Callicles says, “‘Too late for a share in the fight,’ so the saying goes…”
Socrates replies, “Really? Don’t you rather mean too late for the feast?”
The dialogues of Socrates, including this one referenced above, Gorgias, are always anchored in a real, particular situation, lived within a polis, a culture, a political and social body. Gorgias takes place just after Pericles’ death, in the midst of the Peloponnesian War, in the simultaneous glory and twilight that is Athens of around 405 B.C.
As he spoke to Callicles—a young and ambitious man who probably shared the fate of Alcibiades in Sicily during the last hubristic gasps of Athens as she crumbled, a young man in the throes of that kind of ego-idealism recognizable by an easy willingness to say what others only think—Socrates may have been standing outside a taverna, a veranda roofed elegantly by grape vines and wisteria, late at night or in the long, sultry evening of an Athenian summer, in the Plaka nestled below the dramatic rise of stone and cypress groves that culminated in the Acropolis: a fitting, visual, beautiful analogy of profane and sacred.
Laughter of men, scattered like the used plates and half-emptied goblets, the sounds of a disintegrated unity that was the feast, may have drifted out to the young man and the wise man who knew that he knew nothing; Callicles promises Socrates that Gorgias, a rhetorician who has just spoken at the feast, will give him a private “exhibition”; Socrates, instead, asks for a dialectical discussion. And so begins the Gorgias, a discussion of rhetoric, and ultimately, deeply, a continued search for what we all already recognize—deep, almost lost, in our nature—as justice.
Socrates is in the awkward position of standing outside the breaking feast in the street, because he is late. Too late? Is he too late to teach the Many, who always seem to mistake what seems good from what actually is wished for, what is actually truly good for both the individual and the polis? Should the rhetoric exercise have been a fight? Is the fact that the young man Callicles thinks of rhetoric as an exhibition of prowess an indication that the war is already lost? Socrates, the good physician that he is, tries to correct him by changing the term: “Don’t you rather mean ‘feast’?” Isn’t rhetoric for the sake of something higher, a techne, an art, meaning that the rhetor understands the sake for which he speaks? Does Callicles understand that if an art, rhetoric should point to justice, and justice itself, an action and a virtue, is done for the sake of the Good, because human beings are meant by nature for this Good, this Beauty, this proton philon, this ultimate for the sake of which everything else is?
Or, is rhetoric simply an eidon, an image, a kind of flattery, a not-real, a “seeming”? Is it just an empeiria, a “knack” that gets results but is not based on understanding, or the order of the cosmos, or that chain of “that for the sake of which” that leads men back to the Proton Philon for which they—and all other things—were made?
Is rhetoric simply a cock-fight, or is it part of a feast that is for the good of both the individual and the polis—as a feast is for the sustenance of ourselves, but more importantly, for the communion of a Body, of a community?
Athens, as a democracy more direct than had theretofore been tried, was by this “directness” (one man, one vote), and by its size (city-state of perhaps 150,000, but with only about 30,000 citizens voting) more susceptible, vulnerable to, and dependent upon, rhetoric. Rhetoric was, as Socrates practiced it, a means to discover justice, to develop laws, to uncover reality, and this was also beautiful. It was meant to express the boulesis, or the desire of right reason; the Athens of Socrates had a “bouleuterion” which was a council-hall, connected beautifully, analogously, even poetically, with the idea that the city council should be discovering through speech the practical application of the “true desire of man according to right reason.” The Greeks were not, as Edith Hamilton argues, “idealists” or wispy, cloud-like poets; they were poets and realists at the same time. Thus, rhetoric was both essential to the daily workings of the city, and also a kind of “beauty” or what we would call an “art-form.” But to be beautiful, rhetoric must be done for the sake of something higher: justice.
Justice, as we’ve seen, led in Socrates’ mind inevitably to the Good, and to Beauty, for the just and the Good were proportional, and proportion and balance are part of the essence of beauty. Justice to be justice, to be a balanced, ordered virtue, must be a part of the Whole that is Good because it is Beautiful, and Beautiful because it is Good; yes, it is circular: the circle is perfection. Justice, as understood in The Republic is the ordered city and soul, in which each part plays its part perfectly, like the dancers around Demodocus, the mystical song-maker at the court of Alcinous (high mind) in Homer’s Odyssey.
The value system of Socrates was founded upon the ultimate purpose of any action, the sake for which something is done. One must act, one must be, within oneself and simultaneously within the Body that is a community, such that the souls of all individuals in that community are turned towards happiness, like the dancers attuned to the poet’s song. This happiness is not a prolongation of good feeling, as we moderns tend to think of it, but rather it is a life of virtue and wisdom, “a human life realized in terms of ultimate meaning” (R.E. Allen).
