Focussing on ‘Temptation and inner conflict’, Richard Sorabji objected to my dating of the Phaedrus: ‘In Protagoras 358 B-E and Gorgias 468 B-C, Plato expresses a view which seems to me very simple and naїve, compared with the more sophisticated discussion in the Republic 435-441, and the Phaedrus.’ In my two preceding posts I discussed Sorabji’s reference to the Protagoras and to the Republic, let me now tackle his reference to the Gorgias.
Sorabji writes: ‘The Gorgias says that it is pursuing the good that we walk when we walk, thinking it to be better. Similarly, we exile people, thinking it better for us to do this than not to. We will the good, not the bad or indifferent, and we will exilings only if they are useful, not harmful. The other things only seem good, and are not willed. Can we believe that these over-simplified claims were written after the Phaedrus, where the charioteer and the better horse have a correct opinion about which is the better course of action, but nonetheless sometimes get defeated?’
To answer Sorabji’s question, I must view Gorgias 468 B-C in its proper context. Polus, a disciple of Gorgias, asks Socrates: ‘Don’t they [the rhetors] have the greatest power in the cities (ou megiston dunantai en tais polesin)?’ – Socrates: ‘No (Ouk) – not if you say that having power (ei to dunasthai ge legeis) is a good (agathon ti einai) to the man with the power (tȏi dunamenȏi).’ – Pol. ‘Well (Alla mȇn), I do say so (legȏ ge).’ – Soc. ‘Then I think the rhetors have the least power of anyone in the city (Elachiston toinun moi dokousi tȏn en tȇi polei dunasthai hoi rȇtores).’ – Pol. ‘What (Ti de;)? Aren’t they like tyrants (ouch, hȏsper hoi turannoi)? Don’t they kill whoever they want to (apokteinuasin te hon an boulȏntai), and expropriate (kai aphairountai chrȇmata) and expel from the cities (kai ekballousin ek tȏn poleȏn) whoever they think fit (hon an dokȇi autois;)?’ … – S. ‘Then are you asking me two questions at once (epeita duo hama me erȏtais;)?’ – P. How are they two questions (Pȏs duo;)?’ – S. ‘Weren’t you just now saying something like this (Ouk arti houtȏ pȏs eleges); “Don’t rhetors kill whoever they want to (Ê ouchi apokteinuasin hoi rȇtores hous an boulȏntai), like tyrants (hȏsper hoi turannoi), and expropriate (kai chrȇmata aphairountai) and expel from the cities (kai exelaunousin ek tȏn poleȏn) whoever they think fit (hon an dokȇi autois)?”?’ – P. ‘Yes, I said so (Egȏge).’ – S. ‘Then I say (Legȏ toinun soi) that these are two questions here (hoti duo taut’ estin ta erȏtȇmata), and I’ll answer you (kai apokrinoumai ge soi) both of them (pros amphotera). For I say, Polus, (phȇmi gar, ȏ Pȏle, egȏ) that both the rhetors and the tyrants (kai tous rȇtoras kai tous turannous) have least power in the cities (dunasthai men en tais polesin smikrotaton), as I was saying just now (hȏsper nundȇ elegon); for they do practically nothing, I say, that they want to (ouden gar poiein hȏn boulontai, hȏs epos eipein), but do (poiein mentoi) whatever they think is best (hoti an autois doxȇi beltiston einai).’ – P. And isn’t this having great power (Okoun touto estin to mega dunasthai)?’ – S. ‘No (Ouch) – at least Polus doesn’t agree (hȏs ge phȇsin Pȏlos).’ – P. ‘I don’t agree (Egȏ ou phȇmi;)? Of course I agree (phȇmi men oun egȏge)’ – S. ‘No, by the (Ma ton) … Indeed you don’t (ou su ge). For you said that having great power (epei to mega dunasthai ephȇs) is a good to the man who has it (agathon einai tȏi dunamenȏi).’ – P. ‘Yes, I still say so (Phȇmi gar oun).’ – S. Then do you think it is a good (Agathon oun oiei einai) if someone does (ean tis poiȇi tauta) whatever seems best to him (ha an dokȇi autȏi beltista enai), when he has no intelligence (noun mȇ echȏn;)? Do you call even this having great power (kai touto kaleis su mega dunasthai;)? – P. ‘No, I don’t (Ouk egȏge).’ – S. ‘Then won’t you show that rhetors have intelligence (Oukoun apodeixeis tous rȇtoras noun echontas) and that rhetoric is a craft (kai technȇn tȇn rȇtorikȇn), not flattery (alla mȇ kolakeian), by refuting me (eme exelenxas;)? If you leave me unrefuted (ei de me easeis anelenkton), the rhetors (hoi rȇtores) who do what they think fit in the cities (hoi poiountes en tais polesin ha dokei autois) and the tyrants (kai hoi turannoi) will have gained no good by it (ouden agathon touto kektȇsontai); but power (hȇ de dunamis), you say is a good (estin, hȏs su phȇis, agathon), and you also agree that doing what we think fit without intelligence is an evil (to de poiein aneu nou ha dokei kai su homologeis kakon einai), don’t you (ȇ ou;)?’ – P. ‘Yes, I do (Egȏge).’ – S. Then how are the rhetors or the tyrants to have great power in the cities (Pȏs an oun hoi rȇtores mega dunantai ȇ hoi turannoi), unless Socrates is refuted by Polus and convinced (ean mȇ Sȏkratȇs exelenchthȇi hupo Pȏlou) that they do what they want to (hoti poiousin ha boulontai)?’ (466b4-467a10, tr. Terence Irwin; his will be all other translation from the Gorgias in this post as well.)
Socrates’ claim that the rhetors and the tyrants have the least power of anyone in the city, although they kill whoever they want to, and expropriate and expel from the cities whoever they think fit can be viewed as highly controversial, but is it ‘very simple and naïve’? Even more thought provoking is his claim that they do practically nothing they want to, although they do whatever they think is best, and that it is so according to Polus, for he said that having great power is a good to the man who has it. This Socratic claim is not something that Plato abandoned on the way to the Republic. In fact, the pivotal passage in Republic VI that leads to Socrates’ exposition of the Good, can help us understand Gorgias 466b4-468e5 better.
Socrates: ‘Is it not likewise evident (Ti de; tode ou phaneron) that many are content to do or to have, or to seem to be, what is just and beautiful without the reality (hȏs dikaia men kai kala polloi an helointo ta dokounta, k’an ei mȇ eiȇ, homȏs tauta prattein kai kektȇsthai kai dokein); but no one is satisfied with the appearance of good (agatha de oudeni eti arkei ta dokounta ktasthai) – the reality is what they seek (alla ta onta zȇtousin); in the case of the good, appearance is despised by every one (tȇn de doxan entautha ȇdȇ pas atimazei;)’. – Adeimantus: ‘Very true (Kai mala).’ – S. ‘Of this then, which every soul of man pursues (Ho dȇ diȏkei men hapasa psuchȇ) and makes the end of all his actions (kai toutou heneka hapanta prattei), having a presentiment that there is such an end (apomanteuomenȇ ti einai), and yet hesitating because neither knowing the nature (aporousa de kai ouk echousa labein hikanȏs ti pot’ estin) nor having the same assurance of this as of other things (oude pistei chrȇsasthai monimȏi hoiai kai peri t’alla), and therefore losing whatever good there is in other things (dia de touto apotunchanei kai tȏn allȏn ei ti ophelos ȇn), – of a principle such and so great as this (peri dȇ to toiouton kai tosouton) ought the best men in our State, to whom everything is entrusted, to be in the darkness of ignorance (houtȏ phȏmen dei eskotȏsthai kai ekeinous tous beltistous en tȇi polei)? – A. ‘Certainly not (Hȇkista ge).’ – S. ‘I am sure (Oimai g’oun) that he who does not know how the noble and the just are likewise good (dikaia te kai kala agnooumena hopȇi pote agatha estin) will be but a sorry guardian of them (ou pollou tinos axion phulaka heautȏn ton touto agnounta); and I suspect that no one who is ignorant of the good will have a true knowledge of them (manteuomai de mȇdena auta proteron gnȏsesthai hikan… And if only we have a guardian who has this knowledge our State will be perfectly ordered (Okoun hȇmin hȇ politeia teleȏs kekosmȇsetai, ean ho toioutos autȇn episkopȇi phulax, ho toutȏn epistȇmȏn;)?’ – A. ‘Of course (Anankȇ), but I wish you would tell me whether you conceive this supreme principle of the good to be knowledge or pleasure (alla su dȇ, ȏ Sȏkrates, poteron epistȇmȇn to agathon phȇis einai ȇ hȇdonȇn), or different from either (ȇ allo ti para tauta)?’ (505d5-506b4, tr. Jowett)
Where can this notion of the good, the knowledge of which is essential for good government, be found in the Phaedrus, in the second part of which rhetoric is discussed? Isn’t Socrates in the Gorgias approaching it? Isn’t the sequence of Plato’s dialogues Phaedrus – Charmides (see The Lost Plato on my website) … Protagoras … Gorgias … – Republic, rather than Protagoras – Gorgias – Republic – Phaedrus, as Hackforth, Long, Sorabji, and others, have it?
But let me return to the Gorgias. Socrates: ‘I say they [i.e. rhetors and tyrants] don’t do what they want to (Ou phȇmi poiein autous ha boulontai).’ – Polus: ‘Weren’t you just now agreeing (Ouk arti hȏmologeis) that they do (poiein) what they think best (ha dokei autois beltista einai)?’ – S. ‘Yes, and I agree now too (Kai gar nun homologȏ).’ – P. ‘Then don’t they do what they want to (Ouk oun poiousin ha boulontai;)?’ – S. ‘I deny it (Ou phȇmi).’ – P. ‘Though they do what they think fit (Poiountes ha dokei autois;)?’ – S. ‘I agree (Phȇmi – ‘That’s what I maintain’).’ – P. ‘This is shocking and monstrous stuff you’re saying (Schetlia ge legeis kai huperphuȇ), Socrates (ȏ Sȏkrates).’ (467b2-10)
As can be seen, Polus did not find these statements of Socrates ‘over-simple’, he found them shocking and monstrous. What will Socrates do about it? He will specify the meaning of boulesthai (Irwin’s ‘wanting to’, Sorabji’s ‘willing to’) in its relation to the concept of the good.
Socrates: ‘Then do you think people want the thing they are doing at any time (Poteron oun soi dokousin hoi anthrȏpoi touto boulesthai ho an prattȏsin hekastote), or the thing (ȇ ekeino) for the sake of which they do the things they do (hou heneka prattousin touth’ ho prattousin;)? For instance (hoion), do you think that those who take drugs from doctors want what they’re doing (hoi ta pharmaka pinontes para tȏn iatrȏn poteron soi dokousin touto boulesthai hoper poiousin), to take the drug (pinein to pharmakon) and suffer pain (kai algein), or the thing (ȇ ekeino) – being healthy (to hugiainein) – for the sake of which (hou heneka) they take it (pinousin;)?’ – Polus: ‘It’s clear (Dȇlon hoti) they want to be healthy (to hugiainein).’ – S. ‘And similarly for seafarers (Oukoun kai hoi pleontes te), and those who do other kinds of business for profit (kai ton allon chrȇmatismon chrȇmatizomenoi). What they want isn’t what they do at any time (ou touto estin ho boulontai, ho poiousin hekastote) – for who wants to go sailing (tis gar bouletai plein te) and be in danger (kai kinduneuein) and have all that bother (kai pragmat’ echein;)? But, I take it, what they want is the thing (all’ ekeino oimai) for the sake of which they go sailing (hou heneka pleousin); to be wealthy (ploutein) – for they sail for the sake of wealth (ploutou gar heneka pleousin).’ – P. ‘Quite (Panu ge).’ – S. ‘Then isn’t it just the same (Allo ti oun houtȏ) in every case (kai peri pantȏn;)? If anyone does something (ean tis ti prattȇi) for the sake of something (heneka tou), he doesn’t want the thing (ou touto bouletai) he does (ho prattei), but the thing (all’ ekeino) for the sake of which he does it (hou heneka prattei;)?’ – P. ‘Yes (Nai).’ – S. ‘Now is there any of the things (Ar’ oun estin ti) that are (tȏn ontȏn) which isn’t either good (ho ouchi ȇtoi agathon g’ estin) or bad (ȇ kakon), or intermediate (ȇ metaxy) between them (toutȏn), neither good (oute agathon) nor bad (oute kakon)?’ – P. ‘It must be as you say (Pollȇ anankȇ), Socrates (ȏ Sȏkrates).’ – S. ‘Then don’t you say wisdom is a good (Oukoun legeis einai agathon men sophian te), and health (kai hugieian) and wealth (kai plouton) and other such things (kai t’alla ta toiauta), and the opposite of them are evils (kaka de t’anantia toutȏn;)? – P. ‘I do (Egȏge).’ – S. ‘And do you say that the neither good nor evil things are of this kind (Ta de mȇte agatha mȇte kaka ara toiade legeis) – things which sometimes share in the good (ha eniote men metechei tou agathou), sometimes in the evil (eniote de tou kakou), and sometimes in neither (eniote de oudeterou), things like sitting (hoion kathȇsthai), walking (kai badizein), running (kai trechein), sailing (kai plein), and again things like stones (kai hoion au lithous) and sticks (kai xula) and other such things (kai t’alla ta toiauta)? Aren’t these what you speak of (ou tauta legeis;), or do you call some other things (ȇ all’ atta kaleis) the neither good (ta mȇte agatha) nor evil things (mȇte kaka)?’ – P. ‘No (Ouk) – these things (alla tauta).’ – S. ‘Then do people do these intermediate things for the sake of the good things (Poteron oun ta metaxu tauta heneka tȏn agathȏn prattousin), when they do them (hotan prattȏsin), or do they do the good things (ȇ t’agatha) for the sake of the intermediate things (tȏn metaxu;)?’ – P. ‘Presumably they do the intermediate things (Ta metaxu dȇpou) for the sake of the good things (tȏn agathȏn).’ (467c5-468b1)
Follows Gorgias 468b-c to which Sorabji points. Socrates: ‘Then it is in pursuit of the good (To agathon ara diȏkontes) that we both walk (kai badizomen) when (hotan) we walk (badizȏmen), thinking (oiomenoi) it is better (beltion einai), and on the other hand stand still (kai to enantion hestamen) when (hotan) we stand still (hestȏmen), for the sake of the same thing (tou autou heneka), the good (tou agathou). Isn’t that so (ȇ ou;)?’ – Polus: ‘Yes (Nai).’ – S. ‘Then don’t we also kill (Oukoun kai apokteinumen), if we kill anyone (ei tin’ apokteinumen), and expel (kai ekballomen) and expropriate them (kai aphairoumetha chrȇmata), thinking (oiomenoi) that it is better for us (ameinon einai hȇmin) if we do it (tauta poiein) than if we don’t (ȇ mȇ;)?’ – P. ‘Yes, quite (Panu ge).’ – S. ‘Then it is for the sake of the good (Henek’ ara tou agathou) that those who do these things do them all (hapanta tauta poiousin hoi poiountes).’ – P. ‘I agree (Phȇmi).’ – S. Now didn’t we agree (Oukoun hȏmologȇsamen) that whatever things we do for the sake of something (ha heneka tou poioumen), we don’t want the things we do (mȇ ekeina boulesthai), but the thing (all’ ekeino) for the sake of which (hou heneka) we do them (tauta poioumen;?’ – P. ‘Absolutely (Malista).’ – S. ‘Then we don’t want to butcher (Ouk ara sphattein boulometha) or expel from the cities (oud’ ekballein ek tȏn poleȏn) or expropriate (oude chrȇmata aphaireisthai), just like that (haplȏs houtȏs), but if the things are beneficial (all’ ean men ȏphelima ȇi tauta), we want (boulometha) to do (prattein) them (auta), but if they are harmful (blabera de onta), we don’t want to (ou boulometha). For we want good things (ta gar agatha boulometha), you say (hȏs phȇis su), but we don’t want the neither good nor evil things (ta de mȇte agatha mȇte kaka ou boulometha), nor the evil things (oude ta kaka). Is that right (ȇ gar;)? Do you think what I say is true (alȇthȇ soi dokȏ legein), or not, Polus (ȏ Pȏle, ȇ ou;)? Why don’t you answer (ti ouk apokrinȇi;)?’ – P. ‘It’s true (Alȇthȇ).’ (468b1-c8)
This is where Gorgias 468b-c, to which Sorabji explicitly points, ends. To make sense of the passage, we must go a little bit further. Socrates: ‘Then since we agree on this (Oukoun eiper tauta homologoumen), if someone kills a man (ei tis apokteinei tina) or expels him from the city (ȇ ekballei ek poleȏs), or expropriates him (ȇ aphaireitai chrȇmata), whether he is a tyrant (eite turannos ȏn) or a rhetor (eite rȇtȏr), thinking (oiomenos) it is better for him (ameinon einai autȏi), when in fact it is worse (tunchanei de on kakion), he presumably does (houtos dȇpou poiei) what he thinks fit (ha dokei autȏi). Isn’t that so (ȇ gar;)?’ – Polus: ‘Yes (Nai).’ – S. ‘Then does he also do what he wants to (Ar’ oun kai ha bouletai), if the things he does are in fact bad (eiper tunchanei tauta kaka onta;)? Why don’t you answer (ti ouk apokrinȇi;)?’ – P. No, I don’t think he does what he wants to (All’ ou moi dokei poiein ha bouletai).’ – S. Then is there any way (Estin oun hopȏs) such a man (ho toioutos) has great power (mega dunatai) in the city (en tȇi polei tautȇi;), since having great power is (eiper estin to mega dunasthai) some kind of good (agathon ti), according to your agreement (kata tȇn sȇn homologian)?’ – P. ‘No, there’s no way (Ouk estin).’ – S. ‘Then I was saying what is true (Alȇthȇ ara egȏ elegon), when I said it is possible (legȏn hoti estin) for someone who does what he thinks fit in a city (anthrȏpon poiounta en polei ha dokei autȏi) not to have great power (mȇ mega dunasthai), and not to do what he wants (mȇde poiein ha bouletai).’ (468d1-e5)
I do not consider Plato’s view that ‘it is possible for someone who does what he thinks fit in a city not to have great power, and not to do what he wants’ as ‘simple and naїve’, although it runs against the usual notion of power, and so I cannot be persuaded, on this basis, that I should view the Gorgias as written prior to the Phaedrus. I do not deny that the discussion in the Phaedrus, ‘where the charioteer and the better horse have a correct opinion about which is the better course of action, but nonetheless sometimes get defeated’, is subtle, but I cannot see how their moral struggle can be meaningfully compared to the mental state of rhetors and tyrants discussed in the Gorgias. Did Anytus believe that it was better not to sentence Socrates to death, yet his better judgment was defeated by his base desires, and so he demanded the death sentence for him? It is unlikely, though, perhaps, not impossible; but Socrates’ discussion with Polus in the Gorgias was hardly the place for Plato to speculate about such moral struggles that the rhetors and tyrants might possibly sometimes undergo.