“Ought” vs “is”: Socrates and Callicles


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’s trying to describe how the world is while simultaneously being sad about it and yearning for how things ought to be.

He’s confused and bitter, about many things. He’s 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.

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. Like most of us, he’s frustrated. That’s all that Plato definitely establishes in this dialogue.

The arrogance of Socrates: Apollo made me!

None wiser, says Apollo

None wiser, says Apollo

So we opened this thread on Socrates and his relevance to us today by showing the heroically positive, then nuanced that with some more ambiguous observations. We must now add (before we eventually get to the heroic again) a few more. First: he was arrogant.

Yes, an arrogant S.O.B. I mean, let’s take his personal “creation myth”, ie the story that he would later use at his trial (to which we will get) as his raison d’être.

There are two versions of this story, one from each of the only two students whose writings we rely on to know anything at all about Socrates.

Xenophon, the less famous of the two, says that Socrates told the Athenian jury that he had sent a student/apprentice to Apollo’s oracle at Delphi, where the oracle opined that

no man was more free than I, or more just, or more prudent.

Ahem. Lest that sound a bit, you know, over-the-top, Socrates added that

Apollo did not compare me to a god [although he did] judge that I far excelled the rest of mankind.

So there, members of the jury. That’s why I have been going around humiliating and exposing you, disabusing you of your impression that you were free, undermining your self-confidence while tooting the horn of the Spartan enemy.

The more famous of the two students, Plato, wrote later and probably realized that it would be wise to tone this down a bit. Here Socrates ‘merely’ told the jury that the oracle told him that

there was no one wiser.

This is still rather cocky, but now with a twist. The twist is that Socrates is now on a divine mission. He must find out whether the oracle is right, whether anybody out there is wiser after all. So, you see, he had to make everybody look like a fool just to do justice to Apollo.

His ‘biographer’ I.F. Stone calls this one huge “ego-trip”, possibly the biggest in world history. It just so happens that I have a soft spot for huge egos, provided that they are intelligent and witty and not my editors. So on The Hannibal Blog, this is not an attack per se. It’s just, you know, ‘color’. We need to know who we’re dealing with.

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Socrates and the original think tank



And so we continue this thread on Socrates, and the profound ways that he is still with us today.

We’ve been looking at his ideas about conversations, good and bad, and his skepticism toward writing (as opposed to oral conversation). But what did this in fact lead to, in practical terms?

It led to a weird, perambulatory kind of school, as Socrates walked around with various people, mostly younger, engrossed in conversation. This would ultimately get him in trouble, of course. But before it got him killed, it merely raised eyebrows.

Aristophanes, the greatest comedian of ancient Greece and Socrates’ most cutting parodist, invented a word for this kind of purposeful and moderated conversation, in his play the Clouds: a thinkery (phrontisterion).

A think tank, in other words.

Indeed, think tanks are among Socrates’ legacies. His student Plato took over a grove dedicated to Athena, the goddess of wisdom, and founded his Academy, which lasted for three hundred years, throughout the entire Hellenistic era.

One of the people perambulating and thinking and conversing at that Academy was Aristotle, who eventually took over another grove, dedicated to Apollo, the god of wisdom (and other things), and also started a think tank, called the Lyceum.

In time, Academy and Lyceum became the roots for “school” in many languages, depending on whether the insitution leant toward Platonism or Aristotelianism. But the more direct descendants today might be the likes of Heritage, Cato and Tellus.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. We need to start looking at whether Socrates actually practiced what he preached in his peculiar style of conversation. Stay tuned.

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Must great thinkers be “right”?

First an apple dropped, then ein Stein

First an apple dropped, then ein Stein

We left off this search for the greatest thinker by laying down one criterion: Simplicity. Now we need to examine another. Is it necessary for a thinker to be right in order to be great?

This is a tough one. The answer, as the Germans would say, is Jein–ie, both Ja and Nein, Yes and No (I guess that would be Yo in English). Let me illustrate what I mean with four examples out of many. These are people whose thought a) simplified enormous complexity and b) turned out to be wrong: Isaac Newton, Plato, Sigmund Freud, and Karl Marx (whom at least one of you has nominated).

Nein (1): The case of Newton

I hardly need to make the case that Isaac Newton was one of the greatest thinkers ever. While the plague ravaged England, this twenty-something went home to the isolation of his farm, used his imagination and reason, and gave us breakthroughs in understanding (wait for it)…. calculus, light and gravity. That’s a lot for one or two years, you will agree. Only Einstein in his “miracle year” of 1905, would come close.

And yet: That same Einstein would, starting in that year, prove Newton wrong. The calculus was fine, but Einstein rocked our understanding of light and (more famously) gravity. It was far, far weirder than even Newton could have imagined.

