Notes on Money, Markets, and Economics
What I've Been Reading


Aristotle's Social Science. Salkever. Read Here..

The Goal Of Evolutionary And Neoclassical Economics As A Consequence Of The Changes In Concepts Of Human Nature, Anna Horodecka. Read Here..

Islam and the Economic Challenge, Umer Chapra. Read Here..

An Essay on the Nature and Significance of Economic Science, Lionel Robbins. Read Here..

Retrospectives: On the Definition of Economics, Backhouse and Medema. Read Here..

Welfare and Welfare Economics: The Early Contribution of Alfred Marshall. Caldari and Nishizawa. Read Here..

Economics Controversies. Rothbard. Read Here..

Economics and its Ethical Assumptions. Long. Read Here..

The Economic Point of View. Kirzner. Read Here..

The Philosophy of Economics. Bowman. Read Here..



A summary of Plato's Gorgias (Waterfield translation, 1994)

Posted By Trevor Newton
July 1, 2017

The dialogue opens with Socrates engaging in banter with his acquaintances Chaerephon, Callicles, and Pontus, setting the scene for the first part of the debate between Socrates and Gorgias, the Sicilian sophist and orator.

Socrates begins by posing the question, What is your area of expertise? (449a). Gorgias answers, It is rhetoric, and adds that he is also a teacher of rhetoric. Socrates responds by asking, What is rhetoric? (449d). Gorgias broadly defines rhetoric as being concerned with speaking but Socrates insists on a more precise definition. Gorgias further explains that rhetoric is concerned with persuading crowds of people to think or act a certain way (452e). Socrates still isn’t satisfied, so he asks Gorgias, What is rhetoric attempting to persuade people of? Gorgias explains that rhetoric is concerned with persuading people as to what is right and wrong (454b).

Socrates observes that there are two kinds of persuasion: one which produces conviction, and the other which produces knowledge (454e). Therefore he asks Gorgias, Which of these two kinds of persuasion (in regards to right and wrong) does rhetoric produce? Gorgias responds that rhetoric produces conviction of what is right and wrong, not understanding (knowledge) of what is right and wrong. He adds that a skilled rhetorician is able to persuade crowds of people on any topic, acting as if he were an expert even though he is no expert at all (456c). Thus Gorgias believes the power of rhetoric is considerable, yet he also believes it should only be used in a morally appropriate way (456e).

Socrates acknowledges that a rhetorician may, through the use of techniques of persuasion, be more persuasive to a crowd than a true expert (459b). But this could be quite dangerous if a rhetorician were to present himself as an expert concerning morality (right and wrong) when in reality he is no expert at all. Gorgias disagrees that this is a problem, because (he says) in order to become a rhetorician, one must also become knowledgeable regarding morality (460a). Socrates counters that if a rhetorician is knowledgeable regarding morality, then he should be a moral person, shouldn’t he? Gorgias agrees that a rhetorician should, by definition, be a moral person, and never do wrong (460e).

Socrates (Plato) sees in the rhetorician a dangerous and detestable evil. The rhetorician is a skilled manipulator of crowds, and he seeks power for its own sake. He pretends to be an expert on morality (something the crowds actually desire knowledge of) yet instead of teaching the people truth he teaches them falsehood. Right and wrong become perverted into whatever is most expedient for him in his quest to gain more power. As Waterfield says (Introduction, pg. xxxiii) “To value rhetoric highly is to value the ability to manipulate others to do one’s bidding. But this depends on a mistaken view about value.”

At this point in the dialogue, perhaps because Gorgias is losing the debate, Polus (a disciple of Gorgias) jumps in, arguing that Socrates is rude and manipulative (461c). He asks Socrates the question, What do you say rhetoric is? to which Socrates responds, It is simply an experiential knack and a type of flattery, and nothing more (462d). Thus Socrates likens rhetoric to a skill – like a chef might possess; a type of activity aimed to gratify the senses and produce pleasure (462e). Rhetoric is therefore a type of flattery, so to speak, and is no real expertise at all, but is rather just a skill (or knack) in the same league as sophistry and ornamentation (463b).

Socrates explains his point by referencing two broad areas of expertise: The area of expertise whose province is the mind, and the area of expertise whose province is the body. The former (which he says can also be referred to as statesmanship) has two branches: legislation and the administration of justice (464c). Similarly, the latter has two branches as well: exercise and medicine.

Thus these two broad areas of expertise can be likened to each other in the following way: legislation corresponds to exercise, and justice corresponds to medicine. Therefore, altogether, there are four branches (legislation/justice and exercise/medicine) relating to the two broad areas of expertise. These four branches always occupy themselves with what is best for the body and mind.

