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2nd tetralogy : the soul

Note (June 6, 2009) : this page has been updated after I realized I had made a mistake in the ordering of the dialogues of this tetralogy and inverted the order of the Gorgias, which I had put up until now as the central dialogue of the trilogy, and the Hippias Minor, which I had so far placed last in the trilogy. Now, it turns out that this revision didn't require much change to this page, aside from reordering the comments on each dialogue. Some people might take argument of this to say that the organization of the dialogues I suggest is utterly artificial and that it might be possible to justify, with similar arguments, all kinds of different organizations for the dialogues. But it seems to me there is another way of looking at it. As a matter of fact, I realized that, if I didn't have much to change to this presentation, it was because most of it was made up of a succession of commentaries on each individual dialogue in the tetralogy and it didn't include much regarding the ordering of the dialogues, maybe precisely because this ordering was not as obvious as it was for most other tetralogies. And indeed, when I turn back toward my initial attempts at deciphering the organization of the dialogues, about thirty years ago, I can see that the two tetralogies that gave me most pain and required most adjustments are the second (the one we are dealing with here) and the fifth (Cratylus - Ion/Euthydemus/Menexenus). Most of my hesitations centered on two dialogues, the Gorgias and the Euthydemus, and, in my first sketches, it is the Euthydemus which was part of the second tetralogy, the tetralogy of the sophists, and the Gorgias of the fifth, that of the logos/speech. In such an approach, the Gorgias had found an obvious place at the level of the logos in the fifth tetralogy, that is, as final dialogue of the trilogy,which implied that the Menexenus was placed as the central dialogue of that trilogy, and the Euthydemus, with its pair of sophists reminiscent of the many pairs of characters of the Laches, called for the central position in the trilogy of the tetralogy of the sophists, between the two Hippiases. But I had not yet uncovered all the subtelties of that organaisation I assumed had been intended by Plato, as it was precisely my purpose then to test the validity of my hypotheses by more in depth readings of the various dialogues. Along the way, it was easier for me to lay a hand on the principle of organisation of the fifth tetralogy than it was to uncover that of the second, and thus to realize that the Menexenus was not at its proper place in it (as a political speech, it had a more obvious place at the same level as the Statesman in the ensuing tetralogy) and that, once it had taken the place that had been that of the Gorgias, it was freeing a place quite fit for the Euthydemus as central dialogue of the trilogy in order to form the series poetical speech (Ion), eristical speech (Euthydemus), political speech (Menexenus), thus sending the Gorgias backward into the second tetralogy. Under the principle of economy in the game of permutations, I then tested in the first place the adequacy of the Gorgias as central dialogue of that trilogy, the space left available by the move of the Euthydemus and, lacking reasons for moving around either of the two Hippiases, I settled with this solution and never challenged it up until now, mainly because, as time passed, I moved toward other dialogues and remained blindfolded by the apparent symmetry displayed by a Gorgias between two Hippiases. This mistake was rendered easier by the fact that the dialogues are not monothematic works, that each one of them doesn't focus exclusively on one single viewpoint on one single issue, but that everything in them is a matter of putting more or less stress, often in a allusive way or by way of subtle staging details, on one or another of the many themes that are intertwined in the dialogue, so that, under such conditions, it is quite easy to improperly evaluate the importance of one or another of the hints potentially devised to guide us in assigning a place to a dialogue in the overall organisation so long as one has not put his finger on the organizing principle of one or another of the sequences that will make obvious the ordering of the dialogues in it. And I must admit that, if such a principle is clear for all other tetralogies (philo-sophos anèr for the first one; the chronology of Socrates' trial for the third one; nature, behavior and destiny of the soul for the fourth one; the three levels of speech for the fifth one; the chronology implied by cross-references between dialogues for the sixth one and the beginning of the seventh one), it is not for the second, even today, maybe precisely because the world of sophistry doesn't have inner consistency. In fact, it is only by repositionning each dialogue of the trilogy based upon the general principles guiding the organisation of the other trilogies that it becomes ultimately possible to assign its proper place to each of the three dialogues of the trilogy of the second tetralogy, and this requires that proper attention has been given to the pairing of candidates for role models presented in the Hippias Minor, Achilles and Odysseus on the one hand, but also Socrates (the most just man) and Hippias (the paradigm of the unjust man when justice is defined along the lines of the Republic) on the other hand, and that we see that this is what brings it closer to other central dialogues of trilogies often staging pairs of characters for dealing with the intermediate level of the soul where conflicts are solved.

In search of teachers

Them or me

After the stage has been set in the first tetralogy, and we have been told we should look for that sophia which makes a man what he should be, that knowledge of self which allows us to do what we should do, the next step is to examine the claim of those who pretend to be sophoi and to teach "virtue", arètè, this all-encompassing quality by which anything is to the supreme degree what it is meant to be. The best known of these "teachers" called themselves "sophists" by Socrates' time, and were making a lot of money going from city to city looking for disciples and lecturing large audiences of citizens fond of good speeches and anxious to learn how to get their way in public assemblies and judicial courts. They were prime rivals of Socrates (and Plato), so Plato had to show in what manner his program differed from theirs, especially owing to the fact that one of the reasons for Socrates condemnation by the Athenians was that many thought he was himself a sophist and was no different from them.

