Some Thoughts on Gorgias

In Plato’s Gorgias we’ve received one of those Socratic dialogues that feels more like a conversation with friends than a treatise. This is a dialogue where Socrates distinguishes his philosophical method from the Sophist’s oratory, yet Socrates himself winds up giving longer speeches and his interlocutors frequently call him out for his own inconsistencies and perceived conversational offenses. After one such episode Socrates will reply that such frank remarks are like the stones on which gold is tested for its purity, he wishing his souls to be made of gold and requiring a sharp friend to smash his rock on Socrates’ gold. In another humorous episode (humorous to me anyways) Socrates tires out his bold and inquisitive friend Callicles to the point where Socrates himself will play both roles in the dialectic and reply to himself with the typical responses “yes I do think that is necessarily so” and “of course it is Socrates.” Socrates even suggests one time that they end the discussion since there seems to be no one left willing to carry on until the dialogue’s namesake in Gorgias speaks up. Socrates continues, pleading Callicles to listen and also interrupt him if he is ever off the mark. This is one dialogue that is not one-sided, it’s flow shifting with multiple contestants from Gorgias to Polus to Callicles. The order here is maintained by Socrates who must constantly reaffirm that his quest is not to win an argument but to find the truth, to search after what is good and just in a spirit of collaborative conversation rather than victory or defeat.

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Origins of the Term ‘Nihilism’

In searching for the origins of the term ‘nihilism’ we are brought back to a moment in history marking a great turning point in Europe. Great Britain had just won what has since been called “the first world war” (The Seven Years War) and its market-based colonial empire could now extend itself across the oceans of the earth “freely.” New ideas about human nature and nature itself had sprouted in France and would charge a gigantic revolution, which had vast consequences everywhere. A faith in reason brought with it a promise of reform and an understanding that scientific inquiry into the natural world would reveal natures laws and even the secret to human happiness. With the expanded development of humanity’s capacity to reason, universal truths would soon be discovered, religious principles would receive firm foundational support, a just ordering of the world could be maintained, and people would generally get smarter. But The Age of Enlightenment would see challenges within its own discourse that would bring it to a crisis in the late eighteenth century. Reason and the authority it claimed would eventually come into conflict with the authority of the church or traditional faith in general. Very few could accept resting on atheistic conclusions in Germany as David Hume’s skeptical atheism could in Great Britain, yet Hume’s arguments gained wide attention. Reason, criticism, faith, nature: where did the authority lie? What would become of society when the human powers of reason were fully actualized?

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