The pitfalls of oratory

IS it better to suffer wrong than to do wrong? It’s an interesting question and one is rarely, if ever. asked these days. It goes beyond mere altruism, which simply demands that we act with the aim of benefiting others with expectation of reciprocal good. This has more to do with the Bible’s claim that one should turn the other cheek when wronged, rather than seek revenge. Yet is a question that goes back much further in history – to Plato, in fact, in his Gorgias dialogue.


In this famous dialogue Plato writes of Socrates in dialogue with two professional orators – Gorgias himself and Polus, both of whom begin by arguing that the orator need do nothing other than persuade others that they are right, but ultimately baulk at the emptiness of this idea. In Gorgias we have an old and experienced orator who finally concedes that the budding orator should first be tutored in ethical standards before he embarks on oratory. And the younger, less experienced, Polus who cannot bring himself to deny that doing wrong is worse than being wronged.

In our day it’s quite hard to see if this has any resonance. But perhaps it might parallel the politician who wants to speak the truth despite the adverse consequences this might entail, against the one who says what she thinks people want to know. Or the political party that wants to lead electorates, even though it might suffer in the polls, against the one that shifts and changes in order to get elected, regardless of the truth.

But Socrates goes even further: “As a general rule the man who does wrong is more miserable than the man who is wronged, and the man who escapes punishment more miserable than the man who receives it.” And still further: “Whatever the punishment which the crime deserves he must offer himself to it cheerfully, whether it be flogging or imprisonment or a fine or banishment or death.”

Amazingly, Gorgias and Polus seem to be quite happy to accept this conclusion, even though there appears to be a flaw in Socrates’s argument. And that happens when he tries to draw an analogy between money-making curing poverty, medicine curing disease and justice curing ‘excess and wickedness’.


Apart from anything else, Socrates has shifted away from punishment to justice as though the former is equivalent of the former, which it isn’t. Sometimes justice requires something other than punishment, like rehabilitation. And of course punishment is not necessarily a cure at all and it doesn’t always even act as a deterrent. These claims go unchallenged by Gorgias and Polus, who might at least have made a case for a less stringent conclusion like, well, altruism.

Instead Socrates emerges triumphant only then to face the rage of Callicles who asks the largely silent Chaerophon, loyal friend of Socrates. “Tell me Chaerophon, is Socrates in earnest about this or is he joking?”


To which Chaerophon replies in one of his very few utterances: “In my opinion, Callicles, he is utterly in earnest.” We then learn that Callicles is of the opinion that conventional morality – although it is not clear that Socrates’s position is at all conventional – is merely an invention of the weak to undermine the strong. The obvious parallel to Nietzsche’s herd mentality undermining the nobility of the powerful and dynamic Ubermensch is hard to avoid. As a classical philologist Nietzsche is bound to have read Gorgias and was almost certainly influenced by Callicles’s views.


In ant case, Callicles rounds on Socrates: “Nature…herself demonstrates that it is right that the better man should prevail over the weak and the stronger over the weaker.” As a matter of interest this position contravenes antecedently David Hume’s is/ought principle, which states that one cannot infer a value proposition from a factual statement. But Callicles ploughs on: “My belief is that a natural right consists in the better and wiser man ruling over his inferiors and having the lion’s share.”

David Hume; portrait by Allan Ramsay, 1754

Ultimately, however, Socrates succeeds in extracting an important concession from Callicles – namely, that there is a distinction to be made between good and bad pleasures, which allows Socrates to condemn politicians who cravenly pander to citizens’ baser pleasures rather than to their wellbeing and that correction of in dividuals, groups and even states is better than the unrestrained hedonism of the powerful originally advocated by Callicles. The latter then, and somewhat fortuitously for Socrates, then virtually absents himself from the argument as Socrates rams home his advantage at great length. And, finally, he concludes that a politician should only be allowed to enter the public realm after they have had sufficient instruction morality and with the aim of improving the character of the populace.

By such high standards many of our modern day politicians fail dismally. Perhaps today we would talk about improving the conditions of citizens, rather than improving their moral character. But it often seems that our politicians under our representative form of government are more interested in winning elections, with the welfare of their citizens coming almost as an afterthought. Now, this is not true of all politicians or all political parties. Indeed, most of the time it’s not a matter of bad or corrupt politicians but the extent to which a party has to bend its policies in order to be acceptable to a largely indifferent electorate. Indeed, representative government is expressly designed NOT to engage citizens in politics, more to turn them into spectators. Which is why it doesn’t really qualify as a democracy but rather as an elective dictatorship, and it will remain so until a degree of deliberative democracy, including citizens’ juries and assemblies, is introduced – some thing that Salisbury Democracy Alliance has been campaigning for for years. Of course, some politicians are moderate by nature and have no need to moderate their behaviour. But it’s a real problem for less moderate politicians who might want to effect fundamental change changes in society but are forced to moderate their views in order to be electable. But perhaps the solution is not necessarily to moderate one’s views but to continue to hold true to your position while being prepared to compromise in order to get as close as possible to one’s aims.

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