Kristian Urstad: Happiness and Freedom in Socrates and Callicles


Callicles holds a desire-fulfilment conception of happiness; it is something like, that is, the continual satisfaction of desires that constitutes happiness for him. He claims that leading the happy life consists in having many desires, letting them grow as strong as possible and then being able to satisfy them (e.g. 491e, 494c). For Callicles, this life of maximum pursuit of desires consists in a kind of absolute freedom, where there is very little practice of restraint; happiness consists of luxury, unrestraint, and freedom (492b-c). Socrates develops his objections to Callicles’ life of freedom by appealing to two myths once told to him by a wise man. I draw out what I think are the two primary objections and consider to what extent they might be seen to damage Callicles’ position. I conclude that Callicles’ view on freedom can adequately meet one of Socrates’ objections but not the other.

Socrates’ Myth-Rejoinders

As mentioned, Socrates’ initial response to Callicles’ “life of freedom” proposal comes in the form of two myths he heard once (493aff). The myths are introduced on the heels of a crucial discussion about temperance, an important traditional Greek virtue. Socrates has just asked Callicles whether he takes an individual “ruling himself” to mean being temperate and self-mastering over the pleasures and desires in oneself (491e), and Callicles has responded by mocking such a view; self-control or self-mastery is for stupid people, he says. He goes on to state that a man cannot be happy if he’s enslaved to anyone at all, including himself (491e). Socrates clearly takes this, and the myths which follow, with the utmost seriousness, as he begs Callicles not to let up in any way, so that it may really become clear how one ought to live (492d).

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