And when we say “human life,” we must remember that for Socrates, we do not mean a hard distinction, or separation between a life and the life of the polis. They are inextricably combined: the life of the person is also the life of the community.
This Socratic value system demands a radically different conception of justice, and therefore a radically different rhetoric, with an aim not for unhinged, ambiguous “effectiveness” but for effectiveness in leading both the soul of the individual and of the community towards a life of virtue and wisdom in accordance with the Good, ultimately the Proton Philon.
How is this different from our modern political communities? As different as a summer night in Athens is from a winter night in St. Petersburg. Heirs to Descartes, Kant, Locke, Hobbes, and now utilitarians like Richard Rorty, our justice is not founded on primary, telological ends, but rather on consequences, on what works based on our scientific observations, our phenomena, what gives the most people what seems best to them. Socrates knew there could be a night/day difference between what seems good to us, and what is actually good, but he also believed, based on the beautiful, good, order of proportion and analogy that is the cosmos of which we are a part, a cosmos in which geometrical proportion and poetic analogy meet and kiss in their coordinated revelation of relationships between diversities, that each human soul also can recollect and “desire with reason according to nature” the Good. Therefore, good rhetoric, and the justice for the sake of which we practice it, can lead souls to a life of virtue and wisdom again, and also the community. However, we have lost in part the road to what is truly good for us because our conception of a human community has changed.
A la Hobbes and Locke, our contractual societies tend to pit the individual against the State, or the modern mechanistic conception of what was once organic community. Thus, our justice tends to follow along the lines of retributive (keeping vengeance under control), distributive (re-equalizing), or deterrence (punishing to create fear for the safety of the many). Our justice is the ticking of wheels within an enormous, impersonal machine, and our rhetoric is centered around “what I will do will give great results.” It is certainly not feast, and is perhaps now even a fight not with other individuals, but with a machine.
Socrates’ justice? Remedial. Again, we must be wary of the modern understanding of this term, which is a kind of therapeutic model focused more on the individual. Wipe it from your mind. Remedial justice, Socrates’ kind, can only function in a Body, a community that is organic and unified, growing towards the Good. Socrates’ justice is founded upon the paradox that it is worse for the soul to commit injustice than to suffer it, and that the ultimate evil for both an individual soul and a political community is to commit injustice, for it thwarts the soul from happiness, from a life according to the Good. Thus, remedial justice is more a medical model than anything else. The statesman, like a doctor, practices law-giving as the doctor prescribes the gym, to keep the body in shape; the statesman practices judicial justice as the doctor prescribes medicine: the whole point of all of it is to heal. This does not preclude actual suffering or punishment. It means that getting our due is what is best for us, for it helps direct us towards balance and virtue, and can become a passage for wisdom.
Was Athens this kind of Soul-Polis, a veritable Body? Based on the Gorgias, Athens was a sick society, in which young men like Polus believed that the powerful were most happy, regardless of their injustice; in which Callicles, a gifted young man believed “might made right” (a precursor to Nietzsche). Socrates’ use of the medical model is no frivolity: he came, as Christ said in another time and place, as a physician for the sick. Socrates was indeed outside the feast, and too late to heal Athens, which killed him with the very false, unjust, mob-rhetoric he criticized for the sake of the city. Yet this Ordered-Soul-Polis was Socrates’ ideal, and we know based on the farcical trial and his death that it was never realized completely; yet Socrates could see this ideal, so much more than he could see the goblet of hemlock-juice in his own hands, that he died to uphold it, to uphold even the possibility of it, or remnants of it, that existed in Athens.
Does this Polis built on a value system that leads towards the Proton Philon, the ultimate Good, and thus the only community that can be truly just, exist? Is it just an eidon, an image that lives only in the hearts of good people, who have the boulesis, the right desire, for it?
There is a Body, but it is not of this world. It has a place in the world, but ultimately, it joins the immanent and the transcendent; it turns the members of its Body towards a life of virtue and wisdom, to the realized meaning of human life, to be united with the Good, with God. Its justice, because of its transcendent power and reality, based on Love, flows from the loving self-sacrifice of its Statesman, its Head. It has a justice that is beyond the shallow deterrent, distributive, retributive, arithmetic-justice: it is geometrical, proportional and beautiful, poetic, like Socrates’ healing justice, but it is even beyond that: It is the justice that is based on laying one’s life down for the other, in overflowing mercy, a justice that makes love grow from the stalks of weeds. Socrates could not quite see it as it really is, because it is based on a Proton Philon he did not know through revelation, but who knows him and loves him, and you, and me. It a Polis is where universals can meet and embrace the particulars in a fecund tension, where individuals are truly joined with the Whole. In the end, it is the Feast he was looking for, the one he was actually too early for, the one waiting for him beyond the hemlock. It is beyond anything Socrates hoped for, and is yet exactly his true boulesis, or right desire.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.