The Gorgias Myth Print
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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