The character of Callicles in Plato’s dialogue Gorgias gives interesting insights into his own conception of justice. I will argue that Callicles’ conceptions of justice are inconsistent when coupled with a variety of his other beliefs. In Section I, I will explicate my interpretation of Callicles’ claims that there are two conceptions of justice – what is just by law and what is just by nature – analyzing his arguments for each. Section II will begin with my interpretation of the various stances that Callicles takes on what is just by nature. I will end the section with the argument that what is just by law is generally more rational than what is just by nature. Section III will be devoted to the argument that Callicles’ views are inconsistent – focusing on three arguments: (1) Callicles’ support of what is just by nature conflicts with the value he places on human intelligence; (2) Callicles’ argument against philosophy conflicts both with his conception of the superior one and his own personal endeavours into justice; and (3) the type of reason Callicles values conflicts with his conception of what is just by nature. The final section will evaluate the particular alterations Callicles could make to his views in an aim to rectify the refutations and inconsistencies raised in III.
Callicles interjects into the dialogue with a lengthy speech in which he outlines his arguments against the Socratic notion of justice. He divides justice into two categories – justice in law and justice in nature – accusing Socrates of meddling in the first. What is just by law, Callicles argues, are the values implemented upon society by a group he calls the “weak and many”. These values include that everyone should have an equal share, and that it is shameful to take from others if one is superior. The many do this precisely because they are weak, as they are frightened by “the ones who are capable of having a greater share…”. Nature, however, points towards a different conception of justice in which it is just for the better to take more. Callicles bolsters this claim with two pieces of evidence: the interactions of animals and the interactions of sovereign nations. Though Callicles offers little explanation for the first, it seems his argument relies on the fact that animals do not cooperate on mass scales. That is, the majority of wild animals are worried just about feeding themselves, and not worried about giving an equal share to the whole species. The superior lion feeds on the inferior gazelle, and does not worry about whether the gazelle should have an equal share. Some may point to instances of small-scale cooperation amongst species, such as packs of hyenas hunting; however, the cooperation is limited when compared to that of humans. Furthermore, if a pack of four hyenas were given enough food for eight hyenas, the original pack would still presumably fight off a different pack if the different pack approached. Hyenas are not presumed to understand laws of equal share. If their pack is in possession of a generous amount of food, they will not relinquish this food for those in less fortunate positions, like humans might.
Callicles seems correct in stating that superior animals take more than the inferior, but what of his claim about superior sovereign nations? He cites the example of Xerxes’ assault of Greece, implying that Xerxes’ motivation was due to his belief that Persia was superior to Greece. Callicles appears to be arguing that Xerxes was not held to the same conception of justice that society was held too, and so Xerxes – believing he was superior – tried to take more for his nation and himself. Callicles seems to believe that when there are few agreements between nations, the superior nations will often invade areas that grant them resources. Support for Callicles could be found in the recent incident involving Crimea and Russia. Russia believed themselves to be the superior nation and found that the repercussions for taking action would be limited, and so Russia seized an entire region from the seemingly inferior nation of Ukraine. This case is not entirely precise, however, as the citizens of Crimea backed the Russian occupation and the territory once belonged to Russia – implying the takeover was not entirely a consequence of superiority. Needless to say, the motivations of nations have always been extremely complex in regards to the invasion of other nations. For the most part, Callicles’ claim that superior sovereign nations invade inferior nations looks consistent in some cases – though the motivations of superior nations seem more complex than those of superior animals such as the lion mentioned above. The lion clearly attacks the gazelle due to the lion’s superior status, however nations often invade for a variety of reasons: be it past agreements, natural resources, religion, or race. Since the motivations of the superior lion are more clear than those of nation states, I will focus more on the justification that relies on observations of animals when I outline the inconsistencies in Section III.
When Socrates is given the chance to respond, he makes an effort to restate Callicles’ position of what is just by nature. Socrates, however, first clarifies whether Callicles believes that the better, stronger, and superior are the same, to which Callicles agrees. From here, Callicles clarifies what he believes to be just by nature: the superior, stronger, and better taking everything they can. Socrates then rejects this conception, aiming to rectify his original view that only one conception of justice exists. The argument can be laid out as follows (found from 488d-489c):
- The many (or the weak majority) are superior by nature to the one as they impose the laws upon the one (or the supposedly superior individual).
- Parallel to (1), the laws created by the many are the laws of the one.
