Socrates ‘not all pleasures are the same’

Canton asked:

How does Socrates force Callicles to admit that there are ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ pleasures?

Answer by Gideon Smith-Jones

Thank you for this question, Canton. I was getting a bit tired of seeing ‘EU Referendum’ stuck at the top of the page.

This is a typical philosophy instructor’s question. You’ve been given Plato’s dialogue Gorgias to read. I did this as a first-year undergraduate and it blew my mind. This is the dialogue to read if you are looking for inspiration to choose philosophy as a career!

Ah well, I’m guessing that you feel less than inspired. In fact, I would go further and say that there’s a good chance that you haven’t even opened the book? Right? (I do hope that your instructor made you read the original text and not some watered-down summary.)

You wouldn’t be asking this question if you had, because you would know. Unless, having read the dialogue, you still don’t get Socrates’ case against Callicles. That would be sad. I’m not going to make things easy for you, why should I? We’re not here to pamper and please. (Does that statement sound familiar? who said it?)

This is philosophy. Take a view X. Look at the consequences of X and decide whether they hold up, logically or conceptually or in some other way. If they do not then X must be false. That’s one of the most basic argument forms in philosophy: reductio ad absurdum.

With me so far, Canton?

Callicles has a view about pleasure. What is it? If you don’t know what it is, stop right there because there is no point in going any further.

All right, I’ll give a hint. Callicles (along with a lot of other people, and a lot of them unfortunately are reading this) thinks that pleasure is a good thing. The best. The ultimate. You can’t have too much of a good thing. If you eat too much candy you will be sick and then you will feel sorry. So there’s a limit to how much candy you can eat. The pleasure turns to pain. But if something is pleasurable, and doesn’t turn to pain, if it just carries on being pleasure, then there’s no limit.

And it doesn’t matter what gives you the pleasure. That’s the other thing Callicles believes. Pleasure is pleasure. All  that matters is the intensity — how pleasing it is. If you enjoy squashing beetles (remembering an early episode of Game of Thrones when Tyrion gives some insight into his early family life) then the more beetles you squash, the more pleasure you will get. In fact, you would be perfectly happy — nothing could improve your state of happiness/ pleasure — if you just spent your whole life squashing beetles, while you were fed intravenously and had various other bodily functions taken care of.

This is basically Socrates’ argumentative strategy against Callicles, although he doesn’t give the example of beetles (and Game of Thrones didn’t exist then, or maybe it did?).

What Socrates is asking you to do is look at the life that has been described and form an attitude about it. This attitude isn’t intrinsically moralistic, but rather based on your ability to ‘like’ or ‘dislike’ different kinds of life. You wouldn’t want to be that person, would you?

In that case… what?

You fill in the dots (and give the relevant examples from the text). I’m not writing your essay for you!


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