The Gorgias by Plato. - HTML preview

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Platos Gorgias

Like the general analogy of the arts and the virtues, the thinkers, who have ventured out of the beaten track in their analogy of disease and injustice, or of medicine and justice, meditations on the last things, have found a ray of light in is certainly imperfect. But ideas must be given through some-his writings. But he has not explained how or in what way thing; the nature of the mind which is unseen can only be punishment is to contribute to the improvement of man-represented under figures derived from visible objects. If kind. He has not followed out the principle which he af-these figures are suggestive of some new aspect under which firms in the Republic, that God is the author of evil only the mind may be considered, we cannot find fault with them with a view to good, and that they were the better for being for not exactly coinciding with the ideas represented. They punished. Still his doctrine of a future state of rewards and partake of the imperfect nature of language, and must not punishments may be compared favourably with that per-be construed in too strict a manner. That Plato sometimes version of Christian doctrine which makes the everlasting reasons from them as if they were not figures but realities, punishment of human beings depend on a brief moment is due to the defective logical analysis of his age.

of time, or even on the accident of an accident. And he has Nor does he distinguish between the suffering which im-escaped the difficulty which has often beset divines, respect-proves and the suffering which only punishes and deters.

ing the future destiny of the meaner sort of men (Thersites He applies to the sphere of ethics a conception of punish-and the like), who are neither very good nor very bad, by ment which is really derived from criminal law. He does not counting them worthy of eternal damnation.

not see that such punishment is only negative, and supplies We do Plato violence in pressing his figures of speech or no principle of moral growth or development. He is not far chains of argument; and not less so in asking questions which off the higher notion of an education of man to be begun in were beyond the horizon of his vision, or did not come this world, and to be continued in other stages of existence, within the scope of his design. The main purpose of the which is further developed in the Republic. And Christian Gorgias is not to answer questions about a future world, 32

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but to place in antagonism the true and false life, and to the other. Good and pleasure, knowledge and sense, truth contrast the judgments and opinions of men with judgment and opinion, essence and generation, virtue and pleasure, according to the truth. Plato may be accused of represent-the real and the apparent, the infinite and finite, harmony ing a superhuman or transcendental virtue in the descrip-or beauty and discord, dialectic and rhetoric or poetry, are tion of the just man in the Gorgias, or in the companion so many pairs of opposites, which in Plato easily pass into portrait of the philosopher in the Theaetetus; and at the one another, and are seldom kept perfectly distinct. And same time may be thought to be condemning a state of the we must not forget that Platos conception of pleasure is world which always has existed and always will exist among the Heracleitean flux transferred to the sphere of human men. But such ideals act powerfully on the imagination of conduct. There is some degree of unfairness in opposing mankind. And such condemnations are not mere paradoxes the principle of good, which is objective, to the principle of of philosophers, but the natural rebellion of the higher sense pleasure, which is subjective. For the assertion of the per-of right in man against the ordinary conditions of human manence of good is only based on the assumption of its life. The greatest statesmen have fallen very far short of the objective character. Had Plato fixed his mind, not on the political ideal, and are therefore justly involved in the gen-ideal nature of good, but on the subjective consciousness eral condemnation.

of happiness, that would have been found to be as transient Subordinate to the main purpose of the dialogue are some and precarious as pleasure.

other questions, which may be briefly considered:

b. The arts or sciences, when pursued without any view to a. The antithesis of good and pleasure, which as in other truth, or the improvement of human life, are called flatter-dialogues is supposed to consist in the permanent nature of ies. They are all alike dependent upon the opinion of man-the one compared with the transient and relative nature of kind, from which they are derived. To Plato the whole world 33

Platos Gorgias

appears to be sunk in error, based on self-interest. To this is similar in both of them, and is expressed in nearly the is opposed the one wise man hardly professing to have found same language. The sufferings and fate of the just man, the truth, yet strong in the conviction that a virtuous life is the powerlessness of evil, and the reversal of the situation in only good, whether regarded with reference to this world another life, are also points of similarity. The poets, like or to another. Statesmen, Sophists, rhetoricians, poets, are the rhetoricians, are condemned because they aim at plea-alike brought up for judgment. They are the parodies of sure only, as in the Republic they are expelled the State, wise men, and their arts are the parodies of true arts and because they are imitators, and minister to the weaker side sciences. All that they call science is merely the result of of human nature. That poetry is akin to rhetoric may be that study of the tempers of the Great Beast, which he de-compared with the analogous notion, which occurs in the scribes in the Republic.

Protagoras, that the ancient poets were the Sophists of their day. In some other respects the Protagoras rather offers a c. Various other points of contact naturally suggest them-contrast than a parallel. The character of Protagoras may selves between the Gorgias and other dialogues, especially be compared with that of Gorgias, but the conception of the Republic, the Philebus, and the Protagoras. There are happiness is different in the two dialogues; being described closer resemblances both of spirit and language in the Re-in the former, according to the old Socratic notion, as de-public than in any other dialogue, the verbal similarity tend-ferred or accumulated pleasure, while in the Gorgias, and ing to show that they were written at the same period of in the Phaedo, pleasure and good are distinctly opposed.

