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Socrates, the law of nature and the value of the examined life

This is a chapter from my book Socrates – moral philosophy in everyday life

“We said there were two treatments that might be used in the tending for any particular thing, whether body or soul: one, making pleasure the aim in our dealings with it; the other, working for what is best, not indulging it but striving with it as hard as we can”513d
Plato, Gorgias

In Socrates’ conversation with Callicles[1] two completely different views on how to live collide. The sophist accuses Socrates that he supports the human law in contrast with the law of nature which he says we ought to follow. He claims that it is power which defines who is superior amongst men and should rule the people. As Polus said previously, obtaining power is for a rhetorician the greatest proof of a good life, and therefore the absolute and only goal of ideal living.

“According to nature the ugliest thing is that which is the worst, to be the victim of wrongdoing, while according to the laws it is to wrong others”483a. The rule of manmade law punishes the wrongdoers and those who attempt to obtain many and envied goods, while it promotes social equality regardless of the individual characteristics of the person. In a polity it is the many, the average, that define the laws at the expense of the powerful and the worthy ones by intimidating them, “so that they don’t take advantage of them. They say it is bad and unjust for someone to have more”483c. They name the better man’s aspiration injustice, so that all may have the same goods and rights, and thus have their own inferiority satisfied. “Those who make laws are the weak and the masses”483c.

He continues: “Nature itself shows, I think, this, that it is fair for the better man to take advantage of the worse one and the stronger of the weaker one”483d. In nature it is deemed for the most powerful to hold the right to rule and have the edge on the weaker, and the weaker are expected to yield. Callicles likens the powerful to lions that the rest of the population tame and enslave by saying that it’s good and right for all to be considered equal in the eyes of justice. “It is not truly proper for the [powerful] man to be subjected to this, to be wronged, but for the slave for whom it is better to die than live”483b. And in case there emerges someone with a superior nature who manages to slip the leash and rid of all these obstructions to escape the unnatural laws, “the slave becomes our master”; and in this case there is “resplendence of the law of nature”484a.

Ρωμαϊκό μωσαϊκό του 1ου αιώνα π.Χ. από την Πομπηία. Ενδεχομένως να αναπαριστά την Ακαδημία του Πλάτωνα.
Roman mosaic of the 1st century BCE from Pompeii, now at the Museo Nazionale et, Naples. The image may represent Plato’s Academy (photo)

Socrates replies with the rather obvious argument for the strength of the mass. “Aren’t the many superior to the one according to nature?”488d However more powerful a few may be than each of the many, there will always be strength in numbers. In this way the laws of the many are in fact the laws that obey the law of nature. “The laws of these [the many] then are good by nature, as the laws of the superior ones”488e. And the opinion most people hold is that it is just for all to be considered equal.

Callicles complains about Socrates’ word-hunting and that he lingers on an unfortunate phrasing of words while pretending to have made a great discovery (something we would now call “sophistry”). What he meant before, he says now, is that the human laws are made by people less strong in spirit, not necessarily in physical ability. “In case a mob of slaves and other people illaudable of anything other than maybe their physical strength is formed, and they decide something, will that be a law?”489c

So, what Callicles says is that we must observe the laws of nature and the superior ones should rule, but not the superiors in their bodies; the superiors in their souls -the prudent ones. He does not, therefore, realize that by evaluating the “mob” -by introducing the notion of prudence- he himself removes the natural law from his argument, and now argues for some kind of ‘social contract’. He has been countering this idea of a social contract so far, but now he just proposed one; with the difference that this is a contract of his own making. Because, if nature is to be considered as something separate from humans, then the laws of nature cannot be used as a model for us while at the same time acknowledging that which separates us from it. What else is it that separates us from nature than the human spirit; the ability to be “prudent”? Why then should we, who are prudent, follow the natural law, which is established while lacking prudence?

If, on the other hand, animals and men, along with everything else, are seen as part of ‘nature’ as a whole, then natural law is whatever has been allowed to happen within it; and whatever that is, it must be called natural law; and therefore, for Callicles, it must be deemed right, good and just. So, even the human laws, which were made within the totality of nature, must be deemed ‘natural’.

As we learned from the dialog Euthyphro, morality (and by extension the laws) do not originate outside of humanity, from the gods or anywhere else. It is men’s responsibility to judge which behavior is just and which is not. Nature and the gods can only be simplistically used as alibis to confirm what we decide, and enforce the implementation of the human laws when there is an inability to use reason. Callicles unwillingly invalidates what he has been saying from the start, forcing terms and restrictions on natural necessity.

