. 4
( 9)


26 As I have remarked above, this point seems in keeping with the Platonic theme of goodness and
truth, embodied in Socrates, being utterly ineffective and unpersuasive, and so suffering the fate of
the historical Socrates.
27 Beversluis (2000), ch. 14, in defending Gorgias™ character, does not mention this part of Gorgias™
speech, nor does he refer to his earlier comments that with rhetoric he can have other skilled
professionals, including the doctor, as his slaves (452e).
28 There was an established post as state physician as early as the sixth century. See Dodds (1959), 208.
104 Aiming at Virtue in Plato
persuasive impostor and the example seems entirely nefarious. If, on the
other hand, the question is a political-cum-ethical one, and the orator, as
Gorgias has claimed and Socrates has not examined, in fact has knowledge
of the just and the unjust, then orators winning out on these sorts of
questions might be a good thing: indeed it would sound reminiscent of
both the sought after “royal craft” in the Euthydemus and the philosopher-
king of the Republic.29 Rhetoric in this sense once again collapses into the
ethical expertise Socrates is searching for.
After raising this frightening specter of various impostors ¬lling impor-
tant positions in a city via their techne of persuasion, Gorgias moves quickly
to point out that although rhetoric, like any competitive techne “ he specif-
ically brings up examples of ¬ghting (and so of using force) “ may be used
unjustly and wrongly, it should not be. Teachers hand over such com-
petitive skills for just use against enemies and “those doing wrong” (toÆv
ˆdiko“ntav, 456e4). Gorgias makes clear that rhetoric should only be used
justly and correctly, although it could, like any other powerful competitive
techne, be misused.
This argument against misuse shows that Gorgias is at least verbally
committed to SV.30 He allows no exception to his claim that rhetoric (and
indeed all other technai) must always be used justly (456e3, 457c1) and
towards wrongdoers, pointing out that a provider of a techne furnishes the
techne for this kind of use only. He emphasizes repeatedly what must/ought
to be done with respect to the use of rhetoric and similar competitive skills,
using the verb de± six times in about thirty lines (456c7, d1, d4, d8, 457b2,
b6). Gorgias on his own, then, has brought up SV: an orator™s actions, like
anyone™s, must always be just.31 But oratory itself, like any other skill, does

29 See 4.4 and 4.8.
30 Unless one wishes to argue that this speech is somehow disingenuous on Gorgias™ part. Such a
supposition, however, remains pure speculation in the absence of any textual evidence that Gorgias
holds views incompatible with it. Indeed, Gorgias later concedes (460a3“4), quite easily as Cooper
(1999b), 38 emphasizes, that he would teach a student what is just and unjust “if he happened not
to know.”
31 Cooper (1999b), 44“5, n. 20: “In any event, [Gorgias] does not think (a) that acting justly must
always be best, and he does not think (b) that the knowledge of justice that he imparts and possesses
itself dictates just action always [my letters].” I agree with Cooper that Gorgias rejects (b) in some
sense. But depending on what Cooper means by “best” in (a), I think he may be wrong about that.
Gorgias does say that acting justly is how one must act, and he does not leave room for exceptions. If
by “best” Cooper means “in one™s own self-interest,” then the question has not come up, and perhaps
Gorgias, like most people, would not believe that acting justly is always in one™s own self-interest. But
Gorgias is explicit that, regardless, one ought not to act unjustly. He clearly realizes that the power of
an orator could easily be used contrary to justice and in the self-interest of the speaker, as ordinarily
conceived, as he explains in his speech against misuse (456c“457c). But then he goes on to rule out
(for reasons that are not explored) such unjust use as absolutely unacceptable.
The supremacy of virtue in the Gorgias 105
not guarantee correct, just use. That is why, Gorgias rather self-servingly
mentions, one should punish the misuser of rhetoric, and not the teacher.
This explains too Gorgias™ lauding of rhetoric. If it is the most powerful
of all crafts (collecting all the others “under it”), then, assuming it is used
correctly (which, according to Gorgias, is to use it justly), it would indeed
be a wonderful thing.
We do not know much about Gorgias™ endorsement of SV: what is
his conception of virtue? Does he keep SV foremost in his mind when
making particular decisions? All we have is his verbal commitment to it,
and Socrates does not pursue the issue further with him. After Gorgias has
been refuted, Socrates says it would take a long time to discuss adequately
the matters that have been raised (461a7“b2); but, with a brief exception
that we will consider below, he never gets the chance to do so with Gorgias.
We have, however, some reason to be skeptical about the extent of
Gorgias™ commitment to SV. Plato™s portrayal of Gorgias is quite care-
ful, and it may be worth considering it in a little more detail. Gorgias is
not a humble person: he is presented as thinking highly of himself and
his craft (449a). He has been giving epideictic displays during the day, and
when Socrates speaks of his desire to hear Gorgias answer some questions,
Gorgias not only proclaims that it is part of what he professes to answer any
question that is asked, but also that “no one has asked me anything new
for many years” (448a2“3). This is a striking detail, that I think should be
kept in mind while reading the entire Gorgias. Plato includes it as a sign to
the reader that Gorgias (and Polus and Callicles as well, I think) have never
been questioned by someone like Socrates. They are not familiar with the
particular modes of his questioning, nor will they have re¬‚ected on their
lives and professions in the way that Socrates™ examination forces them to.32
Consider, by contrast, Chairephon, who is also included in the dia-
logue. Chairephon is most famous as the person who, Socrates reports
in the Apology (20e ff.), asked the oracle of Delphi whether anyone was
wiser than Socrates. At the opening of the Gorgias Socrates blames his
and Chairephon™s lateness on Chairephon™s forcing them to spend time
in the agora (447a7“8). As any reader of the dialogues knows, the agora
is where Socrates spends most of his time questioning people and where,
presumably, his young followers (like Chairephon), who have picked up on

32 We might contrast this with Socrates™ relationship to the three of them: he knows Gorgias and comes
seeking to ask him a question (as we noted above); he indicates that he has just read Polus™ work
(462b11“c1); and he makes clear that he has been watching and listening to Callicles and his friends
(481d5“6; 487c).
106 Aiming at Virtue in Plato
his method, enjoy exposing the ignorance of others.33 Indeed, Chairephon
begins the questioning for Socrates in the Gorgias. In a rather elaborate
roundabout construction (with the more junior characters playing inter-
mediaries between Socrates and Gorgias), once Callicles tells Socrates that
Gorgias answers questions and engages in discussion as well as giving
speeches, Socrates tells Chairephon to ask Gorgias who he is (447c“d).
When Chairephon asks what Socrates means by this, Socrates provides a
two-line example: if someone were a maker of shoes, he would answer that
he is a cobbler. Chairephon immediately understands, and is himself able
to start the questioning in Socratic fashion. As things turn out Polus butts
in, and so Chairephon asks him on Gorgias™ behalf. I take it that the point
of all this is to show Chairephon™s intimate familiarity with Socrates and
his methods of questioning, by contrast not only with Polus (who cannot
even seem to distinguish clearly between saying what a thing is and what
a thing is like, and begins to answer in set, formal speeches [448c]), but
also with Gorgias and Callicles.34 This dramatic material at the beginning,
then, serves to remind a careful reader of the newness of the discussions in
which the major interlocutors will be involved.
The other important aspect of Gorgias as Plato depicts him is that he
is attracted by the power of rhetorical skill. As we have seen, this is not
necessarily a bad thing. If one uses power to good ends, that is wonderful.
Of course, to the extent that one has bad ends, the more powerful one
is the more damage he can do. Scholars of the Gorgias tend to divide up
into two camps about its eponymous character. In one camp, Socrates
misleadingly and sophistically leads a (mostly) innocent and well-meaning
Gorgias to contradict himself. He does this primarily by foisting on Gorgias
unargued for and controversial Socratic premises which Gorgias does not
dispute, but should.35 According to the other, Gorgias is an amoral purveyor
of an extremely dangerous weapon, and does not care how it is used.36
There is textual evidence to support both of these readings. I suggest,
however, that we think about the issue from the perspective of the outer
frame: Plato depicts Gorgias as a character who, never having been asked
such questions before, reveals himself to be attracted to a power that can
be used, apparently, either for good or for ill. We have seen that, while

33 See Ap. 23c.
34 See the discussion of Polus below. Chairephon also speaks immediately before the “Callicles episode”
in a way that once again shows his deep familiarity with Socrates (481b“c). See Vasiliou (2002a), 229
for a discussion of this passage.
35 See, e.g., Beversluis (2000), ch. 14; Grote (1875).
36 Dodds (1959), 15; Kahn (1983); Rutherford (1995).
The supremacy of virtue in the Gorgias 107
Gorgias advocates the good and just use of this power, he also shows a clear
awareness of and satisfaction with it that seems, if not positively ill-willed,
at least insuf¬ciently concerned with its moral implications.37
Aside from the nature of the alleged contradiction that Socrates elicits in
Gorgias™ views, Gorgias has views about rhetoric that are in some tension
with each other. While he, without Socratic prompting, recognizes that the
subject matter of rhetoric is questions about the just and the unjust, and
that rhetoric is a tool that must only be used justly, he at the same time
brags to others about, and is clearly himself impressed by, the awesome
power rhetoric has to achieve any ends whatsoever. If indeed rhetoric is as
powerful as Gorgias claims “ and Socrates, with his wonder at the effects
of the speeches of Themistocles and Pericles, seems to agree that it is “
then it would be of the utmost importance for him to keep SV uppermost
in his mind. Power enables a person to do whatever he thinks best. With
such freedom a person who does not always aim to do the virtuous action
above all (or to avoid any action that is contrary to virtue) or who thinks he
knows what the virtuous action is but does not38 runs the risk of doing great
harm. Questioned by Socrates, Gorgias endorses SV. But we will see that
his followers in the discussion in different ways do not. In a memorable line,
E. R. Dodds writes: “Gorgias™ teaching is the seed of which the Calliclean
way of life is the poisonous fruit.”39 If we take this image literally, I do not
agree. A seed, given appropriate conditions, can only bear one sort of fruit.
Not so with Gorgias™ rhetoric. Rhetoric as taught by Gorgias has a good
chance of growing into Calliclean fruit, and no doubt Plato intends his
reader to see this. But Gorgias™ teaching does not necessarily have to.40 In
a more extensive discussion, having agreed at least verbally to SV, Gorgias
might be educable to a more Socratic way of looking at things: his views do
not lead with necessity to the views of a Callicles. Gorgias has something
to learn from the Socrates of the Apology and Crito, and in his agreement

37 At 452e, Gorgias replies to Socrates™ claim that the doctor, physical trainer, and money-maker might
each (as Gorgias has) maintain that his techne provides the greatest good for human beings. Gorgias
says that with rhetoric you can have the doctor and physical trainer as your slaves; and the money-
maker will turn out to make money for you. At 456b6“c7, as we saw above, Gorgias boasts of the
orator™s ability to be chosen in place of a real doctor by a group. Even though immediately after this
he says that this ability ought only to be used justly, he cannot resist mentioning again that, while
the orator ought not to deprive a craftsman of his reputation, of course he could (457b3). Also, at
459c3“5, Gorgias asks Socrates whether it isn™t a great relief (pollŸ §aƒstÛnh) to not have to learn
the rest of the crafts, but only one: rhetoric.
38 I shall argue in chapter four that Euthyphro is an extreme example of the latter.
39 Dodds (1959), 15.
40 By the end of the dialogue, as we shall see, Socrates defends a rhetoric that is both committed to SV
and has expert knowledge of what virtue is.
108 Aiming at Virtue in Plato
to SV has shown himself to possess enough common ground with Socrates
to make progress. But, as we have seen, the Socrates of the Gorgias has
indeed something he needs to learn from Gorgias as well; or so I argue
the consideration of the outer frame suggests. And the Socrates of the
Apology and Crito is not exactly the same as the Socrates of the Gorgias,
for the interlocutors who follow do not share Socrates™ belief in SV, and,
as Socrates said, between those who differ on this question “there can be
no common counsel” (Crito 49d2“3). The Socrates of the Gorgias will try
to ¬nd, if not a common counsel, then some way of having a discussion
about ethical questions with Polus and Callicles. Perhaps he might need
some rhetoric after all.

