The Gorgias Is As Relevant As Ever

1As with The Republic, in The Gorgias Plato is trying to defend the idea that it is worth it to try to be a good person even when it does not seem to be in your interests to do so. That is a surprisingly hard position to defend when dealing with cynics, especially those with psychopathic tendencies and ambitions like Polus and Callicles. This gives Socrates very little common ground to act as a basis for discussion. Given their narcissistic tendencies, Socrates has to try to appeal to their self-interest to persuade them.

It is worth knowing that Socrates was in fact put to death partly due to his unwillingness to lie and flatter in the manner of rhetoricians. When asked what he thought his punishment should be for corrupting the youth, he replied, “Free meals for life,” the traditional reward for successful Olympic athletes. He was tried in the Assembly which consists of 500 citizens acting as a giant jury. Whoever is most convincing to the jury “wins.” The same tricks used to win over a jury could be used to push for political goals, such as military campaigns, when the Assembly was functioning in its legislative function. In court, it was necessary to provide one’s own defense while someone else acts as the prosecutor. Rhetoricians are basically lawyers trained in manipulating jury members, not in the truth that a good philosopher seeks.

Plato considered Socrates to be the best of man. So, these debates between Socrates and types who had him killed have an enormous pathos hanging over them. The victim strikes back. In real life, Socrates lost and they won. However, he only lost his life. He died with dignity and his memory lives on thousands of years later. When Callicles says the bad man has total control of the life of the good man this is a threat that was in fact carried out. Socrates would rather die a good man than switch sides to join Callicles.

A student writes: “I genuinely believe that if Plato hadn’t existed in his era but existed today, releasing Gorgias as a modernized philosophy, keeping the same structure and characters, this work would have been laughed out of any serious discussions.”

The student sees Gorgias, Polus, and Callicles as occupying strawman positions. “The structure is unbelievable, with each subsequent debater to challenge Socrates’ views being inarguably more unhinged than the last. Gorgias is rather solemn, but Polus and Callicles feel like dishonest caricatures.”[1]

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Contra the student, Polus and Callicles are not more unhinged than Gorgias, but merely more forthright. The movie The Wolf of Wall Street is based on the career and memoir of an actual person, Jordan Belfort, determined to make money whatever the cost and is prepared to lie and rip off the pension funds of little old ladies to do it. The Callicles type is, unfortunately, very real. Callicles, in particular, imagines that the life of a tyrant would be the best life because he would be able to satisfy whatever desires entered his head. Many people want money and power for the same reasons. Michael Lewis, probably most famous for writing The Big Short, first wrote The New New Thing. A Harvard graduate, Lewis went straight onto Wall Street, as is the aspiration for many Harvard graduates these days, and promptly made lots of money. He hated every moment of it and he wrote The New New Thing as a cautionary tale of what not to do. He found it morally and vocationally vacuous and a recipe for a life poorly spent. What happened instead was that he received letters from soon-to-be Harvard graduates asking, “How did you arrange that career, again?” They read the book as a how-to manual. To perhaps illegitimately read their minds, they would like to be the Wolf of Wall Street without the jail time for securities fraud.

It would be rather nice if no people like Polus and Callicles existed. There would be no amoral, self-serving, ruthless, Machiavellian, narcissistic, over-achievers determined to claw their way to the top. Many such people have parents whose main aim in life is to get their children into an overpaid managerial position via Ivy League credentials where they do little but work in firms that give money to the government, and then bend the government to their will, while the managers themselves cycle in and out of the private/public administrative positions.

The student adds “I sincerely doubt that Socrates managed to convince any of the three debaters.” He is correct. Each one concedes when he hits the limits of what he is willing to admit to in public.

“This also ties into my second reason for not finding the themes of Gorgias to be very compelling. Socrates very evidently argues under the assumption that those around him have the same notion of a “truth.” The same perception of good and bad, right and wrong, et cetera. This is very obviously not the case, especially in the cases of Polus and Callicles, who claim that evil tyrants with power are to be envied, and that unpunished criminals causing harm are happier than those who do good in the world due to the fact that they act on their desires, respectively.”

