The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

March 29, 2017

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Last Things: On Those “Who Become Extremely Wicked”
James V. Schall, S.J. - 03/04/10
Socrates and Alcibiades
The fact is, Callicles, that those persons who become extremely wicked do come from the ranks of the powerful, although there’s certainly nothing to stop good men from turning up even among them, and those who turn up deserve to be enthusiastically admired.
—Plato, Gorgias (526a)
[Churchill’s] chief contribution, he felt, was to voice the British view all over the world. So, memorable speeches were made before immense audiences. At Zurich, he promoted European unity under Franco-German leadership, prophetic notion. He stressed the importance of the “spiritual” element in such a leadership, an aspect of unity which, alas, has been forgotten.
—Paul Johnson, Churchill

Political philosophy, at some point, confronts the soul of the statesman and his counterpart, the tyrant. All action, be it the worst or the best, proceeds from knowing and willing, not from automatic forces beyond our control. No one can deal with political power until he has first dealt with the mind and soul of the one who exercises it and is responsible for its results. Indeed, we have to begin with the affirmation that the ruling politician in any regime, no matter what its configuration, does have a mind with a soul in which it is grounded. Here is born the substance, the being, of moral and political things.

By the classical authors, it is taken for granted that a tyrant can sometimes become a good man, even a good ruler, while the opposite is just as possible and frequent. But this capacity to change, to repent, to learn by experience, does not change the essential difference between one and the other, between what it is to be good and what it is to be not good. Whether things go wrong or go right, their origins, without which they would not exist, must be judged, must be praised or blamed. Polities try to do some of this, to reward and punish; for this they were established to provide order in which men could act. Still, the world with its history is filled with crimes unpunished and with great deeds unrecognized. It is the very stuff of the historical narration of our lives on earth. Is the world, then, created in injustice such that the good suffer and the evil are rewarded? At first sight, it would seem so. But can we, given the minds we have, live with this realization that indeed it really makes no ultimate difference how we live, that a good life and a bad life are, in fact, equivalent?

Much political literature—the “Mirrors of Princes”—concerns efforts of a philosopher to instruct sons of tyrants. This approach is thought to be the fastest way to change a regime. Liberal regimes really do not differ here. They want to teach the sons of the poor and the insignificant to rule. But the demos and the tyrant, as the classical authors also point out, can agree on what reality is like, on whatever they want to do in the world.

We have made it possible, moreover, for everyone to attend college partly for this reason. We insist on thinking, with Aristotle, that a relation exists between education and both wise and unwise rule. With experience, we find out that the content of education radically varies. Education as such does not save us or condemn us. What we do, how we act with whatever education we acquire, is what counts.

We have the same problem with sophists that Plato did. The sophist is not concerned with good or evil as it occurs in his own soul. Thus, he is free to teach the students what they want to hear, not what is true. It is said that the sophists were the first college professors. Very little evidence exists that such is not mostly still the case. Virtue is not knowledge alone, though a knowledge component is found in every virtue. Our education can leave us with empty souls seeking to fill themselves with whatever they can find. Plato’s democratic man wanted one day to eat and drink, the next day to fast and drink only water. Then, he wanted to be a businessman, then a soldier, then a philosopher on the next day. Finally, he would stand up in the assembly and shout whatever came into his fuzzy head.


The dialogues of Plato are filled with accounts of brash young men brought by their fathers before Socrates to be “educated” in how to rule, which is what the young men most want to learn—how to rule others, not themselves. For a hefty fee, the local and internationally tenured sophists will teach this ruling art. On chatting with these same young man for a while, Socrates quickly discovers that they really seek fame and power, not what it is to be good and worthy as human beings. Socrates seeks to save them from themselves. The most talented, like Alcibiades, try to corrupt the philosopher. Failing both the philosopher and philosophy, they go on and betray their polity in the noble name of trying to save it. They cannot tell the difference between themselves and what it is to be worthy, to know what is good. They crave applause as a sign of their good now fully recognized.

What is the “résumé” of such young men? Like Callicles, in the Gorgias, they usually have attended famous colleges. They even enjoyed it, including a bit of philosophy, as far as it went. But real power, they knew from shrewd politicians like Anytos, was not to be had in the universities, which received their monies, and usually instructions, from the state or the wealthy. They already reflected the characters that Socrates encountered on the streets of Athens, business and political leaders who knew their stuff and how the world operated. Socrates kept telling them to examine their souls. They replied that they could not rule with all the moral restrictions airy philosophers dream up.

The future politicians, however, did have to be able to speak. They had to be able to persuade the people, move their feelings. Frequently, this influencing was an easy thing to do if they had the right “knack,” as Socrates called it. They knew how to flatter and chastise present rulers who had lost favor in the eyes of the demos. Politics was the one serious business. Ultimately, it was salvific, as politics is all there was. The most powerful man was a politician who could do what he wanted—for everyone’s good, of course, as he insisted. People envied that power but were afraid of it too. The politician had the power of the sword and all that goes with it. The politician is not much bothered by constitutions or divine commands, but he likes to seem pious.