Then and now

But in so doing, Plato is not writing some sort of "History of philosophy", or a defense of the memory of his master. Rather, in unveiling the tricks of the "fathers", he is directly fighting against their living "sons" : after all, Isocrates, head of a most successful competing school in Athens in Plato's time, was one of the brightest disciples of Gorgias, and about three quarters of the Gorgias, the final dialogue of the trilogy in our tetralogy, stage pupils of Gorgias (Polus and Callicles) rather than Gorgias himself ! And more generally speaking, he is opposing two different ways of looking at education, the fast path to success for the student (and wealth for the teacher) and the slower road to true wisdom in which the teacher seeks the true good of his students, not his, and through it, the good of the cities they will live in (and it is from that, and only from that, that is, from a bettered world to live in, that he expects some future good in return for him). And in that respect, he is still relevant for us today, especially for us today who live in a world that has many similarities with his, not the least of these being a quasi-religious cult of "democracy" and a measure of success based on material wealth...

See by yourselves

What Plato wants to show us, empirically at that point in time, through dialogues between Socrates and the most successful of the sophists, is that these self-proclaimed "wise men" only have the appearance of wisdom, that they are mere producers of illusions, unable to teach men what can really make them happy and good. Hippias for instance, with all his science, is unable to realize that justice is not on a par with all these sciences, be they physical or intellectual sciences ; Gorgias, prince of rhetoric, doesn't care that his craft only produces persuasion, not truth, and that, put in the hands of less scrupulous practitioners, it leads to all sorts of evils, and to Socrates' trial and death ; Prodicus focuses on words rather than "ideas" behind these words, mistaking the images for the real thing and wasting time in futile distinctions with no practical consequences ; and above all, Protagoras, the theoretician of "relativity", teaches that man is the measure of all things and should not search for eternal truth in some sort of heaven up above.

Take your time

But beware ! Don't be in a hurry ! This tetralogy will not go at the heart of the matter, and won't strike at the roots of the sophists' theories (explicit or implicit). This will come only later, and Plato will show himself a master at unraveling the implied assumptions behind words and deeds and pointing at the inconsistencies between them. For the time being, the purpose is only to look at the fruits of these masters' teaching, at their consequences in practical life, so that we may have a chance to start the inquiry by ourselves. And we must first investigate the "visible" before we can pretend to reach for the "intelligible". Thus, the unraveling of the principles of sophistic rhetoric will come only in the Phædrus, along with the rebuilding of a truer rhetoric, not in the Gorgias ; the criticism of Protagoras' relativism, and of the scientism and materialism it eventually leads to, will come with the Theætetus, not in the Protagoras or Hippiases, and they will be replaced only after that by dialectic and true political theory... For now, let us only watch and hear with our bodily senses what these men are able to do and say for their own defense. But in so doing, let us be careful that, as we already said, Plato, unlike his disciple Aristotle, was a master at understanding other people's systems in depth, seeing their inconsistencies and criticizing them from inside, on their own premises, to better exhibit those inconsistencies, and that, in some cases, he is so successful that it looks like he is playing by the other's rules, and doing and saying now what he reproaches his interlocutor to do and say a few lines earlier or later...

Protagoras : the soul of the sophists and the soul of Athens

And now, to get an amazing picture of the sophists' world as seen by Plato, let us turn to the beginning of the Protagoras, which will at the same time give us a "key" to that tetralogy.

Everybody marvels at the wonderful description of the sophists in the house of Callias upon Socrates' arrival there, at Protagoras, 314e-316a, and the deep sense of humor Plato displays in that section, but nobody has been trying to find more than picturesque in that scene, a break before getting to serious business. I would like to suggest that it is in effect much more than that, and that it gives us an "image" of the soul of Sophistry.

Each one of the three sophists here introduced stands for one part of that soul, but it turns out to be a soul "upside-down". To see it, let's start with their "bodily" positions : Protagoras stands, as he is seen walking ; Hippias sits ; and Prodicus lies, in a separate room formerly used by Callias' father to store food. Thus one might think, by analogy with the "physical" position of the parts of man's soul in the Timæus (1), that Protagoras is the upper part of the soul, the logos ; Hippias in between, the thumos ; and Prodicus deep down in a food storage room, the epithumiai.

Prince charming

And yet, Protagoras is closest to the door, that is, to the outside world ; he is the only one to move, not a good analogy with the logos ; he is the one who talks to our feelings, "charming his followers with his voice like a new Orpheus" (315b) ; he is the one with the greatest number of followers, thus siding with "the many" ; he is known for his relativistic theories, grounded in Heraclitean mobilism (2), and here shown in perpetual motion, like the world he describes after Heraclitus (but, unknown to him, the "world" of his followers displays a marvelous order, in much the same way the "real" world displays an order that should inspire us if, with Socrates and Timæus, we know how to contemplate it and to "read" it). He is in perpetual motion, yet going nowhere as he is just walking back and forth in the same room, an image of the passions he stands for.

