In his Gorgias, Plato and Callicles argue over the intrinsic value of temperance and whether or not it is conducive to happiness. Callicles believes that to exert control over oneself is a deterrent to happiness and the thesis is that Plato believes happiness is not possible without some restraint. In this essay I will argue that Socrates is correct that self-discipline is essential for true happiness.
Callicles and Plato are speaking of leaders of men and their manner of self-control. If one has no control over oneself, how then can one exert control over another or, even a group of people? The idea seems frivolous. Callicles has disdain for self-control, but a person without boundaries is simply a bull in a china shop. Such a person has no diplomacy or even enough tact to deal with others in a mutually beneficial way. All their efforts show no concern for the sensitivities of the other; they say what they want when they want with no thought of consequences; this approach makes a poor statesman. A leader that fails at leading his constituents cannot be happy with his endeavors.
Callicles opposes Plato by suggesting that happiness is the wild abandon of perpetual pursuit of pleasure, much like hedonism. Plato offers the leaky jar comparison to combat this naïve idea; he suggests that the leaky jar can never be filled, or fulfilled. It always needs more in order to be full. The same comparison can be made to the man with no self-discipline. He will always be seeking more and more fulfillment and can never be truly happy and content within himself. For as he acquires power, he is always leaking out power and satisfaction; he can never become whole unto himself. In historical content, most people who pursue their own desires hedonistically and without restraint have gone quite insane. They find themselves either drunk with power or horribly despondent over the empty hole they find at the core of their being. Also for people who seek power over others, or to rule, everything they do is not pleasant or fun and entertaining. Sometimes they must act in the interest of others rather than themselves.
This is where Plato’s groundwork of ethics first appears. It seems he is trying to lay out a framework for future generations to follow that determines ethical behavior. Callicles’ narrow view of the individual pursuit of happiness cannot come close to satisfying the altruistic values that Plato is trying to develop. Plato is thinking as a true statesman, a politician with his constituents’ well-being as a priority. Callicles is speaking of a narrower, more selfish endeavor to bring happiness to oneself. That person who is successful in the mission of self-satisfaction ends up being the most powerful according to Callicles. Plato defeats that assertion by pointing out that pleasurable pursuit is not always pleasurable. He presents the idea of being hungry or thirsty and satisfying one’s sustenance. Plato’s idea is that what is amenable and good for the general public does not always have to feel good.
The elder logician overcomes his younger opponent’s arguments through sheer logic and looking at the bigger picture. He refutes Callicles at every turn with vivid imagery and the metaphors of the leaky jar and hunger/thirst versus nourishment. He widens his territory past the selfish individual that Callicles speaks of, and overrides his hedonism with democratic concern for others and the world at large.