To be such an autocrat is the summit of human happiness; even if, like Archelaus of Macedonia, the aspirant only reaches the position by a series of shocking crimes, he is the most en viable of mankind, because he is above law and can do "whatever he likes." Socrates denies this. The autocrat always does "as he pleases," and for that reason never does "what he wishes"; like all mankind, he wishes for true happiness or good, but no act which is immoral ("unjust") ever leads to happiness. To suffer a wrong is an evil, but to inflict one is much worse. And if a man has committed a wrong, it is much worse for him to go unpunished than to be cured of his moral malady by the sharp but wholesome medicine of punishment. If "rhetoric" is of real service to men, it should be most of all serviceable to an offender. If he knew his own interest, he would employ all his powers of persuasion to move the authorities to inflict the penalties for which the state of his soul calls. Polus is unable to meet this reasoning, because he had at least conceded to current morality that it is more disgraceful, though not more evil to inflict wrong than to suffer it.
This is denied by Callicles of Acharnae, an otherwise unknown politician, who proceeds recklessly to develop the doctrine of the "will to power." It may be a convention of the herd that un scrupulous aggression is discreditable and wrong, but "nature's convention" (the vO,uos Tijs Oimrecos, a phrase which appears here for the first time in literature) is that the strong are justified in using their strength as they please, while the weak "go to the wall." Callicles and Socrates thus appear as champions of two contrasted moralities of private and public life. Callicles stands for self-assertion in ethics and aggressive "Imperialism" in politics. Socrates opposes both. In his judgment the creators of the imperialistic Athenian democracy were no true statesmen, because they were content to give Athens a navy and a commerce without creating a morally sound national character. They may have been capable "domestic servants" of the democracy for whose tastes they catered; they were not its physicians. The one true statesman of the past was the "just" Aristeides; in the present, Socrates himself is the one man who shows a statesman like mind, though it is perfectly true that he might at any moment have to pay with his life for refusing to call that good which pleases the public fancy. It is not true, as Callicles supposes it to be, that the secret of happiness is to have strong and vehement passions and be able to gratify them to the full. That would be a condition like that of the fabled sinners who are punished in Hades by being set to spend eternity in filling leaking pitchers. The truly happy life is that of "measure" in which the gratifica tion of desire is strictly regulated by regard for justice and sophrosyne. If we may believe the Orphic doctrine of judgment to come, the votary of "passion" and injustice has a heavy reckoning to await hereafter.
Can virtue be taught or learned (as must be the case, if the professional sophists can really do what they profess) ? That depends on what virtue is. We are on the way to define it as "ability to secure good things by honest means," when we reflect that honesty itself is a "good thing," and the definition conse quently is circular. This reminds us of the current dilemma that all such inquiries are futile because it is idle to inquire into what you already know, useless to inquire into what you do not know (since you could not recognize the unknown, even if you found it). This difficulty would vanish if it were true that the soul is immortal and has long ago learned all truth, so that it needs now only to be "reminded" by sense-experiences of truths it once knew and has forgotten. This (Orphic) doctrine seems to be supported by the experience that a lad who has never studied geometry can be brought to recognize mathematical truths by merely showing him a diagram and asking him appropriate ques tions about it. He produces the right answer "out of himself." (The point thus is the presence of an a priori element in mathe matical truth.) In any case, we may say thati. if "virtue" is knowledge, it can be taught ; if it is not knowledge, it cannot. But is it knowledge? If it is, one would suppose that there must be professional teachers of it. But Anytus assures us vehemently that the sophists, who claim to be such professionals, are mischievous impostors, and we can be sure that the ordinary decent citizen cannot "teach virtue," as Anytus maintains, since the "best men" of the democracy, Themistocles and the rest, have been unable to teach it to their own sons. Perhaps, then, we must say that the "best men" of Athens have no genuine knowledge of good ; their successes have been due not to knowledge, but to mere "correct opinions." Still, for practical purposes a correct opinion will serve as well as knowledge. The trouble is that you cannot depend on its permanency unless you fasten it down by thinking out the reason why of it (airtas Xcryccry43). Then it becomes knowledge. If a man should arise who could actually teach statesmanship to others, he would be one who really knew what good is; the virtue of such a scientific statesman would be to that of other men as substance is to shadow.