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Tuesday, March 6, 2012


This is, to my way of thinking, the high point of the dialogue, even though it is slightly less than half way through.  The discussion now takes a familiar course -- familiar at least to those of us who have had the benefit of reading other of Plato's writings, including some written after the Gorgias.  There is first the matter of clarifying what Callicles really means when he says that it is a Law of Nature that the strong should rule.  He certainly does not mean that the masses should rule, even though they are, as a mob, capable of overpowering the outstanding individual.  By "stronger" Callicles means more intelligent, superior -- he has in mind the extraordinary individual who in every way elevates himself above the mediocre mob.  [As everyone in the past century and more has pointed out, there is a close connection between the line taken by Callicles here and by Thrasymachus in the Republic, and Nietzsche's romantic celebration of the ubermensch, the "superman."]

Callicles also throws into the mix the claim the this superior individual, who ought by a law of Nature to rule, will also have outsized appetites.  "A man who is going to live a full life," he asserts, "must allow his desires to become as mighty as may be and never repress them.  When his passions have come to full maturity, he must be able to serve them through his courage and intelligence and gratify every fleeting desire as it comes into his heart."

Strictly speaking, this particular claim has no logical connection with Callicles' central position, but Plato introduces it, I think, in order to give him one more opportunity to engage with what was a hot topic in ancient debates, namely the place of pleasure in the good life.

The debate goes on for quite some time, of course, and Plato arranges things so that it appears that Callicles is tripped up by certain internal inconsistencies in his position and thus loses the argument.  But I do not really believe that Plato thinks Socrates has dialectically defeated Callicles [this is very much my own interpretation, and may not be shared by the scholars, for all I know.]  The purpose of the second half of the dialogue, as signaled by the long and powerful speech Plato writes for Callicles, is to present to the reader two fully articulated and utterly incompatible visions of the good life:  that expressed by Callicles, and that both expressed and personally exemplified by Socrates.  Against the claims of the unbridled desire and uncontrolled political power of the superior individual Plato sets the portrait of a rational, self-controlled, thoroughly thoughtful and inwardly composed man who lives his life, and is prepared to lose his life, if necessary, in accordance with the understanding of the human condition to which he has come in the course of a long life of inquiry and reflection.

Before bringing this mini-tutorial to a close, I should like to highlight one brief passage, early in the exchange with Callicles.  Socrates is quizzing Callicles about his use of the term "better," in order to force Callicles to state his real position more precisely.  Socrates uses examples drawn from some of the less noble arts [at least as Athenians would have viewed them], such as tailoring and shoe-making.  Callicles, who fancies himself to be speaking largely about matters of the highest importance, is frustrated by Socrates' constant use of humble examples.  "What is this about shoes?" he asks with evident irritation.  "You do insist on talking nonsense!"  Very well, Socrates replies, and gives an example of a farmer.  "Socrates," Callicles blurts out in utter exasperation, "you always keep saying the same thing over and over again!"  To which Socrates calmly replies, "Not only that, Callicles, but on the same subjects, too."

This is just marvelous.  As Kierkegaard noted two thousand years later, quoting this same passage, although the essence of the Aesthetic is novelty, the essence of the Ethical is repetition.  Since the truths of morality never change, when we speak of morality, we ought always to be saying the same thing, and in the same way, too.  That is why the Aesthetic is always so much more engaging than the Ethical, but also inferior in importance.  [Kierkegaard, with a considerable literary flair that, in a paradoxical way, contradicts his thesis, captures this contrast in Either/Or.]

Let me wrap this up with a poignant passage that occurs near the end of the dialogue.  Callicles is hammering away at the danger Socrates might face as a consequence of his steadfast refusal to avail himself of the meretricious tricks of the rhetorician.  ["meretricious" is perhaps a poor word choice, since its root is Latin, not Greek:  "meretricious" = "falsely alluring, like a prostitute."  But then, in light of the earlier play with the notion of cosmetics as the false art of the health of the body, maybe not such a bad choice.]  The passage occurs at Stephanus 521.

"How confident you seem to be, Socrates," says Callicles, "... that you could never be dragged into court by some utterly vicious and debased creature."  Socrates replies:

"Then, Callicles, I must really be a fool if I believe that in this city of ours anyone at all is exempt from the risk of any possible form of calamity.  Of this, however, I am perfectly certain:  if ever I am dragged into court and exposed to any of these risks, it will be, as you say, some vicious fellow that brings me there (for no honest man would ever so deal with the innocent);  and, indeed, it would not be surprising if I were put to death. ... In my opinion, I am one of the few Athenians (not to say the only one) who has attempted the true art of politics, and the only one alive to put it into practice.  For this reason, then, I never carry on my habitual discussions with a view to gratification, but with my eyes fixed on the highest good, not on that which is merely pleasant.  Being unwilling to follow your advice as to the employment of rhetorical tricks, I shall have nothing to say in the courtroom. ... I shall be like a physician tried before a jury of children on the accusation of a cook.  [ed.  There follows a long description by Socrates of how he would have thrown up to him the many painful things that, as a physician, he had inflicted on his patients.] ...  And if anyone accuses me of corrupting the younger men by perplexing them with doubts, or says that I criticize their elders with bitter words both in private and in public, I shall be able neither to tell the truth ("Yes, and it is right for me to say all this and in doing so I am serving your interests, gentlemen of the jury") nor to utter anything else at all;  so that, in all probability, there is no telling what may happen."

