Translated by Benjamin Jowett
In several of the dialogues of Plato, doubts have arisen among his interpreters as to which of the various subjects discussed in them is the main thesis. The speakers have the freedom of conversation; no severe rules of art restrict them, and sometimes we are inclined to think, with one of the dramatis personae in the Theaetetus, that the digressions have the greater interest. Yet in the most irregular of the dialogues there is also a certain natural growth or unity; the beginning is not forgotten at the end, and numerous allusions and references are interspersed, which form the loose connecting links of the whole. We must not neglect this unity, but neither must we attempt to confine the Platonic dialogue on the Procrustean bed of a single idea. (Compare Introduction to the Phaedrus.)
Two tendencies seem to have beset the interpreters of Plato in this matter. First, they have endeavoured to hang the dialogues upon one another by the slightest threads; and have thus been led to opposite and contradictory assertions respecting their order and sequence. The mantle of Schleiermacher has descended upon his successors, who have applied his method with the most various results. The value and use of the method has been hardly, if at all, examined either by him or them. Secondly, they have extended almost indefinitely the scope of each separate dialogue; in this way they think that they have escaped all difficulties, not seeing that what they have gained in generality they have lost in truth and distinctness. Metaphysical conceptions easily pass into one another; and the simpler notions of antiquity, which we can only realize by an effort, imperceptibly blend with the more familiar theories of modern philosophers. An eye for proportion is needed (his own art of measuring) in the study of Plato, as well as of other great artists. We may hardly admit that the moral antithesis of good and pleasure, or the intellectual antithesis of knowledge and opinion, being and appearance, are never far off in a Platonic discussion. But because they are in the background, we should not bring them into the foreground, or expect to discern them equally in all the dialogues.
There may be some advantage in drawing out a little the main outlines of the building; but the use of this is limited, and may be easily exaggerated. We may give Plato too much system, and alter the natural form and connection of his thoughts. Under the idea that his dialogues are finished works of art, we may find a reason for everything, and lose the highest characteristic of art, which is simplicity. Most great works receive a new light from a new and original mind. But whether these new lights are true or only suggestive, will depend on their agreement with the spirit of Plato, and the amount of direct evidence which can be urged in support of them. When a theory is running away with us, criticism does a friendly office in counselling moderation, and recalling us to the indications of the text.
Like the Phaedrus, the Gorgias has puzzled students of Plato by the appearance of two or more subjects. Under the cover of rhetoric higher themes are introduced; the argument expands into a general view of the good and evil of man. After making an ineffectual attempt to obtain a sound definition of his art from Gorgias, Socrates assumes the existence of a universal art of flattery or simulation having several branches:—this is the genus of which rhetoric is only one, and not the highest species. To flattery is opposed the true and noble art of life which he who possesses seeks always to impart to others, and which at last triumphs, if not here, at any rate in another world. These two aspects of life and knowledge appear to be the two leading ideas of the dialogue. The true and the false in individuals and states, in the treatment of the soul as well as of the body, are conceived under the forms of true and false art. In the development of this opposition there arise various other questions, such as the two famous paradoxes of Socrates (paradoxes as they are to the world in general, ideals as they may be more worthily called): (1) that to do is worse than to suffer evil; and (2) that when a man has done evil he had better be punished than unpunished; to which may be added (3) a third Socratic paradox or ideal, that bad men do what they think best, but not what they desire, for the desire of all is towards the good. That pleasure is to be distinguished from good is proved by the simultaneousness of pleasure and pain, and by the possibility of the bad having in certain cases pleasures as great as those of the good, or even greater. Not merely rhetoricians, but poets, musicians, and other artists, the whole tribe of statesmen, past as well as present, are included in the class of flatterers. The true and false finally appear before the judgment-seat of the gods below.
The dialogue naturally falls into three divisions, to which the three characters of Gorgias, Polus, and Callicles respectively correspond; and the form and manner change with the stages of the argument. Socrates is deferential towards Gorgias, playful and yet cutting in dealing with the youthful Polus, ironical and sarcastic in his encounter with Callicles. In the first division the question is asked—What is rhetoric? To this there is no answer given, for Gorgias is soon made to contradict himself by Socrates, and the argument is transferred to the hands of his disciple Polus, who rushes to the defence of his master. The answer has at last to be given by Socrates himself, but before he can even explain his meaning to Polus, he must enlighten him upon the great subject of shams or flatteries. When Polus finds his favourite art reduced to the level of cookery, he replies that at any rate rhetoricians, like despots, have great power. Socrates denies that they have any real power, and hence arise the three paradoxes already mentioned. Although they are strange to him, Polus is at last convinced of their truth; at least, they seem to him to follow legitimately from the premises. Thus the second act of the dialogue closes. Then Callicles appears on the scene, at first maintaining that pleasure is good, and that might is right, and that law is nothing but the combination of the many weak against the few strong. When he is confuted he withdraws from the argument, and leaves Socrates to arrive at the conclusion by himself. The conclusion is that there are two kinds of statesmanship, a higher and a lower—that which makes the people better, and that which only flatters them, and he exhorts Callicles to choose the higher. The dialogue terminates with a mythus of a final judgment, in which there will be no more flattery or disguise, and no further use for the teaching of rhetoric.
The characters of the three interlocutors also correspond to the parts which are assigned to them. Gorgias is the great rhetorician, now advanced in years, who goes from city to city displaying his talents, and is celebrated throughout Greece. Like all the Sophists in the dialogues of Plato, he is vain and boastful, yet he has also a certain dignity, and is treated by Socrates with considerable respect. But he is no match for him in dialectics. Although he has been teaching rhetoric all his life, he is still incapable of defining his own art. When his ideas begin to clear up, he is unwilling to admit that rhetoric can be wholly separated from justice and injustice, and this lingering sentiment of morality, or regard for public opinion, enables Socrates to detect him in a contradiction. Like Protagoras, he is described as of a generous nature; he expresses his approbation of Socrates' manner of approaching a question; he is quite 'one of Socrates' sort, ready to be refuted as well as to refute,' and very eager that Callicles and Socrates should have the game out. He knows by experience that rhetoric exercises great influence over other men, but he is unable to explain the puzzle how rhetoric can teach everything and know nothing.
Polus is an impetuous youth, a runaway 'colt,' as Socrates describes him, who wanted originally to have taken the place of Gorgias under the pretext that the old man was tired, and now avails himself of the earliest opportunity to enter the lists. He is said to be the author of a work on rhetoric, and is again mentioned in the Phaedrus, as the inventor of balanced or double forms of speech (compare Gorg.; Symp.). At first he is violent and ill-mannered, and is angry at seeing his master overthrown. But in the judicious hands of Socrates he is soon restored to good-humour, and compelled to assent to the required conclusion. Like Gorgias, he is overthrown because he compromises; he is unwilling to say that to do is fairer or more honourable than to suffer injustice. Though he is fascinated by the power of rhetoric, and dazzled by the splendour of success, he is not insensible to higher arguments. Plato may have felt that there would be an incongruity in a youth maintaining the cause of injustice against the world. He has never heard the other side of the question, and he listens to the paradoxes, as they appear to him, of Socrates with evident astonishment. He can hardly understand the meaning of Archelaus being miserable, or of rhetoric being only useful in self-accusation. When the argument with him has fairly run out.
Callicles, in whose house they are assembled, is introduced on the stage: he is with difficulty convinced that Socrates is in earnest; for if these things are true, then, as he says with real emotion, the foundations of society are upside down. In him another type of character is represented; he is neither sophist nor philosopher, but man of the world, and an accomplished Athenian gentleman. He might be described in modern language as a cynic or materialist, a lover of power and also of pleasure, and unscrupulous in his means of attaining both. There is no desire on his part to offer any compromise in the interests of morality; nor is any concession made by him. Like Thrasymachus in the Republic, though he is not of the same weak and vulgar class, he consistently maintains that might is right. His great motive of action is political ambition; in this he is characteristically Greek. Like Anytus in the Meno, he is the enemy of the Sophists; but favours the new art of rhetoric, which he regards as an excellent weapon of attack and defence. He is a despiser of mankind as he is of philosophy, and sees in the laws of the state only a violation of the order of nature, which intended that the stronger should govern the weaker (compare Republic). Like other men of the world who are of a speculative turn of mind, he generalizes the bad side of human nature, and has easily brought down his principles to his practice. Philosophy and poetry alike supply him with distinctions suited to his view of human life. He has a good will to Socrates, whose talents he evidently admires, while he censures the puerile use which he makes of them. He expresses a keen intellectual interest in the argument. Like Anytus, again, he has a sympathy with other men of the world; the Athenian statesmen of a former generation, who showed no weakness and made no mistakes, such as Miltiades, Themistocles, Pericles, are his favourites. His ideal of human character is a man of great passions and great powers, which he has developed to the utmost, and which he uses in his own enjoyment and in the government of others. Had Critias been the name instead of Callicles, about whom we know nothing from other sources, the opinions of the man would have seemed to reflect the history of his life.
