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  • The Sounds of Silence:Rhetoric and Dialectic in the Refutation of Callicles in Plato's Gorgias
  • Rod Jenks

In his admirable book Reason and Emotion, John Cooper echoes a whole host of commentators to the effect that Socrates' attempt to refute Callicles in the Gorgias is obviously unsuccessful. Cooper speculates that Plato's motive for including what he, Plato, surely must have recognized as a woefully inadequate argument was to represent his gathering skepticism about Socratic ethics. Roughly, according to this picture, Plato represents Callicles' defense of a life spent maximizing pleasure as "undefeated" in order to suggest that there are rocks ahead for the Socratic representation of moral psychology. In this paper, I will try to show, contrary to Cooper, Santas, Irwin, Kahn, Grube et al., that Callicles is not a straw man, and that Socrates' argument against him is both complete and cogent. When we attend to the entire dialectical situation, I think, we can see not only that Callicles adopts the only position available to him, but also that that position really is refuted by Socrates. I will argue that the Compresence Argument at 495e-497d positively occludes the Benthamite escape route other scholars believe is left open to Callicles.1

I. The Context of the Compresence Argument

Gorgias' answers Socrates' query as to the nature of rhetoric with the position that rhetoric is the cultivation of the art of persuasion. When pressed as to what kind of persuasion, Gorgias answers that rhetoric trains people in persuasion concerned with right and wrong, persuasion of the sort that is useful in law courts and in the assembly. But a rhetorician, Socrates worries, could persuade people who are ignorant about health on matters concerning health better than a doctor could. This would amount to the ignorant persuading the ignorant. [End Page 201]

Polus interrupts here. Already, at 458b6-c1, Gorgias tells Socrates that he is exhausted, having just given a long speech, and at 458e, he agrees only reluctantly to a dialogue to please the others present.2 Rhetoric is later shown to aim at pleasure. That Gorgias is represented as having no enthusiasm for defending the moral acceptability of his profession is, I think, deliberately provocative. Plato is peeking through the text at this point, asking "How could anyone not care about that?"3 Cultivation of appearances manifests itself in Gorgian dialectical indifference. When Polus interrupts at 461b, then, Gorgias does not protest.

Polus demands to know what Socrates thinks rhetoric is. Socrates answers that it is a sort of flattery, a knack or routine, as opposed to being a genuine . As the skill of cooking aims at the pleasure of the body, while the of medicine and physical training aim at the health of the body, so rhetoric aims at the pleasure of the soul, but philosophy, which Socrates later characterizes as "the true political discipline" [ (521d6-7)], aims at the healthy condition of the soul. Polus protests that rhetoric yields power to do whatever one wishes, but Socrates thinks this is no power at all, since it may lead its possessor to do what is bad for the man himself. Wrongdoing is to be avoided at all costs, Socrates maintains. In this way, the central issue between Polus and Socrates, whether it is better to suffer or to inflict injustice, is generated. When Polus concedes that doing injustice is more shameful than suffering it, his defeat is thereby secured.4

Callicles now enters the fray, distinguishing in a way that the Young Mr. Many cannot between real values and conventional values. Real values involve the resolute pursuit of pleasure. But if some pleasures are bad, Socrates reasons, then pleasure cannot be the same as the good. As an example of a bad pleasure, Socrates cites the pleasures experienced by the , passive partners in acts of sodomy (494e). As Kahn points out,5 the were ubiquitously assumed to be prostitutes, and were accordingly denied the rights of citizenship. Kahn believes that this argument alone dispatches the Calliclean position, but it is evident that, though being sodomized might well have been politically expensive (and, obviously, personally distasteful to Callicles himself—the example draws an almost visceral reaction from...


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pp. 201-215
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