Doing and Suffering

To do injustice is worse than to suffer it. Socrates proves this to Polus and Callicles in the dialogue of Plato called the Gorgias.

I wish to review the proofs, because I think they are correct, and their result is worth knowing.

Loeb Plato III cover

Or is the result already clear to everybody?

Whom would you rather be: a Muslim in India, under attack by a Hindu mob, or a member of that mob?

You would rather not be involved; but if you had to choose, which option would be less bad: to be driven to an insane murderous fury, or to be the object of that fury?

The question is not which option you would choose. Perhaps any of us can be made into a torturer or a killer through a chain of increasingly bad choices. I read somewhere how it starts. You are lined up with your fellow soldiers and ordered to beat somebody who did no wrong. If you refuse, then you will be the one who is beaten.

Most of us might go along with our fellows and do the beating. That doesn’t make it right. This ought to go without saying, as a lesson learned in childhood; and yet perhaps it is not learned. I have scolded adults for teaching children, by example, that one may pick public flowers.

You might justify joining a lynch mob, in preference to being lynched, because in the former case, at least you would be able to survive to repent your murders. However, would not repentance require you to understand the suffering of your victims? If, as a survivor, you counted yourself better off than your victims, could you really have understood and repented your deed?

Such an argument may not be Socrates’s. Perhaps it is somehow Christian. According to Tom Holland, in a short essay in the New Statesman (14 September 2016) called “Why I was wrong about Christianity,”

the countries that were once collectively known as Christendom continue to bear the stamp of the two-millennia-old revolution that Christianity represents. It is the principal reason why, by and large, most of us who live in post-Christian societies still take for granted that it is nobler to suffer than to inflict suffering.

I don’t know whether Holland counts the Turkey of today, where I live, as post-Christian. Though Christianity was created here, its displacement by Islam began almost a thousand years ago. In any case, I wonder about the average American Christian fundamentalist today: will they admit that to suffer is nobler than to inflict suffering?

In pre-Christian Athens, Polus admits it, even though he admires Archelaus, son of Perdiccas and tyrant of Macedonia, of whom he tells Socrates all sorts of conventionally bad things:

  • He killed Alcetus, the legitimate king.
  • He killed the legitimate king’s son, and presumably heir, Alexander.
  • Thus he strengthened the position of the usurping king, Perdiccas, his own father and the late king’s brother.
  • He did this by treachery, having told Alcetus and Alexander he would help them.
  • He killed his half-brother, a seven-year-old boy and his father’s legitimate heir.
  • He lied about this to the victim’s mother, Cleopatra.
  • He did all this while being a slave, the son of an enslaved woman belonging to Alcetus.

We may ask what gives anybody the right to be a king or to enslave another person. Thucydides would seem to praise Archelaus for building fortifications in Macedonia.

Archelaus also built straight roads through the country, reorganized the cavalry, the arming of the infantry, and equipment in general, so as to put the country in a stronger position for war than it had ever been under all the eight kings who had ruled before him.

Thus the translation of Rex Warner in the Penguin Classics edition of The Peloponnesian War (2.100). Plato may expect his readers to consider all of this. In any case, here is how Plato has Polus describe the crimes of Archelaus, at Gorgias 471a–d, which would seem to be our only source:

That he is wicked (ἄδίκος) I cannot deny; for he had no title at all to the throne which he now occupies, he being only the son of a woman who was the slave of Alcetas the brother of Perdiccas; he himself therefore in strict right (τὸ δίκαιον) was the slave of Alcetas; and if he had meant to do rightly he would have remained his slave, and then, according to your doctrine, he would have been happy (εὐδαίμων). But now he is unspeakably miserable (ἄθλιος), for he has been guilty of the greatest crimes: in the first place he invited his uncle and master, Alcetas, to come to him, under the pretence that he would restore to him the throne which Perdiccas has usurped, and after entertaining him and his son Alexander, who was his own cousin, and nearly of an age with him, and making them drunk, he threw them into a waggon and carried them off by night, and slew them, and got both of them out of the way; and when he had done all this wickedness he never discovered that he was the most miserable of all men, and was very far from repenting: shall I tell you how he showed his remorse? he had a younger brother, a child of seven years old, who was the legitimate son of Perdiccas, and to him of right the kingdom belonged; Archelaus, however, had no mind to bring him up as he ought and restore the kingdom to him; that was not his notion of happiness; but not long afterwards he threw him into a well and drowned him, and declared to his mother Cleopatra that he had fallen in while running after a goose, and had been killed.