And now the combat deepens. In Callicles, far more than in any sophist or rhetorician, is concentrated the spirit of evil against which Socrates is contending, the spirit of the world, the spirit of the many contending against the one wise man, of which the Sophists, as he describes them in the Republic, are the imitators rather than the authors, being themselves carried away by the great tide of public opinion. Socrates approaches his antagonist warily from a distance, with a sort of irony which touches with a light hand both his personal vices (probably in allusion to some scandal of the day) and his servility to the populace. At the same time, he is in most profound earnest, as Chaerephon remarks. Callicles soon loses his temper, but the more he is irritated, the more provoking and matter of fact does Socrates become. A repartee of his which appears to have been really made to the 'omniscient' Hippias, according to the testimony of Xenophon (Mem.), is introduced. He is called by Callicles a popular declaimer, and certainly shows that he has the power, in the words of Gorgias, of being 'as long as he pleases,' or 'as short as he pleases' (compare Protag.). Callicles exhibits great ability in defending himself and attacking Socrates, whom he accuses of trifling and word-splitting; he is scandalized that the legitimate consequences of his own argument should be stated in plain terms; after the manner of men of the world, he wishes to preserve the decencies of life. But he cannot consistently maintain the bad sense of words; and getting confused between the abstract notions of better, superior, stronger, he is easily turned round by Socrates, and only induced to continue the argument by the authority of Gorgias. Once, when Socrates is describing the manner in which the ambitious citizen has to identify himself with the people, he partially recognizes the truth of his words.
The Socrates of the Gorgias may be compared with the Socrates of the Protagoras and Meno. As in other dialogues, he is the enemy of the Sophists and rhetoricians; and also of the statesmen, whom he regards as another variety of the same species. His behaviour is governed by that of his opponents; the least forwardness or egotism on their part is met by a corresponding irony on the part of Socrates. He must speak, for philosophy will not allow him to be silent. He is indeed more ironical and provoking than in any other of Plato's writings: for he is 'fooled to the top of his bent' by the worldliness of Callicles. But he is also more deeply in earnest. He rises higher than even in the Phaedo and Crito: at first enveloping his moral convictions in a cloud of dust and dialectics, he ends by losing his method, his life, himself, in them. As in the Protagoras and Phaedrus, throwing aside the veil of irony, he makes a speech, but, true to his character, not until his adversary has refused to answer any more questions. The presentiment of his own fate is hanging over him. He is aware that Socrates, the single real teacher of politics, as he ventures to call himself, cannot safely go to war with the whole world, and that in the courts of earth he will be condemned. But he will be justified in the world below. Then the position of Socrates and Callicles will be reversed; all those things 'unfit for ears polite' which Callicles has prophesied as likely to happen to him in this life, the insulting language, the box on the ears, will recoil upon his assailant. (Compare Republic, and the similar reversal of the position of the lawyer and the philosopher in the Theaetetus).
There is an interesting allusion to his own behaviour at the trial of the generals after the battle of Arginusae, which he ironically attributes to his ignorance of the manner in which a vote of the assembly should be taken. This is said to have happened 'last year' (B.C. 406), and therefore the assumed date of the dialogue has been fixed at 405 B.C., when Socrates would already have been an old man. The date is clearly marked, but is scarcely reconcilable with another indication of time, viz. the 'recent' usurpation of Archelaus, which occurred in the year 413; and still less with the 'recent' death of Pericles, who really died twenty-four years previously (429 B.C.) and is afterwards reckoned among the statesmen of a past age; or with the mention of Nicias, who died in 413, and is nevertheless spoken of as a living witness. But we shall hereafter have reason to observe, that although there is a general consistency of times and persons in the Dialogues of Plato, a precise dramatic date is an invention of his commentators (Preface to Republic).
The conclusion of the Dialogue is remarkable, (1) for the truly characteristic declaration of Socrates that he is ignorant of the true nature and bearing of these things, while he affirms at the same time that no one can maintain any other view without being ridiculous. The profession of ignorance reminds us of the earlier and more exclusively Socratic Dialogues. But neither in them, nor in the Apology, nor in the Memorabilia of Xenophon, does Socrates express any doubt of the fundamental truths of morality. He evidently regards this 'among the multitude of questions' which agitate human life 'as the principle which alone remains unshaken.' He does not insist here, any more than in the Phaedo, on the literal truth of the myth, but only on the soundness of the doctrine which is contained in it, that doing wrong is worse than suffering, and that a man should be rather than seem; for the next best thing to a man's being just is that he should be corrected and become just; also that he should avoid all flattery, whether of himself or of others; and that rhetoric should be employed for the maintenance of the right only. The revelation of another life is a recapitulation of the argument in a figure.
(2) Socrates makes the singular remark, that he is himself the only true politician of his age. In other passages, especially in the Apology, he disclaims being a politician at all. There he is convinced that he or any other good man who attempted to resist the popular will would be put to death before he had done any good to himself or others. Here he anticipates such a fate for himself, from the fact that he is 'the only man of the present day who performs his public duties at all.' The two points of view are not really inconsistent, but the difference between them is worth noticing: Socrates is and is not a public man. Not in the ordinary sense, like Alcibiades or Pericles, but in a higher one; and this will sooner or later entail the same consequences on him. He cannot be a private man if he would; neither can he separate morals from politics. Nor is he unwilling to be a politician, although he foresees the dangers which await him; but he must first become a better and wiser man, for he as well as Callicles is in a state of perplexity and uncertainty. And yet there is an inconsistency: for should not Socrates too have taught the citizens better than to put him to death?
And now, as he himself says, we will 'resume the argument from the beginning.'
Socrates, who is attended by his inseparable disciple, Chaerephon, meets Callicles in the streets of Athens. He is informed that he has just missed an exhibition of Gorgias, which he regrets, because he was desirous, not of hearing Gorgias display his rhetoric, but of interrogating him concerning the nature of his art. Callicles proposes that they shall go with him to his own house, where Gorgias is staying. There they find the great rhetorician and his younger friend and disciple Polus.
SOCRATES: Put the question to him, Chaerephon.
CHAEREPHON: What question?
SOCRATES: Who is he?—such a question as would elicit from a man the answer, 'I am a cobbler.'
Polus suggests that Gorgias may be tired, and desires to answer for him. 'Who is Gorgias?' asks Chaerephon, imitating the manner of his master Socrates. 'One of the best of men, and a proficient in the best and noblest of experimental arts,' etc., replies Polus, in rhetorical and balanced phrases. Socrates is dissatisfied at the length and unmeaningness of the answer; he tells the disconcerted volunteer that he has mistaken the quality for the nature of the art, and remarks to Gorgias, that Polus has learnt how to make a speech, but not how to answer a question. He wishes that Gorgias would answer him. Gorgias is willing enough, and replies to the question asked by Chaerephon,—that he is a rhetorician, and in Homeric language, 'boasts himself to be a good one.' At the request of Socrates he promises to be brief; for 'he can be as long as he pleases, and as short as he pleases.' Socrates would have him bestow his length on others, and proceeds to ask him a number of questions, which are answered by him to his own great satisfaction, and with a brevity which excites the admiration of Socrates. The result of the discussion may be summed up as follows:—
Rhetoric treats of discourse; but music and medicine, and other particular arts, are also concerned with discourse; in what way then does rhetoric differ from them? Gorgias draws a distinction between the arts which deal with words, and the arts which have to do with external actions. Socrates extends this distinction further, and divides all productive arts into two classes: (1) arts which may be carried on in silence; and (2) arts which have to do with words, or in which words are coextensive with action, such as arithmetic, geometry, rhetoric. But still Gorgias could hardly have meant to say that arithmetic was the same as rhetoric. Even in the arts which are concerned with words there are differences. What then distinguishes rhetoric from the other arts which have to do with words? 'The words which rhetoric uses relate to the best and greatest of human things.' But tell me, Gorgias, what are the best? 'Health first, beauty next, wealth third,' in the words of the old song, or how would you rank them? The arts will come to you in a body, each claiming precedence and saying that her own good is superior to that of the rest—How will you choose between them? 'I should say, Socrates, that the art of persuasion, which gives freedom to all men, and to individuals power in the state, is the greatest good.' But what is the exact nature of this persuasion?—is the persevering retort: You could not describe Zeuxis as a painter, or even as a painter of figures, if there were other painters of figures; neither can you define rhetoric simply as an art of persuasion, because there are other arts which persuade, such as arithmetic, which is an art of persuasion about odd and even numbers. Gorgias is made to see the necessity of a further limitation, and he now defines rhetoric as the art of persuading in the law courts, and in the assembly, about the just and unjust. But still there are two sorts of persuasion: one which gives knowledge, and another which gives belief without knowledge; and knowledge is always true, but belief may be either true or false,—there is therefore a further question: which of the two sorts of persuasion does rhetoric effect in courts of law and assemblies? Plainly that which gives belief and not that which gives knowledge; for no one can impart a real knowledge of such matters to a crowd of persons in a few minutes. And there is another point to be considered:—when the assembly meets to advise about walls or docks or military expeditions, the rhetorician is not taken into counsel, but the architect, or the general. How would Gorgias explain this phenomenon? All who intend to become disciples, of whom there are several in the company, and not Socrates only, are eagerly asking:—About what then will rhetoric teach us to persuade or advise the state?