Conversely, flattery, which seeks to emulate or counterfeit these two broad areas of expertise, can also be seen to have four branches, as follows:

Cooking-skill (as a chef might possess) impersonates medicine and so to an ignorant person it may seem to be better for the body than medicine, even though it’s not (464d). Its aim is pleasure, not true welfare. Cooking-skill therefore lacks rational understanding, and thus is not a genuine area of expertise, but merely a form a flattery;

Ornamentation impersonates exercise, in that it seeks to beautify a body deceptively and through artificial means (cosmetics, garments, and the like). Thus, like cooking-skill, ornamentation is not a genuine area of expertise, but a form of flattery;

Sophistry impersonates the legislative process;

Rhetoric impersonates the administration of justice (465d).

Thus together, cooking-skill, ornamentation, sophistry, and rhetoric are four branches of flattery, and they impersonate/counterfeit the branches medicine, exercise, legislation, and justice.

It follows then, argues Socrates, that if power is defined as the means to effect a good outcome for oneself, then rhetoricians are not the most powerful people in society, but rather they are the least powerful people, because they generally tend to do what they think is good/best for themselves rather than what is actually good/best for themselves (466e), and thus whatever power they do possess is being used to their detriment.

And yet the rhetorician remains locked into this sad state of affairs because he lacks expertise as to what is actually good, and therefore he is ill-equipped to ever do what is actually good, and is therefore unable to use his so-called power to benefit himself.

Socrates explains this reasoning further. People act in order to attain some end, always. Such ends might include things such as knowledge, health, and wealth for example. Thus people act to attain what they think are good things, even though the act itself is not the desired end (468b). So when people do one thing for the sake of another thing, what they want is not the thing they are actually doing, but rather they want the end which they believe will result (468c). Yet to Socrates, people can only be said to truly want something if it is actually good for them. Similarly, people don’t want (in an unqualified way) to do the things they are doing per se, rather they only want to do the things that will actually result in their best interest.

It must follow from this that people generally are pursuing things (ends) which they know won’t make them happy, and also doing things (means) which they know won’t result in happiness. Yet why would they do that? Perhaps the answer is best found in 505b, which explains that self-indulgence results in a sick mind, potentially making one incapable of understanding what will actually make one happy.

Thus if a rhetorician ends up using his so-called power to do things which do not result in him getting what he actually wants, then his power is in a sense no power at all (468e).

It follows then that there is nothing worse than to do wrong; it is better to be wronged unjustly than to do wrong (i.e. act unjustly) (469c). Further, in order for a person to be happy, it takes true goodness – which is the result of being an educated and moral person. Immorality, however, makes one unhappy (470e). This direct connection between one’s happiness and one’s morality may be the most important insight of the dialogue, and is further explained in 506e-507d.

Polus, however, holds to the opposite view, and argues that a wrongdoer is happy as long as he is not punished. It therefore follows, according to Polus, that an immoral wrongdoer is capable of being happy.

Socrates disagrees, however, and argues that it is impossible for an immoral person to be happy. Further, an immoral wrongdoer is happier if he is punished for his wrongdoings than if he goes unpunished.

Socrates spends considerable time attempting to get Polus to concede the point that it is better to be treated unjustly than to act unjustly, and also that everyone already believes that this is so (475e). By implication Socrates is saying that everyone already believes that happiness is a function of one’s morality [Note: Socrates’ argument on this subject is made clearly and powerfully in the Republic dialogue]. There is thus much danger when humans act according to wrong ideas of what happiness is and how it can be attained.

Socrates and Polus then return to their other disagreement, which is whether an immoral person is better off to be punished or unpunished for their wrongdoings. It is important to note that the dialogue uses the words justice and morality somewhat interchangeably, thus to be immoral is to be unjust. Thus Socrates argues that it is better to be punished than to go unpunished, because to be punished for immorality is to have justice done. And since justice is good, the wicked person being punished is having something good done to them, and thus they are benefited (477a). Therefore if the immoral person weren’t punished, he would be worse off.

Socrates likens punishment to the concept of a cure or treatment for immorality. Like medicine for sickness, or money for poverty, punishment is a beneficial treatment for immorality (478a). Thus punishment (i.e. the administration of justice) makes wrongdoers more self-controlled and more moral, and so “cures them of iniquity” (478d). So if a wrongdoer goes unpunished, he is like a sick person who doesn’t receive medical treatment.

Socrates maintains that, first, there is nothing worse than wrongdoing/injustice; second, that punishment saves the unjust person from their bad state; and third, to evade punishment is therefore to remain in a bad state.