The fact is, you don't have a soul just because you give the appearance of having not one, but two of them (two groups of three followers, one on each side). And your soul is not in order just because it externally appears to be in order through the well ordained movement of your disciples. You are no leading logos just because you side with the master of the house, Callias, thus siding with wealth and material goods ; or because you surround yourself with the sons of a famed politician (the two sons of Pericles, one in each "pseudo-soul"), who are considered stupid by Alcibiades who was raised with them (Alc., 118e), and only good at horse-riding by Socrates (Meno, 94b), but certainly not at driving those horses that, according to the allegory in Phædrus, make up the lower parts of our soul ; or because you fascinate a promising young lad from Solon's family, Charmides, who will soon be turned into a tyrant by his cousin and mentor Critias (both of them ended up among the Thirty Tyrants) ; you are not able to drive the "horses" of your soul just because you look like a friend of horses (the meaning of the name of another one of his followers, Philippides, that is, phil-hippo-eidès), especially if you are a "friend of the black" (the meaning of the name of Philippides' father, Philomelos), that is, of the black horse, which, in the allegory of the Phædrus, is the most stubborn part of our soul, the desiring one. And eventually, your soul should be your best disciple, but when it is called Antimoiros of Mendè (unknown from any other source), coming from a city famed for its wine, and whose name means "opposed to moira", moira being possibly the fate that awaits each one of us, but more likely the "theou moira" of which Socrates tells us at Republic, VI, 492e-493a, that it is the only thing that can save us in that corrupt world, and which is none other than the god given logos, you don't qualify to be that logos you are opposed to.

The wizard of wOrdZ

On the other hand, Prodicus is the one described by Socrates as "passophos kai theios" (315e), that is, "fully wise and divine" ; he is also the one standing in a different room, like the immortal soul (logos) separate from the mortal one (thumos and epithumiai) at Timæus, 69d-e ; he is the one whose only business is the logos, or, should we rather say, logoi, that is, a "materialistic" and infinitely divided logos limited to words he is storing in neatly labelled compartments in his brains, like the food Callias use to store in the room he is lying in : he is the one trying hard to use the right word in the right place, the one who is called upon each time there is doubt as to the exact meaning of a word. But this "skin-deep" lying logos is very remote beneath his furs and blankets (315d), out of touch with the "real world" and almost impossible to hear due to his low and deep voice physically blurring words he so desperately tries to distinguish ! And what kind of unity does he offer his disciples ? Either the short-lived unity of physical love, as between Pausanias and young Agathon (both of whom will show up again in the Symposium), or the artificial unity of similar names, as between the two Adeimantus (none of whom is the one who will show up in the Republic).

The king of (lecture) clubs

Alone seemingly in his place in that upside-down soul is Hippias, halfway in between, though he too tries hard to usurp the place of logos : seated, but seated high on a throne, like a teacher, in front of pupils seating on school benches way below him. Fittingly for a "judging" soul, he is described as "pronouncing rulings (diekrinen) from the top of his throne" (315c), but, rather than listening to some wiser logos to make decisions on his own way of life, this self-proclaimed "universal" scientist is himself questioned "about nature and astronomical matters (péri phuséôs té kai tôn météôrôn astronomika)" (315c), on which matters he solemnly pronounces his rulings, with a purely physical view of both the world below (the phusis) and the heavens above (the tôn météôrôn astronomika).

Among Hippias' listeners are Eryximachus, the physician, and Phædrus, the only one who will be able to drag Socrates in the surrounding nature outside Athens to hear a description of soul's nature in the dialogue that bears his name (both will team up in the Symposium to come up with the theme of the speeches on love) ; and the "man of man", Andron, son of Androtion, whom we will soon find again mentioned, in the final dialogue of this trilogy, as one of the best friends of Callicles (Gorgias, 487c), and whose son, also called Androtion after his grandfather, became a disciple of Isocrates in the time of Plato.

Hippias is also the one who, halfway through the dialogue, when Socrates is about to leave because Protagoras doesn't want to abide by his rules, asks both of them to go halfway toward the other one, seeking the justice of the mean (337e-338b), and suggests that they name a arbitrator, probably hoping to be chosen for that role (but Socrates will prefer to chose the whole crowd to be the arbitrator, that is, the arbitrator Hippias himself calls upon when in difficulty, as, for instance at Hippias Major, 288a). He is the one who, after Socrates has mocked the sophists in turning a poem from Simonides upside down and having it say the contrary of what it obviously means, is unable to discern that Socrates was joking all along, pays lip service to him and has only one idea in mind, to take this opportunity to deliver a similar speech of his on the same poem (347a-b) ! What a nice way to listen to a wiser logos !...

Three is a crowd

But, next to this soul of the teachers, another soul gathers, the soul of the crowd, the soul of Athens. It does so with the arrival, behind Socrates and Hippocrates, but not belonging to his party or to any already formed group, of Alcibiades and Critias (who opened and closed the first tetralogy) (316a). They team up with the host, Callias, as we'll find out in the rest of the dialogue, to "play the part" of the soul of the listeners, that is, of Athens : Callias, out of Protagoras' party, at the level of the epithumiai, Alcibiades, hot-tempered and always taking sides (see what Critias says of him at 336e), as the will, the thumos, and Critias as the logos.

