‘Morality is the refuge of the weak’ is an assertion fraught with ambiguity; there are assumptions and implications inherent in the words used and, indeed, the phrase as a whole which render a conclusion on the truth of it difficult to ascertain. This essay will attempt to explore these ambiguities through reference to the ideas discussed in Plato’s dialogues The Republic and Gorgias. The means by which we are largely able to determine Plato’s philosophical ideas on the moral life, justice and egoism lie in the portrayal of Socrates and his political debates in these dialogues.

Unfortunately, this means that a clear and complete doctrine on justice is unavailable to us; I will instead contrast the arguments of the ‘immoralists’ – a label, I will argue, that is not entirely appropriate – with those put forward by Socrates. Firstly, I will investigate Callicles’ view on justice, as it appears to be most closely linked to the assertion in the title of this essay.

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Callicles appears to argue, in opposition to Plato, that morality is a social tool unfairly employed by the naturally weak; however, in fact Callicles is referring to conventional/traditional justice and argues for a radically different version of morality which grounds itself in the ethic of strength. Next, I will consider the myth of the Ring of Gyges and its suggestion that no man, strong or weak, has a natural propensity to justice and is directed by his pleonetic nature.

Finally, I will contrast these ideas with those of Plato, who holds that – contrary to Glaucon – the make-up of man’s soul reveals that justice is available and desirable to all of us, and that morality is not the refuge of the weak but instead the expression of the harmonious soul. The phrase ‘morality is the refuge of the weak’ immediately resonates with the position attributed to Callicles by Plato in Gorgias. As a Sophist, Callicles challenges Socrates’ objective theory of justice by proposing a - distinctly separate - perspective of relativism.

Unlike Plato, who demonstrated a belief in the absolute truth through his Theory of Forms, Callicles appears to subscribe – to a certain extent - to the Protagorean view that ‘man is the measure of all things. ’[1] Morality, for Callicles, cannot be transcendentally or absolutely determined; it is a social tool, fashioned and employed by certain men for their own gain. [2] Callicles looks to the animal kingdom and the laws of nature to support his claim that the naturally strong uphold the right to assert their power over the weak.

In a rather Hobbesian style, he suggests that the natural world is governed by the law of Force, without any restriction, and thus any man-made rule which intervenes in this process is unnatural. Like Hobbes, Callicles writes that social and moral norms are most often the results of contracts made by men attempting to improve their chances of survival and the condition of their daily lives.

However, he diverges from Hobbes in his contention that the metaphorical ‘writers’ of these contracts are weak men who (wrongly) ‘defraud the strong of what their strength would otherwise secure for them’. 3] ‘So by convention it is said to be unjust and shameful to seek to have more than the many; and it is the many who call this acting unjustly. But I think that nature reveals that it is just that the better man should have more than the worse, the more powerful more than the weaker’(Gorgias, 483c6-d2). Thus, Callicles suggests that all humans are motivated by overriding self-interest, but that this manifests itself in different ways depending on one’s social position. Therefore, morality genuinely seems to be the (perhaps necessary) refuge of the weak.

The normative nature of Callicles’ philosophy calls us to question what is meant by ‘morality’ and whether the moral arena is only occupied by ‘the weak’, a group that itself requires differentiation. The aforementioned excerpt from Gorgias reveals to us a necessary distinction: that an understanding of morality as ‘moral convention’ is, in fact, assumed. [4] Callicles not only justifies but encourages the strong man to embrace his egoism and become opportunist – though opportunism is only regarded as such according to ‘weak’ (or conventional) ethics.

When he refers to the morality of the weak, Callicles means an ethic of equality and fairness – an approach which entitles the poor to get a portion of the resources that the strong, according to Callicles, are wholly entitled to. Callicles has been labelled immoral as a result of the fact that he condemns an other-oriented approach to decision-making, focusing instead on individual needs, desires and strengths. Indeed, his position seems to be that of a rational egoist; by promoting the domination of the weak by the strong, he seems to be suggesting that we ought to consider the fulfilling of personal desires as central to our action.

Thus, Callicles is not straightforwardly immoral: he does not see what is morally desirable and purposefully reject it, but instead flips conventional morality on its head by adopting a different approach. Because the revision in ordinary moral views is so drastic, Callicles is often thought of as a moral skeptic, even though he accepts the justifiability of real virtue, which, for him, is genuine justice. [6] In The Republic, philosopher Glaucon also identifies justice as a matter of convention and, through his account of the Ring of Gyges, attempts to show that traditional justice is in conflict with our nature.

