In Plato’s Gorgias, Socrates argues against the doctrine of hedonism insofar as the principle is advanced by his interlocutor, Callicles. The premise, as it is advanced by Callicles, claims that in order for a man to live correctly, he should “allow his own appetites to get as large as possible and not restrain them” (491e). Thus, Callicles appears to be arguing that a good life is a life spent fulfilling desires (i.e. a life of pleasure).
Socrates begins his refutation of Callicles’ formulation of hedonism by comparing two men; one man has casks that are full of wine and honey while the second man has casks that cannot remain full due to their leaky condition. Socrates points out that the man with the leaky casks cannot be happy because he is in a state of constant need. “And now would you say that the life of the intemperate is happier than that of the temperate?” Socrates asks this, hoping to illustrate that the constant need to fulfill one’s desires is more of a state of pain than it is one of pleasure (or is at least more trouble than it’s worth). Callicles bemoans Socrates, noting that the man whose casks are full is a man living the life of a stone, since he can no longer seek pleasure; he has all he can get.
What may make Socrates’ beginning argument stronger than Callicles’ is the fact that Socrates sees no value in indulging one’s self beyond mere satisfaction. That is to say, the man with full casks may no longer be in pursuit of pleasure, but such a state is neither here nor there. Thus, such a state is better than the state the man with leaky casks finds himself in, who must work to fulfill his desires. What’s worse is that these desires are constant. So even if the man with full casks leads the life of a stone, to Socrates, such a man is far better off than the leaky cask bearer who is constantly seeking relief from pain.
Next, Socrates brings up the analogy of the perpetual itch-scratcher. Socrates gets Callicles to agree that the perpetual itch-scratcher must be happy because the itch-scratcher is constantly fulfilling a desire (and in the process, Callicles equates that that which is pleasurable is also good). Socrates point appears to be—akin to his previous analogy—that in actuality the catamite is not happy because they are in a constant state of need. Either the itch-scratcher is happy or is not happy; it cannot be the case that they are both. So, either Socrates or Callicles is wrong. Perhaps they are both wrong.
Is it possible that Socrates has introduced a false dilemma? Is it possible that there is a realm of sensation between pain (meaning the need to fulfill a desire) and pleasure that makes the act of fulfilling a desire different from being in pain or having pleasure? But even if there is no false dilemma, we might ask whether or not pleasure is derived from the act of itching or from the relief of the itch being gone. It would seem that Callicles and Socrates have different perspectives. To Callicles, it appears that pleasure is in the act of itching itself, whereas for Socrates pleasure is in the absence of the desire to itch. Socrates analogy is not convincing because 1) there may be a false dilemma and 2) his argument hinges upon Callicles taking the same perspective of pleasure. [Which is the problem with many of Socrates’ arguments in Plato’s plays.] However, Socrates does get Callicles to agree that that which is pleasurable is good, an important point in his next argument.
Sensing that his last argument did not convince Callicles, Socrates takes the possibility of pleasure and pain existing simultaneously within a person and contrasts this against Callicles’ admission that good and evil cannot be had by a man in the same instance (495e). In order to be exact, Socrates asks Callicles a series of questions in relation to a man’s hunger and thirst: A man’s hunger and thirst are painful, the two men agree, but by Callicles’ admission there is pleasure to be had when a man eats and drinks in order to sate his deficiencies. Socrates is pointing out that a hungry and thirsty man who eats and drinks in order to fill his deficiency is experiencing pleasure and pain at the same time (496e). Socrates then immediately reminds Callicles that he has agreed that a man cannot have good and evil fortunes at the same time, therefore, pleasure and pain cannot be the same as good and evil. The implication here is that having agreed to this particular argument by Socrates, Callicles is incorrect in his insistence that a good life is one in the pursuit of fulfilling unrestrained desires since what is pleasurable and what is good are not the same as each other. If in fact what Callicles has assented to is true, then Socrates logic is airtight and there is nothing Callicles can do to refute it.