3.4 polus a nd sv 41
Socrates operates both in the Apology and the Gorgias with the standard
tripartition of goods into goods of the soul, goods of the body, and external
goods. But he recognizes and employs not only the concept of a good of
the soul, but also the concept of a good for the soul. Whenever SV or its
corollary, that it is better to suffer than to do injustice (“the principle about
justice”), is brought up, it is beyond doubt that the sense in which it is
better to suffer is not to be understood in terms of either any bene¬t to
one™s body or any gain in one™s possessions.
It is important to understand that SV is based on two distinct claims.
First, the idea that a state of soul, simply as such, can be a harm or bene¬t,
entirely independently of its effect on one™s body or one™s possessions.
Second, of course, is the claim that this sort of harm and bene¬t “ harm
and bene¬t to one™s soul “ is of a type of importance that trumps any
bene¬ts or harms to the body or to the state of one™s possessions. Scholars
have put almost all of their emphasis on the second claim, since it appears
to be the most controversial, and have paid little or no attention to the fact
that it depends on the ¬rst. I want to emphasize that the ¬rst is not only
a substantive and independent claim, which does not follow simply from
the idea that one has a soul or that certain states of soul might be bene¬cial
to a person by providing him with certain external goods, but also that
it is necessary to appreciate this claim before one can even understand the
second. I shall argue that the text repeatedly shows that Polus does not
in fact grasp this ¬rst claim. Polus stands in marked contrast to Crito and
Gorgias in this respect. As we shall see below, Callicles™ relationship to these
claims is even more complex.
41 Material in this section overlaps to some extent with Vasiliou (2002b), §2.0.
The supremacy of virtue in the Gorgias 109
While Polus recognizes actions that are conventionally and typically
called “just” and “unjust,” he does not understand that he has a soul or
character, which is a locus of harm or bene¬t independently of the state of
his body or of his possessions. Polus does, of course, recognize that there
is such a thing as soul, as every Greek would. Further, he has no trouble
acknowledging the standard tripartition of goods (e.g., 467e), and thus that
there are goods of the soul. He also recognizes the value of the crafts. The
speech he tries to begin at 448c4 provides an account of how they arose for
human beings. When he insists on rhetoric being the ¬nest of the crafts,
he is clearly recognizing that it is valuable and desirable, and in addition
Polus would, if asked, agree that this skill is a sort of knowledge that resides
in his soul. Nevertheless Polus does not grasp the necessary background
for understanding SV. In particular he fails to understand the idea that the
soul might itself be bene¬ted by having the knowledge of rhetoric. Rather,
because of the power of rhetoric, he believes that he, Polus, is bene¬ted
insofar as he can obtain whatever he wants. Although he recognizes that
possession of rhetoric is a valuable thing, the explanation of that value will
always be in terms of the power it provides its possessor to procure whatever
goods of the body and possessions he desires. I shall argue that Polus does
not have the very concept of a good for the soul “ a concept that is necessary
even to understand SV, let alone to agree or disagree with it.42
Let us now turn to the text for evidence that I have accurately described
Polus™ character. As we have seen, at the opening of the dialogue Socrates
does not simply ask what Gorgias™ craft is, but what the power of the craft
is (447c1). Polus makes his ¬rst appearance, for about a Stephanus page
(448a“e), when he pushes himself into the conversation by claiming that
Gorgias is tired and that he would be happy to answer questions about
what Gorgias does in Gorgias™ place. Chairephon therefore asks him what
Gorgias™ craft is, and he responds that, although there are many crafts, the
best men share in the best of them, and that Gorgias “shares in the ¬nest
of crafts” (t¦v kall©sthv t¤n tecn¤n, 448c9). Socrates criticizes Polus
for failing to answer the question asked because he merely told them what

42 Polus™ lack of appreciation of goods for the soul marks him as quite a different character from
Callicles. Dodds (1959), 12 describes Polus, and believes that Plato sees Polus, as an utterly despicable
character, claiming: “Plato had far more sympathy with a Callicles.” If I am right about Polus,
we can understand why this is so: Callicles recognizes the soul as a locus of harm and bene¬t,
while Polus does not. The states of soul that Callicles values are not, of course, the conventional
states “ the canonical virtues, as typically understood. Rather, he values what Cooper (1999b), 70
calls “appetite-grati¬cation”; see also pp. 51“75 on the relationship between Socrates™ and Callicles™
competing conceptions of the good life. The state of soul that Callicles admires is one which has
enlarged appetites and the power to ful¬ll them. See below, 3.7.
110 Aiming at Virtue in Plato
Gorgias™ craft is like, not what it is, at which point Gorgias takes over the
discussion. We learn from Gorgias that, while each particular craft is able
to achieve only its own good, its own result, the wonderful thing about
rhetoric is that it can obtain whatever it wants by persuading anyone of
anything. As an expert rhetor Gorgias can acquire all of the goods of the
¬rst-order crafts because he can persuade all of the experts to do as he
pleases. Gorgias™ claims, essentially an advertisement for his wares, would
be quite familiar to Polus. And we can be reasonably sure, once we have
listened to Polus later (for example, his praise of the tyrant [468e ff.]), that
such claims about the power of rhetoric are what gets his attention. We can
begin, then, to understand Polus™ “conception of the ¬ne”: what is ¬nest is
what is most powerful, and what is most powerful is what is able to secure
any of the products and things one wants. It is no surprise that he interrupts
when Socrates asks what the “power” of rhetoric is.
Once Polus takes up the role of questioner (462b ff.), we discover that
Socrates denies that rhetoric is a craft at all, maintaining instead that it
is a kind of “knack” (–mpeir©a) for producing a certain grati¬cation and
pleasure (462c), just like cookery (½yopoi©a) (462d8“e4).43 Socrates then
says that he is reluctant to say more for fear that he might insult Gorgias
because he is not sure whether his views about rhetoric apply to the sort
that Gorgias practices.44 When Gorgias tells him not to be ashamed to
speak, Socrates explains that (1) rhetoric is a part of ¬‚attery which is an
image (e­dwlon) of a part of politics (463d1), and that (2) it is shameful,
since Socrates calls all bad things (t‡ kak†) shameful (a«scr†) (463d4).
When Socrates undertakes to explain these two claims, we should note
that he engages Gorgias in the discussion and not Polus. Why does he
revert back to Gorgias as discussant at this point in the midst of the “Polus
episode”?45 The progression of the interchange is composed quite artfully
43 One thing this interlude shows is that Polus has learned nothing about how to answer Socratic
questions. In his ¬rst rude intrusion he answered the question of what techne rhetoric is by saying
that it is the ¬nest (448c“e). Here Socrates makes the point that it is not a craft at all but a “knack”
for producing pleasure and grati¬cation. But, to Socrates™ mind, he has not yet answered the “What
is F?” question about rhetoric since his answer is too broad and will include activities like cookery,
which is also a knack aimed at pleasure and grati¬cation. But Polus is already satis¬ed. At 462c7“8
Polus asks whether rhetoric is ¬ne, and Socrates reprimands him for thinking that he has already
said what rhetoric is. Polus has not learned anything from listening to the argument with Gorgias.
This may further support the idea that a special approach, with special arguments, is needed for
Polus; he cannot even follow the argument offered to Gorgias.
44 This foreshadows later references to the usefulness and value of a rhetoric that is a techne that aims
at the good: 480a“481b and 527c. Also recall the opening of the Apology, when Socrates denies that
he is a rhetor, unless a rhetor is one who speaks the truth (17b5, 18a5).
45 Beversluis (2000), 319“21 notes the switch in interlocutors, and the questions addressed speci¬cally
to Gorgias, but he offers no explanation of this.
The supremacy of virtue in the Gorgias 111
and purposefully. Gorgias enters the conversation by saying that he does
not understand what Socrates is saying and Socrates agrees that he is not
saying anything clear, “but Polus the Colt is fresh and frisky” (463e1).
Socrates™ response refers to his claim that rhetoric is shameful, blaming
his premature verdict on Polus™ overanxiousness to hear whether he thinks
rhetoric is shameful or not without ¬rst being clear about what he says that
rhetoric is. As we have seen, from the moment Polus ¬rst rudely pushes
his way into the dialogue (448c“e), he shows an inability to distinguish a
question about what F is from one about what F is like. In this section as
well Polus has no patience with an investigation into what rhetoric is, but
only wants to argue about whether it is ¬ne (i.e., powerful) or not (see also
462c8 ff.). When Socrates blames Polus™ lack of clarity on his inappropriate
insistence, Gorgias tells Socrates to “let this one [Polus] alone, and tell me
(–mo©)” and makes clear that what he himself is puzzled by is the claim that
rhetoric is an image, that is, Socrates™ claim about the nature of rhetoric
Socrates replies that he will try to tell Gorgias what he thinks rhetoric
is. What follows is a short preliminary argument (464a1“464b1), which
ensures that Gorgias agrees to and grasps certain key ideas. I shall turn to
this below. But ¬rst we should note that, once this preliminary argument
ends, Socrates says, “Come then, for you [Gorgias] [f”re dŸ soi] I will try
to show more clearly what I mean, if I am able” (464b2).46 What follows is
a relatively long speech by Socrates in which he distinguishes between the
technai and the pseudo-technai. Near the end of the speech, when Socrates
returns to the question of why ¬‚attery is shameful, he makes explicit that
his intended audience has switched back to Polus: “for this I am saying to
you [to“to g‡r pr¼v se l”gw], Polus” (465a1), which marks an explicit
contrast with 464b2.
In the discussion that is prior to this speech (464a1“b1), Socrates secures
Gorgias™ recognition that there are not only goods of the soul, but also goods
for the soul. These ten lines form a necessary preliminary to the speech that
follows.47 Unless Socrates can secure his interlocutor™s agreement to certain
propositions, there will be no point in proceeding. The passage begins:

