Literature Study GuidesDialogues Of PlatoPunishment And Justice Summary 461b 481b Summary

Dialogues of Plato | Study Guide


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Dialogues of Plato | Punishment and Justice Summary (461b–481b) | Summary



An irate Polus interrupts the conversation to criticize Socrates for ferreting out an illusory inconsistency. On the one hand, Gorgias had claimed that rhetoric is morally neutral, but on the other hand, teachers of rhetoric teach justice, which is not morally neutral.

Socrates agrees that, if he and Gorgias made any errors, they should be rescinded, and requests that he and Polus engage in "refuting and being refuted." Socrates proceeds to assert that rhetoric, like pastry cooking, is "a knack for producing a kind of pleasure." They are both, he maintains, "part of the same practice." It is not an art, but "flattery ... merely a knack and a trick." It only impersonates the good. While Polus praises rhetoric as beautiful, Socrates says that because it is not good it is ugly.

Gorgias requests that Socrates defend these claims, so Socrates turns to a discussion of the health of the soul and the health of the body. A virtuous soul is a healthy soul. Since flattery, for example, aims solely at pleasure, not at the good, it is not productive of a healthy soul. Moreover, to the extent that pastry cooking presents the appearance of being good for the body, it pretends to be medicine, a sort of "flattery disguised as medicine." Similarly, to the extent that the rhetorician presents the appearance of knowing about justice, it pretends to be just. After all, those skilled at rhetoric often obtain political positions in which important decisions about people's lives are made. Socrates further fills out the analogy: "Cosmetics is to gymnastic as sophistry is to law-giving; and pastry-cooking is to medicine as rhetoric is to corrective justice." Just as one who uses cosmetics flatters himself beautiful, when true beauty comes from working out, one who engages in rhetoric flatters himself just, when justice comes from a virtuous soul. Since pastry cooking, cosmetics, and rhetoric are a type of imposter, rhetoric can't be an art. Socrates concludes his lengthy oration by saying that, if the soul did not rule the body, there would be no distinction between pastry cooking and health. The soul alone can know the difference between the pleasure of pastries and the benefit of medicine.

Polus then asks Socrates, "you think that, as flatterers, our good orators are regarded as worthless in their cities?" Socrates responds that both "orators and tyrants have the least power in their cities ... for they virtually never do what they wish, even though they do whatever may seem best to them." That is because they are wicked, and no wicked person is properly in control of himself. Moreover, they are pitiable and unhappy, far worse off, for example, than one killed unjustly. "The greatest of evils," Socrates tells Polus, "is the doing of injustice." The orator and tyrant, consequently, are in a much worse state than someone who suffers injustice at their hands.

Polus, on the other hand, thinks it is better not only to do than to suffer injustice, but also get away without punishment for it. He argues that those who do whatever they please are happiest, so that, if he could, Socrates would do what the tyrant does, namely whatever he pleases. Also, those who do what they like are to be envied, whether what they do is just or unjust. Therefore, those who are unjustly punished are more pitiable than those who are justly punished. Therefore, it is better to do wrong than to suffer wrong. If one can get away with unjust acts and not be punished, so much the better, for he will be happy.

Moreover, Polus holds that, while suffering injustice is more "evil" than doing injustice, doing injustice is "uglier" and "more shameful" than suffering it. This means, Socrates infers, "that beautiful and good, ugly and evil, are not the same." Polus agrees, but Socrates thinks this is problematic.

First, beauty is associated with pleasure, or what is beneficial or good, whereas ugliness involves either pain or evil. So if Polus is correct that doing injustice is ugly, but not evil, then doing injustice is painful. However, it is not more painful than suffering injustice. So it is more evil. This contradicts Polus's earlier claim that suffering injustice is more evil than doing it. Moreover, no one "would rather accept what is more evil and more ugly [doing injustice] in place of what is less so [suffering injustice]." Therefore, Polus was wrong to say that it's preferable to do evil than to suffer evil.

Socrates also addresses the other point of contention, namely that it is worse to be punished for an injustice than not to be punished. He argues that the rhetorician would do well to relieve himself of his wrongdoings by submitting to punishment. It is through punishment that he will become healthy: Injustice is the greatest evil and as such is most shameful. Therefore, since doing wrong is more shameful, it is most harmful. And, since justice produces goodness and pleasure, those who do wrong should seek punishment. Once pain is associated with evil, injustice, and doing harm, Polus is committed to the conclusion that it is not only not better to do wrong, it is also not better to let a wrong go unpunished (to do so is even worse than to commit the wrong in the first place). Finally, it follows that the happy person is the one who is not evil.


In this section are several important and related ideas that appear across most of the dialogues:

  1. Socrates thinks knowledge and virtue are inseparable, so knowledge about rhetoric ought to entail the orator becoming just. Not only is this not the case, but rhetoric also does not count as an art, which at least involves the know-how that aims toward the good of its art.
  2. Doing injustice is worse (for the person who commits the act) than suffering it.
  3. The just person is the happy person.

Socrates's comparison of rhetoricians with craftsmen is one that has been hotly debated throughout the centuries. In ancient Greece, the comparison was insulting: craftsmen are little more than peasants with limited knowledge. They work with their hands not with their minds and are thus servile rather than liberal artists. Roman orators such as Cicero, Quintilian, and Horatio will later argue that rhetoric is one of the highest and best forms of study to which a man can attain. It trains the mind to think clearly and logically about a wide range of subjects, and it prepares him to participate in civic discourse and thus secure aid for his father, the state, who has provided him with everything that is good in this world.

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