“Ought” vs “is”: Socrates and Callicles

Socrates

One of the most momentous conversations in history you’ve never heard about took place between Socrates and a man named Callicles, and is recorded in Plato’s Gorgias. It is a surprisingly moving portrayal of a man who tries to describe the world as it is but, upon prompting, reveals how much he yearns for the way it ought to be. Although it took place 2,400 years ago, the conversation is timeless and very modern. I think it describes many of us today.

Lions and sheep

As usual, Socrates is going around asking people to define “justice” and to expose, as was his wont, their confusion and ignorance. Callicles decides to have a go.

He proceeds to give a sort of genealogy of the concepts just and unjust. The law of nature is that the stronger and better dominate the weaker and worse. The lions feast on the sheep. That is natural justice. (Compare: Thucydides, writing at about the time the dialogue would have taken place, about the genocide of Melos.)

The weak, the sheep, don’t like that, of course, so they get together and call what the strong do unjust. By implication, what they themselves do is just. Collectively as a herd, the sheep want to dominate the lions. So whereas nature is on the side of the strong and the lions, convention is on the side of the weak and the sheep.

Influence on Nietzsche

To many of you, this rings a bell. Yes, this is where Nietzsche got his ideas for his Genealogy of Morals. Nietzsche took his metaphors of lions, sheep, herds, slaves and so forth from Callicles, then spun his theory. It was that the sheep banded together to invert the natural concepts of good and bad, strong and weak, motivated by a festering rage for which Nietzsche used the French word ressentiment.

Relevance to Darwin

Socrates being Socrates, of course, he goes on to needle Callicles about the precise meaning of words in order to poke a hole in his argument. He asks Callicles to clarify the terms “better” and “stronger”. Are they the same?

Callicles has to admit that they are not. And off they go, debating what that means.

Today, of course, we know that Callicles was looking for a better word: not strong or good but  fit. Not fit as in ‘toned from the gym’ but as in ‘survival of the fittest’. The fittest, according to Darwin, are not the strongest or the best but the most adapted.

The law of nature that Callicles refers to is therefore evolution. It is the tautological observation that those who are better adapted to the prevailing circumstances will leave more of themselves (ie, their genes) behind than those who are worse adapted.

Gibe at democracy

Callicles and Socrates go on to mock democracy (Athens was an even more direct democracy than America is today). Democracy to them is the inversion of nature, the herd of sheep ruling the lions, the weak dominating the strong, the inferior getting their revenge on the superior.

Yearning for what ought to be

But the dialogue between Callicles and Socrates becomes more moving than anything Nietzsche did with it. That’s because during the conversation it becomes clear that Callicles is a sophisticated and sensitive man who is trying to describe how the world is while simultaneously being sad about it and yearning for how things ought to be.

He is confused and bitter–about many things. He is angry at Socrates for needling him, but also because he already foresees (correctly, of course) that the democratic herd of sheep will condemn the lion Socrates. And he hates himself for having to suck up to the herd, to the Athenians, to make his living.

But he also hates seeing the fit succeed whether or not they are also good. In other words, he has the ideal of justice in his head as though it were an archetype and is, like most of us, frustrated. That’s all that Plato definitely establishes in this dialogue.

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