LI has high esteem for the ‘Gorgias.’ True, it isn’t as deep as the Parmenides, nor rich in images, like the Republic, nor sublime, like the Timaeus. But the dramatic form of the dialogue – the sense one gets of real people talking – fills the Gorgias as, perhaps, it fills no other dialogue – for there are always those moments when Plato is all too obviously pulling the strings.
It is in the Gorgias that Socrates unpacks his most radical ethical idea. It is an idea with a long career, but one that was, ultimately, indigestible to the Christian tradition that took so much from Plato: the idea that each man wills the good.
This struck the Athenians as a truly insane proposition. There’s a wonderful bit in the Gorgias where Socrates and Polus (whose contempt for Socrates comes through in the dialogue like an animal scent) go around about power. Ostensibly, the dialogue is about rhetoric and its wonders, but Socrates piercing of the aura with which rhetoricians surrounded their art is busy with sharp thrusts, until we get to the core of his objection: rhetoric promotes a kind of sickness. That sickness attacks the mental vision.
Polus doesn’t understand what Socrates is talking about:
“POLUS: What do you mean? do you think that rhetoric is flattery?
SOCRATES: Nay, I said a part of flattery; if at your age, Polus, you
cannot remember, what will you do by-and-by, when you get older?
POLUS: And are the good rhetoricians meanly regarded in states, under the
idea that they are flatterers?
SOCRATES: Is that a question or the beginning of a speech?
POLUS: I am asking a question.
SOCRATES: Then my answer is, that they are not regarded at all.
POLUS: How not regarded? Have they not very great power in states?
SOCRATES: Not if you mean to say that power is a good to the possessor.
POLUS: And that is what I do mean to say.
SOCRATES: Then, if so, I think that they have the least power of all the citizens.
POLUS: What! are they not like tyrants? They kill and despoil and exile any one whom they please.”
The notion that power is the ability to do what one pleases gives Socrates his opening. He proceeds by the usual method, until Polus has agreed that to do what one pleases, one needs an object of what is pleasing, and to gain that object requires a sort of practical wisdom in the calculation and carrying out of one’s acts.
SOCRATES: And did we not admit that in doing something for the sake of
something else, we do not will those things which we do, but that other
thing for the sake of which we do them?
POLUS: Most true.
SOCRATES: Then we do not will simply to kill a man or to exile him or to despoil him of his goods, but we will to do that which conduces to our good, and if the act is not conducive to our good we do not will it; for we will, as you say, that which is our good, but that which is neither good nor evil, or simply evil, we do not will. Why are you silent, Polus? Am I not right?
POLUS: You are right.
SOCRATES: Hence we may infer, that if any one, whether he be a tyrant or a rhetorician, kills another or exiles another or deprives him of his property, under the idea that the act is for his own interests when really not for his own interests, he may be said to do what seems best to him?”
Socrates idea, back then, was unpopular. It is still unpopular. If I were to say, offhand, what separates an intellectual from a non-intellectual, it wouldn’t be reading, it wouldn’t necessarily be an extraordinary ability to reason – it would be the having of deeply considered, in some form, this Socratic belief. This is a quiet moment in which something split, irreparably, in Western civilization. The idea both that power is simply the ability to do cruel things, and that man does will evil, eventually becomes the central moral view of Christianity; the view that “we will as you say, that which is our good, but that which is neither good nor evil, or simply evil, we do not will,” is developed into the counter-intellectual tradition. It developed into humanism and even remains the core of the anti-humanistic revolt, which is a refusal to let delight be sacrificed to calculation, but is still based upon this vision of delight.
Why are we bringing this up? Because we have always been puzzled about how moral discourse, in the U.S., has transformed the holocaust into its moral touchstone of evil. We find this puzzling not because the Holocaust isn’t evil – it surely is – but because it is so easily dis-ownable, and so easily manipulated to make it seem, uniquely, a refutation of the Socratic insight.
By dis-ownable, we mean that the exclusive concentration on the holocaust disguises a more pertinent history of evils in the New World – evils that were a large part of a past that provides the ground for American wealth and greatness. It is enough to note, perhaps, that those of the founding fathers from the South who we, justly, admire, were also complicit in actions which, nowadays, we would punish by life sentences in maximum security prisons. If I went out and separated parentS and their children, keeping, say, the children for myself so that they could work for me, under threat of beating, and selling the parents to strangers in a distant state, I would be considered a monster – but Robert E. Lee’s parents, relatives of George Washington, did just that. Similarly, Andrew Jackson, for the ethnic cleansing of the Indians, would certainly be considered much like Milosovic today. And of course American apartheid went on and on – if your parents bought houses in the suburbs in the fifties or sixties, there’s a good chance they signed clauses not to sell their house to blacks.
As for the "proof" that evil exists, thanks to the Holocaust -- this is moral idiocy. For the 20,000 years Homo sapiens have lived with some primitive communication ability they were all wandering around without any "proof" of evil? This annexation of the Holocaust for ethical pointmaking makes some sense. Nobody could deny that the extermination camp is a major moral fact about Western civilization. But the ritual of denouncing the camps does not, as the years go by, increase the denouncers moral awareness of their own histories. By this, I mean those histories that have happened even in our lifetimes. Shall we list the genocides? Shall we set, alongside that list, where the weapons for them came from? And who made the money? Who benefited from the Mobutus, or from the various Pakistan generals? Who sold the Argentinians the helicopters with which to throw living humans into the sea, or who loaned the Argentinian junta the money to carry on with, and is still receiving an interest on it? As the Holocaust example has become a touchstone of evil, a museum, a cliche, instead of a real event, so, too, the connection between it and another form of state sponsored mass murder -- war -- also recedes into the mist. The Christian legacy to moral thinking -- evil -- is the great facilitator of these easy souvenirs and amnesias.
Anyway, lately, we’ve been reading a history of the glorious Haitian revolt against the French. Tomorrow we want to consider a few facts from that revolt and ask – why are these not part of the pool of our moral examples?