At Gorgias, Callicles presents a rhetoric refutation of Socrates’ skepticism. Gorgias, Polus, and Callicles each seek to articulate the value of oratory in terms of their admiration for the man who can wrong others with impunity (Plato & Dodds, 11). Plato shows, however, that in order to underwrite this admiration, the hedonist must deny the most basic tenet of Socratism: the claim that desire aims at the good.  The distinctive feature of Calliclean hedonism is that it severs the project of getting what one wants; desire or satisfaction from the project of pursuing the good (Plato & Dodds, 15).  Pleasure, in this view, is not the object of desire but something that attends the process of getting one’s desires satisfied. This paper seeks to discuss Carlisle’s view on Socrates’ skepticism and the mistakes that Polus and Gorgias made when defending their points rhetorically and as well explain why Socrates views his model of a good human life to be superior. This paper also gives a personal opinion on if Socrates is more correct or less correct.

Callicles find Polus and Gorgias to have made a mistake when they tried to defend their point on rhetoric with regards to Socrates’ skepticism (Plato & Dodds, 44). In the Gorgias, we encounter Socratic intellectualism in its sharpest and most contrarian dramatization, with Socrates surprised to discover that leading orators and demagogues resist agreeing to the claim that being unjustly wronged is better than wronging; that being punished is better than escaping scot-free; that punishment is education(Plato & Dodds, 61)..  Callicles identified fallacies that have contributed to Polus’ and Gorgias’ mistakes that we have to be on guard against.  The first is that Socrates not is allowed to beg the question against Callicles by taking for granted intellectualist premises the latter could not be expected to assent to.  We want some kind of refutation of hedonism out of our Gorgias argument, rather than a statement that hedonism fails to accord with what Socrates happens to think. 

Socrates considers his model superiors because he clarifies the relationship between pleasure, good, knowledge, and courage.  Callicles understands knowledge and courage to be valuable insofar as they conduce to pleasure-acquisition, but they are nonetheless not “the good” (Plato & Dodds, 66).  This makes clear that “good”, throughout the argument that follows, refers to what is, in the primary sense good per se.  We are not asking whether pleasure is something good, but rather whether it is good per se-good just in virtue of being a pleasure, and not in virtue of its connection to something else that is good per se (Plato & Dodds, 67).  Socrates has offered a reason for thinking it cannot be: the good, unlike pleasure, stands on its own two feet.

Callicles holds that a desire for instance thirst is the painful awareness of deficiency; it is the feeling that one is empty. An activity for instance drinking is pleasant insofar as it involves the feeling of the filling of that lack; pleasure is how it feels when a lack is being filled (Plato & Dodds, 89). Pleasure isn’t the feeling of simply acquiring something, for instance, a drink.  Rather, it is the feeling that that acquisition constitutes a filling of a felt, for instance, painful, lack.  Callicles’ conception of pleasure is one on which pleasure essentially involves a reference to pain: what is pleasant is the awareness of filling a lack, but that awareness presupposes an awareness of the lack itself.  Drinking wouldn’t be pleasant if it were not accompanied by pain, because the pleasure in question is the feeling of the filling of the lack, whose awareness is a pain.  Pleasure involves a compound awareness: an awareness of the filling of awareness. 

This is a strange position, and Callicles expresses it in correspondingly strange language. He criticizes those inept people who are unable to procure desire-satisfaction.  Just as pain corresponds to, for example, is the awareness of, a certain kind of lack, pleasure corresponds to, for instance, is the awareness of, a certain kind of filling (Plato & Dodds, 90).  Because they are unable to procure these fillings, inept people fail to obtain the intentional objects for their pleasures. Callicles is, then, no ordinary hedonist.  His is a very special form of hedonism which defines pleasure in terms of pain.  Calliclean pleasure includes pain, and this is why his picture of the advent and exit of pleasure takes the shape. 

Socrates thinks that if pleasure is understood as containing pain, then the pair pleasant/painful cannot be identical to the pair good or bad: the good cannot contain the bad but must represent an escape from the bad (Plato & Dodds, 91).  The good must be able to stand on its own two feet. If this analysis of Callicles’ motivations for asserting hedonism is correct, then the rhetoric is continuous with what precedes it.  The rhetoric targets the same feature of the Calliclean position as the story of the leaky sieves filling leaky jars and the comparison between the two men and their respective jars (Plato & Dodds, 92).  If Callicles had taken Socrates’ suggestion in those passages, he would have attached goodness to satiety rather than to the process of arriving at it. 

As Callicles understands it, pleasure is associated with the process by which desires are being satisfied.  Socrates’ alternative suggestion is that pleasure might be associated with the end result, namely the condition of possessing satisfied desires (Plato & Dodds, 93). The bone of contention between Socrates and Callicles is not whether pleasure is the good, but on whether, assuming that it is good, it is to be associated with desire satisfying or desire satisfaction. Socrates makes two attempts to shift Callicles from the former to the latter.  First, he suggests that, because the process of satisfying a desire is like carrying water into a leaky jar with a sieve, one should not devote oneself to that quixotic process but instead one ought Callicles rejects this Socratic overture; Socrates tries again (Plato & Dodds, 94).  He describes the life Callicles praises as that of a man who has leaky jars and asks whether Callicles wouldn’t prefer to be in the satiated condition of someone who has filled his jars, literally does not pour anything into them.

In my view, Socrates is more correct. This is due to the feature of Callicles’ view that underwrites the urgency of Socrates’ refutation of it.   Callicles’ attempt to defend oratory has led him to an impossible form of hedonism, a form that divorces desire from its object, the good (Plato & Dodds, 98).  Divorcing desire from the good is the final refuge of the thinker who wants to defend the intuition that he who can kill, confiscate and banish at will, for example, the man on top of the pile is the best man (Plato & Dodds, 98).  The defense of the claim that there is such a thing as a power to kill, confiscate and banish, to do evil with impunity consigns human beings to the pursuit of what they don’t actually want.  I conclude that the Socrates is both sound and valid: it is a convincing takedown of Calliclean rhetoric hedonism.  The interest of the argument for us, however, will boil down to the interest in this unusual form of rhetoric hedonism. Callicles’ rhetoric is inadequate to be more superior to Socrates’.

Callicles needs a theory of the good on which it will be better and better to have more and more of the things a skill of persuasion can help you get, things such as immunity from prosecution, political influence, and wealth.  The ever more difficult fulfillment of ever greater desires fits the bill (Plato & Dodds, 98).  Callicles’ immoderate serves his oratorical and tyrannical aspirations, and it served by his theory of pleasure.  But notice that only some theories of pleasure will, in fact, serve those purposes.  We can see this by attending to the fact that Plato has Socrates offer Callicles an alternative construal of pleasure one on which it would no include pain and has Callicles reject it (Plato & Dodds, 86).  My conjecture is that his grounds for rejecting it are that it cannot serve this argumentative purpose. 

To sum up, Callicles’ commitment to the claim that a good person is a man on top of the pile runs deep.  His hedonism does not.  This is not surprising, given that he adopts hedonism, not on the grounds that he sees pleasure as especially valuable, but because he sees in the view that pleasure is valuable a potential theoretical grounding for his real commitments.  But it is not an accident that it is hedonism to which Callicles turned for such a defense.  For hedonism is characteristically hospitable to the inclination to dissociate desire and the good.