Platos life. For the Republic supplies that education and This opposition is carried out from a speculative point of training of which the Gorgias suggests the necessity. The view in the Philebus. There neither pleasure nor wisdom theory of the many weak combining against the few strong are allowed to be the chief good, but pleasure and good are in the formation of society (which is indeed a partial truth), not so completely opposed as in the Gorgias. For innocent 34

Platos Gorgias

pleasures, and such as have no antecedent pains, are alerence of the mythus to the previous discussion should not lowed to rank in the class of goods. The allusion to Gorgias

be over looked: thefate reserved for incurable criminals such definition of rhetoric (Philebus; compare Gorg.), as the art as Archelaus; the retaliation of the box on the ears; the na-of persuasion, of all arts the best, for to it all things submit, kedness of the souls and of the judges who are stript of the not by compulsion, but of their own free willmarks a close clothes or disguises which rhetoric and public opinion have and perhaps designed connection between the two dia-hitherto provided for them (compare Swifts notion that logues. In both the ideas of measure, order, harmony, are the universe is a suit of clothes, Tale of a Tub). The fiction the connecting links between the beautiful and the good.

seems to have involved Plato in the necessity of supposing In general spirit and character, that is, in irony and an-that the soul retained a sort of corporeal likeness after death.

tagonism to public opinion, the Gorgias most nearly re-

(3) The appeal of the authority of Homer, who says that sembles the Apology, Crito, and portions of the Republic, Odysseus saw Minos in his court holding a golden sceptre,

and like the Philebus, though from another point of view, which gives verisimilitude to the tale.

may be thought to stand in the same relation to Platos theory It is scarcely necessary to repeat that Plato is playing both of morals which the Theaetetus bears to his theory of knowl-sides of the game, and that in criticising the characters of edge.

Gorgias and Polus, we are not passing any judgment on historical individuals, but only attempting to analyze the d. A few minor points still remain to be summed up: (1)

dramatis personae as they were conceived by him. NeiThe extravagant irony in the reason which is assigned for ther is it necessary to enlarge upon the obvious fact that the pilots modest charge; and in the proposed use of rheto-Plato is a dramatic writer, whose real opinions cannot al-ric as an instrument of self-condemnation; and in the mighty ways be assumed to be those which he puts into the mouth power of geometrical equality in both worlds. (2) The ref-of Socrates, or any other speaker who appears to have the 35

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best of the argument; or to repeat the observation that he is a poet as well as a philosopher; or to remark that he is not to be tried by a modern standard, but interpreted with reference to his place in the history of thought and the opin-THE IRONY OF PLATO sometimes veils from us the height of ion of his time.

idealism to which he soars. When declaring truths which It has been said that the most characteristic feature of the the many will not receive, he puts on an armour which can-Gorgias is the assertion of the right of dissent, or private not be pierced by them. The weapons of ridicule are taken judgment. But this mode of stating the question is really out of their hands and the laugh is turned against them-opposed both to the spirit of Plato and of ancient philoso-selves. The disguises which Socrates assumes are like the phy generally. For Plato is not asserting any abstract right parables of the New Testament, or the oracles of the Del-or duty of toleration, or advantage to be derived from free-phian God; they half conceal, half reveal, his meaning. The dom of thought; indeed, in some other parts of his writings more he is in earnest, the more ironical he becomes; and (e.g. Laws), he has fairly laid himself open to the charge of he is never more in earnest or more ironical than in the intolerance. No speculations had as yet arisen respecting Gorgias. He hardly troubles himself to answer seriously the the liberty of prophesying; and Plato is not affirming any objections of Gorgias and Polus, and therefore he some-abstract right of this nature: but he is asserting the duty and times appears to be careless of the ordinary requirements right of the one wise and true man to dissent from the folly of logic. Yet in the highest sense he is always logical and and falsehood of the many. At the same time he acknowl-consistent with himself. The form of the argument may be edges the natural result, which he hardly seeks to avert, that paradoxical; the substance is an appeal to the higher rea-he who speaks the truth to a multitude, regardless of conse-son. He is uttering truths before they can be understood, as quences, will probably share the fate of Socrates.

in all ages the words of philosophers, when they are first 36

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uttered, have found the world unprepared for them. A furThe words of Socrates are more abstract than the words ther misunderstanding arises out of the wildness of his of Christ, but they equally imply that the only real evil is humour; he is supposed not only by Callicles, but by the moral evil. The righteous may suffer or die, but they have rest of mankind, to be jesting when he is profoundly seri-their reward; and even if they had no reward, would be ous. At length he makes even Polus in earnest. Finally, he happier than the wicked. The world, represented by Polus, drops the argument, and heedless any longer of the forms is ready, when they are asked, to acknowledge that injustice of dialectic, he loses himself in a sort of triumph, while at is dishonourable, and for their own sakes men are willing the same time he retaliates upon his adversaries. From this to punish the offender (compare Republic). But they are confusion of jest and earnest, we may now return to the not equally willing to acknowledge that injustice, even if suc-ideal truth, and draw out in a simple form the main theses cessful, is essentially evil, and has the nature of disease and of the dialogue.

death. Especially when crimes are committed on the great scalethe crimes of tyrants, ancient or modernafter a First Thesis:

while, seeing that t hey cannot beundone, and have become It is a greater evil to do than to suffer injustice.

a part of history, mankind are disposed to forgive them, not from any magnanimity or charity, but because their feel-Compare the New Testament

ings are blunted by time, and to forgive is convenient to

It is better to suffer for well doing than for evil do-them. The tangle of good and evil can no longer be ing.1 Pet.

unravelled; and although they know that the end cannot justify the means, they feel also that good has often come And the Sermon on the Mount

out of evil. But Socrates would have us pass the same judg-

Blessed are they that are persecuted for righteous-ment on the tyrant now and always; though he is surrounded ness sake.Matt.