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Plato’s Gorgias

The Gorgias is probably among the last dialogs of Plato’s early period. In it we see him experimenting with the longer format, using multiple interlocutors, which he will later use to great effect in his magnum opus, The Republic. In it also, we get the sense that Plato is coming up against the limitations of the Socratic elenchus (question and answer technique) as a way of teaching philosophy; two of the three interlocutors remain unconvinced and refuse to change their position after Socrates questions them.
The second of these, Callicles, becomes openly hostile and refuses to continue, forcing Socrates to finish up in the sort of monologue argument which he hates. The fundamental weakness of the Socratic method, as any of us who have used it in the classroom know, is that it requires full participation from both sides (which is why I used to give my students a participation point every time they asked or answered a question in discussion section).

Gorgias was a prominent teacher of oratory (public speaking) from Sicily. The dialog opens with Socrates and his side-kick Chaerophon (whom we met in Clouds and heard mentioned in The Apology) waiting to meet Gorgias as he leaves a dinner party. They have heard that he is in town, and want to question him regarding Socrates’ current inquiry: what is the nature of oratory, and is it one of the true arts? When Gorgias comes out he is accompanied by Polus, a younger and less famous teacher of rhetoric, and Callicles, a budding Athenian politician who is hosting Gorgias while he is in town.

The School of Athens.  Rafael.  [public domain via Wikimedia]

The School of Athens. Rafael. [public domain via Wikimedia]

Gorgias good-naturedly agrees to answer Socrates’ questions, and Socrates soon proves to his own satisfaction that oratory, far from being the highest art, as Gorgias believes, is a spurious art–more of a knack, really. It relates to the true art of politics the same way that cooking relates to medicine and cosmology relates to physical training: it panders people’s enjoyment but isn’t actually good for them on any deep level.

At this point Polus wades into the discussion to defend his profession. His argument is that oratory is a good because those who become skilled in it can obtain great power and take advantage of those who are less skilled in court and the assembly. Socrates then launches a series of questions intended to school Polus on the difference between ends and means. Means cannot be good in themselves, but ends can. Next, Socrates introduces one of the most radical concepts in Platonic philosophy: it is better to suffer an injustice than to do one. Thus a man who uses oratory to become a tyrant and take unfair advantage of others is harming himself worst of all. Polus is clearly unconvinced by these assertions, but just as clearly out of his depth trading words with Socrates.

Callicles, who has been quiet so far, can restrain himself no longer. Socrates, he says, has been using logical tricks to take advantage of Gorgias and Polus, and they are too noble to call him on it. Socrates’ position is ridiculous because the natural law of the world is for stronger and “better” men to take from their inferiors. I was reminded of the line from Stephen Sondheim’s musical Sweeny Todd,

In all of the whole human race Mrs Lovett
There are two kinds of men and only two,
There’s the one staying put in his proper place
And the one with his foot in the other one’s face.
Look at me Mrs. Lovett look at you.

Socrates, of course, is able to refute Callicles’ position in short order, and Callicles responds by shifting his position and even resorting to personal insults. Unable to hold his ground and unwilling to admit that he is wrong, he tries to end the conversation. Gorgias, however, who is now enjoying himself, urges him to continue. For the rest of the dialog he answers sullenly and agrees with Socrates only to get the discussion over with faster. Eventually he becomes so unresponsive that Socrates is forced basically to lecture. Meanwhile Socrates has broadened the topic to how a man should live virtuously to achieve the good live (i.e. eudaimonia). A great leader, according to Socrates, would live his life with order and self control. He would speak to the people in order to educate them and improve them in virtue, not merely to talk them into things and pander to them. Even famous men like Pericles and Cimon, while adequate as civil servants, were not great leaders because they used oratory and didn’t actually improve the people in their charge. At this point, the dialog has cycled back to Socrates’ initial conclusion that oratory is not more than a pseudo-art used to pander to the masses.

At the conclusion of the dialog, Socrates offers one of the myths which appear in several of Plato’s dialogues. This particular one deals with the judgement that awaits people in the afterlife. Those who behave unjustly will damage their souls in ways that will be obvious to the judges, who will consign them to punishment in Tarterus. This myth serves as additional support against Callicles’ position, possibly more appealing to a man like Callicles, who is apparently immune to reason.

The Gorgias treats with several concepts which are worthy of further consideration. For instance, the doctrine of avoiding revenge because doing injustice harms the doer became a cornerstone of Platonism, and later of Christianity. Almost as radical was the idea that punishment for injustice was good for the person punished, which has also enjoyed a long currency in Western Civilization, particularly in the Catholic Church. The main theme of the dialog, the distinction between legitimate education and oratory, is of particular interest in the modern world. While we have less opportunity to watch orators in person than classical Greeks, we are barraged all day with advertising and “news” using all the ‘ old techniques and appeals. As Socrates points out, while some of it may pander to us by giving temporary pleasure and telling us what we want to hear, none of it is good for our souls. None of it will bring us closer to eudaimonia in any way.