Therefore, according to this line of reasoning, when one does wrong, it is in one’s best interest to immediately present oneself before a judge (or whomever is responsible to mete out punishment) to confess the wrong and request punishment (480b). Further, it would not be in one’s best interest to use rhetoric (or any other device) to try to avoid punishment, because punishment is what delivers us from the immorality (injustice) we’ve enacted, and immorality is “the worst of all conditions” (480d).

Further, if an enemy commits wrong (i.e. injustice, or immorality) then we should do everything possible to see that he goes unpunished, since this is by far a worse fate for him than being punished (481b).

At this point in the dialogue Callicles jumps in to take Pontus’ place, and argues that might is right, and advocates a ‘law of the jungle’ concept of justice and injustice. Callicles claims he is looking to nature as his guide, pointing out that in the animal world the strong overpower the weak and prosper as a result. Humans should, according to Callicles, see this as normative for themselves, too (483c).

He further argues that, in order to protect themselves from the strong, the weak (who constitute the majority of human beings) have devised a false definition of injustice which denies might is right. Callicles seems to be saying that Socrates is holding to a man-made false form of justice, whereas Callicles is holding to true, natural justice (483e).

Using rhetoric to discredit Socrates, Callicles claims philosophers are immature, impractical and out of touch, ill-equipped to deal with the practical affairs of life, and basically useless (485c-486d). Socrates however remains focused on the argument itself, seeking clarification on what Callicles means by ‘natural right’ or ‘natural justice’ (488b).

Callicles has thus far argued that whatever is the will of the stronger is what is just, and that the terms stronger, superior, and better are synonymous (488d). Yet if stronger is always better (and more just), then (says Socrates) shouldn’t the weak masses be considered superior to (and more just than) the strong-but-solitary individual? Surely a mass of weak people is stronger than even the strongest individual. Therefore any legislation which the weak masses vote for ought to, by Callicles’ reasoning, be superior to the will of the individual no matter how strong he is (488d).

In response to Socrates’ argument, Callicles then narrows his concept of ‘stronger is better and is more just’ to ‘cleverness is better and is more just’ (489e). That is, in Callicles’ view, “…natural right is… for an individual who is better (that is, more clever) to rule over second rate people and to have more than them” (490a).

Under continued pressure from Socrates to narrow the definition even further, Callicles adds that it is not those who are only clever who should rule over the masses, but those who are clever and who apply their cleverness to political pursuit and who also have the bravery to fully carry out their will. These are the ones who should rule and receive the lion’s share of wealth (491a – 491b). These natural rulers would not engage in self-discipline because the very concept is at odds with their objective of satiating all of their desires (492b). Self-discipline, to Callicles, is no virtue at all, but is rather a counterfeit virtue contrived by weak people to disguise their failings (492a). Conversely, the natural rulers will be happiest when living unrestrained lives of “sensual, self-indulgent freedom” (492c).

Socrates counters that, if all self-indulgence is good, and the satisfaction of all desires is good, then (absurdly) a lifetime spent scratching an itch is a happy life, as might also be a lifetime spent copulating (494c-494e). Yet this sort of absurd conclusion is what one gets if one fails to differentiate between good pleasures and bad pleasures (495b). Pleasant is not necessarily the same as good, nor is unpleasant necessarily the same as bad (497d).

Socrates further argues that people who are fools, cowards, and generally referred to as bad can surely at times in life experience more pleasure than people who are wise, brave, and generally referred to as good. And since good people are considered good because they possess good qualities (and similarly bad people are considered bad because they possess bad qualities), then a bad person can be more good than a good person (498c), at least according to the pleasure is always good argument of Callicles (499b).

Callicles qualifies his position by stating that some pleasures are better than others, and thus there are varying qualitative degrees of pleasure (499b). He concedes that pleasure is better if it has a good effect and worse if it has a bad effect (499d), and also concedes that pleasure is not the goal of every human action but rather the good is the goal of every human action.

Socrates points out that to discern good pleasure from bad pleasure requires discernment between good effects and bad effects, which in turn requires the knowledge and wisdom of an expert in the field (500a).

It is understood that, while Socrates holds that the good is the goal of every human action, not every human action necessarily results in the good being achieved; this is due to lack of wisdom on the part of the human who is doing the acting, whose knowledge of the good may be limited, wrong, or even non-existent.

Socrates reminds Callicles that, while there is good and there is pleasure, the two are not identical. Each can be pursued, but the activities (means) which lead to each may be quite different (500d-500e). Socrates again references the example of cooking, a “knack” whose objective is to produce pleasure, unlike medicine whose objective is to produce good.

