Term Paper: Gorgias, Plato Addresses the Sophists

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[. . .] Callicles, however, still refuses to accept the argument and simply stops responding, insisting that Socrates should make a speech if he wants to convince anyone. Callicles tries to belittle the arguments of Socrates, stating that the truth is that "wantonness, lack of discipline, and freedom, if available in good supply, are excellence and happiness" (65). He says this is so because it is natural that it be so, while what Socrates espouses, "these fancy phrases, these contracts of men that go against nature, they're worthless nonsense!" (65). Callicles is saying, says Socrates, that "if a person is to be the kind of person he should be, he shouldn't restrain his appetites but let them become as large as possible and then should procure their fulfillment from some source or other, and that this is excellence" (65). Socrates has a clearer and more ethical definition of excellence, and he guides Callicles to it and shows that when challenged, Callicles cannot sustain his point-of-view any more than Gorgias or Polus could.

The primary metaphor used by Socrates is that of health, analogizing between physical health and the way a doctor treats the body and the health of the soul and the way the soul can be treated to make it better. One way to do this is to accept punishment for crimes committed, for instance, and always Socrates shows that the offender, no matter how happy he may seem, cannot really be happy because his soul is damaged until he expiates his crime:

It's because he evidently doesn't know what health and bodily excellence are like. For on the basis of what we're now agreed on, it looks as though those who avoid paying what is due also do the same sort of thing, Polus. They focus on its painfulness, but are blind to its benefit and are ignorant of how much more miserable it is to live with an unhealthy soul than with an unhealthy body, a soul that's rotten with injustice and impiety (48).

Socrates identifies oratory, as it is defined by the Sophists, as flattery "both in the case of the body and that of the soul and in any other case in which a person may wait upon a pleasure without any consideration of what's better or worse" (79). Socrates goes further and suggests that oratory never achieves the good. A number of well-known leaders are cited as having used oratory for the betterment of Athens, and Socrates suggests that this is not correct and that nothing these men did improved society, no matter how much they may have meant that it would. Socrates says that if these men improved society, the people would have acted better after their time. In fact, as he shows, the people in each case acted worse in time, turning on their leader in some manner.

The other issue raised with reference to the dialogue with Callicles is the value of self-control. Callicles has said that the unrestrained search for pleasure is the way to behave, while Socrates says that self-control is more what is truly important and that no one who lacks self-control can have true power or be truly happy. Socrates states that "a person who wants to be happy must evidently pursue and practice self-control" (87). The corrupt man does miserably, while "the self-controlled man, because he's just and brave and pious, as we've recounted, is a completely good man" (87).

The same is true of the soul, for the corrupt soul does miserably while the pious soul is happy: "As long as it's corrupt, in that it's foolish, undisciplined, unjust, and impious, it should be kept away from its appetites and not be permitted to do anything other than what will make it better" (84). Just as it is best for the criminal to confess and be punished for his sin, so "to be disciplined is better for the soul than lack of discipline" (85). Socrates' analogies are repeated over and over in this dialogue and generally show that what is proper and best for the body is proper and best for the soul, that what is best for the soul is best for the individual, and that the reverse is true as well. This all follows from the basic analogy between physical health and the body on the one hand and piety and the soul on the other.

At the same time, Socrates suggests that the health of the soul is ultimately more important than the health of the body. Much of what people do to avoid pain and punishment is done to preserve life. Socrates does not accept fear of death as a reason for acting unjustly, stating,

Perhaps one who is truly a man should stop thinking about how long he will live. He should not be attached to life but should commit these concerns to the god and believe the women who say that not one single person can escape fate. He should thereupon give consideration to how he might live the part of his life still before him as well as possible (94).

Here, again, there is irony because of what Callicles said about Socrates earlier, about what he would do if he were unjustly accused and condemned. In fact, Socrates would later be unjustly accused and condemned, and he would then prove that his philosophy was not something he thought about but did not live. Instead, he lives it fully to the very end, refusing to flee from his fate but instead embracing it, finding that even though he has been unjustly accused, the court has had the right to condemn him and he has to accept this condemnation because until that time he has enjoyed the benefits of being a citizen. Just as he says in Gorgias, he does not cling to life but considers how to live the life he has left as well as possible. A real difference between Socrates and the Sophists is that their oratory is also used in some respects… [END OF PREVIEW]

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