A Brief Discussion of the Tyrant

In Gorgias 466d-468e, Socrates argues that though unjust tyrants and orators can use their political influence to do whatever they wish, they do not actually have much power.  The argument is dependent upon Socrates’s teleological theory of ethics and his assertion that one must do the right thing under any circumstance.

P1. To have power is to be able to achieve what is good for you.

P2.  To hold their high social standing, unjust tyrants and orators must frequently engage in immoral actions.

P3. Each action is done not to achieve a specific purpose but to fulfill a larger goal.

P4.  Tyrants and orators do these actions because they think such deeds are good for them.

P5.  These actions damage their soul.

P6.  To damage your soul is the worst thing you can do to yourself.

P7.  These rulers are not achieving what is good for them.

Conclusion. Unjust tyrants and orators do not have much power.

Here are two potential objections which undermine the thesis:

O1. There is no such thing as a soul and no such thing as soul-damage.  So, people should do whatever will give them the most pleasure – in this case, maintaining high social standing.  (This is a strong argument especially for atheists who do not believe in punishments for wrongdoing in the afterlife.  Callicles uses it himself.)

O2.  Power is not the capacity to achieve a certain goal; it is the capacity to use certain means.  Because the tyrants and orators can use anyone in the city for their purposes, they are powerful, certainly more powerful than a morally just farmer would be.

I agree with Socrates that a demagogue is not as powerful as he seems, but I have different reasoning.  I think that Objection 2 is sound: power is neither a “good” nor a “bad” quality; it is neutral and measures a person’s capacity to affect others.  Rather, I believe that a demagogue is secretly weak because he is forced to commit these immoral actions again and again to hold his position.  This means that he does not have the same freedom of action as a legitimate ruler.  Furthermore, these evil acts, regardless of their effect on the tyrant’s soul, make enemies of the victim’s family and friends.  Eventually, a seething populace will repay these mounting debts in full.

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