Socrates in the Gorgias at 474d-75d, with Polus as his interlocutor, argues to support Plato's famous contention that it is worse to commit evil than to suffer it. The argument purports to turn on meanings of two words, kalos and agathos, vague definitions of which Socrates and Polus come to agree on in the course of their discussion. As Callicles subsequently points out at 482d-83a, Socrates' argument is fallacious, involving deliberate confusion of conventional and natural kalos. (The argument fails more generally too because Socrates never defines agathos; so we would not have known what he had proven even if his argument somehow had succeeded.)
In W. D. Woodhead's translation, kalos is “what is fair or fine”. As Woodhead treats it in the context of this Platonic dialogue, kalos is a conventional virtue that things or men can have. Its opposite is “what is shameful”. Agathos is “what is good”; and in Plato's context it is a natural and real good, rather than merely the result of human custom and/or agreement.
As it appears in this Gorgias passage, kalos seems quite vague to me. Am I right in my guess that the term really is vague, and was vague also to the ancient Greeks? My guess is that kalos, to the ancient Greeks, functioned rather like Americans' pronouncements, expressing approval, that this or that is “cool” – in that you know it when you see it, even though admittedly no one could ever completely define the concept. So James Dean was cool, but George W. Bush most definitely is not. And Miles Davis played cool jazz.
Or, alternatively, is there something here that I'm missing? Did kalos indeed have a definite meaning, which Socrates and/or Polus might have exploited in their Gorgias argument (but, so far as I can see, did not)? And was kalos paired and contrasted with agathos in ancient Greek more generally, rather than merely as Plato vaguely and fallaciously contrasts them in this single dialogue?
So far as I have noticed, in Plato "kalos and agathos" is a common expression connecting the two epithets, with kalos meaning especially a fair physical presence, while agathos meaning "good". It is also usual for Plato to say "kalos and agathos and all such" (e.g. Charm 154e), meaning all virtues, so that kalos and agathos epitomize the completeness of virtue, all virtues. "Cool" is undefined, but kalos and agathos presuppose certain virtues as philosophy, courage, etc., upon which all virtues are based and cultivated.
Thank you. That changes my interpretation of the 474c-75c passage, and so is very helpful.
As I now see it, Socrates' argument seems to turn on the meanings of 'kalos' and 'agathos' but actually does not. Rather, he treats kalos simply as conventional goodness and agathos simply as natural goodness. In the argument, Socrates maneuvers Polus into claiming that conventional goodness is grounded in pleasure and pain. So, Socrates suggests, conventional goodness seems to be grounded in nature. So conventional goodness does not actually differ from natural goodness, as Polus originally had maintained. So Polus has contradicted himself. (As Callicles' subsequent comment implies, Polus could have avoided the contradiction by maintaining that conventional goodness is sheerly conventional and not grounded in pleasure and pain.)
If this is the argument, it evidently does not turn on differing meanings of 'kalos' and 'agathos'. Socrates might just as well have treated agathos as conventional and kalos as natural. Or he might just as well have dispensed with kalos and agathos altogether and talked instead about conventional goodness and natural goodness. He could have made the same fallacious argument on either of these two latter bases. Evidently his use of 'kalos' and 'agathos' only serves a rhetorical purpose - to make his fallacious argument that much more deceptive. For if Socrates had talked more straightforwardly about conventional goodness and natural goodness, Polus then might have seen the dangers involved in agreeing to treat conventional goodness as natural.
So again, thank you. With your guidance, I believe I'm seeing things more clearly now.
It's difficult to understand how the distinction that you make between a conventional and a natural goodness is related with the text. Where is Socrates making such a distinction? On the contrary he discusses all goods together as "kala kai agatha". For example, at 474d we read: "all goods, e.g. bodies and colors and shapes and voices and proffesions..." We can say that a body is a natural good and a profession is a conventional good, but where does Socrates says so? And he still refers to both as potentially "kala and agatha" - a body can be "beautiful (kalo) and useful (agatho)". The same way a proffesion can be "beautiful and useful".
Here’s my interpretive argument, presented with considerable diffidence. You’re able to read the texts themselves. I’ve got to stumble along with English translations. Still, for what it’s worth . . .
I think Socrates in the 474c-75d passage treats goodness as conventional and natural, but only implicitly. If we look at the text, we don’t see explicit tip-offs (as you correctly observe). Below, I’ll do two things. First, I’ll explain why we should regard Socrates’ argument as implicitly turning on convention and nature. Second, I’ll work through the text highlighting the implicit structure.
Why? Because that’s what Callicles subsequently at 483a-b accuses Socrates of doing. “[F]or the most part . . . nature [phusis] and convention [nomos] . . . are antagonistic . . . [I]f a man speaks on the basis of convention, you slyly question him on the basis of nature, but if he follows nature, you follow convention. For example, in our present discussion of doing and suffering wrong, when Polus spoke of what was conventionally the more shameful, you followed it up by appealing to nature.” My interpretation of the 474c-75d passage results from supposing that Callicles’ 483a-b analysis is correct.
We can read the 474c-75d passage in light of Callicles’ analysis. At 474c, Socrates gets Polus to contend (1) that it is worse to suffer wrong, (2) that it is more shameful to do wrong, and (3) that (at 474d) therefore good (agathos) and evil on the one hand differ from fair (kalos) and shameful on the other. Reading between the lines, I think we can see that Polus thinks it is naturally worse to suffer wrong (because it hurts) and conventionally more shameful to do wrong (because of popular diapproval). So Polus regards kalos as conventional. Next at 474d-e Socrates unfairly maneuvers Polus into regarding kalos also as natural. “When you call things fair . . . you must do so surely with reference to some standard . . . “ And, midst a welter of examples, the standard turns out to be pleasure and pain. And then, at 475b-c, Socrates successfully solicits Polus’ agreement to a premise of bewildering complexity, that if it is more shameful to do than to suffer wrong, the shame is due either to excess of pain, or of evil, or of both. The complexity of Socrates’ argument serves to mask the fact that he is treating kalos as natural.
So from Socrates' complex premise Polus is forced to conclude by process of elimination that it is more evil to do wrong. This argument appears to work only if we (like Polus) overlook the fact that Socrates has consistently, since his “reference to some standard” suggestion at 474d, been treating kalos as natural. Moreover, on Socrates’ sly treatment agathos and kalos are both whatever they are with reference to the same standard. Which implies that they are the same, contrary to Polus’ original contention that they differ. So if, per Polus premise at 474c that it is not kalos to do wrong, it seems to follow that it also is not agathos to do wrong. Q.E.D.
If I understand your own interpretive suggestion, you seem to read the text as treating kalos and agathos as pretty much the same. (Perhaps you’re guided by your observation that Plato seems to link these terms in the Charmides.) So, if they’re pretty much the same, you don’t see much in the text to support my suggestion that one is conventional and the other one natural. I suspect you read the text in this way because you’ve fallen for Socrates’ trick. The trick is that he should have, in fairness to Polus’ original contention, treated kalos and agathos as different; but instead he treats them as pretty much the same.
A very interesting reading; I'd like to read again the whole dialogue having this in mind. Since Socrates' aim was not just to confuse his interlocutors, if your reading is or could be correct, there should also exist in the dialogue (besides Charmides or other dialogues) tendencies and reasons for kalos to be identified with agathos. For the moment, I just recall how in Plato the philosopher is initiated from particular beauty (the beauty of this or other person, profession, etc) to see Beauty itself, the "Idea" of Beauty, and how God is Good. This identification of Beauty with Goodness I think happens also in the realm of the divine existence, of the Creator.