And what a soul it makes ! Callias on the "material" side is one of the richest men in Athens at the time, that is one best gifted at plucking his fellow citizens and keeping the largest share for himself ; and he is also the man who uses his wealth to play host to the sophists, providing them with food and lodging while they come distill their poison in Athens... Alcibiades is a "will" of choice, him who could never make up his mind as to which side he was on : he betrayed Athens by siding with Sparta ; then Sparta to side with the Persians, after having had an affair (and most likely a son) with the wife of Agis, the king of Sparta ; then the Persians to return to Athens ; and he was one of those persons you could say was the husband of all wives and the wife of all husbands... And Critias, a sophist himself, who believed the gods to be the invention of some astute man to better keep the people in check (Marx didn't invent this one, twenty centuries later), is the leader who, upon reaching power with the Thirty Tyrants, started killing Athenians like nobody before him... But this soul is a perfect image of the soul of Athens under the influence of all these sophists !

The gift from Apollo

And thus, Socrates is caught in between these two souls, trying to convince, he the healer of souls, a young Hippocrates, namesake of the most famous healer of bodies at the time, and whose name means "the one who has power over horses", and, along with him, the soul of Athens, that they shouldn't listen to all theses Orpheuses from Abdera, Elis, Ceos, Leontium or god knows where, who only care for money, but rather to him when he tells them to turn toward that gift of the gods within themselves (Hippocrates is son of Apollodoros, that is "gift from Apollo", and we will have some day to relate that to the name of Pythodoros, that is, "gift from the Pythoness", who is at the origin of the story of the dialogue between Parmenides and Socrates in the Parmenides). And not only listen to him, the way Critias or Alcibiades themselves do, but act accordingly (we'll find out halfway through, in the Symposium, that Alcibiades sided with him in words only and kept acting his own evil way, but we'll have to wait till the end to find out in the Critias how Critias will try to defuse Socrates revolutionary ideals).

Before the discussion begins, upon request from Socrates and with the help of Callias and Alcibiades, these souls are brought together at the intermediate level (the one whose business it is to "judge") : next to Hippias' place and in a seated position for everybody (317c-e). And, after a first attempt to raise the level of the discussion from the level of feelings where Protagoras-epithumiai drags it with a myth (and we'll have to compare this myth with that of the Timæus, of which it is the exact "negative") to that of dialectical speech without the slightest sign of involvement from either Hippias-thumos or Prodicus-logos, and no reaction whatsoever from the crowd, at the exact middle of the dialogue, Socrates tries to get them to move by switching from words to deeds : seizing upon a futile argument (Protagoras' supposed lengthy answer is hardly half a Stephanus page long while he started the discussion with a myth and a speech that went uninterrupted for eight pages without raising objections on the part of Socrates), he starts physically moving himself, pretending he wants to leave (335b-c).

This move is to some extent more successful that his words. At least does he get some reaction from both the crowd and the two other sophists. But this reaction follows an upward movement within Athens' "soul", from Callias' desires, through Alcibiades will siding with Socrates, all the way up to Critias' reason, which is careful not to take side, only to fall back within the sophists' soul from Prodicus' reasons (always careful to use the proper word, but only that) to Hippias' inability to play arbiter (he wants somebody else to make the choice) and down to Protagoras reluctant acceptance of new rules and return to where he belongs, in the comments of poetry, another form of speech meant to talk to our feelings... (335c-339a)

And if the second attempt of Socrates to raise the level of the discussion once again can be said to be somewhat more successful, it is mostly due to his repeated attempts to drag Prodicus and, to a lesser extent, Hippias, in the discussion. But Hippias doesn't listen and only cares for a chance to show off himself and give a taste of his own rhetorical gifts, while Prodicus keeps picking at words, words and words... And in the end, the physical movement of Protagoras and his disciples going back and forth in the lobby of Callias' house that was stopped by the discussion, has taken place "in thoughts" with Socrates forcing Protagoras to reluctantly admit that, by his own token, virtue can only be taught if it is a science, science of measurement of the relative worth of pleasures, while it is he, Socrates, who initially doubted that virtue could be taught, who is now proving, on Protagoras' premisses, that it is a science.

The paradigm of injustice

Now that we have disposed of Protagoras and his pretense to teach virtue, and especially political virtue, at least for the time being, we must find out more specifically why the teaching of the sophists is worthless, at all levels of the soul. In order to do that, the ensuing trilogy exhibits in turn a soul without logos, that of Hippias, and a logos without soul, that of Gorgias:

At the end of this program, we may not be able yet to clearly see that :

but at least we will have the material on which to work as we proceed until further light shed on it brightens the picture.

Hippias Major : the invisible man

The harder they fall

To Hippias who wants to play logos by sitting on a throne, Socrates gives an interlocutor that should please him : the "invisible" part of himself, that is, the "intelligible" one, his own logos. And in so doing, he reveals in action what the discussion shows in words, namely that Hippias is unable to raise at the level of "forms" abstracted from sensible instances : Hippias doesn't discuss ideas, he fights named opponents ; he tries times and again to know the name of the invisible man, and doesn't see that he "would know nothing more if Socrates told him his name" (290e), at least as far as the question under investigation goes. In fact, Hippias shows himself unable to go past the first step of the dialectical ascent that Socrates will describe in the Symposium when trying to pull together the bits and pieces of the city's broken soul (broken by the sophists in the Protagoras) and glue them together with the cement of true eros : he is unable to understand the difference between "what is beautiful (ti esti kallon)" and "what is the beautiful (ti esti to kallon)" (287d) (3), and to raise from a beautiful girl to the "form" of the beautiful.