3Socrates has the same notion of truth as his interlocutors since none have been corrupted by post-modernism, but they are definitely disagreeing about the moral truth and the truth of what contributes to human flourishing and what does not. Gorgias and the other two rhetoricians see personal freedom and power over others as the ideal, in other words, the Ancient Greek pejorative view of the Persians where only one man, the king, is free, and the rest his slaves, unlike the Athenian polis. The student contends that Matt Walsh’s documentary What is a Woman? “commits this same cardinal sin, approaching every single discussion in his documentary under the assumption that everyone thinks that transgender individuals are lying to themselves and others, and that the truth is that gender is defined by genitalia, or chromosomes, or fertility, or secondary characteristics, it’s never consistent, if I’m honest. [This list of the basic facts of biology is in fact perfectly consistent. The student seems to think that Walsh should just choose one thing as the determinant of sex.] This assumption leads to the discussions further being framed in Walsh’s favor, when his opponents very evidently do not buy into that notion that Walsh believes everyone agrees with.”

“The arguments in Gorgias are heavily rooted in morality, whereas the arguments in Walsh’s documentary are typically fundamentalist myths debunked by modern science or simply ignorant classifications and fear-mongering. The arguments in Gorgias are not necessarily false even if the framing is dishonest or not compelling, whereas Walsh’s arguments are verifiably wrong. This is definitely a harsh comparison, but I make it to show how severely difficult it is to take Gorgias’ arguments seriously by comparing it to an absolutely vile work that employs similar tactics. Again, the validity of the arguments in Gorgias are still possible, I just find the work to not be very compelling.”

The notion of being transgender is actually at such odds with modern science that science itself has been attacked as a tool of the patriarchy partly for this reason, which it is – which of course counts in favor of the patriarchy. The student is probably right that both Plato and Walsh are being tendentious. Polus should never have agreed that doing wrong is more contemptible than having wrong done to you, although, as Callicles argues, perhaps Polus was simply agreeing that that is what polite opinion would contend, and Walsh is presumably not giving equal emphasis to “both sides of the story.”

The fact that people are still reading the Gorgias 2500 years after it was written suggests that the student was, initially at least, underestimating it. Gorgias, Polus, and Callicles are cynics and sophists. The sophists claim to be able to make the worse argument seem better. They use intimidation and rhetorical tricks to win arguments. Polus tries to use the fallacy of popularity against Socrates, namely that very few people are likely to agree with Socrates that, for instance, it is better to be the victim of violence than the perpetrator. Polus even makes some reference to being able to call upon hundreds of “witnesses” to support his, Polus’ position, against Socrates. This is an implied threat. And, in real life, as noted, Socrates really was sentenced to death by the mob. When Socrates is dealing with such people he will use their own tricks against them, but never with sincere young men. Gorgias, Polus, and Callicles are posing as unscrupulous tough guys; wannabe future tyrants or at least trainers of tyrants.

Analytic philosophers find fault with Plato’s Socrates for not always adhering rigorously to syllogistic logic. However, Socrates’ willingness to fight dirty with dishonest interlocutors might in fact be rather admirable and something modern day American conservatives should emulate. Paul Gottfried and Scott Adams have made several comments along these lines. Chuck Schumer is arguably an effective politician in achieving the goals he desires. He also openly threatened conservative supreme court justices in an attempt to intimidate them into doing what he wanted. “I want to tell you Gorsuch. I want to tell you Kavanaugh. You have released the whirlwind and you will pay the price. You won’t know what hit you if you go forward with these awful decisions.” Given that supreme court justices have lifetime appointments and cannot be voted out or recalled, the price they “will pay” would seem to be violence. Such a view was shared by a would-be killer who traveled hundreds of miles to assassinate Kavanaugh, a story buried on page A-20 of the New York Times. One could think of it along the lines of hiring a lawyer. Do you want a perfect gentlemen, or someone who can win? Making appeals to the constitution is pointless if the constitution is whatever judges say it is and the political party in charge with which most of those judges are aligned thinks it evil and obsolete. Written constitutions are unnecessary when times are good, and not worth the paper they are written on in emergencies when “emergency powers” are invoked. Trying to use truth and logic against Machiavellian power-hungry elites is also a waste of time. The ruling elite have overweening totalitarian tendencies that involve simply banning, prosecuting, silencing, jailing, and outlawing their opposition. They cannot stand to have a rival. As neurotics who are afraid of the world, they want absolute power and see threats from every corner. The current elite espoused “tolerance” so long as they were not quite ready to make use of their carefully curated domination of every single major American institution. Once they were ready to make their move they simply switched from advocating free speech, postmodern ideas about truth, and moral and cultural relativism, to an extreme authoritarian univocal moral absolutism. Academic philosophers woke up one day to find that all their courses attacking relativism had been made obsolete. Suddenly, the elite are moral realists but about all the wrong things and still without concern for consistency.

