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Under the Grip of A Calliclean Education

This essay is concerned with two texts by Plato: Gorgias and The Apology.  It was written as my first paper for the Philosophy and Education class with John Fantuzzo.  Through some strange coincidence or seredipity, I chose to put the wrestling image with the text, which also shaped the title.  Later I discovered that Fantuzzo was a former wrestler himself.  He appreciated the analogy and allusions.
Gorgias we find Socrates discussing the value of rhetoric/oratory (none) compared with philosophy (revealer of truth), given that all of the people he speaks with have a stake in rhetoric, it’s almost understandable what happens to him in The Apology(1).

Though neither text directly addresses models of education, it can be said that a ‘Calliclean education’(2) would resemble a type whose purpose would be to create and sustain an elite of winners.  These few, after desperate competition, would prove themselves superior and worthy of having all their desires fulfilled, whereas an inferior majority would be forced to accept a lesser share and ability to fulfill their wants.  

In response, Plato posits the life and death of Socrates as a type of heroic everyman, divined by Oracle and knowledgeable of the universality of truth, to reveal the right way to live.  This has implications as to how we should not educate the young but falls short of offering a convincing alternative.

Towards an Elite Education

When Callicles finally enters the fray, he launches into a lengthy speech which outlines most of his personal beliefs (482c-486d).  We must build our idea of his type of education primarily from these, though we find other illuminating ideas where he has changed his position in response the gadfly’s sting.  

He starts by speaking of laws that violate nature, that inferior majorities create laws to curtail the rights of the superior minority (nature) (Gorgias 483a-c).  Roughly understood as might is right, he laments those lions/wolves defanged by their education (483e).  He then dreams of a tyrant rising to claim mastery over Athens.  Later Socrates fills in the gaps suggesting that those who admire tyrants would seek to befriend them by learning to be as much like them as possible (510d).  Believing it is when procuring a power, that one avoids suffering an injustice (509d).

So Calliclean education would seek to instill in all a sense of the justness of tyranny, establishing a system of competition to sort the weak from the strong and convincing the ‘weak’ of their inferiority.  Perhaps we cannot know, in advance, who the ‘strong’ will be, and since there is no competition without at least the possibility of winning, the performance of schooling perpetuates the rule.  To the victors go the spoils.  

Callicles equates pleasure as a good and so the idea of appetites brings us suggestively to hedonism (Gorgias 494c-e).  When concerned with a Calliclean education, we should ask hedonism for whom? It does not seem likely that a permissiveness for doing as one pleases would extend to those deemed inferior.  

The majority must internalize that they are losers/inferior, since they seem to like an equal share (Gorgias 483c), but will accept less, fitting their station.  This mask of an education is furthered by Sophists claiming to teach value neutral skills: the teacher should not be blamed for the student (457c).  In this way, those on the elite track may be taught to lead the majority through rhetoric/persuasion.

Plato shows the basis of this model as false

Though we see Socrates responding directly to the arguments of all three (not forgetting Polus, Gorgias’ young adherent), the entire text Gorgias can be read as one long critique of the way of life of those like Callicles & Gorgias (the Sophist enabler).  Adding to our understanding of Socrates, The Apology shows us in deed why the unexamined life is not worth living (Apology 38a).

Plato shows us the difference between the two methods of oratory and philosophy.  Oratory leading to conviction-persuasion, without knowledge of truth, whereas Philosophy is teaching-persuasion, which leads to truth (Gorgias 455a).  By the time Callicles joins, we’ve already been reminded twice (454c, 453c) how the discussion must proceed, as a dialogue.  A third time he corrals the speaker away from ‘speeches’ and back to discussion (487e-488b).  He immediately shows the idea of ‘natural’ superiority to be specious (488d), concluding that proportionate equality is preferred even by the gods (508a).

So too in the Apology, Socrates says he has only a Human Wisdom (23a) yet twice refers to a spiritual power he possesses, preventing him from making unjust actions (31d, 40b).  Though this may seem like a contradiction, Socrates (Plato) is actually making a case for the democratization of Wisdom – that it is common and therefore universal to all men.

The problem with trying to befriend a tyrant is that it inevitably corrupts one’s soul (Gorgias 510d-511a).  As it follows that a tyrant sometimes commits unjust acts unwittingly, so too do those like him, even whilst one might be above reproach from the tyrant himself.  Furthermore, because it is worse to commit an unjust act than to suffer one (472e), it is false that power protects one from injustice.

So we must learn a craft to protect us from acting unjustly (Gorgias 509e), namely philosophy.  Between the two texts Plato provides us with the objections to philosophy: that it is child’s play (485a), that it corrupts the youth and makes the weaker argument the stronger(3) (Apology 19c).  This is where the character of Socrates begins to loom large as a response.  

His talk of a self-controlled soul (Gorgias 507b) stands in response to the corrupted hedonistic elites scratching their itches (494e), even more so when facing his death in the manner of Achilles’ bravery (Apology 28b-c).

But is this all that stands in opposition to a Calliclean Education?

While I remain moved by his nobility I am curious: what alternatives.  ‘God’s gift to mankind’ prophesied that a flood of youths would make life difficult for these unjust rulers (Apology 39d).  Yet he also claimed that fighters for justice must lead private lives to survive (32a).  He also believed in following orders, that it is shameful to disobey your superior (29b).

No wonder we are still awaiting our emancipation.

By Plato’s reckoning: The means are justified by the ends.  We sometimes need to do difficult things in order to obtain some good at the end.  


  1. Socrates is brought up on ‘false’ charges and found guilty by virtue of being unprepared or unwilling to defend himself, because doing so would require a knack for conviction-persuasion – the very thing he claims not to have (yuck! rhetoric!).  Lacking the political ability or perhaps seeking martyrdom, Socrates is sentenced to death, which he gladly accepts ‘knowing’ that the injustice will be the jurors to bear.
  2. The task of this essay was to ‘Define a Calliclean Education’ and then elicit Plato’s response citing the text.  For context, it helps to understand that Callicles is a rich, successful man, one able to host the celebrated orator Gorgias in his own home (Gorgias 447c) and an Athenian politician known to be a demagogue (481e).  
  3. Whenever Plato includes the charge against Socrates: that he makes the weaker argument the stronger, this is a direct barb aimed at Gorgias whose rhetorical style was known, and Gorgias himself had shown, to achieve this end.


    • Hope that means it made sense. I actually added the paragraph at the start for context. It was a tough argument to squeeze into the 1000 word limit. To be honest, I feel that the premises of my argument are pretty thinly laid (problem of the word limit). Looking forward to seeing what feedback I get from my teacher.

    • i didn’t call out anyone. i made fun of him, because i have a sense of humor. you on the other hand do not. if i were trying to get views, the proper method would be to put his name in the title. hope that helps.  your obsession over an off the cuff remark, aimed at both poking fun at woody, and then by association, myself, is odd.

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