Gorgias illustrates the nature of rhetoric by adducing the example of Themistocles, who persuaded the Athenians to build their docks and walls, and of Pericles, whom Socrates himself has heard speaking about the middle wall of the Piraeus. He adds that he has exercised a similar power over the patients of his brother Herodicus. He could be chosen a physician by the assembly if he pleased, for no physician could compete with a rhetorician in popularity and influence. He could persuade the multitude of anything by the power of his rhetoric; not that the rhetorician ought to abuse this power any more than a boxer should abuse the art of self-defence. Rhetoric is a good thing, but, like all good things, may be unlawfully used. Neither is the teacher of the art to be deemed unjust because his pupils are unjust and make a bad use of the lessons which they have learned from him.
Socrates would like to know before he replies, whether Gorgias will quarrel with him if he points out a slight inconsistency into which he has fallen, or whether he, like himself, is one who loves to be refuted. Gorgias declares that he is quite one of his sort, but fears that the argument may be tedious to the company. The company cheer, and Chaerephon and Callicles exhort them to proceed. Socrates gently points out the supposed inconsistency into which Gorgias appears to have fallen, and which he is inclined to think may arise out of a misapprehension of his own. The rhetorician has been declared by Gorgias to be more persuasive to the ignorant than the physician, or any other expert. And he is said to be ignorant, and this ignorance of his is regarded by Gorgias as a happy condition, for he has escaped the trouble of learning. But is he as ignorant of just and unjust as he is of medicine or building? Gorgias is compelled to admit that if he did not know them previously he must learn them from his teacher as a part of the art of rhetoric. But he who has learned carpentry is a carpenter, and he who has learned music is a musician, and he who has learned justice is just. The rhetorician then must be a just man, and rhetoric is a just thing. But Gorgias has already admitted the opposite of this, viz. that rhetoric may be abused, and that the rhetorician may act unjustly. How is the inconsistency to be explained?
The fallacy of this argument is twofold; for in the first place, a man may know justice and not be just—here is the old confusion of the arts and the virtues;—nor can any teacher be expected to counteract wholly the bent of natural character; and secondly, a man may have a degree of justice, but not sufficient to prevent him from ever doing wrong. Polus is naturally exasperated at the sophism, which he is unable to detect; of course, he says, the rhetorician, like every one else, will admit that he knows justice (how can he do otherwise when pressed by the interrogations of Socrates?), but he thinks that great want of manners is shown in bringing the argument to such a pass. Socrates ironically replies, that when old men trip, the young set them on their legs again; and he is quite willing to retract, if he can be shown to be in error, but upon one condition, which is that Polus studies brevity. Polus is in great indignation at not being allowed to use as many words as he pleases in the free state of Athens. Socrates retorts, that yet harder will be his own case, if he is compelled to stay and listen to them. After some altercation they agree (compare Protag.), that Polus shall ask and Socrates answer.
'What is the art of Rhetoric?' says Polus. Not an art at all, replies Socrates, but a thing which in your book you affirm to have created art. Polus asks, 'What thing?' and Socrates answers, An experience or routine of making a sort of delight or gratification. 'But is not rhetoric a fine thing?' I have not yet told you what rhetoric is. Will you ask me another question—What is cookery? 'What is cookery?' An experience or routine of making a sort of delight or gratification. Then they are the same, or rather fall under the same class, and rhetoric has still to be distinguished from cookery. 'What is rhetoric?' asks Polus once more. A part of a not very creditable whole, which may be termed flattery, is the reply. 'But what part?' A shadow of a part of politics. This, as might be expected, is wholly unintelligible, both to Gorgias and Polus; and, in order to explain his meaning to them, Socrates draws a distinction between shadows or appearances and realities; e.g. there is real health of body or soul, and the appearance of them; real arts and sciences, and the simulations of them. Now the soul and body have two arts waiting upon them, first the art of politics, which attends on the soul, having a legislative part and a judicial part; and another art attending on the body, which has no generic name, but may also be described as having two divisions, one of which is medicine and the other gymnastic. Corresponding with these four arts or sciences there are four shams or simulations of them, mere experiences, as they may be termed, because they give no reason of their own existence. The art of dressing up is the sham or simulation of gymnastic, the art of cookery, of medicine; rhetoric is the simulation of justice, and sophistic of legislation. They may be summed up in an arithmetical formula:—
Tiring: gymnastic:: cookery: medicine:: sophistic: legislation.
Cookery: medicine:: rhetoric: the art of justice.
And this is the true scheme of them, but when measured only by the gratification which they procure, they become jumbled together and return to their aboriginal chaos. Socrates apologizes for the length of his speech, which was necessary to the explanation of the subject, and begs Polus not unnecessarily to retaliate on him.
'Do you mean to say that the rhetoricians are esteemed flatterers?' They are not esteemed at all. 'Why, have they not great power, and can they not do whatever they desire?' They have no power, and they only do what they think best, and never what they desire; for they never attain the true object of desire, which is the good. 'As if you, Socrates, would not envy the possessor of despotic power, who can imprison, exile, kill any one whom he pleases.' But Socrates replies that he has no wish to put any one to death; he who kills another, even justly, is not to be envied, and he who kills him unjustly is to be pitied; it is better to suffer than to do injustice. He does not consider that going about with a dagger and putting men out of the way, or setting a house on fire, is real power. To this Polus assents, on the ground that such acts would be punished, but he is still of opinion that evil-doers, if they are unpunished, may be happy enough. He instances Archelaus, son of Perdiccas, the usurper of Macedonia. Does not Socrates think him happy?—Socrates would like to know more about him; he cannot pronounce even the great king to be happy, unless he knows his mental and moral condition. Polus explains that Archelaus was a slave, being the son of a woman who was the slave of Alcetas, brother of Perdiccas king of Macedon—and he, by every species of crime, first murdering his uncle and then his cousin and half-brother, obtained the kingdom. This was very wicked, and yet all the world, including Socrates, would like to have his place. Socrates dismisses the appeal to numbers; Polus, if he will, may summon all the rich men of Athens, Nicias and his brothers, Aristocrates, the house of Pericles, or any other great family—this is the kind of evidence which is adduced in courts of justice, where truth depends upon numbers. But Socrates employs proof of another sort; his appeal is to one witness only,—that is to say, the person with whom he is speaking; him he will convict out of his own mouth. And he is prepared to show, after his manner, that Archelaus cannot be a wicked man and yet happy.
The evil-doer is deemed happy if he escapes, and miserable if he suffers punishment; but Socrates thinks him less miserable if he suffers than if he escapes. Polus is of opinion that such a paradox as this hardly deserves refutation, and is at any rate sufficiently refuted by the fact. Socrates has only to compare the lot of the successful tyrant who is the envy of the world, and of the wretch who, having been detected in a criminal attempt against the state, is crucified or burnt to death. Socrates replies, that if they are both criminal they are both miserable, but that the unpunished is the more miserable of the two. At this Polus laughs outright, which leads Socrates to remark that laughter is a new species of refutation. Polus replies, that he is already refuted; for if he will take the votes of the company, he will find that no one agrees with him. To this Socrates rejoins, that he is not a public man, and (referring to his own conduct at the trial of the generals after the battle of Arginusae) is unable to take the suffrages of any company, as he had shown on a recent occasion; he can only deal with one witness at a time, and that is the person with whom he is arguing. But he is certain that in the opinion of any man to do is worse than to suffer evil.
Polus, though he will not admit this, is ready to acknowledge that to do evil is considered the more foul or dishonourable of the two. But what is fair and what is foul; whether the terms are applied to bodies, colours, figures, laws, habits, studies, must they not be defined with reference to pleasure and utility? Polus assents to this latter doctrine, and is easily persuaded that the fouler of two things must exceed either in pain or in hurt. But the doing cannot exceed the suffering of evil in pain, and therefore must exceed in hurt. Thus doing is proved by the testimony of Polus himself to be worse or more hurtful than suffering.