He maintains that in many cases one person is superior to big masses without prudence, and therefore it is fair that he governs them and has more goods than the governed. But what would happen, asks Socrates, in a society where one is more prudent than all, even if some of the people are weaker and others stronger than him? Would he have to be able to obtain more goods than the rest (foods, shoes, clothes, seeds etc) “or because he is the leader he must portion everything and, concerning his own consumption and use, not acquire more, if that will not damage him, but have more than the weaker and less than the stronger ones; but if it happens that he is the weaker of all then he, who is the best one of all, should get less than everyone?490c

Callicles loses his temper saying that Socrates rambles on, talking about things irrelevant to what he means. “What shoes? You blabber”490e. When Callicles spoke of superior men he meant “those who are prudent in public matters, in correct governing; and not only prudent but also courageous, being able to manifest what they think and not recede due to spiritual softness”491b. Once more, the sophist introduces new concepts in the discussion when he finds difficulty supporting his position. This time it is courage and the ability to govern the city that are proposed as the new qualities of a superior man.

But, Socrates replies, in order for someone to govern a city, he must first know how to govern himself, “to be moderate and rule his self, ruling his pleasure-seeking”491d. Callicles claims that this (to moderate one’s desires) is equal to becoming a slave, which would avert him from happiness and greatness. The ability to satisfy one’s desires is, to Callicles, proof of freedom and manliness, therefore desires must be allowed to grow and be satisfied by the prudence and the courage of the superior one. The many are unable to do such a thing, and out of shame, to hide their own inferiority, they say that debauchery is a bad thing while they praise moderation because of their own inability and cowardice. For Callicles, then, sophrosyne (moderation) and justice (human laws) are causes of misery, since they deter the courageous from allowing themselves, and offering to their friends, whatever they desire.

In order for Socrates to show that satisfying pleasures cannot be considered the singular criterion of happiness, he claims that according to Callicles he who has crabs and scratches himself, satisfying his itch, must be deemed happy. Callicles, rather unexpectedly, agrees to the crass example, saying that the one with crabs who scratches himself lives in gratification and therefore is happy. But what would we have to say about the vulgar men and the indecent ones if they become affluent in what they need? Will we also call them happy? Callicles, although clearly displeased, feels obligated to stand firm to what he said previously “so that my speech will not be reversed”495a), and Socrates wonders whether there are bad desires at all.

Ανδριάντας του Σωκράτη μπροστά από το Μέγαρο τη Ακαδημίας Αθηνών, έργο των Λεωνίδα Δρόση και Attilio Picarelli.
Statue of Socrates in front of the Academy of Athens, a work of Leonidas Drosis and Attilio Picarelli.

Like he told Polus earlier, any action someone performs, he does so not because he wants to perform that action in particular, but for its benefit. The one who makes sea trade does not travel because he enjoys traveling but to gain profits from buying and selling goods. Meaning, it is a beneficial action, even though it does not provide pleasure. In contrast, there are actions that offer pleasure but do not offer benefit, or even harm us; like smoking, which is pleasurable in the moment but harmful in the long run. Gratification does not secure happiness.

Most practices, like guitar playing, flute playing, dancing and poetry, are not usually concerned with improving the souls of men and care for them, but only look to their pleasure (Socrates is obviously referring to those artisans who only care to satisfy the common taste). So, in order to recognize rhetoric as a virtuous practice, we must find the rhetorician who cares to “let justice enter the souls of his co-citizens and discard injustice, let sophrosyne enter and discard debauchery, let virtues enter the soul and discard wickedness”504e, regardless of whether what he says is pleasant or unpleasant.

We must therefore deter those souls who are imprudent, perverted, debauched, unjust or unrighteous from their desires, and induce them to do whatever will improve them. Deterring them from their desires constitutes punishment, which was found earlier with Polus to be beneficial to the punished person, even if it is a kind of “enslavement” or if it limits freedom in some way.

“Whoever wants to be happy must, as it seems, aspire and practice sophrosyne, and avoid salaciousness as much as he can, and train himself in that way that it will not become at all necessary to get punished. But if punishment is indeed necessary for himself, or someone familiar to him or a citizen or the city, punishment must be enforced, if he is to be happy”507d.