Stay in line

To better prove the point, Plato gets Hippias, on that same problem of defining what is "the beautiful (to kallon)", through all the "segments" of reality, according to a plan that is very similar to that of the dialogues as a whole, first, while still on the side of the visible, that is, during the first half of the dialogue, having him pick the definitions, then, for the second half, to explore the side of the intelligible, having Socrates pretending to follow on the "invisible man"'s footstep in suggesting definitions to be examined (293c-d, the exact middle of the dialogue) :

One wedding and three funerals

And, short of a soul to bridge the two parts, taking the place of the central tetralogy in that plan, the third definition, the last one given by Hippias, encompasses the whole of material life : "I say now that what is always and for everybody and everywhere most beautiful for man is to be rich, healthy, praised by the Greeks, to reach old age having beautifully laid to rest his own genitors at the end of their lives, to be buried beautifully and magnificently by his own offspring" (291d-e). It is the most Hippias can do in terms of generalization ("always and for everybody and everywhere"), yet if falls short of abstraction. And it gives his view of what the "end" of man is : not the building over time of a just soul within and without that will reach eternity at death, but a purely earthly and bodily life of material wealth that ends with fine funeral. It also reveals Hippias' understanding of justice when, a few lines later, he wants Socrates to bring the invisible man to trial for using physical coercion (a stick) to get him to raise above the material world toward a more abstract understanding of beauty (292a-b), and it offers Socrates an opportunity to introduce the difference between what looks beautiful and what is beautiful, that is, between appearance and reality, between visible and intelligible.

Please, get in shape(s)

But Hippias is definitely unable to raise above the materialistic view of being that is his, despite two attempts by Socrates to bring in "forms", between the first and second definition of each group :

The misunderstanding is clearly stated by Hippias in the middle of that dialectical deduction, when he reproaches Socrates "not to look at the whole of things", "to tear apart in his speeches (en tois logois) each one of the beings", and to be unable to see "the huge continuous bodily nature of what is (megala kai dianekè sômata tès ousias pephukota)" (301b). Any discussion between the bodily Hippias and the invisible Socrates is bound to failure.... But Hippias doesn't care about "scraps of speeches" (304a) so long as he is sure to "save his skin and his wealth" in court by beautiful ( !?) and, above all, persuasive speeches...

Hippias minor : the ring of Gyges and the coat of Cebes

After having been shown Hippias unable to translate his feelings into "forms", into any meaningful "oracle" for the upper part of the soul, we will be shown him unable to make sense of all his knowledge, unable to find in it a leading principle for his will, and his self, because he doesn't see the difference between knowing how to do something and knowing why to do it, or at least doesn't realize that if knowledge as he sees it (we might say today "scientific" and "technical" knowledge) tells him how to do things, it will never tell him why to do this rather than that.

Achilles and Odysseus

And this lesson will come after a lecture by Hippias on the logos of logôn for any Greek at the time, on the teacher of Greece and its "bible", Homer, the poietes become leader of a whole people. It will thus show without telling yet in plain words (this will come later, in the Phædrus), as was already shown with Simonides in the Protagoras, that a written text cannot be a teacher because anybody can bend it to his advantage and have it say what he wants. And it will do this by opposing one who always says what he thinks but doesn't know what he wants and keeps changing his mind at the pulse of his desires, leading a whole nation to war and death, Achilles as an image of Hippias and his likes, to one with a single definite purpose, to go back home to his wife and child, who may not know how to achieve it and may find obstacles along the way, but honestly keeps trying and uses all the resources of his mind to succeed against all odds, Odysseus as an image of Socrates and the true philosophers spending their lives in the quest of their eternal home and beloved sophia, despite all the traps of material life.

From numbers to notes

And whereas in trying to raise Hippias from the level of feelings up to that of forms, in the Hippîas Major, Socrates was moving "up" the line from visible images to dialectical deductions, in trying here to find the intelligible logos of a material logos, Socrates is dragged by Hippias' materialistic bend from the sphere of the intelligible down to that of the visible : the dialogue unfolds in two parts, each one starting with considerations on Homer's text before moving toward a more abstract discussion no longer limited to Homer and his stories ; and while, in the first part, the examples in the discussion come from abstract, intelligible areas, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and so on, in the second part, to make himself understood, Socrates must take his examples in the physical world, biology, bodies, even animals, and, when eventually talking about man and his soul, giving as examples the soul of an archer, a physician (healer of bodies), a musician, or even a slave, before concluding on Hippias' own soul (375a-c).