There remains the other question: Is a guilty man better off when he is punished or when he is unpunished? Socrates replies, that what is done justly is suffered justly: if the act is just, the effect is just; if to punish is just, to be punished is just, and therefore fair, and therefore beneficent; and the benefit is that the soul is improved. There are three evils from which a man may suffer, and which affect him in estate, body, and soul;—these are, poverty, disease, injustice; and the foulest of these is injustice, the evil of the soul, because that brings the greatest hurt. And there are three arts which heal these evils—trading, medicine, justice—and the fairest of these is justice. Happy is he who has never committed injustice, and happy in the second degree he who has been healed by punishment. And therefore the criminal should himself go to the judge as he would to the physician, and purge away his crime. Rhetoric will enable him to display his guilt in proper colours, and to sustain himself and others in enduring the necessary penalty. And similarly if a man has an enemy, he will desire not to punish him, but that he shall go unpunished and become worse and worse, taking care only that he does no injury to himself. These are at least conceivable uses of the art, and no others have been discovered by us.
Here Callicles, who has been listening in silent amazement, asks Chaerephon whether Socrates is in earnest, and on receiving the assurance that he is, proceeds to ask the same question of Socrates himself. For if such doctrines are true, life must have been turned upside down, and all of us are doing the opposite of what we ought to be doing.
Socrates replies in a style of playful irony, that before men can understand one another they must have some common feeling. And such a community of feeling exists between himself and Callicles, for both of them are lovers, and they have both a pair of loves; the beloved of Callicles are the Athenian Demos and Demos the son of Pyrilampes; the beloved of Socrates are Alcibiades and philosophy. The peculiarity of Callicles is that he can never contradict his loves; he changes as his Demos changes in all his opinions; he watches the countenance of both his loves, and repeats their sentiments, and if any one is surprised at his sayings and doings, the explanation of them is, that he is not a free agent, but must always be imitating his two loves. And this is the explanation of Socrates' peculiarities also. He is always repeating what his mistress, Philosophy, is saying to him, who unlike his other love, Alcibiades, is ever the same, ever true. Callicles must refute her, or he will never be at unity with himself; and discord in life is far worse than the discord of musical sounds.
Callicles answers, that Gorgias was overthrown because, as Polus said, in compliance with popular prejudice he had admitted that if his pupil did not know justice the rhetorician must teach him; and Polus has been similarly entangled, because his modesty led him to admit that to suffer is more honourable than to do injustice. By custom 'yes,' but not by nature, says Callicles. And Socrates is always playing between the two points of view, and putting one in the place of the other. In this very argument, what Polus only meant in a conventional sense has been affirmed by him to be a law of nature. For convention says that 'injustice is dishonourable,' but nature says that 'might is right.' And we are always taming down the nobler spirits among us to the conventional level. But sometimes a great man will rise up and reassert his original rights, trampling under foot all our formularies, and then the light of natural justice shines forth. Pindar says, 'Law, the king of all, does violence with high hand;' as is indeed proved by the example of Heracles, who drove off the oxen of Geryon and never paid for them.
This is the truth, Socrates, as you will be convinced, if you leave philosophy and pass on to the real business of life. A little philosophy is an excellent thing; too much is the ruin of a man. He who has not 'passed his metaphysics' before he has grown up to manhood will never know the world. Philosophers are ridiculous when they take to politics, and I dare say that politicians are equally ridiculous when they take to philosophy: 'Every man,' as Euripides says, 'is fondest of that in which he is best.' Philosophy is graceful in youth, like the lisp of infancy, and should be cultivated as a part of education; but when a grown-up man lisps or studies philosophy, I should like to beat him. None of those over-refined natures ever come to any good; they avoid the busy haunts of men, and skulk in corners, whispering to a few admiring youths, and never giving utterance to any noble sentiments.
For you, Socrates, I have a regard, and therefore I say to you, as Zethus says to Amphion in the play, that you have 'a noble soul disguised in a puerile exterior.' And I would have you consider the danger which you and other philosophers incur. For you would not know how to defend yourself if any one accused you in a law-court,—there you would stand, with gaping mouth and dizzy brain, and might be murdered, robbed, boxed on the ears with impunity. Take my advice, then, and get a little common sense; leave to others these frivolities; walk in the ways of the wealthy and be wise.
Socrates professes to have found in Callicles the philosopher's touchstone; and he is certain that any opinion in which they both agree must be the very truth. Callicles has all the three qualities which are needed in a critic—knowledge, good-will, frankness; Gorgias and Polus, although learned men, were too modest, and their modesty made them contradict themselves. But Callicles is well-educated; and he is not too modest to speak out (of this he has already given proof), and his good-will is shown both by his own profession and by his giving the same caution against philosophy to Socrates, which Socrates remembers hearing him give long ago to his own clique of friends. He will pledge himself to retract any error into which he may have fallen, and which Callicles may point out. But he would like to know first of all what he and Pindar mean by natural justice. Do they suppose that the rule of justice is the rule of the stronger or of the better?' 'There is no difference.' Then are not the many superior to the one, and the opinions of the many better? And their opinion is that justice is equality, and that to do is more dishonourable than to suffer wrong. And as they are the superior or stronger, this opinion of theirs must be in accordance with natural as well as conventional justice. 'Why will you continue splitting words? Have I not told you that the superior is the better?' But what do you mean by the better? Tell me that, and please to be a little milder in your language, if you do not wish to drive me away. 'I mean the worthier, the wiser.' You mean to say that one man of sense ought to rule over ten thousand fools? 'Yes, that is my meaning.' Ought the physician then to have a larger share of meats and drinks? or the weaver to have more coats, or the cobbler larger shoes, or the farmer more seed? 'You are always saying the same things, Socrates.' Yes, and on the same subjects too; but you are never saying the same things. For, first, you defined the superior to be the stronger, and then the wiser, and now something else;—what DO you mean? 'I mean men of political ability, who ought to govern and to have more than the governed.' Than themselves? 'What do you mean?' I mean to say that every man is his own governor. 'I see that you mean those dolts, the temperate. But my doctrine is, that a man should let his desires grow, and take the means of satisfying them. To the many this is impossible, and therefore they combine to prevent him. But if he is a king, and has power, how base would he be in submitting to them! To invite the common herd to be lord over him, when he might have the enjoyment of all things! For the truth is, Socrates, that luxury and self-indulgence are virtue and happiness; all the rest is mere talk.'
Socrates compliments Callicles on his frankness in saying what other men only think. According to his view, those who want nothing are not happy. 'Why,' says Callicles, 'if they were, stones and the dead would be happy.' Socrates in reply is led into a half-serious, half-comic vein of reflection. 'Who knows,' as Euripides says, 'whether life may not be death, and death life?' Nay, there are philosophers who maintain that even in life we are dead, and that the body (soma) is the tomb (sema) of the soul. And some ingenious Sicilian has made an allegory, in which he represents fools as the uninitiated, who are supposed to be carrying water to a vessel, which is full of holes, in a similarly holey sieve, and this sieve is their own soul. The idea is fanciful, but nevertheless is a figure of a truth which I want to make you acknowledge, viz. that the life of contentment is better than the life of indulgence. Are you disposed to admit that? 'Far otherwise.' Then hear another parable. The life of self-contentment and self-indulgence may be represented respectively by two men, who are filling jars with streams of wine, honey, milk,—the jars of the one are sound, and the jars of the other leaky; the first fils his jars, and has no more trouble with them; the second is always filling them, and would suffer extreme misery if he desisted. Are you of the same opinion still? 'Yes, Socrates, and the figure expresses what I mean. For true pleasure is a perpetual stream, flowing in and flowing out. To be hungry and always eating, to be thirsty and always drinking, and to have all the other desires and to satisfy them, that, as I admit, is my idea of happiness.' And to be itching and always scratching? 'I do not deny that there may be happiness even in that.' And to indulge unnatural desires, if they are abundantly satisfied? Callicles is indignant at the introduction of such topics. But he is reminded by Socrates that they are introduced, not by him, but by the maintainer of the identity of pleasure and good. Will Callicles still maintain this? 'Yes, for the sake of consistency, he will.' The answer does not satisfy Socrates, who fears that he is losing his touchstone. A profession of seriousness on the part of Callicles reassures him, and they proceed with the argument. Pleasure and good are the same, but knowledge and courage are not the same either with pleasure or good, or with one another. Socrates disproves the first of these statements by showing that two opposites cannot coexist, but must alternate with one another—to be well and ill together is impossible. But pleasure and pain are simultaneous, and the cessation of them is simultaneous; e.g. in the case of drinking and thirsting, whereas good and evil are not simultaneous, and do not cease simultaneously, and therefore pleasure cannot be the same as good.
