Colloquium 4 A Man of No Substance: The Philosopher in Plato’s Gorgias

In: Proceedings of the Boston Area Colloquium in Ancient Philosophy
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At the center of Plato’s Gorgias, the shameless and irascible Callicles offers an attack against philosophy (484c and following). During this attack, he describes philosophy as a pastime fit only for the young which, if practiced beyond the bloom of youth, threatens to render those who practice it politically inept and powerless. Moreover, when taken too far, philosophy provokes the city into stripping the philosopher of all of his rights and property, leaving him with no οὐσία at all (486c). Thus, according to Callicles, far from making one powerful within the city, philosophy ultimately renders one impotent and utterly without substance. In what follows I argue that the Socrates of the Gorgias agrees with this characterization of the philosopher as the one who lacks power and οὐσία. However, whereas Callicles sees such a condition as the most worthless and pitiable sort, Socrates sees it as the unique and singular posture from out of which true philosophical thinking, and true political power, are possible. As I will show, through the course of the Gorgias as a whole, Socrates offers a counter-discourse that presents the philosopher as a powerless person lacking οὐσία who is precisely therebyable to undertake a pursuit of the truth and the good. Phrased otherwise: Socrates takes ignorance understood as lack or powerlessness to be the very condition for the possibility of philosophy and true political power, while showing rhetoric understood as the pretense of wisdom to be an obstruction to these.


At the center of Plato’s Gorgias, the shameless and irascible Callicles offers an attack against philosophy (484c and following). During this attack, he describes philosophy as a pastime fit only for the young which, if practiced beyond the bloom of youth, threatens to render those who practice it politically inept and powerless. Moreover, when taken too far, philosophy provokes the city into stripping the philosopher of all of his rights and property, leaving him with no οὐσία at all (486c). Thus, according to Callicles, far from making one powerful within the city, philosophy ultimately renders one impotent and utterly without substance. In what follows I argue that the Socrates of the Gorgias agrees with this characterization of the philosopher as the one who lacks power and οὐσία. However, whereas Callicles sees such a condition as the most worthless and pitiable sort, Socrates sees it as the unique and singular posture from out of which true philosophical thinking, and true political power, are possible. As I will show, through the course of the Gorgias as a whole, Socrates offers a counter-discourse that presents the philosopher as a powerless person lacking οὐσία who is precisely therebyable to undertake a pursuit of the truth and the good. Phrased otherwise: Socrates takes ignorance understood as lack or powerlessness to be the very condition for the possibility of philosophy and true political power, while showing rhetoric understood as the pretense of wisdom to be an obstruction to these.

From its very beginning, the Gorgias is concerned with the question of power.1 After having arrived late for Gorgias’s rhetorical display, Socrates enunciates his reason for having come to see Gorgias: namely, he wishes to discover “the power (ἡ δύναμις) of the skill of that man” (447c). Indeed, Socrates’ entire inquiry is directed toward power; and in what follows we will see that Socrates’ questioning is not restricted narrowly to the power of Gorgias’s skill nor the power of rhetoric, nor even to the power of philosophy, but is rather directed toward the very nature of δύναμις itself. By the end of the Gorgias, one finds a radical inversion on the part of Socrates of the traditional understanding of power, and it is the principle task of this paper to illuminate and analyze the character of this inversion.

As he begins to converse with Gorgias, Socrates seeks to understand the power (δύναμις, 450e) of rhetoric and wishes to know over what, precisely, it has authority (κῦρος, 451d). As is immediately revealed, rhetoric in fact consists of nothing other than an exercise of a certain kind of power and authority. Gorgias states that rhetoric has power and authority over that which is “responsible for freedom among human beings themselves and … for ruling over others in one’s own polis” (452e). Amplifying a bit, Gorgias claims that rhetoric consists in the ability to persuade (πείθειν) others in political matters, further asserting that

it is by means of this power (τῇ δυνάμει) that you will have the physician and trainer as your slaves. As for the moneymaker, he’ll be making all that money for somebody other than himself—namely, for you, the one who has the power (τῷ δυναμένῳ) of speaking and persuading the many. (452e; translation modified. In this paper, I have relied on three translations [see bibliography]. I tend to favor the Loeb, but often the Arieti was superior, though sometimes with my modifications.)

One sees here that rhetoric, for Gorgias, is the power of persuading others, of lording over them, by means of λόγος: it is the very power, then, of exerting power over others. Rhetoric is the δύναμις of wielding δύναμις and κῦρος over others by means of λόγος. As Socrates glosses it, “you say that rhetoric does nothing more than produce (ποιεῖν) persuasion in the audience” (453a). Rhetoric thus makes or manufactures (ποιεῖν)persuasion within those at whom it is directed. Much like a demiurge works his hammer upon stone, shaping it into whatever form he wills, the rhetorician works his words upon the audience, persuading them of whatever he wishes.2 Rhetoric is a technique for the willful exercise of power over another, and the rhetorician is the craftsman (δημιουργός) wielding such power (453a).3 Phrased otherwise: rhetoric is a technology of power.

