Before turning to the paradox of the powerless tyrant, let me take just a moment to explain why this portion of the dialogue resonated with me so immediately back in the early 1960's. As the old folks among you will recall, and the rest of you may have learned in school, John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon were locked in a very close contest for the presidency in the Fall of 1960. In September and October, they took part in the very first televised debates -- in grainy Black and White, of course. Many Americans listened to the first debate on radio, not having television sets. The consensus among those listeners was that Nixon had done better than Kennedy. But television viewers all thought Kennedy had won the debate, and that fact made a significant difference in what turned out to be the closest presidential election in the modern era. How come?
Well, Nixon had rather thin skin [I mean literally], and even though he had shaved just before the debate, he looked under the blinding lights of early television as though he had a five o'clock shadow. In addition, getting out of the car at the studio, he banged his elbow on the door, and he was in pain during the debate. But Nixon was in fact in fine health. Kennedy, on the other hand, suffered from Addison's disease, one of the effects of which is to darken the skin, so although he was in fact in terrible physical condition from that and other things, he looked as though he had an attractive suntan. The appearance and the reality were completely reversed! And the sophists and rhetoricians carried the day. Appearance trumped Reality.
Those of us who were at Harvard at that time were of course fanatic Kennedy supporters. He was young, he was handsome, he was a Harvard man, his wife spoke French, and he had [so we then thought] written a book that had won the Pulitzer Prize [it was actually written by Ted Sorenson.] Not until he invaded Cuba the next April did some of us realize there was very little difference between Kennedy and Nixon.
Back to the dialogue. Polus protests the description of rhetoric as a false art of mere flattery, insisting that the most successful rhetoricians [which is to say, public speakers -- politicians] "have the greatest power in the country." Socrates denies this, saying "No, if at least by 'power' you mean something good to the man who wields it." Elaborating on this paradoxical assertion, he goes on:
"I assert, Polus, that both orators and tyrants have the least possible power in their own countries...For they do nothing, so to speak, that they wish to do, and yet do what is in their opinion best."
I always found to very difficult indeed to make Socrates' claim seem at all plausible to my students. Midway through my career, I had an experience that perfectly illustrated the thesis, and I several times invoked it as a pedagogical aid. [By the way, those of you who are conversant with more recent political theory may know that Plato's argument reappears in an unlikely place, as Rousseau's famous assertion that in a truly democratic state whose citizens aim at the General Good in their legislation and hence have a General Will, the recalcitrant citizen compelled to obey the laws is "forced to be free."] At any rate, in 1986, after my first marriage ended, I found and undertook to woo my childhood sweetheart, who was then living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. I was living outside Boston and commuting to Western Massachusetts regularly to teach at UMass. I traveled to Chapel Hill as often as I could, which in those days meant flying Piedmont Airlines [long since absorbed into USAir.] The trips always required a change of planes, usually in Baltimore. One day, I flew to Baltimore and more or less on automatic pilot [I had done it so often] walked off the first flight and onto the second, leaving from the next gate. as I settled into my seat, a stewardess announced, "Will Mr. Robert Wolff please identify himself."] I pressed the little call button, and was escorted off the plane. It seems I had wandered onto the wrong plane. My flight was another gate down the row.
Now, had I been a tyrant [or an orator], I might have gotten away with refusing to get off the plane I was one, in which case, I would have gotten what I willed -- which was to sit on that plane and fly with it to its destination -- but not what I wanted, which was to go to Raleigh Durham. [I seem to remember I would have ended up in Charlotte.] The point, of course, is that I had a wrong belief, on which I was acting.
The tyrant, Socrates holds, can do whatever he wills, being all-powerful, but possessed as he is by wrong beliefs about what is truly good for him, he will end up getting what he wills, but not what he wants. He will not live well [a phrase that, for Plato, means both living a morally good life and also being happy. The equivalence of the two is the centerpiece of Plato's moral psychology.]
Well, Polus is no more convinced than you probably are, and the discussion goes on for several pages, leading finally to the characteristic Socratic claim that it is worse to do injustice than to suffer it, and worse to do injustice without being punished for it than to suffer the appropriate punishment for one's misdeeds. Plato is of course perfectly aware of how monstrous this sounds to the typical Athenian, and he painfully aware, as well, of the response that Socrates, by not availing himself of the "quackery" of Gorgias' rhetorical tricks, ended by being found guilty in his trial and put to death. It is a literary act of great courage, I have always thought, for Plato to state this paradox without qualification or cavil, fully aware of the end that Socrates suffered as a consequence of his stubborn commitment to his vision of moral truth.
Logically and dramatically this ought to be the end of the exchange with Polus. It is at this point that Callicles ought to jump in with his violent attack on everything Socrates has been saying. Instead, the conversation with Polus takes a very curious turn, one that baffled me for the longest time. I am not alone, I believe, in finding this portion of the dialogue puzzling, and there are even some translations that simply omit it. The swerve occurs about midway through Stephanus 474. The passage is the following. Socrates is undertaking to explain himself to Polus:
"Answer me, then, and you'll learn" says Socrates. "I'll put my question just as though we were beginning the discussion. Which, Polus, do you think is worse: to do or to suffer wrong?" "To suffer it is what I think," replies Polus. "And what do you say to this? Which is uglier: to do or to suffer wrong?" Rather surprisingly, and fatally for the coherence of his side of the argument, Polus replies "To do wrong."
What on earth has happened here? How did considerations of beauty and ugliness [the Greek is kalon] suddenly enter the debate about right and wrong, justice and injustice?