46 I have left the Greek word order at the beginning of the sentence, despite its awkwardness in English,
so that it is clear that Socrates emphasizes that his speech ensues as a consequence of the agreement
on the preceding points, and that it is explicitly aimed at Gorgias.
47 While almost all commentators discuss Socrates™ long speech, 464b ff., I can ¬nd virtually nothing
said about these ¬rst ten lines. Irwin (1979), 133 rightly remarks that the ¬rst claim, that there are
two things, body and soul, “is not meant to be a controversial move.” But the passage proceeds to
secure agreement to additional claims that are both controversial and crucial to what follows.
112 Aiming at Virtue in Plato
socr at es: . . . You call something body and soul?
g org ias : Of course.
soc r at es: Then do you also suppose that there is some [kind of ] good condition
of each of these things [oÉko“n kaª to…twn o­ei tin‡ e²nai —kat”rou eÉex©an]?
gorgi as: I do.
While the ¬rst step is uncontroversial, the second is not, and Socrates
takes the trouble to mention it separately. Not only are there two things “
body and soul “ but each of them has its own good condition (eÉex©an)
independently of the other. Socrates proceeds to claim that they each may
have an apparent good condition, which is not the same as their being
in a truly good condition; he illustrates this with what he takes to be the
uncontroversial and obvious example of bodies that are only apparently in
good condition (464a3“6). He then emphasizes that he is talking about
an apparent and real good condition for the soul as well: “I say [l”gw]
that there is such a thing both in the body and in the soul” (464a7“8).48
Once Gorgias agrees with this, Socrates says that he will now explain to
him (rather than to Polus) what he means by rhetoric being an image of
politics. But what is important is that Socrates has thought it necessary,
before his explanation could be intelligible, to see whether Gorgias grasps
the idea that the soul itself is a locus of harm and bene¬t, as is the body.
This is what Gorgias agrees to, but what Polus seems not to understand,
and this is why this part of the conversation regresses to Gorgias.
Further, once Socrates ¬nishes his speech, Polus shows no sign of having
understood any of it, and especially not the idea of there being some areas
of knowledge that improve the body as opposed to some that improve the
soul. He sums up what Socrates has said as claiming that rhetoric is ¬‚attery
(466a), and simply returns to Socrates™ claim that ¬‚atterers, and therefore
rhetors, are worthless (fa“loi) in the city. When Socrates denies that they
have the greatest power in the city, claiming instead that they have the
least, the well-known argument commences about whether the tyrant or
the rhetor really does what he wants. Throughout this section, Polus shows
no response to, let alone appreciation of, the idea that there is a good
condition of soul as distinct from the body; he may, in fact, understand
this, but we have not been shown that he does.49 This point is made sharper

The inclusion of l”gw may highlight the novelty and originality of the claim; it at least sharpens
the issue of disagreement.
49 Recall the sense in which I mean this: it is not that Polus does not recognize that the skill of rhetoric
resides in the soul, and that he calls that ¬ne, but if Polus is asked to explain what is ¬ne about
The supremacy of virtue in the Gorgias 113
by the fact that the critical part of the conversation, which refers to harming
or bene¬ting the soul as opposed to the body, takes place with Gorgias and
not Polus, although we are in the midst of the “Polus episode.”
Since my concern is simply to provide an account of what sorts of harm
and bene¬t Polus recognizes, I will only make one remark about the ¬rst
major argument between Polus and Socrates (466a“468e). Whatever its
other logical defects, one source of the problems with the argument arises
from a short induction (467d) in which Socrates gets Polus to agree that, if
anyone does something for the sake of something else, he does not want the
thing he does, but the thing for the sake of which he does it. Commentators
have been surprised at the easy acceptance of such a plain falsehood.50
Furthermore, it appears to contradict what Socrates says shortly afterwards
(468c4).51 I think that this manhandling of the difference between means
and ends at least shows that Polus is unclear on the concept. He has the
idea of doing something for the sake of something else, but he has no clear
conception of doing something for its own sake. All Polus agrees to is that
some things are good, some bad, and some intermediate, and that we act
for the sake of good things. The idea that there may be a bene¬t or harm
to one™s soul, independently of the effect on one™s body or the state of one™s
possessions, requires both the idea of a good in itself and the idea of the soul
as a locus of harm and bene¬t. A bene¬t to the soul may also be a means to
bring about some bene¬t to the body or to the state of one™s possessions,
but, in order to appreciate what the principle about justice claims, one has
to have the notion of a good in itself.52 When Socrates says that he could
be killed but not harmed, he relies on the idea that the soul is a locus of
harm and bene¬t entirely independent of any effect on the body. Therefore,
whatever else this argument may be doing, it contributes to showing the
reader that Polus does not have a clear grasp of the concepts necessary to
understand Socrates™ principle about justice.
Polus does make reference in this argument to “goods of the soul.”53 At
466e9“12, Polus agrees with Socrates™ suggestion that doing what seems best
rhetoric, why it is a good thing, he will explain it entirely in terms of the external goods which might
be procured by means of it.
50 See McTighe (1984/1992), 267 ff.; and Irwin (1979), 14 ff. For a clear and persuasive interpretation
of the argument see Segvic (2000), esp. 40“5.
51 See Vlastos (1991) 303“4, additional note 8.4. Vlastos, after attempting to straighten out the argument,
admits that the text as it stands “betrays an area of unclarity in [Plato™s] thinking.” I am not sure,
however, that the confusion is Plato™s own, rather than shown to us by Plato as Polus™.
52 In 6.2 I argue that, when Glaucon and Adeimantus ask Socrates to show that justice is a good “in
itself” in Republic 2, they are asking him to show them how it is a good for the soul.
53 John Cooper called this point to my attention.
114 Aiming at Virtue in Plato
to one is good only if one has intelligence (no“v). This is part of Socrates™
attempt to force Polus to confront his earlier claim that rhetoric is not a
craft. Socrates wants Polus to show him that rhetors have intelligence and
possess a craft (466e13“467a1). But when Polus concedes the importance of
intelligence here, there is no evidence that he sees intelligence as a good in
itself, or that he thinks that being intelligent might in itself be better for a
person™s soul than not. Nothing in this passage rules out such a possibility,
but I shall contend that, given subsequent exchanges, it is quite unlikely.
From the end of this argument (468e) until the beginning of the dispute
about the principle about justice (474c), there is little sustained argumen-
tation. I believe, however, that Plato repeatedly signals to the reader that
Polus simply has no clear grasp of the idea that acting justly or unjustly
might in itself constitute some harm or bene¬t for a person™s soul.
p olu s: I suppose you wouldn™t choose to have the liberty to do what you think
¬t in the city, rather than lack it, Socrates, and you aren™t envious whenever
you see that someone has killed or expropriated or imprisoned anyone he
thought ¬t.
socr at es: Justly or unjustly, are you saying?
p olu s: Whichever he does, isn™t it something to envy both ways?
socr at es: Quiet, Polus.
Here Polus envisions a person who can exercise his power without fear of any
punishment, doing whatever he sees ¬t.54 When Socrates queries whether
the allegedly enviable person is acting justly or unjustly, Polus expresses
what I think is genuine puzzlement about Socrates™ question. Polus is not
simply disagreeing with Socrates, or disputing Socrates™ claim that it does
make a difference; he simply has no idea how it could. This is the position
of Polus with respect to the idea that the soul might itself be a locus of
harm and bene¬t.
Socrates then tells Polus that he believes that doing injustice is the greatest
of evils. Polus replies: “Is this the greatest? Isn™t suffering injustice greater?”
(469b10). Read by itself, this response might appear to show that Polus
concedes that doing injustice is indeed an evil in itself, but simply not the
greatest of evils. But this interpretation would clash with the rest of the
text, in which there is no hint that Polus understands the idea that doing
injustice without material or bodily harm is nevertheless a harmful thing.
A more consistent reading of this line sees Polus™ response as sarcastically
incredulous. Shortly afterwards, Polus engages twice in plain instances of
54 See 6.5 for the importance of doing “whatever one wishes” in Glaucon™s and Adeimantus™ challenge.
The supremacy of virtue in the Gorgias 115
similarly rude sarcasm (470c5, 473b8“9) when he tells Socrates that he will
be dif¬cult to refute, obviously meaning that he thinks Socrates will be easily
refuted. This, together with Polus™ brash interruption at the beginning of
the dialogue (448a ff.), shows that such insolent behavior is in keeping
with his character. Further, Polus immediately turns back to his challenge
about whether Socrates would not choose to be a tyrant, so that he could
kill, expel, and so on “following his own opinion” (469c). Polus has shown
absolutely no reaction to Socrates™ claim about the importance of justice
and injustice, and so repeats the same point from 468e.
Socrates must try a different tack, and offers what Dodds calls “the Parable
of the Lunatic with the Knife” (469c“e). Socrates asks whether the power
exercised by someone who went through the agora with a hidden knife,
stabbing whomever he pleased, would possess Polus™ great and enviable
power. Polus agrees that this is not what he had in mind. When Socrates
asks him why this is not the power that he envies, Polus simply responds
that someone who acts this way is bound to be punished, and punishment
is a bad thing. We should remember here that the question at hand is about
how the power being exercised might bene¬t or harm the agent. Asked this
question, Polus can only conceive of the harm to one™s body or the loss
of one™s possessions that punishment involves. As Polus will shortly make
clear, if there is no prospect of punishment, then such acts (assuming there
is some material gain) clearly bene¬t the agent.55
In response, Socrates reiterates his belief that one acts in a better, more
bene¬cial, way whenever one acts justly (470b“c) “ something Polus has by
now shown himself not to comprehend, let alone agree with. To Socrates™
claim that it is always more bene¬cial to act justly, Polus obnoxiously
responds that “even a child could refute” him (470c4“5). I am not claim-
ing, however, that Polus is simply being rude here; rather, he ¬nds what
Socrates is saying quite inscrutable. Polus is similarly baf¬‚ed by Socrates™
claim that he does not know whether the Great King of Persia is happy
or unhappy since he does not know how he stands with respect to justice
and education (470e). He then brings up what is, to his mind, the patently
obvious counterexample of Archelaus, a slave who did “the greatest injus-
tices” by lying, murdering and betraying those around him to gain power.
55 We can usefully contrast this with the position of Protagoras in his “Great Speech” (Pr. 323c“324d).
Protagoras argues that the practice of punishment is an indication that excellence is teachable. The
point of punishment is to provide a bene¬t for the soul of the person being punished and for the
souls of those who witness the punishment. Punishment is reasonable in that, although it harms a
person™s body and deprives him of external goods, it attempts to bene¬t his soul (and those who
learn from his experience). It is thus clear that Protagoras, unlike Polus, understands the soul as a
locus of harm and bene¬t.
116 Aiming at Virtue in Plato
To Polus, Archelaus engaged in what are clearly unjust acts, but since he had
suffered no harm to his body and no loss of possessions (in fact, of course,
he had gained greatly in these respects) he had suffered no harm whatsoever.
Polus shares with Socrates a conventional notion of which actions count
as unjust (unlike Callicles) but displays no awareness of a state of soul that
might itself be bene¬ted or harmed depending on the sort of actions one
engages in.
After Polus™ encomium to Archelaus, Socrates repeats their respective
positions and reiterates his acceptance of the principle about justice, making
the further connection, brought out by the example of Archelaus, that Polus
thinks that acting unjustly without paying any just penalty will make a
person happy. Socrates thinks that the doer of injustice is always wretched,
and even more so if that person never has to pay a just penalty. He tells Polus
that he will try to make Polus say the same things as he, for he regards Polus
as a friend (473a). When Socrates repeats his acceptance of the principle
about justice, he refers back to his earlier statement of it at 469b. This
suggests that Socrates does not believe much headway has been made in
the intervening time, and this ¬ts well with the idea that Socrates and the
reader have simply gotten a clearer picture of Polus™ beliefs and character
during these pages.
I have argued that Plato reveals Polus as a particular character-type, with
a particular blind spot: the failure to recognize that the soul can be a locus
of harm and bene¬t independently of the state of one™s body or of one™s
possessions. I have claimed further that this is an additional conceptual
step beyond simply acknowledging that we have a soul or character that
is distinct from the body. I realize that my claim about Polus is dif¬cult
to prove since I am arguing for a negative: that Polus fails to understand
something. Finding conclusive textual evidence that shows that someone
does not understand or believe something is more problematic than proving
that someone does. But I think that my understanding of Polus makes the
best sense of the interactions between him and Socrates.56
Socrates™ interaction with Polus is philosophically valuable as an exami-
nation of how to argue with such a character-type and show him that the
soul itself may be harmed or bene¬ted independently of the body. If I am
right about Polus, Plato spends so much time showing the reader how Polus

56 If one disagrees with my reading of Polus, it is incumbent upon him or her to explain in some other
way what Plato thinks he is doing with the texts I have discussed, many of which contain either very
little argument (e.g., the remarks about the Great King or Archelaus), or argument that is quite poor
(467c“468e); the regression to Gorgias in the midst of the “Polus episode” requires some explanation
as well.
The supremacy of virtue in the Gorgias 117
reacts to Socrates™ claims in order to display what type of character he is,
and what sort of positive arguments such a character requires. We know
that by the end of the discussion with Polus at 481b5 the latter will be say-
ing, if reluctantly, the same things as Socrates, just as Socrates promises.57
More importantly for the present purposes, however, Plato makes explicit
the importance of certain underlying premises for SV. Before a person can
be persuaded of SV, he must understand it, and in order to understand
it, he must have the concept of a good for the soul. Polus™ lack of such a
concept makes him a radical interlocutor in a quite particular sense. Gor-
gias understands and accepts the idea that the soul can be in a condition
that is good for it, without reference to bodily or material well-being. As
we shall see next, Callicles appreciates that there is something that is good
for the soul, but maintains that it is simply appetite grati¬cation (pleasure).
In this way Callicles is able to retain an ordinary conception of harm and
bene¬t that is consonant with Polus™, even though he revises the ordinary
conception of justice so that it falls in line with this conception of harm
and bene¬t.