Immediately after the power of rhetoric has come to light, Socrates makes a statement to which we must attend closely: for it points to a subtle counter-discourse underway within the Gorgias both at the level of the conversation and of the action. Socrates says that, although he suspects he knows what Gorgias means by defining rhetoric as the power to persuade, he does not yet clearly know what he means. Owing to this ignorance, Socrates says that he will ask Gorgias to clarify “not for your sake, but for the sake of the λόγος, in order that it go forward (προΐῃ) as much as it can and make clear to us what is being spoken (λέγεται) about” (453c). Rather than offering his own opinion on the matter, then, Socrates aims to let the λόγος itself unfold in whatever way it will. Thus, just after Gorgias has defined rhetoric as the power to persuade others and lord over them, Socrates effectively withdraws his self and its opinions from the conversation, distancing himself from the sort of rhetorical position that Gorgias has just described—for by retreating away from making a claim of his own, and by instead making way for the λόγος, Socrates makes it impossible in what follows for him to persuade Gorgias of anything. Thus, in the face of a rhetoric essentially comprised of a will to power over others, Socrates withdraws from such a will to power, yielding instead to the unraveling of the λόγος.

This gesture of withdrawal continues to unfold as the conversation progresses. In an effort to problematize and ultimately clarify Gorgias’s definition of rhetoric, Socrates articulates certain other arts that also work upon others by means of persuasion, namely, any art that is taught: for whosoever teaches, as Gorgias affirms, also persuades (453d). What is especially striking is the manner in which Socrates here offers in deed a counter-definition of teaching that does not at all operate by means of persuasion. In keeping with his gesture of withdrawal indicated above, Socrates does not attempt in these pages to persuade Gorgias of anything: that is, he does not attempt to exert his ‘work’ upon Gorgias. Instead, Socrates asks questions of Gorgias, questions that allow Gorgias the space in which his own λόγος can unfold. One sees this in the following statement of Socrates’:

it is for the sake of progressing through the λόγος in an orderly way that I ask, not for your sake—but so we don’t get used to guessing and snatching ahead of time what is said from each other, but so you may progress through your own [thoughts] as you wish (βούλῃ), according to your own underlying view. (454c)

Thus, precisely in that moment when he is coming to understand Gorgias’s pedagogical approach as a persuasive working of one’s will upon another, we see Socrates practicing by contrast a kind of midwifery whereby he withholds his own view so as to allow the λόγος of the other to come to pass. Whereas rhetoric consists in the working of one’s will upon another, this other way—Socrates’ way—consists in placing one’s own will in abeyance so that the λόγος can go where it will. Phrased otherwise: whereas rhetoric takes itself to have mastery over λόγος, Socrates’ way yields to the λόγος in a receptive gesture. One notes in passing that Socrates’ learned his maieutic practice from his mother (see Theaetetus 150 and following).

That Socrates is practicing such maieutics becomes clearer as the conversation progresses. Gorgias goes on to maintain that rhetoric is so powerful as to “gather all other powers under itself” (456a) and to make the rhetor “have the power (δυνατὸς) to speak against everyone about everything, so as to be more persuasive … about anything he may wish (βούληται)” (457a–b). In response to this ‘daimonic’ power of rhetoric, Socrates makes the following statement:

you seem to me now to be saying things that do not entirely … harmonize with what you said at first about rhetoric. But I am afraid of refuting you, lest you take it as obvious that I am someone who is speaking as a lover of victory, not on the subject, but against you. And so, if you too are one of those men such as I, I will gladly question you thoroughly, but if you’re not, I will leave you alone. And of what sort of person am I? One who would gladly be refuted if I should say something not true, and one who would gladly refute someone else should he say something not true, being no less gladly refuted than refuting. (457e–458b; translation modified)

Thus, over against Gorgias’s understanding of rhetoric as the imposing of one’s will upon the other in such a way as to enslave them, one finds with Socrates a complete surrendering of the will in the face of the λόγος so as to let the truth come to pass.4 Through Socrates’ manner of conducting himself with Gorgias, one finds in deed an epistemological and pedagogical comportment that runs counter to the one being offered in speech by Gorgias, a comportment that suspends the will in the face of the λόγος.5

This comportment, as a complete inversion of Gorgias’s view regarding rhetoric, is grounded in a gesture of self-effacement or self-erasure. As Socrates has said, he is just as happyto be refuted as to refute. To be refuted is to withdraw one’s own position in the face of the truth, to yield one’s own opinion to the truth. Motivated not at all by a love of victory (φιλονικοῦντα), but rather by a love of the λόγος—that is, φιλοσοφία—Socrates is eager to withdraw his own opinion if it means that the truth will come to pass. In other words: rather than loving asserting his power willfully over others, Socrates loves being overpowered by the true λόγος. Thus, whereas Gorgias claims to possess a power capable of overpowering anybody on any subject, Socrates here articulates a gesture that yields to the λόγος, a gesture that makes a space in which the λόγος can assert itself. Insofar as it is an inversion of Gorgias’s position—a position constituted by the will to power—one can say that Socrates’ way consists of a powerlessness in the face of the λόγος.

