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Trying to Convince Callicles

Plato Was Perhaps the Greatest Philosopher Who Ever Lived

In the early 20th century, something happened to philosophy: It became ever more remote from the human experience—a matter for trained professionals. Whenever I get chilled by the likes of Wittgenstein, Ayer, Heidegger, or Derrida, I like to go back to the Ancient Greeks, and most especially Plato. His dialogues are probably the height of philosophy. Given their general appeal, it is no wonder that so many of them survived some 2,500 years of war and rapine.

Today, I finished reading Gorgias, which starts on the subject of rhetoric, and which, thanks to the persistence of Socrates, turns into a dialogue on how goodness and morality are more important than hedonism and success. Ultimately, Socrates says, it is better to be the victim of another’s wrongdoing than to perpetrate any wrongdoings oneself. That is because “it takes true goodness to make a man or woman happy, and an immoral, wicked person is unhappy.” [471a]

Something interesting happens in this dialogue. One of the participants, Callicles, refuses to accept the drift of Socrates’s argument. Even when he finds himself agreeing to individual points, he keeps on backtracking in favor of hedonism over morality. He interrupts the conversation between Socrates and Polus to say:

Socrates, may I ask you a question? Are we to take it that you’re serious in all this, or are you just having us on? You see, if you’re serious, and if what you’re saying is really is the truth, surely human life would be turned upside down, wouldn’t it? Everything we do is the opposite of what you imply we should be doing. [481c]

This is a big change from the usual philosophical dialogue, when the recipient of Socrates’s wisdom is reduced to saying “Yes, that is so” or “That’s absolutely inevitable!” Callicles, on the other hand, frequently backtracks and says things like, “Tell me, Socrates, doesn’t it embarrass you to pick on people’s mere words and to count it a godsend if someone uses the wong expression by mistake?” or “You’re not being altogether sincere, Socrates.”

Without losing track of his argument, Socrates keeps trying to get through to his interlocutor, despite his contrariness.

This Socrates was certainly a dangerous man. I could see why his enemies arranged to have him tried, convicted, and executed.

If you’re interested in reading Plato, I suggest the translations by Robin Waterfield.

One thought on “Trying to Convince Callicles

  1. I shall have to read Gorgias. It will be refreshing to see how someone finally pins Socrates to the wall, even if temporarily no doubt.

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