Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Biology of Physical & Moral Disgust in Plato's Gorgias

In Plato’s Gorgias, which I am currently lecturing on, there is a theme that is astonishingly relevant to Biopolitical thought.  The dialogue presents a rumble between Socrates and his students and the orator Gorgias and his.  Naturally, Socrates does most of the talking.  The general thematic question is “What is rhetoric?”  This quickly transforms into the question of whether rhetoric is an art (something that can achieve some human good) or, as Socrates argues, a species of flattery that gratifies its practitioners and audience while doing them more harm than good. 
Socrates locks horns first with Gorgias himself, then with Gorgias’ student Polus, and finally with Gorgias’ patron in Athens, Calicles.  I focus here on the middle of the three encounters.  Polus thinks that rhetoric is something valuable because it allows one to kill with impunity.  If you can command juries and assemblies by the power of your speech, then everyone is at your mercy. 
Socrates argues that the power to kill without regard to justice, something that Polus admires in tyrants, is a curse rather than a blessing.  A practice such as rhetoric is a good thing only if it is instrumental to achieving some good purpose.  This it cannot do. 
To prove this, Socrates gets Polus to admit that the power to kill with impunity but without justice is shameful even if, as Polus insists, it is a very good thing to have.  The Greek word for shameful (aischros) originally meant simply ugly.  Socrates points out that something is ugly for one of two reasons: either it is unpleasant or it is harmful. 
This seems correct.  Some things are ugly because they are directly unpleasant, as in the example of spoiled meat.  Other things are ugly because they inspire some sense of harmful consequences, as in the example of spiders.  In both cases ugliness seems to be an instinctive warning of something harmful, though this dichotomy leaves open the possibility that something might be immediately ugly while in fact being good.  A noxious medical procedure might be a good example. 
Polus thinks that the power to kill someone you hate and/or someone who opposes you is clearly not unpleasant.  He relishes such a power, while admitting that it is shameful.  By simple logic, then, that power must be ultimately harmful to the one who exercises it.  This effectively shuts Polus down. 
I think that Socrates’ argument is backed up by recent neuroscience.  It turns out that the part of the brain that is activated by revulsion at the smell of rotten meat is the same part of the brain that is activated by revulsion at immoral behavior.  This suggests (powerfully I would add) that an aversion to morally disgusting behavior was selected for using the same mental schema as the aversion to what is physically disgusting. 
Socrates’ victory over Polus was not mere rhetorical flourish, let alone an intellectual con job.  It was based on a genuine insight into the human soul.  Human beings are indeed the moral animal as much as and in so far as we are the political animal. 


  1. I love the line that Rhetoric is "a species of flattery that gratifies its practitioners and audience while doing them more harm than good."

    While I agree that Socrates is right in taking down Polus for his advocacy of killing with impunity, I think (and always have) that Plato must have either been offended by orators or just dispised them because of the way he takes them to task. Oration can do good - in fact, they can do great things for our society.

    Unfortunately, some orators are like Polus - using the power of their words only to their own advantage.

    What is interesting is you point about people being turned away from something "morally disgusting behavior." Are people really turned off by this or they SAY they are and yet are enthralled by it? People were supposidly offended by Bill Clinton's affair with Lewinsky, but that didn't stop people from wanting to hear more and more about it. Are we really turned off by it or are our interests peaked by it? Obviously the more repulsive the act the more we are disgusted by it, but some acts just find more interest - why is that?

    Thanks for the post - love reading Gorgias - even if I'm not in a class to discuss it!

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  3. Travis: thanks very much for the comment. Plato had good reason for despising the orators and sophists of Athens: he thinks that they killed Socrates. I think he was right.

    However, Plato's Socrates was not criticizing public speakers as such; he was distinguishing between those who were skilled in persuasion without scruple and the art that aimed at the just and the good.

    Yes, we can be fascinated by moral corruption. That is a bit like the urge to look at a dead body. However, it is precisely because it disgusts us that it becomes interesting. We know that spoiled meat is bad and we know that Clinton was sleazy.