Nietzsche finds a friend and predecessor in Callicles, an interlocutor in the Gorgias Socratic dialogue. If any figures in Plato’s works deserve the bushy mustache, its him. In his wide-ranging duel with Socrates, they touch upon many themes which Nietzsche would later make central to his philosophy. Focusing on the early parts of the debate, we’ll see how Socrates, Callicles, and Nietzsche debate seriousness and play in philosophy, the herd, and the role of self-control for the powerful.
Callicles enters the debate in the most Nietzschean fashion there is: “is Socrates joking?” (Gorgias, 481b6). Much can be said about whether Socrates is earnest or joking, in this dialogue or any. We all know that Socrates knew nothing and died diseased, but he took his self-given task very seriously. As evinced by Callicles and Polus, however, this separates him from the other Athenians; the others, their power assured and confident, do not take his dialectic seriously. As Callicles says, “this is in fact the clever trick you’ve thought of, with which you work mischief…” (483a2-3). The spirit of gravity and seriousness in philosophy is anticipated by Socrates, prankster though he is. Though Plato cemented and reified this spirit and slew playfulness and irony as best he could, the motive of this attitude is in place. Callicles correctly positions philosophy as a childish sport and game; at this we should not despair. Nothing could delight Nietzsche more as a philosopher. But Socrates replaces the innocence of playful philosophy with self-defense – he gives it the form of the dialectic.
Wherever authority still forms part of good bearing, where one does not give reasons but commands, the dialectician is a kind of buffoon: one laughs at him, one does not take him seriously. Socrates was the buffoon who got himself taken seriously: what really happened there? One chooses dialectic only when one has no other means…It can only be self-defense for those who no longer have other weapons. One must have to enforce one’s right: until one reaches that point, one makes no use of it.
Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols (in The Portable Nietzsche, ed. Kaufmann), “The Problem of Socrates,” paragraphs 5-6.
Callicles gets the closest to finding what Socrates the plebeian really is; he does not simply get muddled or angry with him as the other Athenians do, but recognizes him as the serious and defensive buffoon. He sees his dialectic as a “trick” and his work as “mischief” – but not, as in the playful tricks and mischief of child philosophy, but in earnest.
The discussion between Socrates and Callicles soon alights on the herd. Callicles asserts that there is a great difference between the laws of man and nature,
I believe that these men do these things in accordance with the nature of what’s just—yes, by Zeus, in accordance with the law of nature, and presumably not with the one we institute.
Plato, Gorgias, 483e1-3
Socrates makes him stumble however, because don’t the “inferior,” the herd as Nietzsche would have them, often dictate the laws and emerge more powerful than the superior? Socrates does no less than envisage the coming history of Christianity and democracy in their most mediocre stages. Socrates thus equates the laws of the herd with nature; appalled, Callicles dismisses such an idea (489c). However, after being goaded into a certain construal of nature and law by Socrates, he can do little more to explain the triumph of the herd, a veritable law of nature since the rise of slave morality. Indeed, even the “superior” become inferior through these laws of the “rubbish heap of slaves and motley men,” (489c3-4); weak rulers “justify themselves by maxims from the current opinions of the herd…” (Beyond Good and Evil, paragraph 199). Nietzsche sees that slaves making laws is precisely natural – what else are they to do? The relationship of law and rule (or absence, in the command-relation) is an important one for the realms of master and slave-morality, but Socrates and Callicles soon come against the character of the overman – that of self-rule.
After spiraling through definitions of what makes one superior, Socrates takes the first step.
SOCRATES: Ruling or being ruled?
CALLICLES: What do you mean?
SOCRATES: I mean each individual ruling himself. Or is there no need at all for him to rule himself, but only to rule others?
CALLICLES: What do you mean, rule himself?
SOCRATES: Nothing very subtle. Just what the many mean: being self-controlled and master of oneself, ruling the pleasures and appetites within oneself.
CALLICLES: How delightful you are! By the self-controlled you mean the stupid ones!
Plato, Gorgias, 491d3-e3
This exchange is key. Socrates points out what, for Nietzsche, makes the overman – self-control. However, he describes this control as “ruling the pleasures and appetites.” Callicles, in the opposite direction, sees self-control as being ruled, indirectly, by others. But, for Callicles, self-affirmation is still in terms of appetites. Appetites are not instincts. The instincts, as Nietzsche later recognized, towards creation and affirmation and will to power, often work in the opposite direction of the appetites (which are towards pleasure, wealth, food and drink, etc). Callicles does not fall for the ascetic doctrine Socrates implies, but stumbles at the value-creating doctrine. When Socrates inquires whether living pleasantly (“as much as possible flowing in”) also necessitates flowing out (we may read: suffering, pain, work), Callicles accepts as a matter of course – this fact is of no importance for him. He does not stress the differential flowing in and out, the “war in him.” As Nietzsche saw in this period of Greece, “no one was any longer master over himself, the instincts turned against each other;” Socrates became renowned because he presented an apparent “cure” to the problem of self-mastery: knowledge, morality, asceticism (TOTL, “The Problem of Socrates” paragraph 9). Callicles’ cure, the master-morality of appetite and command, was no longer a cure either. Nietzsche identifies the two as “the happiness of repose, of undisturbedness, of repletion, of final unity…” (BGE, para200). Callicles describes this too:
The man who has ﬁlled himself up has no pleasure anymore, and when he’s been ﬁlled up and experiences neither joy nor pain, that’s living like a stone, as I was saying just now. Rather, living pleasantly consists in this: having as much as possible ﬂow in.
Plato, Gorgias, 494a6-b1
But what is “having as much [pleasure] as possible flow in” consist in, but striving towards the stone? Callicles is on the track of affirmation but does not adequately account for the flowing out, the “self-control and self-deception” of the overman (BGE, para200). Self-control is higher and more noble than mere asceticism.
Socrates and Callicles are striving towards two deaths here. The more macabre of the two, who likens happiness to death, tombs and corpses at the first opportunity (493a-d), Socrates seeks the undisturbedness of depletion; Callicles, the undisturbedness of repletion, or the glutton. Affirmation and the overman is the complement, but distinct from both. It is life, neither of the deaths, though they all “spring from the same causes” – the “age of dissolution” and war (BGE, para200). Though Callicles is likely one of the most admirable figures to grace the dialogues for a Nietzschean, he is still only a herald of the philosophy of the overman.