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The Gorgias Myth Print E-mail
By James V. Schall, S. J.   
Tuesday, 13 December 2011

In the dialogues of Plato, we find four eschatological “myths” about what happens after death as a result of how men lived. All four stories basically teach the same thing.

The shortest account is in the Gorgias, a dialogue between Socrates and Callicles, a suave, shrewd politician. He finds it absurd to think that the politician cannot do what he wants. He holds the power of life and death. All the philosopher has in his speech, his mind.

Socrates tries to convince Callicles that his position, that “it is better to do evil than to suffer it,” is wrong. He accuses Socrates of childishness, a man unable to defend himself in the real world against those with power to kill him.

Socrates’ primary concern is whether the world itself is created in injustice. In this life, not all evil deeds are punished, nor are all good deeds rewarded. But Socrates also holds that the gods cannot be unjust. Thus, in logic, if the world is unjust, no gods are possible. Much is at stake.

When Socrates explains ultimate things, he often concludes with a story, an account of life after death. The teaching of the soul’s immortality is a consequence of this experience. Realistic politics indicates that, frequently, the unjust are rewarded and the good punished. If this cosmic disorder is the case, surely the gods are unjust. We cannot expect anything better.

Socrates’ teaching about punishment horrifies Callicles, especially by his insistence that someone who commits a crime or sins should want to be punished. The worst thing we can do to such a man, says Socrates, is not to punish him. He thus continues to live a disordered life. To will to be punished is to acknowledge one’s own part in the disorder.

Callicles sees how this doctrine restricts the politician’s power of doing what he wants. He cannot admit that some principle of what is right is stronger than this de facto political power to kill whomever he wants.

In the myth, in the time of Cronos, people were judged before they died. They were judged fully clothed so that their bare souls were obscured by prestige, money, or power. This method let those who were unjust be rewarded and those who were just unrewarded.


      Socrates, after the sculptor Lysippos, his contemporary

Zeus decides to stop this injustice. Henceforth, all judgment, exercised by Minos, Radamanthus, and Aeacus, would take place after death. All would be naked so that nothing is concealed.

Radamanthus, presiding in Asia, judges Great Kings or potentates. Many crimes are stamped on their bodies and souls:  “Everything was warped as a result of deception and pretense, and nothing was straight, all because the soul had been nurtured without truth.” (525a-26a)

Usually, punishment justly inflicted makes men better because they see that it points to what is wrong. The wrongness, as in the similar myth in the Phaedo, can only be forgiven if the one against whom the crime is committed forgives.

In the Gorgias, the same teaching is found. In a passage hinting at the doctrine of Purgatory, we read:  “Those who are benefited, who are made to pay their due by gods and men, are the ones whose errors are curable; even so, their benefit comes to them, both here and in Hades, by way of pain and suffering, for there is no other possible way to get rid of injustice.” That is indeed a remarkable passage.

Yet in Hades, the judges find that those least likely to repent their crimes are the politicians:  “From those who have committed the ultimate wrongs and who because of such crimes have become incurable come the ones who are made examples of.” The doctrine of Callicles is precisely that no punishment can be requited on those who commit the great crimes.

Who commits these crimes? “The majority of these examples have come from the ranks of tyrants, kings, potentates, and those active in the affairs of cities, for these people commit the most grievous and impious errors because they’re in a position to do so.” This observation suggests the link between politics and evil, the dilemma of Plato about whether the world is created in injustice. It does seem that the great crimes go unpunished without final judgment.

In the end, Callicles refused to discuss the matter further with Socrates. Callicles sees the logic that undermined his own position. Socrates’s last words to Callicles were:  “The fact is, Callicles, that those persons who become extremely wicked do come from the ranks of the powerful, although there’s certainly nothing to stop good men from turning up among the powerful, and those who do turn up there deserve to be enthusiastically admitted.”

Politics, in its eschatological dimensions, thus remains a hazardous business. The world is not created in injustice.

James V. Schall, S.J., a professor at Georgetown University, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. His most recent book is The Mind That Is Catholic.

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written by Dave, December 13, 2011
I entered the Church in the Novus Ordo, in February 1991, and I never had a doubt as to the existence and effects of mortal sin. The Church does speak of grave matter -- and she did before the Council as well: for a sin to be mortal, there must be gravity of matter, full knowledge, and full consent; and, then as now, a belief that venial matter is grave (when in fact it is not) bumps the gravity of the matter into the red zone. Then as now, grave matter does not in and of itself create the inevitability of mortal sin: full knowledge and full consent are required.

I write this because I have been reading for many years as to how the Novus Ordo vitiated the traditional teachings of the Church. I don't doubt for a moment that great confusion descended upon the Church in the train of the Council; and that many progressive bishops and priests made hay while the sun shined in order to muddy up settled waters and undo in the minds of the faithful centuries of pacifically accepted teaching. Nonetheless, the fullness of the Faith subsists in the Catholic Church, and in her alone, then as now; and those who search for the fullness of the Truth, then as now, will find it.

Manfred's question to Fr. Schall is wrong both in that it is disrespectful and that it is erroneous. The Church taught long before the Council about the baptism of desire and about invincible ignorance; those who through no fault of their own cannot received baptism in the ordinary way yet desire to be united with God as they know him, nonetheless receive the grace of the sacrament, as each soul is granted the graces needed for salvation regardless of the circumstances; and those who out of invincible ignorance are outside the Church or of full communion with her are not thereby excluded from salvation. Thus: anyone who dies in a state of grace, Catholic or not, will be saved; and no one who dies in mortal sin, Catholic or not, will not be saved. In the 1917 edition of the Catholic Encyclopedia the possibility of salvation for Protestants is addressed; and the presumption is that if they have been unable to overcome ignorance as to the reality of the Church and her claims, if they have lived their lives in accordance to good conscience, and if they die in a state of grace -- without mortal sin -- to heaven they go.

None of this teaching has changed since the Council. It may not be enunciated as well as we may like, but it is there and easy to find.

As to my first point, no priest should be addressed in the manner in which our writer has posed the question. Fr. Schall is charitable and will let the slight pass; but in dire need as we are of good priest these days, cavilous, captious remarks really should not go unnoticed.

Fr. Schall's commentary on the Gorgias is remarkable for its pointing to the ability of the natural mind, unenlightened by divine revelation but nonetheless grasping for truth, to come to an understanding not only of right and wrong, of justice and punishment, but also of purgatory. One may hope now, as one did before the Council, that these remarkable thinkers unpossessed of divine revelation are now in a place of light, happiness, and peace. Indeed, our Faith enjoins us to hope for it. As God wills that all people come to salvation and as He gives to each soul precisely what it needs to attain salvation, we may yet indeed be confident in the hope, in the hope of our salvation, and of all people of good will.
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written by Achilles, December 13, 2011
It boggles my little mind to imagine that one could muster the temerity, much less, that they would assert the impertinence necessary to condescend to the straight Fr. Schall. I suppose that C.S. Lewis would explain it as he did in Mere Christianity as that one sin that we see so readily in others yet are unable to see in ourselves. Hubris is blind to itself and as Aristotle tells, a small error in the beginning is enormous in the end.

This is a worthy meditation on real consequences and apparent consequences- how anyone could come up with such an inane question as “or will everyone be saved?”of such a man as Fr. Schall does not know to whom he speaks.
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written by xabi kiano, December 15, 2011
Manfred,cheers to your marvelously wack non sequitur! One of Fr Schall's more illuminating articles of late, to be sure. Tx, Fr.

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