- The laws of the superior are admirable by nature based on the people’s superiority.
- One of the laws of the many is that all have an equal share.
- By (3) and (4), having an equal share is admirable by nature.
- Therefore, it is not exclusively just by law to have an equal share, but also just by nature.
This is a rather compelling argument against Callicles considering he explicitly agrees to each premise; and he’s ultimately forced to shift his conception of what is just by nature. It seems strange, however, that Callicles would actually agree to premise 1, in light of his heightened view of the superior member in society. That is, Callicles should have argued that the many may just appear superior to the one, as the many have already implemented the laws. The one, then, could still be superior by nature, as the laws of equal share imposed by the many would prohibit the superior one from gaining all he or she can. Callicles could have argued that a specific individual could maintain his or her superiority, even under the rule of the many. After all, if they are truly superior, the number of inferior people should not affect this. If this were true, the many’s laws would no longer be superior – rejecting their admirability in nature and the conclusion reached in (6).
Callicles’ rebuttal is similar in that he alters his stance to exclude the many’s superiority, claiming that the superior one should actually be the more intelligent one. This sparks Socrates to give an analogy to refute Callicles by highlighting that being intelligent should not automatically grant someone a greater share. Socrates imagines a group of individuals with an intelligent doctor among them who all share a source of food. Socrates claims it would be wrong to assume that the doctor have more food strictly because he knows more about food than others.A doctor is better educated in nutrition, but this does not mean he should be in charge of all nutritious items. This prompts Callicles to give one of his final properties of the superior one: that he or she is intelligent about affairs of the city.
Callicles’ high value of intelligence is finally fleshed out with this claim. He finds the superior members of a society to be those intelligent about what is happening within their city. These are the superior, stronger, better individuals who are deemed just by nature to satisfy their ever-growing desires. Presumably, these people should understand quite a few concepts: one, they should know that the laws of equal share are incorrect, and only there as a result of the weaker many. Next, they should understand how a society functions: including political affairs, economic systems, and laws. Finally, and most importantly, they must be well-versed in reasoning – as manipulating the system of laws would be no small feat. The superior would need to exercise rational activity in order to engage in the affairs of the city while satisfying their appetites.
The fact that creating laws of equality requires what most presume to be rational thinking poses interesting consequences for what is just by law. Namely, that the conception of justice in law could be more rational than what is just by nature – barring extreme examples. The laws in societies such as America or Athens were implemented based on fiery discussions between individuals over extended periods of time. It would have been no small feat to create the court systems of Athens, and their creation seems to epitomize the human ability to engage in rational activity. To organize a consistent set of complex laws that the majority of a large society uphold and agree to – be it grudgingly or not – could be viewed as the pinnacle of human cooperation and reason. Of course, there are some hypothetical cases where laws may not be deemed rational – for instance a group of malicious individuals creating laws that allow for clearly irrational acts like murder. These irrational laws, however, would not work on a wide scale basis, as large societies cannot function without rules that prohibit egregious violations of individual’s rights.
A more poignant response would be the argument that I am defining rationality too dogmatically, establishing it exclusively as a human concept. That is, my claim that creating laws is a rational activity may imply that animals always act irrationally. To clarify, when we observe the lion we may judge his actions irrational, but the lion still acts correctly. When a dominant lion fights off an inferior opponent for an entire water buffalo, a human may judge it irrational on the basis that there was enough for both lions; however, the lion is not held accountable for his actions, as we know he could not of done otherwise. The lion does not act in accordance with human reason, but Callicles could claim the lion acts according to his own, more superior, reason.
This, however, is precisely the problem, as humans are not lions. When lions get together it is logical for them to fight and promote inequality. After all, the lions always seem to have certain reasons to fight off the inferior lion, as lions usually do not know when or what their next meal will be. Furthermore, we do not expect the superior lion to understand that both the lions would be sufficiently fed on the buffalo, giving more justification to its actions. Humans, however, have the capability to utilize their rationality to implement laws that promote a different set of values than animals – the values of equality. Humans are able to make the judgment that both lions could feed on the water buffalo, and this judgment is what separates the conduct of animals and humans. Reason appears to be what allows humans to separate themselves from the brutish nature of wildlife, raising ourselves above the more savage values of animals. The rationality that humans hold dear – that of morality, reflection, theoretical discovery, existential thinking – is completely lost in the justice of nature. Therefore, what is just by law is at least more rational to humans than what is just by nature.
