Democracy and Demagoguery: Plato’s Gorgias in the Age of Trump (Part II) | Steven Smith

This article is a continuation of this article.

The Challenge of Callicles

Callicles’ interjection into the discussion reveals the final intent of Socrates’ argument. It is not for the sake of Gorgias or Polus that Socrates has carried on this conversation, but for Callicles.  Callicles is the most interesting figure in the dialogue. Gorgias and Polus are more or less conventional in nature, but in Callicles we find a genuine philosophic rival to Socrates. Indeed, unlike the other two interlocutors, Callicles is an Athenian and an Athenian with political ambitions. We do not know if Callicles was a real person or a literary creation of Plato’s, but what is clear is that Plato provides him with a speech of great scope and power. Like a number of characters in the other Platonic dialogues – Critias, Glaucon, Alcibiades – Callicles is both a potential ally as well a potential subverter of Athenian democracy. He is a man of considerable resources and judgment. Will Callicles be a friend or an enemy of the city? Will he be a friend or an enemy of Socrates? What we know at the beginning is that his objections to Socrates are much deeper and more radical than anything encountered in the two other speakers. His first words are: “Tell me, Charephon, is Socrates serious about these things or is he joking” (481b)? The ensuing conversation brings the dramatic and philosophical tension of the dialogue to its height.

Callicles begins by rejecting Polus’s much more conventional assertion that while doing wrong may be good for, in that it profits, the individual, it is also shameful to do so. He recognizes, quite correctly, that the conceptions of justice and injustice that have been used so far are equivocal. Unable to convince Polus that the desire to dominate is unjust, Socrates has appealed to the standard of the shameful. He has substituted a conventional fear of shame and dishonor as a trump card over the natural desire to be free and powerful. Callicles recognizes this sleight-of-hand and calls Socrates on it. He accuses Socrates of using his own terms equivocally for his own advantage. Why should the strong feel shame because of their power, he throws back at Socrates. The strong and powerful simply do what the strong and powerful always do. What is the shame in that?  The weak will always claim that they are being treated unfairly because that is what weak people do. What makes that just? With Callicles we find a speaker who will not shrink from asserting that justice consists of policies that benefit the strong. Callicles here represents the oligarchic faction against the democracy and supports the claims of the superior few or “real men” to pursue their own interests without restriction. Indeed, Callicles’ arguments should be familiar to modern readers since they duplicate at many points the philosophy of Nietzsche with his claim to a master morality.

Callicles is the first person in the dialogue to raise the philosophic distinction between nature and convention: physis and nomos (482e). He attempts to discredit conventional views on justice by showing that they rest on human agreement and are therefore of a lesser status than natural justice or justice that exists by nature. Social rules and norms derive from a social contract created by the weak to give them security. What we call justice are the rules that the weak have developed to protect themselves from the aggression of the strong. The claim that Callicles makes about natural justice is the same claim that the Athenians at Melos make about their right to rule wherever their power permits. “For you know as well as we do,” they tell the Melians, “that right, as the world goes, is in question only between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must” (V.89).[i] Justice is simply a matter of power and by right the strong rule the weak for the same reason that big fish eat little fish. His argument is that social norms and conventions necessarily conflict with the deeper and more powerful drives of human nature which he assumes that every real man will want to satisfy.

Callicles believes that natural right is identical with power. What belongs to a man – he uses the Greek word aner to characterize the real man or what we might call the Alpha Male – rather than the generic term anthropos to designate simply a member of the human species is what he has the power to take. The life according to nature is the passionate life, a life of constantly seeking and acquiring more. What the real man desires is not just power – all human beings desire power – but the sense of honor, esteem, and recognition that comes with the possession of power. This is what Polus could not and will never understand. Tyranny is a good not simply because of the power it gives its possessor over others, but from the sense of confidence and self-esteem that comes only with the possession of great power. A real man desires nothing so much as to be honored and esteemed by those around him. A real man will not merely wish to preserve himself, but to develop and increase his power as a means to enhancing the honor bestowed by others around him. He seeks to satisfy his passions and is unconcerned about whether these passions have a final end or resting place.