This powerlessness can be seen in Socrates’ famous predilection for proceeding in an interrogative mode: for when one asks questions, one demonstrates that one is in a position of epistemological poverty. To be sure, one sometimes, if not often, finds Socrates speaking in the form of assertions. Indeed, the Socrates of the Gorgias makes any number of apparent assertions, such as the claim, made during his conversation with Polus, that rhetoric is a form of pandering (462b–466a), a claim that one might be tempted to take as Socrates’ ‘own’ over against the various assertions made by the other interlocutors. Yet, given Socrates’ insistence within the Gorgias that he himself knows nothing about the matters under consideration, but rather speaks only as one who seeks (ζητῶ) (506a), by what right could one say that these assertions ‘belong’ to Socrates or somehow represent or express ‘his’ views? Indeed, given that such utterances are grounded in ignorance, by what right could one call them ‘assertions’ at all? In making such statements from out of a position of ignorance, Socrates in no way asserts them to be correct: rather, he posits them as positions to be assayed and assessed, tested and considered.6 Even less so does Socrates assert himself in such statements, setting them forth as if they were his views to which others must of necessity adhere, as if he were an expert in possession of σοφός rather than one who, precisely because he lacks such σοφός, seeks it. Rather, by asking such questions from out of a posture of ignorance, Socrates reveals that he does not have a view of his own; or, rather, that his view is necessarily one of searching and questioning which, as lacking the truth toward which it is directed, is in no position to assert itself. Even if one were to attribute such statements toSocrates in a strong sense—something which, for the reasons mentioned immediately above, one cannot do—one would have to grant that they are views to which he does not feel particularly attached: for as Socrates has just said during his conversation with Gorgias, he is more than happy to see his statements refuted (458b). But what kind of assertion gleefully abandons its status as an assertion, making way for the ascendency of another? Socrates’ ignorance, as well as his enthusiasm for being refuted, are opposed to the very nature of assertions and assertiveness. The statements that Socrates makes—statements which, grounded in ignorance, make no claim and assert no power—are more structurally akin to questions than they are to assertions. Even when he makes a statement, Socrates is posing a question.

Socrates now turns to a conversation with Polus, during which one sees an intensification of the inversion to the willfulness that characterized Gorgias’s position. As was the case with Gorgias, one finds with Polus an understanding of rhetoric localized around the issue of the willful exercise of power;7 and, as was the case with his conversation with Gorgias, one finds Socrates here offering a counter-discourse that serves to invert Polus’s understanding of power. For Polus, power is the ability to do whatever one wishes (466c); for Socrates, power is the ability to do what is just, where this means the ability to set one’s own wishes aside in order to follow what the λόγος shows to be just and good. For Polus, it is better to cause injustice than to suffer it (469b); for Socrates, it is far better to suffer injustice than to cause it to another. For Polus, it is wretched for the person acting unjustly to be caught (472d); for Socrates, this is the best possible outcome for such a person, since acting unjustly with impunity is the greatest sort of psychic sickness (479c). Thus, for each point Polus adduces regarding the value and power of rhetoric, Socrates offers an almost caricatured counter-point, setting forth a starkly inverted notion of the traditional concept of power.

What one must keep in mind in these pages is that, in keeping with his previously exhibited deference to the λόγος, Socrates is not offering his own opinions over against Polus’s. Rather, it is precisely by withholding his own opinions that Socrates is allowing the λόγος to unfold in such a way as to show the inadequacy of Polus’s position. One sees this clearly when, having brought Polus to the brink of contradicting himself, Socrates urges Polus to “present [himself] nobly to the λόγος as though to a physician” (475d). Thus, it is not Socrates who is refuting Polus here: rather, it is the λόγος that, through its unfolding, has brought Polus to the place of contradiction. Socrates is not the doctor—the λόγος is: and it is by submitting himself to the λόγος that Polus will be purged of his false opinions. Owing to his sense of shame (487b), Polus indeed finally yields to the λόγος, making way for the statements that stand in contradiction to his original thesis.

So far we have seen Socrates, in surrendering his own will, making way for a λόγος that has radically inverted the positions held by both Gorgias and Polus. It is in light of this inversion that Callicles interrupts the conversation, asking Socrates whether he is jesting or being serious is setting forth this inverted (ἀνατετραμμένος) view (481c). One must attend closely to Socrates’ response to Callicles’ question:

do not be surprised at my saying [these things that have been said], but make my beloved philosophy stop speaking thus. For she, my dear friend, speaks what you hear me saying now …; philosophy always says the same, and it is her speech that now fills you with wonder. (482a–b)

Thus, in answer to Callicles’ question about whether Socrates was jesting or being serious during his engagement with Polus, one would have to say neither: for, properly understood, Socrates himself has said nothing during that exchange. Rather, philosophy itself has been speaking. Socrates has retreated behind philosophy, withdrawing his self and its opinions from the conversation so that philosophy may articulate itself. Thus, during his discourses with Gorgias and Polus, it was not by means of Socrates’ argumentative power that the traditional view of power got inverted, but rather by the power of the λόγος, a power that can express itself only because Socrates yielded his own power in the face of it. Socrates’ suspension of his will, his retreat from offering his own opinions, is the gesture that made possible a genuine reception of the philosophical λόγος.

