Who is Callicles?

Callicles is a character in Plato's Gorgias. Callicles disagrees with Socrates (Plato’s teacher and the chief character of most of his dialogues) about nearly everything. He mocks philosophy, suggesting that it is an endeavor fit for children. He writes off justice as a fiction constructed by the masses of weaklings who are afraid of the rule of the strong few. He equates self-control with stupidity and insists that the happy life is one of indulging one's desires. In short, Callicles rejects everything Socrates claims is good and true.

This blog is devoted to the conviction that Callicles is mistaken: that philosophy is worth doing, that the human mind is made for more than cleverness, that there are truth, goodness, and beauty in the world and we are made to know, love, and enjoy them. These days, most people (including, I worry, many professors of philosophy) seem to think that philosophy begins in a classroom. The ancients knew that philosophy begins with wonder—a captivation with the puzzles with which the human experience of the world is riddled. This spirit of wonder has perhaps nowhere been better expressed than in Josef Pieper's "The Philosophical Act":

Wonder signifies that the world is profounder, more all-embracing and mysterious than the logic of everyday reason had taught us to believe. The innermost meaning of wonder is fulfilled in a deepened sense of mystery. It does not end in doubt, but is the awakening of the knowledge that being, qua being, is mysterious and inconceivable, and that it is a mystery in the full sense of the word: neither a dead end, nor a contradiction, nor even something impenetrable and dark; mystery means that a reality cannot be comprehended because its light is ever-flowing, unfathomable, and inexhaustible. And that is what the wonderer really experiences. (Leisure: The Basis of Culture, 115)

The truth is that Callicles is, in one way, quite correct: one must indeed be like a child to do philosophy, for maintaining the kind of wonder Pieper describes here requires viewing the world as a child does. Children are not skeptics. They have a remarkable ability to maintain the dual awareness that Pieper describes: that the world is both knowable and worth knowing and yet cannot ever be fully grasped. So perhaps Callicles is right: philosophers are, in a sense, quite like children.

This does not mean the philosopher does not ask difficult questions of himself. The philosopher should be eager to expose and avoid errors, but as Plato warns, we should be slow to attribute our failings to philosophy, and quick to attribute them to ourselves:

We should not allow our minds the conviction that argumentation has nothing sound about it; much rather we should believe that it is we who are not yet sound and that we must take courage and be eager to attain soundness. (Phaedo, 90e)

That indeed should be our goal: to attain soundness. This will sometimes require us to abandon common or long-held beliefs. More importantly, however, it will require us to abandon the cynicism of supposed maturity and learn to seek as a child does: with the hope of finding, or perhaps with the hope of being found.