The gold medal of injustice

And the move from the first to the second part of the discussion starts, not by a portrayal of the "good life" according to Hippias, as was the case in the Hippias major, but by a portrayal of Know-It-All-Hippias by Socrates (368b-e). It shows Hippias bragging and posturing in front of all Greece assembled at the Olympic games, confusing intellectual challenges and physical contests, and displaying the "antisocial" behavior of one who doesn't expect any help from his fellow men, as he only wears what he himself manufactured. And it is worth noting that the first item Socrates mentions as made by Hippias is a ring : this ring may anticipate Gyges' ring in the story told by Glaucon in the Republic (Rep., II, 359c-360b), symbol of the irresponsibility of the man who seeks explanations for his behavior within the earth, where he can only find a dead body within a wooden horse full of holes, that is, a man-made materialistic monistic "soul" limited to his passions and akin to a Trojan horse bringing war and death, the exact antithesis of the caveman freed from his chains by the teacher who leads him up the hill all the way to the good so that he may come back in the cave, not to use his eros to seduce the king's wife and usurp power to better fleece his fellow shepherds, like Gyges, but to help them cope with their fate and free in turn those who are able to follow on his footsteps.

Hippias is also shown as the weaver who wove his own coat, and this coat may anticipate the coat Cebes uses as an image of the soul in the Phædo (Phædo, 87b), to voice his fear that the soul might "wear down" over time. Hippias is the man who spends time building himself a "material" soul, crafting things that may well outlast him for a short while rather than building his own soul, his own self, for an everlasting life.

To sum it up, Hippias is the man who doesn't care for other people so long as they applaud to his "beautiful" speeches (he who doesn't know what "beautiful" means) and pay him tribute with more hard cash than any other sophist, who will never find justice because he sees it as a "power" (dunamis) or "knowledge" (epistèmè) among others (375e), rather than a "form", an end to which all dunameis and knowledge are subservient as mere means toward it. He, not Socrates, is the one who thinks that "virtue is knowledge", at least in the sense most people still give this statement, especially nowadays where scientific knowledge is once again glorified, because, as far as Socrates is concerned, the only knowledge that brings virtue is knowledge of self, which is not on a par with all other knowledge, and is certainly not a scientific or technical knowledge. The analogy drawn by Socrates with technai, the "craft analogy", as it is sometimes called, is not meant to suggest that virtue is a technè among others, but to show on examples everybody can understand that one cannot reach his goal in whatever he does if he doesn't know that goal ; but then, our goal in life is not to build a ring, or a coat, or a body, or even a city, but a soul, our soul, and, in order to do so, we must know what a soul is, what justice, the unity of the soul and the form of man, is. And, if Socrates doesn't know the last word of it, Hippias doesn't know the fist word of it !...

Plato and Aristotle

One more word : this whole discussion may have to do, not only with Plato's forerunners, Hippias and the sophists, or his contemporaries, such as Isocrates, Gorgias' follower, but also with his successors, and chief among them, his best known pupil, Aristotle ! In a sense, it is the problem of the relationship between power and act which is in the background of this whole discussion, even if the "technical" vocabulary of Aristotle is not all there. For Plato and his Socrates, justice, as the "form" of man, is an end, the "act" of a whole life ; but it is not "hardwired" in the "germ" of man, such that it would only have to "unfold" over time. It has to be built by him one step at a time, and it certainly isn't the "form" of a man in the sense of a likeness, an "image" (or rather the original all men would be images of), that would warrant the objection of the "third man" ! Man "participates" in justice, the form of man, not because he "resembles" it, but because (and only if) he builds it into his life (and it is Aristotle himself (Metaph. A, 987b12-15) who says that the change from Pythagoras to Plato was to replace resemblance, "mimèsis", by "participation (methexis)" ! Obviously, he didn't fully understand what it meant, seeing in it only a change in words...). And justice, as a form, doesn't "live", doesn't build anything. It merely "defines" what a just life should be in general terms that each one has to adapt to circumstances the best he can ; it is an "idea" rather than a "form"...

If there is "power", "dunamis" in man to become just, it is not because justice, or whatever you wish the "idea" of man to be, is a "power" that will unfold until it is "in act" at some point in time, but because there is "power" in man to build to some extent his own life as he chooses, because there is freedom in him due to the threefold structure of his soul. And there is freedom in him precisely because the "idea" of man is not a DNA string in his chromosomes, but an "ideal" outside him, that he may reach or miss. And justice is not the result of any one power or dunamis, but the harmonious commonwealth (koinônia) of all the powers he has toward a single end, a just soul. It is not the last act in time of a man, be it Socrates' death, but the whole of his life, each part of it shedding light on other parts so that the sum total makes it a "good life". But, because it is the whole of it, it is not completed, it is not certain, until death. And that's why Socrates, once dead, not Plato, still alive, and least of all Aristotle, still trying hard to catch on, and who never fully understood Plato, can best speak about it, "resurrected" by Plato's art (probably at a time when discussions with Aristotle had already taken place) in the suspended time between his "logical" death at the end of the Crito and his "physical" death at the end of the Phædo...