It is at this point that Callicles begins his sustained attack against philosophy, a criticism that orients itself around the powerlessness of the philosopher. Callicles begins by attacking the notion that arose during Socrates’ conversation with Polus that it is better to suffer injustice than to exert it upon another. Regarding such a situation, Callicles states that “[such suffering] is not even the experience of a man (ἀνδρὸς), but of some man-slave (ἀνδραπόδου) … who is not himself able to help himself or another for whom he cares” (483a–b). Callicles continues to denigrate such slavishness, noting that it is such people—whom he calls “the weakest sort of people” (οἱ ἀσθενεῖς ἄνθρωποί, 483b) and “unmanly” (ἀνανδρία, 492b)—who formulated laws in the first place, laws that do nothing but seek to restrain those who are by nature more powerful (483b). These laws define the willful activities of the stronger as unjust, when in fact (according to Callicles) it is this very effort at restraining the strong that is unjust: for “nature itself reveals that it is just that the better have more than the worse and the more powerful (τὸν δυνατώτερον) more than the powerless (τοῦ ἀδυνατωτέρου)” (483d). Injustice is any attempt to prevent the powerful from being powerful; and justice is nothing but the exercise of power by the powerful accompanied by the will to further power.

Callicles continues his denigration of philosophy, again couching his criticism in explicitly gendered terms:

You see … it falls to this man [that is, the philosopher], even if he should have a very good nature, to become unmanly (ἀνάνδρῳ) and to flee (φεύγοντι) the affairs of the polis and the marketplaces … and cower down (καταδεδυκότι) and spend the rest of his life whispering in a corner with three or four young fellows, and never to utter a free and great and adequate remark. (485d)

Given that philosophy is said by Callicles to make one less manly, one may presume that it (therefore) makes one more womanly, more feminine, where femininity would stand for the kind of weakness and submissiveness that so disgusts Callicles. Owing to this weakness, the philosopher would be unable to protect himself against others dragging him to court, accusing him unjustly, and having him put to death (486a–b): the philosopher, being weak, being feminine (for Callicles), would be at the mercy of those men wielding political power. In light of this, Callicles asks:

And how is this a wise thing, Socrates—any technical skill that takes a man of good nature and makes him worse, as one having the power (δυνάμενον) neither of helping himself nor of saving either himself or any other person from the greatest dangers, but leaves him stripped by his enemies of all his property (πᾶσαν τὴν οὐσίαν) and merely living without rights (ἄτιμον) in his polis? (486b–c)

Philosophy will lead its practitioner to be without property and without rights: much, it should be noted, as was quite nearly the actual state of affairs for women in Athens. The word translated above as ‘property’ is οὐσία. In its most pedestrian meaning, οὐσίαmeans ‘property,’ ‘estate,’ or ‘wealth.’ In its more philosophical sense, the word οὐσία means ‘that which is one’s ownmost,’ one’s ‘substance,’ one’s ‘essence.’ Understood in this way, Callicles is suggesting not just that philosophy will lead to material and political poverty but, much more severely, to an ontological poverty, a poverty of essence. The prolonged study of philosophy will lead, according to Callicles, to a degeneration of the substance of the practitioner: it will lead them not just to have nothing, but to be nothing. Callicles’ use of the word ἄτιμος makes this clear. Translated above as ‘without rights,’ ἄτιμος essentially means ‘without worth or value.’ Callicles is asserting that philosophy renders the philosopher worthless: again, not just in a material or economic sense, but in an ontological one. The philosopher is worthless, is of null value: a real zero.

Thus, according to Callicles, far from empowering or emboldening its practitioner, philosophy leaves that person impotent and utterly without value in the polis: it is a degenerative or corruptive procedure that robs its user of any οὐσία.8 To have no οὐσία is to lack any discernable quality or set thereof that belongs to oneself, to possess nothing that could be called ‘one’s own,’ to lack determinacy, to have no power by which to actualize one’s self. In a word, to have no οὐσία is to be nothing, to lack a self, to lack being. In Callicles’ view, philosophy, if practiced for too long, takes a man of good nature (εὐφυὴς) and renders him without nature: it turns a man into a non-being, a nothing, a non-self, a non-man—in Callicles view, therefore, something like a woman.

On the surface, one can hardly imagine a harsher criticism of philosophy: philosophy, the pursuit that most of all concerns itself with true being, renders its practitioner utterly without being. One would of course expect Socrates to object vociferously to such a characterization of his beloved: and yet, instead of contesting Callicles’ harsh depiction of philosophy, Socrates appears to pay him a compliment:

I now think that having met you I have happened upon a godsend. … You see, I think that one who intends to test a soul adequately about living rightly must have three things all of which you have—knowledge, goodwill, and frankness (παρρησίαν). You see, I run into many people who are unable to test my soul because they are not wise, as you are. And while others are wise, they are not willing to tell me the truth because they don’t care for me, as you do. (487a–c)

There is no doubt that Socrates’ response here is ironic to some extent, and it is typical for scholars to treat is as such.9 However, I would like to submit that Socrates is perfectly sincere here in his attribution of at least one of these qualities to Callicles: namely, his attribution to him of παρρησία, above translated as ‘frankness.’10 Yet, in attributing παρρησία to Callicles, Socrates is not complimenting him, but is rather marking the essential limitations of Callicles’ understanding of rhetoric and, indeed, of power.11 In order to see how this is so, it is necessary first to meditate on the ancient Greek notion of παρρησία.