What especially bothers Callicles – as it would bother Nietzsche many centuries later – is the gradual enslavement of the few by the many, of those who seek to live according to nature by those who desire only to preserve their own lives. How did this reversal of fortunes come about? How did the real men become enslaved to mere anthropoi? How did the original Herrenmoral degenerate into the later Sklavenmoral? This entire part of the exchange with Callicles concerns fundamentally the virtue of manliness. Is manliness a virtue? Callicles asserts that it is and he associates it with the life of domination, the life of courage and mastery:

“But nature herself, I think, reveals that this very thing is just, for the better to have more than the worse and the more powerful than the less powerful. And it is clear in many places that these things are so:  both among the other animals and in whole cities and races of human beings, the just has been decided thus, for the stronger to rule the weaker and to have more.  Indeed, making use of this kind of justice did Xerxes lead his army against Greece, or his father against the Scythians? Or one could tell of myriad other such cases. Indeed I think these men do these things according to the law of nature . . . By molding the best and most forceful of us, catching them young, like lions, subduing them by charms and bewitching them, we reduce them to slavery, saying that one must have an equal share and that this is the noble and the just. But, I think, if a man having a sufficient nature comes into being, he shakes off and breaks through all these things and gets away, trampling underfoot our writings, spells, charms, and the laws that are all against nature, and the slave rises up to be revealed as our master; and there the justice of nature shines forth (483c-84b).”

It is the mark of a free man, as opposed to a slave, to risk life for the sake of honor and glory. This is the true mark of superiority. As for this harshly realistic defense of the rule of the strong over the weak, Callicles argues that he is merely describing a condition that is universally acknowledged. It is true of the animal kingdom as well as of cities and nations, especially the great empires led by Persian kings like Xerxes and Darius.

Callicles here expresses a view close to the older Homeric model of the hero whose great deeds are the subject of stories and legends. As Homer’s Achilles makes clear, there is a connection between spiritedness, courage, the desire to excel, a fierce loyalty to friends, a longing for immortal fame, and an almost all-consuming rage. Such a person is likely to be a danger to his friends and even destructive to himself in his quest for glory and honor. Such men pose a threat both to themselves and to society since their ambitions cannot be easily contained within an existing polity.[ii]

Here is where Callicles appreciates the power of rhetoric. It is the language of justice – the development of words and ideas about right and wrong – that over time has come to give the weak power over the strong. Socrates represents the new type of theoretical or philosophical man who uses words, arguments – the power of language – to bewitch the multitude. This was Nietzsche’s response to Socrates who believed that Plato’s creation of the Idea of the Good was “the worst, most durable, and most dangerous of all errors.”[iii]  Philosophy represents a challenge – maybe the greatest challenge – to the virtue of manliness. It forces the Homeric hero to ask whether his actions are rational, or good, or just. It uses these terms to create a new moral sense, a law of conscience, that imposes its own restraints upon behavior. Such moral restraints and scruples may take the form of fear of punishment for transgressing some law or it may take the form of a sense of guilt at having transgressed moral rules (guilt being just an internalized form of punishment).  Callicles is really more interested in the way that the language of shame has created a form of misguided fear at the thought of behaving dishonorably. Consider how this persists in our own culture. The ability of the language of shame and dishonor to coerce behavior can even be more powerful even than law. But just what it is that gives language this power is not explained.

Callicles is right: language has the power to affect actions, to enslave the powerful, and make them bend their will before the weak. Take Polus for example: he began by praising the life of the tyrant Archelaus, but ended up fearful of appearing shameful for praising tyranny. Callicles regards such fears as misguided since one is entitled to get whatever one has the power to take. This is why Callicles appeals away from language or rhetoric to nature. In Callicles, we find a kind of ruthless defense of tyranny as the final expression of the individual will to power.