3 .5 ca llic les a nd h is conc ept i on of j u st i ce
Callicles is the most famous of Socrates™ three interlocutors in the Gorgias,
and not without reason. While Gorgias praises the importance of the techne
he teaches, and Polus unabashedly envies the simple exercise of power,
Callicles offers a philosophy: a conception of the good and happy life and
of what a person must be like to achieve it. It is often remarked that Callicles
is the “most radical” of the three. I have tried to complicate this assessment
by arguing that each of the interlocutors occupies a unique position, which
is not straightforwardly “more radical” than that of his predecessor. It is
true that Callicles has the most sweeping and well worked out positive
position of the three; it is also true that while Polus accepts “conventional”
examples of justice and injustice, and the conventional belief that doing
injustice is more shameful, Callicles rejects these. In these two respects,
Callicles is the more radical interlocutor. We shall see, however, that while
Polus shows no appreciation of the value of a state of soul, of being noble
or excellent, Callicles has a distinct, if ultimately problematic, conception
of excellence. When Callicles rejects the separation of the ideas of the ¬ne
and the shameful from the better and the worse he moves himself closer to
the Socratic position in this respect than Polus ever is (483a ff.). Callicles

57 In Vasiliou (2002b) I give an account of how this transition is effected.
118 Aiming at Virtue in Plato
describes and develops a superior, excellent character, and although his
conception of excellence is clearly “radical” and un-Socratic, the idea itself of
excellence of character is not. Polus lacks this concept; he merely praises the
goods gained by someone with power, without ever tying that to a particular
character-type that he endorses. The problem Callicles faces is that he
retains a more ordinary and conventional conception of harm and bene¬t,
quite close to Polus™, while (unlike Polus) he takes the achievement of such
bene¬ts to be the province of a particular type of superior character. While
Polus™ enviable person is someone with power “ the tyrant or orator “ Polus
simply presumes that such power follows upon the acquisition of rhetorical
skill. Callicles ties the power to achieve bene¬ts to a state of soul, a state
which he calls excellence. For Callicles there is a clear notion of excellence
of character, measured by a particular state of soul: appetite grati¬cation.
Socrates™ argument with Callicles raises con¬‚icts between Callicles™ praise
of what he takes to be an excellent character and his substantive account
of the bene¬ts that excellence confers. Socrates attacks him by showing in
effect that, if one™s goal is an excellence of character, one will need a revised
conception of harm and bene¬t; Callicles cannot have his radical, superior
man while retaining his conventional notion of harm and bene¬t.
Callicles™ account of natural justice grows out of criticism of Socrates
and his two predecessors. In particular, Callicles derides Polus™ admission
that doing injustice is more shameful than suffering it. He believes that
Polus concedes this only because he is too ashamed to admit to what he
actually believes (482d“e). Callicles reserves his most severe blame, however,
for Socrates, accusing him of illegitimately switching in argument from
what is the case according to nature (f…siv) to what is the case according
to law (n»mov)58 in order to generate a contradiction in his interlocutor™s
statements: “for nature and law are in many cases opposed to each other”
(482e4“5). When his interlocutor speaks “according to nature,” Socrates
questions him “according to law,” and vice versa. While shame does not
appear to be a problem for Socrates, Callicles believes that integrity in
argument is. He not only claims that this is a general tactic of Socrates, but
also charges Socrates with having just employed it against Polus:
[You™ve engaged in illegitimate switching between law and nature] just now in these
[two] cases: both in the case of doing injustice and of suffering it. When Polus spoke
about what is more shameful according to law, you pursued the argument according
to nature. For, by nature, everything is more shameful which is worse, [namely]
suffering injustice, but, by law, doing injustice [is more shameful]. (483a5“8)

n»mov is dif¬cult to capture with a single English word; it can mean law, convention, rule. See Irwin
(1979), 171.
The supremacy of virtue in the Gorgias 119
Commentators do not try to specify precisely where in the argument
Socrates equivocated according to Callicles, but I think it is important to
¬nd out, for it will have consequences for how we understand Callicles™
entire position as well as Socrates™ stance in relation to it.
Polus makes two claims in the argument for the principle about justice: (1)
suffering injustice is worse than doing it (474c5“6), and (2) doing injustice
is more shameful than suffering it (474c7“8). Socrates then establishes via
an induction that (3) anything which is more shameful is either worse or
more painful, or both. He then concludes that, since doing injustice is
not more painful, it must be worse.59 At what point does Socrates “pursue
the argument according to nature,” as Callicles maintains? It cannot be
at (2), for (2) is Polus™ own concession,60 and furthermore it is not true
by nature, but only by law according to Callicles.61 Indeed, (2) is most
probably the premise that Callicles refers to as Polus™ speaking according to
law. What about (1)? It too fails to be a plausible candidate because, like (2),
it is Polus™ contention, not Socrates™; he of course believes the contrary. But
more importantly, there is no textual evidence that Callicles ever thinks that
the by nature/by law distinction applies to the terms “better” and “worse”
or “good” and “bad.” This stands in stark contrast with the clear evidence
that Callicles sees a difference between the ¬ne/shameful by nature and the
¬ne/shameful by law (483a7“8, 483c6“d2), and between the just/unjust by
nature and the just/unjust by law (483c8“d2, 483e2, 484a); he relies on these
distinctions to formulate his own position immediately after his criticism
of Socrates™ argumentation.
What is critical to recognize, however, is that it is central to Callicles™
position that what is better and worse, what harms and bene¬ts a person,
is a matter, relatively speaking, of “fact” and therefore not susceptible to
the by nature/by law contrast. For Callicles (1) is a plain fact, while (2),
conceded by Polus, is true by law, although false by nature. What Socrates
then “pursues by nature” in order to generate a contradiction must be (3):
what is more shameful by nature is worse. Callicles agrees of course, while
holding that what is more shameful by convention (namely, doing injustice)
is in fact better.
Commentators have not recognized that the better/worse distinction
is not susceptible to the by nature/by law distinction. If we think more
carefully about Callicles™ position, however, this should not be surprising.
For Callicles, the plain fact that something is worse or more harmful to
59 See Vasiliou (2002b), §3 for a discussion of this argument.
60 Even if Callicles is right that he concedes it only because of shame.
61 Of course, Socrates believes (2) is true without quali¬cation.
120 Aiming at Virtue in Plato
a person is what explains why it is by nature more shameful for him. The
perversion of society, according to Callicles, is that it takes the plain facts
of bene¬t and harm, and considers bene¬cial actions shameful, instead of
noble; such perverted valuations are correct only “by convention.” Callicles
maintains that, if an action is worse, then by nature it must be more
shameful. To disrupt the connection between what is worse and what is
truly (by nature) shameful is to pervert the true nature of the noble and
the shameful, the just and the unjust. We must recognize that Callicles™
normative judgements rest on factual claims, which he takes as obvious,
about what harms and bene¬ts a person. For Callicles the facts ground the
normative judgements. This is shown in his use of examples from the world
of animals and political events. Animals, and human beings unencumbered
by “convention,” naturally pursue what is in their own interest without
regard for what is conventionally called “justice.” Heracles is better off
with the cattle of Geryon “ that is put forward as a fact “ and therefore it
is right and just that he take them (484b“c). The argument throughout
proceeds from facts about harm and bene¬t to conclusions about the just
and unjust and ¬ne and shameful by nature. Also, we might note that one
cannot harm one™s leg by nature as opposed to harming it “by convention”;
for Callicles, as for Socrates, what harms and bene¬ts the body and the
soul is not susceptible to the by nature/by convention distinction. As we
shall see, Callicles goes on to argue that in fact philosophy turns out to
harm a person™s character because it leads to harm for his body and a loss of
possessions when a philosopher turns out incapable of defending his body
or his property (484c ff.).62
Appreciating that the nature/law distinction does not apply to the bet-
ter/worse distinction is particularly important for understanding Callicles™
relationship to SV. Socrates™ desired conclusion and the heart of Socratic
ethics insofar as it follows from SV “ that doing injustice is worse than
suffering it “ is by Callicles™ lights an entirely false conclusion generated
by the above equivocation. It is important to emphasize that according to
Callicles this claim is not true either by nature or by law; it is obviously and
ridiculously false. When Callicles enters the conversation he is incredulous
about what he has heard from Socrates and claims that, if Socrates were
correct, then life would be “upside down” (481b“c). In this passage he is
not referring simply to a conventional view of justice, for he is thoroughly
62 Polus is willing, by contrast, to separate what is worse and what is more shameful, and this is what
so infuriates Callicles. Polus recognizes the plain fact that doing injustice (with impunity) is better
for a person, but does not draw the conclusion that Callicles believes follows: that it is therefore by
nature more noble and just.
The supremacy of virtue in the Gorgias 121
familiar with that, and will soon both describe it and strenuously criti-
cize it (483b ff.). He is so angry with Socrates in part because he sees him
ranting on and on about a ridiculous conclusion that has been generated
fallaciously via an equivocation from otherwise true premises “ premises
that can be seen as true once the appropriate quali¬ers are added. I suggest
that this is what he means by calling Socrates a “mob orator” (dhmhg»rov,
We can clarify the difference between Socrates and Callicles by look-
ing more closely at the relationship between what is worse and what is
shameful. For Socrates what is worse is identical to what is more shame-
ful and disgraceful. He holds a biconditional: something is worse if and
only if it is more disgraceful. At 463d5, he claims that what is worse is
more shameful and, at 474c8“d2, he claims that what is more shameful is
worse. Callicles agrees, so long as we add the “by nature” tag: what is more
shameful by nature is worse. Although this is a true statement according
to Callicles, matters are less clear if we put it as a conditional: if some-
thing is more shameful (by nature), then it is worse. I submit that this
makes no sense on Callicles™ view. Something is more shameful by nature
because it is really worse. The perversion of law is to take what is worse and
declare it more noble. There is no way to delimit what is more shameful
by nature on Callicles™ account independently of what is worse; there is
no way then to determine ¬rst that something is more shameful and to
conclude from that that it is worse. Socrates too believes that something
is more shameful because it is really worse, only he also believes that there
is no way of determining what is really worse without determining what is
truly shameful/unjust.
This is the deep difference between Socrates and Callicles. For Socrates
what is worse is worse because it is truly shameful: what is truly shameful
is what harms the soul, and it harms the soul because it is truly shameful.
On Socrates™ account there is no independent handle we can get on what
is better or worse that can then ground our conceptions of virtue and vice.
What is better is better because it bene¬ts our souls, and what bene¬ts our
souls is doing virtuous actions, but we have no facts, on a parallel with
facts about what bene¬ts our bodies or the state of our possessions, that
determine what the virtuous actions are. If something is more shameful,
it is, for that reason, more harmful, since more shameful actions are the
actions that are more harmful to the soul. This is not the way it works for
Callicles: the reason something is more shameful (by nature) in the ¬rst
place is because it is worse, and he takes the determination of whether an
action is better or worse to be an obvious matter of fact.
122 Aiming at Virtue in Plato
We need to understand this throughout the rest of Socrates™ much-
maligned discussion with Callicles. Socrates™ conception of what is better
and worse is deeply and fundamentally opposed to Callicles™; it is a greater
difference between them than Callicles™ division between “conventional”
and “natural” justice. It is not merely that Callicles holds a different con-
ception of virtue than Socrates, it is that he holds a different conception of
harm and bene¬t: this is what is responsible for the distance between them.
For Socrates real harm and bene¬t (i.e. harm and bene¬t to the soul) cannot
in the end be understood independently of virtue and vice. Without an
account of virtue, its content remains an object of belief at best. For Callicles
we know what real harm is (at bottom, frustration of appetites), and to be
subject to such harms is what is shameful by nature and therefore what is
truly vicious “ vicious by nature. For him the content of real justice is found
in the concept of real bene¬t.63 Callicles then cashes this out in terms of
unrestrained appetite grati¬cation.64 But we shall see that, once Socrates
rebuts unquali¬ed hedonism, we are back with the necessity of explaining
the distinction between good and bad pleasures. Since good and bad can no
longer be explained by simple appeal to appetite grati¬cation, what makes
pleasures good or bad? Unable to reduce the account of harm and bene¬t
to non-evaluative terms, Socrates and his interlocutor are thrown back to
the determining question about which actions are virtuous.