In its most general sense, παρρησία refers to an openness and directedness in discourse, a license or freedom to say what one wants to say when one wants to say it. To quote Michel Foucault, who wrote extensively and insightfully on the role of παρρησία in antiquity,

what is basically at stake in parrhesia is what could be called … the frankness (la franchise), freedom, and openness that leads one to say what one has to say, as one wishes to say it (comme on a envie de le dire), when one wishes to say it (quand on a envie de le dire), and in the form one thinks (l’on croit) it is necessary for saying it. The term parrhesia is so bound up with the choice (le choix), decision (la décision), and attitude (l’attitude) of the person speaking that the Romans translated it by, precisely, libertas. (Foucault 2001, 372; my emphasis)

Although this was not Foucault’s point, one sees here that παρρησία is grounded in the desire (envie), the will,of the subject: it is about the subject saying what he wills when he wills it, and about the freedom that both makes possible and legitimates that will.12 The person with παρρησία speaks freely,13 speaks as he wishes and freely offers his own opinion about the matter. This implies that the person with παρρησία has an opinion of his own, as well as the confidence that his opinion is the truth. It is this confidence in the veracity of his own thinking that empowers the person with παρρησία to speak so directly and in his own name. Furthermore, one sees that παρρησία is a matter of working one’s will upon another in order to convince them of one’s position, a working-upon that Foucault casts in terms of the master/disciple relationship:

Just as the disciple (le disciple) must keep quiet in order to bring about the subjectivation of his discourse, so the master’s (le maître) discourse must obey the principle of parrhesia if, at the end of his action and guidance, he wants the truth of what he says to become the subjectivized true discourse of his disciple. (Foucault 2001, 366)

Παρρησία is thus a technique of imposing one’s will upon another, of the master working his will upon the soul of the disciple. One sees this very clearly in the following passage from Foucault, and one would do well to note the gendered terms with which Foucault describes παρρησία:

Parrhesia is the naked transmission (c’est la transmission), as it were, of truth itself. Parrhesia ensures in the most direct way this para-dosis, this transfer (ce transit) of true discourse from the person who already possess it to the person who must receive it, must be impregnated by it (qui doit s’en imprégner), and who must be able to use it and subjectivize it. (Foucault 2001, 382; my emphasis)

Παρρησία entails the transfer of truth from the subject to the object, the master to the disciple, a transfer that is above cast in overtly masculine terms. The master disseminates truth to the disciple who is there to (silently) receive it (Foucault 2001, 366), a receiving that one could imagine, following the gendered language employed by Foucault, to be feminine in structure. Thus, despite the fact that Foucault goes to great lengths to differentiate παρρησία from rhetoric (Foucault 2001, 368, 381), one sees that they in fact share the same essential structure: both are techniques of the will to mastery, the will to power. Like rhetoric, παρρησία is a matter of the master exerting power over, or even into, another: it is a technology of power.

Socrates soon ties such willful speaking to a kind of shamelessness.14 As Socrates explains, Gorgias and Polus, owing to their senses of shame, lacked the παρρησία to say to Socrates what they really thought (487b). In his words, “the two of them, in fact, have come to such a degree of shamefulness that, though being ashamed, each of them was himself daring to say things in opposition to himself (αὐτὸς αὑτῷ ἐναντία λέγειν) while before many people” (487b). In other words, owing to their senses of shame and concomitant lack of παρρησία, both Gorgias and Polus were willing to yield their own positions to this λόγος, allowing it to overpower their wills. By contrast, Callicles—as the remainder of the Gorgias makes clear—lacks the shame required to allow such a yielding to occur.15 His lack of shame and subsequent stubbornness in discourse is related directly to his possession of παρρησία. Owing to his willfulness in speech—owing, that is, to the manner in which his speaking always remains his speaking, and thus always remains an operation of his will—Callicles will never come to say anything opposite to what he wills to say. Callicles will forever speak in his own name, stubbornly confident in the veracity of his own opinions.

Παρρησία is thus not the courage to say what is true, as it is often presented: rather, it is a shamelessness that impels one only to say what one thinks is true as if it were the truth, a pretense that precisely prevents one from yielding to the truth. In the figures of Gorgias and Polus, and above all in Socrates, one sees moments where such pretense gives way to the λόγος, a giving-way that allows the λόγος to unfold where it will. In the figure of Callicles, by contrast, one finds no such making-way, no such reception: one finds instead the discourse of the man without shame, of the master, or rather, of the feigned master, the one who thinks himself to be an authority who therefore has no reason to yield to anyone or anything. At the heart of Callicles’ speaking, then, there is a willful assertion of self that serves as an impediment to truth: and the name Socrates gives to this impediment, at least within the confines of the Gorgias, is παρρησία.16

In the face of this analysis of παρρησία, I want to revisit Callicles’ harsh denigration of philosophy that I quoted above. As Callicles had said,

… it falls to this man, even if he should have a very good nature, to become unmanly and to flee the affairs of the polis and the marketplaces … and cower down and spend the rest of his life whispering in a corner with three or four young fellows, and never to utter a free and great and adequate remark. (485d)

Were one to inflect this passage differently in light of all that has been said above, one could say that philosophy leads one to become unmanly—that is, it leads one to drop the pretense and arrogant self-aggrandizement that so characterized Athenian masculinity and that characterizes Callicles’ παρρησία. Further, philosophy leads one to retreat away from political affairs and the business of the agora 17—a claim that Socrates himself makes in the Theaetetus when describing the philosopher (173c and following), as well as in the Apology when describing his own practice (36b and following). Moreover, philosophy leads one to whisper in a corner with a small group of people—rather than, for example, speaking abruptly and ‘frankly’ within a crowded courtroom while under the pressure of the water-clock. Finally, philosophy brings it about that its practitioner never utters “a free and great and adequate remark”: that is, it brings it about that one, knowing oneself to be ignorant, never speaks one’s own opinion as if it were adequate to the truth, as if it were sufficient, but instead withdraws one’s own opinions in the face of a higher λόγος. So understood, one could say that Socrates’ way of philosophy—a way that he has been depicting in both speech and deed throughout the Gorgias—agrees with Callicles’ depiction of it; or, rather, it agrees with the words with which Callicles describes it, while those words must be understood in an entirely different sense based upon the inverted understanding of powerthat the λόγος has brought about.18

