In the Gorgias, does Plato make a contradiction about perfect people?


1.) The temperate man does what is just and holy.
2.) The temperate man, since he does just and holy things, is necessarily just and holy.
3.) The temperate man is completely a good man.

This argument is stated by Socrates from 507a-c in the Gorgias. Below is the direct text from the Gorgias translated by R. E. Allen.

“Then I say that, if the temperate soul is good, then the soul affected by the opposite of temperance is evil, and that soul is both foolish and intemperate. Of course. Moreover he who is temperate does what is fitting concerning both gods and men, for not to do what is fitting would not be temperate. Necessarily so. Furthermore in doing what is fitting concerning men he does what is just, and concerning gods, what is holy; and he who does just and holy things necessarily is just and holy? True. Furthermore, he is necessarily courageous, for it is surely not the part of a temperate man either to pursue or flee when he should not; rather, it is his part to pursue and flee what he ought, whether things or people, pleasure or pains, and with stout heart to stand fast where he ought. So it is quite necessary, Callicles, that the temperate man, because he is also, as we’ve explained, just and courageous and holy, should be completely a good man; and the good man does what he does well and nobly, and by doing and faring well is blessed and happy, while the bad man does and fares ill and is wretched. This man, who is opposite to the temperate man, is the intemperate man whom you praised.
Now, I hold these things so and I sa that they are true. But if true, then he who wishes to be happy must, it seems, pursue and practice temperance…”

After much reading, it is hard to to discern what Plato truly means. I find the issue to lie within the controversial second premise and hereby try to deduce what is meant by Plato.

1.There is the possibility of perfect men in the material world. Plato considers all actions of men to be aimed at the Good. Yet many of the actions of men instead pursue the Apparent Good. This is due to their ignorance of what the Good is (Plato, Gorgias [R. E. Allen] 468a-b p.252-253). So this statement sounds as if Plato does believe that one day man could completely overcome his ignorance and therefore become perfect. Yet if this were the case, wouldn’t that mean mean that whoever accomplishes this feat, would have fully grasped the Good, and if they have fully grasped the Good, then how could the Good transcend humankind and still be the thing which “perfect people” desire for?

2.Man is only temperate as long as he only does what is just and holy. This meaning could make more sense yet it is also questionable. It could make sense in the idea that maybe, in Plato’s mind, we should never actually call a person just or temperate unless they always act in accordance with justice and temperance. So then, we should only describe people with comments like, “He acts like a just man”, or, “She has a soul as one who is temperate”, and never actually describe a man or woman as temperate or just. Conversely, Socrates mentions a contradictory statement a few lines down. “he who wishes to be happy must, it seems, pursue and practice temperance…” (Plato, Gorgias [R. E. Allen] 507d p. 296). Wouldn’t that mean that the men and women who pursue and practice temperance would do just and holy things, and if they do just and holy things, they would then necessarily be just and holy? If the answer to this question is no, then does anyone actually practice temperance?

So my question is: Is Plato actually making a claim for perfect people and contradicting himself or am I missing something?

Thank you community so much for any help!

Lin Wang

Posted 2016-10-12T17:54:27.677

Reputation: 131

The Good is a Form, like Beauty... They exists and are real, more "real" than their "common life" counterpart. If so, a wise man must search for the Good and doing this he will become a good man.

– Mauro ALLEGRANZA – 2016-10-12T18:37:36.867

Hello @mauroallegranza. I'm not sure what you mean by "common life". I'm unfamiliar with this term used in discussing Plato. And I think your point makes the exact problem that Socrates' does. If a wise man becomes a good man, in Plato's mind, then he is necessarily good. This means he never does anything unwise or unjust. See my post again for why this causes problems. – Lin Wang – 2016-10-12T18:51:26.853

Hi. Your argument is a bit unclear to me. Could you summarize: (a) what evidence you find that Plato considered even the possibility of perfect people? (b) what is the contradiction? – Ram Tobolski – 2016-10-12T21:52:05.057

It is well-known that Plato's Socrates was a moral intellectualist, "one will do what is right or best just as soon as one truly understands what is right or best", and believed that "true understanding" is beyond humans ("I know that I know nothing"), so there is no contradiction. The "temperate man, since he does just and holy things, is necessarily just and holy" sounds like a question-begging definition, but if that's how Socrates wants it... Similarly, "He who wishes to be happy must, it seems, pursue and practice temperance…" may be controversial but why is it contradictory? – Conifold – 2016-10-12T23:48:03.650

@RamTobolski Conifold Hello to you both. My point is derived from Socrates stating that the man who does just and holy things is necessarily just and holy. If he is necessarily just and holy, doesn't that mean he is unable to act unjustly or improve? One of the contradictions I highlight seems like it is repeated by Conifold, and please forgive me if I understand you wrongly. The contradiction is this: If there are necessarily just and holy people, will that not mean they have grasped the Good, and if they grasped the Good, how could that be what they still desire for? They are satisfied. – Lin Wang – 2016-10-13T13:12:38.440