Callicles has already lost his temper, and can only be persuaded to go on by the interposition of Gorgias. Socrates, having already guarded against objections by distinguishing courage and knowledge from pleasure and good, proceeds:—The good are good by the presence of good, and the bad are bad by the presence of evil. And the brave and wise are good, and the cowardly and foolish are bad. And he who feels pleasure is good, and he who feels pain is bad, and both feel pleasure and pain in nearly the same degree, and sometimes the bad man or coward in a greater degree. Therefore the bad man or coward is as good as the brave or may be even better.
Callicles endeavours now to avert the inevitable absurdity by affirming that he and all mankind admitted some pleasures to be good and others bad. The good are the beneficial, and the bad are the hurtful, and we should choose the one and avoid the other. But this, as Socrates observes, is a return to the old doctrine of himself and Polus, that all things should be done for the sake of the good.
Callicles assents to this, and Socrates, finding that they are agreed in distinguishing pleasure from good, returns to his old division of empirical habits, or shams, or flatteries, which study pleasure only, and the arts which are concerned with the higher interests of soul and body. Does Callicles agree to this division? Callicles will agree to anything, in order that he may get through the argument. Which of the arts then are flatteries? Flute-playing, harp-playing, choral exhibitions, the dithyrambics of Cinesias are all equally condemned on the ground that they give pleasure only; and Meles the harp-player, who was the father of Cinesias, failed even in that. The stately muse of Tragedy is bent upon pleasure, and not upon improvement. Poetry in general is only a rhetorical address to a mixed audience of men, women, and children. And the orators are very far from speaking with a view to what is best; their way is to humour the assembly as if they were children.
Callicles replies, that this is only true of some of them; others have a real regard for their fellow-citizens. Granted; then there are two species of oratory; the one a flattery, another which has a real regard for the citizens. But where are the orators among whom you find the latter? Callicles admits that there are none remaining, but there were such in the days when Themistocles, Cimon, Miltiades, and the great Pericles were still alive. Socrates replies that none of these were true artists, setting before themselves the duty of bringing order out of disorder. The good man and true orator has a settled design, running through his life, to which he conforms all his words and actions; he desires to implant justice and eradicate injustice, to implant all virtue and eradicate all vice in the minds of his citizens. He is the physician who will not allow the sick man to indulge his appetites with a variety of meats and drinks, but insists on his exercising self-restraint. And this is good for the soul, and better than the unrestrained indulgence which Callicles was recently approving.
Here Callicles, who had been with difficulty brought to this point, turns restive, and suggests that Socrates shall answer his own questions. 'Then,' says Socrates, 'one man must do for two;' and though he had hoped to have given Callicles an 'Amphion' in return for his 'Zethus,' he is willing to proceed; at the same time, he hopes that Callicles will correct him, if he falls into error. He recapitulates the advantages which he has already won:—
The pleasant is not the same as the good—Callicles and I are agreed about that,—but pleasure is to be pursued for the sake of the good, and the good is that of which the presence makes us good; we and all things good have acquired some virtue or other. And virtue, whether of body or soul, of things or persons, is not attained by accident, but is due to order and harmonious arrangement. And the soul which has order is better than the soul which is without order, and is therefore temperate and is therefore good, and the intemperate is bad. And he who is temperate is also just and brave and pious, and has attained the perfection of goodness and therefore of happiness, and the intemperate whom you approve is the opposite of all this and is wretched. He therefore who would be happy must pursue temperance and avoid intemperance, and if possible escape the necessity of punishment, but if he have done wrong he must endure punishment. In this way states and individuals should seek to attain harmony, which, as the wise tell us, is the bond of heaven and earth, of gods and men. Callicles has never discovered the power of geometrical proportion in both worlds; he would have men aim at disproportion and excess. But if he be wrong in this, and if self-control is the true secret of happiness, then the paradox is true that the only use of rhetoric is in self-accusation, and Polus was right in saying that to do wrong is worse than to suffer wrong, and Gorgias was right in saying that the rhetorician must be a just man. And you were wrong in taunting me with my defenceless condition, and in saying that I might be accused or put to death or boxed on the ears with impunity. For I may repeat once more, that to strike is worse than to be stricken—to do than to suffer. What I said then is now made fast in adamantine bonds. I myself know not the true nature of these things, but I know that no one can deny my words and not be ridiculous. To do wrong is the greatest of evils, and to suffer wrong is the next greatest evil. He who would avoid the last must be a ruler, or the friend of a ruler; and to be the friend he must be the equal of the ruler, and must also resemble him. Under his protection he will suffer no evil, but will he also do no evil? Nay, will he not rather do all the evil which he can and escape? And in this way the greatest of all evils will befall him. 'But this imitator of the tyrant,' rejoins Callicles, 'will kill any one who does not similarly imitate him.' Socrates replies that he is not deaf, and that he has heard that repeated many times, and can only reply, that a bad man will kill a good one. 'Yes, and that is the provoking thing.' Not provoking to a man of sense who is not studying the arts which will preserve him from danger; and this, as you say, is the use of rhetoric in courts of justice. But how many other arts are there which also save men from death, and are yet quite humble in their pretensions—such as the art of swimming, or the art of the pilot? Does not the pilot do men at least as much service as the rhetorician, and yet for the voyage from Aegina to Athens he does not charge more than two obols, and when he disembarks is quite unassuming in his demeanour? The reason is that he is not certain whether he has done his passengers any good in saving them from death, if one of them is diseased in body, and still more if he is diseased in mind—who can say? The engineer too will often save whole cities, and yet you despise him, and would not allow your son to marry his daughter, or his son to marry yours. But what reason is there in this? For if virtue only means the saving of life, whether your own or another's, you have no right to despise him or any practiser of saving arts. But is not virtue something different from saving and being saved? I would have you rather consider whether you ought not to disregard length of life, and think only how you can live best, leaving all besides to the will of Heaven. For you must not expect to have influence either with the Athenian Demos or with Demos the son of Pyrilampes, unless you become like them. What do you say to this?
'There is some truth in what you are saying, but I do not entirely believe you.'
That is because you are in love with Demos. But let us have a little more conversation. You remember the two processes—one which was directed to pleasure, the other which was directed to making men as good as possible. And those who have the care of the city should make the citizens as good as possible. But who would undertake a public building, if he had never had a teacher of the art of building, and had never constructed a building before? or who would undertake the duty of state-physician, if he had never cured either himself or any one else? Should we not examine him before we entrusted him with the office? And as Callicles is about to enter public life, should we not examine him? Whom has he made better? For we have already admitted that this is the statesman's proper business. And we must ask the same question about Pericles, and Cimon, and Miltiades, and Themistocles. Whom did they make better? Nay, did not Pericles make the citizens worse? For he gave them pay, and at first he was very popular with them, but at last they condemned him to death. Yet surely he would be a bad tamer of animals who, having received them gentle, taught them to kick and butt, and man is an animal; and Pericles who had the charge of man only made him wilder, and more savage and unjust, and therefore he could not have been a good statesman. The same tale might be repeated about Cimon, Themistocles, Miltiades. But the charioteer who keeps his seat at first is not thrown out when he gains greater experience and skill. The inference is, that the statesman of a past age were no better than those of our own. They may have been cleverer constructors of docks and harbours, but they did not improve the character of the citizens. I have told you again and again (and I purposely use the same images) that the soul, like the body, may be treated in two ways—there is the meaner and the higher art. You seemed to understand what I said at the time, but when I ask you who were the really good statesmen, you answer—as if I asked you who were the good trainers, and you answered, Thearion, the baker, Mithoecus, the author of the Sicilian cookery-book, Sarambus, the vintner. And you would be affronted if I told you that these are a parcel of cooks who make men fat only to make them thin. And those whom they have fattened applaud them, instead of finding fault with them, and lay the blame of their subsequent disorders on their physicians. In this respect, Callicles, you are like them; you applaud the statesmen of old, who pandered to the vices of the citizens, and filled the city with docks and harbours, but neglected virtue and justice. And when the fit of illness comes, the citizens who in like manner applauded Themistocles, Pericles, and others, will lay hold of you and my friend Alcibiades, and you will suffer for the misdeeds of your predecessors. The old story is always being repeated—'after all his services, the ungrateful city banished him, or condemned him to death.' As if the statesman should not have taught the city better! He surely cannot blame the state for having unjustly used him, any more than the sophist or teacher can find fault with his pupils if they cheat him. And the sophist and orator are in the same case; although you admire rhetoric and despise sophistic, whereas sophistic is really the higher of the two. The teacher of the arts takes money, but the teacher of virtue or politics takes no money, because this is the only kind of service which makes the disciple desirous of requiting his teacher.