That is Jowett’s translation, but I have added a few of the Greek words from the Loeb edition. Words in δικ involve custom, right, justice; they are related to the verb δείκνυμι “to show” and to words of ours like “teach,” “token,” “juridical,” “theodicy.”

Polus concludes his sarcastic irony as follows:

And now as [Archelaus] is the greatest criminal of all the Macedonians, he may be supposed to be the most miserable and not the happiest of them, and I dare say that there are many Athenians, and you would be at the head of them, who would rather be any other Macedonian than Archelaus!

Socrates responds calmly. It doesn’t matter what the many Athenians think. Socrates will undertake to convince Polus that if Archelaus is a wrong-doer, then he is unhappy.

For Polus,

  • to suffer wrong (ἀδικεῖσθαι) is worse, “more bad” (κάκιος), than to do it; however,
  • to do wrong (ἀδικεῖν) is fouler, or more disgraceful (αἴσχιος), than to suffer it (474c).


  • the opposite of bad (κακός) is good (ἀγαθός);
  • the opposite of foul (αἰσχρός) is fair (καλός) – or honorable, or noble, as in the quotation from Tom Holland: “it is nobler to suffer than to inflict suffering.”

So Polus agrees with Holland. Then Socrates asks what makes things noble (or fair, or beautiful, or honorable):

do you not call them beautiful in reference to some standard?

That is Jowett’s translation. Lamb’s in the Loeb is similar:

is it according to no standard that you call these fair in each case?

There is not a word like “standard” in the Greek, though it is tacit:

εἰς οὐδὲν ἀποβλέπων καλεῖς ἑκάστοτε καλά;
is it regarding nothing that you call each of these noble?

There’s a reason why we call something noble or fine. For Polus, the fine or fair provides an advantage (χρεία), or a pleasure (ἡδονή as in “hedonism”). Other words are admitted, in place of χρεία: first ὠφελία “benefit,” then ἀγαθόν “good.” For Polus, the good is the beneficial or advantageous. That is noble which supplies either pleasures or goods.

Suffering injustice is definitely not a pleasure. Therefore it must be a good; at least it is less bad than doing injustice. Polus is led to that conclusion.

Callicles objects. We say that suffering injustice is nobler than doing it; but this is only by a convention, established because we cannot get away with the injustices that we really want to commit.

Callicles has not got his argument worked out. He assents to Socrates’s formulation: by natural justice (τὸ δίκαιον τὸ κατὰ φύσιν), in Lamb’s translation,

  • the superior (κρείττων) should forcibly despoil the inferior (ἤττων),
  • the better (βελτίων) rule the worse (χείρων), and
  • the nobler (ἀμείνων) have more than the meaner (φαυλοτέρος) (488b).

Callicles agrees that the superior, the better, and the stronger (ἰσχυρότερος) are the same (488d).

The many are superior to the one, and the many opine that committing injustice is fouler than suffering it (488e). Callicles doesn’t mean that. He says the better are the more excellent (ἀμείνων), and he agrees that this means the wiser (φρονιμωτέρος, 489e). Doctors are wiser about using food and drink; but Callicles doesn’t mean that either (490b–d). He is talking about the wiser in politics – the wiser and the more manly or courageous (ἀνδρεῖος, 491b). They should rule the city and have more than others (491d). Callicles is not interested in the concept of self-rule. Natural fairness and justice is to have desires and satisfy them (491e):

in good truth, Socrates – which you claim to be seeking – the fact is this: luxury and licentiousness and liberty, if they have the support of force, are virtue and happiness, and the rest of these embellishments – the unnatural covenants of mankind – are all mere stuff and nonsense (492c).

Some people seem to live today as if this were true.

Large clay pot against dark vines
Şirince, January, 2018

Socrates likens life to a collection of jars (πίθοι) filled with wine, honey, milk, and other good things. The jars of the temperate (σώφρων) life are sound, but those of the unrestrained (ἀκόλαστος) life are leaky and must constantly be refilled.

Is the latter life to be considered preferable, as Callicles seems to think? Even if not, what if one’s aim in life is to fill not one’s own jars, but somebody else’s? From The Razor’s Edge of Maugham, I recall Isabel’s explanation for marrying whom she did:

I had to marry somebody. He was mad about me and Mamma wanted me to marry him. Everybody told me I was well rid of Larry. I was very fond of Gray; I’m very fond of him still. You don’t know how sweet he is. No one in the world could be so kind and so considerate. He looks as though he had an awful temper, doesn’t he? With me he’s always been angelic. When we had money, he wanted me to want things so that he could have the pleasure of giving them to me. Once I said it would be fun if we could have a yacht and go round the world, and if the crash hadn’t come he’d have bought one.

Callicles too prefers the intemperate life: “a pleasant life consists … in the largest possible amount of inflow” (494a). However, he has to admit to Socrates that not all pleasures are equal (499b). One needs an art, a skill, to distinguish the better ones (500a). Those who are skilled with the body – trainers and doctors – they “bring order and system into the body” (504a): Socrates proposes this, and Callicles reluctantly agrees. Doctors do not allow the appetites of the sick body to be indulged (505a); likewise then, the soul is better off restrained.

According to Tom Holland, what has given us this kind of morality is the death of a god.

“We preach Christ crucified,” St Paul declared, “unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness.” He was right. Nothing could have run more counter to the most profoundly held assumptions of Paul’s contemporaries – Jews, or Greeks, or Romans. The notion that a god might have suffered torture and death on a cross was so shocking as to appear repulsive. Familiarity with the biblical narrative of the Crucifixion has dulled our sense of just how completely novel a deity Christ was. In the ancient world, it was the role of gods who laid claim to ruling the universe to uphold its order by inflicting punishment – not to suffer it themselves.

Socrates may not have been a god; nonetheless, since the time of his being made the instrument of his own death, his thought has been kept alive by Plato and those of us who read him.

In the Gorgias, Callicles warns Socrates to lay off the philosophy. If he does not learn the rhetoric he needs to protect himself, the Athenians will take advantage of him, and ultimately the democracy will put him to death.

Socrates is not worried; his killers will suffer more than he. Plato is writing this after Socrates has taken the drug – τὸ φάρμακον in Phaedo 57a, 115a, and later; I think hemlock (Conium) is not named in that dialogue, though it occurs in the Lysis (219e):

when a man highly values a thing, as in the common case of a father who prizes his son above all his possessions, will such a man, for the sake of placing his son before everything, [219e] value anything else highly at the same time? For instance, on learning that he had drunk some hemlock (τὸ κώνειον), would he value wine highly if he believed it would save his son’s life?

Cover of Spencer book

According to Christians, before the Christ could come to earth, we needed to be prepared, and the Jews supplied the preparation with three teachings:

  1. “There is one God.”
  2. “God is holy and he expects his worshippers to be holy.”
  3. “God intended to intervene in human history and redeem the world through the Jews.”

Socrates teaches versions of at least the first two of these.

  1. In Book II of the Republic, a plurality of gods may be mentioned, but they are the source, only of good things; thus they cannot be in conflict, despite the title character’s admission in the Euthyphro that they can be.

  2. At the end of the Gorgias, Socrates explains the institution of God (a.k.a. Zeus), whereby after the death of our body, our soul appears naked before the judges: Rhadamanthus for Asians, Aeacus for Europeans, and Minos for the final decision.