Law training might help. “Sleepy” judges sometimes had to be dealt with as did fanatics who talked about divine prohibitions and some vague natural law over the freedom of the tyrant. Even politicians had to know about courts. They often proved very useful in attaining or exercising power. Money would come with office. Someone once said that he who has good arms will have good friends and good laws. The young man notices how politicians are singled out by constituents to help in “good causes” or a sad case. They seek to be friends with everyone. With one of Plato’s brothers, they also notice that rewards and punishments are not meted out fairly among us. One had to be careful about right and wrong, lest one find out too late that such a distinction is not the primary one in “real” politics. Threats, fines, banishment from attention, and even executions could pretty much silence any contrary view.

Such young men were annoyed that someone like Socrates, even though he kept talking about it, did not consider politics to be the highest form of life. He annoyed everyone with his persistent queries about how we ought to live. “How does he know democracy didn’t mean to live as you please? Isn’t that what government is for?” The philosopher was rather dangerous since he distracted folks from the serious business of helping the poor and rearranging things so the people would be grateful to the leader. People need work, not philosophy.

This Socrates could be upsetting. It was not always helpful to hear that, even for the politician, it was “never right to do wrong.” Of course, sometimes, but never? Or even “hardly ever”? Is the good not what the people demand? Salus rei publicae sort of thing. Are politicians servants of the people? Of course they are.

Tyrants are not such bad types. They keep the peace better than most weak governments. Moreover, they are often smart, even handsome and attractive. Plato kept telling us that the tyrant was a shrewd young man who watched carefully what the people wanted, whatever it was. He knew how to speak to them, how to provide for them, even if his soul was empty of everything but himself. He nobly wanted to give them what they wanted. He was an articulate benefactor. He would take from those who have and redistribute it to those who have not. The people would be grateful. He would deserve his adulation.


In the Gorgias, one of the incidents that most upsets Callicles, the political realist who, as he tells us, understands power, concerns punishment. Callicles thought that one used political power to prevent being punished. This prevention meant that he was not limited in what he could do. Socrates, in contrast, thought not only that the guilty should be punished, but that he should want to be punished for his crimes. This conviction proved to Callicles that Socrates was rather nuts. Socrates went right on to tell Callicles that the best way we could damage an evil man was to prevent him from being punished and therefore from ever seeing the wrongness of his act.

Callicles scoffed at such a silly position, but Socrates was deadly serious. It seemed quite clear that politicians were often responsible for the worst and greatest of crimes. And they got away with it. Many a tyrant was buried with honor, something that annoyed Ademantus in the Republic. This “did they get away with it?” is the heart of what Plato has to say in the “myths” found in the Gorgias, Phaedo, and the Republic. In Socrates’ own words, these myths tell the truth. They are not deductions from philosophical propositions, but rather a running account of what mankind has known from its beginning.

Callicles claimed that he was the real politician, but so did Socrates, who said that he never exercised political office except for once, in a case concerning Leon of Salamis, in the Apology. And even in that famous case, he went home rather than to participate in it. He might have been killed at this point, he tells us, but the government fell. He was not going to do wrong, even at the threat of death. Callicles thought that the political power of death was the ultimate weapon that the politician had. He did not think that anyone would voluntarily die rather than to deny the truth or do wrong. But this was the real strength of Socrates, why we still know of him. Had he capitulated, he would be an unknown.

Plato proposes the immortality of the soul as an answer to a political problem. Without it, the world is created in injustice. If this is the case, the gods are not credible. And, Socrates thought, many weren’t, those that were pictured carousing, stealing, and lying. We needed a better account of what happens to the unrepentant and unpunished tyrant. Benedict XVI brings up this very question in Spe Salvi, where he cites the Marxist philosopher Theodor Adorno to the effect that we need not only an immortal soul but also a resurrected body if we are going to praise and punish those who are not properly dealt with while they live. If the tyrant can kill millions, be they old, adults, or preborn, and nothing happens to him, the world is simply incoherent.

Philosophical reasoning, thus, must deal with those “who become extremely wicked.” When it does so, it reaches an impasse. There is no real way in which unpunished and unrepentant crimes can be resolved if there is no afterlife. Philosophy can take us this far. Once it has done this, its service is complete. Plato addressed the issue in the myths that told the truth. These were not just tales. Revelation insofar as it is directed to the openness of philosophy actively asking its own questions finds resonance here. Both agree that the incoherence of a world in which evils are largely left unaddressed is not a logical or reasonable one. But if this is the case, then Callicles and the tyrants of the world, even the “democratic” ones, are right. Politics is about surviving in this world, however we can. We have no ultimate sanctions.

The Death of Socrates

The Platonic myths are deadly serious. They address our souls. They present us with a form of politics in which the primary question is not avoiding death at any cost but avoiding evil wherever it appears. The grounds of civilization lie right here. If it is right to do wrong, we have no alternative but despair justice either in this world or in the next. Reading Plato is not just reading another piece of classical literature. It is making alive in our souls the real drama of our being when it is not being presented in our political order, in which praise is heaped on the unjust and blame on the just. In this sense, it is not surprising that Socrates was perhaps the only politician in Athens. He was the one who was killed in the best state of his time. His lesson seems totally true and yet incomplete. Socrates was a man. It would take another execution by another state to fully understand what the human knew by understanding what finally went on in the polities of this world.

To learn more, visit the ISI short course on Western Civilization.

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