Socrates concludes by finally asking, to which of the two modes of serving the state Callicles invites him:—'to the inferior and ministerial one,' is the ingenuous reply. That is the only way of avoiding death, replies Socrates; and he has heard often enough, and would rather not hear again, that the bad man will kill the good. But he thinks that such a fate is very likely reserved for him, because he remarks that he is the only person who teaches the true art of politics. And very probably, as in the case which he described to Polus, he may be the physician who is tried by a jury of children. He cannot say that he has procured the citizens any pleasure, and if any one charges him with perplexing them, or with reviling their elders, he will not be able to make them understand that he has only been actuated by a desire for their good. And therefore there is no saying what his fate may be. 'And do you think that a man who is unable to help himself is in a good condition?' Yes, Callicles, if he have the true self-help, which is never to have said or done any wrong to himself or others. If I had not this kind of self-help, I should be ashamed; but if I die for want of your flattering rhetoric, I shall die in peace. For death is no evil, but to go to the world below laden with offences is the worst of evils. In proof of which I will tell you a tale:—
Under the rule of Cronos, men were judged on the day of their death, and when judgment had been given upon them they departed—the good to the islands of the blest, the bad to the house of vengeance. But as they were still living, and had their clothes on at the time when they were being judged, there was favouritism, and Zeus, when he came to the throne, was obliged to alter the mode of procedure, and try them after death, having first sent down Prometheus to take away from them the foreknowledge of death. Minos, Rhadamanthus, and Aeacus were appointed to be the judges; Rhadamanthus for Asia, Aeacus for Europe, and Minos was to hold the court of appeal. Now death is the separation of soul and body, but after death soul and body alike retain their characteristics; the fat man, the dandy, the branded slave, are all distinguishable. Some prince or potentate, perhaps even the great king himself, appears before Rhadamanthus, and he instantly detects him, though he knows not who he is; he sees the scars of perjury and iniquity, and sends him away to the house of torment.
For there are two classes of souls who undergo punishment—the curable and the incurable. The curable are those who are benefited by their punishment; the incurable are such as Archelaus, who benefit others by becoming a warning to them. The latter class are generally kings and potentates; meaner persons, happily for themselves, have not the same power of doing injustice. Sisyphus and Tityus, not Thersites, are supposed by Homer to be undergoing everlasting punishment. Not that there is anything to prevent a great man from being a good one, as is shown by the famous example of Aristeides, the son of Lysimachus. But to Rhadamanthus the souls are only known as good or bad; they are stripped of their dignities and preferments; he despatches the bad to Tartarus, labelled either as curable or incurable, and looks with love and admiration on the soul of some just one, whom he sends to the islands of the blest. Similar is the practice of Aeacus; and Minos overlooks them, holding a golden sceptre, as Odysseus in Homer saw him
'Wielding a sceptre of gold, and giving laws to the dead.'
My wish for myself and my fellow-men is, that we may present our souls undefiled to the judge in that day; my desire in life is to be able to meet death. And I exhort you, and retort upon you the reproach which you cast upon me,—that you will stand before the judge, gaping, and with dizzy brain, and any one may box you on the ear, and do you all manner of evil.
Perhaps you think that this is an old wives' fable. But you, who are the three wisest men in Hellas, have nothing better to say, and no one will ever show that to do is better than to suffer evil. A man should study to be, and not merely to seem. If he is bad, he should become good, and avoid all flattery, whether of the many or of the few.
Follow me, then; and if you are looked down upon, that will do you no harm. And when we have practised virtue, we will betake ourselves to politics, but not until we are delivered from the shameful state of ignorance and uncertainty in which we are at present. Let us follow in the way of virtue and justice, and not in the way to which you, Callicles, invite us; for that way is nothing worth.
We will now consider in order some of the principal points of the dialogue. Having regard (1) to the age of Plato and the ironical character of his writings, we may compare him with himself, and with other great teachers, and we may note in passing the objections of his critics. And then (2) casting one eye upon him, we may cast another upon ourselves, and endeavour to draw out the great lessons which he teaches for all time, stripped of the accidental form in which they are enveloped.
(1) In the Gorgias, as in nearly all the other dialogues of Plato, we are made aware that formal logic has as yet no existence. The old difficulty of framing a definition recurs. The illusive analogy of the arts and the virtues also continues. The ambiguity of several words, such as nature, custom, the honourable, the good, is not cleared up. The Sophists are still floundering about the distinction of the real and seeming. Figures of speech are made the basis of arguments. The possibility of conceiving a universal art or science, which admits of application to a particular subject-matter, is a difficulty which remains unsolved, and has not altogether ceased to haunt the world at the present day (compare Charmides). The defect of clearness is also apparent in Socrates himself, unless we suppose him to be practising on the simplicity of his opponent, or rather perhaps trying an experiment in dialectics. Nothing can be more fallacious than the contradiction which he pretends to have discovered in the answers of Gorgias (see above). The advantages which he gains over Polus are also due to a false antithesis of pleasure and good, and to an erroneous assertion that an agent and a patient may be described by similar predicates;—a mistake which Aristotle partly shares and partly corrects in the Nicomachean Ethics. Traces of a 'robust sophistry' are likewise discernible in his argument with Callicles.
(2) Although Socrates professes to be convinced by reason only, yet the argument is often a sort of dialectical fiction, by which he conducts himself and others to his own ideal of life and action. And we may sometimes wish that we could have suggested answers to his antagonists, or pointed out to them the rocks which lay concealed under the ambiguous terms good, pleasure, and the like. But it would be as useless to examine his arguments by the requirements of modern logic, as to criticise this ideal from a merely utilitarian point of view. If we say that the ideal is generally regarded as unattainable, and that mankind will by no means agree in thinking that the criminal is happier when punished than when unpunished, any more than they would agree to the stoical paradox that a man may be happy on the rack, Plato has already admitted that the world is against him. Neither does he mean to say that Archelaus is tormented by the stings of conscience; or that the sensations of the impaled criminal are more agreeable than those of the tyrant drowned in luxurious enjoyment. Neither is he speaking, as in the Protagoras, of virtue as a calculation of pleasure, an opinion which he afterwards repudiates in the Phaedo. What then is his meaning? His meaning we shall be able to illustrate best by parallel notions, which, whether justifiable by logic or not, have always existed among mankind. We must remind the reader that Socrates himself implies that he will be understood or appreciated by very few.
He is speaking not of the consciousness of happiness, but of the idea of happiness. When a martyr dies in a good cause, when a soldier falls in battle, we do not suppose that death or wounds are without pain, or that their physical suffering is always compensated by a mental satisfaction. Still we regard them as happy, and we would a thousand times rather have their death than a shameful life. Nor is this only because we believe that they will obtain an immortality of fame, or that they will have crowns of glory in another world, when their enemies and persecutors will be proportionably tormented. Men are found in a few instances to do what is right, without reference to public opinion or to consequences. And we regard them as happy on this ground only, much as Socrates' friends in the opening of the Phaedo are described as regarding him; or as was said of another, 'they looked upon his face as upon the face of an angel.' We are not concerned to justify this idealism by the standard of utility or public opinion, but merely to point out the existence of such a sentiment in the better part of human nature.
The idealism of Plato is founded upon this sentiment. He would maintain that in some sense or other truth and right are alone to be sought, and that all other goods are only desirable as means towards these. He is thought to have erred in 'considering the agent only, and making no reference to the happiness of others, as affected by him.' But the happiness of others or of mankind, if regarded as an end, is really quite as ideal and almost as paradoxical to the common understanding as Plato's conception of happiness. For the greatest happiness of the greatest number may mean also the greatest pain of the individual which will procure the greatest pleasure of the greatest number. Ideas of utility, like those of duty and right, may be pushed to unpleasant consequences. Nor can Plato in the Gorgias be deemed purely self-regarding, considering that Socrates expressly mentions the duty of imparting the truth when discovered to others. Nor must we forget that the side of ethics which regards others is by the ancients merged in politics. Both in Plato and Aristotle, as well as in the Stoics, the social principle, though taking another form, is really far more prominent than in most modern treatises on ethics.
The idealizing of suffering is one of the conceptions which have exercised the greatest influence on mankind. Into the theological import of this, or into the consideration of the errors to which the idea may have given rise, we need not now enter. All will agree that the ideal of the Divine Sufferer, whose words the world would not receive, the man of sorrows of whom the Hebrew prophets spoke, has sunk deep into the heart of the human race. It is a similar picture of suffering goodness which Plato desires to pourtray, not without an allusion to the fate of his master Socrates. He is convinced that, somehow or other, such an one must be happy in life or after death. In the Republic, he endeavours to show that his happiness would be assured here in a well-ordered state. But in the actual condition of human things the wise and good are weak and miserable; such an one is like a man fallen among wild beasts, exposed to every sort of wrong and obloquy.
