Gorgias and the pursuit of happiness

Gorgias is said to be one of the earlier works of Plato.  It lacks polish – transitions in time and place are obscure, for example – and, more thankfully, it is missing the ponderous metaphysical machinery of the later dialogues.  Yet it poses, for the first time, a question of fundamental importance:  what’s the relation between virtue and happiness?

The answer, I believe, marked an immense advance in the moral development of the species, and was received and accepted, little changed, by Thomas Jefferson and the Founding Fathers.

While Plato is not often thought of as a democrat or a liberationist, there’s a direct line of descent from the Gorgias to the moral assumptions of the Declaration of Independence.

The story behind the dialogue can be quickly told.  Socrates has a bone to pick with Gorgias, who is a famous teacher of eloquence.  He proceeds to show, with his usual compulsive questioning, that a man who can be eloquent on any subject must be basically immoral, a “pander.”

The critical difference isn’t between hostility and applause, but between truth and falsehood, good and evil.  The befuddled Gorgias is made to admit that, instead of salesmanship, he should first teach his students what is good.  Persuasion must bow to virtue.

At this point, Polus, a young friend of Gorgias, intervenes, and before he is disposed of  makes a rather muddled case on behalf of ruthless men.  This theme is taken up by Callicles, in whose house the dialogue takes place; and he is far less easy to dispose of.  In a sense, the arguments presented by Callicles have never been disposed of, and very likely never will be.

Socrates, he correctly observes, plays with two meanings of “good” and “bad.”  One is conventional:  the laws and customs peculiar to the Athenians.  The other is natural:  what is true and good for all men everywhere.  Convention, supported by the mass of men, imposes a gentle definition of the good life:  law-abiding, honest, moderate, loyal to friend and country.  But what does nature intend?

Callicles proposes two distinct ideals, which can be viewed as complementary.  The first is the path to power.  As anyone can observe in the behavior of animals, nature intends for the strong to devour the weak.  In human affairs, the strongest and happiest will trample on the weak without qualms.  Absolute kings like Xerxes, who invaded Greece, or totalitarian predators like Hitler, who engulfed the world in fire and death, are the natural ideals of human behavior.  “For how can a man be happy that is in subjection to anyone whatever?”

True, conventionally such men may be taken for criminals, but conventions, Callicles insists, “are made…by the weaklings who form the majority of mankind.”  It is as natural for the sheep to fear and resent the lion, as it is for the lion to fatten on the sheep.

The second path is that of pleasure.  Here Callicles somewhat shifts his ground.  Power, he now asserts, is conquered to allow the untrammeled pursuit of pleasure.  The truth according to nature is that “luxury and excess and licence, provided they can obtain sufficient backing, are virtue and happiness; all the rest is mere flummery, unnatural conventions of society, mere worthless cant.”

If one rejects the shared organization of experience that Callicles calls convention, his case becomes difficult to refute.  I don’t see how one can do so by the use of reason.  The path to power, on such terms, seems unassailable.  Every exaltation of the weak, every proclamation of equality, every restraint on the strong, can be traced back to some social convention.  None exist in nature; and there, the strong hold sway.  Regarding pleasure, taken as the highest goal of life it is (as I have observed elsewhere) self-refuting; as a side benefit of power, however, it would appear to be a rational indulgence.

There is, of course, a deeper moral truth, and the truth is that power and pleasure are drivers of men.  Xerxes and Hitler were subjected to a restless craving for authority almost external to themselves.  They were ever uneasy, never at peace.  For less abnormally driven persons, the climb to power is filled with anxiety and foreshadowed terrors:  the lion rules the pride only so long as its strength holds supreme.

Similarly, pleasure can be enjoyed only when measured out with care.  The body has a natural limit.  The heart, more so.  Power and pleasure may crush love, family affection, friendship, pride of place:  and who is to say these aren’t natural aspirations?

This deeper truth, which contains the outward and inward experience of a people – their natural responses to their environment over time – is, precisely, convention.  We are naturally conventional:  our instincts form our traditions, and our traditions inform our everyday lives.  Torn apart, these can’t be stitched together again by applications of reason or dialectics.  The Socratic method pursued logic as if our species were an equation; but every human story is and must be about living with contradictions.

Happiness, to a great extent, is a matter of luck.  So far as it lies in our actions to attain it, it must be found in virtue:  in the good life, defined by the community rather than its philosophers.  It is the more remarkable, therefore, that Socrates, wielding his bizarre dialectical equipment, hit upon this insight and helped to make it, for our Founding Fathers, a self-evident truth.

The “pursuit of happiness” has been interpreted and reinterpreted at will, but Jefferson was quite clear what he meant by the phrase.  “The order of nature,” he wrote, “is that individual happiness shall be inseparable from the practice of virtue.”

In Gorgias, Socrates underlines virtue’s importance to happiness with a paradox:  it is better to suffer wrong than to endure it.  Difficult to imagine a more baffling proposition for an Athenian.  “The experience of suffering wrong does not happen to anyone who calls himself a man,” Callicles exclaims; “it happens to a slave who had better die than live, seeing that when he is wronged and insulted he cannot defend himself or anyone else for whom he cares.”

Socrates thought otherwise.  Let us finish, then, with his words, which may be counted among the finest passages in Plato – and, not least, among the decisive moral statements of the Western mind.

I maintain that if a disciplined soul is good, a soul in the opposite condition, which, as we have seen, is a soul marked by folly and licence, will be bad. …The man who is disciplined will behave with  propriety towards God and man; if he behaved improperly he would not deserve the name of disciplined. …Again, proper behavior toward men is uprightness and proper behavior toward God is reverence; and a man who acts uprightly and reverently must be upright and reverent. …And not only upright and reverent but brave as well; a disciplined man will not choose inappropriate objects either to pursue or to shun; on the contrary he will pursue or shun the things and people and pleasures and pains that deserve either course, and he will stand his ground firmly where duty requires it.  It inevitably follows, Callicles, that the disciplined man whom we have described, being upright and brave and reverent, will be perfectly good; and a good man does well in all his actions, and because he does well is enviable and happy, whereas the wicked man who does wrong is wretched. […]

This seems to me the goal one should have in view throughout one’s life; we can win happiness only by bending all our efforts and those of the state to the realization of uprightness and self-discipline, not by allowing our appetites to go unchecked, and, in an attempt to satisfy their endless importunity, leading the life of a brigand. […]

I maintain, Callicles, that it is not being slapped on the face undeservedly, nor yet being wounded in my body or my purse that is the ultimate disgrace, and that it is more harmful as well as more disgraceful to strike and wound me and mine wrongfully…

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