To pursue pleasure without regard for better/worse (good/bad), is a type of flattery. Activities which fall into this category are many, and include certain types of musical entertainment (501e-502a), as well as some dramatic or theatrical performances (502c). These are all types of flattery, as is rhetoric (502d). They are all concerned primarily with producing pleasure, or gratification, without regard to whether the effect is good.

Socrates asserts that, while it is possible that a rhetorician could use his skill to the benefit (the good) of his hearers, in practice this never happens (503a-504a). If a rhetorician actually were to use his skill for the benefit of his hearers, “he’ll constantly be applying his intelligence to find ways for justice, self-control, and goodness in all its manifestations to enter his fellow citizens’ minds, and for injustice, self-indulgence, and badness in all its manifestations to leave” (504e).

Just as a restrictive diet (as opposed to unlimited feasting on pleasant foods) is beneficial to an unhealthy body, so too an unhealthy mind (that is, an “ignorant, self-indulgent, immoral, and irreligious mind” 505b) is made better by a diet of justice, goodness and self-control rather than to indulge in whatsoever it desires. Thus the unhealthy mind is made better by this form of discipline (505b).

Since the good should be the reason we do things, Socrates continues by answering the question, What makes anything good? Something is good if it possesses a specific state of goodness. And in order for a state of goodness to occur there must be order (not chaos). Therefore, a good state is an orderly state, one that possesses an orderly structure which is proper to it (506e). An orderly structure is better than a disorderly structure. An orderly mind is thus better than a disorderly mind. And, “an orderly mind is a self-disciplined mind” (507a).

From this it follows that a self-disciplined mind is a good mind. And if a self-disciplined mind is good, then an “undisciplined and self indulgent mind is bad” (507a). And a disciplined person must act in an “appropriate manner” to his fellow humans and to “the gods” (507a). The word appropriate means just when we relate to humans, and religious when we relate to gods. Thus a good person is a self-disciplined, just, and religious person.

Also, a self-disciplined person must be a courageous (brave) person, because he chooses to avoid or endure that which he should avoid or endure (507b). Thus a self-disciplined person is just, religious, and brave.

Further, a “good person is bound to do whatever he does well and successfully, and success brings fulfillment and happiness, whereas a bad man does badly and is therefore unhappy. Unhappiness, then, is the lot of someone who’s the opposite of self-disciplined” (507c). Thus anyone who wants to be happy must seek out self-discipline and avoid self-indulgence. It therefore follows that a person must do this, even if justice and restraint have to be imposed upon them, “or else forfeit happiness” (507d).

Socrates therefore maintains that all our own efforts (as individuals and as a society) should be towards “ensuring the presence of justice and self-discipline” – thus guaranteeing happiness. This should guide all of our actions. We should restrain our desires, otherwise be condemned “to a life of endlessly trying to satisfy them” (507e) – which is “the life of a predatory outlaw, in the sense that anyone who lives like that will never be on good terms with anyone else… since he’s incapable of cooperation, and cooperation is a prerequisite for friendship” (507e).

Having established that it is better to seek the good rather than to pursue pleasure, and having also established that there is nothing worse than doing wrong (which is, says Socrates, far worse than suffering wrong), Socrates seeks to answer how we can both avoid doing wrong and suffering wrong (509d).

 In short, the answer is that it is essential to be ruled by someone who is a paragon of virtue because, conversely, if one is ruled by a tyrannical wrongdoer, the culture will tend to favor wrongdoers, thus resulting in more citizens doing wrong and going unpunished for it, thus guaranteeing unhappiness on a nationwide scale (511a). And since, as Socrates makes clear, political leaders are typically bad, then we as citizens must be on our guard against conforming ourselves to the culture of wrongdoing (513a). Furthermore, to be highly-regarded within such a culture requires one to become thoroughly similar to the wrongdoing citizens (513b).

Thus, if someone seeks political power, it should be so they can improve their fellow citizens, making them as good as possible, and making their minds more perfect (514a). Further, to do this successfully requires one to have expertise, thus rulers must be experts in the good in order to be successful rulers (515a). And yet, as Socrates points out, rulers are typically neither skilled nor interested in improving the citizens over whom they rule (517a). A good ruler must leave his citizens better than they were when he first began (515d). So it follows that if the citizens are worse, then the ruler was a bad ruler (516d).

He maintains that the responsibility of a good member of a community is in “altering the community’s needs rather than going along with them, and persuading, or even forcing, their fellow citizens to adopt a course of action which would result in their becoming better people” (517c).