But according to Callicles, if someone doesn’t want to be wronged, he must be a tyrant himself or a friend to the rulers. Some say, Socrates replies, that the like-minded become friends, and that the dissimilar ones cannot. This is because if a citizen is stronger than the tyrant, the tyrant will fear him and will not be able to befriend him. On the other hand, if the citizen is weaker than the tyrant, he will despise him. So if a young man wants to obtain power or not to be wronged, he will have to “get accustomed to having the same delights and annoyances as the tyrant does, and prepare himself to be as much as possible alike to him”510d. So, in reality, Callicles’ suggestion for the natural law leads away from freedom and pluralism, since the goal of the citizens will be to not divert from what the ruler considers good and pleasurable, by reducing distinctions that would separate them from the ordinary. Callicles’ practice leads to totalitarianism and fear, the enemies of freedom, and transforms the individual to the tyrant’s puppet. The will to power leads, in the end, to submission.

Socrates observes that all this time “our speeches regard…the way in which one ought to live. In which way, the one which you impel me to follow doing the workings that befit a man, delivering public speeches and practicing rhetoric and politics in the way you do, or in the philosophical way of living?”500c. Callicles’ attack is from the first moment aimed at, not Socrates in particular, but the philosophical living itself. He suggests that Socrates would see the truth of his words as long as he quits his practicing of philosophy, which befits a man only up to a certain age. “But when I see an older man practicing philosophy and not rid himself of it, I think, Socrates, that man deserves to be punished with a whipping”485d. That man ends up being a coward and avoids the central places of the city and the agora “hiding all his life, living by some corner with a bunch of young men, whispering without once uttering a free man’s speech, a great and satisfying one”485d-e.

Ανδριάντας του Πλάτωνα μπροστά από το Μέγαρο τη Ακαδημίας Αθηνών, έργο των Λεωνίδα Δρόση και Attilio Picarelli.
Statue of Plato in front of the Academy of Athens, a work of Leonidas Drosis and Attilio Picarelli.

The young politicard opposes philosophy, saying that too much thought confuses the mind, ends up in distorted conclusions and leads men to destruction. With only philosophy and without rhetoric, he says, “you would become confused and agape unable to say a word, and if you appeared in court, though your accuser might be ever so paltry and a rascal, you would have to die”486b. Here, he foretells Socrates’ death when he chose, during his trial, to speak with “simple words” without begging his judges or using a speech written in advance, like most did by employing the services of rhetoricians. He suggests “to envy not the men who practice these insignificant things, but those who have fortune, fame and many more goods”486c.

According to Socrates’ philosophical living, in order for someone to avoid injustice he would have to try and create just citizens. Even Pericles who is considered by most to be a worthy man, after his death he was the victim of many accusations, however unjust these accusations might have been. To the degree that he couldn’t better the Athenian citizens so that they become just, it could be said that he failed in his work, since his role was this; to improve the souls of the Athenians. “Therefore, if someone eradicates exactly this, injustice, there is no fear for him to be wronged”520d. This is the reason he believed he was perhaps the only one to practice the true political art; “alone among the present ones” (though, in this case, it would have to be deduced that he himself failed as well, since he wasn’t able to make just citizens of the Athenians, who executed him unjustly).

Why then, Socrates asks, do many sophists complain that their students don’t pay them for their services? Aren’t they the ones who claim to teach justice and virtue? If the students can be accused of injustice for failing to reimburse them, the teachers can be accused of failing to create virtuous men (or lying about their ability to do so).

Socrates knew that if he was led to court by a wicked man (“no righteous man would judge a just one”521d), he wouldn’t be able to offer any flattery, pleasure or gratification to the judges, and it would therefore not be strange if he was condemned to death, as it indeed happened. But he didn’t envy those who do offer gratification nor the ones who receive it. “If I was about to die because I fell short in flattery and rhetoric, I know very well that you would see me enduring death with ease”522d.

Socrates, naturally, fails at convincing Callicles that he’s wrong. It is probably impossible to dissuade such a cynic. But this is of little importance. The socratic dialogues are like political debates. When a party leader confronts an opposing one, nobody expects either of them to change their mind –the debate is for our sake, the viewers. Plato’s dialogues were written in a similar fashion, for their readers. They were written so that we might become witnesses of two differing ways of thought, so that each of us can choose the way of life we want to live.

So, in reality, it is Callicles who fails in the end to justify his positions and introduce us with a way of life that would be desirable for a society to thrive. Socrates contents on illustrating where his opponent’s views might lead; and as for the values he proposes himself, he tells us that he still awaits anyone to change his mind, proving him wrong.


Plato – Gorgias (or on rhetoric)


[1] Student of Gorgias, later he will enter politics. Many consider him an example of a “realist” politician, of what would later be called “real-politik”. The only source for his person is the dialogue Gorgias.

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