Humanism Amidst Our Machines   /   Summer 2011   /    Book Forum: The Retrieval Of Ethics By Talbot Brewer

Raimond Gaita Comments

In Plato’s wonderful dialogue, Gorgias, callicles puts the philosophical life seriously to the ques- tion. Philosophy, he tells Socrates, is admirable in the young. The man who does not pursue it, he says, is “illiberal and one who will never aspire to any fine or noble deed.” But, he goes on to say, when he “sees an older man studying phi- losophy and not deserting it, that man…is asking for a whipping.... Such a man, even if exception- ally gifted, is doomed to prove less than a man.” callicles offers this view in the spirit of friendly advice to Socrates for whom he professes respect, seriously rather than ironically, I think.

When I read callicles’ speech to students, they smile knowingly, as though they have the measure of him. They tend to think he is a philistine. But callicles’ praise of philosophy is informed by a conception of its intrinsic value. If it were studied only for its extrinsic value, it is hard to see how it could issue in the liberality of mind and spirit that he believes necessary for young men to do fine and noble deeds. There is not much distance, I think, between his praise of philosophy for the young and the praise many people offer of a liberal education.

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