Socrates continues to interrogate Callicles, granting him the space in which his own view regarding rhetoric, power, and political rule can unfold. After a while, Callicles grows taciturn and is unwilling to continue in the discussion (505c). This unwillingness is owed precisely to his παρρησία: that is, to his certainty of the veracity of his own thinking and his concomitant unwillingness to abandon his will. Unlike Gorgias and Polus before him, Callicles proves incapable of letting himself undergo the shame of being contradicted, an inability that belongs intimately to his understanding of power. Phrased otherwise: Callicles gives up by refusing to give in; he retreats from the λόγος by refusing to submit to the λόγος. Rather than yielding his position to the λόγος, Callicles, insistent as ever that he is right, withdraws from the conversation. Incapable of feeling shame, Callicles cannot surrender his self to the higher measure of the λόγος.19 It is thus precisely his powerfulness—his manliness—that prevents him from yielding to the truth.20

Socrates, by contrast, is able to erase his self and let the λόγος unfold. This is evident in the following pages where Socrates, in the face of Callicles’ withdrawal from the conversation, is forced to finish on his own. In a remarkable scene, Socrates stages a one-person dialogue, giving voice to a dialogical back-and-forth whereby the truth of Callicles’ thesis that the good and the pleasant are the same is refuted. Prefacing this scene, Socrates says:

I shall go through the λόγος as it seems to me to be; but if to any of you I don’t seem to be saying things that agree with myself, it is necessary that you take hold of them and refute me. You see, I am not at all saying what I am saying as one who knows, but I am seeking knowledge in common with you, so that, should the one who speaks discover something, going off in a different direction from me, I shall be the first one to agree with him. (505e–506a)

One must note that, in providing this one-person dialogue, Socrates is notreplacing Callicles’ position with his own. To the contrary, through staging such a dialogical scene Socrates places his own voice into abeyance, listening instead to the unfolding of the λόγος.21 As the passage makes clear, this retreat is grounded in his knowledge of his own ignorance: for in knowing that he does not know, Socrates further knows that he himself has nothing authoritative to say about these matters. Rather, as one who is ignorant—as one who is therefore impoverished with respect to the truth of things—Socrates withdraws his own opinions so that he might submit to the authority of the λόγος. It is only because he knows himself to be without the truth that Socrates is capable of discovering it: it is thus only because of his lack, his impotency, that Socrates has the power to receive the truth.

During his one-person dialogue, Socrates allows the following λόγος to unfold: namely, that the pleasant and the good are not the same, as Callicles had claimed; that only the self-restrained soul is virtuous and good (507a), while the soul that wantonly pursues its every wish is bad (507a); that the one wishing to be happy must above all else flee (φευκτέον) wanton self-interest (507d) and strive toward “the power of acting in common” (507e), a power that Socrates calls a “geometric equality (ἡ ἰσότης ἡ γεωμετρικὴ)” (508a). Such geometric equality is, at its core, nothing other than the power of restraining and yielding one’s own desires in the face of the good of the polis as a whole, a making-way for the desires of the others with which one lives, an acting with a view toward the cosmos of which one is a part. Socrates notes that Callicles lacks this power, possessing instead great πλεονεξία: the arrogant and unbridled drive for the possession of more, what I would simply call ‘the will to power’ of which, as I showed above, παρρησία is an integral part.22 Callicles is unable to live well and to be happy because of this will to power, this πλεονεξία, and the contiguous inability to yield his own desires in the face of the good of the polis as a whole. Only those who can so yield may live a happy life.23

What this means, of course, is that the politically powerful person as Callicles conceives him—that person of great strength and manliness (491b) who wields his power over the weak and does whatever he wills whenever he wills it (492c)—is unable to be happy owing precisely to this abundance of power. More crucially, such a person is unable to rule the city well, owing to his inability to rule himself by restraining his desire for the pleasant in the face of a λόγος regarding the good. Ruling oneself is nothing other than the effacing of the self and its desires in the face of a higher order, a deferential gesture to a larger cosmos ordered by the good and beautiful (507d–e). Somewhat paradoxically, then, the true ruler is the one who most of all is ruled by the truth: it is the one who surrenders authority and power to a greater whole. So understood, the one most capable of ruling would be the one with the least power, the least πλεονεξία, who is therefore most able to receive the truth of things. The power of ruling would consist in submission to the truth. But this means that the most powerful ruler is precisely the most powerless: namely, the one who yields one’s own will entirely to the λόγος regarding what is best and most beautiful for the polis. By contrast, the one with the greatest capacity of exercising their will over others—the tyrant—would be the least powerful, the least capable of ruling well. True political power consists in powerlessness and submission to the truth.