Glaucon reminds us of the Hesiodic idea of injustice, which holds that the unjust man is typically motivated by pleonexia: the desire not only to have more than what he has or is entitled to, but ultimately, all that there is for the taking. [7] For Glaucon, by nature we are all pleonectic, and thus, given the opportunity, we would all likely commit unjust actions if we could avoid subsequent punishment. Indeed, the Shepard in the myth discovers a ring which gives him the power of invisibility.

Given total freedom of action, he seduces the queen, kills the king with her help, and takes the throne for himself (The Republic, 359d-360c). Gyges is able to practice injustice without its usual disadvantage of punishment and, given his belief that injustice is of more benefit to people individually, Glaucon concludes that people would commit injustices if the usual sanctions were removed. Stressing the mere utility of apparently just action, Callicles says, “all those who practice [justice] do so unwillingly, as necessary but not good” (The Republic, 358c).

Though largely similar in content to Callicles’ philosophy, Glaucon’s challenge to morality seems more straightforwardly direct. Glaucon doesn’t focus on the complicated business of separating the weak and the strong, as Callicles and Thrasymachus do, but instead emphasizes the nature of every man, whatever his social position, as essentially self-interested and conventionally unjust. Unlike Callicles, Glaucon does not offer an alternative approach to morality, and instead demands from Socrates what he can’t find: a definition of justice as something that is good in itself.

He requires Plato, essentially, to outline a fundamental standard of justice that exists outside of man’s social contract, by implying the question: ‘Given the conventional character of justice and our own pleonectic nature, why should any one of us be just, in any context in which injustice would be profitable? ’[8] Plato responds to this question by proposing, through Socrates, that justice is a cardinal human virtue and, since virtue is knowledge, once we understand the nature of justice, we know that it is worth pursuing for its own sake, because it is in our self-interest.

Therefore, to know the good is to do it; no man willingly and wittingly chooses evil over justice. Plato makes the astonishing claim that genuine Justice is so great a good that the individual who embraces it, even in the midst of misfortune, is better off: 'Justice discounted by pain and dishonour is more advantageous than injustice supplemented by the rewards of justice'. [9] In order to understand what Plato means by this, it is necessary to consider Plato’s view of the soul, for Justice is a harmonious arrangement of the parts of the soul. 10] Justice to the soul, is seen as health to the body – by practising injustice, we harm the soul in the same way that being unhealthy damages our bodies. The soul is made up of three parts: the appetitive, spirited and the rational. The appetitive refers to the part with which the soul “lusts, hungers, thirsts and gets excited by other appetites” (439d). Lacking any rational consciousness in its desires, this part of the soul seeks gratification of the base and hedonistic variety that Callicles, for example, promotes.

The appetitive is restrained by the rational part of the soul, which permits one to differentiate between what is good and bad in terms of the interests of the soul as a whole. Finally, the third part is the spirited, which enforces the rational soul, ensuring that principles of reason are followed. It is the part of the soul that is courageous, strong-willed and pursues honour and victory.

Thus, Plato does not seem to deny the pleonectic nature of man – he recognises this part of our make-up in the appetitive – but holds that the different and often conflicting wills inherent in our souls need not mean that we are all ultimately unjust beings. Indeed, pursuing a just life is a matter of balance – of harmony. The ideal condition is one in which the rational rules, the spirited guards and the appetitive remains temperate, out of an understanding on the part of the individual, that this condition is the best for the whole soul.

Glaucon, therefore, is approaching the question in the wrong way. Like Thrasymachus, Glaucon treats justice as “an accomplishment, an importation, or a convention”. Socrates accuses both men of not having “carried [justice] into the soul or considered it in the place of its habitation. ”[11] Justice does not depend on an external force in the sense Glaucon expects it to; it is the right condition of the human soul according to man’s nature, seen in the fullness of his environment. It is not external precisely because it resides within the human soul.

It is now regarded as an inward grace and its understanding is shown to involve a study of the inner man. ”[12] Morality is not, therefore, the refuge of the weak, born out of a fear; rather it is born from the longing of the human soul to do a duty according to its nature. Overall, it seems that the original assumption that morality is the necessary refuge of the weak not only stands in direct opposition to Platonic philosophy but is also a poor summation of Callicles’ contrasting attitude.

For Callicles, conventional morality of fairness and equality is for the weak; the strong man ought to adopt an ethic of his own to pursue his own hedonistic and dominating interests. Indeed, morality is not dismissed altogether but reversed. Through the myth of the Ring of Gyges, we are led to believe that ‘[m]en still nurse their egoistic aims, but circumspectly, because of the danger of punishment. ’[13] But for Plato, it is not the fear of sanction that tempers the greedy soul of the strongest men – but rather a realisation of one’s rational desire to perform his duty.