The Gorgias and Existentialism:
the Inverted Philosophy of Existence

[We continue with Voegelin's account of the Gorgias. Socrates now confronts the smug insider, Callicles, who offers his hedonistic existentialism: justice is the success of the stronger and the life of luxury, license and freedom is happiness.]

[There is more] to the resistance of Callicles than the fear of a Socratic popular success. The situation of the dialogue is not that of an assembly of the people. Members of the ruling class are among themselves. In such company the propositions of Socrates are in bad taste.

It is the same complaint as that of Polus. But while Polus was indignant because Socrates did not conduct himself en canaille, Callicles protests that Socrates does not conduct himself as a gentleman of the superior type. The subsequent remarks of Callicles have, therefore, in spite of their threatening undertone, the character of a not altogether unfriendly admonition to Socrates to mend his ways.1

Callicles opens his admonitions with a clarification of the terms "justice" and "injustice." The conventional lawmakers define justice in such a manner that they will terrify the stronger man who otherwise would get the better of them, while they declare it shameful and unjust if a man desires to have more than the others (pleonektein) (483C).

Justice and injustice in the conventional sense are distinguished as desire for equality and pleonexy. By nature, however, pleonexy is just; and just order, in the animal realm as well as among humans, among cities as well as among peoples, is the rule of the stronger over the weaker one (483C-D).2 The men who make history follow this law of nature; for on what other grounds could Xerxes' invasion of Hellas be justified? Certainly not by the conventions that we teach our best and strongest men from their youth in order to tame them like young lions. If a man had sufficient strength, he would break all these charms; the slave would rise in rebellion and become our master; and the light of justice would shine forth.

Socrates would understand all this, if only he would drop philosophy and turn to more important things. Philosophy is an elegant accomplishment, if pursued with moderation in younger years, but if a man indulges in it and carries it on in later life, he will be ignorant of the things that a gentleman ought to know. He will be inexperienced in politics; he will not be able to hold his own in a debate; he will be ignorant of human character and of its motivations through pleasures and passions.3 When such men get involved in business or politics they will cut a ridiculous figure, just as a man of affairs would make himself ridiculous in a philosophical debate.4

One has to combine the two accomplishments and to balance them properly. Thus, it is not a disgrace for a young man to be interested in philosophy; on the contrary, its study is becoming to a freeman and who neglects it will never be a superior man with noble aspirations. But indulgence makes the man effeminate; he will be shy of public gatherings where men distinguish themselves; he will hang around in corners with three or four admiring youths but never speak out like a freeman.

Callicles assures Socrates of his goodwill and affection; he asks him whether he is not ashamed of being in the notoriously defenseless position of a philosopher. For what would he do if someone had him arrested for a wrong that he has not committed? He would be confused and would not know what to say; and before a court he might not even be able to defend himself against the death penalty. And what is the value of a man who cannot defend himself against his enemies, of a man whom, so to speak, one may hit with impunity?5

The position of Callicles hinges on the identification of good and just with the self-assertive expression of the stronger nature. The debate between Callicles and Socrates that follows the admonition proves the position untenable.

We need not follow this long debate in detail (486D-522), but we must single out the principal arguments of Socrates because they have remained to this day the classical catalogue of arguments against the "inverted" philosophy of existence that characterizes the age of enlightenment and positivism of a civilization. We shall find the same theoretical situation recurring in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries a.d.

The position of Callicles has a fundamental weakness, characteristic of this type of existentialism. Callicles does not seriously deny the relative rank of virtues. He is not prepared to deny that courage ranks higher than cowardice, or wisdom higher than folly. When he identifies the good with the strong, he acts on the inarticulate premise that there exists a pre-established harmony between the lustiness represented by himself and the social success of virtues, which he does not discern too clearly but to which he gives conventional assent. Socrates, in his argument, uses the technique of pointing to facts that disprove the pre-established harmony and involves Callicles in contradictions between his valuations and the consequences of his existentialism.

The first and most obvious attack is directed against the harmony between strength and goodness. Callicles had maintained that the rule of the strongest is justice. Now Socrates raises the question whether inferior people, if they are numerous enough, cannot be stronger than the better ones. And if so, would then the more numerous weak who impose the despised conventions not be the stronger ones; and would, as a consequence, the argument for justice by nature against justice by convention not break down?

Callicles is incensed at the idea that a rabble of slaves should lay down the law for him because they happen to be physically stronger. He withdraws immediately and insists that when he said "the stronger" he had meant of course "the more excellent." Thus the first defense of the principle that the survival of the fittest entails the survival of the best has broken down.

The "excellent" are finally defined by Callicles as the men who are most wise and courageous in affairs of state. They ought to be the rulers, and it would be fair if they had more than their subjects (49ID-E). Socrates counters with the question: Should they have more than themselves?

This question brings a new outburst from Callicles. A man should not rule himself. On the contrary, goodness and justice consist in the satisfaction of desires. "Luxury, license, and freedom" (tryphe, akolasia, eleutheria), if provided with means, are virtue and happiness (arete, eudaimonia); whatever is said to the contrary is the ornamental talk of worthless men (492C).

It is not difficult for Socrates to suggest desires of such baseness that even Callicles squirms. But he has become stubborn and insists on the identification of happiness with the satisfaction of desires; and he refuses to distinguish between good and bad pleasures (495B).

The resistance of Callicles gives Socrates the opportunity to introduce the question whether men who are admitted by Callicles to be good (such as the wise and courageous) feel more pleasure than those who are admitted to be inferior (such as the cowards). The result of the inquiry is the conclusion that a coward can experience, quite possibly, more pleasure than a wise and courageous man. By the reasoning of Callicles, therefore, the cowards would have to be considered the better men because they experience more happiness in the hedonistic sense. This contradiction, finally, compels Callicles to admit the distinction of good and bad pleasures (499C).

With this admission the case of Callicles is lost. Socrates can, step by step, force his adversary's unwilling assent to the positive philosophy of existence. . . .


1. They are of special interest inasmuch as they are somewhat improbable as the remarks of a younger man to the historical Socrates, as well as because they contain some details that do not quite fit the circumstances of Socrates' life. These admonitions have an autobiographical touch. Callicles holds forth in a manner in which a friend of the family might have on occasion given Plato a piece of his mind.

2. The problem of pleonexy is intimately connected with the "inverted" philosophy of existence. When the new philosophy of existence recurs, in the seventeenth century a.d., the problem of pleonexy also reappears. Locke makes the curious attempt to propagate pleonexy as conventional justice; he institutionalizes the "desire to have more than the other man" by transforming government into a protective agency for the gains of pleonexy.

3. See Bentham's attack on the "ascetic" type.

4. In this part of the admonition we probably have to see the origin of the Diversion of the Theaetetus.

5. This section of the Callicles speech is distinctly autobiographic. One has to realize the situation of Plato in Athens and the effect that advice of this kind must have had on a proud man who was conscious of his qualities.

  Vol 16 (Order and History, Vol III)
The Gorgias (Chapter 2)
§ 3 The Inverted Philosophy of Existence
pp 87-90.