A final objection Callicles could make to this point is that we only value the rationality of the laws because the laws imposed this rationality upon us. This, however, cannot be true, as the irrationality of the lion to a human stems from the judgment that a particular resource will be wasted when only given to one consumer. In other words, humans do not judge the lions to be irrational by reflecting upon some set of laws imposed upon them, but by evaluating that both lions could have sufficiently fed themselves on one water buffalo. This evaluation is separated from the values instilled by laws, as it could be made consistently across cultures with different sets of laws. The seeming loss of human rationality within Callicles’ ideal justice points to inconsistencies when coupled with his praise of the intelligent, as will be shown in Section III.
If what is just by law is more rational to humans, Callicles faces a few inconsistencies – the first involving a conflict in values. That is, if Callicles values intelligence so highly, then why does he subscribe himself to the justice and morality of beasts? Callicles endorses what is just by nature as the ultimate conception of justice, and claims that this involves the most intelligent in a society satisfying ever-growing appetites; however, it seems inconsistent for the intelligent members of a society to follow a theory of justice that seems less rational than that of the law. Furthermore, the weaker, or less intelligent, seem to align themselves with a conception of justice that is more rationally charged, as shown above. Why would the simple-minded hold the knowledge required to implement laws of equal share upon the more intelligent members of society? Callicles is inconsistent in that he claims the weak many to be unintelligent, and yet also claims that they implement laws that require rational thinking. He also claims the superior should value being intelligent in the laws of the city, yet claims they should value what is just by nature, not law. Callicles may claim by inquiring into what is just by nature, the superior learn to value the law – as it is a necessity for them to understand city affairs and transgress the laws. If, however, the superior must inquire into the truth of what is just by nature to understand how to conduct themselves, it seems they will not be involved sufficiently in the city to be intelligent about affairs of the city: a claim that will be illuminated further in the next set of inconsistencies.
The next inconsistencies involve conflicts between the kind of reasoning Callicles ultimately values and his own arguments and personal endeavours. Before explicating the inconsistencies, a distinction should be drawn between practical reasoning and theoretical reasoning. Practical rationality, for the purpose of this paper, includes the knowledge that allows an individual to perform actions that seem rational for themselves: for example it is practically rational for me to obey the laws of equality that bar stealing, as I will be arrested otherwise. Theoretical rationality, on the other hand, involves inquiring into some universally accessible, objective truth of what is and what is not: it may not be theoretically rational for me to obey laws of equality, as shown by scientific observation of animals that seem to promote inequality among species. In an attempt to sum up this distinction, practical wisdom involves how I should conduct myself in life while theoretical wisdom inquires into what I should conduct myself based on. Callicles rejects the type of reason that philosophy pursues, implying he does not value theoretical rationality. Philosophers, Callicles argues, lose themselves in contemplation about the truth of the objective world, and so lack practical knowledge if they continue philosophy past childhood. This is supported in his claims that philosophers will be “inexperienced in the laws of their city…” and “inexperienced in the ways of human beings altogether.” Callicles seems to be claiming that the philosopher inquires too far into the actual truth of justice, losing sight of basic human pleasures and how to conduct him or herself in society. Now that the distinction of practical and theoretical reason is clear and the argument given that Callicles devalues theoretical reason, more inconsistencies can be given.
First, since Callicles utilizes theoretical reasoning to draw his conclusions about what is just by nature, rejecting its importance undermines his own conception of justice; second, by attacking the philosopher, Callicles attacks both the superior members and himself; and third, it could be argued that Callicles places value on practical reasoning, which poses a question of why he supports a conception of justice that seems to run contra to this reasoning.
Expanding on the first proposed problem, Callicles originally seemed to endorse the view that an objective (theoretical) fact about the universe informed humanity of the kind of justice they should pursue: namely that nature has no inherent law of equality and so true justice should not entail equality. However, by attacking philosophers on the basis that they explore theoretical knowledge too often, Callicles weakens his own claim that certain theoretical truths of nature – such as animals interacting together – promote inequality. That is, his argument against philosophy also presents an attack upon the method of reasoning that he used himself to draw conclusions of justice. Callicles made scientific observations of animals and drew conclusions about how they act universally, something an individual could never do for humans – as human action varies widely across culture. If, however, Callicles is drawing conclusions based on theoretical reasoning, then he undermines these conclusions by rejecting its importance.