Plato, like other philosophers, is thus led on to the conclusion, that if 'the ways of God' to man are to be 'justified,' the hopes of another life must be included. If the question could have been put to him, whether a man dying in torments was happy still, even if, as he suggests in the Apology, 'death be only a long sleep,' we can hardly tell what would have been his answer. There have been a few, who, quite independently of rewards and punishments or of posthumous reputation, or any other influence of public opinion, have been willing to sacrifice their lives for the good of others. It is difficult to say how far in such cases an unconscious hope of a future life, or a general faith in the victory of good in the world, may have supported the sufferers. But this extreme idealism is not in accordance with the spirit of Plato. He supposes a day of retribution, in which the good are to be rewarded and the wicked punished. Though, as he says in the Phaedo, no man of sense will maintain that the details of the stories about another world are true, he will insist that something of the kind is true, and will frame his life with a view to this unknown future. Even in the Republic he introduces a future life as an afterthought, when the superior happiness of the just has been established on what is thought to be an immutable foundation. At the same time he makes a point of determining his main thesis independently of remoter consequences.
(3) Plato's theory of punishment is partly vindictive, partly corrective. In the Gorgias, as well as in the Phaedo and Republic, a few great criminals, chiefly tyrants, are reserved as examples. But most men have never had the opportunity of attaining this pre-eminence of evil. They are not incurable, and their punishment is intended for their improvement. They are to suffer because they have sinned; like sick men, they must go to the physician and be healed. On this representation of Plato's the criticism has been made, that the analogy of disease and injustice is partial only, and that suffering, instead of improving men, may have just the opposite effect.
Like the general analogy of the arts and the virtues, the analogy of disease and injustice, or of medicine and justice, is certainly imperfect. But ideas must be given through something; the nature of the mind which is unseen can only be represented under figures derived from visible objects. If these figures are suggestive of some new aspect under which the mind may be considered, we cannot find fault with them for not exactly coinciding with the ideas represented. They partake of the imperfect nature of language, and must not be construed in too strict a manner. That Plato sometimes reasons from them as if they were not figures but realities, is due to the defective logical analysis of his age.
Nor does he distinguish between the suffering which improves and the suffering which only punishes and deters. He applies to the sphere of ethics a conception of punishment which is really derived from criminal law. He does not see that such punishment is only negative, and supplies no principle of moral growth or development. He is not far off the higher notion of an education of man to be begun in this world, and to be continued in other stages of existence, which is further developed in the Republic. And Christian thinkers, who have ventured out of the beaten track in their meditations on the 'last things,' have found a ray of light in his writings. But he has not explained how or in what way punishment is to contribute to the improvement of mankind. He has not followed out the principle which he affirms in the Republic, that 'God is the author of evil only with a view to good,' and that 'they were the better for being punished.' Still his doctrine of a future state of rewards and punishments may be compared favourably with that perversion of Christian doctrine which makes the everlasting punishment of human beings depend on a brief moment of time, or even on the accident of an accident. And he has escaped the difficulty which has often beset divines, respecting the future destiny of the meaner sort of men (Thersites and the like), who are neither very good nor very bad, by not counting them worthy of eternal damnation.
We do Plato violence in pressing his figures of speech or chains of argument; and not less so in asking questions which were beyond the horizon of his vision, or did not come within the scope of his design. The main purpose of the Gorgias is not to answer questions about a future world, but to place in antagonism the true and false life, and to contrast the judgments and opinions of men with judgment according to the truth. Plato may be accused of representing a superhuman or transcendental virtue in the description of the just man in the Gorgias, or in the companion portrait of the philosopher in the Theaetetus; and at the same time may be thought to be condemning a state of the world which always has existed and always will exist among men. But such ideals act powerfully on the imagination of mankind. And such condemnations are not mere paradoxes of philosophers, but the natural rebellion of the higher sense of right in man against the ordinary conditions of human life. The greatest statesmen have fallen very far short of the political ideal, and are therefore justly involved in the general condemnation.
Subordinate to the main purpose of the dialogue are some other questions, which may be briefly considered:—
a. The antithesis of good and pleasure, which as in other dialogues is supposed to consist in the permanent nature of the one compared with the transient and relative nature of the other. Good and pleasure, knowledge and sense, truth and opinion, essence and generation, virtue and pleasure, the real and the apparent, the infinite and finite, harmony or beauty and discord, dialectic and rhetoric or poetry, are so many pairs of opposites, which in Plato easily pass into one another, and are seldom kept perfectly distinct. And we must not forget that Plato's conception of pleasure is the Heracleitean flux transferred to the sphere of human conduct. There is some degree of unfairness in opposing the principle of good, which is objective, to the principle of pleasure, which is subjective. For the assertion of the permanence of good is only based on the assumption of its objective character. Had Plato fixed his mind, not on the ideal nature of good, but on the subjective consciousness of happiness, that would have been found to be as transient and precarious as pleasure.
b. The arts or sciences, when pursued without any view to truth, or the improvement of human life, are called flatteries. They are all alike dependent upon the opinion of mankind, from which they are derived. To Plato the whole world appears to be sunk in error, based on self-interest. To this is opposed the one wise man hardly professing to have found truth, yet strong in the conviction that a virtuous life is the only good, whether regarded with reference to this world or to another. Statesmen, Sophists, rhetoricians, poets, are alike brought up for judgment. They are the parodies of wise men, and their arts are the parodies of true arts and sciences. All that they call science is merely the result of that study of the tempers of the Great Beast, which he describes in the Republic.
c. Various other points of contact naturally suggest themselves between the Gorgias and other dialogues, especially the Republic, the Philebus, and the Protagoras. There are closer resemblances both of spirit and language in the Republic than in any other dialogue, the verbal similarity tending to show that they were written at the same period of Plato's life. For the Republic supplies that education and training of which the Gorgias suggests the necessity. The theory of the many weak combining against the few strong in the formation of society (which is indeed a partial truth), is similar in both of them, and is expressed in nearly the same language. The sufferings and fate of the just man, the powerlessness of evil, and the reversal of the situation in another life, are also points of similarity. The poets, like the rhetoricians, are condemned because they aim at pleasure only, as in the Republic they are expelled the State, because they are imitators, and minister to the weaker side of human nature. That poetry is akin to rhetoric may be compared with the analogous notion, which occurs in the Protagoras, that the ancient poets were the Sophists of their day. In some other respects the Protagoras rather offers a contrast than a parallel. The character of Protagoras may be compared with that of Gorgias, but the conception of happiness is different in the two dialogues; being described in the former, according to the old Socratic notion, as deferred or accumulated pleasure, while in the Gorgias, and in the Phaedo, pleasure and good are distinctly opposed.
This opposition is carried out from a speculative point of view in the Philebus. There neither pleasure nor wisdom are allowed to be the chief good, but pleasure and good are not so completely opposed as in the Gorgias. For innocent pleasures, and such as have no antecedent pains, are allowed to rank in the class of goods. The allusion to Gorgias' definition of rhetoric (Philebus; compare Gorg.), as the art of persuasion, of all arts the best, for to it all things submit, not by compulsion, but of their own free will—marks a close and perhaps designed connection between the two dialogues. In both the ideas of measure, order, harmony, are the connecting links between the beautiful and the good.
In general spirit and character, that is, in irony and antagonism to public opinion, the Gorgias most nearly resembles the Apology, Crito, and portions of the Republic, and like the Philebus, though from another point of view, may be thought to stand in the same relation to Plato's theory of morals which the Theaetetus bears to his theory of knowledge.
d. A few minor points still remain to be summed up: (1) The extravagant irony in the reason which is assigned for the pilot's modest charge; and in the proposed use of rhetoric as an instrument of self-condemnation; and in the mighty power of geometrical equality in both worlds. (2) The reference of the mythus to the previous discussion should not be overlooked: the fate reserved for incurable criminals such as Archelaus; the retaliation of the box on the ears; the nakedness of the souls and of the judges who are stript of the clothes or disguises which rhetoric and public opinion have hitherto provided for them (compare Swift's notion that the universe is a suit of clothes, Tale of a Tub). The fiction seems to have involved Plato in the necessity of supposing that the soul retained a sort of corporeal likeness after death. (3) The appeal of the authority of Homer, who says that Odysseus saw Minos in his court 'holding a golden sceptre,' which gives verisimilitude to the tale.
It is scarcely necessary to repeat that Plato is playing 'both sides of the game,' and that in criticising the characters of Gorgias and Polus, we are not passing any judgment on historical individuals, but only attempting to analyze the 'dramatis personae' as they were conceived by him. Neither is it necessary to enlarge upon the obvious fact that Plato is a dramatic writer, whose real opinions cannot always be assumed to be those which he puts into the mouth of Socrates, or any other speaker who appears to have the best of the argument; or to repeat the observation that he is a poet as well as a philosopher; or to remark that he is not to be tried by a modern standard, but interpreted with reference to his place in the history of thought and the opinion of his time.
