School of Philosophy & Bioethics
Callicles and Socrates on the
value of rhetoric
• Plato depicts Socrates and Callicles as
holding diametrically opposed attitudes
to the value of rhetoric.
– How do these opposed attitudes flow
naturally from their different ideas about:
> Well-being (eudaimonia)
Common and disputed ground
• What is worth learning?
– What will benefit you.
• What is beneficial?
– Getting what you want → Callicles’ hedonism
– Getting what is good for you → Socrates’ wise, just,
• What sort of person should I become?
– The kind who can get what she wants → a rhetorician.
– The kind who wants what she should → a philosopher
Preliminaries: Gorgias and Polus
• Gorgias of Leontium
– Teacher of public speaking
– His defence of Helen of Troy
> She was either a) fated by the Gods to go to Troy; b)
taken by force; c) persuaded by words (logoi); d)
conquered by love. Not responsible.
> The power of logos is like the power of drugs: different
words can cause joy, sorrow, courage, etc. A person
persuaded is no more responsible than a person
What is rhetoric?
• Rhetoric = the ability to
use speech to produce
knowledge, in the
audience concerning what
is just and what is unjust
– You can’t teach the body
politic about complicated
things – only persuade
Socrates: rhetoric as gimmick and flattery
REAL CRAFT MERE FLATTERY
• The Body • The Body
– Athletic training – Cosmetics: makes
you look fit without
really being so.
• The Soul
– Fancy cookery: tastes
– Legislation: aims to pleasant but without
make citizens whose being good for you.
souls are in good
order • The Soul
– Justice: punishment – Sophistry
that cures sicknesses – Rhetoric
of the soul » Gorg. 463e-
Polus v Socrates on power and injustice
• Does rhetoric make you powerful?
– Polus: it allows you to do whatever you like.
– Socrates: this is not power unless you know what is
good for you.
• Example: using your rhetorical skill to successfully
prosecute a man you know to be innocent.
– Polus: better (for you) to be the perpetrator of injustice
than the victim.
– Socrates: better (for you) to be the victim of injustice
than its perpetrator.
1. It is better to be the perpetrator of
injustice than the victim.
2. It is more shameful to be perpetrator of
injustice than the victim.
3. The shameful is that which is painful or
harmful or both.
• Socrates uses these admissions to trap
Polus in a contradiction. (472c-79e)
The world turned upside down…
• The world according to Socrates
– Better to be victim of injustice than perpetrator
– Better to be caught and punished than to get
away with it.
‘For if you are serious and what you say is
really true, must not the life of us human beings
have been turned upside down, and must we
not be doing quite the opposite, it seems, of
what we ought to do?’ (481c)
Callicles’ indictment of Socrates’ “tricks”
• By convention (nomos), it is more
shameful to commit injustice rather than
– By nature (physis), it is worse to be unable
to stand up for oneself.
• By convention, people should all have a
– By nature, the strong should take more for,
being better men, they are entitled to it.
Callicles’ Diagnosis of Fairness
• Why does conventional
justice require fairness?
– Our conventions are a
conspiracy of the weak
and inferior against the
few who are strong and
– The natural order reveals
how things should be
Callicles on pleasure, power, and rhetoric
• Virtue / excellence (aretê): qualities
that allow a thing to perform its
function or achieve its natural goal
– Our goal is the most pleasant life
Pleasure consists in the process of
satisfying a desire
→ Insatiable appetites and no
conventional moral scruples about
fairness are a virtue.
Callicles: Rhetoric good – Philosophy bad
• Rhetoric allows one to persuade and
persuasion is useful in getting what you
• Socrates’ absorption in philosophy has
made him unable to defend himself from
unjust treatment. (summary 508d)
– Such powerlessness is the
most shameful thing by nature.
Socrates: Philosophy good – Rhetoric dangerous
• Socrates appeals to argument with Polus
to show that this is wrong – the worst
thing for you is doing injustice, not
(Socrates thinks that, in spite of Callicles’
nature/convention distinction, this point is
What you need
• To avoid being treated
unjustly you might need
• To avoid doing injustice, you need only
knowledge of good and evil.
– Relies on Socrates’ claims
> That no one does evil (what is bad for you)
> That doing injustice is an evil (i.e. bad for you)
A bad crowd
• Rhetoric = flattery.
• To flatter those who hold power, you
must become like them.
‘Hence if one of the young men in that city should
reflect: In what way can I have great power, and no
one may do me wrong?-- this, it would seem, is the
path he must take, to accustom himself from his
earliest youth to be delighted and annoyed by the
same things as those who have influence, and
contrive to be as like them as possible. (510d)’
A hidden danger
• In becoming like those in
power, you increase the
likelihood that you will do
what is unjust (if those in power are
Moral: rhetoric may protect us from the lesser
danger of suffering injustice only by placing
us at greater risk of the greater danger –
Some questions to ponder
• Is there anything that plays the role for
us in 21st c. Australia that rhetoric plays
for the ancient Greeks?
• Does ingratiating yourself to powerful
people endanger your moral integrity?
• If it did, would what Socrates calls
philosophy help you?