In light of this, one can make sense of Socrates’ claim that he is the only Athenian currently living who practices the true political art (ἀληθῶς πολιτικῇ τέχνῃ, 521d). Owing to the deferential gesture that stands at the heart of Socrates’ practice, Socrates is able to place his own desires in abeyance and make way for a reception of the λόγος, a reception that will bring him into relation with the beautiful, the good, the true. It is this self-erasure—which is nothing other than Socratic ignorance—that makes possible a true assessment of what is best for the whole, for the ordered cosmos of which he is only a part. It is thus his radical powerlessness—his weakness in the face of the λόγος—that renders Socrates uniquely capable of the true political art.24

One sees an expression of this powerlessness at the very end of the Gorgias. Having finished his one-person dialogue, Socrates offers Callicles a μῦθος regarding the fate of just and unjust souls after death, a μῦθος which Socrates insists is a true λόγος (523a) to which Callicles ought to submit. With the enunciation of this μῦθος one sees Socrates completely abandoning his authority in the face of the λόγος so as to allow the truth to become manifest (523a). Here are the closing words of the Gorgias:

And so, let us follow the λόγος as our guiding authority (ἡγεμόνι), the one that now discloses itself, which shows to us that this is the best way of life, to live and die practicing both justice and the rest of excellence. And so let us follow this (ἑπώμεθα) and call on others to do so too, and let us not follow the way that you believe and call on me to follow—for you see, Callicles, it is worth nothing (οὐδενὸς ἄξιος). (527e)

Thus, for Socrates, it is not a human ruler at all who will lead human beings to the best life, and certainly not Socrates himself as some expert who possesses knowledge. Rather, it is the true λόγος itself that will lead them; and only the person who can make way for this λόγος, submitting to it, may live well.

With this ending one sees that Callicles’ claim that philosophy renders one powerless and without οὐσία isentirely correct: yet, it is this place of nothingness, of pure receptivity, that allows one to make a place for the truth and (therefore) makes possible the genuine pursuit of the good life. By contrast, that position that Callicles set forth—the position of the man with δύναμις, with πλεονεξία, with παρρησία, the position of the tyrant—is worth nothing: and this nothingness is simply the final vapid expression of what we typically understand as power. If one yields to the λόγος, one sees that the will to power is powerless: it is unable to attain to truth or realize the human good. The most powerful way, by contrast, is the way of retreat, the way of withdrawal, the way that yields power and authority to the λόγος, a way of pure receptivity: true power consists in such powerlessness.25

One finds such powerlessness above all in the figure of Socrates; a figure of that one who, in knowing himself to be ignorant, retreats away from offering his own opinions, making way instead for a reception of the λόγος. In the powerless Socrates, one finds only a lack, an absence, a place of withdrawal; not, however, in the sense of an empty vapidity, but rather in the sense of an active and potent capacity to suspend his will so to make a place for the truth to come to pass: a power that, over against the manliness extolled and exemplified by Callicles, is presented within the Gorgias in feminine terms.26 In Socrates, one finds a power that inverts, in the strongest possible terms, the manly willfulness characteristic of rhetoric and its motivating will to power.

Over against this characterization, one perhaps thinks of Socrates the gadfly—the radical provocateur who, through this practice of a novel form of agon, ceaselessly berates and admonishes his fellow Athenians. If one sees this as a moment where Socrates asserts his self and his will upon others, one overlooks that Socrates’ entire philosophical exercise is grounded in a gesture of reception of, and subservience to, the god Apollo. Socrates was attached to the city by this god (Apology 30e): he is a gift fromApollo to Athens (Ap. 31a). Thus, Socrates’ philosophical efforts of reproaching and exhorting the Athenians to examine themselves and live well is itself a kind of suffering on the part of Socrates: it is the endurance of a thing being done to himby the god (Ap. 23c.) Such a posture of endured reception requires a moment of self-erasure whereby Socrates suspends his own will and willfulness and defers to a higher λόγος. Such radical deference is the power of Socrates: a power that, owing to the manner in which it withdraws from the traditional notions of power and inverts them, must be understood as a kind of powerlessness.27

See Haden 1992, 313. See also Saxonhouse 1983: “The Gorgias is not simply about rhetoric vs. philosophy as a way of life. It is also about different kinds of power” (166).

See Haden 1992, 320, who talks about such persuasion in terms of ‘assimilation.’

See McCoy 2008: “… words can persuade others to shift their opinions. Gorgias gives logoi almost unlimited power in this regard: words can change both the emotions and the opinions of those who hear them, essentially enslaving the listener to the power of the speaker” (90).

By contrast, McCoy sees Socrates as seeking only to win his argument against Gorgias (McCoy 2008, 91). This seems to me to be in tension with the various disavowals that Socrates makes throughout his conversation, and especially with his claim that he is not a ‘lover of victory.’

Along similar lines, see Saxonhouse: “Rhetoric leads to domination over the opinions of others…. The desire for domination comes from a dissatisfaction with what one has, and a supposition that domination will lead to the fulfilment of some of those desires. Polus and Callicles give expression to what is to become the classic twentieth century formulation of politics—who gets what, where, when, and how. Socrates is to question that formulation of politics and the conception of power implicit in it” (Saxonhouse 1983, 166).

One apparent exception is Socrates’ claim, made at 523a, that the μῦθος he is about to offer is ‘true’ (ἀληθῆ). However, as argued below, this passage in fact marks Socrates’ deferral to a higher λόγος, and thus entails a personal disavowal of knowledge.