It has been said that the most characteristic feature of the Gorgias is the assertion of the right of dissent, or private judgment. But this mode of stating the question is really opposed both to the spirit of Plato and of ancient philosophy generally. For Plato is not asserting any abstract right or duty of toleration, or advantage to be derived from freedom of thought; indeed, in some other parts of his writings (e.g. Laws), he has fairly laid himself open to the charge of intolerance. No speculations had as yet arisen respecting the 'liberty of prophesying;' and Plato is not affirming any abstract right of this nature: but he is asserting the duty and right of the one wise and true man to dissent from the folly and falsehood of the many. At the same time he acknowledges the natural result, which he hardly seeks to avert, that he who speaks the truth to a multitude, regardless of consequences, will probably share the fate of Socrates.
The irony of Plato sometimes veils from us the height of idealism to which he soars. When declaring truths which the many will not receive, he puts on an armour which cannot be pierced by them. The weapons of ridicule are taken out of their hands and the laugh is turned against themselves. The disguises which Socrates assumes are like the parables of the New Testament, or the oracles of the Delphian God; they half conceal, half reveal, his meaning. The more he is in earnest, the more ironical he becomes; and he is never more in earnest or more ironical than in the Gorgias. He hardly troubles himself to answer seriously the objections of Gorgias and Polus, and therefore he sometimes appears to be careless of the ordinary requirements of logic. Yet in the highest sense he is always logical and consistent with himself. The form of the argument may be paradoxical; the substance is an appeal to the higher reason. He is uttering truths before they can be understood, as in all ages the words of philosophers, when they are first uttered, have found the world unprepared for them. A further misunderstanding arises out of the wildness of his humour; he is supposed not only by Callicles, but by the rest of mankind, to be jesting when he is profoundly serious. At length he makes even Polus in earnest. Finally, he drops the argument, and heedless any longer of the forms of dialectic, he loses himself in a sort of triumph, while at the same time he retaliates upon his adversaries. From this confusion of jest and earnest, we may now return to the ideal truth, and draw out in a simple form the main theses of the dialogue.
It is a greater evil to do than to suffer injustice.
Compare the New Testament—
'It is better to suffer for well doing than for evil doing.'—1 Pet.
And the Sermon on the Mount—
'Blessed are they that are persecuted for righteousness' sake.'—Matt.
The words of Socrates are more abstract than the words of Christ, but they equally imply that the only real evil is moral evil. The righteous may suffer or die, but they have their reward; and even if they had no reward, would be happier than the wicked. The world, represented by Polus, is ready, when they are asked, to acknowledge that injustice is dishonourable, and for their own sakes men are willing to punish the offender (compare Republic). But they are not equally willing to acknowledge that injustice, even if successful, is essentially evil, and has the nature of disease and death. Especially when crimes are committed on the great scale—the crimes of tyrants, ancient or modern—after a while, seeing that they cannot be undone, and have become a part of history, mankind are disposed to forgive them, not from any magnanimity or charity, but because their feelings are blunted by time, and 'to forgive is convenient to them.' The tangle of good and evil can no longer be unravelled; and although they know that the end cannot justify the means, they feel also that good has often come out of evil. But Socrates would have us pass the same judgment on the tyrant now and always; though he is surrounded by his satellites, and has the applauses of Europe and Asia ringing in his ears; though he is the civilizer or liberator of half a continent, he is, and always will be, the most miserable of men. The greatest consequences for good or for evil cannot alter a hair's breadth the morality of actions which are right or wrong in themselves. This is the standard which Socrates holds up to us. Because politics, and perhaps human life generally, are of a mixed nature we must not allow our principles to sink to the level of our practice.
And so of private individuals—to them, too, the world occasionally speaks of the consequences of their actions:—if they are lovers of pleasure, they will ruin their health; if they are false or dishonest, they will lose their character. But Socrates would speak to them, not of what will be, but of what is—of the present consequence of lowering and degrading the soul. And all higher natures, or perhaps all men everywhere, if they were not tempted by interest or passion, would agree with him—they would rather be the victims than the perpetrators of an act of treachery or of tyranny. Reason tells them that death comes sooner or later to all, and is not so great an evil as an unworthy life, or rather, if rightly regarded, not an evil at all, but to a good man the greatest good. For in all of us there are slumbering ideals of truth and right, which may at any time awaken and develop a new life in us.
It is better to suffer for wrong doing than not to suffer.
There might have been a condition of human life in which the penalty followed at once, and was proportioned to the offence. Moral evil would then be scarcely distinguishable from physical; mankind would avoid vice as they avoid pain or death. But nature, with a view of deepening and enlarging our characters, has for the most part hidden from us the consequences of our actions, and we can only foresee them by an effort of reflection. To awaken in us this habit of reflection is the business of early education, which is continued in maturer years by observation and experience. The spoilt child is in later life said to be unfortunate—he had better have suffered when he was young, and been saved from suffering afterwards. But is not the sovereign equally unfortunate whose education and manner of life are always concealing from him the consequences of his own actions, until at length they are revealed to him in some terrible downfall, which may, perhaps, have been caused not by his own fault? Another illustration is afforded by the pauper and criminal classes, who scarcely reflect at all, except on the means by which they can compass their immediate ends. We pity them, and make allowances for them; but we do not consider that the same principle applies to human actions generally. Not to have been found out in some dishonesty or folly, regarded from a moral or religious point of view, is the greatest of misfortunes. The success of our evil doings is a proof that the gods have ceased to strive with us, and have given us over to ourselves. There is nothing to remind us of our sins, and therefore nothing to correct them. Like our sorrows, they are healed by time;
'While rank corruption, mining all within, Infects unseen.'
The 'accustomed irony' of Socrates adds a corollary to the argument:—'Would you punish your enemy, you should allow him to escape unpunished'—this is the true retaliation. (Compare the obscure verse of Proverbs, 'Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him,' etc., quoted in Romans.)
Men are not in the habit of dwelling upon the dark side of their own lives: they do not easily see themselves as others see them. They are very kind and very blind to their own faults; the rhetoric of self-love is always pleading with them on their own behalf. Adopting a similar figure of speech, Socrates would have them use rhetoric, not in defence but in accusation of themselves. As they are guided by feeling rather than by reason, to their feelings the appeal must be made. They must speak to themselves; they must argue with themselves; they must paint in eloquent words the character of their own evil deeds. To any suffering which they have deserved, they must persuade themselves to submit. Under the figure there lurks a real thought, which, expressed in another form, admits of an easy application to ourselves. For do not we too accuse as well as excuse ourselves? And we call to our aid the rhetoric of prayer and preaching, which the mind silently employs while the struggle between the better and the worse is going on within us. And sometimes we are too hard upon ourselves, because we want to restore the balance which self-love has overthrown or disturbed; and then again we may hear a voice as of a parent consoling us. In religious diaries a sort of drama is often enacted by the consciences of men 'accusing or else excusing them.' For all our life long we are talking with ourselves:—What is thought but speech? What is feeling but rhetoric? And if rhetoric is used on one side only we shall be always in danger of being deceived. And so the words of Socrates, which at first sounded paradoxical, come home to the experience of all of us.
We do not what we will, but what we wish.
Socrates would teach us a lesson which we are slow to learn—that good intentions, and even benevolent actions, when they are not prompted by wisdom, are of no value. We believe something to be for our good which we afterwards find out not to be for our good. The consequences may be inevitable, for they may follow an invariable law, yet they may often be the very opposite of what is expected by us. When we increase pauperism by almsgiving; when we tie up property without regard to changes of circumstances; when we say hastily what we deliberately disapprove; when we do in a moment of passion what upon reflection we regret; when from any want of self-control we give another an advantage over us—we are doing not what we will, but what we wish. All actions of which the consequences are not weighed and foreseen, are of this impotent and paralytic sort; and the author of them has 'the least possible power' while seeming to have the greatest. For he is actually bringing about the reverse of what he intended. And yet the book of nature is open to him, in which he who runs may read if he will exercise ordinary attention; every day offers him experiences of his own and of other men's characters, and he passes them unheeded by. The contemplation of the consequences of actions, and the ignorance of men in regard to them, seems to have led Socrates to his famous thesis:—'Virtue is knowledge;' which is not so much an error or paradox as a half truth, seen first in the twilight of ethical philosophy, but also the half of the truth which is especially needed in the present age. For as the world has grown older men have been too apt to imagine a right and wrong apart from consequences; while a few, on the other hand, have sought to resolve them wholly into their consequences. But Socrates, or Plato for him, neither divides nor identifies them; though the time has not yet arrived either for utilitarian or transcendental systems of moral philosophy, he recognizes the two elements which seem to lie at the basis of morality. (Compare the following: 'Now, and for us, it is a time to Hellenize and to praise knowing; for we have Hebraized too much and have overvalued doing. But the habits and discipline received from Hebraism remain for our race an eternal possession. And as humanity is constituted, one must never assign the second rank to-day without being ready to restore them to the first to-morrow.' Sir William W. Hunter, Preface to Orissa.)