Callicles may argue that the superior only needs to make these observations as a child; however, for a child to make these observations of nature while the values of the many are being imposed upon him seems implausible. How would a kid inquire into the truths of justice and find that inequality was being foisted on them by the inferior members of society while his parents are presumably teaching him those same values? The superior one would need to inquire into justice way past childhood to understand Callicles’ conception of justice, leaving them similar to the philosopher. It seems as though, then, that Callicles and the superior ones would be guilty of the very thing Callicles himself condemns philosophers of: inquiring too far into the truths of justice and losing sight of desire-satisfaction and how to conduct oneself in society. Callicles is concerned with the nature of justice, as he supports a conception based on what is true in nature; however, if he condemns the philosopher for inquiring too far into the truth of nature, then it seems he is condemning himself.
It was shown that Callicles seems to devalue theoretical reasoning, but to say he values practical reasoning requires argument. Support can be found in the alteration that Callicles’ makes to his claim after Socrates’ refutation presented in Section I; that alteration being that the stronger and better are also those more intelligent about affairs of the city. To be intelligent about affairs of the city would require a knowledge of how to conduct oneself during actual interactions with people. This kind of knowledge would require an individual to value practical reasoning highly, as knowledge of the city requires that one know how to actually conduct oneself in a specific society. This lends more support to the idea that Callicles values practical wisdom: since the superior are intelligent about what happens in the city, they will know what actions to take in specific scenarios involving the city.
Another inconsistency now arises: if Callicles places significant value on practical reasoning, why does he support a conception of justice that separates itself entirely from practical knowledge? To clarify, it may be a theoretical fact of nature that superior animals steal from inferior animals; however, as a human I am able to understand that in a society stealing is not practically sound, as it would get me placed in jail. Callicles may respond by stating that I view stealing as unpractical contingent on the punishment and shame imposed on me by the laws of the many. This claim, however, relies on an assumption that there is some important theoretical truth against equality in nature. If there is a theoretical truth in nature that promotes inequality, the superior would need to inquire into the truth of justice to understand this truth: leading back to the second inconsistency in which Callicles condemns the philosopher for losing sight of society by inquiring too far into the truth of justice.
Callicles may have been able to rectify some of these inconsistencies in two ways: the first would be to reject his notion that the superior are the more intelligent, the second to reject his condemnation of philosophy. If Callicles were to have maintained his claim that the weak are simply the physically weaker, and the strong the physically dominant, he may have been able to save his claim that what is just by nature is superior to what is just by law. That is, Callicles could have claimed that the many were simply those who were physically weaker than others, but intelligent enough to understand that cooperation would give them power. The superior, in this case, would be those who, when placed in a state of nature, have clear advantage over other humans based solely on their physical prowess. In this brutish environment, the superior would have the ability to take anything they wished, as no system of law would be in place to stop them. From here, it seems reasonable to assume that the more intelligent, yet weaker, humans within the state of nature may realize that cooperation would enable them to instill values upon the stronger: such as those akin to equality. This would save Callicles from the refutation that creating a system of laws requires a level of rationality that he claims the many not to have and seems to value himself. This approach also, however, eliminates an aspect of Callicles’ argument that he would probably hold dear: namely that the superior should be the more intelligent. This loss can be avoided in the second approach to rectifying Callicles’ inconsistencies: giving up his argument against the philosopher. In doing so, Callicles would be able to claim that a study of theoretical truths about nature actually is beneficial; and, if done correctly, it may show that what is just by law is actually existent. That is, if Callicles did not reject the study of theoretical reasoning, his arguments for what is just by nature would be augmented – as they are based on observations about the truth of nature. In this way, the superior could understand the affairs of the city while still inquiring into the theoretical truths of nature that inform them of the two conceptions.
It could be argued that the superior would never have the time to both meddle into the truths of nature like a philosopher and be involved enough within the city to understand city affairs; and this illuminates Callicles’ ideological view of this superior human. Callicles endorses a superior individual who does not seem to actually exist, but just serve as a hypothetical to challenge Socrates. Although many believe it fails in doing so, Callicles’ two conceptions of justice prompt interesting discussion and responses from Socrates; ultimately leading to a more concise and complete conception of justice.
All quotes and information that is not from myself is found in Plato’s Gorgias. Essay is intellectual property of this blog.