3.6 c a llicles ™ prot rept i c
While Callicles is radical in that he rejects the demands of conventional
justice, I have tried to show that his conception of harm and bene¬t is, like
that of Polus, emphatically ordinary. By contrast, while Socrates appears
to defend some version of “conventional” justice, the conception of harm
he holds is extremely radical. I have argued that Callicles does not apply

63 As we shall see in chapter ¬ve, this is the point at which Thrasymachus™ views come quite close to
Callicles™. Thrasymachus does not use any concept of natural or real as opposed to conventional
justice. All justice is conventional for him in the sense that it is dependent on the laws that are
instituted in a society. We shall see that Thrasymachus ends up rejecting thoroughgoing conven-
tionalism, limiting just laws to those that are truly to the advantage of the rulers. In Republic 1,
Socrates limits his examination of Thrasymachus™ view to the question of whether it is true that
rulers, on the model of craftsmen, seek their own advantage, or the advantage of their subjects; see
5.2“4. What is not explored there, but left implicit, is what the real advantage of a ruler, or of anyone,
consists in. Callicles has an answer to this: unrestrained appetite grati¬cation. Thrasymachus implies
the same, when he describes, as he puts it, the complete injustice of the tyrant. We shall see in 6.5
and 8.5 that the question of whether appetite grati¬cation is true bene¬t is central to the challenge
to justice in Book 2 and the subsequent response in the remaining parts of the Republic.
64 See Cooper (1999b) for a clear, convincing account of this.
The supremacy of virtue in the Gorgias 123
his nomos/nature distinction to harm/bene¬t or bad/good. What harms or
bene¬ts an agent is taken as a matter of fact, from which the conception of
what is shameful is derived.
We ¬nd further evidence that this interpretation of Callicles™ conception
of harm and bene¬t is correct if we consider the next section of his speech,
which follows his discussion of natural justice (484c4“486d1). I call this
“Callicles™ protreptic” because he attempts to persuade Socrates to give up
the philosophical life and turn to gaining experience of the sorts of things
that a “¬ne and good and well-regarded” (kal¼n kˆgaq¼n kaª eÉd»kimon)
man does (484d1“2).
For [those men doing philosophy] end up inexperienced in the laws [t¤n n»mwn
Špeiroi g©gnontai] of the city, in the words one must use to speak with people in
contracts, both in private and in public, and in human pleasures and desires [kaª
t¤n ¡don¤n te kaª –piqumi¤n t¤n ˆnqrwpe©wn], and, in short, they are inexpe-
rienced in human customs [t¤n  q¤n] in absolutely every respect (pant†pasin).
The similarity between Gorgias™ craft and Callicles™ conception of the
good life becomes clear here.65 Studying philosophy for too long leaves
one unacquainted with how to get along in the world and how to acquire
power. Plato appears to have some fun here. Callicles, who has just ¬nished
his account of the naturally superior person as one who smashes ordinary
convention, claims that philosophizing into adulthood is bad because it
leaves one ignorant of ordinary conventions and customs, which are necessary
to learn if one wants to obtain real power. Presumably the naturally superior
person, having learned all of these “laws” and ways of speaking, will then
use his knowledge to “have more” than others and rule over them. After
the detailed description of the superior person as smashing convention,
it is striking that Callicles then criticizes the philosopher for not being
adequately experienced in conventional matters, and so for being “out
of touch” with the society that Callicles has just roundly criticized. The
philosopher, willfully ignorant of all such matters, appears by contrast to
show himself to be superior to and more distant from convention in a way
that Callicles™ admired man, who must learn and have experience with all
ordinary conventions and desires, does not. From the perspective of the
outer frame, we might conclude that Plato asks his reader to think about
who is the real radical and who the slave to convention.
65 Callicles criticizes Socrates for not knowing about what is “reasonable” (e«k»v) and “probable”
(piqan»n) (486a1“2): two key concepts in rhetoric. Socrates™ philosophy fails to ¬t “reasonable
expectations” and so fails to be persuasive; instead it provokes alienation and perplexity. See also
Vasiliou (2002a).
124 Aiming at Virtue in Plato
Callicles urges further that philosophy is appropriate for a young boy
but not a grown man. Given that philosophy leaves one unable to defend
oneself against harm, conceived in the ordinary way, someone who stud-
ies philosophy is worse off in being defenseless against harm. Therefore,
according to Callicles™ maxim from 483a7“8, one is in a more shameful state,
since everything which is worse is by nature more shameful. Callicles warns
that any wretch could come along, accuse Socrates on false charges, and
have him executed, and he would be unable to defend himself (486a“b). He
makes clear that harm comes in the form of a threat to one™s body by trial
and execution, and by being punched in the face without recourse (486c2),
and also of being deprived of one™s possessions so as to live “without honor”
in the city (486c1“2). He concludes that Socrates ought to envy those who
have “life and glory and many other good things” (b©ov kaª d»xa kaª Šlla
poll‡ ˆgaq†, 486d1).
These passages show Callicles™ clear recognition of external goods. It
should come as little surprise, then, that Socrates will question his account
of natural justice by asking who exactly the superior person who should
have more is, and what exactly “having more” means. But while Polus had
divorced his concept of doing better from any notion of virtue, Callicles
attempts to connect them. What justice by nature is is for the superior
person to have more. In order to have more, and, especially, in order to
avoid having your face punched in, being dragged into court, having your
property taken away, and, ultimately, being executed if someone wants it “
that is, to avoid being powerless with respect to goods of the body and
one™s possessions66 “ one must learn the conventions and ways of speaking
proper to the city, i.e., one must learn rhetoric. While this much of Callicles™
account is familiar from Gorgias™ barely restrained admiration for the power
of rhetoric and Polus™ unabashed obsession with it in the face of his idea of
what is virtuous, Callicles™ uniqueness consists in part in connecting these
ideas to the condition of one™s soul. To be the victim of physical harm and to
be deprived of property, things which are obviously bad, is to suffer actions
that are by nature shameful to suffer. If one is in such a truly shameful
position, it must be the result of a failure of one™s soul “ it is not as it should
be. Callicles argues that Socrates, by engaging in the wrong sort of activity
(philosophy) for too long, has warped his soul, and so fails to have a good,
noble, and wise soul.67

66 And so, once hedonism is on the table, suffer the complete frustration of one™s appetites.
67 Cooper (1999b), 54, n. 39 says that Callicles™ criticism of adults who philosophize as being “unmanly”
and in need of a beating “suggests that [Callicles] does regard philosophers like Socrates as intelligent,
but defective in spirit and manly bravery (and culpably so).” Cooper connects this criticism with
The supremacy of virtue in the Gorgias 125
We can understand Callicles™ protreptic as a speech on behalf of a sort
of SV. We have already seen that he begins his speech by urging Socrates
to give up philosophy on the ground of desiring to be “¬ne and good”
(484d1“2).68 Callicles entirely agrees that anyone who fails to philosophize
while young “will never expect anything ¬ne or noble [oÎte kalo“ oÎte
genna©ou] from himself ” (485c7“d1). Moreover, he connects lack of proper
concern with the corruption of one™s soul, and so with acting shamefully:
Socrates, you are careless of what you should care for [ˆmele±v . . . ¦n de± se
–pimele±sqai]; you twist this noble [genna©an] nature of your soul into some
childish shape . . . Doesn™t it seem to you to be shameful [a«scr»n] to be the way
I think you are, you and those others who always go further along in philosophy?
(485e6“486a1 . . . 486a5)
These passages show Callicles™ explicit concern for the development of
a particular state of soul. While the dramatic tension caused by the clear
foreshadowing of Socrates™ eventual trial and execution has been well noted,
there are also striking, speci¬c, parallels in speech between what Socrates
says in the Apology and what Callicles says here, which pulls the relationship
between the Gorgias and the Apology, and between Socrates and Callicles,
even closer. Callicles™ remarks are clear echoes, with a different twist, of
Socrates™ words in the Apology when he recounts what he says is his usual
reproach against and exhortation of his fellow citizens:
Excellent friend, I shall say, you are an Athenian. Your city is the most important
and renowned for its wisdom and power; so are you not ashamed [oÉk a«sc…nh] €
that, while you take care [–pimelo…menov] to acquire as much wealth as possible,
with glory and honor as well, yet you take no care [oÉk –pimel¦] nor give thought
to truth, or to the best possible state of your soul? . . . all I do is to go about
persuading you, young and old alike, not to care for [–pimele±sqai] your bodies or
for your wealth so intensely as for the greatest possible well-being of your souls. It
is not from wealth, I tell you, that virtue arises; rather it is from virtue that wealth,
and all other good things, come about for human beings in their private and public
life. (29d7“30b4)
We see that Socrates™ and Callicles™ speeches are very similar in tone, and
in the concepts to which they appeal, most notably what one ought to