Trying to play the nice guy against Machiavellian schemers is not what Plato and Socrates are demonstrating in The Gorgias. Socrates is in effect saying, “You want to play dirty and make threats, trying to intimidate me into agreeing with you? By debating you in public, I will use public opinion against you but in the service of truth, justice, and morality.” Socrates became a dangerous opponent of the sophists, the liars and the monsters, to the extent that they had him killed, achieving martyrdom in the way Kristor advocates. The same cannot be said for most career politicians and other lily-livered mealy-mouthed types.

In the course of the dialogue, Socrates forces Gorgias into a position where he would have to say that he had no knowledge of justice at all, using an admittedly rather dubious argument that learning about justice should make one just, by analogy with the fact that learning music makes one a musician, and carpentry a carpenter. However, the quality of the argument does not really matter for rhetorical reasons. Gorgias has been arguing that the rhetorician is superior to the ones who know because rhetoricians are experts in manipulating the masses. The trainer offers beauty, the doctor health, and the businessman riches, but the rhetorician is superior to all of them because he is better at persuading people. He can convince the patient to take his medicine, the athlete to go to the gymnasium, and the worker to earn his money and he need know nothing about any of those activities to do so. The rhetorician can simulate expertise and the only people he does not persuade are the experts themselves who are so few in number they do not matter. Gorgias is happy with his own ignorance. He needs only a way with words and a willingness to seize opportunities as they present themselves. Like a chef, he only has to please and flatter his customers, not do what is good for them, which would take real knowledge of the good. He can get the wall built that the engineers advocate, and mobilize the citizenry for military campaigns, while being neither a mechanic nor a soldier or commander himself.

Socrates sees the rhetorician as the ignorant ruling the ignorant. And he is particularly worried about rhetoric being used for evil ends. Gorgias, however, argues that if a rhetorician misuses Gorgias’ methods it is not the teacher’s fault, just as a boxing instructor is not responsible if his student attacks someone. Socrates disagrees. He gets Gorgias to concede that either his students are already just before they come to him, or Gorgias will teach them to be. Gorgias feels forced into this position because he wants to say that the rhetoricians know nothing but exercise power anyway. If, however, he admits he knows nothing about justice, he is admitting to being a moral imbecile, also known as a psychopath. Since parents send their children to Gorgias to be “educated,” he would lose this source of income. Respectable Athenian parents could hardly employ Gorgias if he admitted to being completely amoral. So, Gorgias may not be “persuaded” by Socrates, exactly, but he is not prepared to stoop too low in public. Polus, however, has much less to lose and yet he has enough respect for morality to admit that doing wrong is more contemptible than having wrong done against you. Finally, the most cynical and horrible of all, Callicles, takes over. He says Polus just made a mistake. Doing wrong is only more contemptible by convention, not by nature. By nature, having wrong done to you is much worse. Callicles tries equating happiness with pleasure, something moral philosophers like Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill did, again thousands of years later. But, even Callicles is capable of embarrassment and shame, and when Socrates points out that some pleasures are good and some contemptible; that the pleasure obtained from an “itch” scratched by being the passive partner in homosexual relations undertaken for money would have to be counted as noble and good by Callicles, this is a step too far for Callicles, and he is unwilling to hold himself up to ridicule by embracing this. Socrates is using public embarrassment, a tool of the sophist, against a sophist. Thus, pleasure cannot be the same as “the good,” if, in fact, some pleasures are good and some contemptible. If this example is not found persuasive, then one could bring up the pleasure from raping children instead. If that is not morally contemptible and not good, then nothing is. Such extreme examples are commonly employed by professors of philosophy simply to get students to concede the general point. Once moral limits are acknowledged, it then becomes possible to try to determine what those are.

