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Callicles and Thrasymachus

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Callicles and Thrasymachus are the two great exemplars in Plato -- in all of ancient philosophy -- of contemptuous challenge to conventional morality. In the Gorgias and Book I of the Republic respectively, they denounce the virtue of justice, dikaiosunк, as an artificial brake on self-interest, a sham to be seen through by the wise. Together, Thrasymachus and Callicles have fallen into the folk mythology of moral philosophy as 'the immoralist' (or 'amoralist'). This is probably not quite the right word, but it is useful to have a label for their common challenge -- more generally, for the figure who demands a reason to abide by moral constraints, and denies that this demand can be met.[1] Because of this shared agenda, and because Socrates' refutation of Callicles can be read as a sketchy, perhaps deliberately unsatisfying rehearsal for the Republic, it is tempting to assume that the two figures represent a single philosophical position. But in fact, Callicles and Thrasymachus are by no means interchangeable; and the differences between them provide an important case study both for Plato's methods and for the philosophical options open to the 'immoralist'. This article discusses these two figures strictly as characters in Plato's fiction, with occasional reference to a third Platonic position, the speech of Glaucon in Republic Book II, and to the sophist Antiphon as a real-life counterpart (and perhaps the historical original) of all three. Thrasymachus was a real person, a famous rhetorician of whose views we know little (though see White 1995 for a brave reconstruction); of Callicles we know nothing, and he may even be Plato's invention. The discussion focuses on the two positions in their own right, and their significance for Plato; Socrates' arguments against them are discussed only insofar as they clarify what Callicles and Thrasymachus themselves have to say.

1. Justice



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