And yet yet: Nobody, least of all Einstein, would ever entertain a notion as ridiculous as downgrading Newton’s contribution. Who cares if his ideas were incomplete, and thus wrong! Newton himself famously said: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Newton became the giant whose shoulder Einstein stood on. It is entirely possible that we will discover that Einstein was wrong too. Would that make him any less of a thinker? Hardly.

These thinkers are great because they shed progressively more light into the darkness of our ignorance. Being right in the sense of leaping ahead over all future generations is not part of the job description.

Nein (2): the case of Plato

Alfred North Whitehead, no slouch among philosophers himself, once said that all of western philosophy is but a series of footnotes to Plato. Why would he say such a thing?

Because Plato (or Socrates, if you believe that Plato mostly transcribed the stunning conversations of his teacher) raised pretty much every fundamental and intelligent question that mankind could ask. What is good? What is beautiful? What is just? What … is?

Once again, that is a lot. Coming up with the answers to all those questions was not part of the job description, especially since we have not figured them out yet 2,400 years later.

But Plato has been a lot luckier than, say, Marx, in that nobody ever thought to try his ideas out in practice. I think we can agree that none of us wants to live in a society such as the one in Plato’s Republic. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World comes close to it. Thank god we never “tried Plato out”.

Tell me about your mother

Tell me about your mother

Ja (1): The case of Freud

Freud gave us some beautifully profound, stirring and simple thinking. Everything has to do with sex! How refreshing, after Marx had put everything down to money, and Nietzsche to power.

Well, the trouble is that these were all oversimplifications. To quote our man Einstein again,”Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not one bit simpler.” If you make things too simple, you end up looking just plain silly.

Which is what happened to Freud, and the one to blow his cover was Carl Jung, his disciple at the time. Promise me to make the sexual theory a “bulwark”, Freud once implored Jung. “A bulwark against what?” asked Jung, disconcerted. “Against the black tide of occultism,” said Freud. Jung realized at that moment that his mentor was no longer looking for truth but power (his own). Sex is a biggie, Jung admitted, but not the only thing that matters. And so he broke with Freud. He was excommunicated from the clique, but in time found his footing and became an infinitely greater thinker (if less famous) than Freud.

Able and needy

Able and needy

Ja (2): The case of Marx

We have already pinpointed Marx’s biggest oversimplification, which was to put everything down to production, and who controls “the means of it.” Tangible wealth and its distribution matter, but they are not the only thing. And this was a tragic flaw in Marx’s thought.

There were others: His theory of value was wrong. (It’s not how much labor went into something that makes it worth what it is, but what somebody else will be prepared to pay for it.) And so on.

And, I would argue, his view of human nature was wrong: Once “From each according to his abilities; to each according to his need” becomes the law of the land, you will very quickly find the ablest people demonstrating impressive “abilities” at proving their own “need”. The entire philosophy spirals downward into a glorification of envy, which is a base, not a noble, instinct.

Still, Marx made a huge contribution to human thought, and if we had not tried him out–who knows?–we might rank him up there with Plato.


The conclusion is that being wrong must not disqualify a thinker from being nominated for the title of “greatest”. But since that title implies a certain timelessness, being right cannot be entirely irrelevant either. As it happens, the person I am leading up to, I believe, was right.

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Socratic irony

Somewhat unexpectedly, the topic of irony is becoming a subsidiary thread in the Hannibal Blog. It started here, continued here and, I’m sure, will continue even more. You recall that my definition of irony is “the savoring of contradictions in life and people (others and yourself) and of turns of phrase that are slightly and adroitly off-key and thus meaningfully surprising.” This wording found approval, at a minimum, by Cheri.

Suddenly, however, I find the plot thickening. Robert Bartlett, a professor at Emory University who teaches this course on the three greatest Greek thinkers, informs me that

Irony in its original Socratic sense, in Greek eironeia, is really pretty different. In brief, it’s the habit of concealing one’s superiority. Aristotle, in the Ethics, lists irony as a vice, though he says it’s a vice characteristic of those who are refined.

Why refined? Because if irony is a vice opposed to the virtue of truthfulness, it is a kind of deceit. It is also much better or more attractive than the vice of boasting, of claiming to be more than you are. The ironic person claims to be less than he is, and in particular to be less wise. Aristotle, by the way, gives only one example of the ironic person: Socrates.

Socrates is famous, then, for his irony, for his kind of graceful concealment of his wisdom; he’s not a boaster, in this sense. This means that Plato chose as his spokesman, or at least as the central character in almost all the dialogues, an ironist, somebody who’s not altogether frank.

This is, of course, very different than my definition of irony. Then again, as I think about it, the genealogy does show up even in the modern phenotype. Which means: For those of us today who appreciate irony, it may  be worth remembering what the Athenians did to Socrates, and what many societies would like to do to ironists. Sarah Palin might claim afterwards that she mistook me for a moose. Put differently, here is the great man as the hemlock does its lethal work: