The last and the toughest among Socrates’ adversaries in Plato’s Gorgias, Callicles invokes law the sovereign of all, mortals and immortals, “νόμος ὁ πάντων βασιλεὺς θνατῶν τε καὶ ἀθανάτων”, at 484b–485d. He does so in support of his idea of natural justice, νόμος τῆς φύσεως. Callicles aims to distinguish what is conventionally fouler from what is naturally so. He seeks to undermine the authority of Socrates’ examination of justice by consigning all dialectical pettifoggery to the kindergarten. It is a fitting occupation for a lisping child, but when Callicles sees an elderly man still going on with philosophy and not getting rid of it, that is the man whom he thinks to be in need of a whipping: “ὅταν δὲ δὴ πρεσβύτερον ἴδω ἔτι φιλοσοφοῦντα καὶ μὴ ἀπαλλαττόμενον, πληγῶν μοι δοκεῖ ἤδη δεῖσθαι, ὦ Σώκρατες, οὗτος ὁ ἀνήρ.”
This scathing condemnation of the philosopher’s avoidance of the marketplace has elicited numerous impassioned rebuttals from right-thinking individuals throughout the following millennia. None were more effective in their polemic than George Grote. In commemoration of recent reissue of his collected works, herewith an excerpt from a contemporaneous review of Plato, and the Other Companions of Sokrates by Alexander Bain:
Mr. Grote, not content with forcibly reciting the Sokratic and Platonic method of negative cross-examination, applied to the false persuasion of knowledge, endorses it with his hearty concurrence. He believes both in the existence of the evil, and the suitableness of the remedy, so far as the disease is curable (in which he is not over-sanguine). We must give his views in his own words: —
This aggregate of beliefs and predispositions to believe, ethical, religious, æsthetical, social, respecting what is true or false, probable or improbable, just or unjust, holy or unholy, honourable or base, respectable or contemptible, pure or impure, beautiful or ugly, decent or indecent, obligatory to do or obligatory to avoid, respecting the status and relations of each individual in the society, respecting even the admissible fashions of amusement and recreation — this is an established fact and condition of things, the real origin of which is for the most part unknown, but which each new member of the society is born to and finds subsisting. It is transmitted by tradition from parents to children, and is imbibed by the latter almost unconsciously from what they see and hear around, without any special season of teaching, or special persons to teach. It becomes a part of each person’s nature — a standing habit of mind, or fixed set of mental tendencies, according to which particular experience is interpreted and particular persons appreciated. It is not set forth in systematic proclamation, nor impugned, nor defended; it is enforced by a sanction of its own, the same real sanction of force in all countries, by fear of displeasure from the Gods, and by certainty of evil from neighbours and fellow-citizens. The community hate, despise, or deride, any individual member who proclaims his dissent from their social creed, or even openly calls it in question. Their hatred manifests itself in different ways, at different times and occasions, sometimes by burning and excommunication, sometimes by banishment or interdiction from fire and water; at the very least, by exclusion from that amount of forbearance, good-will, and estimation without which the life of an individual becomes insupportable: for society, though its power to make an individual happy is but limited, has complete power, easily exercised, to make him miserable. The orthodox public do not recognize in any individual citizen a right to scrutinize their creed, and to reject it if not approved by his own rational judgment. They expect that he will embrace it in the natural course of things, by the mere force of authority and contagion as they have adopted it themselves: as they have adopted also the current language, weights, measures, divisions of time, &c. If he dissents, he is guilty of an offence described in the terms of the indictment against Sokrates. —‘Sokrates commits crime, inasmuch as he does not believe in the Gods, in whom the city believes, but introduces new religious beliefs,’ &c. ‘Nomos (Law and Custom), King of All’, to borrow a phrase which Herodotus cites from Pindar) exercises plenary power, spiritual as well as temporal, over individual minds, molding the emotions as well as the intellect according to the local type, determining the sentiments, the belief, and the predisposition in regard to new matters tendered for belief, of every one; fashioning thought, speech, and points of view, no less than action, and reigning under the appearance of habitual, self-suggested tendencies. Plato, when he assumes the function of Constructor, establishes special officers for enforcing in detail the authority of King Nomos in his Platonic variety. But even when no such special officers exist, we find Plato himself describing forcibly (in the speech assigned to Protagoras), the working of that spontaneous, ever-present police, by whom the authority of King Nomos is enforced in detail, a police not the less omnipotent, because they wear no uniform, and carry no recognised title.”
The first condition of philosophy as reasoned truth is dissent and disenthralment from traditional and consecrated authority — the existence, at all hazards, of a small minority, asserting the right of self-judgment. This position was taken in greater or less degree by several eminent poets and philosophers in early Greece, by Pindar and by Xenophanes. So the various theories of the Kosmos, from Thales downwards, were the free offspring of individual minds, although as yet unaccompanied with the dialectic process of attack and rejoinder. It was in the fifth century B.C. that the two-sided procedure, familiar in the drama and in the dikastery, was enlisted in the service of philosophy, that Zeno and Sokrates assumed the aggressive. Never before had the authority of King Nomos met such an enemy as Sokratic cross-examination; the prescriptive creed and the unconsciously imbibed sentiment were thrown upon their defense before the reason of an individual citizen. “You, Polus, bring against me the authority of the multitude, as well as of the most eminent citizens, who all agree in upholding your view. But I, one man standing here alone, do not agree with you. And I engage to compel you, my one respondent, to agree with me.”
It is from the conversation of Sokrates that the Platonic Dialogues of Search take their rise, and we must read them in the light of the Sokratic dictum: “False persuasion of knowledge is almost universal: the Elenchus, which eradicates this, is salutary and indispensable; the dialectic search for truth between two active self-working minds, both of them ignorant, yet both feeling their own ignorance, is instructive as well as fascinating, though it should end without finding any truth at all, and without any other result than to discover some proposed hypotheses to be untrue.”
The Sokratic method was the initiative of a genuine scientific operation, in propounding as an end the exact definition of general notions — such generalities as Knowledge, Justice, Law, Temperance, Courage, Holiness. In ordinary usage, these terms are left vague and undefined, and are therefore liable to indiscriminate and improper application. Sokrates plies his respondents most especially on this head; and his dialectic process soon exposes their weakness. Every one pretends to know what Justice is, but, when he asks them for a precise definition, and cross-examines them upon it, they break down; and he leaves the desideratum unsupplied. In fact, both he and Plato are aware that the definition of the leading terms of ethics, politics, mind, &c., is a serious business; and we may regard the Platonic Ideas, or eternal self-existent Forms — the Form of the Just, of the Good — as a transcendental solution of the difficulty, emanating from the mystic and à priori side of Plato’s mind. But, however this may be, it is certain that Sokrates, by his dialectic sifting of the meanings of general words, is entitled to be considered the originator of Inductive Definition.
— Grote’s Plato. The Negative, or Search Dialogues. By Professor Bain, MacMillan’s Magazine, July, 1865, pp. 199-200