Callicles’ defense of natural justice and the rule of the strong goes hand in hand with his critique of philosophy. Speaking ostensibly as a well-wisher of Socrates, his speech teems with allusions to his future trial and execution (486a-b). Philosophizing, he says, may be valuable in adolescence for the cultivation of character and the formation of a liberal education, but if taken too far, it gets in the way of the real business of life.  It makes us appear ridiculous in the eyes of fellow citizens who may end up bringing criminal or civil charges against us leaving us defenseless before the city. Philosophy becomes a kind of surrogate for life, for the exercise of one’s true powers:

“For seeing philosophy in a young lad, I admire it, and it seems to me fitting, and I consider this human being to be a free man, whereas the one who does not philosophize I consider illiberal, someone who will never deem himself worthy of any fine and noble affair. But wherever I see an older man still philosophizing and not released from it, this man, Socrates, surely seems to me to need a beating. For as I was saying just now, it falls to this man, even if he is of an altogether good nature, to become unmanly through fleeing the central area of the city and the agoras in which the poet says men “become highly distinguished” and through sinking down into living the rest of his life whispering with three or four lads in a corner, never to give voice to anything free or great or sufficient (485c-e).”

Nowhere in the Platonic writings is there a more powerful challenge to Socrates and the Socratic way of life than that found in the great speech of Callicles. It would not be until Nietzsche that one finds a more complete deconstruction of the claims of conventional morality, of justice understood as fairness or equal treatment, of the laws as a conspiracy of the weak designed to protect their interests from the rule of the strong, and of the celebration of nature and natural right as an exercise in the joyful expression of one’s power. At the same time, Nietzsche’s unforgettable critique of Socrates as the destroyer of everything noble, powerful, and strong gets its most vivid expression in the writings of Plato himself. It is an irony, I believe, that Plato is at once responsible for the depiction of Socrates and the Socratic way of life as the one thing most supremely valuable and at the same time for the most withering critiques of Socrates ever written.

The Socratic Rejoinder

Can Socrates respond to the challenge of Callicles? Socrates’ interrogation of Callicles turns on just what he means when speaking of the real man, that is, the superior or better type. Callicles’ identification of the superior with the stronger leaves him open to the obvious objection that the many who may be individually weak are collectively stronger than even the most powerful individual. When the many unite and set up common rules to ensure self-protection and equal treatment, this would seem to be not only in agreement with convention but with nature. The agreement to set up common rules and laws confers a collective power on the many or on the people that none would possess individually. This is the fundamental idea behind the social contract.

Callicles sees the logic of this argument, but claims that it misses the point. When he talked about the right of the stronger, he did not mean by this mere physical strength. By stronger, he meant a person endowed with a certain kind of character, principally courage, resoluteness, and strength of will. Such a person will not shrink from carrying out his projects from moral weakness or cowardice. The real man is one whose desires are unrestricted by others, since the acceptance of any restriction suggests a diminution of our power. The real man is not afraid to cultivate the most dangerous and extravagant passions almost as a test of courage. Callicles makes his claim as follows:

“How would a human being become happy while being a slave to anyone at all?  No, this is the fine and just according to nature, which I am now telling you outspokenly:  the man who will live correctly must let his own desires be as great as possible and not chasten them, and he must be sufficient to serve them, when they are as great as possible, through courage and intelligence, and to fill them up with the things for which desire arises on each occasion. But this, I think, is not possible for the many; wherefore they blame such men because of shame, hiding their own incapacity, and they say that intemperance is surely a shameful thing, enslaving the human beings who are superior in their nature; unable themselves to supply satisfaction for their pleasures, they praise moderation and justice because of their own unmanliness (491e-92b).”

What Callicles is describing is the psychological disposition known as ressentiment.

But here is where Socrates senses an opening. A life devoted to satisfying the widest number of passions cannot be a life of true mastery. Callicles thinks of power and mastery in purely political terms:  domination over others.  But this is only to scratch the surface of the problem. The truly powerful individual is not the one who exercises his will over others, but is able to exercise it over his own passions and desires. The life praised by Callicles is the life of hedonism – the reckless pursuit of desire after desire without end. Rather than making us free, we would be nothing more than slaves to our passions. Real freedom, Socrates argues, only comes with self-mastery and this requires restraint and control over our desires. True freedom requires self-control. The truly powerful individual is, then, the person capable of exercising the virtue of inner restraint and self-control.

Only now does Socrates connect his critique of hedonism to the problems of democracy. The men Callicles most admires are political leaders, especially Themistocles and Pericles, the chief architects of imperial Athens (503c). Callicles praises Pericles with the same enthusiasm that a young American patriot would praise George Washington or Abraham Lincoln. Pericles extended the scope of Athenian power and therefore qualifies as an example of a true leader. Callicles points to the great empire builders who he believes have brought Athens to its current position of power and honor in the world. Consider the following snippet of conversation:

Soc:  “Can you mention one of the ancients through whom the Athenians, worse at an earlier time, are judged to have become better, after he began the practice of popular speaking? For I do not know who this man is.”

