The violent reaction comes from the activist, from Callicles, the enlightened politician. He has followed the course of the debate with increasing astonishment and wrath and now he asks Chaerephon [a pupil of Socrates present during the discussion] whether Socrates is in earnest about these things or whether he is joking. Being assured that he is in earnest, he turns on Socrates: If that were true, would not the whole of human life be turned upside down; and would we not do in everything the very opposite of what we ought to be doing? (481C).
Callicles has rightly sensed the revolution in the words of Socrates. This is not a mere intellectual game. If Socrates is right, then the society as represented by the politician Callicles is wrong. And since the wrong goes to the spiritual core of human existence, the society would be corrupt to the point that it can no longer have a claim to the loyalty of man. The existence of the society in history is at stake. The battle has now reached the real enemy, the public representative of the corrupt order. And Callicles does not hesitate to join battle.
The scene with Callicles is opened by Socrates again with a determination of the existential issue. He knows what he has to expect; he warns Callicles that truth is still the guiding star of the debate and that no pressure of opinion will be of the least avail. The existential differences between the speakers are now more precisely defined by the variants of Eros. Socrates is in love with philosophy, Callicles with the demos of Athens.1
When Callicles speaks he does not dare to contradict his love; he is a politician of the type “Them are my sentiments, and if you don’t like them I can change them” (481D-E). In a few sentences, rich in implications, Plato has predetermined the inevitable course of the debate. In the two Erotes of Socrates and Callicles is implied the later development of the Republic with its distinction of the good and the evil Eros. Here, in the Gorgias, the situation is revealed in which the conception of a metamorphosis of Eros originates. The issue at stake is that of communication and intelligibility in a decadent society.
Are the existential differences between Socrates and Callicles so profound that the bridge of a common humanity between them has broken down? In the Theaetetus, where Plato comes close to characterizing the enemies as beasts, he nevertheless restores community by observing that in private conversation it is possible at least to scratch the thick crust of the vulgarian and to touch in him a spark of his renounced humanity.
The bridge, thus, is not broken; but where are its points of support on both sides? They cannot be found on the level of principles of conduct, for this is precisely the level on which the protagonists meet in “war and battle.” On the level of politics no compromise is possible; the political form of the città corrotta is the civil war. The case of Polus [the student of Gorgias who was embarrassed into agreement with Socrates earlier in the dialogue, but is hard-hearted to the point where he is incapable of shame] has shown that intellectual agreement is not followed of necessity by existential understanding.
The level of communication, if there is one to be found at all, lies deeper. And to this deeper level Plato must now appeal, for otherwise the debate with Callicles would be only a repetition of the existentially inconclusive bout with Polus. This deeper level Plato designates by the term pathos (481C). Pathos is what men have in common, however variable it may be in its aspects and intensities. Pathos designates a passive experience, not an action; it is what happens to man, what he suffers, what befalls him fatefully, and what touches him in his existential core — as for instance the experiences of Eros (481C-D).
In their exposure to pathos all men are equal, although they may differ widely in the manner in which they come to grips with it and build the experience into their lives. There is the Aeschylean touch even in this early work of Plato, with its hint that the pathema experienced by all may result in a mathema different for each man. The community of pathos is the basis of communication. Behind the hardened, intellectually supported attitudes that separate men lie the pathemata that bind them together.
However false and grotesque the intellectual position may be, the pathos at the core has the truth of an immediate experience. If one can penetrate to this core and reawaken in a man the awareness of his conditio humana, communication in the existential sense becomes possible. The possibility of communication on the level of pathos is the condition under which the debate in the Gorgias makes sense. The reminder is necessary at this juncture, as we have said, because otherwise the following argument with Callicles would be senseless. The possibility, at least, of breaking through to the pathos must be open.
This does not mean, however, that the operation will actually be successful. Callicles no more than Polus will be won over. On the level of politics the tragedy will run its course to the murder of Socrates. But when the appeal remains ineffective, what meaning can the potential community of the pathos have? We have to realize the seriousness of the impasse, if we want to understand the conclusion of the Gorgias. The impasse means that historically and politically the bond of humanity is broken; Polus and Callicles are outside the pale of human comity. Does it mean, as the inevitable consequence seems to be, that they should be killed on sight as dangerous animals? The answer of the Gorgias is a definite No.
In the Apology Socrates had warned his judges that others would come after him and with renewed insistence ask the questions for which he had to die. The prediction is fulfilled; now it is Plato who asks the questions and who is in danger, as we shall see, of suffering the fate of Socrates. But the repetition would be a senseless sacrifice; and is there an alternative to the organization of a revolt with the purpose of exterminating the Athenian rabble?
The conclusion of the Gorgias formulates the conditions under which the community of mankind can be maintained even when on the level of concrete society it has broken down. The condition is the faith in the transcendental community of man. The incrustation of the evildoer that remains impenetrable to the human appeal will fall off in death and leave the soul naked before the eternal judge. The order that has been broken in life will be restored in afterlife. In the logique du coeur the Judgment of the Dead is the answer to the failure of communication in life. We shall come back to this point later. For the moment we have to be aware that Plato reminds us of the community of pathos at the beginning of the Callicles scene in order to prepare the Judgment of the Dead as the transcendental continuation of a dialogue that does not achieve existential communication among the living.
1. A more detailed account of this scene would have to go into the homo-erotic implications; Socrates refers to philosophia as ta ema paidika (482a).
This excerpt is from Order and History (Volume III): Plato and Aristotle (Collected Works of Eric Voegelin 16) (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1999)