And if true understanding is beyond humans, which I was not aware that Plato claimed, then how could human kind become necessarily just and holy? This looks like a contradictory to moral intellectualism. Second contradiction: If Socrates says the best life is to pursue and practice temperance, then if we are doing temperate things, we are necessarily temperate. Is this true for any person? Maybe I'm straying off logical argument and into opinion. Please correct me then. – Lin Wang – 2016-10-13T13:15:46.340

Something technical: in SE you cannot notify two members in one comment. So there was no notification for @conifold in your last comment. – Ram Tobolski – 2016-10-13T14:31:42.690

The "completely good man" described is an ideal of moral intellectualism: if people could only see what is Good for them they'd act just and holy, well and nobly, etc. But humans are constitutionally incapable of attaining this ideal, for in the chariot of human soul "one of the horses is noble and of noble breed, but the other quite the opposite". Humans can only strive for it, strive to pursue and practice temperance. "Does just and holy" means "always does just and holy", and that is not for this world, but it is a noble pursuit, and some come close. – Conifold – 2016-10-13T21:23:43.957

@Conifold I wold like to see what you see yet I'm not seeing from your comment. Your last point, seems to me, only to be reinforcing what I pointed out as the first contradiction. Socrates does not clarify the "completely good man" as an ideal, he simply states that the man who does just and holy things is. Where does Plato make clear that humans can only strive for it? Also, your phrase, "'Does just and holy' means "always does just and holy'", seems like a fragment. 1/2 – Lin Wang – 2016-10-19T19:55:32.937

I can't tell if in that sentence that you are suggesting that Plato is saying yes, if one who does just and holy things always just and holy things, or something else. – Lin Wang – 2016-10-19T19:57:24.070

Keep in mind that "Plato's" texts went through multiple emendations and rewritings already in antiquity, and then multiple translations including the last one into English. With charity, "complete goodness" is unachievable when the soul is driven by reason and passions, and lack of clarification does not amount to a contradiction. – Conifold – 2016-10-26T00:47:48.523



What is at issue, it seems to me, is the scope of the qualifier "necessarily" in Socrates's sentences. In other words, what does the qualifier "necessarily" apply to?

Socrates is saying things like:

He who does just and holy things necessarily is just and holy

And the OP interprets this as if "necessarily" applies to "is just and holy".

he who does just and holy things [necessarily (is just and holy)]

As if there were, on the one hand, people who are (merely) just and holy, and, on the other hand, people who are necessarily just and holy! These would be the perfect people, angels-like, unable to err...

Socrates's actual intention seems to me, however, more mundane. I think that he uses the term "necessarily" merely to qualify an implicit, trivial implication. As if it was written

If someone does just and holy things, (then, necessarily) he is just and holy

Under this mundane interpretation, the term "necessarily" qualifies the implicit implication ("if...then"), not the attribution of properties ("is just and holy"). And Socrates refers always only to (ordinary) people, who are contingently just and holy, not to (magical) people who are necessarily just and holy...

The mundane interpretation will sit well with what we already know about Plato, that he is used to emphasize the contrast between the perfect immaterial Forms and the imperfect material particulars. Just as no drawn circle is ever a perfect, mathematical circle, only an approximation, so no living person is expected to be perfect - ever - in Plato's view.

Ram Tobolski

Posted 2016-10-12T17:54:27.677

Reputation: 6 968

I really appreciate you taking the time to try to provide some clarity to my question. However, I actually would totally agree with your assertion's explanation, but not in a way that answers the question.

As you said for a more mundane interpretation, "If someone doe just and holy things, (then, necessarily) he is just and holy." Compare this with Socrates saying, "pursue and practice temperance". I do understand that Socrates always only refers to ordinary people, but then why should we say Socrates or anyone else could "practice" temperance if we are actually NOT practicing temperance? – Lin Wang – 2016-10-19T20:04:30.217

Not sure if the @RamTobolski is needed. If I practice a temperate action toward my neighbor, that would be doing something perfect, so I would necessarily be a completely good man. Plato's text should be interpreted "practicing temperance" if you are correct. If should be "try to practice temperance though we shall fail."

Again, I thank you for your time or anyone else who wishes to comment. I only seek to learn more and to truly wrestle with these texts. – Lin Wang – 2016-10-19T20:07:45.350

@Luke_oX The RamTobolski is not necessary when you comment on my answer. I like your questioning. Maybe I should add that when I mentioned "ordinary" people, I did not mean that Socrates was talking about any passing Athenian in the market place. He was talking about unusually wise and virtuous people. Still, they were humanly, not necessarily, wise and virtuous. – Ram Tobolski – 2016-10-19T20:42:09.467