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.

Gooble Gobble, One of Us!

Scene from Tod Browning’s FREAKS (1932)

Banquet Scene from Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932)

I’m going to talk about some tricky concepts here, and I’m not altogether confident that I can explain them to everybody’s satisfaction. I read an interesting review by Thomas Nagel entitled “The Taste for Being Moral” in the December 6, 2012, issue of The New York Review of Books. In passing, it takes up the difference between Liberals and Conservatives in a way I found to be interesting.

According to Nagel, American Conservatives tend to follow the norms of their own group, especially in the light of categories that the author refers to as Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity. Liberals, on the other hand, tend to extend their aegis to all fellow men. According to Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion:

It would be nice to believe that we humans were designed to love everyone unconditionally. Nice, but rather unlikely from an evolutionary perspective. Parochial love—love within groups—amplified by similarity, a sense of shared fate, and the suppression of free riders, may be the most we can accomplish.

The “free riders” referred to can be Hispanic immigrants, African-Americans on welfare, single mothers, gays, people on Social Security and Medicare (according to Paul Ryan), and environmentalists. Even though the Catholic catechism tells us we were all made in the image of God, not all Catholics, let alone Evangelicals,. take this to heart.

The title of this blog comes from Tod Browning’s classic film Freaks (1932). It is part of a sung toast at a banquet attended by circus freaks and normal people sympathetic to them: “Gooble, Gobble! Gooble, Gobble! One of us! One of us!” We tend to place a higher value on the groups to which we belong than to outsiders or the general public as a whole—irrespective of what Christian teaching tell us to do.

Conservatives tend to view people outside their group as either “free riders” or as some unspecified threat to the values they hold dear. Think of the gun fanatics facing some unspecified threat to their God-given right to own assault weapons and enough ammo to blast all their enemies into the next world.

I, on the other hand, believe with Immanuel Kant that “the only thing that is good in itself and without qualification is good will—a will that obeys universal laws of morality…. It is in virtue of their capacity for morality—as both the authors and subjects of the moral law—that humans are ends in themselves and must always be treated as such.”

Of course, one has only to read my blog posts to note that I, too, am a member of a group, one that views American Conservatives with alarm and loathing. In my heart of hearts, which is in there somewhere, I would like to effect some sort of reconciliation with them. That will, however, be a long process. I’m only human, after all!