    Many centuries hence, Dante will tour the underworld and see famous persons. Meanwhile, Socrates figures the soul of Archelaus will be judged incorrigible and sent to the Inferno. Other persons, such as Thersites in the Iliad, need only be sent to Purgatory. Still others, such as Aristides son of Lysimachus, or the philosopher “who has minded his own business and not been a busybody in his lifetime” (526c), will be sent to Paradise, namely the Isles of the Blest (μακάρων νῆσοι).

My source for the teachings of Judaism is Bonnell Spencer, Ye Are the Body: A People’s History of the Church, Revised Edition (West Park, N.Y.: Holy Cross Publications, 1965). I judge the book to be antisemitic for saying “But …” as follows:

Down through the centuries the Jews have persisted as a homeless and often persecuted minority. Those who have persecuted them have sinned grievously and must answer for it. But the root of the Jews’ tragedy is their rejection of their Messiah … There will be no real solution to the Jewish problem until they repent and are converted. One of the major sins of Christians throughout the centuries is their failure to make a persistent and loving effort to convert the Jews.

Tom Holland critiques Voltaire for not having recognized his moral debt to Christianity when he wrote,

Every sensible man, every honourable man, must hold the Christian sect in horror.

I read in horror the words of Bonnell Spencer, who writes as an Anglican monk. If he were a mathematician, he would be merely a crank; but he claims to be more. He teaches the oneness of God. I take this for a symbol of the unity of the universe. If you believe in this, I think you have got to understand that if anybody really disagrees with you, you may be in the wrong. Your aim cannot be to convert them, simply; you must find the truth, and maybe the other person will turn out to have it, even if they are a Jew who has rejected “their” Messiah.

In a word, you have got to engage in dialectic. The word is Plato’s, in the Meno dialogue, where Socrates says to the title character of a putative interlocutor,

if he were a philosopher of the eristic and antagonistic sort, I should say to him: You have my answer, and if I am wrong, your business is to take up the argument and refute me. But if we were friends, and were talking as you and I are now, I should reply in a milder strain and more in the dialectician’s vein; that is to say, I should not only speak the truth, but I should make use of premisses which the person interrogated would be willing to admit.

Thus Jowett’s translation of 75c–d, in the fine online edition of the Liberty Fund, which I have discussed elsewhere, as I have discussed Collingwood’s argument for how dialectic is what we need in a Heraclitean world of change.

I learned of Holland’s essay from an article by Rod Dreher in The American Conservative (February 27, 2020). Dreher wonders, or worries: “what will become of the world that has ceased to believe in Jesus?”

I ask what will become of the world that has forgotten Plato.

Narnia books

Through the character of Socrates, Plato taught with stories as well as discourse. While trying to teach Christianity through stories, C. S. Lewis did not forget Plato. At the end of the Chronicles of Narnia, in the penultimate chapter of The Last Battle, he gave the following words to Digory Kirke:

When Aslan said you could never go back to Narnia, he meant the Narnia you were thinking of. But that was not the real Narnia. That had a beginning and an end. It was only a shadow or copy of the real Narnia, which has always been here and always will be here … And of course it is different; as different as a real thing is from a shadow or as waking life is from a dream. It’s all in Plato, all in Plato: bless me, what do they teach them at these schools?

What indeed? I do try to teach mathematics, τὰ μαθηματικά, the things of which one can say μανθάνω, “I am learning.”

Confronted with news about today’s autocrats, I occasionally point out to others that suffering their injustice is less bad than being the autocrat. This post may then serve as an elaboration of the idea. I first read the Gorgias as a prospective student at St John’s College in Annapolis in the fall of 1982. I read it again as an actual student, the following year. Meanwhile, on my yearbook page at St Albans School in Washington, I included some of Socrates’s words from the end of the dialogue:

But if I died because I have no powers of flattery or rhetoric, I am very sure that you would not find me repining at death. For no man who is not an utter fool and coward is afraid of death itself, but he is afraid of doing wrong.

