Plato is still relevant, now more than ever. Of this I am increasingly convinced.
I am currently reading the Gorgias, in which Socrates, egged on by his friend Chaerophon, enters into a public debate with the eponymous rhetorician and his student Polus, on the merits (or lack thereof) of political rhetoric. Socrates holds forth, first against Gorgias and later against Polus, that rhetoric is in fact not an art – that is to say, not a technical skill which serves to further the health or spiritual wellbeing of the person – but instead one of the forms of ‘flattery’. By this he means, a means of managing and appealing to people’s affinity for pleasure and fear of pain, in order to convince them of something which may or may not be true or just. After having manoeuvred Gorgias into admitting that justice is not the sole or even primary aim of rhetoric, Polus jumps in to defend his teacher, and the discussion turns toward the nature of political power, and whether it is in fact better to do something wrong and get away with it, or to suffer punishment for it.
After Polus holds forth that people envy tyrants and seek to avoid punishment, Socrates holds forth that it is worse to do something wrong and get away with it, than to suffer punishment for doing wrong, and it is least bad to suffer wrongfully – and thus, tyrants and great criminals are worse off when they are at large than when they are punished. This he proves, in part, by analogising the public institution of the judge, and the art of justice, with the art of medicine – medicine may be unpalatable and surgery painful, argues Socrates; but it is better to take the medicine and undergo surgery than to wind up unhealthy or deformed. Likewise, since Socrates holds that the soul seeks the good and that evil is always done with some confused good in mind, he sees punishment – even harsh and brutal punishments, if they are just – as a needed medicine for the soul.
At this point Callicles jumps in by asking Chaerophon if Socrates is joking or if he’s serious. And he enters into discussion by upbraiding Socrates for having embarrassed Gorgias and Polus: though Gorgias and Polus are too modest (!) to admit the virtues of their skill at rhetoric, Socrates took advantage of them by appealing to conventional morality, as opposed to ‘natural’ morality – the ‘way of the world’. Callicles’ argument then takes on something of a bent which Nietzsche would later make famous and to which he would lend his own name:
Nature herself intimates that it is just for the better to have more than the worse, the more powerful than the weaker; and in many ways she shows, among men as well as among animals, and indeed among whole cities and races, that justice consists in the superior ruling over and having more than the inferior.In this he truly sounds like nothing so much as the latter-day secular neoreactionary, the Silicon Valley devotee of Mencius Moldbug or Vox Day, when they claim that ‘natural’ hierarchies are justified by the very fact of their existence, or when they claim that it is the ‘natural’ destiny of the many to be ruled by the few and the powerful. But Socrates’ rejoinder to Callicles is telling, when he calls him a ‘lover of the Athenian demos’.
True, Socrates is answering Callicles in dead earnest (whereas he reserved his irony and sarcasm for Gorgias and Polus). If he’s being ironic here in his response to Callicles, it’s at a much deeper level than the witty playfulness with which he previously engaged Polus. It’s somewhat shocking, then, for him to place Callicles – confessing himself out of his own mouth, a defender of ‘might makes right’ and the privilege of the few over the many – as a democrat and a lover of the many.
Shocking, that is, unless and until we understand that Plato’s Socrates is as much a critic of ‘might makes right’ among the many as he is among the powerful and the few. Socrates does not, in fact, believe that truth and justice, let alone the virtue which puts them into practice, are to be found among the many whose interests and motivations are what Callicles indeed says they are. And when he accuses Callicles of changing his mind in response to the whims of his loves (a charge which, the careful reader will note, Callicles does not deny or denounce), he is indicting the entirety of the neoreactionary pretension that ‘justice’, or ‘social justice’, is merely the self-justifying name the will-to-power of the many gives to its own whims and appetites. He is holding forth that justice is something transcendental which is not to be compassed within such a social-Darwinist understanding of ‘nature’.
So too I would say the modern students of Callicles (and Moldbug and Vox Day) are the enemies of philosophy, and in truth they are the followers of the democratic crowd they claim to reject, because ‘might makes right’ being a principle which democracies and tyrants both have a tendency to obey, is no less wrong (see what I did there?) on account of that. The nouvelle nouvelle droite does not substantially differ in its understandings of power and justice from the democratic state they claim to reject – the only difference is that they have removed the polite veneer from the struggle after power. In truth, just as Callicles and the Athenian demos fall on the same side against Socrates, so too do modern-day liberals and their ‘darkly-enlightened’ counterparts.