Callicles™ praise of the individual who does not slacken “on account of softness of soul” (491b4).
If the reading of Callicles™ position that I defend is correct, however, the criticism he levies against
Socrates is not simply that he is unmanly or soft in pursuit of his ends, but that he has the wrong ends.
Aiming at a life of philosophy is not only unmanly, it is also unintelligent because it is, by Callicles™
lights, so obviously wrong. As Callicles says in his “protreptic speech,” how can it be “wise” (sof»n)
to lead a life where some idiot can put you to death if he wanted to (486b)? Pursuing philosophy
into adulthood is both unmanly and unintelligent.
68 Echoing Socrates™ own use earlier at 470e9, as Dodds (1959) notes.
126 Aiming at Virtue in Plato
care for (–pimele±sqai and cognates), and how one should avoid shame,
and strive for excellence. In a way, Callicles can agree with this quote from
Socrates. It is from a certain noble, virtuous state of soul that the power arises
that leads to all the other bene¬ts for human beings. The most important
difference between Socrates and Callicles centers on the notion of what
they take to be better or worse, what they take to be a harm or bene¬t.
Callicles argues for the supremacy of virtue, as Socrates does; but with his
conventional notion of harm and bene¬t, virtue can only be conceived of as
valuable as a means of acquiring bene¬ts for the body, increased possessions,
good reputation, and the like. Once Callicles™ hedonism is presented, the
explanation of the value of these goods will be in terms of the only thing
that has value in itself, and this will turn out to be a good for the soul, but
of a very particular type: appetite grati¬cation. As becomes apparent, being
excellent for Callicles is being powerful enough to bene¬t one™s appetites
and to satisfy their needs. This is the only sort of bene¬t and harm that he
recognizes. When Callicles says that the superior person is the person who is
wise and brave about the affairs of the city (491b), he cashes out being better
in terms of states of soul: wisdom and bravery. This is especially clear when
he emphasizes that his superior person does not slacken from achieving
his goals “on account of a softness of soul” (di‡ malak©an t¦v yuc¦v,
491b4). For Callicles the superiority of the person is not his possession of
material goods or his physical strength69 but a certain excellent state of
soul that does not suffer from “softness.” It is important to appreciate how
close, by contrast with Polus, this is to Socrates™ position. Polus displays no
interest in or even understanding of the intrinsic value of certain qualities of
Callicles then shows himself to be the person referred to explicitly in the
Apology, when Socrates poses his rhetorical question:
Perhaps someone might say: “Aren™t you ashamed that you have pursued the sort
of pursuit on account of which you are now likely to be put to death?” (Ap. 28b3“5)
As we saw in chapter one, this question is what prompts Socrates™ ¬rst
statement of SV. Who is this person who might say such things? We can
see that the speaker whom Socrates, we might now say, “recalls” is Callicles:
You™d go into court, to face some inferior wretch of an accuser, and you™d be put to
death if he wanted the death penalty for you. Now how can this be wise, Socrates?
(Gor. 486b2“4)

69 Although his examples of Heracles and Xerxes might reasonably lead one to think that, as Socrates
initially exploits (489d).
The supremacy of virtue in the Gorgias 127
It is important for understanding the nature of the relationship between
Socrates and Callicles to see that they argue for SV in critically different
ways. Callicles presents his conception of “natural” justice ¬rst, and then
argues, on the basis of the obvious fact that natural justice clearly bene¬ts
the agent, that acting otherwise is shameful. So Callicles argues ¬rst for a
conception of what virtue is, and only then for SV. Socrates, as we have seen,
maintains SV even without knowing what virtue is. Callicles sandwiches
his “protreptic” as I have called it (his appeal to SV) between his account
of natural justice and his statement of hedonism. And we have seen how
and why each can argue the way he does. Given that Callicles takes bene¬t
and harm to be matters of obvious fact, he then “radically” argues that real
virtues are states of soul that confer these bene¬ts. As I have explained, the
reason that the real, “by nature,” virtues are the ones they are is justi¬ed
by the fact that they provide bene¬t to the agent. Given Socrates™ views,
no such course of argument is available to him. As we have seen, what is
central to SV, and to its defense, is the idea of the soul as an independent
locus of harm and bene¬t. Once a person has granted this, and granted
that the soul and its welfare are superior in importance to the welfare of the
body or of one™s possessions, then it is an open question what bene¬t and
harm even are. Socrates cannot, like Callicles, rely on the notions of bodily
harm and bene¬t, except, as he does repeatedly, by analogy. Nor, given
his rejection of hedonism, can he rely on appetite grati¬cation as such.
Socrates cannot answer the question of what harms and bene¬ts the soul
without determining what virtue is. And as we saw in chapter one, even
in the Gorgias he denies knowing “how these things are” (509a): he knows
that they are most important (i.e. he knows SV), but how to determine the
actions that are virtuous continues to elude him.
That this is the heart of the matter becomes clear in Socrates™ discussion
of Callicles™ position. After all, Callicles is in a sense not so far from Socrates,
nor, in a sense, is Socrates so far from Callicles. That the better man should in
some sense have more than the worse is not necessarily something Socrates
would reject. In some respects this would be an odd way to put it: for,
according to Socrates, the better man “ the man who is more virtuous “
will have his soul, the most valuable part of himself, in a better state than
the less virtuous person. So Socrates does not simply disagree with Callicles:
he is drawing Callicles™ conventional conception of harm and bene¬t into
the open. Socrates attacks Callicles™ de¬nition of justice “ that the better,
superior, stronger person70 should have more than and rule over others

70 For the differences between these terms see Irwin (1979), 184“5.
128 Aiming at Virtue in Plato
(484c, 488b) “ from two directions. First he examines what Callicles means
by “superior/better/stronger person” (488c“490b), and then he examines
what to “have more than others” means (490b“491d). Interestingly, that
the better (in some sense of “better”) man should rule over others is never
questioned. Indeed, Socrates believes it: in the Apology (28d, 29b) he says
that a person should never disobey his superior. If someone is my superior
in the sense that matters for Socrates “ i.e., if someone knows what virtue
is when I do not “ then, given SV, I should obey that person.71
Socrates has been criticized for being especially annoying and for delib-
erately misunderstanding Callicles throughout this section of text.72 But I
don™t think that is true. Callicles has a vague elitist notion of superiority
and of “having more,” but Socrates wants to know what the goods are that
the superior person has that make him superior and what the goods are that
his superiority entitles him to more of. When Socrates goes, irritatingly,
through examples of being physically stronger, or possessing more shoes
or bigger shoes, or more food and drink, Callicles gets annoyed, but the
question is serious and points to the real difference between Socrates and
Callicles. Is there “ or is there not “ an excellence of soul that is intrinsically
valuable and whose value is not able to be cashed out in terms of physical,
bodily bene¬ts, material gains, or other external goods that yield appetite

3.7 c a llicle s ™ he d oni sm
Once Callicles presents his hedonism it becomes even clearer that he believes
that virtue and happiness reside in the soul. Happiness and virtue consist
in making the appetites as large as possible and having the ability to ful¬ll
them. Here Callicles takes a step closer to Socrates. By specifying the goal
of life to be appetite grati¬cation, he moves the supreme aim of life to a
state of soul, rather than the obtaining of any bodily condition or physical
possession. External goods are goods, it turns out, only insofar as they serve
appetite grati¬cation; that is, their value is dependent on a state of soul.
What Callicles does with his unrestricted hedonism is enable himself to
hang on to an account of harm and bene¬t that does not use evaluative
terms. If appetite grati¬cation simply as such is the aim, then there is
no further determination about virtue to make. The appetites are simply
there, and an excellent man takes care not to restrain them: he lets them
71 This view will be endorsed and elaborated in the Republic, where Socrates argues that the philosopher-
king ought to rule over everyone else. See chapters seven and eight.
72 See Beversluis (2000), ch. 16, esp. 345“9.
The supremacy of virtue in the Gorgias 129
grow (presumably in whatever way they grow, towards whatever ends) and
then has the power and strength of soul to ful¬ll them (492d“e). Both
the desires and the capacity to ful¬ll them reside in the soul. Callicles™
language is striking. He begins his speech advocating hedonism with a
rhetorical question: “How can a person be happy if he is a slave to anything
whatsoever?” (491e5“6). As before, when Callicles spoke of the necessity
for the person who would smash convention to know human conventions
well (484d), here too he immediately follows with an account of what
is ¬ne and just by nature, and what constitutes living “rightly” (½rq¤v):
letting the appetites grow as large as possible and then being “capable of
serving [the desires] on account of one™s courage and wisdom” (¬kan¼n
e²nai Ëphrete±n di¬ ˆndre©an kaª fr»nhsin, 492a1“2). He recognizes no
tension here between his claim that the truly happy person is a slave to
nothing and his claim that the truly happy person is capable of “serving”
his desires. Callicles here identi¬es a person with his appetite. The strong,
virtuous person consists of large desires and an adequate capacity to ful¬ll
them, and both of these are features of his soul.
Thus, I am largely in agreement with John Cooper™s account of Callicles™
hedonism.73 Callicles believes that a person who lives his life properly allows
his appetites to grow as large and as intense as possible, and must then have
the intelligence and strength of character (bravery) to ful¬ll them.74 Cooper
writes: “Callicles continues to recommend as the best life for a human being
the life led by a skilled and powerful orator “ a naturally superior, intelligent,
capable person “ who allows his appetites to grow to their greatest extent
and is not squeamish or cowardly but brave and manly in using any means
necessary to ful¬ll whatever desire he might be feeling, without regard
to the conventional morality or immorality of those means.”75 We might
add to this as Cooper agrees: without regard to the conventional morality
or immorality of the ends either, that is, the desires that one wants to
ful¬ll. Cooper concludes that according to Callicles “the ful¬llment and
grati¬cation of appetites is good, simply as such, and nothing else at all is
good in that way, i.e., simply because of what it is.”76
Faced with Callicles™ unrestricted hedonism, Socrates draws out the
unpalatable consequences of such a position by asking whether satisfying

