Socrates & Callicles: The Discussion of a Rascal

Plato’s Gorgias is an interesting text in the way that it captures both the relevance of the philosophical ideas being presented and the interpersonal dynamics that occur between each of the intellectuals involved. For instance, the moment where Socrates states, “what a rascal you are” in reference to Callicles, can be viewed as a pivotal occasion in both the intellectual atmosphere and the relational atmosphere – the implication of this statement goes deeper than it, superficially, appears to (499c). So, in order to elucidate the true meaning of Socrates’ rascal statement in reference to Callicles, one must thoroughly examine the denotation, the opposition of ideas, the tone, the relationship that exists between Socrates and Callicles, and Socrates’ level of sincerity, for all of those elements play a key part in the explanation.

By definition, a rascal is one who is mischievous or cheeky, and is usually called so by someone in an affectionate manner. However, Socrates is doing much more than affectionately calling Callicles a rascal – there are several other elements that must be studied in order to grasp the true connotation of Socrates’ sentence, and what he actually means by calling Callicles a rascal.

To begin, one must first examine the surrounding context in which the statement “what a rascal you are” appears (499c). Socrates and Callicles find themselves to be on intellectually opposite sides of their discussion, with the main difference being this: Socrates believes that “we should do all things for the sake of what’s good,” and that “good things are not the same as pleasant ones,” while Callicles believes that “pleasant and good are the same” (499e, 497d, 495d). Examining Socrates’ beliefs first, it can be surmised that Socrates is in favor of a lifestyle where one commits acts, whether pleasurable or painful, in favor of what is good, and that what is good may not necessarily be what is pleasant. Shifting to Callicles’ view, one can conclude that he encourages a lifestyle that pursues pleasantness and pleasure, for, in Callicles’ eyes, what is inherently pleasing to one must also be inherently good for one.

Each of the lifestyles that Socrates and Callicles are promoting are extremely distinct, with one in pursuit of pleasure, and the other in pursuit of what is good. Ultimately, these two lifestyles, however different, can be related back to the idea of happiness, and how one can live a life that will bring one happiness. According to Socrates, one achieves happiness by doing what is good, but according to Callicles, one achieves happiness by doing what is pleasurable. So, throughout their discussion, each participant is trying to convince the other that they are correct in their interpretation of what is good, what is pleasant, and what is best for achieving happiness.

Eventually, the dialogue reaches a point where Socrates has backed Callicles into a corner, and has him at a point of defeat, stating, “Doesn’t it then turn out that the bad man is both good and bad to the same degree as the good man, or even that he’s better? Isn’t this what follows, along with those earlier statements, if one hold that pleasant things are the same as good things?” (499a-b). However, Callicles has figured out, perhaps a split second before Socrates states it, that this is what all of his previous declarations actually amount to.

And so, to avoid losing face and proving Socrates right, Callicles backpedals, insisting that what he truly believed was “that some pleasures are better and others worse” and not that “pleasant is the same as good” (499b, 495d). Socrates recognizes that this is what Callicles has done – that he has switched his position to avoid embarrassment – and then chooses to seize upon the moment in order to subtly, and intellectually, jest with Callicles for no other reason than to let Callicles know that he understands exactly what has transcribed. “Oh, Callicles! What a rascal you are,” Socrates exclaims, pausing the discussion for the sake of drawing attention to what Callicles has done. (499c). For both Socrates and Callicles know and understand the sudden change of Callicles’ position to be an admittance of defeat on Callicles’ part – Callicles understood that he was about to be proven wrong, so switched his claim, and Socrates knew that he was about to prove Callicles wrong, so retaliates Callicles’ switch by throwing jabs. “You treat me like a child,” Socrates accuses, which portrays Callicles as one who does not consider Socrates worthy enough to be taken seriously (499c). “At one time you say that things are one way and at another that the same things are another way, and so you deceive me,” Socrates continues on, further emphasizing that Callicles has been treating the discussion thus far as undeserving of his sincerity and therefore, undeserving of his honesty (499c). Then, as one last jab, Socrates forges on to say that he has been “deceived intentionally” by Callicles (499c).

Yet, Socrates is fully aware of the fact that Callicles did not begin this conversation with the intention of purposefully deceiving him – in fact, Callicles was completely sincere in his previously stated belief that “pleasant and good are the same,” and entered the discussion, in part, to convince Socrates that his view was the correct one (495d). However, in addition to Callicles’ wish to honestly convince Socrates of his way of thinking, Callicles has another reason in entering the debate. More than anything, this discussion can be considered as an intellectual match, and Callicles makes no effort in keeping his intent to claim victory a secret, with his quip, “tell me, Socrates, are we to take you as being in earnest now, or joking?” being proof of that (481c). This then presents the idea that honest persuasion and victory of an intellectual contest are the two main themes Socrates and Callicles are grappling with, in which each of the two men are aiming to outperform the other in both areas. It is in this instance that illustrates that Socrates is not being entirely straightforward in what he is saying and in what he is accusing Callicles of doing. Because Socrates is fully aware that Callicles began with the intention of presenting an honest case in order to persuade him, his remarks about being “deceived intentionally” and treated “like a child” are erroneous (499c). But, since this discussion is an intellectual contest of sorts, with each participant vying to win by proving the other wrong, Socrates wants to take full advantage of Callicles’ backpedaling – and so he does. Socrates drags out the moment, making Callicles squirm, for each jab made in jest that Socrates throws towards Callicles is synonymous with a victory point.

Then, after Socrates has had his bit of fun, he goes on to state that he has “no choice but to ‘make the best with that I have,’ as the ancient proverb puts it, and to accept what I’m given by you” (499c). At this moment in the dialogue, Socrates is responding to the challenge that Callicles has now put forth by changing his position – for a challenge has been silently issued. Although Callicles has admitted his defeat by changing his stance, he presents Socrates with the difficulty of proving him wrong, of making his point, while they appear to be in agreement on the matter. Nevertheless, despite this dilemma, Socrates is enjoying himself immensely during this moment, for none of the other intellectuals he talked with, including Gorgias and Polus, presented him with such an entertaining fight. Regardless of the fact that Callicles did indeed do a rascally thing by renouncing his earlier stance, Socrates takes it in stride, thinking, perhaps, that his victory over a challenging and worthwhile opponent will be that much sweeter.

Overall, while Socrates may have used the word rascal in jest as a way to make fun of and call out Callicles, he is being entirely sincere with his usage of the word. To put it simply, it is the culmination of everything aforementioned: Socrates and Callicles beginning their discussion under the guise of possessing opposite views, that Socrates’ immediate victory was snatched away, that Callicles switched positions, and Callicles’ posture as a challenge. This explains why Socrates had legitimate reasoning in calling Callicles a rascal. Everything is an element that backs Socrates’ position, even though most of these reasons are not explicitly expressed in the sentence itself. Yet, as the discussion concludes, it is with the subtle nuance of the different characters that Plato chooses to incorporate in contradicting Socrates that truly exhibits the mastery of the Gorgias in presenting the different perspectives on what is good, what is pleasant, and what is best for achieving happiness. For, truly, what is good is not what is pleasant, and what is good is what should be pursued in one’s journey to achieve happiness.


Works Cited

Plato. Gorgias. Translated by Donald J. Zeyl, Hackett Pub. Co., 1987.