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On Plato's Gorgias

By Iftekhar Sayeed  Posted by Iftekhar Sayeed (about the submitter)     Permalink       (Page 1 of 2 pages)
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That George Bush and Tony Blair lied ('sexed up reports') came as a shock to some, and to quite a few Bangladeshi Democrats. I am deeply mystified about this discomfiture with economy regarding the truth. America and Britain are, after all, democracies, and democracies have a long and dishonorable tradition of 'sexing things up' for popular consumption. 'Government of the people, for the people, and by the people' is a government of lies to the people, by the people and for the evil of the people, who are a bunch of hicks (some Americans actually believe that weapons of mass destruction were used by Iraq!).

Plato's famous dialogue – The Gorgias – supports my observation to the hilt.  Before plunging into the dialogue, let us review Socrates' attitude towards politics. Active participation in government was highly valued in Athens. Yet Socrates refused to participate in politics.

In The Gorgias, he tells a friend, "Polus, I am not a political man."  Callicles makes fun of him, saying, "He flies from the busy centre and the market-place, in which, as the poet says, men become distinguished; he creeps into a corner for the rest of his life, and talks in a whisper with three or four admiring youths, but never speaks out like a freeman in a satisfactory manner."    

In the Apology, he clearly tells his audience, "You know well, O Athenians, that if I had undertaken to do politics long ago, I would have perished long ago and done no good either to you or to myself." He says: "It may seem queer to you that while I go round and play the busybody, I don't dare to mount the rostrum and offer advice to the Assembly."    

Socrates, then, clearly maintained that he was in no way associated with politics; indeed, he disdained the crowd, and disapproved of Alcibiades for the latter's fondness for the mob. Throughout the Gorgias, Socrates constantly refers to speechifying before the public as 'flattery'. The word 'flattery' occurs no less than 24 times!   

And yet Socrates tells Callicles:  "I am the only politician of my time." This apparent contradiction is cleared up when we consider what he had told Callicles a little earlier:  

And now, my friend, as you are already beginning to be a public character, and are admonishing and reproaching me for not being one, suppose that we ask a few questions of one another.   

Tell me, then, Callicles, how about making any of the citizens better?  Was there ever a man who was once vicious, or unjust, or intemperate, or foolish, and became by the help of Callicles good and noble?  Was there ever such a man, whether citizen or stranger, slave or freeman?" 

And here we have, in a few lines, Socrates' entire view of politics, one that would find later culmination in the Republic in a very different way. Politics, for Socrates, consists not in trying to move the public by clever speeches, but in trying to make men better as human beings.  It is true, admits Socrates to Callicles, for whom might is right, that power comes through flattery, oratory and rhetoric. He, however, distinguishes between the higher and the lower rhetoric:  

"I am contented with the admission that rhetoric is of two sorts; one, which is mere flattery and disgraceful declamation; the other, which is noble and aims at the training and improvement of the souls of the citizens, and strives to say what is best, whether welcome or unwelcome, to the audience; but have you ever known such a rhetoric; or if you have, and can point out any rhetorician who is of this stamp, who is he?"   

Callicles admits that he has never known any such rhetorician – they've all been demagogues.   Socrates has therefore hit upon one of the greatest pathologies of democracy.  

"For rhetoric, read demagogy," observed S.E. Finer. We immediately think of the speeches of Hitler, but lesser cases will do just as well. Think of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike's speeches promising the Sinhalese their language as state language; think of Milosevic's speeches urging his compatriots to murder Muslims to avenge a war that had occurred over 600 years ago; and think of the eloquence of George Bush and Tony Blair today.          

To quote Finer in his entirety:  

For rhetoric read demagogy, for persuasion read corruption, pressure, intimidation, and falsification of the vote. For meetings and assemblies, read tumult and riot. For mature deliberation through a set of revising institutions, read instead self-division, inconstancy, slowness, and legislative and administrative stultification. And for elections read factional plots and intrigues. These features were the ones characteristically associated with the Forum polity in Europe down to very recent times. They were what gave the term 'Republic' a bad name, but made 'Democracy' an object of sheer horror.   

The horror is evident in the obsession of The Federalist Papers with the question of war:     

Sparta, Athens, Rome, and Carthage were all republics; two of them, Athens and Carthage, of the commercial kind. Yet were they ... often engaged in wars....  Venice, in later times, figured more than once in wars of ambition...   The provinces of Holland, till they were overwhelmed in debts and taxes, took a leading and conspicuous part in the wars of Europe.     

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America and Great Britain are Republics not Democr... by Ty on Sunday, Jan 27, 2008 at 6:03:22 PM
As if almost to confirm the point you are making i... by Tom Chechatka on Tuesday, Jan 29, 2008 at 2:29:52 PM