convert Alcibiades?

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