Socrates argues that ideally everything we do is for the good. Some pleasures and pains are good because beneficial, and some pleasures and pains are bad because harmful. A good pain would include cauterizing a wound and a bad pleasure would ruin one’s health. This seemingly obvious and true point was ignored when stupid Englishmen[2] reintroduced hedonistic psychology back in the 18th and 19th centuries. They will have read their classics, including Plato, but never bothered to refute his arguments, as happened too with Nietzsche.

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Callicles tries to argue that it is only natural that the better man should rule and do what he wishes. This is an argument repeated by Nietzsche; the familiar “might makes right” of Realpolitik, also written about by Thucydides’ account of the Athenians versus the Melians. The inhabitants of Melos did not want to join the Delian league. Meanwhile, Athens was running a protection racket, offering to protect the Melians from invaders, while actually Athens was threatening to be the attackers if the Melians did not cooperate. The Melians pleaded to be left alone. Thucydides describes the Athenians as replying, to paraphrase, “Get real. The big defeat the small. The weak give in or die and that is the end of it. There is no justice. Or if there is, then it is natural justice that the strong defeat the weak.” The Melians failed to submit and all the men were murdered and the native population replaced with Athenians. Bronze Age Pervert recently repeated the same arguments. International politics is commonly plausibly thought of as involving Realpolitik with big countries bullying the little ones. The odd thing is that that both Nietzsche and BAP simply ignore Socrates’ very persuasive refutation of this position.

Contradictions abound. Both Callicles and BAP supposedly reject morality in favor of the strong dominating the weak as can be found in nature. Except, they genuinely think this state of affairs is good, noble, natural, and right. In this way, they are every bit as moralistic as the infamous church lady. The question then becomes, is their stance coherent? The answer is that it is not. Nietzsche contrasts master morality with slave morality, except there is nothing particularly moral about master morality, just as consequentialism simply replaces moral considerations with vague notions of utility. Just as not all that is pleasurable conduces to the good, not all that is moral is also useful.

The most devastating problem for Callicles and Nietzsche is that they both argue that the weak have played a trick on the strong and have succeeded in turning the tables on them. For Nietzsche, the weak have weakened the strong by getting them to feel guilty for throwing their weight around and they quote Bible passages about how it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven.[3] For Callicles, the weak pass laws against theft, murder and assault out of fear. The powerful have no need of such laws. The Mafia enforce their own rules and only a madman would try any of those things on them.

But, how one determines who is weak and who is strong is by outcome. A warrior like Odysseus is both a brave fighter and cunning. Winning is the goal and either strength or ruse is an acceptable method of attaining it. Callicles and Nietzsche are in fact on the side of losers. If the weak have played a trick on the strong and usurped the “strongs’” place and prerogative, then the strong are in fact, in real life and in practice, the weak, and the supposed weak, the victor. The strong never have any need of being defended in the Realpolitik immoral moral code the two nihilists are promoting. In this scenario, it is the fake strong who are demonstrating ressentiment.

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Nevertheless, Callicles’ position has a superficial plausibility about it. There would be no point in analyzing it otherwise. If someone is going to rule, better that he be superior to the ruled. The question is then, in what way is the proposed tyrant and ruler better? This is the question which Callicles is unable to answer and which negates his whole argument. At first, when Socrates asks for clarification, Callicles simply gives a string of synonyms; superior, better, greater, etc. Socrates it quick to point out that this is unilluminating.

Callicles’ first serious stab at an answer is that the better person is physically stronger than everyone else, and he uses Heracles (Hercules) as an example who simply takes what he wants and no one can stop him. This is a very cartoonish and even childish notion. That is not how human societies work; the guy with the biggest muscles ruling. In real life, tyrants must make alliances if they are to survive. If a tyrant becomes too unpopular and he has no such allies, and lacks a modicum of public support, people will simply gang up on him and kill him in the manner of the assassination of Julius Caesar or Czar Nicholas II. Chimpanzees will do the same thing to overly domineering non-aligned male leaders, tearing the miscreant limb from limb and biting his genitals off in the process. The idea that a student, for instance, could spend all summer bodybuilding and then simply steal what he wants from whomever he wants is ludicrous.

Socrates makes the point that the many are always stronger than the few, so if physical strength is what makes someone a prime candidate for ruling, then the many should rule in the manner of democracy. Callicles is incensed and avers that the swarming masses, the rabble, mere slaves, are not who is talking about at all. Thus, physical strength has nothing to do with the real meaning of “superior” and “better” as envisioned by Callicles, Nietzsche, and BAP.

