There is a trend in today’s Plato scholarship that seems to want to find ways to make Socrates, the great opponent of sophistry, appear almost as sophistical and logically or existentially misleading as many of his opponents. One place this comes up is in Socrates’ argument in the Gorgias that doing injustice is worse than suffering it (469b), which occurs after the discussion of who has the greatest power in the city. Polus assumes that most people, even Socrates, would welcome having the power to do whatever they liked in the city, to the point of seizing others’ possessions, exiling them, or even killing them (468e).
Socrates says that these things must be judged by whether they are just or unjust, and then asserts that he who does injustice is worse off than he who suffers injustice (469a-c). Later, he expands this by saying that the one who does injustice and does not pay the just penalty for his deeds will be even more wretched than before (472e).
This argument seems counter-intuitive at first. Is it really true that the one who suffers being murdered is in a better condition of soul than the one who commits the murder? Or to take a lesser example, is it really true that the one who suffers being tortured is in a better condition of soul than the one who does the torturing? And, if someone commits these evils and gets away with them, is it really true that he is less happy than he would be if he had been caught? No wonder Polus says, “You are attempting to say strange things indeed, Socrates” (473a), and laughs because “no one among human beings would assert” such things as Socrates does (473e).
These questions highlight the issue of the ethics of wielding power. Socrates asks Polus what he would think if he, Socrates, suddenly announced that he now had the power to do any violence to anyone he liked (469d-e). Polus balks at this scenario, but he almost immediately gives the examples of the tyrant Archelaus and the Great King to try to prove that, at any rate, unjust men can be quite happy (470d-471d).
The conversation proceeds, and Socrates obtains Polus’ agreement to the premise that doing injustice is “more shameful” than suffering it (474c). But in this agreement, the important fact emerges that Polus does not consider “shameful” to be “worse,” because “worse” is about pain and badness (475a). Apparently, “shameful” is less objectionable than “worse,” since the former involves no (physical) pain.
Nevertheless, Socrates gets Polus to agree that if one “shameful” thing surpasses another, it must do so in either pain or badness. Since those who suffer injustice feel more pain than those who do it to them, doing injustice does not exceed suffering injustice in pain. This leaves only exceeding in badness, so doing injustice must exceed suffering injustice in badness. But if doing injustice exceeds in badness suffering injustice, doing injustice must be worse than suffering it (475c-d). Lastly, if this is the case, it would seem to follow that no one would willingly prefer to do injustice, since it is worse than suffering injustice (475e).
Here an objection arises. The examples of the tyrant Archelaus and the Great King demonstrate that Socrates’ idea that no one would prefer doing injustice to suffering it since the former is more painful needs some qualification. These are real existing human beings, and they do, indeed, prefer to do what many (most?) other human beings consider to be unjust. What, then, does Socrates mean?
One possible way to answer the question is in light of the closing myth of the dialogue (523a-526d). There we read that human judges often inadvertently pervert justice because they are distracted by the external appearances of the body and the physical world and do not see souls for what they are. But, just as a body with long hair or scars will retain these after death, so too does the soul retain its characteristic “marks” when it is separated from the body at death. Consequently, to judges that are not distracted by appearances, but who see realities, the justice or injustice of a soul is plain:
…when they have arrived before the judge…[he] halts them and contemplates each one’s soul, not knowing whose it is; but often, laying hold of the great king or some other king or potentate, he perceives that there is nothing healthy in the soul, but it has been severely whipped and is filled with scars from false oaths and injustice, which each action of his stamped upon his soul, and all things are crooked from lying and boasting, and there is nothing straight on account of his having been reared without truth; and he sees the soul full of asymmetry and ugliness from arrogant power, luxury, wanton insolence, and incontinence of actions, and having seen it he sends it away dishonorably, straight to the prison, having come to which it is going to endure fitting sufferings. (524d-525a)
To tie this to Socrates’ argument that no one would prefer doing injustice because that is worse than suffering it, it would seem that such men as Archelaus and the Great King do not realize that they are worse off because they themselves are distracted by the appearances of their earthly lives and do not properly contemplate the state of their souls.
This view seems borne out by Socrates’ similar discourse in Theaetetus 176e-177a:
My friend, there are two patterns set up in reality. One is divine and supremely happy; the other has nothing of God in it, and is the pattern of the deepest unhappiness. The truth the evildoer does not see blinded by folly and utter lack of understanding, he fails to perceive that the effect of his unjust practices is to make him grow more and more like the one, and less and less like the other. For this he pays the penalty of living the life that corresponds to the pattern he is coming to resemble. And if we tell him that, unless he is delivered from this ‘ability’ of his, when he dies the place that is pure of all evil will not receive him; that he will forever go on living in this world a life after his own likeness – a bad man tied to bad company…
What should a man who commits injustice do, then? According to Socrates, he should “willingly go to that place where he will pay the just penalty as quickly as possible, to the judge as to the doctor, hurrying lest the disease of injustice, become chronic, should make his soul fester with sores underneath and be incurable” (480a-b).
It should be obvious that all of this depends on the notion that the soul is separable from the body and survives the death of the body. This topic is not addressed in the Gorgias, but is discussed at length elsewhere in the Platonic corpus. For instance, in Phaedo 103b-107b, the argument for the immortality of the soul is developed. Following this, in 107c-108c appears the argument that since the soul is immortal, the care of the soul should be our primary business.
From 113d-114c, we learn that all souls are judged after death according to the deeds they have done in the body, and that they are “purified by penalties” of any wrongs they did and “suitably rewarded” for the goods they did. Further, there are such things as “incurable” souls, souls which “because of the enormity of their crimes, having committed many great sacrileges or wicked and unlawful murders and other such wrongs – their fitting fate is to be hurled into Tartarus never to emerge from it.”
Souls which have “purified themselves sufficiently by philosophy live in the future altogether, without a body,” and if one wants to be one of these souls, one “must make every effort to share in virtue and wisdom in one’s life, for the reward is beautiful and the hope is great” (114c).
As noted, Socrates’ argument that doing injustice is worse than suffering it depends on the idea that doing injustice “marks” the soul, that the soul survives the death of the body, and that there are judges who exist after death who will see these “marks” and be able to punish the soul accordingly. In the Gorgias, Polus does not object to these views about the soul, so we may assume he agrees with them. Callicles also does not object, but since he clearly loses interest in the course of the dialogue (501c; 505c) and there is no response from him to Socrates’ final speech, we do not know what he thought.