From there, Socrates begins a counter argument against his last assertion that a man can experience pleasure and pain (i.e. a deficiency) at the same time, since a man ceases from his thirst and his pleasure in drinking at the same time. Callicles agrees to this. Callicles also agrees, moments later, that a man does not cease from good fortunes and evil fortunes at the same time. If this is true, Socrates has confounded Callicles again: What is good is not the same as pleasure and what is evil is not the same as a pain (497a-d).
Socrates’ argument here once again hinges upon Callicles’ agreement to certain states of being and in his own interpretation of what pleasure is—an absence of desire—not in any facts of the matter. It is quite easy, one might think, of when it is pleasurable to drink something—say, a well-aged wine—without an explicit need to drink the wine. If we are wrong to call such an experience ‘good’ because this pleasure exceeds the absolution of desire, then we certainly abuse the word ‘good’ quite often. If often seems that Socrates is using semantics to confuse his opponents. But he may yet be right to do so.
By this point in the dialogue, Callicles has still not re-evaluated his position that a good life is a life spent fulfilling desires, so Socrates continues his philosophical assault. Socrates first asks if the good are good because they have good present within them. Callicles says yes. Socrates then begins a comparison between foolish, cowardly men and intelligent, brave men. He gets Callicles to agree that foolish, cowardly men feel pleasure and pain to roughly the same extent that intelligent, brave men do (and perhaps more). Likewise, foolish, cowardly men possess good and bad qualities to roughly the same extent intelligent, brave men do (and perhaps more). But, Socrates asks, aren’t foolish, cowardly men bad and intelligent, brave men good? (497e-498e). Of course, Callicles agrees and now unwittingly concedes this argument too; Socrates’ point being that the mere presence of goodness in something is not sufficient for the thing in question to actually be good. So, perhaps the presence of goodness in the fulfillment of desire isn’t so good after all!
Aside from the conjecture about foolish, cowardly men perhaps feeling or possessing more than intelligent, brave men in certain respects, Socrates has made another strong argument. If Socrates and Callicles are right that foolish, cowardly men are indeed bad people, they cannot be made good by the mere presence of good qualities or else they would be good men. We could say the same for pleasure; because an act is pleasurable and had a good quality to it, that is not sufficient enough to call pleasure something good. This appears to be a case that approaches formal logic and is undeniable.
Since for Socrates pleasure is the absence of unfulfilled desires, Socrates shares the view of one of his contemporaries Epicurus about pleasure. For both men, pleasure could be regarded as the absence of pain and/or the avoidance of pain, not in the satisfaction of desires (as was the viewpoint taken up by Callicles). For both Epicurus and Socrates, the good life began in “the freedom of the soul from disturbances” (Epicurus) and it is the pleasures that last a lifetime that should be sought instead of momentary pleasures. For Epicurus and Socrates, there is a clear distinction between higher and lower pleasures.
Epicurus made such a distinction because he recognized that bodily pleasures do not last as long as intellectual pleasures. Food, drink, and sex must—like Socrates leaky casks—be constantly sought, as they are bodily sensations. Such pleasures pale in comparison to such pleasures as the pursuit of philosophy, as philosophy can lead a man not to be fearful of death and thus, have his soul be at peace. Socrates, or at least the Socrates presented in Gorgias, would certainly agree with Epicurus, and vice versa.
We might raise objections to Epicurus and Socrates on the grounds that perhaps a life of pain avoidance or of not being in pain is not actually pleasure, it is just an absence of pain. [Arguing over the definition of words and semantics is a time-honored tradition of philosophers.] If this is the case, it would seem that Epicurus and Socrates are preaching a life of avoiding experiences we might otherwise enjoy. Do we really want to live lives that escape other people’s notice, as Epicurus would have us do? Or does the full range of experiences, both good and bad, both mundane and extreme, help make us what we are—human? A quiet life can certainly be had under the Epicurean formulation of a good life, but following Epicurus’ doctrine would seem to rob life of all fun. That seems to be a doctrine few would actually care to live by.