Callicles complains that human laws, mere convention, are there to suppress the strong; to stop the strong from running roughshod over the weak. As such, Callicles considers them immoral. It is not that the weak are really so in love with “justice,” it not being fair that someone simply takes your hard-earned items, but that they want to be protected. So, the weaks’ “love” of justice is really just self-serving humbug. This might well be true. The motivation of the weak might be suspect, but this does nothing to negate the fact that theft is wrong and that someone should enjoy, for instance, his harvest attained by great toil and that he should be free from the predation of others. In terms of consequences, which are not strictly morally relevant, no one would bother farming if he could not be reasonably sure that he will get to keep the fruits of his labors and then we would all starve. Reciprocity, one of the foundations of morality, suggests that if the strong would like continuous possession of their goods, then they should extend the same courtesy to others. Also, in real life, people or chimpanzees acting in a grossly antisocial manner will be killed by the group. Morality meets Realpolitik.

It is amusing to read supposed immoralists get very judgmental and condemning about those they regard as violating their version of the moral code, namely, that any attempt to protect the weak and vulnerable from the incursions of the brutal and ruthless is immoral.

Having conceded that the superior are not physically stronger, Callicles then proposes a string of adjectives and nouns: better, excellent, élite, wiser. And then he states that it is only right that such people should rule and have more.

Socrates is at his humorous best in his response. He suggests that if wisdom and knowledge are to distinguish who is superior, then he who knows most about health and food should get the most grain. He who is best at cobbling, should have the nicest and biggest shoes. And he who is most knowledgeable about weaving should have the nicest and biggest cloak. This calls to mind giant clown shoes and absurdly oversized garments. Only slightly more charitable would be the idea of them having the most shoes and the most cloaks along the lines of Imelda Marcos.

Callicles is again, unsurprisingly, annoyed at this suggestion. He tries again and submits that it is those with the most thumos,[4] the most courage and determination to carry out their plans, who deserve to rule. Socrates pauses to make fun of Callicles and his proliferation of definitions of what makes someone “superior.”

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The truth is that Callicles has no idea what he is talking about. The thing is that we, like Callicles, share his intuition that the superior should rule. Being ruled by the best of us sounds better than by the worst of us. But, unlike some large predatory animal like a leopard or tiger, there is nothing particularly “natural” about who gets to rule in human communities. The only way in which rulers are definitively superior in all circumstances is that they occupy high social status and position. They are superior in one way only; they rule and you do not. We tend to admire their power and then to imagine there is something special about them. There is. They are powerful. Callicles and BAP are attempting to justify their fairly natural admiration of power and desire to submit to that power but there is nothing beyond status and power to admire. The situation is very similar to “the survival of the fittest.” That phrase is no more than a tautology. How do you know some creature is the fittest? It has survived. Why did it survive? It was the fittest. Is the creature faster, taller, stronger, wiser, more courageous, a better debater, prettier, than everyone else? No. It just happens to be a good fit to the current vagaries of the environment. They got lucky. Likewise, there is nothing about the “superior who deserve to rule” that makes them superior. We know they are superior precisely because they rule. Any other quality they might have is irrelevant. Someone might truly be stronger, wiser, more courageous than the ruler and the ruler can always turn round and say “if you are so strong, wise, and courageous, how come you sit there looking up at me, and I stare down at you?” The question is based on an erroneous assumption. A philosopher will be wiser, a soldier braver, and an Olympian wrestler stronger than any ruler.

There is an evolutionary urge to worship the successful. Women want to marry them and men want to be them. Being the top dog, with the most money and power, simply represents the pinnacle of success. The successful are likely to have pretty good genes, decent intellect, good social skills, useful family and friends connections, and a moderate degree of luck. Take away their success and their remaining qualities are unremarkable. The Beatles individually had no particularly outstanding qualities as evidenced by the fact that prior to their riches and fame no one would pay them any particular attention. Without their success, most of their mystique would vanish. They would be just another bunch of talented musicians and composers. If they had existed in another epoch, they would have amounted to nothing. If Cary Grant had lived in 1800, he would have been merely an unusually good-looking plowman or factory worker, unless he found his way to the stage where looks and acting ability actually count.

