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Political Corruption

Political Corruption

In the present context we have to concentrate on the existential enmity between Callicles and Socrates-Plato and on the critical analysis of political corruption. Above all, Socrates now resumes the issue of communication in a more radical manner. Only if the soul is well ordered can it be called lawful (nomimos) (504D); and only if it has the right order (nomos) is it capable of entering into communion (koinonia) (507E).

The pathos is no more than a precondition for community; in order to actualize it, the Eros must be oriented toward the Good (agathon) and the disturbing passions must be restrained by Sophrosyne. If the lusts are unrestrained, man will lead the life of a robber (lestes). Such a man cannot be the friend (prosphiles) of God or other men, for he is incapable of communion, and who is incapable of communion is incapable of friendship (philia) (507E). Friendship, philia, is Plato’s term for the state of existential community. Philia is the existential bond among men; and it is the bond as well between Heaven and Earth, man and God. Because philia and order pervade everything, the universe is called kosmos (order) and not disorder or license (akosmia, akolasia) (508A).

The meaning of order in existence is reestablished. The existential issue between Socrates and Callicles can now be taken up in earnest. Socrates restates the order of evils: (1) It is bad to suffer injustice; (2) it is worse to commit injustice; (3) it is worst to remain in the disorder of the soul that is created by doing injustice and not to experience the restoration of order through punishment.

The sneer of Callicles — that the philosopher is exposed to ignominious treatment — can now be met on the level of the philosophy of order. Callicles had taken the stand that it was of supreme importance to protect oneself effectively against suffering injustice. Socrates maintains that the price of safety against injustice may be too high. The suffering of injustice can be averted most effectively if a man acquires a position of power, or if he is the companion of the powers that be.

The tyrant is in the ideal po­sition of safety against injustice. About the nature of the tyrant there are no doubts, and the companion of the tyrant will be acceptable to him only if he is of a similar nature, that is, if he connives in the injustice of the ruling power. The companion of tyranny may escape the suffering of injustice but his corruption will inevitably involve him in the doing of injustice.

Callicles agrees enthusiastically and again reminds Socrates that the companion of the tyrant will plunder and kill the man who does not imitate the tyrant. The argument is nearing its climax. The sneers of Callicles can be effective only against men of his own ilk. They fall flat before a man who is ready to die. Do you think, is the answer of Socrates, that all cares should be directed toward the prolongation of life? (511B-C). The “true man” is not so fond of life, and there may be situations in which he no longer cares to live (512E).

The argument is not yet directed per­sonally against Callicles, but we feel the tension increasing toward the point where Callicles is co-responsible, through his conniving conduct, for the murder of Socrates and perhaps of Plato himself. The social conventions, which Callicles despises, are wearing thin; and the advocate of nature is brought to realize that he is a murderer face to face with his victim. The situation is fascinating for those among us who find ourselves in the Platonic position and who recognize in the men with whom we associate today the intellectual pimps for power who will connive in our murder tomorrow. It would be too much of an honor, however, to burden Callicles personally with the guilt of murder. The whole society is corrupt, and the process of corruption did not start yesterday. Callicles is no more than one of a kind; and he may even get caught himself in the morass that he deepens.

Socrates raises the question of the good statesman on principle. Goodness and badness are now defined in terms of advancing or decomposing the order of existence. A statesman is good if under his rule the citizens become better; he is bad if under his rule the citizens become worse, in terms of existential order. Socrates reviews the men who are the pride of Athenian history: Themistocles, Pericles, Cimon, Miltiades; and applying his criterion he finds that they were bad statesmen. They have bloated the city with docks and harbors and walls and revenues, and they have left no room for justice and temperance.

The conclusive proof for the evil character of their rule is the ferocious injustice committed against them by the very citizens whom it would have been their task to improve. The present generation is the heir to the evil that has accu­mulated through the successive rules of such “great” statesmen. And men like Callicles and Alcibiades who cater to the evil passions of the masses might well become their victims.

So, what does Callicles want with his admonitions to conform to the habits of politics and to become a flatterer of the demos? Does Callicles seriously suggest that Socrates should join the ranks of those who corrupt society still further? Is it not, rather, his task to pronounce the truth that would restore some order? But Callicles cannot break out of the circle of his evil. He can only repeat that the consequences for Socrates will be unpleasant.

The Socratic answer fixes the position of Plato: No doubt, the consequences may be unpleasant; who does not know that in Athens any man may suffer anything; nor would it be a surprise if he were put to death; on the contrary, he rather expects a fate of this kind. And why does he anticipate his death? Because he is one of the few Athenians who cares about the true art of politics and the only one in his time who acts like a statesman (521D).

This last formulation, by which Plato claims for himself the true statesmanship of his time, is important in several respects. In the construction of the Gorgias, this claim destroys the authority of Callicles to give advice to anybody with regard to public conduct. The man who stands convicted as the accomplice of tyrannical murderers and as the corruptor of his country does not represent spiritual order, and nobody is obliged to show respect to his word.

The authority of public order lies with Socrates. With regard to the relation of Plato to Athens the claim stigmatizes the politicians who are obsessed by the “love of the people” (demou Eros, 513C) as the “adversaries” (antistasiotes, 513C) of the existential order represented by Socrates-Plato; the authoritative order is transferred from the people of Athens and its leaders to the one man Plato.

Surprising as this move may seem to many, Plato’s claim has proved historically quite sound. The order represented by Callicles has gone down in ignominy; the order represented by Plato has survived Athens and is still one of the most important ingredients in the order of the soul of those men who have not renounced the traditions of Western civilization.


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)

Eric VoegelinEric Voegelin

Eric Voegelin

Eric Voegelin (1901-85) was a German-born American Political Philosopher. He was born in Cologne and educated in Political Science at the University of Vienna, at which he became Associate Professor of Political Science. In 1938 he and his wife fled from the Nazi forces which had entered Vienna and emigrated to the United States, where they became citizens in 1944. He spent most of his academic career at the University of Notre Dame, Louisiana State University, the University of Munich and the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. More information about him can be found under the Eric Voegelin tab on this website.

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