Callicles (/ˈkælɪklz/; Greek: Καλλικλῆς; c. 484 – late 5th century BC) was an ancient Athenian political philosopher best remembered for his role in Plato’s dialogue Gorgias, where he "presents himself as a no-holds-barred, bare-knuckled, clear-headed advocate of Realpolitik".[1] While he provides a counter-argument to Plato’s philosophical ideas, the lack of other contemporaneous sources about him suggests that he may be no more than a character created by Plato for the dialogue.[2] Another idea proposed is that Callicles is a fragment of what Plato may be, had he not Socrates to guide him.[2] He is the antithesis to Socrates.[2]

Callicles is depicted as a young student of the sophist Gorgias. In the dialogue named for his teacher, Callicles argues the position of an oligarchic amoralist, stating that it is natural and just for the strong to dominate the weak and that it is unfair for the weak to resist such oppression by establishing laws to limit the power of the strong. He asserts that the institutions and moral code of his time were not established by gods but instead by humans who naturally were looking after their own interests.

Despite the scant surviving sources for his thought, he served as influential to modern political philosophers, notably including Niccolò Machiavelli[3] and Friedrich Nietzsche.[4]

Callicles in Plato’s Gorgias

Callicles poses an immoralist argument that consists of four parts: “(1) a critique of conventional justice, (2) a positive account of ‘justice according to nature’, (3) a theory of the virtues, and (4) a hedonistic conception of the good.”[2] For the first aspect of the argument, Callicles supports the ruling of strong individuals and criticizes the weak for trying to undermine them. He views democracy as “the tyranny of the many over the exceptional individual,” and stresses that citizens should allow themselves to be ruled by these strong individuals.[2] This ties into the second part of his argument; Callicles cites nature, saying “[nature] shows that this is what justice has been decided to be: that the superior rule the inferior and have a greater share than they.”[2] Socrates argues that humans should work together, while Callicles stresses that the superior individuals should be the one to rule, reaffirming the antagonism of Socrates and Callicles.

This relationship leads Socrates to push Callicles to define what makes certain individuals “superior” to others, the third part of Callicles' argument. Callicles states that these superior figures must possess “intelligence, particularly about the affairs of the city, and courage.”[2] He states that they do not need to have the virtues of justice or moderation, as they are not important like the aforementioned values. Finally, for the last part of Callicles’ argument, Socrates presses him to state of what it is that these “superior” people deserve more. Callicles rejects Socrates' ideas of more eating and drinking, but it appears that he does not really know what it is that the superior people deserve more of over the inferior. Nevertheless, he definitely believes that they should be held in higher regard.[2]

See also


  1. ^ Charles L. Griswold. "Plato on Rhetoric and Poetry". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h Barney, Rachel. "Callicles and Thrasymachus". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved September 29, 2014.
  3. ^ George B. Kerferd, Hellmut Flashar: Kallikles aus Acharnai, in: Hellmut Flashar (ed.): Grundriss der Geschichte der Philosophie. Die Philosophie der Antike, Band 2/1, Schwabe, Basel 1998, p. 85f.
  4. ^ Debra Nails, The people of Plato: a prosopography of Plato and other Socratics. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2002