See Saxonhouse: “It is Polus’ urge for power that drives him to follow Gorgias, that keeps him in close attendance to Gorgias, so that one day perhaps he may do more than simply articulate the role of rhetoric, that he may someday indeed exercise the power which rhetoric promises” (Saxonhouse 1983, 145).

“Philosophy, Socrates, is a charming thing, if someone engages with it moderately while young. But if a human being continues to waste time on it for too long, it will bring that person ruin (διαφθορά)” (484c).

See, for example, Bourgault 2014, 72–73.

Bourgault 2014, 86: “… Callicles embodies precisely what characterizes bad parrhesia … according to Plato”. Against this, McCoy argues that it is Socrates who possesses παρρησία and Callicles who lacks it (McCoy 2008, 87). It is worth noting, however, that in the text it is Callicles, and not Socrates, who is said to possess it. One can claim that Socrates is being ironic here; but such a supposition misses, I think, Socrates’ critical attitude toward παρρησία, an attitude which I elucidate below.

See Bourgault 2014, 66 who notes that parrhesia was sometimes used by Plato (as well as others) as a negative term.

As Foucault writes elsewhere, “in parrhesia, the speaker makes it manifestly clear and obvious that what he says is his own opinion” (Foucault 2001, 12; my emphasis).

Foucault notes that franc-parler—‘speaking freely’—is the preferred French translation of παρρησία (Foucault 2001, 373). As I hope to show presently, the speech of the philosopher is not ‘free’ at all, if this means the license to say whatever one wills. Rather, the speaking of the philosopher submits to the truth and is bound to it.

See Race 1979, 200.

See 495a. Bourgault argues that what Callicles lacks is not shame, but rather σωφροσύνη (Bourgault 2015, 72). I would submit that he lacks both and that, indeed, the two co-implicate one another.

As scholars have noted, there is a tension between Socrates’ apparent valuing of παρρησία and his own extensive use of irony, that is, of precisely not speaking freely and opening. See Bourgault 2015, 73. In his fascinating book on Plato’s Republic, Stanley Rosen makes the following claim: “With all due recognition of irony and concealment, frankness is a necessary attribute of the Socratic, and so too of the Platonic, enterprise” (Rosen 2005, 283). One wonders, however, what sense ‘frankness’ can have for a person for whom irony and concealment are so integral.

See 447a, where Socrates blames his tardiness on Chaerephon’s insistence that they spend time in the agora.

See Saxonhouse 1983, who notes the difference between Callicles’ and Socrates’ conceptions of power: “[The differences between Callicles and Socrates] stem from different conceptions of power, power over others as in the master and slave relationships of Callicles’ vision, and power over oneself—as power to distinguish between good and bad passions and to choose the former” (166).

As Race 1979 astutely notes, what is truly shameful, for Socrates, is ignorance (i.e., feigned knowledge, and thus ignorance of one’s own ignorance) (201). Callicles, in failing to feel shame, fails to see himself as ignorant: he fails to become aware of his own epistemological poverty.

See 494d: “According to you, Callicles, I dumbfounded Polus and Gorgias and made them feel shame, but you are not dumbfounded and you do not feel shame, on account of being so manly (ἀνδρεῖος).”

See Bourgault 2014, 73–75 who offers an insightful and compelling argument regarding Socratic silence and Socratic listening.

See Saxonhouse 1983, 155: “Life for Callicles is the passionate life, a life of constantly seeking more; it is the Hobbesian life where one’s desires can never be fully satisfied, only briefly met and then instantly reignited…. The real man is the eternal consumer.” See also Zuckert 2009, 551: “As his disdain for moderation indicates, Callicles believes that the best thing for human beings is to be able to do what they want.”

To be sure, Callicles accuses Socrates of a certain willfulness of his own: namely, of seeking only to refute him, of seeking to assert himself over the other interlocutors by dominating the argument (515b), and even of acting violently as he does so (505d). In other words, Callicles accuses Socrates of just the sort of will to dominate and overpower that Callicles himself possesses. This, however, is as it should be: for Callicles lacks the appropriate context in which to view Socrates’ behavior as anything other than agonistic. For Callicles, for whom exerting power over others is a virtue, refutation is merely a rhetorical means by which one asserts oneself over another and dominates them. The idea that Socrates would be conversing with him for any reason other than victory is unthinkable for him.

Though she does not express it in terms of powerlessness, it seems to me that Saxonhouse reaches a similar conclusion regarding Socrates’ understanding of power: “The conception of power which Socrates proposes in this dialogue is not the power to fill another and satisfy her desires, nor to make another serve one’s own interests. It is a conception of power which can only be understood in terms of making one better, and making one better consists in making one aware of what one lacks—not the dockyards or imports or other such filth—but virtue” (Saxonhouse 1983, 165; my emphasis).

As Haden puts it somewhat differently: “It is by surrendering oneself to the lucidity of reason, which Callicles is unwilling to do, that one makes oneself authentically rational, i.e., an agent who identifies with reason and acts from it. That is Socratic power” (Haden 1992, 326; my emphasis).

See Strauss, who notes a certain kinship between Socrates and the classically feminine (Strauss 2004, 31–32).

My enduring gratitude to Dr. Robert Metcalf for reviewing an earlier draft of this paper and making extensive and extremely helpful comments.

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