The other quotations from my yearbook page were from Euclid, Kakuzo Okakura, and Robert Pirsig. Many of my blog posts have referred to Plato, but so far only one other, “Piety,” takes up one of his dialogues (in that case the Euthyphro) as the main subject. I could add Plato to the list of six favorite writers that I gave in “Victor Vasarely”, and that is currently repeated on my “About” page; but I am reluctant to assert the kind of personal intimacy with Plato that I feel with the other writers. My post on “criteriological” science might be read as a development of the idea above, that when we judge things, it is according to some standard or criterion.

I edited this post on March 30, 2020; October 23, 2021; and again on December 24, when I clarified that Socrates in the Phaedo had drunk not hemlock specifically, but a drug, a pharmakon. I learned and added the use of “hemlock” (kōnion) in the Lysis.

Recently I saw the article, “QAnon cultists are now drinking bleach compound from communal bowl: ‘Immediately evokes images of Jonestown’” (Raw Story, December 20, 2021). An ensuing tweet warned against treating the mass suicide, or mass murder, at Jonestown, Guyana, in 1978 as a joking matter.

Socrates’s death is a joking matter for Steve Martin (1980) and Woody Allen (“My Apology,” Side Effects, 1981). However, the humor here relies on no more knowledge than might have been obtained from a Western Civ course. Woody Allen’s Socrates is a coward when faced with the hemlock. Steve Allen’s Socrates drinks it gratefully, but without knowing what it is. Socrates knows exactly what it is, in the Phaedo itself; he still wants to offer some as a libation to a god. This would seem to be high comedy.

Since the original composition of this post, I have written eighteen on the Republic.

10 Trackbacks

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    […] « Doing and Suffering […]

  2. By Thoreau and Anacreon « Polytropy on May 9, 2020 at 8:14 am

    […] a young man. It is the name of the impetuous young man in the Gorgias (considered in “Doing and Suffering”); but the participles describing the Polus of Anacreon, and the adjective […]

  3. By Return to Narnia « Polytropy on June 14, 2020 at 11:34 am

    […] “Doing and Suffering,” I mentioned how Lewis refers to Plato. He shares with Plato not only the idea of a higher […]

  4. By Hostility and Hospitality « Polytropy on June 15, 2021 at 4:07 am

    […] of the Gorgias of Plato. I tried to spell out Socrates’s argument in a blog post last year, “Doing and Suffering,” a little before face-to-face courses at my university were […]

  5. By On Plato’s Republic, 1 « Polytropy on August 15, 2021 at 6:34 am

    […] Arendt’s fans misread the post-truth presidency” (Harper’s, August, 2021). My own post, “Doing and Suffering” (March, 2020), takes up the Socratic principle, as expressed in Plato’s Gorgias and by […]

  6. By On Plato’s Republic, 9 « Polytropy on October 24, 2021 at 6:54 pm

    […] alluded to this in my own review of the argument of the Gorgias in “Doing and Suffering.” Callicles tries to dismiss a preliminary argument, that that pleasant is different from the […]

  7. By On Plato’s Republic, 12 « Polytropy on November 22, 2021 at 10:07 pm

    […] not recognize the details that Socrates gives. Does Glaucon? In the Gorgias, as I discussed in “Doing and Suffering,” Polus describes in detail the career of Archelaus, tyrant of Macedonia. Perhaps such examples […]

  8. By On Plato’s Republic, 14 « Polytropy on December 13, 2021 at 6:49 pm

    […] doing injustice is worse than suffering it (as I wrote in “Doing and Suffering”), […]

  9. By Plato and Christianity « Polytropy on January 11, 2022 at 9:33 pm

    […] I quoted Hannah Arendt’s summary statement of the Socratic principle: “It is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong.” If people recognize this principle, they may trace it to Christianity rather than Plato. Tom Holland did, in a brief essay of 2016, “Why I was wrong about Christianity.” I looked at this in “Doing and Suffering.” […]

  10. […] neglected this part of the argument when I took up the Gorgias in “Doing and Suffering.” I passed over to Callicles’s effective retraction of his earlier admission, at […]

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