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A Pyrrhic Victory: Gorgias 474b-477a1

  • Mary Margaret Mackenzie (a1)

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Crime pays, says Polus at Gorgias 473. Socrates, on the other hand, maintains two propositions in the face of universal opinion:

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This article brings together a series of arguments in my Plato on Punishment (University of California Press, 1981). I should like to thank Myles Burnyeat, Melanie Johnson, William Jordan and Malcolm Schofield.

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2 We should beware of Plato's tendency to present agathon or kakon without qualification or explanation of who is benefited or harmed.

3 There is a shift here from ‘benefit’ to ‘good’. This is reasonable, so long as Plato sticks to the prudential usage of ‘good’. Cf. E. R. Dodds, Plato: Gorgias, pp. 249–51; G. Vlastos, ‘Was Polus Refuted?’ A. J. Ph. (1967), 455 n. 3; T. Irwin, Plato: Gorgias. pp. 154 ff.

4 To avoid an illicit conversion, this principle must be derived from an induction parallel to that establishing C. Thus aischron/kalon, painful/pleasant and harm benefit must be pairs of contraries.

5 cf. my ‘The tears of Chryses: Retaliation in the Iliad’, Philosophy and Literature (1978), pp. 3–22; Plato on Punishment, chs. 6–8.

6 op. cit. p. 249; cf. Gerasimos Santas, Socrates, p. 239.

7 op. cit. He is supported by Santas, op. cit. pp. 233 ff.

8 Hence the insistence, throughout the passage, on our calling something kalon -474d5, d6, d9, e3, moving to defining to kalon at 475 a 3.

9 Irwin (op. cit. pp. 157 ff.) would object that because it is egoistic, this is implausible as an account of what we value. He would prefer, for example,‘anyone - onlooker or not, truly judges that x is beautiful if x gives pleasure to someone’ (my italics). But, as Irwin himself observes, the argument that would then follow is invalid (on much the same lines as Vlastos urges). So is the valid version of the argument based on an implausible view of our evaluative terms? I suggest not. The egoistic version of E will explain why we come to call things kalon or aischron;and it will be particularly plausible to a Greek, even more so to Plato. Thus Plato is explaining why we recommend things, and avoiding the dangerous waters of sympathy for others. At the same time, we may explain how an object of an action comes to be generally accepted as kalon by consideration of the opinions of all those who would call it so, from all their many perspectives.That this universalizing account is the one to be given here is suggested by Plato's treatment of the exception to the universal rule, the criminal who resists any favourable characterization of his punishment. See below.

10 cf. tous allous anthropous, 474b3.

11 Dodds's term, op. cit. p. 251.

12 cf. Aristotle, Eth. Nic. 1035a 15 ff.

13 That punishments are intended to be painful to the punished is, of course, true by definition.

1 This article brings together a series of arguments in my Plato on Punishment (University of California Press, 1981). I should like to thank Myles Burnyeat, Melanie Johnson, William Jordan and Malcolm Schofield.

A Pyrrhic Victory: Gorgias 474b-477a1

  • Mary Margaret Mackenzie (a1)

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