17 October 2005

Was Polus Refuted?

Together we ought to be able to answer this. I'll give the argument, and what I believe are the two most serious objections. You say whether there are other serious objections outstanding and also whether, in your view, the objections are insurmountable.

The argument (Gorgias 474c-475c). Consider a case where A wrongs B:

1. A's wronging B is more shameful than B's being wronged by A.
2. What is shameful is so on account of its being painful or bad.
3. What is more shameful is so on account of its being more painful or worse.
4. A's wronging B is not more painful than B's being wronged by A.
5. Thus, A's wronging B is worse than B's being wronged by A.
6. Thus, generally, it is worse to do wrong than to suffer it.

Two objections:

(1) (Vlastos) Socrates equivocates on 'painful'. For the term is implicitly relative: something is always painful to someone. So make these relatives explicit: in 2., 'painful' means 'painful to an observer''; but in 4. 'painful' must mean 'painful to the agent or sufferer'. So the argument is invalid. Yet, if we were to keep the meaning of the term the same, then either 2. or 4. becomes false.

(2) Put this difficulty aside, still, the argument establishes only that, as regards a wrongdoing of a certain sort (theft, murder, assault), it is always worse to be on the perpetrating end than on the receiving end. The argument does not establish the stronger conclusion, that perpetrating any sort of wrongdoing is worse than being the recipient of any sort of wrongdoing, e.g. that it is worse to tell a slight lie than to be murdered. And yet Socrates needs this stronger conclusion.


Michael Pakaluk said...

I'm a bit surprised that no one is taking this up. Isn't this passage one that thrills us for its nobility and idealism? I would bet not a few philosophers have gone on to study ancient philosophy after having been drawn to Socrates and Plato on account of this refutation in the Gorgias. And yet the argument is claimed to be a fallacy. What judgement should we form about it?

Anonymous said...

I, for one, was converted to philosophy by the Gorgias, and would love to take Vlastos to task on this one. I haven't tried, though, and probably for the same reason that nobody else has: it demands a lot more time and energy than we've got. For what it's worth, I think the answer to the problem begins with the lack of an equivocation in what it means for a shameful act to be painful. In the first case, I think, a shameful act is understood as an act that is painful for the agent. Since the shame that follows from wronging someone is manifestly not more painful than being wronged in the same sense, but it was agreed that doing wrong is more shameful, and that what is more shameful is either more painful or worse, it follows that doing wrong must be worse. Am I missing something, or is that a valid argument?

Of course, Socrates' strongest conclusions don't follow from this argument. I haven't gone back to look carefully at the context, but I doubt that it's a serious problem at this point in the action. I also think, though, that Plato wants us to see that Socrates does not have perfect arguments for his position. Working out what i mean by that would involve writing an entire article, which I won't be doing any time soon. But I hope to eventually.

Anonymous said...

The other two most important treatments of this issue that come to mind are Kahn's 'Drama and Dialectic in Plato's Gorgias' and Richard McKim's 'On Shame and Truth in Plato's Gorgias.' The former is well-known, the latter perhaps less so. Perhaps you could bring the three into dialogue on the blog for the sake of those of us who are too lazy or pre-occupied to do so?

Anonymous said...

The fallacy which Vlastos notes is important but seems much too obvious for it to have escaped Socrates' attention; it is Socrates after all who goes out of his way to emphasize the relation to the observer (474d). I believe we cannot rule out the possibility that Socrates is here raising a question, a problem even, regarding our common understanding of noble (beautiful) and shameful (ugly). We call most things noble (beautiful) because of how they appear to us, the observers -- they are either pleasant or useful. A beautiful body or melody, for instance. When it comes to deeds, however, we abruptly assume that the noble or the shameful deed has an effect not only upon us the observors, but also upon the doer. When we call an action "wretched" or "ugly", we mean not only that it repels us, the observors, but also that the doer has somehow degraded and harmed himself by doing it. But how do we reasonably make this leap? How do we know we are not blaming the action merely because it is painful for us to behold or harmful to our self-interest or to that of the community? (Enter Callicles.) The apparent fallacy of Socrates' argument only underlines the fact that the entire conversation with Polus is manifestly provisional: for Socrates here vigorously defends the goodness of justice without ever saying what justice is -- a mode of proceeding which he himself previously blamed as rhetorical rather than dialectical (448d-e, see also 463c). This is not to say Socrates is not serious in his noble and idealistic assertions: only that he is probably well aware that that these assertions need a much fuller and deeper grounding than, for whatever reason, he chooses to give in the conversation with Polus. 

Posted by D. Levy