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Gorgias

Plato

507a–527e

498a–506e

Important Quotations Explained

Summary

Socrates spends the remainder of Gorgias rather verbosely restating the focus and emergence of virtue. First he declares that a sound-minded, temperate person is by definition also just, pious and brave, and therefore completely good and happy. By contrast, an evil person (the worst of which evil is to do wrong and escape punishment) leads a shameful and wretched existence.

Furthermore, Socrates maintains that matters of the soul are vastly more important to good living than those of the body. This is so since our souls embody our most complex and pure aspects, they contain our true nature, and they allow our participation in eternity through immortality (at least as Plato describes their existence—see e.g. Phaedo). When Callicles expresses that he is not completely convinced of the truth of Socrates's conception, Socrates explains this fact by reference to Callicles's confusion of the pleasant for the good in what are by this late point in the work familiar terms of true and false arts.

Next Socrates mentions the importance of applying virtue and proper living to all aspects of one's city and its citizens, with the aim of making them as good as possible. He carefully describes how leaders often implement policy on the basis of pleasure and to the esteem of their subjects, only for future generations to suffer from the eventual ills inevitable when the pleasant substitutes for the good. He illustrates this point through the example of a chariot driver who is not thrown off in his first race, but who cannot stay on in subsequent ones. No one would consider such a competitor a good driver, just as no one should esteem a similar counterpart in politics a good ruler. Again, Socrates places no value in any action or belief that confuses excitation of the pleasant for attainment of the good. Such people and practices pay no heed to discipline and justice, and he blames such rulers of old for the "swollen and festering" state of Athenian society.

In a dramatic instance of foreshadowing, Socrates declares himself to be one of the few practitioners of the true art of politics and legislation, and maintains that if he were to be tried in court, an evil man will prosecute him and he will quite likely receive a sentence of death.

Plato concludes the dialogue with the relation by Socrates of a mythology of death. In his opinion, dying is the separation of body from soul in such a way that each aspect retains its nature from when they were joined and alive. Furthermore, following this split into two, a judgment is made concerning the good or evil of a given body and soul. Socrates emphasizes the fact that the two aspects of each individual are judged separately from one another, so that a beautiful body cannot disguise a wretched soul. And, most of those with power are judged to be evil. Finally, the text ends with Socrates's declaration that "this is the best way of life—to live and die in the pursuit of righteousness and all other virtues."

Analysis

This final section focuses even more intensely on integrating into an organic whole the various aspects of proper living defined earlier in the text. New emphasis is placed on the happiness, courage and piety that automatically accompany justice and temperance, for example. Value also is added to the worth of the soul, an aspect of humans that already attains great importance as the seat of justice and temperance. Moreover, justice and temperance are themselves the two most important components of a good life.

The remaining subjects and tone of this section represent a marked divergence from the style employed in all other sections. Socrates's words take on an urgency and length indicative of the import of that which he professes. He proceeds with increasingly longer and longer intervals between breaks in his speech where the others may offer their own perspectives. In fact, the patterns of speech here border on rhetoric or oration, the practice of which is quite uncharacteristic of Socratic and Platonic dialogue. In a direct application of the notion of virtue, Socrates criticizes false leaders and evil politicians for their deception by means of the pleasant rather than employing truth for the good. Socrates even states the importance of applying virtue to one's city and peers after it has been attained internally.

Plato also has Socrates predict the exact nature of his death, a decision quite striking given the text's completion after such a trial and execution actually took place. In fact, Socrates was killed by the very form of tyrannical evil he describes in this dialogue, for living the exact good life he defines therein. As a result, the entire work, and especially this last part of it, receives a large injection of meaning when viewed in the light of its history.

Last, by concluding with this story of the judgment in death, Plato accomplishes several goals. One such function of this story is to display that Socrates had nothing to fear from his death—since he lived according to the code of virtue, he died into eternal happiness. This exactly is the outcome of the proper existence he defines. Such knowledge helps to reconcile Socrates's admirers (especially Plato) with his execution. Another effect of this depiction of death is taking comfort in the fact that all evil people, especially corrupt tyrants like Socrates's executioners, eventually (when they die if not sooner) receive a portion of punishment equivalent to the wrongs they inflicted while alive. This again helps reconcile Socrates's unjust death with its apparent lack of repercussions.

The account serves to highlight the fundamental importance of virtue to human existence. So important is this composite art of proper living, in fact, that the degree to which one attains it determines the nature of that being's existence throughout eternity. In light of this virtually unimaginable significance, it should come as no surprise that virtue—the good life—is the overarching theme of this particular dialogue, as well as a major strain of Plato's life-long philosophical investigation.

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