Socrates then clarifies that those who cater to the needs of the flesh (ex. manufacturers such as bakers, shoe-makers, clothiers and the like) “should by rights be subordinate” to exercise and medicine (518a) whose domain it is to look after the body and see to its well-being. Otherwise, the manufacturers (who have no expertise as to what food, drink, and clothing promote “a good physical state”) will cater to pleasing the flesh rather than truly benefiting it.

Similarly those who are rulers must bring their rulership into subordination to the betterment of the citizens, rather than their indulgence. People generally are “too naive to hold those who treat them to the pleasures of the table responsible for their illnesses and for the loss of the original quality of their flesh. Instead they blame anyone who happens to be there offering them advice at the considerably later date when their earlier indulgence resurfaces with its cargo of diseases – as it does, because it contravened every principle of health. So these are the ones they’ll blame and criticize and even harm (if they can), while singing the praises of those others from before who are actually responsible for their troubles” (518d).

Rulers sometimes are lauded by their ignorant subjects, for lavishing them with extravagant public spending initiatives (519a), making them “bloated and rotten” but when the negative repercussions eventually follow, the citizens fail to cast blame where blame is due. Further, says Socrates, when on occasion a ruler is criticized by the citizenry, and responds by claiming he is being treated unjustly, it seems a nonsensical claim since it is a ruler’s responsibility to make his citizens more just (519d). Of course, Socrates’ view on this matter assumes that it is possible to make others good (520d).

It must also follow then that to instruct one’s fellow citizens in matters of justice (i.e. to impart true wisdom) is a service (and the only service) which can be safely given away free of charge because of the great benefit which will result to all, including the instructor (520d).

Imparting wisdom on matters of how one “might perfect himself and run his household or his community in the best possible way” (520e) is “the only service which makes the recipient desire to do good back” (520e). In fact, giving it away freely is a strong indicator of its truth, since it is a sure sign that the benefactor believes he will be a beneficiary in return (520e).

A good ruler, (i.e. a good statesman) will rule in a way “analogous to the practice of medicine… (that) involves confronting the… people and struggling to ensure their perfection” (521a). Conversely, the bad ruler “makes pleasure the point of the operation”. Thus the true statesman’s focus is on the peoples’ “moral improvement rather than gratification and pleasure” (521e).

One’s goal must be to never wrong (i.e. sin against) a fellow human being or god in anything one says or does (522d), so as not to enter the afterlife “with one’s soul riddled with wrongdoing” which is “the ultimate evil” (522e).

Now nearing the end of the dialogue, Socrates describes the afterlife and divine judgment. The sins of one’s life cause one’s soul to be “riddled with defects – scourged and covered in the scars which every dishonest and unjust action has imprinted on it, utterly crippled by lies and arrogance and warped by a truth – free diet… the promiscuity, sensuality, brutality, and self-indulgence of his behaviour has thoroughly distorted the harmony and beauty of one’s soul” (525a).

Evil, sin, or wrongdoing, is thus like a disease. The worse the level of wrongdoing, the less curable it is. Thus Socrates describes hell (Tartarus) and provides an explanation as follows. Some souls which, while sinful, are still curable, and thus their punishment in hell, while painful, is meant to be curative, and thus is temporary. Other souls, having become so thoroughly diseased by their level of wrongdoing, are incurable, and thus their punishment is not meant to be curative, rather it is meant to serve as an example in order to benefit the rest of us, and is eternal (525a-525c).

Perhaps as a warning to those who seek power, Socrates claims that power increases the scope for wrongdoing, which is why so many political rulers end up in eternal torment, “their sins were of such magnitude as to render their souls incurable. All the same, there’s nothing to stop good men gaining power too, and those who do deserve our wholehearted admiration, because it is not easy… to have so much opportunity for wrongdoing and yet to live a moral life” (526a).

Thus Socrates says he will personally endeavor to present himself to the divine judge as unblemished by wrongdoing as possible, and will “follow the path of truth, and try to be as moral a person” as he can be. Socrates appeals to his listeners to “take up this way of life, to engage in this struggle which… is as worthwhile a struggle as you will find here in this world” (526e).

Socrates claims victory over his opponents, who have “failed to prove that any other way of life is preferable” to the one Socrates has been arguing for, which is also of greatest advantage in the life hereafter. Although the Gorgias dialogue is introduced as an investigation of rhetoric, it is chiefly an investigation into how human beings should live, seeking to demonstrate that a certain morality is the best (and only) way to achieve happiness. Socrates’ parting admonition is that, we must “take greater care to avoid doing wrong” than suffering wrong, and above all else we must focus our entire lives on being truly good (527b). This path guarantees happiness not just in this life, but also in the next.