Socrates’ Diagnosis of Evil in the Soul
Plato’s Gorgias follows Socrates on his quest to further define virtue, through a question-and-answer approach with several other characters throughout the text—Callicles, Chaerephon, Gorgias, and Polus. Socrates takes these characters on a verbal journey of exploration into the aspects of evil souls and the shame of wrongdoing. Gorgias deals with several complex topics and comparisons; however, this figurative reading focuses in on one specific figure in Gorgias: the metaphor of evil as a disease.
While Plato employs the figure of disease multiple times throughout Gorgias, one of his most notable uses comes in the example of the pilot of ships. In an attempt to prove exactly how disagreeable it is to have an evil soul, Socrates tells Callicles of the art of the pilot who saves people from drowning. But, Socrates points out that the pilot cannot distinguish who he has helped in not letting his passengers drown. According to Socrates, “a man who is afflicted by great and incurable diseases is only to be pitied for having escaped, and is in no way benefited…much less he who has great and incurable diseases, not of the body, but of the soul, which is the more valuable part of him.” In Socrates’ metaphor, he conveys his strong opinions regarding injustice of the soul. His explanation takes the form of comparing the pity that is felt for a suffering man who survives when he had the potential to drown and a man whose soul is so diseased with evil that it would have been a much better option for him to drown instead of allowing the pilot to save him. Socrates furthers this idea by stating, “…neither is life worth having nor of any profit to the bad man…” Essentially, there is no reason for someone with a diseased, or evil, soul to experience life.
In relation to the previous example, Socrates compares men who commit wrongdoings and run from justice to men who have diseases but refuse to see a doctor, saying that these men who commit wrongdoings “are blind to the advantage” that comes from seeking justice, “not knowing how far more miserable a companion a diseased soul is than a diseased body; a soul, I say, which is corrupt and unrighteous and unholy.” Once again, Socrates uses the figure of the diseased soul to illustrate how abysmal it is to commit injustice and therefore possess a diseased soul. Socrates claims that it is better to keep the company of people with biological diseases rather than people who are physically healthy but metaphorically diseased with evil. This correlates with Socrates’ overarching topic of virtue in that people who are diseased with evil can seek justice and negate their internal evils; however, the truly evil people do not seek justice and, instead, choose to live with their evil souls because they don’t know how superior their lives would be if they cured themselves of their metaphorical diseases.
Another significant use of the disease in Gorgias occurs after Socrates explains to Polus that committing an injustice is more shameful than being the victim of an injustice someone else committed. Socrates states that after committing a wrong, a man “will run to the judge, as he would to the physician, in order that the disease of injustice may not be rendered chronic and become the incurable cancer of the soul.” What is important to note from this quote is that injustice is considered a disease that can become chronic and thought of as the “cancer of the soul.” Socrates wants Polus to understand that if an injustice is not resolved and the person committing the injustice is not punished, the consequences are severe. Biological diseases take over and wreak havoc on the body if not cared for, and we can imagine that Socrates’ symbolic disease must do the same for the soul, therefore making the owner of the soul an ethically diseased individual.
Through his investigation on the question of virtue in people, Socrates outlines what makes people virtuous or not. In the case of people who are not virtuous, Socrates delves into the idea of their souls being diseased with evil and injustice. Socrates’ exploration demonstrates the undesirability of having a diseased soul and how one can reverse the signs before it becomes a chronic disease. Within his use of metaphor, Socrates gives readers an alternate way to depict unjust people as those who suffer from diseases that are not biological but rather ethical.