After two thousand years, the image of Socrates' courage in the face of death and his refusal even at the last to betray his beliefs and his philosophical principles has become a cliché, honored for the most part by philosophers with a yawn, before turning to the excitements and delights of modal logic or evolutionary epistemology.  I can only ask you to try to read this passage with the eyes of a fourth century B. C. Athenian a scant few years after the death of Socrates.

One final personal story, to end on a lighter note.  [Faithful readers of my autobiography will be familiar with this tale.  To them I offer an apology.]  In the Fall of 1986, I was arrested at Harvard's Fogg Art Museum in an anti-apartheid protest.  Some of our number were charged with trespass, for blocking the entrance to the museum, and others [myself included] were charged with disorderly conduct for marching up and down and blocking the sidewalk in front of the museum.  We elected to defend ourselves at the trial, which lasted only for several hours, and the jury of six found us guilty as charged.  Since we were defending ourselves [pro se, as lawyers would say], when the time came for sentencing, after the Assistant District Attorney [a nice young man with the old Boston political name Belloti] had proposed 100 hours of community service, each of us was asked to propose an alternative punishment.  Recalling Socrates' great final speech in the Apology, I said to the judge, "Well, your honor, since I am a professor at the University of Massachusetts, I have been serving the interests of the people of the Commonwealth for more than fifteen years, and I think therefore that an appropriate punishment would be for the Commonwealth to give me a pension."  The judge, who was not too well up on her Plato, even though she had a son at Harvard at the time [don't even ask about conflict of interest -- this was Boston], looked at me blankly and sentenced me to a fine of $72.50.  In the end I did not have to pay, because we when decided to appeal, it was found that the tape recorder substituting as court reporter was so old it was impossible to get a usable transcript from it, and the entire matter went down the rabbit hole of Massachusetts justice.


Superfluous Man said...

The first two paragraphs in your post enunciate a philosophy that sounds very similar to, and perhaps exactly like Ayn Rand's philosophy (and Alan Greenspan's as well) that the superior individual should satisfy his own desires and wants and to hell with everyone else.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Exactly so. It has often been pointed out that Ayn Rand is corrupt, kitsch Nietzscheanism. Except, of course -- and this is a very big "except" -- that Nietzsche quite consistently had nothing but contempt for bourgeois money-grubbing capitalists, who are heroes to Rand and Greenspan. This is a very large subject, about which I think I shall not blog.

Don Schneier said...

Presuming to speak for Nietzsche, my speculation is that he would regard Callicles as constituted, at least in part, by straw. For, he conceived magnanimity and responsibility for others as entailing more power than does the petty pursuit of narrow self-interest, and certainly more than does the careless infliction of suffering on others. Furthermore, the argument on the basis of Will to Power against Callicles is, thus, potentially more compelling than is the counter from Platonist premises.

Don Schneier said...

To put that point a different way--in addition to Nature and Convention, there is a relevant third principle, under which Platonism can be classified, namely,'Super-Nature'. So, Nietzsche's primary opposition to Platonism is one of Nature vs. Super-Nature, not, as Callicles presents it, as Nature vs. Convention. On the other hand, Callicles' tack might be effective against the identity of Convention and Super-Nature, e. g. 'Platonism for the masses', or Kant's alignment of the Morality of Duty with the Ethics of Rational Autonomy.

kizilbash110 said...

Professor Wolff: Thank you so much for these interesting and useful commentaries. This is my first time through the Gorgias. Your comments in this post on Callicles' argument and Nietzsche are particularly of interest. Here's the thing: It appears to me that Socrates loses that part of the argument on the fact that he has not been able to show the proper basis of his definition of 'good' or 'beautiful' or any other of the terms his brings up, other than arbitrary definitions. Callicles' rightly challenges this, and in the end Socrates has to resort to a mythical basis for his ethics. Am I wrong on this?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Well, people have been debating that for two thousand years and more. My own view is that Plato needs the metaphysical argument of the REPUBLIC to have any hope of really refuting the position of Callilcles [or Thrasymachus in the REPUBLIC], but in the REPUBLIC, at the crucial moment, he finks out. In a way, I think Plato knows he has not scored a dialectical victory against the Calliclean position. He is really presenting us with two competing, incompatible portraits of how to be human -- Socrates and Callilces -- and asking us to choose. He doesn't say that, but it is what seems to me to lie behind the Dialogue.