J. K. Rowling is a mediocre writer who was rejected by over twenty publishers before having her manuscript accepted. No one at all foresaw her success. She had, one supposes, the necessary ingredients of worldwide popularity, like many many failures, but only one writer, her, had both the necessary and sufficient conditions to be worth seven billion dollars. Writing that is too good is typically not terribly popular. Authors who “slum it” and try to write a potboiler know this all too well. Rowling is now the richest woman on the planet, richer than the Queen of England. Her success definitively proves only her success.

Callicles is simply worshipping success and then trying to defend his urge. He is completely unable to do so because it cannot be done. There is some part of Callicles that knows that rulers are likely to be pretty despicable and not at all admirable. Polus has already given the example of Archelaus who murdered his uncle and seven-year-old cousin drowning him in a well.

After Socrates makes fun of Callicles’ failure to find what makes someone “superior and deserving to rule,” Callicles states that it is someone wise and courageous in the administration of the state. Like “the survival of the fittest,” this is tantamount to a circular definition. It is those involved in the successful administration of a state who deserve to administer the state, courage and wisdom being otherwise irrelevant. We can be confident that were someone to be stupid and cowardly but hang on to power that Callicles would find such a person admirable. And again, tautologically, their mere act of maintaining state control would be taken as proof that he had sufficient wisdom and courage. “I admire success” does not merit philosophical pretensions of master and slave morality and all the rest. Nietzsche’s “will to power” is to a large extent merely, “I would like the opportunity to pass on my genes,” not an impressive metaphysical conundrum.

Callicles has been very insistent that the ruler deserves to have more than his subjects. Socrates argues that a man must rule himself and moderate his desires and thus has no need for more. Without these things, he will become the slave of his own desires and therefore not free. To be free requires self-control. Rather than being the one free man surrounded by slaves, he too will be a slave trying to satisfy mindless desires, a victim of chance. Very very rich and successful people have to take care of what they eat and drink, and exercise like the rest of us. That takes a lot of daily effort and discipline. They have to maintain healthy and productive emotional relationships with wives, children, and friends, and rank self-indulgence will prevent all those things. In the past, Polynesians living on Pacific Islands simply admired being fat, but for us, part of “success” is being slim and attractive. Someone like Jennifer Anniston appears to devote hours in the gym every day and extreme care and control over her diet to maintain the figure of a twenty year old in her late middle-age. Part of the mystique and appeal is to be admired, after all.

Callicles thinks that one’s desires should be magnified and all one’s courage and intelligence should be devoted to achieving them. This smacks of the naivety of youth. Wild animals spend much of their time half-starved. Only domesticated animals get fat and we are domesticated animals. It is self-discipline that we need. There are no two ways about it. Callicles’ ruler would have fewer food choices and entertainment options than a modern American, but he would still face the same problems. Failing to moderate one’s desires means sickness and an early death. The fantasy of the endlessly self-indulgent playboy would require escaping the human condition to work.

Having access to more luxury than Callicles could possibly imagine, we know that it is not true that the many praise moderation simply because they lack the courage to go after their desires and satisfy them to excess. We satisfy our desires to excess all the time and many of us are turning into walking blimps and overdosing from hard drug use as a result. Socrates says, “You should prefer an ordinary life, satisfied with what is ready to hand and sufficient.” Quite.

Callicles resorts to making belligerent fairly overt threats to Socrates, bragging that the rhetorician has the power of live or death over the good man. Socrates argues that this is nothing special. Every time we get in a taxi or bus[5] we are putting our lives in the hands of someone else who might kill us carelessly, yet we do not hold up taxi and bus drivers as masters of the universe. Having the ability to swim can make the difference between life and death and yet we do not regard swimming as remarkable or noteworthy. The point of life is not to extend it as long as possible, but to live it well, Socrates says.

