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Plato’s Persuasion of the Young

On Tyranny, Power, and Justice

In Plato’s Gorgias, beginning in section 466b, Polus and Socrates disagree about what gives men power in the polis.

Polus argues that the ability of the tyrant to kill whomever he wills, plunder whatever he wills, and imprison whomever he wills demonstrates his enviable power. Socrates argues that knowledge of — living in accordance with — justice demonstrates power, and that tyrants are actually least powerful in the polis.

In Polus’ favor, such a tyrant would likely enjoy considerable freedom from pain and suffering at the hands of others. Yet for Socrates, the evil committed by the tyrant puts his soul in peril to a far worse degree than any pain or suffering of the body. A diseased soul is something even Polus agrees is worse than a diseased body. While Socrates eventually walks Polus into a contradiction, there is merit in having students argue the question for themselves.

What or who is powerful, really? Is it more powerful to have the ability to kill, plunder, or imprison at will, or to know what is Just and to live justly?

Of my thirteen sophomores, the majority (eight) agreed with Polus, though a few of them also believed that Socrates’ argument ended up being the “right answer.” They seem to have an instinctive confidence in the mastery of others that, though they’ve witnessed Socrates defeat Polus’ claims, and though they sense the futility of arguing for the potency of evil, they still want to believe that Polus’ view is true. This despite their Christian upbringing, their Christian education, and their confession of Christianity as baptized members of their respective churches.

One of my students who supported Socrates pointed out that even if Socrates didn’t argue from the immortality of the soul, he could argue from the influence upon posterity, namely, that the influence of one’s ideas upon successive generations confers more power to the just man than to the tyrant. Socrates’ own life seems to vindicate this claim.

On the other hand, one could argue that Socrates has no experience of this influence, and so as an individual person he gains nothing from the greatness of his influence after he is dead. You only live once, and the experiences of that life —pains and pleasures alike—are what make one powerful or weak.

No one spoke of the Just judgment awaiting those who commit evil, though one student did bring up Socrates’ argument that the soul is harmed by committing injustice, which is undesirable. When I asked how it is undesirable there was nothing they could offer on the spot. Nor could they show how getting whatever one wants could lead to bodily harm (in addition to soul-harm).

The conventional view seemed to be holding its own, even if it was rejected.

As I reflected on the results of this class period, I sought some help from Aristotle.

He said that youth are dominated by desires, chiefly their love of honor; and more so their love of victory. Youth, he says, have greater hope than others because more of their life is ahead of them. Youth are more given to shame (because their notions of law are based upon convention rather than natural knowledge or experience) and given to admire greatness of soul (since life and responsibility have not humbled their view of man and his plight).

This explains why my young Christian students might be willing to side with Polus rather than Socrates.

Clearly one could gain more honor (at least lip service) and victory in this life by being a tyrant than by being just. One could also hope to preserve what bodily life one has ahead of him by being a tyrant than by being just. An old man can afford to be just yet suffer, since his life in the body is mostly spent; but a young man has much to lose by not preserving what life, property, and freedom he possesses.

There is also a certain shame in contemporary culture in appearing just (“goody-goody”) or humble (“weak”) and the greatest souls in the popular imagination are those with great physical prowess and skill-based mental aptitudes that allow them power over others (think of super heroes like the Avengers, or protagonists whose mental and physical agility are super-human like Jason Bourne, or those whose beauty and charm make them irresistible, like James Bond and nearly every female protagonist).

If Aristotle is right, and if my applications of his views to the contemporary society are plausible, then how does a teacher who wishes to inspire the love of justice in students succeed? How does she disabuse students of Polus’ (and Callicles’) dangerous, yet seemingly rewarding, perspective? How does he inculcate the superior value of the immortal soul over the life of the body in its current state?

Socrates gives us a hint in The Phaedrus, but you’ll have to wait for that one.

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