73 Cooper (1999b), 51“7.
74 Cooper shows that the second aspect of Callicles™ account entails that he recognizes the possibility
of a sort of weakness of will, in which a person restrains himself and prevents the grati¬cation of
some appetite either because of a misguided sense of shame or because of a lack of bravery causing
him to be intimidated by the conventional values of society.
75 76 Cooper (1999b), 55 (his emphasis).
Cooper (1999b), 52.
130 Aiming at Virtue in Plato
absolutely any desire a person might ¬nd pleasurable is the same as living
happily. Once Socrates introduces the example of the desire of the catamite,
Callicles asks how Socrates could not be ashamed to lead the discussion
to such a case (494e7“8). Socrates, blaming Callicles for where the argu-
ment has gone, presses him again to say whether he thinks the same thing is
pleasant and good without quali¬cation or whether there are some pleasant
things which are in fact not good. This leads to the following interchange:
callicles : Well, so that I do not have an inconsistent argument, if I say that
they are different, I say that they are the same.
soc r at es: You are destroying the previous statements, and you would no longer
be properly investigating with me things that are [true] [t‡ Ànta], if you
speak contrary to what you think.
callicles : You do it too.
socr at es: Then neither am I acting correctly [½rq¤v], if indeed I do this, nor
are you. But come, blessed man, once and for all, enjoying in any and every
way [pant¤v] is not the good, for both the many shameful things we just
hinted at follow, and, if this is so, also many others.
callicle s: So you suppose, Socrates.
socr at es: Do you really [t¤€ Ànti] insist on these things, Callicles?
call icles: I do.
soc r at es: Should we proceed with the argument then as though you were
calli cles: Absolutely.
There is controversy over how this passage should be understood. Charles
Kahn offers the following remarks:
[By moving to the case of the catamite] Socrates ¬nally drives Callicles to shame.
He thus openly repeats the manoeuver which succeeded against Gorgias and Polus
(as he himself points out at 494d2“4). Callicles does not have the boldness (tolman)
to say that kinaidoi are fortunate and happy, if only their needs are fully satis¬ed
(494e5); but he refuses to call such pleasures bad or shameful in order to avoid
contradicting himself.77
Kahn is correct to see shame at work here, but is it working in the way he
says? Why is Callicles hesitant to say (at least initially) that the catamite™s
life is a happy one? Kahn claims that Socrates “repeats the manoeuver
which succeeded against Gorgias and Polus,” each of whom claims that the
preceding interlocutor was ashamed to say what he really believed. Kahn
goes on to explain the social and political rami¬cations of being a catamite,
77 Kahn (1983), 105“6.
The supremacy of virtue in the Gorgias 131
and concludes that “this is one type of desire and grati¬cation that Callicles™
ambitious young man cannot afford to cultivate.”78 He points out that being
a catamite legally deprives a person of his citizenship rights and so con¬‚icts
with Callicles™ ambition to political rule. Kahn is absolutely correct, but
Callicles is not seeking rule of the polis as it stands. The person whom
Callicles describes as superior by nature is going to be the one who throws
out the false, merely conventional, laws and rules in favor of values that
are true by nature (484a ff.). The same city which condemns the catamite
also condemns the superior man™s natural right, on Callicles™ account, to
“having more than one™s fair share” (pleonex©a). So the mere fact that being
a catamite leaves one politically disenfranchised in the current democratic
system should not be relevant to Callicles.79
Rather, Callicles rejects the life of the catamite because he himself really
believes that it is shameful and bad. He has championed the notion of the
naturally superior person, who would “have more” and rule over others; he
contrasts this with the shameful adult philosopher whispering in the corner
with a few boys, whom he derides (483d“484c, 485a“e). It is ludicrous to
think that Callicles might accept that his “superman,” smashing the bonds
of convention, might be a catamite. Kahn is correct to think that Callicles
himself really believes that the life of a catamite is the very opposite of
the life of his superman. Instead of “ruling over” others, the catamite is
continually in the passive position of “being ruled over.”80 But if this is the
case then the shame that Callicles experiences at this point in the argument
is not the shame to admit what he really believes (that is the shame he
attributes to Gorgias and Polus) but the shame to agree to what he believes
to be false.
Why does Callicles do this? It is no doubt correct, as Cooper argues, that
Callicles concedes the point about the catamite in order to maintain his
philosophical position: that pleasure is without quali¬cation the good.81
But there is, I think, an additional motivation behind Callicles™ apparent
love of consistency: the fear of suffering another kind of shame “ the shame
of being refuted by Socrates, and in front of many others no less. A central
feature of Callicles™ notion of the superior person is the idea of winning
78 Kahn (1983), 107.
79 For more on the political resonance of Callicles™ position see Ober (1998), 204“6.
80 Moreover, the example, following Callicles™ own line of argument (491e ff.), envisions someone who
is insatiable (494b“d).
81 Cooper (1999b), 69, n. 60 insists, against Kahn (1983), that Callicles does in fact agree, albeit
reluctantly, that the catamite™s life is a happy one at this point in order to preserve the consistency
of his position.
132 Aiming at Virtue in Plato
and ruling. Part of his criticism of Gorgias and Polus is not only that they
do not admit to their actual, non-conventional, beliefs, as Callicles thinks,
but also that they lose to Socrates in argument. Callicles does not want
the same thing to happen to him. At this point in the dialogue Socrates
has already caused Callicles to amend his position a couple of times in the
course of explaining what he means by “superior by nature,” during which
he reveals his aristocratic bent.82 Callicles, who thinks of himself as to some
degree a superior type, is now in danger of having his hedonism refuted, and
so of being bested by Socrates in the argument. At 495a5“6, he explicitly
states that he will say that a catamite™s life is a happy one “in order to keep
his argument from being inconsistent.” This naturally leads Socrates (and
the reader) to be suspicious that Callicles is now responding contrary to
what he really believes. When Socrates warns him that they will not be able
to pursue the truth if he answers contrary to what he believes, Callicles
responds, “You do it too, Socrates” (495b1). This is a clear admission of
guilt; in agreeing to keep his argument consistent he is in fact speaking
contrary to what he believes. When you tell your child not to eat cookies
before dinner, and he responds, “You do it too,” he admits guilt.83 Thus
the fear of the “shame” of being bested by Socrates in argument overcomes
the shame of admitting something contrary to his own beliefs. Callicles
swallows a consequence that he does not believe because he would rather
make a claim that he believes false and shameful (that the catamite™s life
is a happy one) than be inconsistent and lose an argument, particularly to
Socrates “ a character whom he has described as unmanly and in need of a
beating. By 499b, after two arguments against his unrestrained hedonism,
Callicles has no way of avoiding refutation, except by claiming that he was
joking all along (499b4“8).84 And this is, after all, in a sense true; he was
joking “ not saying what he really believed “ when he said that a catamite™s
life is, if pleasant, happy, but he had hoped that this “joke” would save him
from the shame of being refuted.
82 For example, when he expresses contempt for the idea that, since two of his slaves are stronger than
he, that means that they are superior to him (489d“e). This is also more evidence that Callicles
would never believe that a catamite is happy (and, as he is forced to admit, just as happy as his
natural superman).
83 In fact Irwin, (1979) translates 495b1 as: “Of course I do; and you do it too, Socrates,” although
there is nothing explicit in the Greek corresponding to “I do.”
84 Although I cannot consider this in detail here, I think that this casts some doubt on how serious
the preceding arguments against hedonism actually were. See Santas (1979), 266 ff.; Irwin (1979),
ad loc.; Rudebusch (1999), ch. 5. In Republic 6 (505c), there is a quick refutation of a hedonist on
the basis of the fact that he would have to recognize good and bad pleasures, which is just what
Callicles ends up saying when he describes himself as joking.
The supremacy of virtue in the Gorgias 133

3.8 s oc rate s a s rh e tor
Once Callicles claims that his endorsement of hedonism was only “a joke”
and that neither he “nor any other man whatsoever” would deny that some
pleasures are better and others worse (499b4“8), Socrates proceeds to argue
for SV. Given that pleasure is distinct from the good, Socrates declares
that we need some “expert” (tecnik»v) to determine which of the pleasant
things are good and which bad (500a4“6), and the same for painful things
(499e1“2). He then recalls the discussion he had with Polus and Gorgias in
which he distinguished “crafts” (t”cnai) from “knacks” (–mpeir©ai) (462b“
466a). I need to emphasize here something I mentioned only brie¬‚y above
(3.2). Socrates™ criticism of rhetoric as it is practiced and applauded by
his interlocutors is twofold, and is not captured simply by saying that
he thinks it is a “knack” rather than a “craft.” While this is true, that is
only one part of the criticism: as a “knack” it simply guesses at its end
by memory and habit, without knowledge of it or any understanding of
its causes; and Socrates denies that any such “unreasoning” practice could
be called a “craft” (465a2“6; 501a4“b1). But this, although interesting and
important, is not the harshest part of his criticism: rhetoric is not only a
“knack” but it is “¬‚attery” or “grubbing” (kolake©a). We recall that this is
what made Socrates hesitate to say what he thought of rhetoric to Gorgias™
face. What makes it ¬‚attery is that it aims at pleasure rather than the good.
So Socrates has two criticisms: rhetoric as it is practiced has (1) the wrong
aim, appetite grati¬cation or pleasure, rather than the good; and (2) it
goes about it “unscienti¬cally.” These line up with the aiming/determining
distinction. What makes an expert an expert is not his knowledge of the
end of his craft, but his knowledge of how to achieve the end reliably and
successfully; it is in this latter task that expertise consists. The craft at which
a person is an expert, as it were, ¬xes its own end. Everyone knows that the
craft of cobbling aims to produce shoes, but only the expert cobbler knows
how to produce them (well) (see 4.4). The expert true rhetor, qua expert,
will be able to furnish examples of the people whom he has made better
and more virtuous (514a“515b; cf. La. 185e“186b, Rep. 10, 599b“600e). His
ability to do this regularly and reliably will be due to his possession of a
body of knowledge (a craft), and not simply to haphazard guess work. He
will understand the nature and causes of his subject matter. But we need to
recognize that this does not help ¬x the end. What possession of the craft of
true rhetoric would provide would be the answer to determining questions:
the true rhetorician knows what “to say and to do,” what needs to be given
134 Aiming at Virtue in Plato
and what withheld in order to make the citizens truly excellent (504d7“9).85
In other words, he knows what virtue is. This is a function of his possession
of the craft. But this rhetor is not simply a craftsman, he is also good “ that
is, he is not engaging in “¬‚attery,” the de¬nition of which is to aim at the
pleasant without regard for what is best; it is this disregard of what is best
that makes ¬‚attery “disgraceful” (465a1“2; 501b“c, 502e; 513d7“8). Socrates
is careful to describe the true rhetor as the one who is “both expert and
good” (¾ tecnik»v te kaª ˆgaq»v, 504d5“6).86 What makes him good is
the correctness of his aim. Looking always towards virtue, he then uses his
expertise, which consists of the knowledge of how to effect it in the world.
By the end of the dialogue we have a Socrates who has offered parables
(leaky jar, torrent bird), argument, and ¬nally a logos/muthos in an attempt
to persuade his interlocutors of SV. The only one of the three to agree,
at least verbally, to SV is Gorgias. It is Gorgias alone who speaks during
the others™ “episodes,” and it seems that it is only his prompting that
keeps the dialogue from ending some thirty Stephanus pages before it
does. Polus, although recognizing ordinary examples of virtuous action,
does not consider virtue supreme; in fact, in his view, one is often clearly
better off acting contrary to it. Polus shows himself not to understand the
idea that the soul itself is a locus for harm and bene¬t. Without that idea,
spelled out early on by Socrates, one cannot understand, let alone agree
with, SV. Callicles, like Gorgias, appreciates that there are better and worse
states of soul as such, and in this respect differs greatly from Polus and
has something signi¬cant in common with Socrates. Since, however, what
he recognizes as having intrinsic value is simply appetite grati¬cation as
such, his conception of virtue is radically subjective, while his conception
of harm and bene¬t is entirely ordinary. Even if Callicles explains the harm
in being punched in the face not, at bottom, in terms of the physical injury
done, but in terms of appetite grati¬cation thwarted, and so in terms of
a state of soul, insofar as appetite grati¬cation is the only good in itself,
the substance of his conception of harm and bene¬t ends up matching
Polus™. The “advantage” of Callicles™ position, however, is that, since the
85 This is what the philosopher-kings in the Republic will do; see 8.4.
86 Irwin (1979) translates as though these adjectives are in apposition: “that rhetor, the craftsman, the
good one.” This suggests that what makes this rhetor good is possession of the craft. Zeyl in Cooper
(1997) has “skilled and good”; but the Greek with the te . . . kaª construction is emphatic. On my
account what makes him good is that he is “looking towards these things [justice and temperance]”
always when he acts (504d5, 9), while his possession of his craft enables him to determine what to
say and do, what to give and withhold, in order to mold citizens with appropriate characters. In
other words, committed to SV, such an expert rhetor will also know how to determine what virtue
is: which actions and activities will, according to the habituation principle that will ¬gure so largely
in the rest of this dialogue, generate truly virtuous citizens.
The supremacy of virtue in the Gorgias 135
ultimate aim, which Callicles is happy to call virtue, is appetite grati¬cation,
determining what virtue is can be done relatively simply by looking at what
one has appetite for. Unsurprisingly, Socrates is vague about the content of
virtue throughout his speech. He describes virtue simply as the order and
structure that are truly good for the soul; determining which actions are
virtuous remains problematic. If one rejects appetite grati¬cation as a way
of determining what virtue is, that is, rejects hedonism, as Socrates does,
then which actions are virtuous is conceptually distinct from which actions
gratify one™s appetite.
From 511b to 513c, Socrates elaborates on what he agreed to in two lines
in the Crito (48b): what is most important is not living, but living well. If it
were best simply to live longest, then any of the many crafts which helped
us to survive could claim to be the most important; the question is rather
how it is best to live (512e). Thus supremacy of survival is rejected. Socrates
then has rejected both survival and pleasure as constituting supreme aims.
Once the good is distinct from pleasure and survival, however, the nature of
what makes the condition of the soul excellent “ namely, the truly excellent
actions “ becomes a mystery once again. There is no non-evaluative way
of determining what is good such as simply by looking at what one has
appetite for or at what will keep one alive; thus Socrates is thrown back to
the determining question about what one ought to have an appetite for and
when one ought to risk one™s life. Although con¬dent that SV is right and
that thinking of virtue as appetite grati¬cation is wrong, Socrates claims
as always that “he does not know how these things are” (508e“509a; cf.
1.3.2). The dialogue closes, as we saw at the beginning of the chapter, with
Socrates™ plea to the others, and to Callicles in particular, to join him in his
commitment to pursue virtue, practice it, and try to understand it better;
in other words, to commit to SV. Although he does not know how to
determine which actions are virtuous, he knows that aiming at virtue is of
supreme importance, and, further, that virtue as a state of soul has some
order and structure.87
If I am right that there are two things wrong with rhetoric, its aim and
its haphazardness, why is there so much emphasis on the existence of the
expert? In a way that parallels the argument in the Republic,88 Socrates
emphasizes and articulates the habituation principle repeatedly in the ¬nal
sections of the dialogue. What is “good for the soul” is doing the right
things and being restrained from doing the wrong things (505b). While

