Callicles on Trial
Mon. December 6, 2021
How do we live our best lives?
Professors Horst and Irani:
The Calliclean way of life
The Confucian way of life
The Aristotelian way of life
The Daoist way of life
The Stoic way of life
Callicles, whom we first met at the beginning of the semester, is one of the great philosophical spokespeople for the view that the best life lies in maximally fulfilling one’s most intense desires. Recall his challenge to Socrates in Plato’s Gorgias:
How could a man prove to be happy (eudaimōn) if he’s enslaved to anything at all? Rather, this is what’s admirable and just by nature—and I’ll say it to you now with all frankness—that the man who’ll live correctly ought to allow his own appetites to get as large as possible and not restrain them. And when they are as large as possible, he ought to be competent to devote himself to them by virtue of his bravery and intelligence, and to fill them with whatever he may desire at the time. . . . the truth of it, Socrates—the thing you claim to pursue—is like this: wantonness, lack of discipline, and freedom, if available in good supply, are excellence and happiness; as for these other things, these fancy phrases, these contracts of men that go against nature, they’re worthless nonsense!
– Plato, Gorgias 491e-492c
Callicles also argues that the strong and superior man may need to deceive others—perhaps by pandering to the masses—in order to get as much as possible for himself.
In quite different ways, each of the four main schools of philosophy that we have studied this semester advocates an approach to living a good life that rejects Callicles’ position.
Our final class session will be devoted to a two-part debate between (and among) these four schools—each one represented by all the students in a single section—and Callicles, who will be represented by Professors Horst and Irani. Professor Angle will moderate the debate.
Throughout the debate, the moderator will give each group numerous opportunities to speak. One of our goals in this debate is that each student speak, and so comments or questions should be focused and brief—not listing a whole range of issues.
- In Part One, Callicles will be put on trial for “corrupting the youth” through his arguments about how to live. (In fact, some scholars believe there may have been a historical figure who was executed in Ancient Athens on whom Plato models the character of Callicles; and of course Socrates himself suffered the same fate.) We will begin with a representative for Callicles speaking briefly on behalf of his position, and then students from each group will have opportunities to make criticisms of Callicles, or ask questions of Callicles, from the standpoint of their school of thought.
- In Part Two, the differences among the four ways of life will take center stage. (Though “Callicles” may still try to get a word in now and then.) The moderator will call on each group in turn to explain not just why Callicles is wrong, but why their school offers the best path to a good life. Students can raise problems for other schools, highlight the strengths of their own school, or respond to challenges that other groups have posed. This discussion will continue, with each group getting multiple opportunities to speak. Again, our goal here is that everyone participates.
Your dialogue session on Friday, December 3 will be devoted to preparing for this debate. Come to this meeting prepared to discuss:
- What distinguishes your school’s approach to the good life from Callicles’ position? Why is your position superior?
- What distinguishes your school’s approach to the good life from those of other schools—and in particular, why is your position the best alternative to Callicles’ position?
- What are potential vulnerabilities for your position? You’ll need to be prepared to defend your position against these criticisms.
- What are the weaknesses of the other positions that you can highlight to demonstrate the overall superiority of your own position?
While you must work from the historical version of these philosophies as found in our texts, if you feel that modifications would make the doctrines stronger without violating the essential spirit of the philosophy, you can include such ideas as long as you make clear that they are reasonable developments.
At your meeting, discuss the above four questions and compile a list of at least four answers to each question. Your Dialogue Fellow should record these answers on Friday and share them with Professor Angle, but of course not with “Callicles”!