Having power simply makes a bad man worse. He has so much more ability to do what is harmful on a scale the powerless cannot match. Even for good men, power proves to be a temptation to err. The powerful man ends up a slave of popular opinion anyway. To maintain power, he must pander to the many, to speak in the manner they prefer, and to adopt their likes and dislikes. And to get power, he will do the same thing with regard to the dictator. Neither the dictator nor the power-seeker is pursuing their own good when they do this. In addition, Boethius in The Consolation of Philosophy argues that the fantasy of being a powerful dictator and being able to do what you want when you want to do it is an illusion. Dictators have much less freedom than an ordinary person. The more powerful the dictator, the more enemies he will have who want to kill him. He will need armed bodyguards to enter public spaces and he will have to coordinate with them in advance to do so. You and I can expect to walk down the street unmolested. He cannot. Even worse, all your friends, advisors, and relatives are likely to want to take your place and become a threat to you. An advisor, for instance, is a logical replacement for the man he is advising. And should your friends and relatives be morally upstanding and not scheming wolves, by their connection and proximity to you, they become potential targets of kidnapping and assassination too. Paradoxically, the more power you have, the less freedom of action you have and the more threatened your life is. An ordinary non-tyrant has the carefree existence of a much-loved child by comparison.

Happiness does not consist in doing what you want, but is what is best for you, and that requires the wisdom of the philosopher. The rhetorician, on the other hand, prides himself on knowing nothing.

Aristotle argued that studying ethics cannot make someone ethical, but it can help to keep someone ethical. Students of around the age of twenty should take classes in ethics to explain to them why the moral intuitions, habits, and behaviors instilled in them by their parents are in fact good and contribute to human flourishing. Having attained the age of reason, one can start to wonder, “Maybe good guys really do finish last. Maybe I should abandon morality all together and look after number one. Perhaps the more heartlessly I pursue my ambitions, the happier I will be.” We can all experience fear and doubt. The fear that we are being suckers and that the bad are to be envied. At least in an attitude of despair it is possible to contemplate that maybe morality is just a scam promulgated by the weak upon the strong. Maybe nature is red in tooth and claw and any attempt to ameliorate the suffering is in fact anti-life. Gorgias, Polus, and Callicles, live inside us, at the least, as gnawing doubt. They are the voice of cynicism. We see people succeed more than us and think, “Maybe they are simply better human beings than us.” Well, they are better at being successful than you! They may or may not be more hard working, smarter, etc. Business success, for instance, depends on so many factors outside anyone’s control. The state of the economy, one’s competitors, the quality of their products and services as opposed to yours, guesses about what might be popular with consumers, and so on. Socrates at his trial said that his main advice for the young was not to worship social success but to worry most about the state of their own souls. Your soul is most fundamentally what and who you are. He/it is the one you have to live with most emphatically with nary a break. Do you like yourself? Can you live with yourself? If you sell penny stocks to widows, ruining them in the process, you too might get rich. But, to repurpose Silenus’ advice from Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, “Better you had never been born.”

[1] The student has since changed his mind and no longer considers these strawman positions. And to be fair, this was his first time reading Plato and the dialogue.

[2] Jeremy Bentham seems to have been autistic, so this might account for his lack of insight into human motivations. John Stuart Mill had the decency to have a nervous breakdown after being indoctrinated by his father along hedonistic lines.

[3] Since we take neither our bodies nor wealth with us after death, no dead men are rich, might be a smart alecky reply.

[4] Gumption, high-spiritedness, determination to overcome obstacles.

[5] The actual example is the pilot of a boat.

4 thoughts on “The Gorgias Is As Relevant As Ever

  1. I’m not very crafty, but I sometimes wonder if I should have at least tried to be craftier. I don’t want to go all the way to acting on the principle that the ends justify the means, but I would like to win a few. Your mentioning Chuck Schumer made me think of a line that has been running through my head lately. “If you want a picture of the future, imagine being lectured by Chuck Schumer, looking over his reading glasses—forever.” I don’t know if the successful should rule, but it seems self-evident that those who are successful in wangling power will rule. Since I’ve never been successful in wangling power, I don’t really know how this wangling is done. I find a certain amount of sour grapes entering into my thoughts when I think about it, though.

    • Thanks, JMSmith. Nothing wrong with your reading comprehension. Reading between the lines you’ve perhaps picked up on my own inner conflict or maybe we’re quite a lot alike. Perhaps I want an SOB to fight on our side but am unwilling to be the SOB. Maybe your vision of an eternally hectoring Schumer can change my mind.

  2. This article also explains the dramatically harsh actions God takes in the Old Testament. Why for example he ordered the death of all the male descendants of evil royal houses.

    And why God wanted Ben-Hadad dead(1 Kings 20:42).

    Such are the dangers of the Machevilians. And the dangers of the Crown like a Sword of Damocles hanging overhead which would fall should the ruler rules unwisely.

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