87 Republic 4 will provide considerably more details about how that order and structure work; see 8.1“2.
88 See 7.2“3 and 8.1.
136 Aiming at Virtue in Plato
the virtuous man will of course do virtuous things (507b), it is clear that
he becomes this way by “practicing” virtue (507d1, 509e2, 527b5). Socrates™
myth, or, as he insists, account (l»gov), at the end of the dialogue is a vivid
illustration of the habituation principle. When people are “stripped” of
their bodies their souls will carry all the “marks” of their practices and each
of their actions (pr†xeiv) will be stained into their souls (524d6, 525a1“2).
This is a vivid and powerful image Socrates has brought to the defense of SV.
It shows that the soul is a distinct locus of harm and bene¬t from the body
and that a virtuous, unscarred soul is generated by engaging in virtuous
actions. The myth and the account preceding this image make clear that the
true rhetor, having expert knowledge of how to make the citizens excellent,
will prescribe and proscribe the appropriate types of actions and activities
that actually make citizens excellent. What these are, Socrates does not
know “ his position is always the same about that: he denies knowledge of
how to determine which actions are virtuous. What the end of the Gorgias
does make urgent is that this determining question must be settled. We
cannot become virtuous, not even if we, like Cleitophon, are convinced
by Socrates that we ought to be, without the ability to determine correctly
which actions are the virtuous ones, that is, which actions will generate a
healthy, pure soul when it appears before the judges after death. In chapter
four we shall see that the dialogues of de¬nition attempt to answer this very
question, but end in failure. In chapters ¬ve through eight we shall see that
the Republic takes up both aiming and determining questions together and
develops an account that is more detailed, but still consistent with what we
have seen in “earlier” dialogues such as the Gorgias.
c ha p t e r 4

Trying (and failing) to determine
what virtue is

This chapter treats ¬ve dialogues, all of which attempt to answer deter-
mining questions about what virtuous actions are in general as opposed to
what the virtuous action is in the here and now. Three of these “ the Laches,
Charmides, and Euthyphro “ are so-called “dialogues of de¬nition” in which
Socrates asks a speci¬c “What is F?” question, where F is a speci¬c virtue:
courage, temperance, and piety, respectively. The other two, the Protagoras
and Euthydemus, do not present a “What is F?” question so starkly, although
I shall argue that they too attempt to determine what virtue in general is. It
is to be expected that Socrates turns to the question of what virtue is, given
that he is committed to, argues for, and claims to know SV. It should also
come as no surprise that these dialogues contain the majority of Socrates™
disavowals of knowledge, and that, consistently with such disavowals and
with Cleitophon™s criticism of Socrates, these dialogues never succeed in
successfully answering the question for virtue in general or for any particular
virtue. The Apology, Crito, and Gorgias, by contrast, do not end in aporia “
typically considered one of the hallmarks of “early” or “Socratic” dialogues “
because they are primarily concerned with SV and/or determining what the
virtuous action is in the here and now.
I proceed in this chapter as follows. I begin with a brief general discus-
sion of these ¬ve dialogues, highlighting two of their common features (4.1).
Next I consider how the alleged answer that Socrates endorses, particularly
in the dialogues of de¬nition “ namely, that virtue is knowledge, or, more
precisely, knowledge of goods and evils “ ¬ts with my claim that the point
of the “What is F?” question is to attempt to settle determining questions
(4.2). Finally I examine parts of the Euthyphro (4.3) and then of the Euthy-
demus and Protagoras (4.4) to show how Plato emphasizes and exploits the
aiming/determining distinction in different ways and gives it a centrally
important role to play. We shall see that the failure of these dialogues to
achieve an adequate answer to the determining question of which actions
are virtuous, together with their suggestion that being a virtuous person
138 Aiming at Virtue in Plato
consists at least partly (and perhaps wholly) in knowledge, sets the stage
for the complex discussion of the Republic.1

4 .1 t wo common a li ti es
First, all of the interlocutors in these dialogues, unlike the interlocutors
in the Gorgias, are committed to, and never question, the supremacy of
virtue, at least not within the dialogues themselves. No one ever suggests
that some other goal ought to be put ahead of virtue, even if we may be
suspicious of the motives of some of the interlocutors. For Protagoras, who
is in the business of teaching virtue, SV con¬rms that he sells the most
valuable of wares. Critias and Charmides both endorse the value of being
temperate (Ch. 157d, 159c).2 The avowed project of the Laches is how to
make the boys “best” (Šristoi, 179d7). Euthyphro™s zealous prosecution
of his father is based entirely on his conviction that he knows that what he
is doing is pious and right (4b, 4e). In the Euthydemus, Dionysodorus and
Euthydemus boast that they are no longer interested in war and ¬ghting
with armor, which they now consider diversions (p†rerga), but are the
best teachers of virtue (273d8“9). SV, then, forms the background to the
discussion in these ¬ve dialogues; the supreme importance of virtue is never
questioned or doubted.
Second, in these dialogues the investigation into virtue is prompted
without fail by a concrete practical problem in the here and now. In the
Charmides, Socrates needs to determine whether Charmides is temperate
before he can properly administer the “drug” for his headache (158e). The
pretext at least is that they must test whether Charmides has temperance
before the medicine can be effectively administered (158e“159a). The test of
Charmides™ temperance is an ability to answer the “What is F?” question.
As we shall see below, Euthyphro is prosecuting his father for murder. He
declares that his action is pious and right, and that those who are criticiz-
ing him are wrong, because they are wrong about the nature of piety (4b
ff., 5d“e). In order to con¬rm that Euthyphro™s action is in fact pious and
right, Socrates turns to de¬nition. In the Laches, Lysimachus and Mele-
sias are trying to discover how best to educate their sons. But the dialogue
1 The topic of chapters ¬ve through eight.
2 We may well suspect some disingenuousness on their part. Given the historical fates of the characters
as members of the Thirty, which any reader would know, matters are more sinister than they ¬rst
appear. Even in the dialogue Charmides is sly, and ends by saying that he will take what he wants, by
force if necessary (176c“d). My point here is simply that, unlike Polus or Callicles (or Thrasymachus,
as we shall see in chapter ¬ve), none of these interlocutors ever disputes at least a verbal commitment
to virtue as the supreme aim of action.
Trying (and failing) to determine what virtue is 139
begins with a much more concrete question. Lysimachus and Melesias have
taken Laches and Nicias to see a particular man give a display of ¬ghting
in armor (178a, 179e). Lysimachus wants to know whether this sort of
instruction is necessary for the boys™ proper upbringing and whether the
person whose display they have just witnessed is the appropriate person
to teach it. By 185e, Socrates has established that the real topic of con-
versation is how to care for the souls of the boys, and suggests that the
key would lie in ¬nding an expert at this sort of task. In the Protagoras
Hippocrates wakes Socrates before dawn in a rush to bankrupt himself
and his friends by becoming the pupil of Protagoras (310e). Socrates, in
a preliminary discussion, warns Hippocrates to proceed carefully before
entrusting his soul to a sophist about whom, as he admits, he does not even
know what he professes to teach (312e). Once again the many arguments
about virtue stem from a prior, concrete, problem about what Hippocrates
should do. Finally, in the Euthydemus there is a contest between Socrates,
on the one hand, and Euthydemus and Dionysodorus, on the other, over
who can persuade the young Cleinias to devote himself to wisdom and
All ¬ve dialogues, then, confront a practical issue that demands resolu-
tion in the here and now of the dialogue. In keeping with their aporetic
conclusions, we never ¬nd out how any of these practical questions are
resolved. What does Euthyphro decide to do in light of his discussion with
Socrates? After witnessing such a spectacle, does Hippocrates enroll with
Protagoras? Since the answer to what virtue (or some particular virtue) is is
never found, the practical question is left hanging, unanswerable in a ratio-
nal, knowing way. For if we do not know what piety is, how can we know
whether this action here and now is pious? I do not mean to suggest that
these dialogues are really mostly about solving these practical problems;
the practical problems are clearly the pretexts for the investigations into
the nature of virtue that follow. It is important, however, to recognize that
Socrates and his interlocutors seek to discover what virtue is in general
so that they may determine what the virtuous action is in their particular
situation. If we hold SV, and believe that we must know what the virtuous
action is before we can do it (that is, that knowledge is necessary for virtue),
then we will need some way of determining what the virtuous action is.
The dialogues of de¬nition, at least, pursue a clear method, which aims to
yield a simple practical syllogism:
(1) All and only virtuous actions have feature V.
(2) This action here and now has feature V.
Therefore (3) This action is the virtuous one.
140 Aiming at Virtue in Plato
These dialogues appear, however, to fail completely at satisfying the cri-
teria for a Socratic de¬nition and so never arrive at an adequate account of
virtue or of any particular virtue.3 We might wonder, more than contempo-
rary commentators typically do, why this is so, and what it might say about
Socrates™ search in the ¬rst place. But we should at least recognize that if
Socrates and his interlocutors had an answer to the “What is F?” question,
then they would have a way of determining what the virtuous action is in
the here and now by knowing what virtue is in general. Cleitophon™s criti-
cism is accurately re¬‚ected in these dialogues™ failure to answer the “What
is F?” question, which amounts to a failure to determine the content of


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