Gorgias : the (doomed) soul of rhetoric

Sicilian cookbook

Now that we have seen the limits of Hippias' encyclopaedic knowledge and realize that it is not "science" that will give us the answers we need to properly direct our life, time has come to put to the test the pretense of those who seek a guide for life in the logos, but in a logos understood solely as an oratory technique, a technique initially developed by Sicilian rhetors and brought to fame by the brightest one of them all, Gorgias, a technique that, by the way, Hippias was claiming as what best befits a man worthy of than name in his last words at the end of the Hippias Major (see Greater Hippias, 304a6-b6). The end result will be to show that to reduce in this manner logos to a mere art of speech amounts to making it a mere cooking of words which is to justice of the soul what cooking is to medecine in the realm of the body, and to make us foresee, as a prelude to the ensuing tetralogy of the trial of Socrates, that this technique put in the hands of unscrupulous persons soon leads to the worst.

Two steps down

To get the point across, Plato stages in the Gorgias the "soul" of rhetoric after having staged in the Protagoras the "soul" of sophistry. So, once again, we are faced with characters "playing" parts of the soul : Gorgias plays the logos of rhetoric, Polus (the impetuous "young colt") its thumos, and Callicles its epithumiai. And the dialogue shows how the kind of logos rhetoric develops, because it doesn't care about truth but only about pleasure, even if it tries, and precisely because it tries, to remain "neutral", is soon taken over by a more impulsive "second generation" who bends it to its unbridled will in the face of powerless teachers, only to lead to a "third generation" of voracious appetites who sees in it a tool of power to satisfy its limitless appetites for selfish pleasures of all kinds. Thus, preparing for what will be "theorized" in the Republic, the Gorgias at the same time depicts the degenerative process from master to disciple that leads over time from a well-intentioned Gorgias to Socrates' trial (as has already been said, a hardly veiled "prophecy" of this trial by Callicles can be found at 486a-b, almost the exact center of the dialogue), and "stages" the psychological explanation of this decay in the downfall of the discussion from logos to thumos to epithumiai, each "part" being all but silenced by the lower one. After the soul upside-down of the Protagoras, we are presented with the process that brings about such a soul and gives the epithumiai total control of the whole soul.

A careful analysis of the vocabulary in each part of the Gorgias confirms the "role" given each character. But even without resorting to such a detailed study at this point, a broad examination of the theme of each discussion does the job.

Gorgias : don't blame me !

Gorgias himself describes at the outset his craft as being "peri logous" (449d) and the ensuing discussion opposes two kinds of logôn, one whose purpose is to bring knowledge (mathesis, to eidenai, epistèmè), that is, something that can never be wrong, the other whose purpose is to induce belief (pistis), that is something that may be either right or wrong (454d-e), and stresses the different kinds of persuasion produced by each one ; and the pretense of the later, the one Gorgias sides with, to lead and have a political role is dismissed because it only allows one who doesn't know to convince others who don't know better. In the end, Gorgias is shown to be a logos who reluctantly pretends to teach justice to those who don't know it yet, and tries to escape responsibility in the consequences of what he teaches : What a leader !...

Another fact showing the distribution of parts between Gorgias and Polus is that, when Socrates, at the beginning of the discussion with Polus, wants to present his theory of flattery (kolakeia), he turns back to Gorgias, who alone as the logos, if any in this "soul", should be able to understand a "theory", keeping Polus involved only as an attempt to reconcile the thumos with its logos.

Polus : don't tell me !

The discussion with Polus, once the theory of kolakeia has been expounded, centers on the problem of what it means to "will", and how one can be free to act as he pleases and yet not do what he truly "wants", precisely for lack of logos. It shows that will alone is not capable of setting the goal, because, though it always wants what seems good to it, it doesn't have in itself (the "willing" part of the soul) the ability to know what is truly good to the whole it is only a part of. Accordingly, it may seek its own specific good, trying to show off, or side with the good as felt by the lower part of the soul, that is pleasure, or with the good known by the logos, the only part of the soul that can know the good of all the parts (as we'll learn more explicitly at Republic, IX, 580d-583a).

Behind this discussion are some key principles which have been widely misunderstood and are still branded as "Socratic paradoxes" in many circles : the assumption that "nobody does willingly evil", and that "virtue is knowledge". Here, Socrates states the first one with Polus in a positive way, when he says that we do all we do in view of some good (468a-d), and twice recalls this part of the discussion with Callicles (at 499e, then at 509e), the last time in the more familiar negative way, saying that "one never voluntarily acts unjustly, but it is always involuntarily that those who act unjustly commit injustice" (509e), immediately after having hinted at the second principle through a question asking if "it is enough not to want to commit injustice to in effect not commit it, or rather don't we need for that purpose some sort of power and craft (dunamin tina kai technèn) such that, if we don't know it and lack that power (ean mè mathè auta kai askèsè), we will commit injustice" (509d-e). What Socrates means here, and repeats under various forms in other places, is that nobody ever willingly does anything for the purpose of what he thinks would be bad to him. The two key points of this statement which, so understood, is not the least a paradox, are :

Callicles : don't stop me !

