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Gorgias

Plato

469a–479e

466a–468e

480a–487e

Summary

Socrates pushes forward further with the declaration that it is worse to do than to suffer wrong, a claim to which Polus objects. Polus says that many people who do wrong are happy. Socrates insists, however, that the wicked and evildoers are necessarily unhappy, while unhappier still are those who commit wrong and escape punishment. Immediately the question arises why those who commit wrongful acts should be unhappy at all, especially if they become able to get away with the committing of their wrongful act while simultaneously avoiding punishment for it. As the beginning of an answer, Socrates somewhat confusingly maintains that it is more shameful to do than to suffer wrong, and that this greater shame also means it is worse to do than suffer wrong. From this formulation, the more shameful equals the worse. Polus disagrees with this reasoning, since he considers neither the good and the fair nor the evil and the shameful to be equivalent. Even though somewhat clearly formed, the specifics of the ideas and positions in question here remain to some extent impenetrable by the understanding, since they remain in some way, at their core, matters of vague subjective perspectives on the issue which Plato attempts to develop into reality through the mechanism of this dialogue.

In a display of great patience, Socrates states that when one of two shameful things exceeds the other in "baseness," the excess either is one of pain or one of evil. The idea behind this claim is that without somehow inflicting either pain or evil, something is not bad, wicked, or shameful—is not a cause of suffering. For, without pain or evil inflicted somehow on someone, why would one suffer? Polus readily agrees with Socrates's line of thought. And, since the infliction of wrong cannot exceed the suffering of wrong in terms of pain and yet does exceed the suffering of wrong in terms of shame, the excess of infliction must be that of evil. It is more evil to commit than to suffer wrong. Polus ultimately assents to this decree.

Worse yet is to not be punished for the infliction of wrong. Socrates and Polus both agree that punishment serves to bring those guilty of wrong to justice, by balancing against the wrong which already has been committed. Socrates also points out that one who receives punishment for a wrong "suffers justly" by paying the just penalty. This fact in turn prompts him to avow that one who is justly punished suffers the good and is thereby liberated from the high evil of the soul. One who inflicts wrong and receives proper punishment therefore liberates his soul from evil in a way that another who inflicts wrong and escapes punishment cannot. Consequently, it is worse to commit a wrongful act and escape punishment than to commit wrong and be punished. By this point in the dialogue even Polus must defer to Socrates's reasoning.

Analysis

This section constitutes what likely stands as the most intricate and subtle strain of reasoning within Gorgias. To start, the overall hierarchy of wrongs as Plato establishes it through Socrates at first seems highly counterintuitive. It simply opposes instinct that one who commits wrong is better off being caught and punished than getting away. Essentially therefore, though it is not very controversial that not doing wrong is better than doing wrong, the question whether committing wrong with punishment versus committing wrong and escaping punishment is worse in many ways looks to be a matter of subjective opinion rather than objective standard. In other words, some people might believe all wrongs are best executed if somehow eventually (through punishment) righted. For such people, doing wrong and receiving punishment to right the wrong is the best formula possible which still involves some form of actually committed wrongdoing. At the same time, to a bad person, the best formula for inflicting a wrongful act is that of committing wrong and not being punished for it. To the wicked, then, it would be worse to do wrong and suffer punishment for the act than not to suffer such punishment. Indeed, Plato does not desire the better in terms of the wicked. Nonetheless, it is not difficult to see that many (especially the evil) could make a strong claim for inflicting wrong without punishment to be better than doing so and receiving punishment. For Plato to save virtue as desirable, he must make it obvious why punishment for a wrongful act truly is objectively better than committing wrong without punishment. For, this claim runs counter to instinct in many cases. Polus's mistaken assumption here therefore appears quite common—far more likely, in fact, than Plato's opinion.

Proper understanding of the matter is made all the more difficult by the intricacy of Socrates's logic on the subject. The use of shame, pain, evil, suffering, and the good in relationship to just punishment comprises a rather complex and esoteric depiction of the issue. Luckily, Socrates employs an extremely careful and precise vocabulary and presentation, most likely due to the fact that Plato knew both how intricate and obscure this point could be for all but the most virtuous and skilled of thinkers. Furthermore, the great importance of this particular strain of inquiry most likely reinforced Plato's determination in the creation of such a proof.

This importance comes as a result of multiple factors. To start, Plato again here appears intent upon reconciling Socrates's death with his (rather than his executioners') virtue. In order for his teacher not to have lived and died in vain, Plato must somehow prove that even in death Socrates maintains the upper hand over their corrupt Athenian government. And, there appears no surer manner in which to do so than to show that these rulers, who commit such an intensely wrongful act, are even worse off in the long run exactly because they go unpunished. In this sense, Plato's proof in this section represents a sort of verbal revolution.

The topic gains even more significance in that it comes as the first hint of some overarching sense of right and wrong within the dialogue. Put differently, by discussing justice of the soul as the highest state of human existence, Plato effectively arrives at a notion of abstract and hierarchical virtue through the vehicle of more particular considerations. The pattern thus takes shape for a consideration of virtue in general by way of an inquiry into particular instances of right and wrong, good and bad, as well as the resulting implications. This model applies to Gorgias as well as to Plato's entire extended philosophical project.

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