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Thucydides Books VI-VIII: Conclusion

I trust you will forgive me for lumping the last three books of Thucydides‘ History together in one post, but I have my reasons.  Book VI is the true climax of the narrative, in which the Athenians mount a massive expedition to Sicily and suffer a loss of men, treasure, ships, and morale from which they can never recover.  Everything after is mere denouement, even though the war lasts for another decade.  In Book VII the war shifts to the Aegean and Athens manages to scrape together enough forces to win a few victories, especially after the fickle Alcibiades switches back to their side, but the final outcome is never in doubt.  By the unfinished Book VIII the Persians have come in on the Spartan side,  Alcibiades is gone again, and it is obviously just a matter of time before the final defeat.  Thucydides leaves off in mid sentence, leaving it to Xenophon to write about the end of the war.

Ancient Greek Acropolis at Selinus, Sicily [Flickr user Dennis Jarvis, CC BY-SA 2.0]

Ancient Greek Acropolis at Selinus, Sicily [Flickr user Dennis Jarvis, CC BY-SA 2.0]

Maybe Thucydides’ health declined, or perhaps he was recalled to Athens and no longer needed a writing project to spend the empty hours of his exile.  As a fellow writer, I suspect that, having laid out his main thesis and arguments, he became bored with the final chapters and put them off, never finishing.  But what was this thesis that he was trying to prove?

I just finished reading Donald Kagan’s book Thucydides: The Reinvention of History, which sheds some interesting light on the question.  Kagan, one of the world’s foremost Thucydides scholars, argues that the “father of scientific history” was a revisionist who crafted the History to support his own platform.  The narrative that Thucydides presents is that the war was inevitable but the Athenians had a strong chance of winning under the leadership of Pericles.  After Pericles died in the plague, the democratic mob, urged on by demagogues like Cleon, went out of control and adopted a reckless policy, including the invasion of Sicily, which destroyed the empire.  Thucydides presents this perspective so effectively that it became the dominant interpretation of the Peloponnesian war for 2400 years.

Kagan, Thucydides the Reinvention of History Cover Image

In Kagan’s book, however, he explains how, while Thucydides clearly believed this interpretation, there is significant evidence within his own work to question whether things were that simple.  The war may or may not have been inevitable eventually, but Pericles was the one who pushed Athens to go to war when they did.  His defensive policy was already being shown to be ineffective by  the time of his death.  It was only after Cleon and others urged Athens into a more aggressive strategy that they began making advances.  Cleon himself, despite being hated by Thucydides, Aristophanes, and others, actually seems to have been fairly competent.

Perhaps most importantly the invasion of Sicily, far from being a mad power grab by the mob, was a fairly reasonable plan which might have succeeded had it not been for the gross incompetence of Nicias.  It was Nicias who, without actually meaning to, talked the assembly into a massive escalation of commitment in Sicily.  It was Nicias who committed one tactical and logistic blunder after another in the Sicilian campaign.  It was Nicias who waited too long to withdraw after it was obvious the campaign was lost, turning a strategic withdrawal into a disaster in which he lost his entire force and his own life.

Thucydides liked and respected Pericles and Nicias but loathed Cleon and distrusted democracy.  Thus, he structured the narrative to support his own bias, which probably went against the commonly held views of the day.  Kagan points out that, despite having a strong viewpoint, Thucydides was true to his own stated methodology and did not deliberately withhold information.  He wrote at a time when the war was still fresh in the minds of his readers and he could assume that they knew the major events, so he could emphasize the speeches and happenings that reinforced his own thesis.

Whether this interpretation is true or not–and perhaps particularly if it is true, Thucydides remains one of the greatest and most influential historians of all time.  Still, the issue reminds us, as readers of the Great Books, that every writer has their own agenda and their own biases, as does every reader, and we need to take them into account if we want to truly come to grips with these texts.

Thucydides Book 2: The Plague

One of the defining tropes of Greek Tragedy is man’s ultimate inability to fight his fate. All purely human ambitions and conflicts are dwarfed by the central conflict between the humans and the gods, and the gods always win. The Peloponnesian War, as interpreted by Thucydides, was a real-life Greek Tragedy. The various people and factions described all had their own motivations but, ultimately, Athens and Sparta were fated to go to war and destroy each other and there was nothing that humans could do to stop it. In this respect, Thucydides’ worldview had evolved remarkably little from that of Homer, several centuries earlier, who had cast the Trojan war as an event decreed by the gods. The heroes of the Iliad could choose how to meet their fates, but they could not avoid them.

In Book II we meet another deus ex machina which no human can control: the plague. Prior to the plague, the war has been largely indecisive. The Spartans march into Athenian territory for a few weeks at a time and destroy things, but are unable to lure the Athenians from their heavily fortified city for a major battle. Meanwhile the Athenians, with sea-superiority, pursue similar tactics along the coast. It seems likely that this state of affairs will continue for years. Then the plague hits Athens, and a significant shift in power occurs.

The Plague at Ashdod, Nicolas Poussin [public domain via Wikimedia]

The Plague at Ashdod, Nicolas Poussin [public domain via Wikimedia]

We don’t know know what disease actually hit Athens, any more than the Athenian doctors did. Various historians have interpreted the Thucydides’ gruesomely vivid description of symptoms as malaria, bubonic plague, cholera, or even Ebola,

…people in good health were all of a sudden attacked by violent heats in the head, and redness and inflammation in the eyes, the inward parts, such as the throat or tongue, becoming bloody and emitting an unnatural and fetid breath. These symptoms were followed by sneezing and hoarseness, after which the pain soon reached the chest, and produced a hard cough. When it fixed in the stomach, it upset it; and discharges of bile of every kind named by physicians ensued, accompanied by very great distress. In most cases also an ineffectual retching followed, producing violent spasms, which in some cases ceased soon after, in others much later. Externally the body was not very hot to the touch, nor pale in its appearance, but reddish, livid, and breaking out into small pustules and ulcers. But internally it burned so that the patient could not bear to have on him clothing or linen even of the very lightest description; or indeed to be otherwise than stark naked. What they would have liked best would have been to throw themselves into cold water; as indeed was done by some of the neglected sick, who plunged into the rain-tanks in their agonies of unquenchable thirst; though it made no difference whether they drank little or much. Besides this, the miserable feeling of not being able to rest or sleep never ceased to torment them. The body meanwhile did not waste away so long as the distemper was at its height, but held out to a marvel against its ravages; so that when they succumbed, as in most cases, on the seventh or eighth day to the internal inflammation, they had still some strength in them. But if they passed this stage, and the disease descended further into the bowels, inducing a violent ulceration there accompanied by severe diarrhoea, this brought on a weakness which was generally fatal. For the disorder first settled in the head, ran its course from thence through the whole of the body, and, even where it did not prove mortal, it still left its mark on the extremities; for it settled in the privy parts, the fingers and the toes, and many escaped with the loss of these, some too with that of their eyes. Others again were seized with an entire loss of memory on their first recovery, and did not know either themselves or their friends.

Given the amount of time which has passed, it might have been a virus which is now extinct, or has since evolved into a very different form. Whatever it was, it was deadly. It swept rapidly through Athens and the surrounding towns, badly overpopulated by refuges from the countryside. As the death toll mounted, Athens descended into nearly complete lawlessness. People who were sure they were going to die anyway rejected all custom and decency. The only bright spot was that the Spartans, afraid of catching the plague themselves, decided to avoid Athens and go home early that summer.

Descriptions of plagues, and people’s behavior during plagues abound in fiction. Ken Follet, in his Pillars of the Earth books, and Connie Willis, in Doomsday Book, wrote particularly effective treatments of the medieval Black Death, and other examples abound. However, the matter-or-fact prose in Thucydides’ vivid first-hand account captures the phenomenon better than any fictional narrative I’ve read. I would recommend that any author who his about to write about a plague start their research by downloading and reading book II of Thucydides.

Thucydides implies that, even thought he war went on for decades longer, it was the Plague that truly lead to Athens losing. It devastating to their moral, economy, and population. One casualty hurt them more than any other, however. Pericles, the leader who had been the architect of the Athenian empire, succumbed that year. No other leader could unify the various Athenian factions or had the discipline to fight a long war of attrition, in which the richer Athenians were sure to eventually grind down the Spartan war machine. After the plague lesser leaders vied for power and, when they got it, lead the Athenians on one risky adventure after another in search of a quick and decisive victory that never quite materialized.

Death of Pericles, Alonzo Chappel [public domain via Wikimedia]

Death of Pericles, Alonzo Chappel [public domain via Wikimedia]

Just as if they were caught in a play in which one of the gods announces divine retribution in the first scene, Athens after the plague spends the rest of the story being dragged inexorably to their fate. The audience knows how the story will end and the remaining books of the history describe how the actors choose to deal with the tragedy.

Thucydides Book II: The Plague

One of the defining tropes of Greek Tragedy is man’s ultimate inability to fight his fate. All purely human ambitions and conflicts are dwarfed by the central conflict between the humans and the gods, and the gods always win. The Peloponnesian War, as interpreted by Thucydides, was a real-life Greek Tragedy. The various people and factions described all had their own motivations but, ultimately, Athens and Sparta were fated to go to war and destroy each other and there was nothing that humans could do to stop it. In this respect, Thucydides’ worldview had evolved remarkably little from that of Homer, several centuries earlier, who had cast the Trojan war as an event decreed by the gods. The heroes of the Iliad could choose how to meet their fates, but they could not avoid them.

In Book II we meet another deus ex machina which no human can control: the plague. Prior to the plague, the war has been largely indecisive. The Spartans march into Athenian territory for a few weeks at a time and destroy things, but are unable to lure the Athenians from their heavily fortified city for a major battle. Meanwhile the Athenians, with sea-superiority, pursue similar tactics along the coast. It seems likely that this state of affairs will continue for years. Then the plague hits Athens, and a significant shift in power occurs.

The Plague at Ashdod, Nicolas Poussin [public domain via Wikimedia]

The Plague at Ashdod, Nicolas Poussin [public domain via Wikimedia]

We don’t know know what disease actually hit Athens, any more than the Athenian doctors did. Various historians have interpreted the Thucydides’ gruesomely vivid description of symptoms as malaria, bubonic plague, cholera, or even Ebola,

…people in good health were all of a sudden attacked by violent heats in the head, and redness and inflammation in the eyes, the inward parts, such as the throat or tongue, becoming bloody and emitting an unnatural and fetid breath. These symptoms were followed by sneezing and hoarseness, after which the pain soon reached the chest, and produced a hard cough. When it fixed in the stomach, it upset it; and discharges of bile of every kind named by physicians ensued, accompanied by very great distress. In most cases also an ineffectual retching followed, producing violent spasms, which in some cases ceased soon after, in others much later. Externally the body was not very hot to the touch, nor pale in its appearance, but reddish, livid, and breaking out into small pustules and ulcers. But internally it burned so that the patient could not bear to have on him clothing or linen even of the very lightest description; or indeed to be otherwise than stark naked. What they would have liked best would have been to throw themselves into cold water; as indeed was done by some of the neglected sick, who plunged into the rain-tanks in their agonies of unquenchable thirst; though it made no difference whether they drank little or much. Besides this, the miserable feeling of not being able to rest or sleep never ceased to torment them. The body meanwhile did not waste away so long as the distemper was at its height, but held out to a marvel against its ravages; so that when they succumbed, as in most cases, on the seventh or eighth day to the internal inflammation, they had still some strength in them. But if they passed this stage, and the disease descended further into the bowels, inducing a violent ulceration there accompanied by severe diarrhoea, this brought on a weakness which was generally fatal. For the disorder first settled in the head, ran its course from thence through the whole of the body, and, even where it did not prove mortal, it still left its mark on the extremities; for it settled in the privy parts, the fingers and the toes, and many escaped with the loss of these, some too with that of their eyes. Others again were seized with an entire loss of memory on their first recovery, and did not know either themselves or their friends.

Given the amount of time which has passed, it might have been a virus which is now extinct, or has since evolved into a very different form. Whatever it was, it was deadly. It swept rapidly through Athens and the surrounding towns, badly overpopulated by refuges from the countryside. As the death toll mounted, Athens descended into nearly complete lawlessness. People who were sure they were going to die anyway rejected all custom and decency. The only bright spot was that the Spartans, afraid of catching the plague themselves, decided to avoid Athens and go home early that summer.

Descriptions of plagues, and people’s behavior during plagues abound in fiction. Ken Follet, in his Pillars of the Earth books, and Connie Willis, in Doomsday Book, wrote particularly effective treatments of the medieval Black Death, and other examples abound. However, the matter-or-fact prose in Thucydides’ vivid first-hand account captures the phenomenon better than any fictional narrative I’ve read. I would recommend that any author who his about to write about a plague start their research by downloading and reading book II of Thucydides.

Thucydides implies that, even thought he war went on for decades longer, it was the Plague that truly lead to Athens losing. It devastating to their moral, economy, and population. One casualty hurt them more than any other, however. Pericles, the leader who had been the architect of the Athenian empire, succumbed that year. No other leader could unify the various Athenian factions or had the discipline to fight a long war of attrition, in which the richer Athenians were sure to eventually grind down the Spartan war machine. After the plague lesser leaders vied for power and, when they got it, lead the Athenians on one risky adventure after another in search of a quick and decisive victory that never quite materialized.

Death of Pericles, Alonzo Chappel [public domain via Wikimedia]

Death of Pericles, Alonzo Chappel [public domain via Wikimedia]

Just as if they were caught in a play in which one of the gods announces divine retribution in the first scene, Athens after the plague spends the rest of the story being dragged inexorably to their fate. The audience knows how the story will end and the remaining books of the history describe how the actors choose to deal with the tragedy.