The Debate About Justice in the
Platos dialogues are generally divided into three chronological groupsearly, middle, and lateand the is generally acknowledged to have been written towards the end of the first group of dialogues (Brandwood), during which Plato was most defensive of Socrates and most hostile toward the Athenian democratic order that had condemned him to death. The contains one of the rawest confrontations with the negative side of populist democracy, embodied in the person of Callicles, that one finds anywhere in Platos dialogues.
Socrates clash with Callicles, then, turns on a dispute over the of pleasure; for Socrates, pleasure is the absence of unsatisfied desires, while for Callicles pleasure is the of satisfying ones desires.
The peculiarity of Callicles isthat he can never contradict his loves; he changes as his Demos changes inall his opinions; he watches the countenance of both his loves, and repeatstheir sentiments, and if any one is surprised at his sayings and doings,the explanation of them is, that he is not a free agent, but must always beimitating his two loves.
Callicles answers, that Gorgias was overthrown because, as Polus said, incompliance with popular prejudice he had admitted that if his pupil did notknow justice the rhetorician must teach him; and Polus has been similarlyentangled, because his modesty led him to admit that to suffer is morehonourable than to do injustice.
And such acommunity of feeling exists between himself and Callicles, for both of themare lovers, and they have both a pair of loves; the beloved of Calliclesare the Athenian Demos and Demos the son of Pyrilampes; the beloved ofSocrates are Alcibiades and philosophy.
'Then,' says Socrates, 'one man must do for two;' and though he had hopedto have given Callicles an 'Amphion' in return for his 'Zethus,' he iswilling to proceed; at the same time, he hopes that Callicles will correcthim, if he falls into error.
Callicles admits that there are none remaining, but there were such in thedays when Themistocles, Cimon, Miltiades, and the great Pericles were stillalive.
He recapitulates the advantages which he hasalready won:--The pleasant is not the same as the good--Callicles and I are agreed aboutthat,--but pleasure is to be pursued for the sake of the good, and the goodis that of which the presence makes us good; we and all things good haveacquired some virtue or other.
All this is just too much for Gorgias' student Polus, whose angryintervention marks the second and much more bitter stage of thedialogue (461b3). A new point emerges that is consistent with theclaim that rhetoricians do not know or convey knowledge, viz. that itis not an art or craft (techne) but a mere knack(empeiria, or experience). Socrates adds that its object isto produce gratification. To develop the point, Socrates produces astriking schema distinguishing between care of the body and care ofthe soul. Medicine and gymnastics truly care for the body, cookery andcosmetics pretend to but do not. Politics is the art that cares forthe soul; justice and legislation are its branches, and the imitationsof each are rhetoric and sophistry. As medicine stands to cookery, sojustice to rhetoric; as gymnastics to cosmetics, so legislation tosophistry. The true forms of caring are arts (technai) aimingat the good; the false, knacks aiming at pleasure (464b-465d). Let usnote that sophistry and rhetoric are very closely allied here;Socrates notes that they are distinct but closely related andtherefore often confused by people (465c). What exactly theirdistinction consists in is not clear, either in Plato's discussions ofthe matter, or historically. Socrates's polemic here is intended toapply to them both, as both are (alleged) to amount to a knack forpersuasion of the ignorant by the ignorant with a view to producingpleasure in the audience and the pleasures of power for thespeaker.
All this is just too much for yet another interlocutor in thedialogue, Callicles. The rhetoric of the Gorgias reaches itsmost bitter stage. Callicles presents himself as a no-holds-barred,bare-knuckled, clear-headed advocate of Realpolitik, as wewould now call it. Telling it like it is, he draws a famousdistinction between nature and convention, and advances a thesisfamiliar to readers of Republic books I and II: “But Ibelieve that nature itself reveals that it's a just thing for thebetter man and the more capable man to have a greater share than theworse man and the less capable man. Nature shows that this is so inmany places; both among the other animals and in whole cities andraces of men, it shows that this is what justice has been decided tobe: that the superior rule the inferior and have a greater share thanthey” (483c8-d6). This is the “law of nature”(483e3; perhaps the first occurrence in Western philosophy of thisfamous phrase). Conventional talk of justice, fairness, not takingmore than is your share, not pursuing your individual bestinterest—these are simply ways by which the weak seek to enslavethe strong. The art of rhetoric is all about empowering those who arestrong by nature to master the weak by nature.
Callicles assents to this, and Socrates, finding that they are agreed indistinguishing pleasure from good, returns to his old division of empiricalhabits, or shams, or flatteries, which study pleasure only, and the artswhich are concerned with the higher interests of soul and body.
Callicles' famous diatribe includes an indictment of philosophy as achildish occupation that, if pursued past youth, interferes with themanly pursuit of power, fosters contemptible ignorance of how the realpolitical world works, and renders its possessor effeminate anddefenseless. His example is none other than Socrates; philosophy will(he says prophetically) render Socrates helpless should he beindicted. Helplessness in the face of the stupidity of the hoipolloi is disgraceful and pathetic (486a-c). By contrast, whatwould it mean to have power? Callicles is quite explicit: power is theability to fulfill whatever desire you have. Power is freedom, freedomis license (492a-c). The capacity to do what one wants is fulfillmentin the sense of the realization of pleasure. Rhetoric is a means tothat end.