As I say, I puzzled over this odd turn in the dialogue for quite some time. Here is what I think is going on. Polus may insist that it is better to do injustice than to suffer it. But he clings to the view, conventional and widespread in the Greek world at that time, that there is something, mean-spirited, dishonorable, beneath the dignity of a gentleman, to act unjustly. Such behavior, in that extended sense of kalon, ugly. A man who will lie, cheat, steal, or kill an unarmed person simply because he is able to get away with it, may be powerful, he may even be happy [or so Polus thinks], but he is not someone one can admire, because his actions -- and his character, presumably -- are contemptible.
At about the time that I came to this interpretation of the passage, I gave a talk at a small catholic college in New Hampshire, in the course of which I alluded to the Gorgias and tried this line out. The example I used, as I recall, was Richard Nixon, as compared with Teddy Kennedy. The students did not dispute my reading of Plato, but they utterly rejected my contrast between Nixon and Kennedy, considering Kennedy [because of his behavior in the Mary Jo Kopechne Chappaquiddick episode as evidence that Kennedy was not a morally beautiful individual, not someone whose life could be instanced as an explication of Plato's thought.
I remain quite torn on the substance of the matter. [As far as an interpretation of Plato is concerned, I am really so far from being an expert that I have no particular confidence at all in my reading of the passage.] On the one hand, there seem to me to be a number of political figures in America [and elsewhere, but America is what I know best] whose behavior strikes me as dignified and admirable, even when I disagree with their politics. On the other hand, when I reflect on the harm that those wrong policies inflict, sometimes on millions of people, I have difficulty respecting them or acknowledging that they are morally admirable human beings. Consequences matter.
Be all of that as it may, Socrates concludes his exchange with Polus by insisting that the worst fate that can befall a man is to act unjustly and not be punished for it. This is too much for Callicles, who has been listening silently to the exchanges first with Gorgias and then with Polus. "Tell me, Chaerephon," he asks, "is Socrates serious about this or is he only joking?"
Socrates assures Callicles that he is quite serious, in an speech that is unusually long for Socrates, extending for an entire page. In response, Callicles launches into quite the longest speech in the dialogue, and one of the longest, or perhaps the longest, in any of the so-called Socratic dialogues -- the early and middle ones. It is a brilliant tour de raison, or perhaps I should say tour de discours, and it my absolutely favorite passage from the entire philosophical corpus -- I will quote it at length a little bit later on.
Callicles begins by giving a spot-on critique of the discussion thus far, identifying exactly the points at which Gorgias, and then Polus, by failing to adopt a sufficiently radical and anti-conventional position, leave themselves open to Socrates' dialectical tricks. For Gorgias, it is the concession that if his pupils do not come to him already inclined to act justly, he will have to teach them to be just. For Polus, it is the acknowledgement that even if suffering wrong is worse than doing wrong, doing wrong is uglier than suffering wrong. It is, in my view, a mark of the Plato's high seriousness that he puts these remarks in Callicles' mouth, thus in effect positioning him to resist Socrates' arguments.
But now something of the very greatest importance happens, in the midst of Callicles' extended remarks. To appreciate its true significance, you must understand that in the common speech of Plato's time, nature, or physis [I hope I have the Greek right -- as I have remarked, I do not know Greek], contrasted with law, which in Greek carries with it the sense of convention. Thus, the regularities and objective permanence of nature are contrasted with the variable, changing, man-made conventions that in this, that, or the other city-state regulate the behavior of men and the state. "Convention," says Callicles, "declares that it is unjust and ugly to seek to get the better of the majority. But my opinion is that nature herself reveals it to be only just and proper that the better man should lord it over his inferior; it will be the stronger over the weaker. ... To my mind, men are acting in accord with natural justice when they perform such acts, and, by heaven, it is in accordance with law, too, the law of nature."
This is, to my knowledge, the very first time that the phrase "the law of nature" appears in the western literary and philosophical tradition, and it may very well be the very first time it appears in any literary and philosophical tradition. Eventually, of course, thanks to the Stoics, and after them to the tradition of Roman Catholic thought, the idea of The Law of Nature became absolutely central to several modern intellectual traditions, including both Natural Law jurisprudence, so called, Social Contract political theory. But as it is introduced here by Callicles, it is a self-conscious paradox, a slap in the face of conventional Greek mores, and a radical declaration of the right of the strong to rule.
We come now to the passage I alluded to earlier. This is still part of Callicles' big speech -- for those following along, it starts near the end of Stephanus 484. I am going to quote it at length, because I could not teach the Gorgias or write a mini-tutorial on the dialogue without doing so. Here it is. Callicles is speaking. Keep in mind that Plato was writing this at roughly the time when he was deliberating whether to follow his family into politics or retreat from public life and found The Academy.
"Here, then, you have the truth of the matter. You will become convinced of it if you only let philosophy alone and pass on to more important considerations. Of course, Socrates, philosophy does have a certain charm if one engages with it in one's youth and in moderation; but if one dallies overlong, it's the ruin of a fellow. If a man, however well endowed, goes on philosophizing throughout his life, he will never come to taste the experiences which a man must have if he's going to be a gentleman and have the world look up to him. You know perfectly well that philosophers know nothing about state laws and regulations. They are equally ignorant of the conversational standards that we have to adopt in dealing with our fellow men at home and abroad. Why, they are inexperienced even in human pleasures and desires! In a word, they are totally innocent of all human character. So, when they come to take part in either a private or a public affair, they make themselves ridiculous -- just as ridiculous, I dare say, as men of affairs may be when they get involved in your quibbles, your 'debates.' ....
"But the best course, no doubt, is to be a participant in both. It's an excellent thing to grasp as much philosophy as one needs for an education, and it's no disgrace to play the philosopher when you're young; but if one grows up and becomes a man and still continues in the subject, why, the whole thing becomes ridiculous, Socrates. My own feeling toward its practitioners is very much the same as the way I feel toward men who lisp and prattle like a child. When I see a child, who ought to be talking that way, lisping and prattling, I'm please, it strikes me as a pleasant sign of good breeding and suitable to the child's age; and when I hear a little lad speaking distinctly, it seems to me disagreeable and offends my ears as a mark of servile origin. [ed. fascinating bit of Athenian sociology, this.] So, too, when I hear a grown man prattling and lisping, it seems ridiculous and unmanly; one would like to strike him hard! And this is exactly the feeling I have about students of philosophy. When I perceive philosophical activity in a young lad, I am pleased; it suits him, I think, and shows he has good breeding. A boy who doesn't play with philosophy I regard as illiberal, a chap who will never raise himself to any fine or noble action. Whereas when I see an older man still at his philosophy and showing no sign of giving it up, that one seems to me, Socrates, to be asking for some hard knocks. For, as I said just now, such a man, even if he's well-endowed by nature [ed. as Socrates was not by the way -- he was apparently rather ugly], must necessarily become unmanly by avoiding the center of the city and the assemblies where, as the Poet says, 'men win distinction.' [ed. -- Homer] Such a fellow must spend the rest of his life skulking in corners, whispering with two or three little lads, never pronouncing any large, liberal, or meaningful utterance."