With Callicles, the discussion has much to do with the satisfaction of passions, and with the difference between pleasure and good. One of the first words of Callicles, when he jumps in the discussion at 481b, is "epithumô" (to say that he "desires" to ask Socrates whether he is serious or joking, and, by the way, invoking all the gods to his rescue), a word that has only been used twice so far, once by him already, at the very beginning of the dialogue, but applied to Socrates ("epithumei Sôkratès... Socrates desires to hear Gorgias ?", 447b, showing that Callicles thinks everybody feels like him, which will be the starting point of Socrates' conversation with him), and once by Polus in the middle of his discussion with Socrates, at a turning point in that discussion, when Socrates is about to start his demonstration that to be wronged is better than to do wrong, in a two words expression which sums up the conflict of a thumos : "epithumô eidenai... I desire to know..." (474e), and all 18 uses of the word "epithumia" and all other uses of the verb "epithumein" (6 more) are in the discussion with Callicles. Several times, he says that he answers only to please Socrates or Gorgias. And the first words of Socrates to him at 481c-e call upon the community of feelings, and the dual love that both have in common, to justify the possibility of the ensuing conversation. Callicles is the one who says things as he feels them, thus showing an apparent frankness that none of the others dared to display, but, because of that, and because epithumiai are many, he keeps changing his says.

Joe Smithides of Athens

The Protagoras has presented us with two "souls" facing each other, the (foreign) soul of sophistry (Prodicus, Hippias, Protagoras) parading in front of the soul of Athens (Critias, Alcibiades, Callias) in a discussion involving almost exclusively the lower part of its soul (Protagoras). In the Gorgias, the assimilation process has been completed and we are left with one single soul : it is an Athenian soul (Callicles' house replaces Callias' as its "body", and more than half the dialogue involves him) left with only its epithumiai, its logos and thumos having become "foreigners". We are no longer in the presence of the big names of Athens, but with a "fine-looking (kalli-kleos)" Joe Smith (that's why it doesn't matter to know whether or not Callicles is a "historical" person), one of a bunch of "friends" (named by Socrates at 487b-d), one of which is Teisandros, "the man who will pay", Mr. Payman, that is either Mr. Taxpayer, or else "who will pay for his crimes", Mr. Guiltyman ; another one Andron (Mr. Man), son of Androtion (Mr. Manly) ; and the last one, Nausikudes, Mr. Navalpride (Plato tells us in the Laws, IV, 704d-705b, the danger for a city to be next to the sea), all from Attic demes (Nausikudes comes from the same deme as Pericles), including the most remote ones (Teisandros comes from Aphidna, at the northern limit of Attica), to let us know that it's the whole city that has been contaminated (and Socrates will have to go all the way down to Piraeus to "preach" justice in the Republic to try and heal the whole city's soul).

But maybe there is even more behind these four names : each one might well symbolize the "sophistical" view of one level of reality, one segment of the line, one step in the process. Callicles, Mr. Finelook, is at the first level, that of visible appearance, only caring for the opinion others have of him ; Teisandros, Mr. Payman, is at the level of the concrete world of money and action, and what he will have to pay for might well be Socrates' trial and death ; Andron is the guy who thinks he is a man just because his name, his "logos", says so, as was already saying his father's "logos" ; and Nausicudes, Mr. Navalpride , from the deme of Pericles, represents the ultimate political principle, the "idea" of politics, that inspired Athens under the influence of the sophists, that is, the quest for an ever expanding maritime empire that lead to its ruin...

Socrates' cheerleader

What then about Socrates ? What "role" does he play in these comedies of souls ? Well ! the same role he was playing in the Laches (see introduction to the first tetralogy), that is, the role of a well-behaved thumos, submitting to a logos whose role he doesn't try to usurp (he is not the one who "knows"), yet giving reasonable rein to a cheering bunch of epithumiai, here "played" by Chaerephon ("the cheering voice") whose fancies kept Socrates at the marketplace away from Gorgias' lecture and whose friendship with Callicles brings about the whole discussion (447a-b). Chaerephon has already been seen in the Charmides, where he "plays" the pleasure-seeking epithumiai, left behind by Socrates while he was at the army, that he wishes to satisfy anew as soon as he is back. And he will be seen again, or rather heard of, in the Apology as the one who brings to Socrates and to the world the external audible cheering "sound" of the god speaking through the Pythoness to proclaim him the wisest of men, opposed to the internal intelligible voice of the daimon, who is most likely none other than Socrates' logos...

(1)The logos is located in the head (Timæus, 69c), the thumos in the chest (Timæus, 70a), and the epithumiai below the waist (Timæus, 70d-e). (<==)

(2)The relationship between Protagoras and Heraclitus is investigated in the Theætetus : Theætetus' first definition of knowledge as perception is linked right away by Socrates to Protagoras and to his theory that "man is the measure of all things" (Theætetus, 151e-152a), and, after a first mention of Heraclitus in that same context (Theætetus, 152e-152a), the serious business of investigating Heraclitean mobilism opposed to the Parmenidian theory of being, starts at 179d. (<==)

(3) That he can understand only as meaning "what is the beautiful thing par excellence", as can be seen from the examples than he gives one after the other in answer to Socrates' renewed question. (<==)

Plato and his dialogues : Home - Biography - Works and links to them - History of interpretation - New hypotheses - Map of dialogues : table version or non tabular version. Tools : Index of persons and locations - Detailed and synoptic chronologies - Maps of Ancient Greek World. Site information : About the author.
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First published June 15, 1996 - Last updated June 6, 2009
© 1996, 2009 Bernard SUZANNE (click on name to send your comments via e-mail)
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