Cal: “What [he asks in exasperation]? Do you not hear that Themistocles turned out to be a good man, and Cimon and Miltiades, and Pericles himself, who recently came to his end, whom you too have heard (503b-c)?”

But Socrates responds that Pericles and other democratic leaders have extended Athenian rule only by catering to or toadying to popular political passions. They are not true leaders, but demagogues who enflame popular desires for glory and riches, desires that are incapable of satisfaction. In perhaps the most memorable image of the text, Socrates compares the leaders of Athens to pastry chefs cooking for children – they simply cater to the people’s sweet tooth (521e)! As a result, he argues, the Athenians have become worse off precisely because the city is larger and ungovernable. He compares Pericles to a caretaker of animals whose herd has become unruly even to the caretaker himself. This is demonstrated by the fickleness of the multitude toward their leaders. The very fickleness of the crowd is evidence that the Athenians have been badly governed by those leaders who (as they say today) “play to their base.” It is a rule of politics that the more people get, the more they want, and the more they want, the more ungovernable they become.


Is Socrates’ critique of democracy fair or adequate? He assumes that the task of the statesman is to induce a sense of moderation, self-control, and moral restraint among the citizen body. The Socratic statesman should focus on the internal and domestic improvement of the city rather than seek ever-new entertainments, spectacles, and adventures. But democratic leaders do precisely the opposite, using speech to cater to popular whims, to inflame existing passions, and even to create new and ever more unrealizable desires. When these desires cannot be satisfied, the people turn against the very politicians who initially encouraged them. The result is an unending cycle of popular enthusiasm and revolt. Socrates’ counsel of political restraint serves as a rebuttal to our own brash and heedless pursuit of happiness.

The Gorgias ends with a paradox. Plato was more than aware of the dangers and seductions of language. It is a speech against the power of speech. People are easily charmed by what they hear. And yet Plato’s arguments take place through the medium of language or speech. Plato’s own speeches are supreme examples of the rhetorical art that have charmed for centuries. They are exercises in persuasion and as such employ a rhetoric of their own. This raises another possibility. Socrates is not opposed to all rhetoric, to rhetoric as such. The Gorgias contains an argument for a new kind of Socratic rhetoric. I suggest that Socrates is interested in meeting Gorgias because he secretly wishes to make common cause with him. He seems to have understood the importance of taking a leaf from the page of his rival.

If so, what does this new Socratic rhetoric seek to accomplish? The Platonic teaching can be summarized as a synthesis of philosophy and rhetoric, the way of Socrates joined to the way of Gorgias.[iv] Rhetoric is simply too important to be left to the rhetoricians. His aim is not to expel rhetoric but to tame and harness it for the purposes of moderation and self-restraint. A leader who is unable to master himself – think of Donald Trump – is likely to veer headlong into one reckless pursuit after another. A leader with no ability to control his own desires is less likely to be a truly Calliclean tyrant than a feckless hedonist unable to ride the forces that brought him to power. How, then, to harness the power of public speech that has become the dominant power in democratic societies? This is the question that the Gorgias asks us to consider and it is especially worth taking seriously in a new era of populism, demagoguery, and fake news.


[i] Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, the Crawley Translation (New York:  Random House, 1982).

[ii] I have discussed this in “The Iliad:  An Affair of Honor,” The Yale Review 4 (2016); 10-31.

[iii] Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York:  Vintage, 1966), Preface, p. 3.

[iv] For some suggestions along these lines, see Leo Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1980), 16-17.

Steven Smith is the Alfred Cowles Professor of Political Science and Professor of Philosophy, Yale University. His best known publications include Hegel’s Critique of Liberalism (1989), Spinoza, Liberalism, and Jewish Identity (1997), Spinoza’s Book of Life (2003), Reading Leo Strauss (2006), and The Cambridge Companion to Leo Strauss (2009) and Political Philosophy (2012). His latest book Modernity and its Discontents (2016) examines the concept of modernity, not as the end product of historical developments but as a state of mind.

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